Archive for the 'Social issues' category

Inclusion is a challenge all over. The Ada Initiative has resources to support women in *your* community.

Note that we haven't really reached our goal until we've hit 250 donors!
Ada Campaign Progress

Real inclusion of women in a variety of professional and public spheres in a continuing struggle. We hear a lot about this struggle in the tech sector, but it's a problem well beyond tech. The Ada Initiative has awesome resources to support women and their meaningful inclusion. You might assume that these resources are just for women in tech, but you'd be wrong. I want people in my communities -- the scientists and science communicators, the philosophers, the academics, the freelancers, the parents -- to discover, use, and support the Ada Initiative's resources.

Let me tell you why, and then I'll tell you how.

I have spent most of my life dealing with the default assumption that stuff I'm interested in -- stuff I'm passionate about -- is not for me, because I'm female. I've dealt with this in math and science, in philosophy, and online. I have dealt with harassment (in academia, online, in the wider world) that my male colleagues don't face and often don't even see when it's happening right in front of them. I have grappled with my impostor syndrome in a cultural climate where others are already doubting my competence simply because I'm female.

This state of affairs is not OK with me.This is not a situation my daughters should have to deal with.

The Ada Initiative has resources we can use to make things better.

For example:

  • The Ada Initiative has been tireless in advocating for the adoption and enforcement of conference anti-harassment policies. They offer sample language that organizations can adapt as needed, plus guidance on implementation so a well-intentioned policy doesn't become mere words on a page.
  • The Ada Initiative offers Ally Skills Workshops to teach men simple ways to make their workplaces and communities more inclusive of women.
  • The Ada Initiative offers resources and training to address impostor syndrome, that pervasive feeling so many women have, nurtured by our dominant culture, that they don't have the expertise, intelligence, or skills to do the work they are doing.

These are awesome resources for the tech and open source communities, but they're awesome resources for the rest of us, too! If you are a scientist, a philosopher, an academic, a freelancer, an educator, a parent, anyone who cares about meaningful inclusion in your profession or community, these resources are for you.

These awesome resources didn't just pop into existence, though. They are the result of the work of dedicated people and an organization focused on making meaningful inclusion of women a reality. So I'm asking you to support the Ada Initiative with a donation.

Donate Now

To encourage you to give, and to spread the word, I'm putting up two challenge grants.

Challenge #1: When donations to the "Ada Initiative for All of Us" drive reach $1000, it will unlock $500 of challenge funds. (Watch our progress on this goal!)

UPDATE: CHALLENGE #1 UNLOCKED! We've crossed the $1000 threshold!

Challenge #2: When the number of distinct donors to the "Ada Initiative for All of Us" drive reach 250, it will unlock another $500 of challenge funds.

If you can't donate, you can still help by spreading the word! Tell people in your workplace or community about the resources the Ada Initiative provides and point them to my drive.

If you can donate $128 or more, you can also score a cool sticker, pictured here!

Ada F-word sticker

Deadline to unlock the challenges and lighten my wallet by $1000 is 11 PM (Pacific Time) Friday, September 19, 2014. But, if Challenge #1 and Challenge #2 both fall much before the deadline, we may figure out a third challenge…

Edited to add:

If you are a scientist, a philosopher, an academic, a freelancer, an educator, a parent, you can use the resources that the Ada Initiative provides -- but you may not be as flush with cash as the folks in the tech sector. So, on the donation page for the "Ada Initiative for All of Us" drive, you may be freaking out a little that $128 is the lowest donation level listed.

If $128 is too rich for your budget but you still want to kick some financial support to the Ada Initiative, don't freak out! Click the radio button next to "Other amount" and fill in a donation amount that works for you -- maybe $64, or $28, or $16, or $8, or $4, or $2.

Any amount that's a tile in 2048 will do the job. We'll put them together and make something bigger. (You also can choose a dollar amount that's not a power of two. Who am I to stop you?)

And, of course, if you're tapped out, you're tapped out. Boosting the signal on the drive helps, too!

