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The politics of non-profit online college education.
February 22, 2013 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Is the right declaring war on academia through a push for online degrees? Is it paranoid to think that the American right is trying to undermine academic freedom? Public universities are increasingly offering not just a few courses but whole degree programs online, above and beyond the MOOCs discussed previously and previously. Who teaches these online classes offered by public universities? Increasingly, it's adjuncts. One estimate is that 1/3 of online classes are taught by adjuncts. Adjuncts are low-paid, and, perhaps more importantly, they do not have the protection of tenure if they produce controversial innovative research.
posted by mareli (66 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, may not have enough leverage to retain their intellectual property rights.
posted by jadepearl at 7:31 AM on February 22, 2013


may not have enough leverage to retain their intellectual property rights.

Tenured professors do not typically have intellectual property rights to their class materials even for normal classes. Nor do they have exclusive intellectual property rights to the research they produce at a university.
posted by srboisvert at 7:42 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The evisceration of academia's self-governance and intellectual freedom by the imposition of contingent labor practices began long before the advent of the MOOC.

The MOOC, for whatever else it is, is just another club to continue the beating of the dying horse.


* Yes I know I mixed cutting and beating metaphors. It's a bloody business......and I mean that both ways
posted by lalochezia at 7:44 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who teaches these online classes offered by public universities? Increasingly, it's adjuncts. One estimate is that 1/3 of online classes are taught by adjuncts.

I don't see what this has to do with online teaching. See this article from Inside Higher Ed:
Across public research institutions, for example, [a report by the American Federation of Teachers] finds that full-time, tenured or tenure-track faculty members make up only 41 percent of instructional staff, while full-time non-tenure-track make up 20 percent, part-time faculty members off the tenure track make up 20 percent, and graduate employees are another 19 percent.
Those numbers suggest that more than 1/3 of university faculty are adjuncts or other non-tenure teachers to begin with.

In fact, the "1/3 of online classes" link specifically says:
A commonly held misconception is that online faculty are all or mostly adjuncts. It would likely be fair to estimate that adjunct and permanent faculty of diverse types mirror the full-time/part-time proportions found in face-to-face teaching.
posted by Jahaza at 7:44 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Online courses could widen achievement gap.
The study found that all students who take more online courses, no matter the demographic, are less likely to attain a degree. However, some groups—including black students, male students, younger students, and students with lower grade-point averages—are particularly susceptible to this pattern.
posted by snickerdoodle at 7:45 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I fully endorse the idea of MOOCs as a way of opening the gates of academia to the broader public, which is something that is sorely needed. The idea of the university as something that can benefit the growth and intellectual development of a community beyond those who can afford to attend is something we need to endorse. Ball State is doing a (free) course on gender in comic books that seems perfect for this sort of thing (and if I weren't working on my dissertation I'd have already registered).

However, as an actual platform for teaching and assigning credits toward a degree, they are just this side of terrible. Online classes are bad enough (no real lecture or student contact time), but at least they allow for some focused, specific learning. When you add potentially thousands of students into the mix things become more complex and very little actual learning gets done. Even in more objective, quantitative branches of study like STEM you can't just memorize and regurgitate. You have to understand how stuff works, and you really need a knowledgeable person to ask and interact with.

I do think as educators it is important for us to make the theoretical practical, and to show students how the humanities are actually vitally important to whatever field they go into (because often, they are). I think that the right-wing of this country is making that increasingly difficult by furthering the "university as business" model, which has done nothing but jack up tuition and make a shaky job market shakier. However, I am also not entirely convinced these governors and legislatures will be around in 2014, so maybe we don't have to panic just yet.
posted by HostBryan at 7:49 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]



I'm certain of it. The Senator named after my penis said this :
“They have taken over our universities rock solid, in particular, when you control the college of education, journalism, of law, and economics, you control our culture. You utterly and totally control our culture. Liberals have had control of our culture now for about 20 years. We are engaged in just a huge, important struggle. A battle of ideas.”
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:51 AM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


