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.