A “Modest Proposal” Revisited: Adjuncts, First Year Composition, and MOOCs

I’m posting this at 37,000 or so feet, on my way back from Italy from an international conference on MOOCs sponsored by the University of Naples (more accurately, Federica WebLearning). Normally, I wouldn’t pay as much as I’m paying for wifi on a plane, but I wanted to stay awake as much as possible to get back on USA time by Tuesday morning and because I had some school/teaching work to do. Plus there’s a weird extra seat next to me because my row with three chairs has a row of four chairs right in front of it.

Anyway, I’ll be blogging about that in the next few days once I go through my notes and collect my thoughts about the conference and about Italy. In the meantime though, I wanted to post this. I was trying to place this as a “thought piece” in something like Inside Higher Ed and/or The Atlantic, which is why there is more “apparatus” explaining the field and the state of adjunct labor in fycomp than is typical of things I write about that here. But nobody else wanted it/wanted to pay me to publish it, so it will find a home here.

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“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).

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My iPad and “killer apps” for academics, almost four years later

I was checking out some of the statistics on hits and such to this site a week or so ago, and one thing that surprised me is that the most popular “all time” post I have on the site (at least since the WordPress plugin Jetpack started keeping track of things) is not about MOOCs, academic life, teaching, cooking, etc. Rather, the most popular single post on this site is “iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe),” which I posted on April 10, 2010.

Of course, it’s also important to point out out that no post on this site is really all that popular. I average about 50 or so views a day, sometimes up to 100 when I post something that people find interesting. The most views this site ever received in a single day was 737, and even this most popular of posts on iPads has only received (as of this writing) “all time” 4,794 views. Sure, that’s more people than have ever attended all of the conference presentations I’ve ever given and it’s probably more “views” than any print piece of scholarship I’ve published. But these are still not exactly the kind of traffic numbers that are going to allow me to quit the day job and just blog full-time.

(Oh, and as another thought/tangent: the archives for this site goes back eleven years now. I’ve slowed down quite a bit, but damn, that’s a lot of blogging. Another sabbatical project might involve going back to read through all that and/or “mine” it a bit for text/writing I can repurpose.)

Anyway, a few years later and after I bought my first iPad, what do I think now of what I said then?

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The Comcast Strikes Back

Complaining about Comcast is sort of like complaining about death or taxes and about as common.  I know that. But because of a Twitter exchange I had, I thought I’d add to the genre generally and specifically to my latest Twitter follower, @ComcastLisa. This is more for her than anything else, so if you have had your fill of internet posts complaining about Comcast, feel free to move along. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read on.

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Enough with the “no laptops in classrooms” already

There has been a rash of “turn off the laptop” articles in various places in the educational media, but I think what has pushed me over the edge and motivated this post is Clay Shirky’s “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away” on Medium. In the nutshell, Shirky went to the no laptop camp because (he says) students can’t multitask and students are too easily distracted by the technology, particularly with the constant alerts from things like Facebook.

Enough already.

First off, while I am no expert regarding multitasking, it seems to me that there are a lot of different layers to multitasking (or perhaps it would make more sense to say attention on task) and most of us perform some level of multitasking all the time.  Consider driving. I think it’s always a bad idea to be texting while actually moving in traffic because, yes, that’s too much multitasking for most people. But how about texting or checking email or social media while at a long light? I do it all the time. Or how about talking on the phone? For me, it’s easy to talk on the phone while driving if I am using headphones or if I’m driving a familiar route in normal conditions. When I’m driving an unfamiliar route in bad weather or in heavy traffic, not so much.

Second, distraction and not paying a lot of attention in class isn’t exactly new. When I was in high school, I sat in the back of the room in that chemistry class I was required to take and I read paperbacks “hidden” under the table. Students used to pass these things called “notes” on paper. Students did and still do whisper at each other in distracting ways. As both a college student and as a college teacher (certainly as a GA way back when), I’ve been with/had students who were distracted by and multitasking with magazines, newspapers, other people, with napping, etc., etc.

I agree with Shirky and some of the articles he cites that what’s interesting and different about contemporary electronic devices generally and social media in particular is that these are designed to distract us, to break our concentration. I routinely experience the sort of instant and satisfying gratification suggested in the abstract of this article. But to suggest that teachers/professors can solve this attention problem by asking students to temporarily turn off their laptops and pay attention to the sage on the stage strikes me as both naive and egotistical.

