Pieces of the sky

None of this is inevitable — not MOOCs, not funding cuts, not the death of the giant brick-and-mortar research university or the death of the small liberal arts college, no matter how gleefully the libertarians in Silicon Valley rub their hands as they craft their hyperbolic narratives about the end of the university and the promise of education technology — all their stories about innovation and doom and profit.

Audrey Watters,  minding the future, 15 Oct 2013

Normality’s threatened by the monster” movies sell us a proposition about the human response to threat. Whether we’re facing sharks, aliens or legumes, they tell us that the drama will be extended by people who don’t get it. Some fail to act because they find the risks too preposterous to accept; more venally they engage in a cover up in order to protect their own short-term business interests. Then there are crowds who get so excited and optimistic about change that they welcome the end of the world by partying on rooftops with placards.

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself skirmishing with Jonathan Rees in a way that makes me wonder which of these groups he thinks I belong to. Round and round we’ve gone, more or less like this:

It’s the most we’ve disagreed since we first clashed over whether doing stuff online is the end of the world as we know it.  And if you’re called revisionist by a historian, you need to pay attention.  But I think what we disagree on is what we’re defending.  Jonathan and I both occupy tenured positions.  That we have jobs at all is thanks to the willingness of our adjunct colleagues to keep our institutions running. There’s so much wrong here I can no longer see the difference between Coursera and my local university. Both claim transformative effects, both seek to maximise market share using minimum labor costs. Jonathan, who is a labor historian and activist, takes a different view, that he expresses much better than I can. But the business bottom line is that he and I depend in our day jobs on labor that is exploited, and people that are harmed by this, in complex, awful, obvious ways.

So there’s that.

Then I went back to the post that Jonathan threw up as evidence that I’ve been some kind of MOOC apologist, and found there isn’t anything I’d say differently now. This is what I think:

  1. Sebastian Thrun’s argument that there will be 10 universities left in 50 years time reduces education to content in a way that fails to understand how limited and provisional content is proving to be. As Patrick Masson points out over and over, the Internet is the only MOOC we’ll ever need, if content is the thing.  Audrey Watters’ inspiring response to Thrun’s miserable vision also clearly explains why we should resist this banal reduction.
  2. Content is culturally distinctive and locally relevant, but neither of these make it economically sensible to produce locally. Sometimes I think you have to live in import-dependent cultural markets to get why this is so important.  Australian filmmakers certainly know a thing or two about Sebastian Thrun’s prediction. So we need to take seriously the public good arguments for the preservation of locally relevant educational content, but we can’t do this simply by forcing a diet of local produce on the consumer. Just as we have had to with movies, we need to plan for market failure, because anything else really does involve heads and sand.
  3. To preserve the opportunity to learn locally against the logic of market and massification, we need to co-produce regionally and internationally. Leading Australian universities who’ve taken the FOMO route and partnered with VC-funded providers suggest that Coursera has pitched its exclusive club strategy well; and FutureLearn is following the same path. But this isn’t the only model. It now makes sense to get together those who have most to gain if we change the way status itself is calculated and horse-traded: the world’s small-economy regional education providers.
  4. To understand what locally relevant learning could mean in transnational partnerships we might look at the ways in which UNESCO have framed cultural diversity as critical to the health of the world’s overall cultural system.  Of course, the US hasn’t lobbied enthusiastically for the protection of cultural diversity, but France and Canada have both played a leading role in encouraging us to think beyond the nation as the most important player here.  Let’s work together with people who think as we do.
  5. The world’s knowledge isn’t a resource, it’s the ocean that connects us. This means that it’s much more than just a source of fish for powerful nations to trawl and trade. We all share cooperatively in its health, and we are all responsible for its depletion.

To achieve most of the things that are good under these difficult conditions, some of the time we need to be online, because we need get out there to think together, and to find our fellow travellers. We do need to stop calling anything a MOOC, let alone everything.  This hopeless label now actively prevents us from thinking about differences between a whole range of things because they have “online” in common, even as we try to reclassify them with enigmatic qualifiers like “x” and “c”.  In this field, “x” really can be anything, so let’s just say that the problem is MOOC itself. It can’t be recuperated because in the past 12 months it’s been associated with too many toxic enthusiasms: educational colonialism, brand fetishism, and AI as a substitute for the subtle gift of time that humans share with each other.

Yesterday I sat outside watching smoke haze from catastrophic bushfires drift over the place where I live.  The fires are a very long away from here, but the burned gum leaves are falling in my yard.  They’re visitations from a terrible struggle that someone else just went through, somewhere else, not me.  But in falling here they make clear, like pollution or rising sea levels or global finances, that we’re in this time together.

I was waiting to connect to a small live online conversation with educators from Canada, New Zealand and the US, who are all working together in an online course for open educators that’s the first put out by a Canadian start-up, Wide World Ed.  It’s six weeks of talking and thinking, and it’s not all that M, nor entirely O. It’s also not necessarily C.  But it’s online, and that’s how come I’m in it.

Maybe in the rush to market we’ve all forgotten how to acknowledge that live online presence of other people still feels magical and strange, like falling leaves from somewhere else.  As I listened to the sounds of someone typing at a keyboard after midnight on the other side of the world, I realised that I’m still a believer in what this can mean for locally relevant education.

I just no longer think universities are the best or only way to let this happen.

This is written in gratitude for all the other writers like Jonathan who help me make sense of MOOCs, but especially Melonie Fullick, who was on it very early.