Some nonprofit universities use their online programs as a source of badly needed revenue, due to all the cuts in higher education. Tenured faculty may create the courses, but rarely teach most of the sections. There is a high-demand for accessible education for working professionals and if nonprofits do not help fill this gap then the for-profits will (and do). It's a thorny issue. I think in some senses the MOOCs have the potential to help illustrate how much real faculty instruction and well thought-out peer groups are needed for quality online education. But there's also the nightmare scenarios where in the future universities start just buying online courses designed by brand name professors, hiring adjunts to largely grade, and where in-person instruction on a campus is only for the elite, and online education is used primarily rather than as continuing education for professionals working 9-5 jobs or as blended opportunities for students that need some flexibility in their schedule. Another issue with adjuncts that isn't widely discussed is they can move from the university with short-notice, have so many students, that getting recommendations for graduate school could be more difficult, and that it makes it much difficult for their students to work with them on any type of longer term project. Class sizes and the percentage of adjuncts, and state funding for education are the big issues often hidden by this discussion. Online education requires a much stronger support system to be successful (academic advisors in particular to catch students that easily fall through the cracks in online programs) so the real costs may not be as low as they seem to be particularly if you actually used faculty and not adjuncts.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:53 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tenured professors do not typically have intellectual property rights to their class materials even for normal classes. Nor do they have exclusive intellectual property rights to the research they produce at a university.

We had to sit through what was meant to be an ethics training that is a condition of being paid by the NSF. The main thing I learned is that you can cunningly write your grant to remove many of the university's intellectual property claims to your research. (The whole thing was fairly hilarious. It was quite apparent that the somewhat high level administrator doing the training was totally unprepared to be dealing with a room of grad students who would try and remove the university's intellectual property as a matter of principle (much our research is not that likely to ever be worth anything money-wise). And this was after the same person had held the same training for the faculty in the department.)
posted by hoyland at 7:55 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I feel the same way towards critics of MOOCs that I do towards critics of Spotify and other streaming music services. Which is to say : tough shit, your model failed. Stop trying to keep us in the past.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:04 AM on February 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Information is not the same as knowledge! Online education might work for remedial algebra or the basics of computer programming, conceded several professors, but when the goal is to teach students to think and write critically about history or literature, the benefits of teaching thousands of students simultaneously via their iPads becomes much hazier.

My freshman calculus class at Georgia Tech in 1984 had 200 students in it. I attended every class and never once met the tenured professor as he had one of his doctoral candidates conduct all the lectures. I imagine things are still much the same today and I can't see how attending that class on-line would make that "educational" experience any less useless than it was live and in-person.

I would happily pay less for the same product on-line.
posted by three blind mice at 8:07 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Afroblanco: "I feel the same way towards critics of MOOCs that I do towards critics of Spotify and other streaming music services. Which is to say : tough shit, your model failed. Stop trying to keep us in the past."

Whoops, you're conflating consumption with education!

three blind mice: "I would happily pay less for the same product on-line."

At the one university and one college I attended, the online classes carried a premium. And that was just in terms of credit hour cost, not in terms of restrictive course material distribution policies or badly formatted, 508c-inaccessible flash-presentations-masquerading-as-ebooks, or time-limited DRM'd PDF files that are only good for 90 days (or etc.).
posted by boo_radley at 8:13 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Guys, you're missing a far more important development. It's not just Republicans, at all. Obama quietly unshackled Pell scholarships from accredited schools, instead making it so this government money can go to any school that can "prove student outcomes." MOOCs are a red herring. As I've written elsewhere, MOOCs aren't game changers if they can't issue degrees, and they can't issue degrees if they're not accredited. Allowing Pell money to go to any school begins to shift things in favor of MOOCs. And beginning to demand "outcomes" (and associated metrics for measuring them) of higher education is the most dangerous thing to happen to higher education in America in years. It starts us down a slippery slope towards having something like No Child Left Behind in college. I teach No Child Left Behind graduates, and like the high school teacher who recently wrote an editorial for the Washington Post, I am deeply afraid of the impact of these policies. Teaching towards a test kills critical thinking. This is a big, big deal, and we need to do something about it.
posted by gusandrews at 8:16 AM on February 22, 2013 [21 favorites]


We are engaged in just a huge, important struggle.
But not important enough for us conservatives to actually be willing to teach for those sucky salaries rather than just bitch about it.
posted by Killick at 8:21 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


My daughter is a senior in high school and deciding what to do for college next year. She was admitted to and received scholarships to three regional private colleges, the most generous of which is $18K/year. But that still just lowers the total cost of attendance (tuition, fees and living on campus) to around $25-30K.

If you take the living on campus out of the equation, things begin to look more affordable--whether living at home and attending the private college near us (they require at least one year on campus!) or living in a modest apartment with roommates and going to a state university.

Over the last couple of decades, facilities have become a competitive feature of colleges: our housing, meals are better. And of course, this is also one of the major sources of the increase in the cost of education. When many people were financing their kids' education with home equity and/or said kids had a relatively good chance of getting a good enough job to pay back their loans, this was tenable. With the collapse of both those factors, that's no longer the case.