So here are three tips for Clay and other would-be haters for how to mentally adjust to the inevitability of laptops in their classrooms.

Number one, stop lecturing so much. When professors take the “stand and deliver” approach to “teaching,” the laptops come out. And why shouldn’t they? In an era where anyone can easily record a video and/or audio of a lecture that can be “consumed” by students on their own time, why should they sit and pay attention to you droning on?

I realize this is easy for me to say since I teach small classes with 25 of fewer students, but there are lots of ways to break up the talking head in a large lecture hall class too. Break students into groups to ask them to discuss the reading. Ask students to take a moment to write about a question or a reading and then ask them to respond.  Require your students to discuss and respond. Use the time in class to actually do work with the laptops (individually and collaboratively) to do things. Just stop thinking that teaching means standing there and talking at them.

Number two, be more interesting. If as a teacher (or really, just a speaker) you are noticing a large percentage of students not paying attention and turning to laptops or cell phones or magazines or napping, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being boring. I notice this in my own teaching all the time: when my students and I are interested in a conversation or an activity, the laptops stay closed. When I start to drone on or it otherwise starts getting boring, I see the checks on Facebook or Twitter or ESPN Sports or whatever. I use that as a cue to change up the discussion, to get more interesting.

Number three, “Let it Go.” Because here’s the thing: there’s really nothing professors can do (at least in the settings where I teach) to completely eliminate these kinds of distractions and multitasking and generally dumb stuff that students sometimes do. Students are humans and humans are easily distracted. So instead of spending so much time demanding perfect attention, just acknowledge that most of us can get a lot done with a laptop open. If you as the teacher are not the center of the universe, it’ll be okay.

A Comcast Customer Service Experience: Screwing Up in Reverse

We had been having problems with our Comcast/Xfinity/Whatever it’s called internet access for a while, and my calls to Comcast to check on the service were pretty futile (“Is your modem plugged in? Is your computer on? You should unplug your modem and then plug it back in. Okay, is your modem plugged in?” and repeat).

I finally got around to doing some “research” with the Google and, according to some web site I found (so obviously it must be true), our modem was no longer supported. And actually, that did have a ring of truth to it because that modem had to be at least six years old, maybe a lot older. So off to Best Buy and then back home with a new modem.

I knew that there was a reactivation process with the modem, so I was prepared for being on the phone with Comcast again. I made it through the electronic screening gauntlet and started talking to a nice human. “I need to set up a new modem,” I said. “I can help you with that,” she said. We were off to the races.

Things started turning bad almost immediately when the “tech” person asked me for the number on the back of the modem. “Which one? There are three of them”– that is, a couple of different device serial numbers of some sort and (just to skip ahead a bit, the one that Comcast actually needed) the Media Access Control ID. She asked for all of them, which took a while because a) it was a crappy phone connection and b) I’m pretty sure this person was not in the U.S. So there was a lot of me saying “D! I said D!” and her saying “Did you say B? or G?” But fine, eventually we worked it out and she had all the numbers she could ever need.

Then after about twenty minutes of numbers and waiting for something, my increasingly unfriendly and less competent customer service person said something like “oh, no!” in a low voice. “What?” I asked. “The system went down, I… I… I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she said. We were about 40 minutes in at this point. I’d had it.

“You know, this is really stupid. I don’t think you know what you’re doing here,” I said in my testy angry voice. She sighed, and then– click– hung up.

oh no she didn’t….

So I called right back, ran through the Comcast phone tree, got to a human. “How can I help you?” she asked. “I just got hung up on by another customer service person. That’s completely unacceptable and I would like to speak with a supervisor,” I said.

“Oh, I’m so sorry that happened sir, but I’m sure I can help you with–”


That worked. I got on with a supervisor (or at least someone who said he was a supervisor) who got the modem running. But even better: the supervisor dude apologized and completely jacked up our service for all the trouble. So now, we’ve got (for the next year at least) HBO, Showtime, a bunch of channels I’m sure we’ll never watch, and some higher speed of internet access. There must be some kind of checkbox on a service screen at Comcast that he clicked to give us everything.