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Why I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

Because the undergraduate education I received at Wellesley College has been so important in my life, and because I believe all college students deserve the intellectual engagement Wellesley gave me, I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

The education Wellesley College gave me has been central to how I understand what it is to learn and to participate fully in the world. It helped me see knowledge as more than a fixed list of things-to-know but rather as a body that was always in flux, always under construction, always in contact with the wider world. It engaged me seriously, as an individual and as a member of a coordinated learning community with my Wellesley classmates, with professors who were building knowledge, not just describing knowledge others had built.

As a professor at San José State University, a teaching-focused institution in the California State University system, I am teaching a very different student population than Wellesley's. Approximately half of our students are first-generation college students. Many of our full-time students work 40 hours a week or more to pay for college (and, frequently, to support their families). A heartbreakingly large proportion of our students arrive at our university with the expectation that a college degree will be of merely instrumental value (to help them get a job, to secure them a better salary at the job they have), having never encountered a teacher who believed in their ability to learn broadly and deeply -- or who believed that they were entitled to learning for its own sake, for their own enjoyment.

These are students who need an educational experience like the one Wellesley provided for me. My mission as a professor is to give them as much of this experience as I can.

This is not an easy task, when budget crises have meant ballooning class sizes and dwindling resources to support instruction. It is even harder when administrators, looking to cut costs, decide it it appropriate to replace live, engaged, expert instruction in the classroom with packaged massive online courses from private vendors like edX.

Courses like those Wellesley College has created and licensed to edX.

I recognize that the faculty involved in creating these courses probably did so with the best of intentions, hoping to share their enthusiasm and expertise with people in the world with no access to college courses other than the internet.

However, the MOOCs they have created have become tools for other purposes, used to "save money" (by eliminating faculty) and to replace meaningful classroom instruction that is working for our student populations.

This serves not to increase access to higher education but to reduce it, at least for the students served by public university systems like mine. At this point in the grand disruptive online experiment, all indications are that MOOCs "work" for self-directed learners, the "ambitious autodidacts" who seems always to be the prime beneficiaries of educational innovations, but that they don't work well for "students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives" -- that is, for students like mine.

Private entities like edX are distributing MOOCs that are being used to replace classroom instruction that strives to give students just a taste of Wellesley's intellectual engagement with an online experience that Wellesley faculty would (I hope) never dream of substituting for their own classroom engagement with their students.

A hallmark of my education at Wellesley was that the subject matter was never just confined to the classroom. Whatever the subject, we were challenged to think hard about its real impact in the world. I implore Wellesley's faculty and administration to think hard about the real context in which the MOOCs they are creating are deployed, about the effects, intended and unintended, that follow upon their use.

By participating in edX without attaching conditions to their MOOCs that prevent their use to replace classroom education that is working and to undermine meaningful educational access, Wellesley College is hurting my students and my ability as a professor to give them some of what Wellesley gave me.

So long as Wellesley College continues to participate in the weaponization of education through edX, I cannot in good conscience contribute another dollar to Wellesley College.

Janet D. Stemwedel
Class of 1989

25 responses so far

Civility, respect, and the project of sharing a world.

In recent days, this corner of the blogosphere has come back to the question of what constitutes civil engagement online (and, perhaps, offline).

If you've not being keeping up with the events that spurred this iteration of the conversation, you might want to read this, this, this, this, and this as background. However, believe me when I say the discussion in this space -- in this post -- is about the broader issue, and that you are not invited to weigh in here on behalf of your "team" in the recent events.

I'm someone who "does" ethics for a living, and my sense is that at its most basic level, ethics is a matter of sharing a world with other people.

Sometimes that world is one where we're sharing physical space, close enough to look each other in the eye or punch each other on the arm. Other times, the world in question is a virtual space in which we interact primarily by way of words on a screen.

Either way, whether sounds or strings of characters, the words we use are connected to ideas, and the people sending out or taking up those words are humans with their own interests, histories, social environments, grasp of the language, powers of empathy. These humans have privileged access to their own thoughts, intentions, and emotions, but not to those of the others with whom they're sharing a world. The words passed back and forth are part of how a human might get some (necessarily incomplete) information about what's going on in other humans' heads.