So, what do all of the above have to do with the discussion at hand? Facilities are huge part of the cost of college--not just on-campus accommodations for students, but the entire physical plant. The challenge is to lower that cost with online alternatives without seriously compromising the quality of education. Personally, I'm in the camp that you can't replace face-to-face contact--but then, I have a humanities education. Maybe that's easier to do in STEM disciplines. I don't know.
posted by tippiedog at 8:21 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Personally, I'm in the camp that you can't replace face-to-face contact--but then, I have a humanities education. Maybe that's easier to do in STEM disciplines. I don't know.

Not if there's a lab component...
posted by hoyland at 8:24 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I would happily pay less for the same product on-line.

Statistically speaking, though, you'd be less engaged, learn less, and get worse grades. And even if you yourself were well-prepared enough to do well in this environment, your less advantaged peers wouldn't.

I worked on the first online degree-granting programs at my top-notch research university. Our students were mature, highly ambitious, motivated Master's students. And time after time, they did worse grade-wise than their on-campus peers. We finally settled on a hybrid model which made things better, but it was honestly a rare student who managed to get as much out of the online model.

Transmitting information is not teaching, and receiving data is not learning. In our rush to save costs (and that's what this is), we are pushing online learning into places where it hasn't been proven to be as good, much less better, than traditional courses. And as always, it is the already disadvantaged students who will pay the price.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:27 AM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


My soon-to-be son-in-law works in the multimedia department of the local state university. His job is designing online teaching modules for the university's instructors and professors. He's always swamped with new courses to design. It's a huge push for the university.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:29 AM on February 22, 2013


My freshman calculus class at Georgia Tech in 1984 had 200 students in it. I attended every class and never once met the tenured professor as he had one of his doctoral candidates conduct all the lectures. I imagine things are still much the same today

Funnily enough, I have good reason to believe your experience is an outlier. Both at Georgia Tech specifically and elsewhere.

There was a case in my department where a course was taught almost entirely by someone other than the person listed on the schedule. The person listed on the schedule was dead by the end of the semester.
posted by hoyland at 8:42 AM on February 22, 2013


Transmitting information is not teaching,

No. Fair enough. I get that. But as "transmitting information" is what most large state universities, in fact, do so why not take advantage of lower costs of internet distribution?

Statistically speaking, though, you'd be less engaged, learn less, and get worse grades. And even if you yourself were well-prepared enough to do well in this environment, your less advantaged peers wouldn't.

Now wait a minute. I was one of the less-advantaged peers and I have the grades to prove it.

But statistically speaking worse as compared to what? Sitting in a classroom with 199 other students copying what's written on the board? On-line is no worse than the product a lot of State schools sell on-campus and if that fact fits into a right-wing conspiracy to take down these last remaining bastions of Marxism well you can't fight science can you?
posted by three blind mice at 8:43 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've said this several times in different places, but online courses are not the solution for a better education. I am currently working on a degree that is primarily online, just because I could fit it better into my full time work schedule. I came into the program as an incredibly organized person, having worked in the field I am getting the degree in for over a decade. I have the luxury of a study space that is just for me, and it's STILL hard for me to totally understand some things. I work at a performing arts college, and there was one class I could take for transfer credit. I am taking it now, in person, and it's a completely different experience. I can't express to you how much more I get out of the classes than I do with online courses. If I go on to get a Master's degree, I won't do it online.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 8:49 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


tippiedog: Maybe that's easier to do in STEM disciplines. I don't know.

hoyland: Not if there's a lab component...


This to the point that I will not hire anyone with a "science" degree without a lab component (something like 12 to 16 lab semesters). Some places even allow coursework-only "Masters" degrees in the "sciences" now too. There's a lot of degree inflation going on.

I'd even go so far as to say that formal tutorials are necessary for many of the theoretical and math-based courses too. I don't know how I would have gotten through partial differential equations, otherwise. It's as essential an interaction for math or physics or synthetic organic (or whatever) as tutorials were for any of the humanities courses I took.
posted by bonehead at 8:58 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


As an adjunct who knows many adjuncts, all of us teaching in a state school, I promise you that no one, including us, is worried about the consequences of our "producing controversial, innovative research." Though the implication that we might is pretty funny.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:09 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


The study found that all students who take more online courses, no matter the demographic, are less likely to attain a degree... students with lower grade-point averages—are particularly susceptible to this pattern.

So students with lower grade-point averages are less likely to attain a degree?
posted by the jam at 9:17 AM on February 22, 2013


But statistically speaking worse as compared to what? Sitting in a classroom with 199 other students copying what's written on the board?

Yes, statistically speaking worse than those who do not take online courses.

