A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 2).

Here I'm continuing the round-up I began compiling in the last post of responses to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here).

This post focuses on some of the discussion in the blogosphere. It is not exhaustive! There are other discussions worth reading, and responding to, that I'm putting off for another post -- but I will get to them! What I'm including here covers less than half of my open browser tabs on the subject right now.

College Misery, San Jose State and the Harvard "Justice" MOOC:

Members of the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, the Harvard "superprofessor"* whose MOOC on Justice they are being asked to "teach" (exactly what this would mean seems somewhat unclear to all involved) instead of a course of their own devising.

It's hard to choose just one part to post, since they summarize pretty much all the relevant issues, from the need to adapt curriculum to a local student population to the danger of class stratification in higher education to the irony of offering recorded lectures as an alternative to the supposedly-outdated in-person lecture model.

sciencegeekgirl, Why we won't teach your MOOC:

I hadn’t realized that these recorded MOOC lectures were being contracted by other universities as course material — I thought that MOOC’s were primarily used by individuals.  This is a troublesome trend to me.  While such online lectures could feasibly be used in a “flipped classroom” style approach, the more likely use is to replace local expertise with national “superstar” lecturers.  It feels quite counter to the aim of a university education, to develop deep expertise in contact with experts in your field of study.

annevans9, MOOCs: has the counter-revolution started?:

It would naïve in the extreme to think that those who control the purse-strings aren’t eyeing up MOOCs (and indeed other types of on-line offering) as a cheap option. If Harvard-quality higher education courses could be delivered to everyone via a computer screen at minimal cost, that would indeed be the answer to any finance director’s (or finance minister’s) dreams.

The problem, of course, is that the quality inherent in a Harvard education is not encapsulated in the typical MOOC, which is merely a recording of some lectures, with some additional material (such as on-line tests). To think that the quality of an education lies entirely in attending classes given by a rock-star lecturer, is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, we’ve long known that attending large group lectures is one of the least effective ways to learn. And what about the guided discussion, the individual feedback, the help with study skills, the library resources, the extended reading, the opportunity for submitting lengthy formative written work, the stimulation of peer group debate…..? Not to mention the pastoral care and advice and all the other aspects that go to make up a student’s experience at university.

Ars Politica, Don't Fear the MOOCs:

Those in the “salvation” camp, see MOOCs as the best thing to happen to educational access since the printing press. Now, students from Zimbabwe to Brazil can enroll in a Harvard class, or even a lot of Harvard classes, and finally get the Harvard education once reserved for rich Americans. Those of us whose jobs require us to read things like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education every day are now quite used to the MOOC- Messiah language that is just now starting to filter out to the real world.

The other side sees the MOOC as the ultimate adjunct instructor—a slick technological talking head that can do all the teaching that needs doing and reduce professors everywhere else to graders and bus drivers for a few superstar professors back East. The philosophy department at San Jose State recently threw their shoes in the MOOC mill by refusing to pilot a MOOC philosophy course from Harvard.

So who is right? Well, in my opinion, both the messianic and the apocalyptic MOOC prophecies have it wrong. As I see the future of higher education unfolding, the vaunted MOOCs are destined to play an important role in the process, but not the important role currently played by the classroom professor.

What the MOOC might eventually replace is the textbook.

language goes on holiday, Justice and "Justice":

I think it's good that Sandel's lectures are available free online… It's not good, though, if professors are turned into teaching assistants by administrators or politicians who demand that they teach Sandel's course instead of their own, or show his lectures instead of teaching their own classes. (I don't mean that it's bad to have students watch one on a day when you're not available to teach, or have students watch several specially selected segments if they seem helpful.) …

On the other hand it is all a bit suspicious. Why have an edX version of the course at all if it's much the same as the already available free one? Why does Sandel say "we made a version of the course available on the edX platform" rather than, say, "I pointed out to all and sundry that the material was online and free"?