13 thoughts on “Pieces of the sky

  1. MfD,

    I think we continue to disagree on the political context of innovations of all kinds. I’d argue that the university is involved in permanent class war (and adjuncts are the best evidence for that). We can call a truce (particularly if that truce involves collective bargaining) but anything that allows higher education to be automated threatens to seriously disturb the balance of power.

    No doubt some of the not MOOCs you’re interested in are cool. However, never underestimate the ability of the capitalists who Audrey describes so well there to ruin technology for everyone but themselves.


    1. Not sure what you mean by “anything that allows higher education to be automated.” Broadcast messages of any type is a form of automation — so email systems threaten faculty roles? Computers? There’s a reductio ad absurdum in here in terms of classes v. tutorials (the lecture hall as a threat to a hypothetical alternative tutorial system?), but I’m really looking for what you think is a threshold. I’m skeptical of the “anything that…” formulation, in part because I’ve read my Melvin Kranzberg.


      1. Welome to the deckchairs, Sherman Dorn. I have a similar question on this matter of automation, which Jonathan also raised in a tweet. That is, I’m not sure a recorded lecture is automated in the same sense that auto-graded quizzes are. So for me, automation can’t be the threshhold term.

        In terms of “harm to the professoriate”, for which I’m not sure automation is a shorthand, it seems to me that if the underlying business model of mass higher education itself depends on a very significant proportion of labour being undertaken by precarious workers, MOOCs aren’t the biggest threat of harm we face. The bigger harm in terms of the replacement of labour is the one we have entirely got used to.

        So adjunctification is the wedge, and MOOC providers are now shouldering their way through the door with even worse ideas: volunteer tutors, “coaches” and so on. Even adjunct labour is going to start to look costly to very impoverished institutions.


      2. Sherman,

        I haven’t read my Melvin Kranzberg [Is that wrong to admit in public?], but I know what I mean: Fewer labor-saving devices and more devices for labor. Yes, I know that something like Microsoft Excel saves me countless hours at the end of the semester, but whether to use it is my choice rather than the choice of immediate superiors.

        Why don’t any edtech entrepreneurs market directly to faculty? I’ll answer my own question: Because they care a lot more about money than they do about educational equality and administrators are the ones with the fat budgets.


      3. Jonathan,

        The gist of Kranzberg’s work is that technology is constructed — one of the more well-quoted points is that technology is neither positive nor negative nor neutral. My question about what you meant by automation stemmed from that. Your answer on my threshold question is essentially one of faculty choice, and as long as that focuses on true pedagogical questions, I’m with you.

        On the other hand, there are plenty of technical issues that are never going to be matters of faculty choice, not because of market forces or evil design but simply because a particular institution has to pick a default setup for courses. This can be a matter of default OS choices, or firewall/virus programs on the network, or LMS. Or, to pick something that’s closer to pedagogical matters but still something that’s not really in faculty purview, course schedules.

        Do you think that it is in the authority of a university to set course schedules?


      4. Sherman,

        Ah…schedules again. Let me try to answer that more completely than I could on Twitter.

        Yes, administration have a right to demand classes at particular times, but faculty have a right to respond to those concerns collectively, as opposed to on an individual basis. I, for example, have been teaching night classes for the last six years. Family concerns will make that impossible going forward. I’ve already informed my chair and she has promised me that she will do everything to accommodate me. I recognize that I may have to give a little to get a little, and am OK with that. The key is that faculty can fix the problem themselves. If the administration said, “You, Rees must teach night classes because we have the power to make you!,” then I think they’d be out of line. They’d also have a lot of unhappy power if they ever exercised their prerogatives that arbitrarily again.


  2. Jonathon is not the most extreme critic, not by a long shot. Check out Campaign for the Future of Higher Education sometime – hysteria central, charting the future through the rear view mirror.

    A recent post by Martin Weller referred to combing out both hype and the hysteria. Rabid was the word he used… http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2013/10/moocs-as-1st-year-undergrad-replacement.html

    “Take away all the hype, commercial bubble and rabid arguments on both sides and you are left with some good teaching material.”

    My cousin’s daughter works for Intel (starting more or less from humanities), in-house ed, running R&D workshops. Does not care for moocs but was happy to get the connecitivist sources I sent and has been looking into Venture Labs (forks off same code as Coursera platform but more usable). As she explained, Intel is global and only three of them are qualified to do the R&D workshops. So distance makes sense. Her short version,

    “Some DL stuff is good. Some is crap. Some people can learn well through it. Others can’t. It’s a huge conundrum.”

    I wonder if your disagreement with Jonathon may not really be about what each thinks it is – cues not understood as intended by sender. As a historian, Jonathon can hardly be unaware that HE Titanic well have hit the iceberg already and is thinking salvage and rescue operation. So are you but from a different direction and perspective.


  3. This is a really interesting thought, Vanessa. You’re right, I probably do think the iceberg and the Titanic have connected. So I was very touched to see the news yesterday of the violin played by the original Titanic bandleader that was auctioned for over $1m. The auctioneer talked passionately about it as an object that represented exceptional courage in the face of disaster — because of the way the band stayed on to comfort the passengers as the ship sank. This is a slightly awkward metaphor for both Jonathan and me, I suspect.

    As a side issue, VentureLab delivered the only MOOC I’ve managed to complete, and this was absolutely because of the social usability of the platform. So it’s interesting to hear that it’s a fork.

    My feeling is that it would be possible for a platform to be more imaginative and socially engaging than most of the current LMS designs, but to do this it would have to prioritise in that way. I feel that most gradebook-based content-driven designs are a bit stuck — their powertools are what they are. But what actually makes people wish to hear from one another is much more complicated.


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