I too, went to a large state school. My chem class had 250 people. It also had discussion sections, TAs, and office hours. The people who just wrote down the notes from the board generally did worse than those who went to discussion, formed homework groups, etc.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. I didn't know about homework groups, office hours, etc. I learned how to do well in college by being in college and watching people who were better prepared than I was. The online experience does not offer the same sort of support and peer engagement that taught me how to take advantage of the college system.

I am by no means saying that there is no place for online education. However, the emphasis on it as the latest silver bullet, not to mention the enormous amounts of money being diverted to it, is going to leave many students worse off.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:18 AM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


In reply to earlier statement that faculty do not have any intellectual property rights: Here are the issues as laid out. Just because you are faculty does not mean all your intellectual endeavours are the property of the university nor is everything construed as work for hire though some universities would like to see it that way.
posted by jadepearl at 9:19 AM on February 22, 2013


I feel the same way towards critics of MOOCs that I do towards critics of Spotify and other streaming music services. Which is to say : tough shit, your model failed. Stop trying to keep us in the past.

But there's nothing particularly new about MOOCs. They're just Open University with more intarwebs and less feedback from humans.

That doesn't make them bad (though I think the changes from Open University are for the worse). It does make them not particularly new or innovative, though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:23 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


My freshman calculus class at Georgia Tech in 1984 had 200 students in it. I attended every class and never once met the tenured professor as he had one of his doctoral candidates conduct all the lectures. I imagine things are still much the same today and I can't see how attending that class on-line would make that "educational" experience any less useless than it was live and in-person.

At least in the University of California system, having doctoral candidates teach the majority of lectures is in almost all cases a violation of both university policy and the graduate student union.
posted by one_bean at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2013


My graduate funding is tied to teaching. I've been an instructor for my own course since the second year of my MA. My father was teaching calculus from day 1 of his MA (at University of Michigan), but at least there they were unionized. Here, we are not allowed to, and the grad student organization pushing for unionization was disbanded.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:30 AM on February 22, 2013


The thing that concerns me about MOOCs as opposed to traditional classes just given on-line is evaluations. How do you mark for a class that's 100k in anything more than the most superficial way? Multiple choice isn't good enough. Peer evaluations? How do you do QA on that?
posted by bonehead at 9:31 AM on February 22, 2013


Reminds me of the difference between taking CivPro, Torts, etc. in lecture form at the beginning of law school, and then going through BarBri videos, etc. just in time for finals/bar/etc. For some subjects, the online equivalent is flat-out better.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:32 AM on February 22, 2013


I feel the same way towards critics of MOOCs that I do towards critics of Spotify and other streaming music services. Which is to say : tough shit, your model failed. Stop trying to keep us in the past.

Adam Kotsko has this right, I think: if it was genuinely obvious that online education was a good thing, it wouldn’t need to be constantly propagandized. The assertion that MOOCs are the only possible future for education, before they've even been tried in any serious way as a substitute for traditional instruction, is a Borg Complex. You want to declare the contest over before the race has even begun.
posted by gerryblog at 9:34 AM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


The right has been declaring war on education in particular and intelligence in general for decades.
posted by prepmonkey at 9:53 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I feel the same way towards critics of MOOCs that I do towards critics of Spotify and other streaming music services. Which is to say : tough shit, your model failed. Stop trying to keep us in the past.

Spotify has increased the production of great music? And higher education has failed to educate people? Or are you using different metrics?
posted by one_bean at 9:59 AM on February 22, 2013


gusandrews said it as well as I could. MOOCs are hardly the biggest attack on college education. Higher education in the United States is being actively dismantled, and as one of the lucky minority of tenured professors it is heart-breaking to see unfold (even though I fight it tooth and nail on my campus--in fact, I'm going to a meeting this afternoon to wrestle with our administration over one facet of this problem).
posted by LooseFilter at 10:28 AM on February 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


After some reflection, it’s become clear to me that there is a crucial difference in how the Internet’s remaking of higher education is qualitatively different than what we’ve seen with recorded music and newspapers. There’s a political context to the transformation.
The ignorance of this statement is breathtaking. Wow, technological change can have political consequences? You just realized that, after some reflection?

It's almost like technology journalists are growing up, and no longer acting like little boys talking about neat gadgets.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:31 AM on February 22, 2013


Trace back what has taken place over the years and you will see that regional accrediting organizations used to consider that no decent university used over ten percent of faculty who were not full time faculty. But then regional accrediting is a joke, and they get away with what they do and fail to do because they too must be accredited. That accrediting comes from the Dept of Education. There the attitude seems to be (my assumption) that if we do not accredit the the groups who will be there to grant accreditation the universities. Ok, let;'s just overlook a few things then.
posted by Postroad at 10:54 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Higher education in the United States is being actively dismantled

But then why does it cost as much as it does? I understand that this dismantling is likely driving up costs even further, but given the physical improvements to the colleges in the area where I live - the new buildings/campus facilities, constructed in an effort to make the colleges more "competitive," but which must of course be paid for via rising tuition, etc. - I have to think that even as it's being dismantled, higher education is finding a way to enrich those at the top of its food chain.