the contrary flâneuse, Open Letter from San Jose Philosophy Dept to Michael Sandel:

I would have expected a distinguished professor of the philosophy of law to both know and be willing to comment more. It's up us then to do the philosopher's job of figuring out how and what to know, and then questioning it ~ relentlessly if necessary.

stevendkrause.com collects a bunch of links to articles on MOOCs in Week6/7-ish of Composition I, and includes this observation:

You know, I’m not going to say that Sandel is lying in his response where he says he had no idea how edX might try to use his online course materials. But either Sandel is not being entirely truthful or he is not quite as brilliant and broad of a thinker as [NY Times columnist Thomas] Friedman and the folks at edX might think.

iterating toward openness, SJSU, edX, and Getting it Right/Wrong on MOOCs:

The one section of the letter that absolutely breaks my heart is the top of page 4:

Good quality online courses and blended courses (to which we have no objections) do not save money, but purchased-pre-packaged ones do, and a lot. With prepackaged MOOCs and blended courses, faculty are ultimately not needed.

Oh, MOOCs. How thoroughly, completely, and profoundly you have failed us.

The SJSU faculty’s last statement is true if and only if one underlying assumption is met – that the content of the pre-packaged course is traditionally, fully copyrighted. So with regard to this particular edX course, whose YouTube videos all say “Standard YouTube License” for example, the SJSU criticism is accurate. This fully copyrighted, pre-packaged MOOC is clearly meant to run as is, and is not meant to be taken apart, adapted, localized, and customized by local faculty. If edX intended for those things to happen, they would take down their silly registration barrier and put a proper license on the course.

(Don’t even get me started on how edX oh-so-deceivingly puts “Some Rights Reserved” in their footer without ever specifying which rights those are. “Some Rights Reserved” is, obviously, a nod to Creative Commons licenses – but the site does not use one. Check their Terms. When you don’t use a Creative Commons license, why try to hoodwink us into thinking you’re “one of the good guys” by putting that language in the footer of EVERY page?!? And this is how the one NON-profit in the space behaves. No wonder people are suspicious…)

If entities like edX and Coursera and Udacity would simply be open – meaning, use an open license for their materials – the concerns of SJSU faculty and others could be assuaged. Rather than pre-packaged, teach-as-you-receive-it collections of material meant to undermine faculty, openly licensed course frameworks empower faculty to tweak and customize and modify while still saving money. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You can have your cake and eat it, too, when you use open licenses. The either/or presented by the SJSU faculty is only true when purchased-pre-packaged courses are copyrighted – like the edX course is.

Academe Blog, MOOCs, shared governance and academic freedom:

It is, of course, precisely this unbundling process – the separation of content provision from actual instruction – that makes moving a course on justice to the English Department possible. Should the SJSU Philosophy Department, or any other department, resist the MOOCification of higher education, their face-to-face students can simply be diverted away to other departments or (thanks to the wonders of the Internet) anywhere else in the world and the university will still make money! Offer enough cost incentives to take MOOCs instead of face-to-face classes and there may not be a single student left on campus before too long.

What does it mean to have a university without professors? Certainly it makes shared governance, the primary means of enforcing quality control upon methods of instruction, a thing of the past. Perhaps more importantly for society at large, what does it mean if future students everywhere get only one view of what justice means? Nobody is censoring anyone if you simply take away their listeners, but on cultural terms that result may be even more disturbing.

Democratic Underground, Professors at San Jose State Criticize Online Courses:

I read Sandel's "Justice" book and watched some of his lectures on PBS a few years ago. While they make great class supplements, it's not a good idea to create entire carbon-copy courses out of THAT particular product.

Based on comments I've heard from another friend in college who's been actively defending the use of MOOCs on campus, I suspect that MOOCs may be a method of union-busting (he was complaining about the university faculty union criticizing MOOCs). But with budget cuts making fewer sections available, what other solutions are there? And then there are students who can find the time to learn but whose schedules or life circumstances prevent them from being physically present on campus at all.

