Archive for the 'Curricular issues' category

A shift in the MOOCmentum (part 5): Tressie McMillan Cottom on what MOOCs learned from for-profit colleges, and on challenging the framing of higher education as a market.

In my last post, I insisted that you read what Aaron Bady has to say about "The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform". Now, I'm going to insist that you engage with Tressie McMillan Cottom's compelling look at dueling narratives around higher education. One of them is the narrative of market forces, of individuals as rational actors (and communities as mere collections of same), and of every single challenge having a market-based solutions -- and some market-based solutions being so attractive that folks seem to need to create problems on which to unleash these solutions. The other is a less economic, more sociological narrative -- one in which we get to see the salient details of the experiences of the students largely served by for-profit colleges, students who are offered (at least in the abstract) as the perfect clientele for MOOCs.

You will maybe not be surprised that for-profit colleges, and the current market-logic of higher education, does not always serve these students so well. However, if you teach at a place like San Jose State, you may be surprised by how much these students have in common with some of your own students.

Anyway, I've been recommending a lot for you to read, about MOOCs, which may seem contrary, given that some MOOCs seem content to assign "viewing" rather than reading. You're in luck! You can watch a video of Tressie McMillan Cottom presenting her arguments at UC-Irivine. (Her talk is from about 0:36:50 to 1:08:00.)

Here's just a taste:

When the story of profit in higher education tells us it will disrupt, it will innovate, it will cage-bust, it will unbundle, it is using the language of markets. It is telling a story of education as a tool of markets. We become a serf that exists at the largesse of market morality and financialization. When we use that language to resist our own commodification, even when we have the best of intentions but we use and adopt that language, we are limited in the possible outcomes of our resistance. If the language gets to define the problem, then it gets to define the solution. ...

So how did higher education become a market is a thing I'm very interested in. That's a story that's integral to the narrative being sold about this "calcified" higher education system, particularly public higher education, that has been so in need of disrupting and innovation. I put this before you because in California recent legislation,... Senate Bill 520, would have you take for granted that "something" needs to be done about public higher ed. Something. That's always the starting point. Nobody ever interrogates whether or not that's actually the case.

If you want to keep the written word, and your ability to read it, alive (on principle, probably because you're old, like me), I've tried to capture an approximate transcript here.

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A shift in the MOOCmentum (part 4): Aaron Bady's "The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform"

Aaron Bady's essay at The New Inquiry, The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform, is so thoughtful and devastatingly on-target that it gets its own post in the series rounding up links that respond to issues raised in the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (PDF of that letter here). If you do not read the whole thing, ruminate on it, and read it at least once more, you are living a lie.

Here, I share some tantalizing tidbits that you will appreciate even more in the context of Bady's nuanced discussion.

On what can happen when the pace of what is viewed as inevitable change gets really, really fast -- and on how messed up our perceptions of the pace of change have become here:

… the first story makes us imagine a groundswell of market forces and unmet need, a world of students begging to be taught by a Stanford professor and Google, and the technological marvels that suddenly make it possible. But it’s not education that’s driving this shifting conversation; as the MOOC became something very different in migrating to Silicon Valley, it’s in stories told by the New York Times, the WSJ, and TIME magazine that the MOOC comes to seem like an immanent revolution, whose pace is set by necessity and inevitability.

For example. When the president of UVA was abruptly fired last June, it would be an exaggeration to say that a David Brooks column and a few articles in the WSJ were the cause of it, but it would not be that much of an exaggeration. As we can now roughly reconstruct—from emails which were FOIA-ed by the UVa student paper—UVa’s rector and vice rector essentially engineered Teresa Sullivan’s resignation because they decided she was moving too slowly on online education. And what you get from reading these emails is an overwhelming sense of speed, which they are repeating, verbatim, from the articles they are emailing and forwarding to each other. …

Where this urgency comes from, however, might be less important than what it does to our sense of temporality, how experience and talk about the way we we are, right now, in “the MOOC moment.” In the MOOC moment, it seems to me, it’s already too late, always already too late. The world not only will change, but it has changed. In this sense, it’s isn’t simply that “MOOCs are the future,” or online education is changing how we teach,” in the present tense. Those kinds of platitudes are chokingly omnipresent, but the interesting thing is the fact that the future is already now, that it has already changed how we teach. If you don’t get on the MOOC bandwagon, yesterday, you’ll have already been left behind. The world has already changed. To stop and question that fact is to be already belated, behind the times.

The first thing I want to do, then, is slow us down a bit, and go through the last year with a bit more care than we’re usually able to do, to do a “close reading” of the year of the MOOC, as it were. Not only because I have the time, but because, to be blunt, MOOC’s only make sense if you don’t think about it too much, if you’re in too much of a hurry to go deeply into the subject.

On whether MOOCs are a revolutionary new thing or something so familiar we should keep calm and just let it happen:

Things are moving so fast because if we stopped to think about what we are doing, we’d notice that MOOCs are both not the same thing as normal education, and are being positioned to replace “normal” education. But the pro-MOOC argument is always that it’s cheaper and almost never that it’s better; the most utopian MOOC-boosters will rarely claim that MOOCs are of equivalent educational value, and the most they’ll say is that someday it might be. This point is crucial to unpacking the hype: columnists, politicians, university administrators, educational entrepreneurs, and professors who are hoping to make their name by riding out this wave, they can all talk in such glowing terms about the onrushing future of higher education only because that future hasn’t actually happened yet: it’s still speculative in the sense that we’re all speculating about what it will look like. This means that the MOOC can be all things to all people because it is, literally, a speculation about what it might someday become.