That may not be the professors, but still.

MOOCs may indeed be part of a Republican plan to undermine those know-it-all ivory tower intellectual factories and dumb down the nation. And they may not produce the outcomes we want; they may, in fact, be inferior to the traditional model. But from the consumer side, what makes it an attractive new model nonetheless is that it costs less. You get what you pay for? Maybe. But I take tippiedog's point above; I have 3 kids, ages 11, 6 and 3; I aspire for all of them to go to college, but I'm not going to be able to afford to send them all to college, and refuse to saddle them or allow them to saddle themselves with six figures worth of debt to get that degree.

The current cost trajectory is unsustainable, must and will go away. Something will replace it - maybe MOOCs.
posted by kgasmart at 10:58 AM on February 22, 2013


I understand and sympathize with the concerns about MOOCs, but places like Coursera and Udacity are great if you're looking to dip your toes into new subject areas without having to make a huge financial outlay (or any). So far, they haven't been good for bestowing credentials that will let you get a job, but they're a great tool for people who love to learn new things (as it's own reward).
posted by drezdn at 11:03 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


In Wisconsin, the truly scarey near-future college issues (as proposed by Timothy Bucyrus) are that students taking a second degree would have to pay substantially more at state universities, essentially punishing you if you don't choose right the first time. Secondly, schools would be focused on producing graduates geared towards the jobs available in the area, limiting opportunities for grads and driving down wages employers would need to pay.
posted by drezdn at 11:06 AM on February 22, 2013


But then why does it cost as much as it does? ... from the consumer side, what makes it an attractive new model nonetheless is that it costs less.

The missing piece here is the defunding of public higher education, whose deeply slashed public funding has forced up the net-tuition "cost" to individual students. It's a big part of the austerity-politics playbook: cut the budget for a public institution until its perceived utility to the public is questioned, then use that as an excuse to cut even further.
posted by RogerB at 11:12 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have 3 kids, ages 11, 6 and 3; I aspire for all of them to go to college, but I'm not going to be able to afford to send them all to college, and refuse to saddle them or allow them to saddle themselves with six figures worth of debt to get that degree.

A comparatively small number of college graduates leave university with six-figure debt. Their situation has been blown up in the press as if it is normative, but it isn't.
posted by gerryblog at 11:15 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


In Wisconsin, the truly scarey near-future college issues (as proposed by Timothy Bucyrus) are that students taking a second degree would have to pay substantially more at state universities, essentially punishing you if you don't choose right the first time.

Second degrees are not exactly the most pressing issue in terms of access to higher education. It's a close run thing whether I'd want to charge second BA/BS students more or professional degree students more if that was my choice. On the surface, the latter is more damaging to social mobility and whatever else access to higher education is supposed to afford a society.
posted by hoyland at 11:19 AM on February 22, 2013


Is the right declaring war on academia through a push for online degrees?

I am as interested in what Salon.com thinks of "the right" as I am what Fox News thinks of "the left." What an unnecessarily dumb way to phrase a potentially interesting discussion.

Who teaches these online classes offered by public universities? Increasingly, it's adjuncts.

Jahaza has already pointed out that the "1/3 of online classes" link doesn't say what the FPP claims it does. I'm curious about the adverb "increasingly." Did you just make that up? Is there actual data showing that, as compared to a year or two or three ago, more online classes are being taught by adjuncts? (I'm not seeing any in Science or Salon.)

If yes, then it ought to have featured more prominently, rather than picking up on Salon's predictably infantile tear about how "the right" is "declar[ing] war on college." And if not, then this FPP is doubly loaded with editorializing and ought to have been deleted at the gate.
posted by cribcage at 11:26 AM on February 22, 2013


I am an older guy attending a state university. Anecdotally speaking, the bar for passing any given science or engineering course is rather low at an undergraduate level. Attendance and participation are not necessary to receive a passing grade. Considering how college degrees are essentially used as an employment filter, if the college were to offer all classes online, I would take that option. It's more cost efficient in my particular case.
posted by aurelius at 11:31 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


gusandrews is spot on.