So the moral of the story:

  • If you get a new modem for your Comcast internet set-up, plan on spending the better part of an afternoon to get it done.
  • Ask for the supervisor, especially if they hang up on you.
  • And hey, Comcast supervisor dude: good job of turning this into a positive.

In defense of machine grading

In defense of machine grading?!?! Well, no, not really. But I thought I’d start a post with a title like that. You know, provocative.

There has been a bit of a ruckus on WPA-L for a while now in support of a petition against machine grading and for humans at the web site humanreaders.org and I of course agree with the general premise of what is being presented on that site.  Machine grading software can’t recognize things like a sense of humor or irony, it tends to favor text length over conciseness, it is fairly easy to circumvent with gibberish kinds of writing, it doesn’t work in real world settings, it fuels high stakes testing, etc., etc., etc. I get all that.

We should keep pushing back against machine grading for all of these reasons and more. Automated testing furthers the interests of Edu-business selling this software and does not help students nor teachers, at least not yet.  I’m against it, I really am.


  • It seems to me that we’re not really talking about grading per se but about teaching,  and the problem is writing pedagogy probably doesn’t work when the assessment/ grading part of things is completely separated from the teaching part of things. This is one of the differences between assigning writing and teaching writing.
  • There’s a bit of a catch 22 going on here. Part of the problem was that writing teachers complained (rightly so, I might add) about big standardized tests of various sorts not having writing components. So writing was added to a lot of these tests. However, the only way to assess thousands of texts generated through this testing is with specifically trained readers (see my next point) or with computer programs. So we can skip the writing altogether with these tests or we can accept a far from perfect grading mechanism.
  • I’ve participated in various holistic/group grading sessions before (though it’s been a long time), which is how they used to do this sort of thing before the software solutions. The way I recall it working was dozens and dozens of us were trained to assign certain ratings for essays based on a very specific rubric.  We were, in effect, programmed, and there was no leeway to deviate from the guidelines.  So I guess what I’m getting at is in these large group assessment circumstances, what’s the difference if it’s a machine or a person?
  • This software doesn’t work that well yet, especially in uncontrolled circumstances: that is, grading software is about as accurate as humans with these standardized prompt responses written in specific testing situations, but it doesn’t work well at all as an off-the-shelf rating solution for just any chunk of writing that students write for classes or that writers write for some other reason.  But the key word in that last sentence is yetbecause this software has (and is) getting a lot better. So what happens when it gets as good as a human reader (or at least good enough?) Will we accept the role of this evaluation software much in the same way we now all accept spell checking in word processors? (And by the way, I am old enough to remember resistance among English teacher-types to that, too– not as strong as the resistance to machine grading, but still).
  • As a teacher, my least favorite part of teaching is grading. I do not think that I am alone in that sentiment. So while I would not want to outsource my grading to someone else or to a machine (because again, I teach writing, I don’t just assign writing), I would not be against a machine that helps make grading easier. So what if a computer program provided feedback on a chunk of student writing automatically, and then I as the teacher followed behind those machine comments, deleting ones I thought were wrong or unnecessary, expanding on others I thought were useful? What if a machine printed out a report that a student writer and I could discuss in a conference? And from a WPA point of view, what if this machine helped me provide professional development support to GAs and part-timers in their commenting on students’ work?

A few miscellaneous comments on online teaching, what I learned about eCollege (again), and MOOCs

I’ve been pretty crazy-busy this semester because I took on too much and because there were things I could not refuse. So the blog has been pretty neglected lately, mostly because I’ve been thinking and writing about online stuff and MOOCs. (And now I’m coming back to this blog to procrastinate a bit in getting it done with the crazy-busy semester).

In no super-specific order:

