Normality’s shadow

Research has shown that those students (all of us, really) remember a new word or fact best when they learn it and then relearn it when they are just on the cusp of forgetting it. Area9’s instructional software uses algorithms to predict each user’s unique memory-decay curve so that it can remind a student of something learned last week at the moment it is about to slip out of his or her brain forever.

Seth Fletcher, ‘How Big Data is Taking Teachers Out of  the  Lecturing Business‘, Scientific American, July 2013

Really, big data, is there no end to it?  Machine grading, adaptive learning, and now algorithmic lasering of the precise moment when a fact starts to slither down the unique memory-decay curve and prepares to be lost forever.  I don’t know how we managed before.

There’s a lot to be said about the predatory hovering of Stanford’s AI researchers over higher education, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding their attention to every mouse click students make both creepy and unethical. (If you’re not sure where you stand, watch this video.)

But it turns out that even without their algorithmic support we do sometimes hang on to things we’ve learned all by ourselves. Today I remembered a really retro fact: Robin Wood’s straightforward formula from the 1970s for the American horror film, that “normality is threatened by the monster”. I’ve stored it since the first time I heard it, along with an embarrassing trove of 70s pop lyrics, for which I’m sure Daphne Koller has an algorithmic explanation.

The elegance of Wood’s point is mathematical: X can be anything. So whatever monster shows up can represent whatever you think is threatening; and whatever town, teenager, family or whole civilisation the monster harasses, it’s whatever you think is worth defending. Once you get this, you’re ready to view any horror movie through the lens of your own anxieties.

MOOCs are this kind of monster: they stand for what we fear. We see them from the perspective of our version of normality, and our sense of what is monstrous. If you fear the end of lectures, or you want to protect Harvard for Harvard students, or you’re an adjunct worker trying to hang on to a job with no prospects or benefits that you might yet—astonishingly—lose to a volunteering grad student TA from Best Professor U, all this will shape what the monster means to you.

It’s been a rapid and crazy transit to this point. Less than six years ago, the people who talked about MOOCs had a modest, interesting vision of new ways that learning could proceed, and a subtle sense of humour. Education was looking at the same opportunities MMORPGs had introduced to gamers: the chance to meet and work together with whoever rocked up online, not just with the people sitting next to you.  This wasn’t a new fact, but MOOC was a new way to put it.  And it was worth celebrating and expanding, because there are people all over the place who don’t get to participate in higher education where they live, and coming together online really does make a difference to this.

But we’re not in Canada any more, and $43m of further capital speculation and 4 million students says that we can’t get back there, no matter how hard we’re all banging our ruby slippers together. If this is a bubble, as Ferdinand von Prondzynski suspects, it may drag significant higher education and corporate brands into difficulty when it pops. If it doesn’t burst, things are going to get really tough for smaller institutions, community colleges, regional education, and particularly for adjunct workers in all these places. We’re going to see much less diversity in the overall culture of post-secondary education, just as we have in other retail, entertainment and service industries where a small number of global brands have come to dominate, and this will do long-term harm to the resilience and capability of local education.

Of course, In the longer run in Australia, we could see the emergence of new boutique brands and new counter-narratives: slow education, local education, community-run education, bespoke education. Or we could just watch Australian public education manage long-term austerity budgeting by becoming a net importer of US content, a franchising system in which locally relevant learning amounts to a bit of beetroot on the burger:

With stakes like this, Australian educators need to speak more precisely and separately about each mass or open online initiative, their investors, their marketing strategies and their business goals.  We need to ask much tougher questions, as we would in any kind of serious RFP, and certainly we need to expect the US and UK MOOC CEOs currently touring Australia to understand where they are in convincing detail.  (Pop quiz: what percentage of Australian undergraduate students live on campus?  Most? About half? Less than 10%? Don’t know? Don’t sell us things.)*

And we need to have a think about the real lesson of the horror movie, which is the monster that our own normality has become. To get a sense of how bad things are in the US, do read Rebecca Schuman’s angry, detailed rebuke of the culture of professional servility that she has chosen to reject.  This is really brave writing, and if you still think things couldn’t get this bad for young academics trying to get their first job in Australia, you need to spend more time with your sessional staff colleagues, as they gear up for another semester being among the few postdoctoral academics in the world who are paid by hourly and piecemeal rates, and not even for all of the hours they work—which apparently we find much too complicated to work out.

It’s as Robin Wood pointed out at the end of his beautiful essay: the monster turns out only to be normality’s shadow after all.

* It’s less than 10%, which is why Australian academics spend the entire week before semester begins trying to help students sort out timetables that fit with their household schedules, their paid employment and the time of the last train back to where they live.

11 thoughts on “Normality’s shadow

  1. Hi Vanessa

    Thanks so much for that link, truly helpful. It’s a lovely essay, and I’d forgotten how much I liked it. I’d also forgotten about how firmly Wood connects his ideas to American culture — it’s originally titled “American nightmare”.

    For some reason this was apt yesterday as I was writing while listening to Rage Against The Machine, Know Your Enemy, which has this to say:

    Yes I know my enemies
    They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me
    Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission
    Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite
    All of which are American dreams
    All of which are American dreams
    (and so on)

    Somehow this has connected for me to Rebecca Schuman’s essay, and the plight of the Australian burger. Still figuring it out.


    1. I’ve been thinking of Blake, thorns, weeping, binding with mind-forged manacles. Tigers of wrath and horses of instruction. 

      Fate of the burger – corporate uniformity of reproduction in a mechanical age. Best burgers though are outliers – Cajun, NM green chili burgers. Oddly though, one of the best burger places was the Cairo Hilton. Did the cooks take extra care for it being exotic? In common for all – aura, authenticity. The Australian burger makes sense from that perspective.

      Is ‘bespoke’ a reference to the tutoring service? That would fit with the rest of the list.



  2. Yes i think you’re right, psychological projection in action. Hmm. Interesting. I am gladder than ever to be putting time into developiong an open subject for the international OERu consortium, which i hope is positioned well to put not only the beetroot back into the metaphorical burger, but also some other diverse dietary options. (Onion relish for example, the last flavoursome item recently deleted from the menus of *that* burger joint.) OERu may not yet be as flash or as well known as the American mega-brands, but will it be the tortoise to plod past the hare while he/she is taking gratuitious selfies on the educational road-side?


  3. To me, the saddest thing is that academics in denial about MOOCs fail to raise the topic among students who are intent on teaching and academic careers. So as I interview students prior to enrolling them in the subject that I teach, I discover that many of them, including those that want to become teachers, utterly ignorant to world around them – not just because they don’t know about MOOCs, but because they don’t understand business models!

    Look at universities through the lens of the business model, and you see a very logical rationale for venture capital investment into disruptive business models. That was how it was in the music industry. Lots of people either ignorant or in denial, and then outsourcing the solution to lawyers. Having realised that the jig was up, most of them brought in the corporate advisors, developed the sales pitch, and sold out. Which left us with Universal and Sony.

    In the education business we have more complexity, because the major brands have been aloof from marketing themselves. Once their models get disrupted and the revenues take a hit, they will wake up. They will do what any big business does and bring in the business analysts. I doubt this will happen in the UK or Australia immediately, but I would be surprised if it isn’t happening right now in the US. The analysts will start figuring out how to leverage all those intangible assets….. The result will be a race to the mega branding of higher education…

    I’m not sure how it will play out for the high schools and primary schools, but as governments grapple with ageing demographics and decreasing gross tax revenue, something is going to give….. Megabrand private MOOCs that help educate all ages sounds like a pretty appealing value proposition for a politician who has to find a way to patch up a billion dollar deficit…


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