Structural changes in the world economy will simply not permit universities to continue to expand brick-and-mortar facilities. University administrators and public bureaucrats are some of the most neanderthal when it comes to seeing change; adapting to change; or, innovating in ways that preserve essential institutional values. So, what we're experiencing with MOOCs is a logical extension of the university's inability to adapt, period. In addition, what we're witnessing is a Darwinian attempt to take over the "transmission of education" by institutions that are very, very well-branded, and endowed.

Like it or not, a university education has become an employment filter. Maybe the occasional trust fund baby can afford to study Ancient Medieval History as a career path, but most are in college to procure opportunity in the workplace.

Thus, the thing that gusandrews (above) fears is coming true. We're beginning to see skill-based assessments applied as a means to "prove" that a person has learned the facts, can synthesize the facts, and can apply that synthesis to novel situations.

I think there is some merit to the assessment scheme, because assessments wil only get better-and-better, as we become more effective in the collection of big data and become more astute in the cognitive analysis of big data as it applies to the evolution of curriculum.

I, for one, am kind of sad to see the university as we knew it, largely start on the road to disintermediation. Harvard and Stanford and Duke will be OK. They have massive endowments that will keep them whole. However, small public and private institutions, and regional institutions that are not well supported by endowments or public money do not have a bright future. This is sad.

All that said, we are still going to face severe unemployment problems among those that graduate because of the increasing automation of work. With that, competition for "success" is going to become even more intense, with those who actually have the smarts and funds to physically attend a heavyweight institution getting an initial leg up. In a way , we're becoming more like Japan, where entry to the "right" kindergarten is the start of a journey that is laden with pressure and worry.

In all this, something may break. It's another post, but I have a feeling that many of the variables that are squeezing traditional institutions (like universities; the workplace; the family; etc.) are leading us either toward a kind of "great leap" that we can't quite make out, yet - or down the rabbit hole to God knows what.

Last, it WILL become more important to be educated than it ever has, and it WILL be more important to be adaptive in one's thinking and actions, going forward. Can we deploy those cognitive skills to students in online venues? I don't know. If we fail to do that, we are heading for a far more class-based society than we currently experience, and this is where I share gusandrews greatest fears.
posted by Vibrissae at 11:58 AM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


OK, bad grammar and generalization on my part. Increasing numbers of US college courses are taught by adjuncts. I don't think that anyone has yet done in-depth research on who is teaching non-profit college courses online. Yes, we've got the Coursera stars, the Ivy/MIT/Berkeley/Stanford tenured types who are teaching the MOOC classes, but what I was trying to emphasize in the post is the trend toward online for-credit classes by non-profit (public or private) colleges and universities. If someone can show me that most of those online offerings are being taught by tenured or tenure-track profs I'll be surprised.
posted by mareli at 12:09 PM on February 22, 2013


Like it or not, a university education has become an employment filter. Maybe the occasional trust fund baby can afford to study Ancient Medieval History as a career path, but most are in college to procure opportunity in the workplace.

Someone always says this as if no one with a 'useless' undergraduate degree ever finds gainful employment. (And as if there are no historians who aren't 'trust fund babies'. This is one of those situations where the more times you say it, the more likely it is to become the case, by the way.)
posted by hoyland at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like it or not, a university education has become an employment filter. Maybe the occasional trust fund baby can afford to study Ancient Medieval History as a career path, but most are in college to procure opportunity in the workplace.

University education is an employment filter in that it mainly serves as a signal of intelligence, diligence, interests, and social class that employers can rely on when making entry-level hiring decisions. Many career paths, if not most, are not contingent on the particular contents of a university education.
posted by leopard at 12:27 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


When people talk about huge classes at public universities I wonder if they made it past freshman year. Intro classes are huge, yeah but upper division classes certainly weren't when I was in the UC system. Bio 103 might have had 250 students hut my upper division courses were around 30 and there were 11 people in my major.
posted by fshgrl at 12:34 PM on February 22, 2013


When people talk about huge classes at public universities I wonder if they made it past freshman year. Intro classes are huge, yeah but upper division classes certainly weren't when I was in the UC system. Bio 103 might have had 250 students hut my upper division courses were around 30 and there were 11 people in my major.

I went to a UC as well. There were something like 300 people in my major in my year. Checking the schedule of classes for this semester, one upper division course is taught as a large (~250 people) lecture. The others have 40 seats. So your experience isn't an artefact of being in a small department.
posted by hoyland at 12:59 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


(And as if there are no historians who aren't 'trust fund babies'. This is one of those situations where the more times you say it, the more likely it is to become the case, by the way.)