About the stakes of California Senate Bill 520, even for people outside of California:

if SB520 passes, it will define the shape of things to come, not only by creating a model for other states to follow, but by creating a kind of market value for MOOCs that didn’t exist before, and which wouldn’t exist otherwise. By making certain selected MOOC’s convertible into course credit—at CCC’s, CSU’s, and the UC system—the California legislature will quite literally create value where it didn’t exist before, by making MOOCs a thing that are worth paying for. This shift is important. But mandating that a MOOC is the same thing as college—that it can be literally credited as a college class—not only changes what a MOOC is, it changes what college is.

After all, if a MOOC is simply a free educational resource that you can find on the web—which is what MOOCs presently are—then there’s nothing to object to in them, and everything to like. Such a MOOC is an almost wholly good addition to the universe: other than opportunity costs and the costs of a computer—which are not nothing, but they are also not that much—it’s simply a free and useful thing, available to those that want it. But the moment that such a use value becomes legible as a market value, when it becomes something that can be exchanged for the kinds of course credits that students pay very high tuition for, MOOCs become a radically different beast, with a radically different kind of economic value. It’ll be much easier to charge for them, on the one hand, and almost unthinkable that associated costs won’t rise, as they did with the once free California public universities (especially since Udacity and Coursera are literally for-profit enterprises). And on the other hand, they will radically devalue the resource that they can now be used to replace: if you can replace “chairs” (by which I mean, the brick and mortar campus) with a chair-less university—if those things are literally exchangeable—then the market value of “chairs” goes down, at the same time as its actual costs stay the same. If we can’t fully staff our classrooms now, how will we staff them in the future, when they have to compete with free?

To put it slightly differently, pumping up the value of MOOCs in this way—declaring, by legislative fiat, that MOOCs are now convertible with “real courses”—actually does have an important cost. If the platonic ideal of the classroom experience is the gold standard, then declaring that a bunch of other unrelated metals are also gold will lower its value, especially if those metals are freely available, in infinite supplies. Why would someone pay a teacher to give one-on-one attention to students when those students could get the same formal credential from an online course? You can point out that there is an actual and effective difference between a student to professor of 17 to 1 (in the gold standard class) and a ratio of 10,000 to 1, where a student will effectively never have a personalized interaction with the professor. But once market equivalency has entered the equation, once the market recognizes an equivalence between a MOOC and an in-person class, pointing out the difference that is experienced by the student will be trumped by the equivalence of market logic, which will dictate paying the cheaper of the two. An in-person education will become a unnecessary luxury: like gold itself, it will no longer be the “gold standard,” the basis of educational value, but rather, simply, an ornamental marker of elite status.

Some reasons to think the MOOC model will not do much to help the CSU achieve its stated goal of improving retention, that it won't do much for ethical conduct, and that the "increased access" being promised won't be access to something very good:

MOOC boosters live in the future; actually-existing MOOCs are a far cry from what their champions promise they will someday become, which allows us to gloss over any troubling trends in their present day iteration. After all, MOOC boosters like to brag about the thousands of students—even hundreds of thousands—who sign on to learn from super-professors like Harvard University’s Michael Sandel or Sebastian Thrun. But completion rates for these courses consistently hover in the mid single-digits. A Software Engineering MOOC taught by UC Berkeley professor David Patterson in May 2012, for example, may have enrolled over 50,000 students, but less than 4,000 actually completed the course, and this is typical. What’s more, as Patterson himself was quick to observe, his MOOC was a “cheating-rich environment”; it is safe to assume that the number of students who actually completed the course is somewhat lower than even the 7% that received a completion certificate. …

It rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and privilege to allow them to pursue learning for its own sake. But if you want it to function as a gate-keeping mechanism, which is one of the things that universities do, it’s not very good at that; a MOOC is almost designed to make cheating even easier that ever before. And if you want to use it to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities—which has been the historical mission of public education—MOOCs are also a really poor way to do that. Historically, public systems like California’s provided high quality education to citizens of the state who could not have gotten the equivalent anywhere else. MOOCs promise to see to it that what the public universities are able to provide is not, in every sense, the equivalent of what rich people’s kids get.

Noticing that MOOCs, as a "disruptive technology," manage to leave some things hardly disrupted at all:

… instead of de-institutionalizing education or making learning less hierarchical, we see some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world treating the MOOC as a lifeline in troubled economic waters, leveraging the figure of the “super-professor” to maintain their position of excellence atop the educational field, and even to create new hierarchical arrangements between universities. These MOOCs are just a new way of maintaining the status quo, of re-institutionalizing higher education in an era of budget cuts, sky-rocketing tuition, and unemployed college graduates burdened by student debt. If the MOOC began in the classroom as an experimental pedagogy, it has swiftly morphed into a process driven from the top down, imposed on faculty by university administrators, or even imposed on administrators by university boards of trustees and regents. From within academia, the MOOC phenomenon is all about dollars and cents, about doing more of the same with less funding. And while MOOC-boosters like to deride the “sage on the stage” model of education-delivery—as if crowded lecture halls are literally the only kind of classroom there is—most of the actually-existing MOOCs being marketed are not much more than a massive and online version of that very same “sage on a stage” model. And what could be more hierarchical than a high prestige university like Harvard lecturing to a less prestigious institution like SJSU?

