Archive for the 'Teaching and learning' category

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

A thought for those who are mindful about their legacy in their discipline.

It is possible that, once you shuffle off this mortal coil, people will remember you for your scholarly contributions to your field.

However, it is also possible that they will remember you for your consistently inappropriate behavior, your thoroughgoing lack of respect for the boundaries of the students you were supposed to be nurturing rather than exploiting.

It is possible that, in the fullness of time, the people in your discipline who were given the academic equivalent of the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for your behavior will come to the conclusion that there was no good excuse for your behavior, that, rather than speaking no ill of the dead, they will describe your conduct for what it was.

As well, they may start to recognize the complicity of the other "grown-ups" in their field who offered the "Grandpa is just that way" excuse for what it was.

If some of those enablers, still living, are mindful about their legacy within their discipline, they might want to reflect on that and make some amends before they, too, go to the great beyond.

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How we construct 'failure' and professional communities.

Bethany Brookshire (perhaps better known in the blogosphere as SciCurious) has posted moving personal musings on her experience "failing" as an academic scientist and of being failed by the system that trained her to be one. She notes that grant-writing was the canary in the career coal mine for her. While she loved doing research, and still loves writing (which has become her professional focus in the aftermath of her tenure track faculty aspirations), she found she couldn't generate new, important, and fundable ideas to drive a research agenda. Indeed, Brookshire's experience of scientific training was that mentors weren't teaching her how to generate such ideas, nor even giving her many opportunities to try doing so. It wasn't until her postdoctoral research that she discovered that what felt like an essential ingredient for success as an academic scientist was not a tool in her toolbox.

And yet, her scientific training seemed to have a singular focus on pointing trainees toward a career as an academic scientist, preferably at a research-focused university. She writes:

I drank the academic koolaid HARD, and believed that "success" looked like a tenure track position. It doesn't help that other people drank the koolaid, too. I have been called a failure, a quitter. I've been told that it's my fault that I didn't stay to be a role model to women in science. Every time I interact with people from my "former life", I feel like I failed them, failed my training, failed myself. I feel like I should have worked harder, worked more, maybe not had a blog (something that has been mentioned to me many, many times) or studied harder or been more careful, somewhere.

I know now that 80% of PhDs won't get a TT position. I think I always knew, deep down, that I wasn't in the top 20%. And I like what I do now! I'm good at it! It's fun! It's interesting! I like the people I work with and the things we talk about and the atmosphere. I feel like I am learning and growing every day. I think I can be successful in this. I think I can still make a difference in the world, maybe a really, really powerful one. Possibly a bigger difference than I ever could have made in science. But it's not academia, and sometimes, it still feels like failure.

Maybe academia failed me in more than one way. Maybe it would have been better had I NOT had that koolaid to drink. If it had been openly acknowledged and "ok" for people to go after non-TT positions (everyone SAYS it's ok, of course, if asked, they will always SAY it's ok and encouraged. But what they say, and what they do, are very different things).

As someone who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then promptly leaked out of the science pipeline myself, I can identify with the feelings Brookshire describes. I recognize the anxiety involved in plotting a career trajectory and then trying to discover or decide whether you're suited for the form of life of that career. I also remember seeking, but not always finding, the information I would need to make this discovery or decision. Getting that information earlier, rather than later, could make a difference, informing how you invest your time and effort -- and whether you cling to your original plans or explore other possible trajectories instead.

I'm using both "discover" and "decide" above because I recognize there are differences of opinion here, and though I have my own hunches, the jury's still out. "Discovery" suggests to me that there are objective facts about the skills and inclinations required to succeed as an academic scientist, as well as hard limits to what someone lacking them could do to get them. "Decision," on the other hand, frames things in terms of the ends one sets for oneself (given one's skills and inclinations, but a whole mess of other factors besides).

The setting of ends as a feat of human agency matters here, since "failure" is always relative to some particular goal. The hard question that those training new scientists (or new members of other disciplines more broadly) really should grapple with is who is setting the goal? Who is judging particular trajectories worth pursuing or not?

For those being trained in a discipline at the Ph.D. level, it is very hard not to internalize the voice of the advisor with respect to what "success" looks like. It is also very common for the definition of "success" against which you are judged -- against which you come to judge yourself -- to be very narrow indeed.

This is a problem for the people being trained who discover (sometimes quite late in the process) that the odds of "success" after all of their hard work are much lower than they imagined. It creates conditions where social ties forged in the crucible of one's training become fragile because of the Malthusian competition in conditions of increasing scarcity.

