Sightings

Updates below

In a bizarre coincidence, when I opened the book to scan the contents I found myself looking at the section about sharks.  In particular, “surviving if you are in a raft and you sight sharks—”… I wonder if anyone would be interested in using this as a model for an edtech field manual for surviving the Higher Ed apocalypse.

Jim Groom,”Survival: the manual” July 7 2014

Thanks to Jim Groom, I’ve been thinking about Jaws in this plainly bizarre week in the short history of commercial MOOCs. For all its singular qualities, and for all the symbolic load placed on it by film theorists, Jaws is at heart an ordinary mystery: something unexpected and unexplained happens, someone goes missing, and everyone else spends the movie piecing together clues, disputing priorities, and dealing with what comes next.

But there’s a small scene in the middle that often gets forgotten, where two kids prank the holiday crowds at the beach with a cardboard fin—and in doing this set up the perfect opportunity for the real shark to glide in to calm water, unnoticed by everyone until it’s too late.

This week’s edtech weirdness had both mystery and something like a distracting prank, involving a MOOC in which the professor was yanked from view, then bobbed up again briefly, before vanishing again. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a maths lecturer from the University of Zurich, put up a three-week course: “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveteaching) through Coursera. The landing pages raise questions about the Coursera approval pathway and standards: two weeks of short RSA Animate style videos, and a final week where students will do more or less whatever they like in an “Experiment Area”. Dehaye is likeable, clear and thoughtful about his topic, but the videos aren’t elite brand rocket science—certainly, nothing that an informed and curious teacher in the office next door to you couldn’t have thought up.

And that should have been the first clue, I think. The course goal is “personal growth”, for which—thankfully—no certificate is offered, and the content is quite vague: “‘Readings’ will come naturally during the course as basis for discussion. … In the first week, we will provide a short summary of proposed content of the course. The content of the later weeks will be decided on by the students, and should cover the proposed content and more.”

But after the first week some or all of the content was deleted, and then Dehaye was himself removed, leaving enigmatic clues on Twitter, some participation in Metafilter discussions, some blog comments here and there (including on George Siemens’ blog), and a deleted Etherpad document that he wrote to explain his actions.

MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it. I am in a real bind. I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about. If you ask me something, I can tell you where to look for the information. My plan becomes to flip the tables. I want to “break out” and forge an identity outside of the course, on Twitter, because I realize this is the only way for me to fight for this identity, engage with my students, and those big shots all simultaneously (journalists, educational analytics people, etc).  … Meanwhile I want everyone to organize their own learning, which I know is happening by looking a bit around. Some people don’t like my course, which is fine. It’s your choice, that’s part of the point. Still, I get lots of emails from coursera asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience.

After blogger Apostolos K pointed out that these strange goings-on hadn’t attracted much coverage, and George Siemens wrote “Something Weird is Happening at Coursera“, the story was quickly picked up. Carl Straumsheim treated it as “The Mystery of the Missing MOOC” for Inside Higher Ed; Steve Kolowich covered it for The Chronicle first as a mystery (“In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes“) and then as an experiment (“University of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement“). Jonathan Rees had two goes at it, both worth reading: “The worst of the best of the best” on his own blog, and “Even super professors deserve academic freedom” for The Academe Blog. Rolin Moe, whose MOOC blog is touchingly subtitled “Debating, debriefing and defining the learning trend of 2012-“, wrote it up as “Dr Famous is Missing“.

By the end of the week, opinions diverged. Yesterday Michael Gallagher argued in a beautiful post that to exploit students in a research project raises questions of trust that can’t be overlooked even if the intent is to criticise (“Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas“); today George Siemens congratulated Dehaye on starting a conversation about our vulnerability to commercial data mining by companies like Coursera.

I’m still absorbed by the freakishly odd coincidence of Dehaye’s co-authored take on a probability problem that’s apparently well known to mathematicians, involving 100 Prisoners And A Lightbulb, with George Siemens’ July 5 post (published just before all this turned into a thing) on the latent knowledge in any class, involving 100 learners in a room. This is Siemens, but could be Dehaye:

The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

At the moment, I’m not sure that we know enough to be sure what the plan was with #massiveteaching. So I’m keeping an open mind to the possibility that what looked like a prank was an attempt to start a different conversation—including, and perhaps especially, with students—about the risks of corporate data mining and the lessons from Google advertisements or Facebook’s experiments with emotional manipulation. The fact that it didn’t work smoothly, and might make Coursera much more twitchy about allowing experimental course design in the future, shouldn’t necessarily be the measure by which it’s finally judged.