Yeah, I majored in archaeology, and of my 11 fellow majors, we're actually doing okay! Not all of us are still in archaeology or a related field, but that's true of most college majors. None of us were trust fund babies. There are archaeology majors at Google, there are classicists who are lawyers, there are medieval historians who end up doing banking. Why is it always necessary to deride other fields of research?
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:04 PM on February 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Anecdata:

I taught a couple classes while in graduate school, for which I was being paid a pittance (20-30k/yr). I enjoyed teaching and considered it a valuable part of graduate school. It was good for me, students probably got less out of my class that they would have out of most of the tenured faculty. But I was defintely better than a couple of the tenured faculty who will go unnamed. I got my STEM PhD in 2011, stuck around for a year at Largish State School as a non-tenure track instructor. I was well paid, ~80k. The job was basically a kind gesture and way to keep me around and being useful from my advisor while I was job hunting. I taught several classes including a graduate online class. The class was basically equivalent to any other class at the university. I taught it as I saw fit and was proud of the results. I composed lectures, delivered them, and students would watch them at their leisure. At Largish State School distance classes in my (niche) program were generally just taped versions of on campus classes. Identical content. The program was controversial, some faculty members really disliked the distance program, I taught one course because the tenured faculty member teaching the on campus version refused responsibility for the distance class.

I left that position for a federal job but I took a part time job teaching for a non-profit distance only state school. I believe this school has no tenured faculty, maybe program directors are tenured, I am not sure. Most of my students are military. Essentially this school is paying me for the use of my name and degree on their accreditation paperwork. I have almost nothing to do with the meager education the students are receiving. An average to bright middle school student would have no trouble acing the classes I'm teaching now. The courses are entirely prepackaged. My duties in one representative class are to grade two exams and one paper, answer any emails, and participate on discussion boards on a weekly basis. It is not a big time sink. For this I am paid 3-4k per class depending on a variety of factors, on a per hour basis, the wages are high. I feel a little badly about the quality of education these students are getting, on the other hand they are almost exclusively military veterans who are looking to check off "college degree" on their resume. I think they are mostly getting what they want and are paying for. Still, I don't know how long I'll keep doing this.

tl;dr: Online courses; a mixed bag.
posted by pseudonick at 1:18 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found lectures frustrating as an (in person) undergraduate, but pre-recorded lectures as a distance learning graduate student are infuriating. They're all either written out in advance or have been transcribed afterwards, so there's no advantage for me to the school providing them as "lectures" rather than readings except that they appear to be some slightly better simulacra of the classroom experience. I guess some people learn better from listening then from reading, but it also takes a lot longer.
posted by Jahaza at 1:36 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, they sometimes charge us extra for the media that the lectures are provided on.
posted by Jahaza at 1:37 PM on February 22, 2013


eah, I majored in archaeology, and of my 11 fellow majors, we're actually doing okay! Not all of us are still in archaeology or a related field, but that's true of most college majors. None of us were trust fund babies. There are archaeology majors at Google, there are classicists who are lawyers, there are medieval historians who end up doing banking. Why is it always necessary to deride other fields of research?

Point taken. In my zeal to make a point, I overstated the case. Nevertheless, the point stands - i.e. college education has become a functional tool that alerts potential employers that 'this person may have the goods". That's a sorry state for us to be in, but here we are. Thus, like so many other things that become commodities, 'education' (as we know it, today) finds itself in a a race to the price bottom - with some able to afford the "bells and whistles" version (Harvard, Stanford, etc.), and others the "low rent" version (MOOCs). Thus, this continuing stratification of society, and the slow death by a thousand cuts to the tradition that was a college education.
posted by Vibrissae at 2:26 PM on February 22, 2013


I'm currently getting a master's degree completely online from a top-100 school. I'm hoping the stigma of an online degree will be somewhat mitigated by the fact that it's a (fairly) top school in the U.S.

It's difficult to gauge how "good" the course is compared with my undergraduate coursework at a traditional state college fifteen years ago. Then, I was rudderless and didn't know what the hell I wanted to do, and my days in college were filled with a constant "why am I here?" doubt sublimated throughout all my courses.

Now, I'm far more motivated and have much more specific academic goals. The online courses are considerably more challenging than my undergraduate courses were. Of course, that just may be an indication of my learning style; I get more out of reading multiple sources rather than listen to someone talk.

The courses aren't perfect, and every now and then there are outright errors with the online materials, but doesn't that happen in the real world as well? There are improvements I would like to see with online courses, and in another decade I’m sure online courses will be even better. And with improved technology on the user end then these classes will improve all the more. Eventually.
posted by zardoz at 4:01 PM on February 22, 2013


Glad to hear from the handful of other academics who are as worried as I am about the Obama/Pell grant/No Child Left Behind situation.