Monitoring University Governance, Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State:

But faculties across the country are increasingly raising doubts, and organizing opposition to MOOCs. (e.g., Dan Berrett, Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10, 2013).  There are two distinct bases for this opposition.  The first goers to shared governance--faculties have raised serious objections to the introduction of MOOCs as an administration initiative, usually with little or no faculty consultation, viewing this as a way of end-running faculty authority.  The second goes to substance--that MOOCs do not deliver quality or substance to a necessary minimum extent.  This post looks to recent oppositional statements by faculty governance organizations at Harvard, Duke, American, and San Jose State. 

New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science has been hosting some of the best discussion I've seen of issues we raised in our open letter, and of MOOCs more generally. A sample:

Comments on An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Dept at San Jose State from Lisa Shapiro:

I'm having an interesting exchange with Gene Marshall about this issue. Some universities (like Gene's home institution of Wellesley) have bought into MOOCs with the idea that they have the power to make education accessible to those in poorer countries, and in particular women and other systematically excluded groups. And I suspect that there is a lot of truth in this -- there are universities in the developing world, but they have a real shortage of resources, material and human. Students might not be able to get hold of the books, but they can get hold of the lectures and other online materials. On the other hand, in the developed world, administrators are leveraging what is essentially a noble idea into one far less noble that involves compromising what we can afford. There are a load of complex issues to navigate here, but I think they are really interesting ones. I should add that I think that SJSU has done us all a great service in writing that open letter.

And from Ed Kazarian:

the thing I worry about even in regard to the defense of MOOCs as a means of making education available to people outside of the 'developed' world is that there's an implicit assumption that short-circuiting the process wherein local and indigenous institutions might develop to serve these populations is a net good. I get the idea that MOOCs and other similar models can be a great way of providing 'education' for people who might not need or want some of what a traditional university provides -- but most of those people, it seems to me, are already 'educated' to some considerable degree (with employment qualifications, and the skill sets--including study skills--that come along with time in the meat-space educational system). Recent studies have shown that people who aren't positioned to do well in a conventional university classroom do considerably worse in a MOOC environment--and I can only imagine that where there's a real systemic lack of educational institutions at all, MOOC courses that are a sort of watered down, less interactive, virtual version of a 'lecture' classroom are going to be of very little use by themselves to students. But even if they were wonderful, how can we justify exporting 'our' classrooms as a substitute for the development of local classrooms, teachers, and students?

Comments on Michael Sandel responds from John Protevi:

Shorter Michael Sandel: "Hey, why are these bartenders at that low-end joint I have never even heard of calling me out, just because I'm working with Seagram's to install a hologram of me in your local bar to replace them? After all, I Didn't Mean To Hurt Anyone (TM), and I wasn't in on the deal their bosses cut with the middleman."

And from Ed Kazarian:

1) Re: the claim that somehow these consequences might have been unanticipated or unwanted, imagine this scenario: 'You, a Harvard professor (let's remember the prestige element in all of this), signed a contract with an educational company, albeit a non-profit one, that is more or less independent of your university, and that allowed more or less unrestricted use of the materials you made for them, and you turn around and claim not to have imagined that this might include it functioning as a replacement for courses taught in brick and mortar classrooms at other institutions.' If you're that stupid, it's still blameworthy. Presumably, however, you're not, in which case this explanation is just a sign of how much contempt you actually hold your audience in.