If you haven't already, go read the entirety of The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform. You will be better for it.

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A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 3).

This is a further continuation of my (futile) efforts to round up responses to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here). Part 1 collected links mostly from old media-affiliated sites. Part 2 started digging into some of the discussion in the blogosphere.

This post picks up with some more of the blogospheric discussion. There will be more because there are so many posts worth reading out there right now (and dagnabbit, people keep writing more of them).

SR Education Group, Fixing What Is Not Broken:

Since the large-scale launch of MOOCs last year, much of the excitement around them has been driven by their potential to revolutionize education and thereby solve many of the challenges facing higher ed, namely the perceived diminution of the value of a degree in today's economy and the increased cost of getting a degree. While no one can say for sure exactly how MOOCs will evolve or what role they will play, Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen recently described the potential in a Wired op-ed as follows:

… over time, an approach where users exchange information from each other similar to Facebook or telecommunications (a 'facilitated network model') will come to dominate online learning. This evolution is especially likely to happen if the traditional degree becomes irrelevant and, as many predict, learning becomes a continuous, on-the-job learning process. Then the need for customization will drive us toward just-in-time mini-courses."

Faculty at a number of schools don't necessarily see it that way, nor do administrators. …

It might be easy to dismiss such concerns as conservatism in the face of a new model, or as faculty trying to protect their role in the existing academic model -- the model Christensen and Horn feel may become "irrelevant." But Inside Higher Ed recently released survey data that showed that even college administrators are not convinced that MOOCs will lower costs or improve the educational experience for students. The one area where administrators seemed more optimistic about the value of MOOCs was in their ability to generate creativity in pedagogical strategies (although even on this point, a minority of total responses was positive).

In the meantime, there has been a steady stream of reminders that the factors putting pressure on the traditional academic model are not emerging because that model stopped working. More to the point, the traditional degree has not become at all irrelevant. The first such reminder came late last year with the release of a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts on the protection a college education affords against economic downturns.

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Scapegoats and Panaceas, MOOCs, Part II: This Time It’s Personal.:

MOOCs are symptomatic of greater tensions within higher education and not a core problem in themselves. Preventing their use, while good, doesn’t get at any of the reasons that administrations like San Jose State’s are eager to adopt them. That’s why Daniel Porterfield’s insistence that this become the “Year of the Seminar” is admirable in its spirit but questionable in its reasoning. Porterfield wants to “challenge the notion that MOOCs are the future of American higher education.” But seminars were becoming an endangered species on university campuses years and decades before the first MOOC popped up. Getting rid of MOOCs has little to do with providing seminars. That’s a matter of public education budgets, university spending, an overemphasis on economic utility, and an underemphasis on teaching.

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Historiann, Guest post on the Lords of MOOC Creation: who’s really for change, and who in fact is standing athwart history yelling STOP?:

Why in spite of the hype do MOOCs appear to be merely a digitalized version of the “sage on the stage” style of lecturing familiar to those of us in the United States and Commonwealth countries 100 (and more) years ago?  Why do MOOC-world advocates appear totally ignorant of feminist pedagogy, which disrupted this model of education going on 50 years ago?  What does it say about MOOC-world’s vision of the future of higher education that the Lords of MOOC Creation are overwhelmingly white, male,  and U.S. American professors at highly exclusive universities? …

MOOCs have also created new excitement among the mostly male presenters about the possibilities of the flipped classroom. Of course, there is no pedagogical innovation happening here; feminist scholars have flipped the classroom for years. What is flipped is usually the use of class time, not authority.  After all, a MOOC is centered on lectures, which are now given in front of a camera with no students present, thus denying any opportunity for response or interaction from the listener. The instructor remains the sole purveyor of information and the students remain the passive consumers; with pre-recorded lectures, the instructor controls the content even more than is usually case, and it is more difficult to adapt to individual student needs. Ostensibly, the time previously devoted to classroom lectures was now used for greater interaction with the students both in his classroom and around the world; however, such reallocation of time does not, in and of itself, alter the class hierarchy or the passive reception of knowledge by students.  Ironically, it may even re-inscribe that hierarchy: most teachers, even when lecturing, engage with their students and will stop, go back, or re-examine an issue to ensure comprehension and to respond to student questions and challenges.

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More or Less Bunk, "Would you like to shoot me now or wait 'til you get home?":

Has a backlash formed against MOOCs? Well, yes and know. Certainly non-stop MOOC-mania has started to become peppered with bad publicity for the first time. However, it’s important to remember an important distinction: There are universities that produce MOOCs now and universities that will consume MOOCs (mostly) later. If schools like Amherst reject being MOOC producers, that’s not a backlash. That’s Amherst being Amherst. If schools like Duke reject giving credit for MOOCs, that does not prevent them from continuing as MOOC producers.