  • I have been working on (and I think it’s done) my contribution to a “symposium” on MOOCs that will be in College Composition and Communication, I think in January. It’s about my experiences specifically with the writing assignments in “Listening to World Music” and the ways that they failed in spectacular ways.  If you are someone who has read my entries about MOOCs as of late, you probably have a sense of what’s going to be in that relatively short piece.  In any event, I really appreciate the opportunity to participate and it just goes to show you that sometimes blogging about stuff can pay off.
  • I was in a meeting just the other day where the topic of online teaching came up, and some of the folks complaining about it– literature colleagues (I know that’s shocking!)– said online classes were obviously not as good as face to face classes.  “So, are you saying that the classes I teach online aren’t any good?” I asked. No-no-no, we don’t mean you, they quickly said, but yes, that is what they meant. What I find continually most annoying about this critique is that it inevitably comes from people who have had no experience with online teaching. I mean none, and it also usually comes from people who don’t have a whole lot of experience or connection to this whole new-fangled Internets thing.  So part of what I said in this meeting was “Look, before you argue that online teaching can’t be as good as face to face teaching, go out and take an online class. Before that, your pronouncements about what online classes are like is a little like me telling you what Antartica is like even though I’ve never been there. I mean, I know it’s cold, but so what?”
  • MOOCs are pretty much the same way, which is why I spent the time I did in “Listening to World Music.” I wanted to see first-hand what these things were like, and since I am unlikely to teach one anytime soon, I experienced one as a student and wrote lots and lots about it. A lot of what I’ve been reading lately about MOOCs though (frankly, including some of what I am linking to/talking about in this post) seem to be coming from folks making educated guesses or knee-jerk reactions.
  • MOOCs have had the advantage of raising the profile of online teaching as a “real” environment for learning. But even though the likes of Daphne Koller and Peter Norvig think they “invented” online education with their MOOCs, the fact of the matter is students have been taking classes online at real universities– particularly regional ones like EMU– for over a decade now. Something like a third of all college students in the U.S. have taken at least one online class. We know a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Which brings me to my next point….
  • I don’t think the discussion should be about online classes being as “good” as face-to-face classes or even whether or not online classes “work.” (See “Do Online Classes Suck?” by Alex Halavais on this point). We’ve all seen bad teaching in the best of cozy face-to-face classroom settings, so the idea that that format for teaching is inherently “better” than online teaching seems a little dubious to me. Rather, I think the issue is of what are the trade-offs of these different formats, how do teachers adjust their pedagogy to best fit the situation, and what do we know about the best fit for the subject being taught. One of the trade-offs for teaching classes in a large lecture format is there is not a lot of opportunity for discussion or for student assessment in a format other than an easily graded test. One of the trade-offs for teaching first year writing in small discussion sections is it is prohibitively expensive to staff all of those sections with equally great and experienced professors (let alone great and experienced non-tenure-track faculty), so there can be pretty significant differences between different sections of the same course– thus the point of writing program administration.
  • One of the differences between how my writing colleagues think about online teaching and how my literature colleagues think about it is at what level it is most appropriate. Folks in literature have been somewhat okay with online versions of gen-ed classes but not for classes in the major or at the graduate level. We have the opposite take: we have come to believe that online (and hybrid) format classes need to be a part of the mix for our undergraduate and graduate programs, but we want our students in first year writing to take the class in person and on campus. That might change– I can especially imagine a scenario where we offer sections of first year writing in a hybrid format– but it isn’t going to be changing soon, largely because of the nature of those classes.  Students in first year writing typically need to learn some of the habits that will help them succeed in college: showing up, meeting schedules, learning how to become more self-disciplined, etc. Which leads me to my next rambling point:
  • Who thinks that MOOCs will work in “remedial” college courses? I personally find the term “remedial” both problematic and offensive, not unlike a well-intentioned and ill-informed person referring to someone of Chinese descent as “Oriental,” but I don’t want to go into that for now. The Gates foundation has given out a bunch of grants for creating “developmental” MOOCs– including courses in first year writing being developed by folks at Duke, Georgia Tech, Mt. San Jacinto College, and Ohio State. Each of these are using Coursera as a delivery platform. I’ll be very curious to see how this works out, but based on what I know about online teaching, MOOCs, and first year writing, I think this is doomed.