2) Re: the significance of the non-profit status of companies like EdX (I'd originally assumed that it was for-profit): It's important to recognize that the distinction between non- and for-profit enterprises here makes virtually no difference for at least two reasons.

a) The fact that these materials will be used for the purposes of replacing courses taught by local faculty to local students in an environment where there is all the bilateral communication that one ordinarily expects from that relationship is the important point. I find it frankly terrifying that some of the 'name' faculty participating in these things seem to have complete disregard for the way that their participation tends toward the elimination of other faculty voices than their own (or short circuits the process that might otherwise lead to their development). It represents a complete loss of any sense of academia as a pluralistic community of scholarly voices.

b) The simple fact that the 'non-profit' in cases like this can almost axiomatically be said to operate as a trojan horse for a series of very much for-profit instances. John mentions some ways in which this could happen above, but it's also important to see how the entire model here fits with larger trends towards universities turning their basic revenue model into that of being a non-profit 'shell' (and in this case, a highly prestigious and so proportionately more valuable one) for various for-profit interests that want to sell to their 'clients.' Thus we are already seeing things like outsourced dorms, where universities are paid by developers for the right to build and manage student housing for them, or outsourced student records, etc. The extent to which the institution (at any tier) is actually functioning in a 'non-profit' way is steadily shrinking (though the impact of that, and the directionality of the flows of money, differ at different points in the overall system). Non-profit, here, is a modesty veil, but an essential one insofar as people's willingness to pay for a lot of this depends it remaining effectively out of sight.

And from Gordon:

1. I don't know about piling on college admins at Harvard and other private universities, but somebody should pile on the state legislatures that starve the universities to the point that a decision to outsource the education of its citizens to a video stream from Harvard seems like a good idea. There's fundamental structural problems here, of which this course is just an example: university administrators now tend to come from the managerial class, not the faculty; neoliberal orthodoxy nursed by compliant think-tanks and generous corporate donors have led to an inexorable decline in state support for any public institutions; and so forth. Structural problems of the "go and reread David Harvey" kind.

2. It's interesting that he says he first put the course online for free, and now through EdX. Sandel could plausibly believe he's making his courses freely available in places where those who can't get to Harvard could benefit. After all, it's hard to argue that putting something online for free reduces access to it. But things turn out to be more complicated than that, and it looks like we're seeing some of those complications here. The problem is, on the one hand, that the "commons" or "public domain" isn't a level playing field. On the other hand, things in the commons are vulnerable to corporate exploitation.

You should, as they say, read these discussion threads in their entirety, then do some hard thinking, and maybe chime in with some ideas for moving forward in the discussion following the post Can academics organize around attacks on academia?

The discussion in the comments of the post at The Philosophy Smoker, San Jose State University calls out Sandel and MOOCs, is a bit more pessimistic in tone, as befits a job-seeking commentariat that has been watching its profession get adjunctified and now possibly MOOCitized. (All the more reason to participate in the creative problem-solving in that New APPS discussion of ways of responding to attacks on academia.)

3 responses so far

  • Has anybody brought up the similarity to the recorded vs. live music controversy?

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    @ Lee J Rickard, technically, I think you have, just now.

    But I haven't noticed it yet in the dozens of posts in my still-open browser tabs, so I invite you to elaborate!

  • me says:

    On the one hand, cannibalizing departments makes no sense, but I wonder if anyone has yet commented on the debate from a student's perspective? The internet has opened enormous doors to empower people across the globe with information. But yet, understanding and ingesting the useful stuff out there--like a MOOC--is not rewarded by society because getting a good job is still linked to a degree awarded by an institution with various corporate affiliations. So, if the universities are looking for more efficiency and more revenues, why don't the universities consider producing their own MOOCs, but also putting their names on the line by actually offering MOOC-degree's at a lower cost compared to attending the institution and taking classes in-person? Surely, a dedicated student can learn ALL the material in a college degree if they put their minds to it?! I, for one, cannot willingly tell any of my friends who haven't gone to college to go into serious debt for degrees (from anywhere) that don't have the payoff of a job anymore, but at the same time, all these folks do understand that knowledge is power and have a desire to better themselves. So, given that it's still useful to have all the educational infrastructure that exists to serve the people, why don't the institutional marketing bean-counters realize that they can also follow the MOOC model to produce their own content and get additional revenue streams by serving their missions to educate society on a more massive scale but at far reduced prices?