Really, the only sure sign that I’ve seen of any institutional backlash from a potential MOOC consumer is that eloquent letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. Perhaps this explains why Michael Feldstein decided to attack it:

The collective effect of these rhetorical moves is to absolve the department of all responsibility for addressing the real problems the university is facing. By ignoring the scholarship of teaching, the department missed an opportunity to engage the MOOC question in a different way. Rather than thinking of MOOCs as products to be bought or rejected, they could have approached them as experiments in teaching methods that can be validated, refuted, or refined through the collective efforts of a scholarly community.

Seriously, you can’t learn more about education technology anywhere than you can over at Michael’s blog, e-Literate. However, that post is probably the clearest indiction that I have ever seen that faculty have to look out for their own interests rather than depend on friends in any other part of higher education to fight for them. After all, it’s not the San Jose State Philosophy Department’s fault that the California legislature won’t raise taxes. More importantly, it’s not Feldstein’s job that’s under threat of being unbundled. I’ll call this the “Wait ’til you get home” option because we all know what the outcome of this kind of dialogue will be: unbundling and unemployment.

On the other hand, there’s the “Shoot him now! Shoot him now!” option, which I warned about in my first Inside Higher Education piece almost a year ago. …

Luckily, a third way of thinking about MOOCs is coalescing. I’ll call it the “End Duck Season altogether” option.

Do read the whole thing to see some of the sensible options for avoiding a beak full of buckshot!

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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.)

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A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 1).

In response to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here), at least two important things have happened.

First, all the top-down pressure on our department to pilot the edX packaged version of Sandel's "Justice" MOOC as a "flipped" course (despite the fact that our existing PHIL 122 "Social Justice" has been serving our students well) has magically disappeared.

Second, a lot of really good discussion about MOOCs and related issues in higher education has broken out all over the place. It seems like we've gotten to the point where people want to look beyond the hype and think about how new educational initiatives (and the role of private entities in driving them) could actually play out when the pedagogical rubber hits the road.

There is so much conversation out there that I cannot give you an accurate digest of all of it (especially during final exams -- things get busy here!). But I want to give you a round-up of some of what I've been reading, probably in at least three parts.

The Tech, Amherst College faculty vote against joining edX:

On April 16, 2013, Amherst College faculty voted 70-36 against a motion to join the edX consortium. …

According to the Amherst Student, debate at the deciding faculty meeting centered around the suitability of the edX platform and massive open online courses (MOOCs) to Amherst’s educational mission. …

At the end of the meeting, the faculty voted to approve a second motion that would explore alternatives to edX. The motion claimed that Amherst’s mission is “best served by having the College itself, rather than an outside organization that offers so-called massive open online courses, develop and offer these online courses and course materials.”

Chronicle of Higher Education, As MOOC Debate Simmers at San Jose State, American U. Calls a Halt:

The California faculty union, which represents more than 2,000 professors on the San Jose State campus, has written a memorandum sharply criticizing the university's president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, for what the union sees as a preference for "private rather than public solutions" when it comes to online tools and content. ...

Meanwhile, at American University, the provost sent a memo on Wednesday to the entire faculty and staff reiterating a "moratorium on MOOCs" while the university, in Washington, D.C., continues to draft a policy on how the massive courses would operate there.

The university is taking its time in deciding whether it wants to pursue institutional partnerships with edX or Coursera, another MOOC provider; or whether it wants to allow professors to teach MOOCs on their own, through Udacity or some other platform.

Contrary to institutions that have eagerly embraced MOOCs, American is purposely avoiding experimentation before it decides exactly how it wants to relate to the new breed of online courses. "I need a policy before we jump into something," said Scott A. Bass, the provost, in an interview.

The Harvard Crimson, San Jose State Professors Criticize edX as 'Social Injustice':

In addition to citing concerns that JusticeX would replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities, many SJSU philosophy professors said they were unsettled by the implicit message of having SJSU students watch the course as homework and then discuss it in class.

“The message is that students at Harvard deserve to have a live professor lecturing in front of them. They can make comments, ask questions, and have discussions with that professor, but San Jose students don’t,” said S. D. Noam Cook, an SJSU philosophy professor. “That seems to be quite inappropriate for any department in any university.”

The Guardian "Comment is Free", Will 'Moocs' be the scourge or saviour of higher education?:

With no clear business models in place – and a reliance at this stage on volunteer labour – it is not clear how the returns on investment will materialise. Will Moocs be a new form of social media? Marketing tasters for established, paying courses? An alternative form of continuing education or outreach? An alternative to textbooks or course materials?

Efforts to monetise Moocs come as politicians wrestle with public disinvestment from mass higher education. According to the US commentator Christopher Newfield: "The distinctive feature of Mooc marketing in 2013 is the shift from being an intriguing experiment to being pushed as a workable solution to budgetary and access crises." …

In California, Senate bill 520 would force universities in the state system to recognise Coursera courses recommended by the American Council for Education. The San Jose State University philosophy faculty complained recently about a decision taken by its senior management to force the use in class of Michael Sandel's edX Mooc on justice.

These academics argue that Moocs, far from taking learning to new vistas, are just "prepackaged materials from outside vendors" (Harvard and edX are private institutions) and being used to re-engineer public education. They see Moocs as the start of an "efficiency" drive to get rid of qualified staff or replace them with teaching assistants.