Academic science red in tooth and claw may not have much of an actual body count, but not succeeding in the one approved trajectory (and further, believing that success in that trajectory is a matter of pure merit rather than of non-deterministic factors) can render you someone discounted, dead to your chosen profession, forgotten by those you trained with and those who trained you.

This is a problem for people being trained in these disciplines, but it isn't just a problem for them. It's also a problem for their disciplines.

I imagine at this point someone might pipe up and assert that the point of Ph.D. training is precisely to produce additional academic researchers in the field -- in other words, that it is nothing more and nothing less than career training for the One True Path.

If that were so, of course, it might surely be humane to train fewer people, or ethical to admit that the cynics are right that Ph.D. programs in the sciences exist largely to recruit throngs of relatively cheap laborers to do research for the scientists advising them. As well, if the whole point of the Ph.D. program were to provide job training for the One True Path, then the training offered is often pretty deficient, missing vital components like serious attention to grant writing, working with the IACUC or the IRB, teaching, mentoring, or being an effective member of a collaborative team or a committee.

Maybe we should recognize that another reason for engaging in Ph.D.-level training is to learn how new knowledge is built in a discipline by actually participating in building some.

Further, we could acknowledge that, while the skills developed in learning how to build new knowledge in your field are essential in pursuing the One True Path (in which you would devote your career to building new knowledge in your field), these skills also have the potential to be applicable in a wide range of other situations and careers. We could notice that people might have an interest in seeing the knowledge-building from the inside without wanting to make a lifetime commitment to building more knowledge.

Recognizing broader value and utility of the lessons learned from being immersed in knowledge-building is the kind of thing that could change both the experience of being a Ph.D. trainee and of being part of a professional community.

If there is One True Path that defines success, that makes it harder to explore other trajectories or to seek the training, experiences, or information one might want to evaluate them. Doing so is viewed as defeatist thinking or a distraction from preparation for the One True Path (not to mention from generating results from your advisor's research projects).

If there is One True Path, advisors and graduate programs can convince themselves that they have no individual or collective responsibility for providing any of the training, experiences, or information relevant to other career trajectories. Why would you need any of that in a program focused on preparing you for the One True Path? Indeed, the people training you, those who have succeeded on the One True Path, may say, "What know I of other paths? Information about requirements of those paths I have not. Train you for them I cannot." (Like Yoda, advisors sometimes speak with syntax that is challenging for trainees to follow.)

If we embrace the One True Path as defining both what counts as professional success for trainees and who even counts as properly in our professional community, we doom large proportions of those trained to failure and professional death. In so doing, those charged with the task of training new members of the profession squander the potentially rich network they might be building of people trained in their discipline who have succeeded in other paths -- people who could, among other things, share training, experiences, or information with those in the process of learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline, with those still in the process of deciding their own trajectories.

Recognizing that some of the people engaged in learning how to build new knowledge in the discipline may end up choosing other trajectories for themselves doesn't lessen the value of your discipline. Recognizing that the skills developed during Ph.D. trainings have broader applicability doesn't lessen the value of Ph.D. training. Indeed, noticing the utility of those skills in a wide array of situations would argue for greater value. Sending the tentacles of your disciplinary community further into the world would speak to the relevance of your discipline.

Cedar Riener explains this quite nicely:

The gatekeeping scientists that have told Sci she is a failure, or not a real scientist, think the currency of science should be creating new knowledge (and new, expensive, fundable knowledge, at that). What they don’t realize is that by denying the multiplicity of ways of being a scientist, in seeking to carefully guard the prestige they have so carefully amassed, they are diminishing their own status. In chipping away at their own exclusive island, they are ignoring the public sea levels of discontent with science that continue to rise. The biologist might snicker, as political science gets its entire NSF funding cut, thinking “Well, it wasn’t a real science after all.” But the biologist ignores that just because he is standing on higher ground, doesn’t mean that the logic of people like Tom Coburn will spare basic biological science. Too many legislators are happy to call biology science, but really what they want is immediately applicable medical research. Which results in idiotic statements like Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research and real harm to basic science funding.

So here’s my challenge to Sci (and hearty defense of my own work): You ARE a scientist. Stand on that island and say “I am Science, hear me roar!” and do the things you love to do, promote science, explain science, call out shady science, etc. This too is science. If it is not we are all lost. Science will not regain public trust through careful exclusivity and identity policing.

