MOOCs and my discontents
“Massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, have caught fire in academia. They offer, at no charge to anyone with Internet access, what was until now exclusive to those who earn college admission and pay tuition. Thirty-three prominent schools, including the universities of Virginia and Maryland, have enlisted to provide classes via Coursera.
For his seven-week course — which covers advanced math and statistics in the context of public health and biomedical sciences — [Brian Cafo, who teaches public-health at Johns Hopkins] posts video lectures, gives quizzes and homework, and monitors a student discussion forum. On the first day, the forum lit up with greetings from around the world. Heady stuff for a 39-year-old associate professor who is accomplished in his field but hardly a global academic celebrity.
In other words, these systems allow universities to create web-based versions of the courses that they teach their paying students. In general, these MOOCs has thus far been free to take: a sort of public-service cum branding operation for the universities (largely elite) who participate.
Ignoring for a minute all of the limitations on what’s happening (especially in terms of credential-distribution and also the probability that the companies that run these systems will eventually start extracting profit from them), these MOOCs seem to be a version of exactly what we want: the (albeit incremental, limited) expansion of access to educational facilities to anyone who would like to use them.
It’d be, at least from one angle, massively hypocritical for someone to gleefully feel that the ability to suck down so much of what I want from the internet, even or especially in evasion of the copyright rules in play, represents a sort of technologically-inevitable communization of media and information, but on the other hand to hold that that the communization of the commodities that I distribute should somehow be exempt from such liberation.
So of course there are reasons to be pleased by the development of these courses and systems. It is a cheering thought that some kid without access to great teaching is sitting in her bedroom doing MIT engineering courses in her spare time. And why shouldn’t anyone be able, if only virtually, wander into my lecture hall and hear what I have to say about this novel or that movement? There’s no way that I or anyone else should be able to dismiss that possibility with a shrug.
But on the other hand: as often is the case when capitalist enterprises (or non-capitalist enterprises stuck within a surrounding capitalist system, like publicly-funded or not-for-profit private universities) take up utopian and even pseudo-communist aspirations, we should know by know to check that our wallets are still in our pockets.
First of all, there’s the issue of academic labor. It’s not as if these institutions, under the guidances of the consultants who swarm their corridors, haven’t been at work on a decades-long experiment in reducing staffing costs. As of yet, that experiment has focused on the casualization of academic labour: the replacement of tenure-track and tenured staff with contingent lecturers and cheap graduate students. It’s hard not to imagine that the development of MOOCs isn’t a sort of sandbox in which universities play with the possibility of even further reductions in staffing. If you could, for instance, record my lectures and then somehow throw me off the payroll (or, as is more likely, simply not hire another me now that I can literally appear in more than one lecture room at the same time), while simultaneously sticking far more students in my now-virtual lecture hall, well, what’s to stop that?
If you think I’m being paranoid, check out the attention to the issue of marking in both articles. According to the one in the Times:
Assignments that can’t be scored by an automated grader are pushing MOOC providers to get creative, especially in courses that involve writing and analysis. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five people grade it; in turn, you grade five assignments.
But what if someone is a horrible grader? Coursera studied the peer grading of 2,500 student submissions for a Princeton sociology MOOC by having them graded a second time by Princeton instructors — yes, the professors hand-graded all 2,500 assignments — and found comparable results. Still, Coursera is developing software to flag those who assign very inaccurate grades to give their assessment less weight.
Ah – just as the airlines have passed the work of checking yourself into your flight and getting your bags on the conveyor belt to the consumer (in order to find themselves massive savings on payroll), now students will mark themselves, thus saving universities the cost of employing actual human beings to do such things. Never mind that marking and commenting on students work is actually what I consider the aspect of my job that requires the most expertise (anyone can read a lecture aloud, while knowing how to fix problems with students’ writing is an art) – the students in aggregate can achieve enough accuracy in clicking the “like” button or not underneath their peers essays that people like me with the red pen in hand late at night are no longer necessary!
(By the way, those of you that think of the credentialing aspect of universities as merely some sort of half-and-half mixture of a tyrannical ISA and a class confirmation machine, should remember that the less grades have to do with things the more other metrics will take over. “Everyone gets an A” in the US system, sure, but that simply means that out of all those students with the same marks, the ones who went to the most elite schools or have the most hookup are those that get to proceed to the next level. In other words, strict meritocracy is deeply suspect, but it is also better than its utter absence… While of course I understand the very obvious problems with it, marking fairly and accurately still seems to me an essential part of higher education and my place within it. Sure, eliminate marks, degree classifications and the like – it will only make it all the more likely than it already is, and it’s already plenty likely, that the kid whose parents go to the right cocktail parties will get the opportunities that should have gone to a more deserving candidate…)
Secondly, beyond the issue of academic labor, and very much true to the direction that higher education is rapidly moving in the UK due to the recent and massive government cuts, these MOOCs seem like a precursor step towards the further “consolidation” of the higher education sector. Notice who, for the most part, is involved in these schemes: elite universities. If they could find a way to credential the students who take them, who’s to say that a free or cheap “Harvard Extension Degree” for those who never once pass through the gates of the campus wouldn’t be seen as “better value for money” that a regular (and state-funded) degree at UMASS-Boston down the road? Why even bother continuing to fund the non-elite universities, where there’s a perfectly good and exquisitely branded degree available at low-cost and in a radically scalable way right there on everyone’s home computer or mobile device?
Finally, from inside the whale, there is something ominous about how these developments are being pushed on us from within the university, the rhetoric that’s used to push it, that sets off very clear alarms. Someone came in to one of our recent department meetings to preach to us the virtues of the recording of lectures and their eventual mass distribution. He let us know that this is on it’s way and we had better get used to it. When I asked, given that I might disagree with his list of virtues, or at least formulate my own list of non-virtues, why I “had better get used to it,” why we “had” to do it, he informed me that it was because it was “already happening elsewhere,” and that if we didn’t do it, we would be “left behind by other universities.” Right. If there’s one way not to go about convincing me to do something, this is the way to do it. After all, from austerity outward, this is the mode of collective and mindless non-decision making that basically rules and systematically fucks up our world on a day-to-day but ever intensifying basis. Just as “if we don’t impose austerity measures the same or deeper than nation X, the banks will destroy us” is basically the trumping argument at play in the wider world, the deployment of the argument “Harvard is doing this, and if we don’t follow suit, whatever the possible consequences” is to me a sign that we are probably about to set sail into the lowering tide that sinks all boats.The way things have generally been going, it’s hard for me to imagine that it doesn’t end somewhere the looks more like the following than the system that we have now. (Go to 3:48 on the video).