Conversation, in other words, is a hugely important tool for us in the project of sharing a world. So, arguably, figuring out what's happening when our conversations derail could help us do a better job of sharing that world. Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

Figuring out why something makes me cranky.

For some time I have been aware of my own discomfort in situations where I'm talking about certain challenges for girls and women in their educational trajectory, or the difficulty of the academic job market, or the challenges of the tenure track.

Sometimes I'll note, in passing, my own good fortune in navigating the difficult terrain. Sometimes I won't. Yet, reliably, someone will chime in with something along the lines of:

"Yeah, it's hard, but the best and the brightest, like you, will survive the rigors."

This kind of comment makes me extremely grumpy.

And I know, usually, it's offered as a compliment. Frequently, I think, it's offered to counteract my residual impostor complex, to remind me that I do work very hard, and that the work I do actually has value by any reasonable metric of assessment -- in other words, that my talents, skills, effort, and determination have made some causal contribution to my successes.

But I know plenty of people with talents, skills, effort, and determination comparable to mine -- maybe even surpassing mine -- who haven't been as lucky. I'm not inclined to think that for every single one of them -- or even for most of them -- that there's a plausible causal story about some additional thing they could have done that would have made the difference.

Assuming there is amounts to assuming that our systems "work" to sort out the meritorious from the rest. That is a pretty serious assumption hanging out there with pretty scanty empirical backing.

And this morning I finally figured out how to articulate why I get cranky about the personal accolades and affirmations offered in response to my discussions of challenging systems and environments: they shift the discussion back to the level of individuals and individual actions, and away from the level of systems.

I guess if you think the systems are just fine, there's not much point in examining them or thinking about ways they could be different.

But the evidence suggests to me that many of our systems are not just fine. When that's what I'm trying to talk about, please don't change the subject.

9 responses so far

An open letter to men scared that women will call out their behavior publicly.

Hey guys,

It's come to my attention that some of you are feeling kind of uncomfortable at the possibility that women in your life -- in your community, in your trusted circle of friends -- might call you out in the event that you engage in behavior that hurts them or someone they care about. Some of you have been telling me that you're especially worried that you'll be called out in front of other people, labeled persuasively as a bad guy, and that this will destroy your good name, your career prospects, your happiness.

I don't doubt that you are anxious here. So, I have a few questions about how you'd like us to proceed.

First, can you provide assurances that, when women bring criticisms of your behavior to you privately, you will take those critiques seriously and change your behavior accordingly?

If so -- and if you make this commitment public, so the women in your world know about it -- you should be fine! You'll address the harm you are doing right away, and everyone will move on.

In the (I'm sure rare or non-existent) event that you don't respond to privately raised critique of your harmful behavior in a way that addresses the harm, can you provide assurances that you will respond promptly and constructively to a gently worded public critique?

If so, you should be fine! You'll address the harm you are doing promptly, and everyone will move on.

In the (purely hypothetical) event that you don't respond to a gently worded public critique of your harmful behavior in a way that addresses the harm, how many free passes on your harmful behavior do you believe you are entitled to?

Give us the number -- is it two? five? ten? -- so we know the point at which you recognize that you deserve a critique that is not private and not gently worded.

Yes, having your behavior criticized makes you feel defensive. We know this. As fellow human beings, we have those feelings, too.

But if you are defaulting to the position that it's never OK for the women in your life to tell you when your behavior is harming them, never OK for them to expect you to address those harms, you know what? The women in your life will be defending themselves against you.

They will not trust you. They will not see your good-guy status shining through your actual behavior. When you proclaim yourself an ally, your best-case reaction will be eye-rolls.

It does not feel good to be told your behavior is hurting others. But it does not feel good for others to be hurt by your behavior.

Prioritizing your own hurt feelings over growth is a sure way never to be trusted as an ally by anyone paying attention.

And we are paying attention. For our own well being, we have to.


Dr. Free-Ride


Related reading:

On being an ally and being called out on your privilege

On the Fixed State Ally Model vs. Process Model Ally Work

On allies.