Here's my idea, guys: if brick-and-mortar and astronomically rising numbers of administrators are what are causing college costs to rise, grants have been unmoored from accreditation, and so many of us teaching are being treated for shit anyway (trigger warning: adjunct salaries), why don't faculty form our own online universities, based on our strengths and the other academics we love to work with? Cmon, you know you have one brilliant paper-writing partner who got stuck at a university somewhere across the country, who you'd love to spend all your time co-teaching and developing curricula with, rather than that obstructionist asshole who's been monopolizing your faculty meetings...

If anyone's game, I'd be happy to start some sort of degree-granting program centered on social studies of technology...
posted by gusandrews at 4:59 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


In other education news: Insist That People Coexisted With Dinosaurs…and Get an A in Science Class!
posted by homunculus at 5:43 PM on February 22, 2013


Obama quietly unshackled Pell scholarships from accredited schools, instead making it so this government money can go to any school that can "prove student outcomes."...

...grants have been unmoored from accreditation


You keep saying this as though it were already true, but it isn't. Though I agree that the New America Foundation piece suggests — and I also agree it's a terrifying and destructive suggestion — that outcomes-based "reform" neoliberals connected to the Obama administration want to detach Federal financial-aid dollars from the existing system of accreditation, no one has even come close to making that happen. It was just discussed in a line of a document released after the State of the Union, not legislated or made into any kind of policy. As of now, federal financial aid, Pell grants and Stafford loans and so on, can only be used at accredited colleges and universities. It may seem likely that the existing accreditation system will soon come under attack, but it hasn't yet happened.
posted by RogerB at 6:16 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh lordy, I misread. Thanks for catching the error, Roger. So, yeah -- I still hold that when neoliberals and Republicans push this through, it will be a far bigger problem than MOOCs could possibly be alone.
posted by gusandrews at 6:54 PM on February 22, 2013


MOOCs are just a method. The problem is not the methods, nor the technologies -- it is the "fibrillation" of the whole system (chaos theory: a system in fibrillation will either cease to exist or transform to a new level).

Educational systems are the lightning rod of the 'poverty hysteria' of our time -- they have taken on the false stance that they can no longer have the 'luxury' of offering a real education. As public funding dwindles, the hysteria shapes their reality: no one really needs education; they need jobs.

As long as educational systems are based on false beliefs (career certification for grads and 'marketability' profits for schools) they will perpetuate the warfare between the parties involved (more 'short cuts'/cheating by cynical students; more 'false degrees' and cost-cutting by schools). Classic schismogenesis.

Online college work just amplifies the interaction.

When the real conversation ("What is learning; what is worth learning?") becomes the main conversation, then perhaps the methods will be worth discussing, too.
posted by Surfurrus at 7:50 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


gusandrews: Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller remain faculty at Stanford, they still actually get up and teach classes outside of Coursera for the university, and Ng remains the head of Stanford AI Lab. Sebastian Thrun remains part-time faculty, although he doesn't teach. You can't say that there aren't professors involved at the highest levels.
posted by curuinor at 9:06 PM on February 22, 2013


When the real conversation ("What is learning; what is worth learning?") becomes the main conversation, then perhaps the methods will be worth discussing, too.
Amen, Surfurrus. My (anthropologist) advisor's interesting and institution-busting take on the former question is that all enculturation is learning, and vice versa. He also blogs here.
posted by gusandrews at 12:21 PM on February 23, 2013


The article in question here is stupid. Anyone who is really paying close attention to the advent of MOOC's and how they may or may not change higher education in the future knows that advocacy for or skepticism of MOOC's does not in any way break along the right-left divide. The suggestion that MOOC's are some sort of conspiracy hatched by right wingers to destroy higher education is moronic. That being said, I do not doubt that there are those on both sides of the political spectrum who may use MOOC's as a tool to advance whatever their agenda might be.

On-line is no worse than the product a lot of State schools sell on-campus

Just to be clear, what a lot of state school "sell" on campus is no different from what a lot of elite private schools are selling. The product is the same.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:09 PM on February 23, 2013


enculturation is learning, and vice versa.

Those are fascinating links, qusandrews. I would be good to see all disciplines have such articulate challenges. It reminds me a bit of Bateson's writings about education ("no one can teach; we can only learn")

I am reminded of something I asked an 8th grade class about 30 years ago: "If you were given a tool - like something on your wrist - that could give you access to any and all facts you needed (in an instant), WHY would you go to school?"

Obviously, this is where we are now.

As an educator ('educational guerilla'), this question is the one that has challenged me -- and the one that has guided me.
posted by Surfurrus at 7:00 PM on February 23, 2013


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