So, what of the UK? The government is keen to promote "efficiency and diversity" in higher education and has already commissioned a report into Moocs and other forms of online distance learning. The British University Finance Directors Group has indicated that FutureLearn "could well promise a low fixed-cost future". …

As a cheap alternative to degrees, Moocs do not yet pass muster. But as an alternative to public investment, technological solutions with private backing may sway policymakers. In straitened times, will broadcasting the videoed byproducts of elite institutions be seen as good enough for the masses? It would be nice to hope that our commitment to equity and equality in education would resist such temptations.

The Boston Globe "Braniac", San Jose State to Michael Sandle: Keep your MOOC off our campus:

MOOCs are almost certainly here to stay, but the exchange between SJSU and Sandel demonstrates that after several years of feverish adoption, there are still a lot of issues to work out.

NPR Blogs, "13.7 cosmos & culture", Is Massively Open Online Education A Threat Or A Blessing?:

Colleges and universities are communities with their own local cultures, values and ways of doing things. In the face of budgetary pressure, how will these communities withstand the temptation to give up the hard work of making knowledge and, instead, just subscribe to courses being produced and packaged elsewhere?

One might object that MOOCs are no different from textbooks. What is a textbook, really, but a programmed course template, a whole course in a box? Have popular textbooks destroyed local learning communities and entrenched established hierarchies? No.

This is an important point and it brings out how complicated the issues are. So often with new technology we simply reenact old battles.

But maybe the comparison with textbooks breaks down. Textbooks are limited in ambition. They don't replace the whole curriculum; they give it a grounding. Good teachers use textbooks.

Will they come to use MOOCs the same way?

Or will administrators appeal to the existence of MOOCs as justification to make some of those good teachers redundant?

The New Yorker, Is College Moving Online?:

In his office that afternoon, overlooking a small quadrangle and the back of the Swedenborg Chapel, King told me that he didn’t think MOOCS were quite ready to replace the classroom. “At the moment, there’s a very big difference between an online experience and an in-person experience,” he said.

Just how much is lost has lately been a subject of debate. At Harvard, as elsewhere, MOOC designers acknowledge that the humanities pose special difficulties. When David J. Malan, who teaches Harvard’s popular and demanding introduction to programming, “Computer Science 50,” turned the course into a MOOC, student assessment wasn’t especially difficult: the assignments are programs, and their success can be graded automatically. Not so in courses like Nagy’s, which traditionally turned on essay-writing and discussion. Nagy and Michael Sandel are deploying online discussion boards to simulate classroom conversation, yet the results aren’t always encouraging. “You have a group who are—they talk about Christ,” Kevin McGrath, one of the coördinators of CB22x, told me soon after the discussions started up. “Or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.”

“Humanities have always been cheap and sciences expensive,” Ian M. Miller, a graduate student who’s in charge of technical production for a history MOOC intended to go live in the fall, explained. “You give humanists a little cubbyhole to put their books in, and that’s basically what they need. Scientists need labs, equipment, and computers. For MOOCS, I don’t want to say it’s the opposite, but science courses are relatively easier to design and implement. From a computational perspective, the types of question we are asking in the humanities are orders of magnitude more complex.” When three great scholars teach a poem in three ways, it isn’t inefficiency. It is the premise on which all humanistic inquiry is based.

The next round-up will focus on some of the commentary I've been seeing on blogs. Stay tuned!

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Another ponderable: Are public elementary schools becoming less secular?

Way back in the last millennium, when I was in a public elementary school in northern New Jersey (approximately 1974-1980), our school had holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances that were mostly secular. Snowmen and sleigh rides and reindeer featured heavily, and for every song or activity that made explicit mention of Christmas, there would be one that made explicit mention of Hanukkah (you know, for balance). It was pretty clear to us students, though, that serious effort was being made to keep holiday-themed stuff at our elementary school as secular as possible ... because that's what was appropriate in a public school (where kids had to be there whether or not they worshipped in a particular way, or at all).

More recently (approximately 2004-present), I have been the parent of students in a public elementary school in northern California where the holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances have been decidedly less secular. There has been an overabundance of straightforward Christmas carols (complete with verses with religious content), weak attempts to recognize the existence of Hanukkah by singing that one dreidel song, and no apparent effort to recognize the existence of (let alone incorporate in activities, performances, or celebrations) the seasonal celebrations of other religious traditions (e.g., Diwali). And, this convergence of "winter holidays" towards Christmas in the public elementary school has been happening despite a significant population of kids in the classroom who are not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim.

All this leaves me wondering: Were serious efforts to keep religion from encroaching on our public school activities an East Coast Thing? Were they a late 20th Century thing? How is it that the adults running things in a significantly less diverse school district some 40 years ago were better at acknowledging that their student population might not all believe the same thing or partake of the same religious or cultural traditions than are the adults running things in our wildly diverse school district here in California?

Honestly, it's all pretty weird, and I'd like to understand the source of this receding commitment to secularism better.

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Start-of-semester mad dash.