On the labor involved in being part of a community.

11 responses so far

Why reporting abusive tweets to the twit's mother might not work.

Folks have been tweeting about a particular exchange on Twitter in which:

  • One person tweeted something abusive at another Twitter user
  • A third Twitter user offered to provide the target of the abuse with the mailing address of the first person's mother, the better to print out and mail her the abusive tweet her darling son had sent
  • The first person tweeted what he said was a sincere apology for the abuse in his earlier tweet

The conclusion some have drawn from this one exchange is that Twitter needs a "report this tweet to the tweeter's mom" button, which will seriously cut down on Twitter abuse.

Now, I chuckled at the abusive twit's speedy about-face, but it only takes a few moments' reflection to recognize that this strategy for reducing online abuse has problems. Here are just a few from the very top of my head:

  1. It's not a sure thing that Mom will have any problem with the offspring flinging abuse at others. (Maybe Mom flings online abuse herself! Maybe that's where Mom's offspring learned how to fling abuse!)
  2. It's not a sure thing that the offspring flinging abuse actually cares whether Mom knows about it. There seem to be significant stretches of the lifespan during which Mom's approval isn't a goal worth putting any kind of effort toward.
  3. Even if the offspring flinging abuse does care if Mom knows about it and disapproves, tasking Mom with communicating her approval -- especially to offspring no longer living under Mom's roof -- is just giving her more work. When will Mom's thankless work be over?
  4. For some Twitter users one might try to shame, there's a decent chance of misidentifying the corresponding Mom. Now you're giving that misidentified Mom thankless work generated by some other Mom's offspring, which is not cool at all.
  5. Maybe Mom has shuffled off this mortal coil. How are you going to shame her surviving offspring into behaving online now?
  6. Maybe the offspring flinging abuse is not using a real name online.
  7. Maybe the mother of the offspring flinging abuse is not using a real name online. Are you going to compromise her anonymity (for which she may have very good reasons), including providing her actual mailing address to a stranger, simply to deal with her offspring's online behavior? That's not cool.
  8. Where the hell is Dad is all of this? Why is Mom presumed to be the only parent capable of exerting a civilizing force on offspring?

So, nice try, but we're going to have to think harder about how to share online spaces and how best to prevail on people not to be abusive jerks to each other. This is just a subset of the project of being a grown-up who is also a decent human being, and Mom would really like you to figure out how to do this without her constant intervention.

(Plus, would it kill you to sit up straighter while you're online?)

2 responses so far

Musing about boycotts (or, the challenges of effectively living your values without being overwhelmed).

This summer it seems like boycotts are on a lot of people's minds.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder announced that he won't perform in Florida until its Stand Your Ground laws are repealed.

Author John Scalzi announced that he will no longer be a participant, panelist, or guest of honor at any convention without a harassment policy. But he also announced that he's disinclined to join in a boycott of the Ender's Game movie, despite the fact that he thinks the views of Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card (who is also a producer of the movie) on same-sex marriage and on LGBT folks more generally are "completely, totally and egregiously wrong."

There is, in the field of philosophy, an ongoing Gendered Conference Campaign asking people to decline to participate in conferences all of whose announced speakers are male.

Individual academics have also engaged in boycotts of specific journals and publishers on account of their objections to their editorial practices or to the other kinds of business in which they engage. University libraries have also announced plans to boycott publishers whose institutional licensing agreements they felt approached extortion.

There's a lot of back and forth in almost all these instances (and in the many others not mentioned here) about whether boycotts are an effective way to communicate your objection to the target of the boycott, whether they hurt others who really aren't responsible for the thing you object to, even whether organizing or engaging in a boycott is a display of intolerance.

It's a complicated tangle of things to worry about, at least if you're a person who wants to live something approaching an ethically consistent life.

If you value X, you don't want to give material support to a person or organization actively working against X. If you view Y as a great harm, you don't want to have your consumer choices reinforce a system that perpetrates or enables Y. But chains of cause and effect can be complicated, and sometimes what people or organizations are working for or against can be obscure.