Meanwhile let’s keep one eye on the ocean where the real sharks are. As ever, the timely counsel in confusing times is from Jim Groom, who seems to me to be looking in the right direction:

I don’t know what it is, but Sharks remind me we are deeply vulnerable always.

Me too.

Update

People are still writing about this. Two very good posts today:

According to Apostolos K, Coursera/U Zurich have resumed the course without Paul-Olivier Dehaye, which seems to me a reasonably complicated thing to do if the whole designed purpose of the enterprise originates with him. It’s a bit like the Mayor of Amity Island putting on the cardboard fin to prove that there’s no shark.

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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.

Business as usual

In an evolving market, the development of sustainable business models is always a challenge but I believe that if we build something great, a whole range of business opportunities could come our way.

Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn, Feb 2013

Over the past year, MOOCs have opened the doors of access to quality education, and have captured the attention of educational leaders and students worldwide. Today, we’re excited to announce the next step in our mission to foster student learning without limits and expand the possibilities that MOOCs and online education can enable.

Coursera blog, May 29 2013

One of these statements is more candid than the other. Even if FutureLearn can’t yet tell us much about their platform, at least they’re clear that business opportunities are their horizon view. They’re also open about their parochialism: FutureLearn is a multi-institutional initiative to promote UK educational businesses in an “evolving market” already dominated by providers from “another continent”, as they put it coyly. It’s a joined-up national effort that’s at slight risk of overpromoting Britishness, but at least FutureLearn is prepared to say that educational globalisation isn’t just corporate social philanthropy on a global scale: it’s a matter of national interest.

Coursera, on the other hand, is still carrying on about the worldwide mission, using the aspirational language of venture philanthropy—all that fostering and expanding and enabling—to alibi their next move, which is equally parochial. After a loss-leading year of facilitating free and not-for-credit access to some signature higher education brands, Coursera is pushing into the market that will be most straightforward for them to monetize at scale: the massive, underresourced and evidently troubled US public education system. The prize is what comes next: being able to cover production costs at home is what enables US producers of anything to offer irresistible pricing to markets abroad. And as Ernst & Young so tactfully remind us, these emerging markets include the rapidly growing Asian middle class who are the gleam in the eye of higher education providers all over the place.

Education is a goldfield for opportunists, and MOOC providers are on it, head-to-head with LMS platforms who are also diversifying into hosted open learning. Both are able to exploit the fact that traditional higher education institutions acting competitively—which seems to be the only way we know how to behave—can only provide services at a scale calibrated to traditional staff-student ratios. And this is why the growth potential in these new markets is still tethered to the resourcing costs of academic labour.

The disruptive intervention by which commercial platforms have secured their startling competitive advantage is simple: they have done away with service labour costs.

That’s it.

Once content is created to be infinitely reusable, once the work of learning is managed by learners, and once assessment can be automated or outsourced to other learners, then normal service labour costs can be stripped back aggressively. Without these shackles, the opportunities for profit-taking in higher education are suddenly formidable again, which is why traditional textbook publishers and content retailers have perked up.

Why have higher education institutions allowed themselves to be so boxed in, that we end up auditioning to be let back in to our own field?  In part, it’s the science of distraction that explains the most basic card tricks. As those institutions, professors and graduate TAs who could best afford to engage in philanthropic volunteering made themselves available for free, so the risks of scarcity, exclusivity and closing opportunity were used to hustle others into joining up. Without having to produce so much as a single standard for quality, MOOC providers harvested the signalling value of their elite partners, and then used this to spin story after story about enhanced global educational equity, making any criticism seem like the wounded howls of the professoriate protecting their turf. Jonathan Rees has been right all along that this is about academic labour—just not that it’s primarily a threat to the tenured. What should really concern us is the astonishing prospect that things can get worse for our local adjunct colleagues, who now face being priced out of work by superprofessors with quizzes.

And now we have the low-frills version of the whole thing—the move that actually makes sense of the past 18 months. As the contractual details for the new product line make clear, after endless talk about quality education, what Coursera actually mean by quality involves video and audio standards and assessments that add up; timeliness of content delivery; and something else called “quality issues observed by Coursera”.

The nearest any of this comes to a definition of quality pedagogy is this:

“Course Criteria” means a rigorously designed Course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, highproduction-value presentation (i.e.,not just simple lecture capture) to provide the End User opportunities for a rich set of interactions and assessment(s) (whether provided by automatic grading technology or by peer-to-peer interaction activities), resulting in a meaningful learning experience that significantly transcends static Content or plain videos.

This isn’t a quality standard, it’s PR. In fact, it’s transcendingly meaningless.