Well, summer sure ended quickly (although suddenly the weather is downright summery -- thanks, irony!). Less than 48 hours from the beginning of classes, my to-do list looks something like this:

  • Update syllabus for the "Philosophy of Science" class I've taught for several semesters.
  • Update web pages for that "Philosophy of Science" class.
  • Set up materials in Desire2Learn* shells for the two sections of that "Philosophy of Science" class that I'm teaching this term.
  • Finish writing syllabus for the "Logic and Critical Reasoning" course I'm teaching for the first time this semester.
  • Create web pages for "Logic and Critical Reasoning".
  • Set up materials in Desire2Learn shell for my section of "Logic and Critical Reasoning."
  • Update my homepage (primarily to reflect/link to courses I'm teaching this term and to list my current office hours).
  • Find out what the heck my college's official policy on add codes is this semester, the better to inform the throngs of people turning up wanting to add my courses what (if anything) I can do for them.
  • Verify that textbooks are actually available in the campus book store (and not mislabeled and/or mis-shelved).
  • Verify that necessary classroom equipment is functional in my classrooms.
  • For each of my courses, create 1-page handout giving overview of course requirements and URLs for detailed syllabi, assignments, etc.
  • Make offerings to the deity that controls department photocopier in order that I may successfully photocopy the 1-page handout for each of my courses.
  • Put in request for the courses I'd like to teach spring semester.
  • Try really, really hard to dodge any new committee assignments.
  • Brace self for inevitable unpleasantness of the details about what else needs to be cut this semester in light of the fact that the budget assumed a 10% increase in student fees** and that student fees actually only increased by 5%.***
  • Bring a sweatshirt to office, which seems at present to be a full 30 oF colder than the ambient temperature outside. (Bring thermometer to office, to track meat-locker-like temperatures in which it seems I'm expected to work.)

By the way, these are just the items requiring the most urgent attention -- the full to-do list is much longer.

We'll see what I can get done before the last minute has passed.
_______
*Desire2Learn is a course management system, like Blackboard or WebCT (which Blackboard bought and assimilated). My university adopted it because it seems to do better on accessibility issues (like making content easy to navigate for students with visual impairments with a screen reader).

**In the California State University system, of which my university is a part, "student fees" is the euphemism for tuition. Tuition is spoken of euphemistically because until the early 1990s there wasn't any. Now there is, and it seems to increase substantially every term.

***That 5% increase, however, is enough to make life really hard for a lot of our students.

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Building a critical reasoning course: homework.

I'm still working on planning that "Logic and Critical Reasoning" course I mentioned in an earlier post. As I noted there, the course is meant to give the students exposure to symbolic logic (looking at the forms of the arguments expressed with Ps and Qs, using rules of inference and truth-tables to evaluate the validity of those arguments, etc.), as well as to help them grapple with the arguments people make in natural language. While there's clearly a connection between argumentation in the wild and formal arguments, students frequently need some time to get used to the Ps and Qs and not-Ps and backwards Es and upside down As.

In the normal course of things, getting used to symbolic logic means homework, and homework means grading. But, I'm looking at an enrollment of about 65 in a semester where there's no earthly chance of money for graders. And, as you might recall from the last post on the course, the students are also required to write argumentative essays totaling a minimum of 3000 words. Among other things, this means I already have a substantial grading load for this course before the students do a speck of symbolic logic. However, symbolic logic is one of those things that seems to require practice if it's to stick in your brain.

Luckily, my colleague Anand Vaidya shared a strategy with me that I hope will give the students the practice and feedback they need without drowning me in additional grading. We're going to do "homework" in class.

The idea will be to save time at the end of each class period to work problems. Maybe there will be a set of five for the students to work individually, after which they will tell me how to do them at the board (asking questions as needed). Then there will be another set of five problems for the students to work in small groups, after which the groups will explain how to solve them and more discussion will follow. Maybe we'll conclude by tackling some especially challenging problems together.

None of the problems will be handed in or graded. However, every two weeks we will have a quiz covering material that includes such problems. Presumably, this will give the students a strong incentive to come to class, do the problems, participate in the discussion, and ask questions until they understand. (Anand's experience with has been that the students discover by the second quiz that they cannot blow off the problems worked in class, at least not if they want to do well on the quizzes.) I'll probably make the problems available on the course website for those who might miss the class meeting (or who want to recapture the magic by working the problems again later), and I'll entertain further questions on them during office hours, but it will be the students' responsibility to make sure they know what we go over in class.

I am assuming here that grading quizzes will require less labor than grading homework assignments would (at least for the amount of homework required to master the material in advance of the quizzes). I'm also assuming that actually making up (and photocopying) the quizzes will be less work than grading all that homework would be. (There's probably also a subconscious calculation about the amount of paper I'd be schlepping back and forth, one that favors the quizzes slightly.)

That's my plan for the symbolic logic course content. The argumentative papers obviously won't work this way. More on them in an upcoming post.

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Building a critical reasoning course: getting started with the external constraints.

My Fall semester is rapidly approaching and I am still in the throes of preparing to teach a course I have never taught before. The course is called "Logic and Critical Reasoning." Here's the catalog description of the course:

Basic concepts of logic; goals and standards of both deductive and inductive reasoning; techniques of argument analysis and assessment; evaluation of evidence; language and definition; fallacies.