Defining success for those training in a discipline in terms of One True Path -- even if we only do it implicitly (say, by describing everything else as an "alternate" career path and professing our helplessness to prepare trainees for those) -- means setting up most trainees for failure. It means recognizing a much smaller and less diverse professional community, one that is less well-positioned and less able to interact with the larger society than it might be if success were defined more broadly.

It means disrespecting trainees' abilities to set their own ends. It means undervaluing their happiness.

Why on earth would anyone want to join a professional community that did that?

(Crossposted at Academe Blog)

2 responses so far

DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students 2013: let's dedicate December to helping public school classrooms.

Since 2006, science bloggers have been working with DonorsChoose.org and our readers to help public school students and teachers get the resources they need to make learning come alive.

Chances are you care about science, or education, or both. Probably you're the kind of person who thinks that solid -- and engaging -- math and science education is an important resource for kids to have as they hurtle into the future and face the challenges of our modern world.

It's a resource that's getting squeezed by tight public school budgets. But as 2013 draws to a close, I invite you to do something small that can have an immediate impact.

DonorsChoose is a site where public school teachers from around the U.S. submit requests for specific needs in their classrooms — from books to science kits, overhead projectors to notebook paper, computer software to field trips — that they can’t meet with the funds they get from their schools (or from donations from their students’ families). Then donors choose which projects they’d like to fund and then kick in the money, whether it’s a little or a lot, to help a proposal become a reality.

Over the last several years, bloggers have rallied their readers to contribute what they can to help fund classroom proposals through DonorsChoose, especially proposals for projects around math and science, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding hundreds of classroom projects, and impacting thousands of students.

Which is great. But there are a whole lot of classrooms out there that still need help.

To create the scientifically literate world we want to live in, let’s help give these kids -- our future scientists, doctors, teachers, decision-makers, care-providers, and neighbors -- the education they deserve.

One classroom project at a time, we can make things better for these kids. Joining forces with each other people, even small contributions can make a big difference.

How to join in the fun with a challenge of your own:

1. Go to donorschoose.org

Scroll to the bottom of the page. In the second column of links from the left, right under Campaigns, click Create a registry.

2. You'll find yourself on a page that gives you several options for what kind of Giving Page you'd like to create. Click the one that says "Science Bloggers for Students".

3. Name your challenge, add a personal message if you like, and choose a "Giving Group" from the pull-down menu. Specify the kind of classroom projects you'd like to appear on your Giving Page. (If you'd rather hand-pick projects for your Giving Page, you can do that after you've saved your Giving Page customizations -- instructions are under #3 on the "Customize Your Giving Page" page.)

4. Share your Giving Page -- on your blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, wherever! Let people know about the projects you'd like to help fund, and put your dollars (and networks of information sharing) together to make it happen. Let me know you've mounted a challenge -- and give me the link to your Giving Page -- and I will publicize it here, and on Twitter, and on Facebook!

How to help as a donor:



Follow the links to your chosen blogger’s challenge on the DonorsChoose website.

Pick a project from the slate the blogger has selected. Or more than one project, if you just can’t choose. (Or, if you really can’t choose, just go with the “Give to the most urgent project” option at the top of the page.)

Donate.

Even if you can’t make a donation, you can still help! 

Spread the word about these challenges using web 2.0 social media modalities. Link your favorite blogger’s challenge page on your MySpace page, or put up a link on Facebook, or FriendFeed, or LiveJournal (or Friendster, or Xanga, or …). Tweet about it on Twitter (with the #scibloggers4students hashtag). Share it on Google +. Sharing your enthusiasm for this cause may inspire some of your contacts who do have a little money to get involved and give.

Here’s the permalink to my giving page.

Thanks in advance for your generosity.

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Baffling things I have read in blog comments discussing Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami

Baffling things I have read in blog comments discussing Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami

Sure, people are always warned not to read the comments. But in the philosophy blogosphere you might expect more thinking-through of positions, more recognition that what is metaphysically possible is not always plausible, and so forth. Plus empathy and stuff. And yet ...

  1. The baffling things presented here are mostly paraphrases (on account of Twitter's 140-character limit).  The commenters whose comments I'm paraphrasing would undoubtedly say I'm being uncharitable in my paraphrasing. I leave it to the reader to peruse the comments at NewAPPS, Crooker Timber, The Philosophy Smoker, and other fine blogs dealing with philosophy and/or academia that have commented on the McGinn resignation to see how many of these sentiments turn up.
  2. Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

Some modest proposals in the wake of Colin McGinn's exit from University of Miami.