  • In the 24 or so years I’ve been teaching first year writing, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of students I’ve had in that class did not want to take it, and some of my students really really didn’t want to take it. Students take first year writing because it is a universal requirement (insert arguments ala Crowley et al as to why that is a bad idea here if you feel so inclined), and this is quite a bit different than the “Edu-tainment” appeal of MOOCs so far. We have decades of evidence on how to best help students who are struggling with subjects like writing, and all of that evidence suggests that these students need a lot personal attention of the sort not afforded in a class of thousands powered by freeze-dried/pre-recorded videos presented in a “stand and deliver” lecture format. The drop-out rate for Coursera MOOCs is already 90%; how much worse will they be in these courses?
  • Frankly, I think the folks working on MOOCs might have it backwards. Maybe they shouldn’t be replacing introductory or developmental college courses, the kinds of classes populated by young, inexperienced, and not particularly motivated students. Maybe MOOCs should replace upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses, the kinds of classes populated by older, experienced, savvy, and highly motivated students.
  • And once again, I discovered this semester in my own teaching that the content/learning management system matters. I have a chapter called “Blogs as an Alternative to Course Management Systems:  Public, Interactive Teaching with a Round Peg in a Square Hole” that is in a book (that’s supposed to be coming out any day now) called Designing Web-Based Applications for 21st Century Writing ClassroomsThe basic point of my chapter is to explain the hows/whys/pros/cons of using WordPress as an alternative to institutional CMSs. Despite the fact that I wrote this piece and despite the fact that I’ve used my own installations of WordPress as my primary platform for teaching online for years, I decided for some reason to give EMU’s CMS (eCollege) another try to host the entire class. Not a great idea. The short version is that eCollege works fine to host the grade book and to host content in a series of units where content is delivered, discussed, and tested. It doesn’t work well when a course is an on-going discussion or when it is something that exists in relation with the rest of the world– e.g., not behind a firewall.  So what I found most frustrating was there was no narrative to the class, no place where it was easy to post an update to something I just came across that I thought would be useful to share with everyone. Long story short, I’m going back to some kind of blog space for English 516 this winter term, which is also going to be online.
  • Clay Shirky wrote an interesting blog entry, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” and  Jeff Rice had an interesting response (and he also pointed to this good Inside Higher Ed rebuttal). Of course, “unbundling” the college degree is not something that is new, though it might appear to be new to Shirky who went to Yale and who teaches (once in a while, at least) at places like NYU. I have lots and LOTS of students at EMU who credits from two or three different other institutions on their transcript, and there are lots of EMU students who are simultaneously enrolled at Washtenaw Community College or another school in the area.
  • One place where I agree with Shirky is that if the point of comparison for what works (or doesn’t) in higher ed should not be Harvard or Yale; that said, one of the major concerns I have about MOOCs (and actually online education in general) is that it simply rarifies the already existing (albeit largely unspoken) hierarchy.  I think this is basically what Nigel Thrift in The Chronicle of Higher Education and what Ian Bogost is saying here. The analogy in those last two pieces is to restaurants, but no need to make that analogy when we can make an actual comparison. There are thousands of colleges and universities on this continent that award bachelor degrees in some kind of humanities– English, let’s say. As an initial qualification for some kind of want ad– “bachelors degree required’– these thousands of different institutions are all the same. But we all know that a degree from Harvard is worth more in the marketplace than a degree from the University of Michigan, which is worth more than one from Michigan State, which is worth more than one from EMU, which is worth more than one from the University of Phoenix. It’s been that way for a long long time. What I think MOOCs will do is simply add another lower rung to that ladder.
  • In any event, I’m probably going to be signing up for “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” as are (apparently) a lot of people in tech-rhet and the wpa-l mailing list. I’m thinking about making my grad students in English 516: Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice take this course as part of my course. These people seem pretty sharp: I like this manifesto, and I like this article quite a bit. If nothing else, we’ll be reading/thinking a lot more about MOOCs and online teaching while in an online class, which ought to be meta-meta.

