MOOCs for the Masses

imagesThe automation of education is one of the big issues of the early 21st century, and in the halls of higher education, where I hang out, it’s very controversial.

The leaders of small colleges like mine are watching nervously as the big boys jump on the MOOC bandwagon, throwing their immense resources behind the development of sophisticated online learning platforms designed to serve hundreds of thousands of students at a clip.

So far these courses are not available for actual degree credit, but the accrediting corps is not far behind, busily working on the conceptual architecture needed to award students college credit no matter which institution’s logo is on the screen.

Once this is fully operational, students will be able to work towards a college degree in patchwork fashion, taking math and science courses from MIT, liberal arts from Yale, and philosophy from Princeton along the way to their shiny new 21st century B.A.

The minute the technical hurdles to this system are worked out, the floodgates of online learning are going to open for real.

Those who are skeptical of the quality of online learning argue that even video conferencing, now widely available through Adobe Connect or Google Hang-out platforms, cannot match the electricity of ideas exchanged face to face, facilitated by a well-trained, talented instructor.

This is the argument used by small liberal arts colleges like mine to justify the continued emphasis on bricks-and-mortar institutions, and there is truth it, as long as the class sizes are small and the instructors are not only knowledgeable, but also  skilled at facilitating discussion.

But let’s be honest: most American students do not have the benefit of attending small liberal arts colleges, because the small student/teacher faculty ratio is incredibly expensive to maintain.

LectureHallHaving spent nearly a decade teaching on a State University of New York campus, I can attest that most undergraduates there sit in large lecture halls where they watch powerpoint shows narrated by a teacher down at the podium.  That is, when they bother to go to class.

There is no question that such lectures could be more easily and cheaply delivered online, sparing the professor the travails of explaining Chemistry 101 yet again to another generation of yawning, surfing students.

Big institutions are now getting excited about “flipping the classroom,” meaning: the student watches the lecture on her own time, as homework, and then comes into the classroom for a discussion about the material.

My question, as a higher education insider, is: who is going to lead that discussion?

My guess is it will be graduate students and adjunct professors doing the discussion leading, as it has been for many years already with tenure-track professors who give the lectures and leave the work of actually interacting with students to their teaching assistants.

The ramifications of this for higher education as a field of employment remain to be seen.  For the moment, most people who are thinking about online learning are much more focused on the students (the “clients”) than on the labor issues involved.

Clearly, a professor who can teach 100,000 students at a time is going to be offering a lot more value to the institution than a professor who teaches 20 students at a time, especially if at least a percentage of those thousands of online learners start to pay for credits towards a degree.

As the century goes on, we’re going to see fewer tenure-track professors and a lot more adjuncts.  The field was going this way anyway; online learning is just going to put the trend on hyperdrive.

Faculty advocates in higher education need to be focusing on the issue of a living wage for adjunct professors now, because once American adjuncts are competing with part-timers all over the world, we’re going to see the out-sourcing of American education bigtime, with unpredictable results.

 

Meanwhile, globalization cheerleaders like Tom Friedman are waxing enthusiastic about the idea of beaming lectures by Harvard professors to remote locations around the world.

“For relatively little money,” Friedman said in a recent column, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.”

Yes, this would be globalization with gloves on, and certainly far better than spreading American-style ideology at gun and loan-point, as we did in the 20th century.

MOOCs are already opening up the previously hallowed halls of the best American institutions of higher education to new, worldwide audiences.

As Friedman reports, the head of the new Harvard/MIT online platform EdX, Anant Agarwal, said that “since May, some 155,000 students from around the world have taken edX’s first course: an M.I.T. intro class on circuits. ‘That is greater than the total number of M.I.T. alumni in its 150-year history,” he said.’”

In the next few years, we’re going to see online learning take off bigtime, as more and more students clamor for the opportunities it affords, and higher education leaders perceive the huge benefits in cost savings that will result from not having to house all the students they serve.

We’re going to see more and more students living at home with Mom and Dad right through their undergraduate years, whether it’s here in the U.S. or, as Friedman imagines, in some Egyptian village.

From the point of view of the average student, the one who would not in any case be able to afford or get into a selective liberal arts college, this may be for the best.  Certainly it would be better to live at home a few more years than to incur heavy debt burdens for the privilege of living on campus.

Students and their parents are already viewing education in increasingly utilitarian terms; as they contemplate getting on the B.A. track they want to know What can I do with this degree? What jobs will it prepare me for?