Trying to recover a sense of which way is forwards from here, I’ve been re-reading Richard Hall’s recent pieces on the enclosure of academic labour under austerity. His latest post has really helped me to see what any of this has to do with our students. Reviewing Andy Westwood’s analysis from earlier this month of the UK government’s proposed austerity budgeting, he questions whether we’re right to continue to frame educational participation only in the metaphors created by capitalism. This is really important for Australia, where we keep getting caught up in defending higher education against efficiency by talking about what our graduates do for national productivity. Hall argues—and I think he’s right—that this is a limiting vision for educational participation.

Perhaps the key is in refusing to see those social forces as human capital or means of production. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people.

It’s a vision, and it’s tough to operationalise. So here’s the question for those of us still labouring in higher education: in the smallest detail of our everyday working lives, what does it mean to practice this refusal effectively?

Related articles

This important development has been widely covered in the past few days.  Here are those I’ve found particularly helpful.

and see also this open letter to Coursera, if you missed it:

Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

It’s not you, it’s me

So, I signed up for a Coursera MOOC, and almost immediately the experience turned into Lucy and the Chocolate Factory.

Lucy enrols in a MOOC

It’s a scene that suckers itself onto almost any stressful situation.  Lucy and Ethel take a job putting chocolates into wrappers.  It’s a conveyor belt scenario, and the task itself is simple; the challenge is to keep pace. Lucy’s enjoying herself, messing about.  But one stumble leads to a recovery problem, and before they know it Lucy is eating chocolates or stuffing them into her cleavage in an effort to keep up. Eventually she crashes in shame, covered in chocolate.

Minus the chocolate and cleavage elements, that’s my experience of a Coursera MOOC.

I chose the course because it was on a topic I wanted to know a bit more about, and I was curious about the professor, who has significant influence in the world of education technology. To those of us outside the US, there are few opportunities to see US edtech innovators in action. As their cultural assumptions about the nature of higher education and the student experience are rapidly becoming critical to us, I think it makes sense to try to figure them out.

But really, I signed up because I wanted to know how it might feel to be part of a course whose enrolment was larger than the population of the town where I grew up.

So I watched the first few videos, and despite being mildly irritated by the pop-up quizzes designed to check that I was really paying attention, I sat up a bit straighter, and I stopped checking my emails while listening. Game-based learning 1, multitasking 0.  I also spent time reading the forums when I signed up, and I could see the process of small learning communities pooling effectively.

But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for work-related reasons.  I couldn’t justify taking the time to watch a longer video because I had other more urgent stuff to do. And things went quickly to pieces: the content kept coming down the chute, and within a week it was unimaginable that I could find double, then treble the time to catch up.

So as it turns out, I’m not only a college drop-out from way back, I’m now also a freshly minted Coursera drop-out. And so I’d like Dr. Chuck to know that it’s not him, it’s me, because I really do think that there’s an unacknowledged professional risk being taken here by the professors Coursera have recruited to help get this thing off the ground. A significant number of their first cohort students are their colleagues, dropping in like me to have a look around—this is a jury of their peers in a grand way. And it takes a certain amount of courage to load-test a new platform and pilot a new way of teaching, all in public.

So thanks to you, Dr. Chuck.

But the real value for me is that in watching myself fall behind so early and so catastrophically, I learned two things about how to design better online courses. First of all, I’ve figured out it’s time to let go of the pastiche of seat time that we affect by structuring online courses around weekly participation, just because face to face classes have weekly meetings. We make each individual week of an online class far too complicated—too much to prepare, too many tasks, too many new ideas and insufficient time simply to think about the material and perhaps chat about it with a few other people in the course—and this removes all prospect of rescue from people who miss a step along the way.

This isn’t learning, it’s Tetris.

Secondly, if students are depending on a grade, rather than just hanging out for a personally signed certificate from a celebrity academic, then we need to understand much more about the psychology of panic and its impact on how people communicate. Even the most badly prepared student who maintains an attendance record in a face to face class will be hearing something, thinking about something, each week, that might help make sense of the eventual assessment challenges.  The student who fails to connect online is missing out much more substantially, and is struggling alone with the burden of guilt. They’re avoiding communication, and after a while avoiding any environment that even reminds them of the course they’re failing to keep up with. Even the fanciest analytics or progress tracking plug-in that sprays out automated emails reminding students to call home isn’t going to work for someone who’s singing la-la-la, can’t hear you.

So communication in large classes needs to be authentic, multi-channel, persistent and friendly, and course design needs to back up the forgiving tone with practical options for recovery. In plain terms, we need to keep open opportunities for students who fall away to rejoin wherever they can, and to backfill later. This is the best way to tackle the tyranny of compounding time debt, but it’s confronting for us because we’re trained to think of learning as sequenced and cumulative—a virtuous progression of dependent ideas building to an assessable position of competence.