Five ways EdX can help “the little people:” you know, community colleges, etc.

I still have a “what’s good about MOOCs” and/or “MOOCs are textbooks” post in me, but I wanted to post briefly about an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “5 Ways That edX Could Change Education” that came out a few days ago.  It’s mostly in the vein of articles about the great potential of MOOCs, this from the comparatively conservative and slow-paced edX group.

But this part annoyed me. After discussing the succes of bringing a small MIT-like class and lab to Mongolia for three months, there’s this:

EdX is now preparing a bigger experiment that is expected to test the flipped-classroom model at a community college, combining MOOC content with campus instruction. Two-year colleges have struggled with insufficient funds and large demand; they also have “trouble attracting top talent and teachers,” says Anant Agarwal, who taught the circuits class and is president of edX. The question is how MOOC’s might help community colleges, and how the courses would have to change to work for their students.

“MOOC’s have yet to prove their value from an educational perspective,” says Josh Jarrett, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which backs the community-college project. “We currently know very little about how much learning is happening within MOOC’s, particularly for novice learners.”

Why does this annoy me?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the initial claims were true, that one of the problems two-year colleges face is insufficient funds, this despite the fact that many community colleges have been better off than four year schools under both Obama and Bush II. First off, I might have a bit of a chip on my shoulder here since I teach at an “opportunity granting” university to begin with, but I don’t think the troubles CCs and schools like EMU are having stem from an inability to attract top talent and teachers.  In fact, I don’t know what evidence is there for that assumption at all, other than “we all just know” that the talent and teachers at places like MIT and Harvard have to be the best and obviously welcomed at CC’s and lesser colleges and universities.

Second,  if Agarwal really wanted to replicate the success of his Mongolia experiment elsewhere, he (and edX) would send some “talent and teachers” and lab equipment into some inner city school districts in Boston or Philadelphia or Detroit or something and see what happens. Using this experience as a justification for an online class involving thousands of students just doesn’t make any sense.

And third, there’s this point from Josh Jarrett, that “MOOCs have yet to prove their value” and how we don’t know how MOOCs can help “novice learners.” Everything else I’ve read about MOOCs suggests that the drop-out rate is extremely high, which I think is pretty good evidence MOOCs are not well-suited for novice, ill-prepared and otherwise disenfranchised students. But beyond that, just how many “novice learners” have these MIT and Harvard people ever dealt with in any classroom setting, let alone an online one?

I think it might be useful for edX and their ilk to look at this from the other direction. Instead of claiming that they must know best (since they are “the best”), why not start with the premise that community colleges and regional universities might have something to offer the world about MOOCs and working with novice learners? After all, CCs are the places that actually have taught these students for decades, so they might know a little something about how to do it. Further, it is the CCs and regional universities in this country that (other than proprietary schools) have done most of the online teaching and they’ve been most successful at holding down costs.

I mean, I realize the folks at MIT and Harvard (and Stanford, Princeton, U of M, etc., etc.) are really smart and I presume they’re well-intentioned. But isn’t it more than arrogant for these folks who have almost no previous experience in online teaching and who are charging students $30-50,000 a year in tuition to come into CCs and tell them they can solve CC’s problems with free online classes?

“What did we learn here and what’s it worth to you?” The end of World Music, part 2

I probably have only two or three more posts in me about MOOCs generally and World Music in particular. This is one that I’ve been working on off and on while the course was wrapping up.  I don’t know if it’s really done, but I decided to go ahead and post it because the World Music/Coursera people sent around a survey about the course.  Here’s the link to it; I’m not sure if just anyone can get to it or not.  Most telling to me was the last question:  “If Penn hosted a World Music Extension experience based on the priorities you selected, what rate (US $) would you be willing to pay to enroll?”  The answer space was a sliding scale going from $0 to $500.  This email also said “we are working on grades; and the certificate system, which comes from Coursera, is currently being revised, so information about certificates will probably come later next week.”  So wish me luck on that.

So, while I wait to find out if I’m “certifiable” from this class or not, I contemplate the basic “what did we learn here” questions of this experience.  What exactly was this?  What would I pay for this?  And is this the future of education?  I’m tempted to just point everyone to these last lines from the Coen Brother’s black comedy Burn After Reading and leave it at that:

But I will add more for now and I am hoping to write more about this and other MOOC-iness later.

The first thing I’m still wrestling with is just what exactly a MOOC is and what is it for.  I can tell you what it’s not: I don’t think this version of a MOOC is “educational” in the sense of having all three of these components:

  • Learning, or the opportunity for people to learn.
  • Teaching, which is the active involvement of a person(s) who is in some sense an expert in the subject and process.
  • Credentialing, which is some sort of evaluation process that others acknowledge and, explicitly or implicitly, has merit and value.

I blogged in more detail about what I mean by all this here back in April.  Some may think I’m setting the “educational” bar too high, but I’m trying to get away from the way the word is casually tossed around, especially in the press reports that have suggested that MOOCs are the next big thing.