They’re looking for the most practical, value-added route to the goal—a secure, interesting, well-paying career.

images-1There are always going to be elite undergraduate colleges ready to give a premium, face-to-face educational experience to those who can pay for it, just the way there are still deluxe prep schools available even though most Americans go to the public high school down the road.

Faculty at these colleges will continue to teach small classes, where students are encouraged to be creative, critical thinkers, to question authority, to write papers rather than take tests, and to get to know each other both in and outside of class.

Just as future queen bees are given a far richer diet than future worker bee, there will be different educational strokes for different folks.

The real question, as we enter the MOOC era, is whether education will continue to serve as a vehicle for social mobility, as it did so strongly in the 20th century, or whether we’ll have online learning for the masses and bricks-and-mortar for the elite, with the gap between the two growing ever wider.

Welcome to the Knowledge Factory

The lead article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education Review is titled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

More than 350,000 Americans with advanced degrees applied for food stamps in 2010, part of “an often overlooked, and growing, subgroup of Ph.D. recipients, adjunct professors, and other Americans with advanced degrees who have had to apply for food stamps or some other form of government aid since late 2007.

“Some are struggling to pay back student loans and cover basic living expenses as they submit scores of applications for a limited pool of full-time academic positions. Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children’s college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties. Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students.”

And the numbers of impoverished Ph.D.s may actually be much higher than this.

“Leaders of organizations that represent adjunct faculty members think that the number of people counted by the government does not represent the full picture of academics on welfare because many do not report their reliance on federal aid.

“Even as the number of highly educated aid recipients grows, shame has helped to keep the problem hidden.”

Yes, I know that shame well.

How could it be that a highly educated, well-groomed, extremely intelligent individual with everything going for her is so embarrassingly poor?

Why is it that after more than 20 years of teaching college—and doing a very good job of it, I might add—I  still make only $10,000 more now than I did as a freshly minted B.A. starting out in publishing in New York back in the 1980s?

It is very hard to earn a Ph.D., in case you didn’t realize.  It takes many years of study, great determination and self-motivation, the ability to see a major, high-quality independent research project through to its conclusion, generally a book-length manuscript.  It also takes a lot of money, especially in the poorly funded humanities.

By the time one finishes the intense slo-mo marathon of the Ph.D. program, one feels like someone of consequence: someone who has jumped through every hoop, earned lots of accolades, managed to accumulate a great deal of social capital.

And yet all that evaporates in the face of the reality of American higher education today.

Except for a very few lucky ones with good connections or true star quality, most of us discover that it’s a buyer’s market out there in higher ed, and whatever we’ve got to sell is a dime a dozen.

You take that first adjunct job telling yourself it’s going to be temporary, only to find five years later that you’re still doing the same frantic shuffle of trying to teach enough courses, at something like $4,000 apiece, to make ends meet.

If you want to get on with your life and have a child, good luck!  You’d better have a spouse working a real job—because adjunct pay and adjunct uncertainty is not what a family needs as its bedrock.

This is what 70% of American faculty—70%!!—are doing now.

And I am afraid it’s going to get worse.

Just as American manufacturing turned belly-up in the face of the out-sourcing of labor in the globalized market in the 1990s, higher ed is now poised to do exactly the same thing with the professoriate.

Distance learning, the fastest growing segment of the higher education market, will make it possible for a Ph.D. in New Delhi to teach that big section of Chemistry 100 to students from all over the world.  And in New Delhi, $4,000 will probably seem like pretty good money.

Within a few years, I will not be surprised to find that American Ph.D.s are competing with academics from all over the world for the same few positions.

What does it say about us as a society that we not only force our students into deep debt to buy their educations, but also refuse to pay their teachers a living wage?

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There are some alternatives on the horizon, such as the free, online University of the People, a start-up that is attracting a fair amount of attention right now.

Maybe in the future education will be free, entirely online, and totally globalized.  I am not so enamored of bricks and mortar to cast this shift in a wholly negative light.

Perhaps the end result will be that American professors will simply have to up and move to cheaper locales…teaching their classes from an internet cafe in Central America, let’s say, or East Asia.

But we need to be careful, as the transition to online education shifts the sands beneath our feet at lightening speed, that we continue to focus on the most important aspect of any education: the shared excitement over common interests and new ideas that is the hallmark of a good student-teacher relationship.

This excitement can be transmitted just as easily over the internet as in the classroom, as long as the ratio of students to teacher remains humane, and as long as neither student nor teacher is driven to distraction by the bank creditors slavering in the background.