More than you could possibly want to read about this case has been posted by the folks you should already be reading to stay up on happenings in the world of academic philosophy: Leiter (here and here), New APPS (here, here, here, and here), Feminist Philosophers (here), The Philosophy Smoker (here).

At issue is whether it is (always) wrong for a professor to send email to his graduate student research associate mentioning that he was thinking about her while masturbating.

I take it as a mark of how deeply messed up the moral compass of professional philosophy is that there are commenters at some of the blogs linked above who seem willing to go to the mat to argue that there may be conditions in which it is acceptable to email your RA you that were thinking about her during your hand-job. Because personal interactions are hard, y'all! And power-gradients in graduate programs that are at once educational environments and workplaces are really very insignificant compared to what the flesh wants! Or something.

Since, apparently, treating graduate students as colleagues in training rather than wank-fodder is very complicated and confusing for people who are purportedly very smart indeed, I'd like to propose ways to make life easier:

1. Let's make it an official rule that professors should NEVER email students, staff, colleagues, supervisors, program officers, et al. ANYTHING mentioning their masturbatory activities or the thoughts that pass through their heads during such activities. I would have thought this is just common sense, but apparently it isn't, so make it a bright line. If you're not able to follow the explicit rule, you probably don't have the chops to handle the more subtly challenging duties of the professoriate.

Anyone who wants to hear about what you're thinking while you're masturbating is either treating you within a therapeutic relationship or someone with whom you're in a position to share a pillow. Just take as given that no one else wants to know.

2. Don't try to date your (department's) students. I don't care if your institution doesn't explicitly forbid it (and honestly, I expect philosophy professors to recognize the difference between "it's not against the rules" and "it's ethical and prudent"). JUST DON'T. It's a risky call, especially for the student. (I have read letters of recommendation for applicants to academic jobs written by the thesis-supervisor-who-dated-the-applicant-until-they-broke-up. In a crowded job market, it's not a good look.)

What about love? If it's real, it will keep until the student is no longer a student. What, you say it's the student pestering you for a relationship? Say no! You can say no to other unreasonable requests from students, can't you? If not, again, maybe the professoriate is not for you.

Really, this should be enough.

And, for the record, having been on the receiving end of unwelcome behavior in philosophy (among other professional communities), I do not for a minute believe that such incidents are a matter of social ineptness or inability to read cues. Rather, a more plausible hypothesis (and one that usually has a great deal of contextual evidence supporting it in particular cases) is that the people dishing out such behavior simply don't care how it makes the targets of the behavior feel -- or worse, that they're intentionally trying to make their targets feel uncomfortable and powerless.

Spending too much time trying to find the possible world in which jerk behavior is OK simply gives the jerks in this world cover to keep operating. We should cut that out.

21 responses so far

An invitation to Katelyn Campbell and other GWHS highest honors graduates.

Dear Katelyn,

I was impressed to read about your willingness to take a stand against your high school's factually inaccurate pro-abstinence assembly, especially given your high school principal's (predictable) threat to retaliate.

I was similarly impressed (though not surprised) by the response of my alma mater, Wellesley College, to your principled stand.

I am disappointed to learn that, despite earlier promises, your high school seems to be using the cover of "streamlining graduation exercises" to deny you and other highest honors graduates at George Washington High School the chance you were promised months ago to speak briefly about topics of your choice at your commencement.

One would hope that educators who value the education they are helping to deliver in a robust way would also value the perspectives of the students who are supposed to be at the center of the teaching and learning that is happening at the school. You are not mere products coming off an assembly line. You are members of our community whose thoughts and ideas, whose hopes and anxieties, should matter to us as we try to educate you, and to help you move into the world as adults who can keep learning and growing outside the bounds of classrooms or formal learning environments.

What you and your fellow classmates had prepared to say at your commencement matters, and we would benefit from hearing it.

Thus, I would like to invite you and your fellow highest honors graduates at George Washington High School to use my virtual podium here to deliver your remarks. Drop me an email and we can sort out the details of how you'd like to do that.

Thanks for continuing to stand up for fairness and for facts.

Warmest regards,

Janet D. Stemwedel
Wellesley College class of 1989

3 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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