The course involves some amount of symbolic logic (and truth-tables and that good stuff) but also a lot of attention to argumentation "in the wild", in the written and spoken word. My department usually teaches multiple sections of the course each semester, but it's not the case that we all march in lockstep with identical textbooks, syllabi, and assignments.

The downside of academic freedom, when applied to teaching a course like this, is that you have to figure out your own plan.

Nonetheless, since critical reasoning is the kind of thing I think we need more of in the world, I'm excited about having the opportunity to teach the course. And, at Tom Levenson's suggestion, I'm going to blog the process of planning the course. Perhaps you all will have some suggestions for me as I work through it.

Part of why my department offers multiple sections of "Logic and Critical Reasoning" is that it fulfills a lower-division general education (G.E.) requirement. In other words, there's substantial student demand for courses that fulfill this requirement.

For this course to fulfill the G.E. requirement, of course, it has to meet certain pedagogical goals or "learning objectives". So, where I need to start in planning this course is with the written-and-approved-by-committee learning objectives and content requirements:

Course Goals and Student Learning Objectives
“Logic and Critical Reasoning” is designed to meet the G.E. learning objectives for Area A3.

A.
Critical thinking courses help students learn to recognize, analyze, evaluate, and engage in effective reasoning.

B.
Students will demonstrate, orally and in writing, proficiency in the course goals. Development of the following competencies will result in dispositions or habits of intellectual autonomy, appreciation of different worldviews, courage and perseverance in inquiry, and commitment to employ analytical reasoning. Students should be able to:

  1. distinguish between reasoning (e.g., explanation, argument) and other types of discourse (e.g., description, assertion);
  2. identify, analyze, and evaluate different types of reasoning;
  3. find and state crucial unstated assumptions in reasoning;
  4. evaluate factual claims or statements used in reasoning, and evaluate the sources of evidence for such claims;
  5. demonstrate an understanding of what constitutes plagiarism;
  6. evaluate information and its sources critically and incorporate selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system;
  7. locate, retrieve, organize, analyze, synthesize, and communicate information of relevance to the subject matter of the course in an effective and efficient manner; and
  8. reflect on past successes, failures, and alternative strategies.

C.

  • Students will analyze, evaluate, and construct their own arguments or position papers about issues of diversity such as gender, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
  • Reasoning about other issues appropriate to the subject matter of the course shall also be presented, analyzed, evaluated, and constructed.
  • All critical thinking classes should teach formal and informal methods for determining the validity of deductive reasoning and the strength of inductive reasoning, including a consideration of common fallacies in inductive and deductive reasoning. ... “Formal methods for determining the validity of deductive arguments” refers to techniques that focus on patterns of reasoning rather than content. While all deductive arguments claim to be valid, not all of them are valid. Students should know what formal methods are available for determining which are which. Such methods include, but are not limited to, the use of Venn’s diagrams for determining validity of categorical reasoning, the methods of truth tables, truth trees, and formal deduction for reasoning which depends on truth functional structure, and analogous methods for evaluating reasoning which may be valid due to quantificational form. These methods are explained in standard logic texts. We would also like to make clear that the request for evidence that formal methods are being taught is not a request that any particular technique be taught, but that some method of assessing formal validity be included in course content.
  • Courses shall require the use of qualitative reasoning skills in oral and written assignments. Substantial writing assignments are to be integrated with critical thinking instruction. Writing will lead to the production of argumentative essays, with a minimum of 3000 words required. Students shall receive frequent evaluations from the instructor. Evaluative comments must be substantive, addressing the quality and form of writing.

This way of describing the course, I reckon, is not the best way to convince my students that it's a course they're going to want to be taking. My big task, therefore, is to plan course material and assignments that accomplish these goals while also striking the students as interesting, relevant, and plausibly do-able. In addition, I want to plan assignments that give the students enough practice and feedback but that don't overwhelm me with grading. (The budget is still in very bad shape, so I have no expectation that there will be money to hire a grader.)

I have some ideas percolating here, which I will blog about soon. One of them is to use the blogosphere as a source of arguments (and things-that-look-like-arguments-but-aren't) for analysis. I'm thinking, though, that I'll need to set some good ground rules in advance.

Do these learning objectives and content requirements seem to you to call out for particular types of homework assignments or mini-lecture? If you had to skin this particular pedagogical cat, where would you start?

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Premeds, chemistry professors, pedagogy, and economics.

In comments on my earlier post in which I mused on the wisdom of having chemistry and physics courses serve to weed out an excess of premed students, Peter R. wrote:

1) There would be far fewer chemistry professors (albeit happier) if pre-med students did not take chemistry. Chemistry majors are always, and have always been, the minority of students in general and organic chemistry.

2) The idea that chemistry is a “weed-out” course is misleading, because it is not the chemistry instructor’s job to choose who goes to medical school. Our job is to determine how well our students learn chemistry. It was not the chemistry faculty that made chemistry a requirement, although they certainly benefit from it. The students “weed” themselves out.

These are observations worth discussing, not least because I think discussing them will help us become more aware of some of our assumptions about how colleges and universities ought to work.

Let's start with the second observation first -- that chemistry professors are really only charged with evaluating student performance in the context of the course requirements for the particular chemistry course they're teaching.