To tell the truth, I am more interested in strengthening local education, rather than following the dangerous globalized outsourcing model.  But I’m willing to play the game, as long as we, the players, are treated with respect as human beings, not wage slaves and pawns.

Who’s Afraid of Distance Learning?

It used to be that a smart, motivated young person could work hard, earn a doctorate, do a good job as a junior professor, and live happily ever after as a tenured professor.

It also used to be that a smart young person could work hard, get into a good college, and expect to be taught with passion and enthusiasm by a corps of dedicated professors.

Despite the ever-increasing cost of college tuition, neither of these expectations holds water any more.

Academia, as a profession and as a social landscape, is deeply troubled right now, in ways that are profoundly connected to wider social and economic problems in our society.

In today’s New York Times, pundit David Brooks suggests that colleges need to do more to ensure that their high sticker price is delivering measurable value. However, his solution—standardized exit testing of college seniors—shows how out of touch he is with the real issues and problems facing academia today.

At a recent high-level conference hosted by Lafayette College, ponderously titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership in Education Around the World,” “Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges — affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked.”

Smith College

At small liberal arts colleges like Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where I teach, we pride ourselves on a low student-faculty ratio. At Simon’s Rock the ratio is only 9 students to each professor.  But of course that’s a big part of why our tuition is so high, to pay for the one-on-one, intensive engagement with each student.

From the perspective of college presidents and administrators trying to make ends meet, this educational model may not be sustainable.

Certainly that was the case at the University at Albany, SUNY, where I taught for nine years in an interdisciplinary first-year seminar program designed to “give a small college experience in the big university.”  The program, which had just received an enthusiastic external review that trumpeted its successes in retention and learning outcomes for the roughly 800 students we served each year, was axed in 2011.

Now those 800 students are sitting in the big lecture halls with 500 others at a time—or, just as likely, not bothering to go to class at all.  It was a common complaint among my SUNY students that the professor wouldn’t know or care if you showed up or not—all it took to pass the course was cramming for the exam with the textbook.

Given this scenario, it’s not surprising that more and more of our large universities are shifting to distance learning.  Why go through the trouble of housing thousands of undergraduates, when you can deliver the lecture and the exam to them in their own bedrooms at home?

There is truth to this, and I have no doubt that networked, globalized distance learning is going to be the standard form of higher education delivery in the years to come.  It’s already happening incredibly fast, and even small liberal arts colleges need to be thinking about how to jump on that train before they miss it entirely.

As someone who teaches media studies, with a special interest in new media, I am in many ways delighted and intrigued by the potential of distance learning in higher education.  I have even been trying to persuade the administrators at my college to give it a try.

While it is never going to be the same as the old-fashioned model of nine students sitting around a seminar table with a professor, with current video capabilities it can come pretty close, as anyone who has tried a Google “hang-out” can attest.

And wouldn’t it be exciting to “hang out” in a seminar classroom with students from around the world?  We higher ed folks like to trumpet the value of diversity and international education—well, distance learning provides the platform to make the dream of a truly diverse and globalized classroom a reality.

However, there is a catch, and it is the same catch that has dogged other American industries as they have leaped on to the globalization bandwagon.

U.S. higher ed is already troubled from within by the shift from stable, tenured fulltime faculty to legions of roving part-time adjunct faculty.  With distance learning, the adjunct model gains even more steam, and goes global.

Why not outsource that first year Calculus course to a professor in India, who will teach 1,000 students for a fraction of what even an adjunct in the U.S. would earn?

Welcome to the knowledge sweatshop of the future.

According to the Inside Higher Ed article on the Lafayette conference, “Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. ‘College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,’ he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. ‘It’s hard for even the best students to learn on their own.’ Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.”

But Williams College is one of the richest liberal arts colleges in the nation, with an endowment of nearly $2 billion even after the economic downturn of 2008.

The social stratification that is affecting every aspect of American society is no less marked in higher education.

In the near future, we will be looking at an academic landscape where there will be a few highly paid tenured research professors and a vast majority of poorly paid adjunct professors all over the world, working mostly from their home offices via distance learning networks.  While there will always be a few lucky students who will be able to gain access to ivied classrooms through scholarships, those classrooms will increasingly be reserved for the children of the super-elites of the world.  Ordinary kids who have the motivation and discipline to go to college will do it from home, a financial decision their parents will have no choice but to support.