Sometimes boycotts have been effective, either leading organizations to change their practices of their own volition or bringing political pressure upon them to do so. In other cases, boycotts seem to have little effect beyond giving their participants something about which to feel themselves superior.

My own personal consumer choices are pretty motley.

There are pizza franchises that will never get my business (even if they were, some day, to make a palatable product) on account of the political donations of their founder. There are big-box stores whose threshold I will not cross (and have not since … the 1980s, I think?) owing to their abusive labor practices. In my immediate neighborhood, there are two gas stations I feel passable comfortable using; the others are off the table owing to the corporate owners' involvement with environmental disasters, human rights violations, and lobbying against reasonable clean air standards in my state.

But I still use computer hardware from a company that I feel has a pretty lousy concept of corporate social responsibility, one that has gone to great lengths to avoid paying its fair share of taxes in states like California. I still buy chocolate, despite the environmental harms and labor atrocities involved in its production. (The fact that I don't buy Hershey's chocolate probably does't get me off the hook.) And there are plenty of goods I buy from any number of corporations where I have no clear idea what the production of those goods entailed, nor what sorts of actions those corporations are engaged in or are supporting with the proceeds of their business. I'm making choices in a condition of radically incomplete information, and even what I do know indicates that some of my choices are quite a bit less than optimal.

It's not obvious to me that my individual consumer choices make a whit of difference to large multinational corporations. They probably are more hassle for me than for the businesses I'm patronizing (although honestly, in a world where there are fewer places I'm comfortable buying gas, my response is to drive less whenever possible -- and that's probably a good effect).

I don't believe we're going to save the world with our consumer choices. I'm not entirely comfortable equating money with speech.

Then again, until I've entered into an agreement to secure a good or service, I don't believe anyone has a right to my money.* Thus, ethical issues seem like as good a reason as any to opt out of buying a particular product or patronizing a particular business.

If you're going to tell me it's wrong to opt out of buying tickets to see "Ender's Game," you're going to need to give me a positive argument.

Beyond that, despite how thoroughly we are cast as creatures of consumption (usually by someone who wants to sell us something), I suspect that the real action in the marketplace of ideas takes place at some remove from the exchange of currency for goods and services. Some of it is happening where people are interacting and actually exchanging ideas and opinions.

And here, the choices get a lot trickier for me than they do when I'm deciding where to get my groceries or gas.

For example, there are people with whom I interact because our kids are involved in some of the same activities. I am aware that some of these people belong to organizations whose aims I think are not good -- to organizations that see some people as less than fully human, and that put lots of money into political campaigns to restrict their rights.

If these people were businesses, I'd drive right by them. But they are parents of my kids' peers -- of their friends.

Usually we don't talk directly at all about the political divides. It's possible (although I haven't taken steps to find out) that they are opposing some of these organizations from the inside; I'm related to some people who do that, and I think they're fighting the good fight.

I'm not engaging in a fight. How I'm playing it right now is that I'm trying to be someone who interacts with these folks, someone who interacts with these kids, someone who they know to be caring, trying to be a help …

… so that by the time they connect the dots and notice that I fit in one of the groups targeted by their organization (or that people I care about with the same regard I show to them are so targeted by their organizations), they're going to have to reevaluate whether they stand behind what their organizations are doing.

This all depends on the assumption that growing to care about actual people in their lives can make a difference to the organizations and activities they support. It turns on the assumption that getting to know the "other" makes it harder to treat the issues as abstractions. It recognizes that people are complicated -- that almost all of us have contradictory views and commitments in our heads, and that most of us haven't put lots of effort into noticing this or trying to sort out which views or commitments we really endorse.

And it is helped by the fact that, so far, these folks I know haven't displayed values or views so repellent that I give up engagement with them as a lost cause. That could still happen. I'm hopeful that it won't, but I'm watchful.

But honestly, the complications of personal entanglements in a marketplace of ideas make decisions about how ethically to spend one's money look a lot more straightforward. That seems like a weird outcome.

*Except the state (at the relevant level), since I partake of the goods the state offers, and thus have an obligation to pay my share to support those goods.

6 responses so far

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.

2 responses so far

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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