The good news is that our students are absolutely ready for a more intricate and flexible approach to course design. They’ve been learning since high school how to follow unpredictable and often circuitous routes through the realm of information and ideas, exactly as we do. So as the world’s most conservative institutions stampede towards MOOC partnerships, the rest of us have an opportunity to make a few practical and significant adjustments, right here at home.

This isn’t just about flipping the classroom: it’s about flipping the calendar, the curriculum and the whole conveyor belt approach to learning that has shackled content delivery to credentialising to this point. And this is where things will come unstuck, because no one currently running a higher education institution can responsibly hope that this shackle will snap. So even if institutions who fear missing out are currently prepared to loan some of their surplus resources to pro bono work in the MOOC economy, and even if many innovative and exciting teachers are involved, at the moment this is still just missionary outreach.

It’s not yet the real change we need.

Broken?

I’m not really one for live blogging, but I’m up late following the UK Guardian’s weekly online live chat, just concluded, on the subject of academic casualisation—not least for the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Rees in action. We’re all still falling short of figuring out exactly how edtech, university marketing and casualisation add up to the state that we’re in, but he’s on the case.

I wanted to find the conversation more encouraging, but it’s hard to ask a group of individual academics to solve systemic and intentional business strategies like this one, when their own choices are limited in practice to getting in, getting out or cheering up. The people with the capacity to make a real difference are mostly absent from these discussions: the Vice Chancellors and their management teams. Universities are run by design on a mix of casualisation and volunteerism—this is not an accident or an aberration, and it’s not temporary.  We all depend on it, in the worst possible way.

And as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out on Twitter, it’s not just academics who are being asked to settle for this. Our professional and administrative colleagues are also being buffeted around by short-term hiring and firing as higher education institutions cope with a rapidly changing market for full-term degrees.

Staffing flexibility makes business sense in difficult times; that’s exactly what the fast-food industry tells us. But we’re not doing a great job of limiting the social and personal harm that it causes, nor are we doing anywhere near enough to counsel those with aspirations to work in universities about the business model that determines their chances. It’s heartbreaking to read of casual academics who are working well below the UK minimum wage, once their real hours are calculated; or the highly qualified early career researchers who have done all the right things and can see nothing up ahead but bits and pieces of short-term work, at a time when many were hoping to start families. As one wrote:

I hate the uncertainty of short term contracts and most of all, I’m just so TIRED. I’ve realised that HE’s heart is in the wrong place. After 10 years of training I really don’t know if I want to stay in academia. Four of my closest friends – all in their early 30s with PhDs from Russell Group universities (if you think that matters) – are, like me, seriously considering leaving. Where is this going to go when we are all so broken?

And that’s the thing: when any system is broken, it breaks the people who are trying to make their way within it. There’s a ton of research on the consequences of long-term job precarity in terms of mental health and social wellbeing. Across all kinds of jobs and professions, casual employment is recognised as having negative impact on individuals, their families, and their communities. This is particularly significant to regional colleges and universities, where these institutions may be the only local employers for graduate professionals. The result isn’t good for anyone—it really can’t help to have universities staffed by so many people who wish they could find something more sustainable and less demoralising to do.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s republished commencement speech from last month, on risk, failure and rescue:

We talk a lot about “risk management”—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.

Gawande’s point is that if while risk is essential to change, we also need to be ready to act decisively when we can see that something is wrong: “The sooner you’re able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better. You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue.”

In terms of casualisation, this suggests that the first step towards rescue would be to achieve agreement that the situation is wrong in a serious way. This one should be fairly easy, as there’s really no shortage of people wanting to list the deficiences of higher education at the moment.  But when you plough through all the opinion on what we’re doing wrong, it seems as though very few of our critics mind all that much about our HR issues.  Nope, what we urgently need to reform is that we’re still giving delivering lectures in actual lecture theatres, failing to keep up with the Facebook generation, or insisting on offering our own first year Chemistry courses when we could get one off the shelf from an elite US institution in the new global higher education online Kwik-E-Mart.

Well, strike me down but I think the emphasis on achieving reform through more exciting use of technology is misplaced. What we’re actually doing wrong is at the other end of the spreadsheet where it’s really starting to look as though we’re recruiting PhD students to service our chronic dependency on casual teachers.  I really hate thinking that this is deliberate, but given that we know exactly how few real academic jobs become available every year, we have to ask: why else are we so keen to produce such a surplus of people who are qualified to fill them?

Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.