Distance learning is often lauded as a way to level the playing field, since it makes higher education accessible to kids who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

This may be so.  But it is also going to be yet another way to divide our society into Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—in other words, to harden the de facto caste walls that are already making the old rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American dream a quaint memory.

Education at the crossroads: cookie cutter or cutting edge?

“Education has to be at the forefront of restoring this country,” said Bard College President Leon Botstein today, at a ceremony formally welcoming incoming Simon’s Rock provost Peter Laipson to his new post.

“The problem with America is an absence of discipline and an unwillingness to confront unpleasant truths,” Leon continued, elegantly making the case for liberal arts education as a crucial piece of the on-going struggle to bring our country back to its core values of democracy, tolerance and creativity.

Most importantly, he said, “young people need the tools to be able to think for themselves.”

So true–and yet this kind of active learning has to start long before the college level!  I contrast Leon’s remarks today with the parents’ open house I attended last week at my son’s middle school, where all of the teachers made reference to how their lesson plans included preparation for the MCAS exams (the Massachusetts version of the No Child Left Behind federally mandated standardized tests), which the 7th graders will be taking next spring.

The middle school principal, in his welcoming remarks, talked about school as a place to ignite students’ passions, but once the teachers took the stage there wasn’t much talk of passion, nor of the kind of student-centered learning that helps kids find out what they’re interested in.

In today’s networked world, kids don’t need to memorize information or formulas.  They need to be turned on to the excitement of learning; they need to be encouraged to develop their creativity, to take the risk of venturing into unexplored conceptual territory, to become the innovators our society so desperately needs.

It was good to hear Leon Botstein and Peter Laipson affirm Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, the founder of Simon’s Rock, as a social entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to take risks, and who dreamed big and had the staying power to manifest her vision of an early college–a completely new idea back in 1966, and still quite unorthodox today.

Betty Hall realized that some high school students have the intellectual and social maturity to start college after the 10th grade, and she took the risk of actually trying it out.  The rest is history–the history of Simon’s Rock, now known as Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

As a Simon’s Rock alum (I earned my B.A. in English and journalism there in 1982) I can attest to the excitement of switching from the dull routine of high school to the much more intense small-group discussions that characterized Simon’s Rock classes then, and still do today.

I went to an excellent high school, Hunter College High School–and yet once I got to Simon’s Rock, in part because of the interesting, stimulating peer group, I was clearly in a whole new ballgame.  I was indeed encouraged to explore my passions, which at the time were reading and writing.  Under the guidance of outstanding mentors, I wrote a B.A. thesis on androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, while working part-time as a reporter for The Berkshire Courier, the Great Barrington weekly newspaper.  I credit those two experiences with the whole unfolding of my subsequent career, from the Ph.D. in literature to the on-going interest in and practice of journalism and media studies.

Leon is right that education has a key role to play in turning our country around.  Unfortunately, as I wrote in an earlier post, even at the college level things are not what they used to be, as the tenured faculty gives way to legions of adjuncts–freelancers with Ph.Ds–who now are frequently not even on campus, but rather teaching through distance learning platforms from their homes.

It’s too soon to weigh the pros and cons of distance learning.  It has the potential to be emancipatory, accessible to far more students, including those who could not afford the luxury of a four-year residential liberal arts education of the kind Leon Botstein was talking about today.  It could also turn into the worst kind of cookie-cutter education, MCAS on steroids.

One of the tasks of educators today has to be to enter with spirit into the unfolding of the distance learning revolution, making sure the technology is being used to promote active learning and critical thinking, not rote learning or multiple choice testing.  We also have to make sure that networked computer technology actually connects young people, rather than alienating them from each other and from potential mentors.

As Leon said, it’s not a question of teaching students to believe any particular truths or ways of seeing the world, it’s a question of enabling them to make their own informed observations, and giving them the tools to act on what they see and know.  We’re not talking about education as indoctrination, but about education as the constant opening of new doors to further understanding–a never-ending process that should not, and cannot be confined merely to the classroom.

Communicating the excitement of learning is the single most important role of a teacher at any grade level.  Once we teachers become jaded or bored with what we’re offering, it’s all over.  We have to find ways of making it new, by constantly leaving ourselves open to new ideas and viewpoints.  Often for me, it’s the students themselves who lead the way into new ways of seeing familiar texts or concepts.

It can be hard for a teacher to give up the powerful illusion of being the one who knows all the answers.   The truth is, we’re here to enable the next generation of thinkers to imagine questions that have not yet been asked or even thought of.

What could be more exciting than that?

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