Okay, learning:  yes, World Music was clearly a “learning opportunity,” but so what? Learning is really the easiest part of education because learning opportunities are everywhere; almost any content provides it. I learn a lot from watching cooking shows or DIY home improvement shows on TV, not to mention listening to NPR or browsing web sites or even reading those old world content management systems, books.  The World Music MOOC provided learning for learning’s sake/learning as “infotainment,” and it’s a resource for the motivated self-learner/student of life, which is fine. Creating content that people can learn from is easy and it scales well. So yes, there was learning– or at least the potential of learning.

How about teaching?  Not really.  All the lectures and graduate student discussions were recorded months ago and there was minimal interaction from Professor Muller and her grad assistants in the class.  Teaching, as opposed to content, requires some give and take exchange with an expert who has enough experience with that content to at a minimum guide the student interaction and make some judgement of student success.  This teacher/expert presumably is a human, though, as I was discussing with a colleague the other day, maybe a teacher could theoretically be a machine with enough artificial intelligence to anticipate and respond to questions from the student.  To the extent that students can teach each other (and I think that’s limited), Coursera didn’t work because the discussion forums were almost useless.

And just to head this off at the pass:  yes, it is possible for one to “teach one’s self” how to do something just from the content, but as I wrote about back in May playing off of some posts from Aaron Barlow, few of us are “true autodidacts,” self-motivated or self-disciplined enough to do this effectively.  Most people who begin something as “self-taught” eventually seek the help of some teacher or other expert.  Also, I think there’s a limit to what one can teach themselves:  learning something procedural like computer code or how to juggle (I taught myself to juggle when I was in middle school) probably lends itself to self-instruction more than learning about a more abstract concept, like “World Music,” or learning something procedural but with a high degree of difficulty and complexity, like surgery.

So to continue the cooking show analogy: sure, I can learn a lot about how to make Linguine Con le Vongole and Penne Puttanesca by watching Mario Batali on Malto Mario,  but that’s different from Mario actually teaching me to make this stuff– answering my questions about measurements, checking on my work, offering me pointers, etc.  And by the way, I think this is true with even this segment of the show, where Mario actually does something closer to teaching than happened in World Music in that he actually interacts with people who are there while he’s cooking, answering some questions and explaining some finer points of techniques.  But he’s teaching them, not me.

Again, content scales easily and teaching doesn’t, which is why education is still expensive.

And just to repeat again a reoccurring theme:  specifically with “World Music,” the production values of the video lecturers and graduate student talks in this class were piss-poor. This whole experience could have been dramatically improved if there was even a tiny bit more time and thought put into how the course should be presented. I think the usefulness of Khan Academy is highly over-rated, but at least this guy can give a presentation.  These videos and a few other really well-done instructional sites (like Instructables or Code Academy) can come pretty close to teaching, particularly when dealing with very procedural instruction.  But it still ain’t teaching, and Sal Khan has made it clear in a number of places that he sees his materials as a supplement for actual teaching and not a replacement for teaching.

I think MOOCs could provide something closer to what I mean by teaching if there was less “freeze-dried” lecture content and a lot more interaction between the professor and graduate assistants and students. I think this is possible because even though all the hype around MOOCs have focused on the large number of students who sign up for these courses, the real number to focus on is the number of students who are active in the class.  So in the case of World Music, we were never really talking about 30,000 students, but rather 3,000.  I suspect that ratio is pretty consistent across these different MOOCs.

Of course, even if the class were “only” 3,000 students, effective teaching would take more than one professor and one or two GAs. In other words, you still have the problem of scale, again bringing us back to the reason why universities have lecture classes in the hundreds and not thousands and why universities employ graduate assistants and other part-time labor to supplement (well, in many ways surpass, but that’s another story) the labor of faculty.

Credentialing?  Clearly not there yet.  The peer rating/review of short writing assignments failed for lots of reasons I’ve already covered and which I am hoping to write about in more detail later.  But if I were to sum it up in a long sentence:  because there was no instructor involvement, because there was no reason for students to take the process seriously, and because the peer rating instrument itself was so poor, the results of the process were meaningless. If the Coursera people came to me asking for advice on what to do about this, I’d tell them to abandon the short writing assignments entirely and to focus instead on measuring student writing and involvement in the class with the discussion forums.  To me, that’s a much better level of judging engagement with the material and it would be a lot easier for peers to rate.  As it was, there was no accountability in those forums, and as a result, the discussion was scattered, meaning that to the extent that there was any assessment process for the class, it was all based on this heavily flawed peer rating of short writing assignments, the quizzes that popped up immediately after videos, and a final that repeated many of those quiz questions.