I agree that this is what the job description is. You teach the class, you assess the students (with problem sets, exams, lab reports, and the like), and you assign the appropriate grade. As I've discussed before, there are differing philosophies on what it means to assign the appropriate grade -- whether the grade is supposed to reflect something like the student's distance from the Platonic form of "getting" the material, or whether instead it should reflect how many standard deviations the student has scored from the mean for the class, whether that mean is relatively high or relatively low on an absolute scale. But your garden variety chemistry professor shouldn't also be tasked with determining which students are likely to succeed in medical school or to make good physicians* because your garden variety chemistry professor have very little basis for making that determination, having never been a physician or even a medical student.

However, there are a couple of things that complicate this picture.

One is that I cannot help but feel that some chemistry professors end up adopting the grading-on-a-strict-bell-curve model because of the relatively large number of premeds compared to chemistry majors enrolled in the classes they teach. The assumption is that the chemistry majors will make up most of the As and Bs on that curve, while the teeming masses of premeds will make up most of the Cs, Ds, and Fs. (Premeds who end up making As are sometimes actively recruited to consider majoring in chemistry and perhaps even pursuing graduate studies in chemistry rather than medicine>0

This in itself wouldn't necessarily be worrisome -- maybe it would just be a reasonable prediction about the range of competency and motivation in the student population. But sometimes the prediction that premeds won't learn organic chemistry (for example) as well as the chemistry majors seems to manifest itself in a pedagogy that puts less onus on the professor to teach the material and more onus on the students to learn it their own selves.

At which point, the professor in question is pretty much only determining how well the student learn chemistry, but not doing the teaching that you might have assumed was part of the job.

On the other hand, however, I think it's an open question how medical schools would respond if chemistry professors suddenly got very serious about teaching all of their students -- premeds included -- in such a way that the vast majority of them learned the course material, and learned it very well. The anecdotal reports I heard (while I was teaching in an MCAT preparation course to help pay the bills between graduate) suggested that a school where more premed students were getting As and Bs in chemistry was judged "easier" by medical school admission committees, while one where fewer premed students got As and Bs in chemistry was judged "more challenging". If that's true, that would seem to penalize students with professors who take pedagogy more seriously than the bell curve.

And that makes it seem an awful lot like medical school admission really are pushing the weeding out onto chemistry professors.

Myself, I think that the ability to master the basics of general chemistry, or organic chemistry, or physical chemistry, is not the sort of thing that is (or ought to be) perfectly congruent with one's major.** If taught well, the underlying principles of chemistry ought to be intelligible to almost any intelligent person (or at least, to more than not). Assuming up front that a whole class of students one is teaching are constitutionally unable to learn the material is giving up at the very start. And regardless of the instrumental use that medical schools might get out of this stance, I think it rather undermines one's teaching duty to one's home department.

Now, onto the first observation, that there would be fewer chemistry professors if chemistry classes (whether "weeders" or not) were not required for admission to medical school.***

The situation is such that chemistry departments often exist to offer "service courses" to support pre-professional programs. In many universities (including my own), philosophy departments also justify their existence by their service courses (in our case, the large number of courses we offer that fulfill various general education requirements). It's nice to be able to point to a curriculum that needs to be taught, not just by the lights of your own discipline (which, obviously, thinks that core material within that discipline is terribly important), but also by the lights of other disciplines -- especially if those disciplines have multitudes of customers students. This kind of demand means that, when you get the staffing to teach the coursework that is being demanded, you also get colleagues who are doing interesting research, who can add breadth to the courses you offer to your majors, and with whom it is productive (and fun) for you to interact.

But, especially in science departments, and especially at research-focused universities, this increased population of professors also leads to an increased demand for research funding, equipment, and lab space, and an increased demand for graduate students and technicians to keep the professors' research projects moving forward. (Those graduate students are also in demand to do the grading in all those well-populated premed courses.)

Down the road, of course, this will mean more people with Ph.D.s competing for those professorial posts**** (which only exist in the numbers they do on account of the demand generated premeds required to take the courses those departments' professors teach) competing for the posts there are.

This is not a huge incentive for chemistry professors (or chemistry graduate students) to question the common wisdom that general chemistry and organic chemistry (and maybe even biochemistry and physical chemistry) are absolutely essential preparation for medical school.

Perversely, the supply and demand equation also seems to act against reexamining the quality of the teaching in those required premed chemistry courses. After all, if you turn out premeds who are too smart, what are the chances that the senior faculty will die off at a reasonable rate and open up some jobs for the Ph.D. chemists they've trained?

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*Despite this, I will confess that the slogan "Save a life: fail a premed!" gained a certain traction with the chemistry TAs in my graduate program.

**If I didn't already think that majors and the subjects that one is good at were separable, my friend the fine arts major who took math courses for fun would have pushed me in that direction.

***The claim that these chemistry professors would be happier depends, I think, on the current state of the transaction between premeds and chemistry professors, in which the students only care instrumentally for what the professors are offering and the professors have already decided that most of those premeds won't be able to learn the material, or that they are diluting the contact between chemistry professors and chemistry majors, or what have you. I'm not saying that the claim is false, but like most counterfactual claims, how we evaluate it depends a lot on our hunches about what other moving parts in the situation might have relevant effects.

****And before that, for postdoctoral appointments.

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