This missing credentialing piece is critical. Unless you believe that there have been tens of millions of dollars invested in Coursera et al for quasi-charitable reasons, the goal of these corporate MOOCs is to have them be worth something to consumers (both students and other stakeholders, notably employers), to have them “count” in the real world.

My guess is that Coursera is working on two angles to get over the credentialing problem. The long-term/long-con business plan is to convince the world that corporate MOOCs are in and of themselves valuable, thus bypassing entirely the whole college degree process.  Who needs a bachelors degree–especially in jobs where a college degree might not be needed at all (e.g., sales) or fields where people already succeed without degrees (e.g., computer coding, especially for various web/mobile apps) –when you can take a curriculum of sorts through these different platforms, and/or when you can demonstrate what it is you have learned/know via various MOOC certificates?

Given that a college degree has been the ticket to the white-collar class in the U.S. and beyond for quite some time and with higher education, we’re talking about international institutions that have been around for hundreds of years, I think this is a very long con indeed.  So the more realistic and shorter-term goal seems to be to get these classes to count as transfer credit in some fashion– general education, for example. As CHE reported, Colorado State is going to accept a Udacity Intro to Computer Science course on building a search engine as credit after the faculty reviewed it, and according to this CHE piece, edX is planning on offering proctored exams for some of their MOOCs; the exams will cost $89.  This could be a good deal for students if it worked, much like the CLEP test.  (By the way, one of my other MOOC-oriented posts is going to be on that Intro to Computer Science course, but I need to monkey around with that one a little more first).

But there are at least three catches.

First, getting these classes to count as real college credit depends on the educational system that MOOCs are supposedly trying to disrupt.  This strikes me as awkward:  “We think we can provide a better education to students than traditional universities, so we want traditional universities to let students take our courses and then have you count them for credit at your university for a degree.” Rrrright.  Second, as every transfer student knows, the portability of credits from one institution to another varies wildly.  It’s all fine and good that Colorado State is contemplating taking that Udacity Intro to Computer Science course, but if there are only a handful of institutions that follow suit, that doesn’t do much good.

Third, I’m afraid that ultimately the real impact of corporate MOOCs on higher education– if they are even modestly successful at granting actual college credit for their courses at some universities– is that both the explicit and implicit distance in the value of degrees from different types of universities will only widen the already existing gap.  As it is, there is a bias against online versus “real” classroom experiences, which is what is so maddening about Coursera and the elite institutions “discovering” online teaching in the first place, as if this hasn’t been going on at places like EMU for years.  If we add MOOCs into the mix, I think that simply expands the already existing gap between elite and non-elite universities.

In fact, just to be overly cynical for a moment, this is perhaps the main reason why elite institutions have gotten into the corporate MOOC business in the first place.  It’s a good PR and “branding” move for them to offer up some content for free, recognizing that content in and of itself– especially without teaching and credentialing– isn’t worth anything to their bottom line.  At the same time, if corporate MOOCs take off, then that only rarifies all that much more the elite sort of instruction at the top of the heap, making the rich even richer.  Seems like a win-win for the likes of Stanford, UPenn, and U of M.

But I digress.

Even if I can’t exactly come up with an answer to the “what exactly was this” question (other than to say that it is not “educational” per se), I can come up with an answer to the “how much would you pay for this” question:  $0.  Judging from what I’ve seen in the discussion on the Facebook group for the class, I’d say that my answer is in the general price range of my fellow students (though one went as high as $25).  In fact, now that I think of it, I’d say that Coursera has more or less the same problem as Facebook: I know lots of people who are wildly enthusiastic and near obsessive users of Facebook, but I don’t know anyone who would actually pay for it.  Content (aka learning) in and of itself has very little value on the internet.

That said, if there was a test or certification that you could use to get general education credit transferable to a community college or a university as part of some other more traditional degree program, that’d probably be worth something.  I don’t know if that’s a multimillion dollar business or not, but I am awfully confident that it is not “the future of higher education:”  that is, maybe these kinds of MOOC, CLEP-like tests/classes will be a part of the system, but I find it extremely unlikely that they will replace the system.

And if MOOCs do replace higher education as we know it, well, then I want out– or rather, I suspect the administration will be kicking me out.