Out to Pasture: Herding Education to Slaughter
May 29, 2014 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Friedrich Nietzsche, famously a full professor at the tender age of 24, was in a good position to develop an acute sensitivity to the university as machine: "The student listens to lectures . . . Very often the student writes at the same time he listens to lectures. These are the moments when he dangles from the umbilical cord of the university. The teacher . . . is cut off by a monumental divide from the consciousness of his students . . . A speaking mouth and many, many ears, with half as many writing hands: that is the external apparatus of the academy; set in motion, that is the educational machinery of the university."

Today, we are living in an age in which many are poised to cut this umbilical cord altogether, while others would prefer to keep the connection, but stretch the flesh all the way around the globe, so it can double as a fibre optic cable.

Like the economy itself, higher education seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis. In the United States – where I have worked for nearly ten years– universities nevertheless like to consider themselves the last bastions of true homegrown industry. Despite the mushrooming of new educational institutions in China, the Middle East, and South America, the operating assumption here is that everyone around the world desires an American education. ‘This country may not make things anymore,’ so the logic goes, ‘but we still produce the finest minds the world has to offer, no matter the field.’ Whether this is an accurate representation of reality or not, a college education in the US is still a precious thing, at least for those who can afford it.

Professors, however, and other educators, are not necessarily so excited about the vision of the future these online evangelists paint for the panting pundits. Indeed they are concerned about what is already happening in terms of implementing (some would say ‘forcing’) the change. In the pedagogic trenches, MOOCs are considered a symptom of wider economic patterns which effectively vacuum resources up into the financial stratosphere, leaving those doing the actual work with many more responsibilities, and far less compensation. Basic questions about the sustainability of this model remain unanswered, but it is clear that there is little room for enfranchised, full-time, fully-compensated faculty. Instead, we find an army of adjuncts servicing thousands of students; a situation which brings to mind scenes from Metropolis rather than Dead Poets Society.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (13 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
But a lot of it is built in to the tax structures and priorities of the country, whereby bombs outweigh books by a million-to-one.

Is there a Dewey Decimal System for bombs?
posted by oceanjesse at 3:55 PM on May 29, 2014

They work much better for math and computer science. Particularly the core courses for already motivated students.

There is absolutely no replacement for hating studying. If you don't hate studying, you aren't studying.

Sitting down and doing differential equations for two hours totally blows. The real issue is people looking for ways around the burn.
posted by jjmoney at 4:32 PM on May 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

I didn't think this article was very good, even though I tend to be sympathetic with the conclusion.

I'm very, very skeptical about MOOCs. (I teach, incidentally.) But most of us don't really know much about their actual strengths and weaknesses. And we can't know enough about those without looking at actual empirical data. I see no reason whatsoever to think that "DOCC"s are an improvement of any kind over MOOCs. Many academicians might swoon over the feminist/lefty-speak surrounding them, but they actually sound even less promising to me than MOOCs.

I was encouraged to put together an online critical thinking course for our department, but said no because I'm concerned that MOOCs and similar things something something something the downfall of Western civilization. I think students need teachers...but I don't know why... So it's currently just a hunch... Recently I've started doing that course (CT) as a "blended" course--that is, the students do more work on their own, online, out of class. We meet twice per week instead of three times. The third class period I use for extra office hours, and I've found that more students come to them. The thing about a good CT course is, students need to do a lot of exercises. A whole lot. Spending a lot of energy writing a bunch of really good exercises, directing more of the students energy at doing them, and freeing up what is, in effect, class time for more 1-on-1 interaction (for those who take advantage of it) seems--so far--to work pretty well. And the stuff you put online you can get exactly right--or as right as you can get it anyway. You won't blow some chunk of material because you didn't sleep well, or because you were distracted.

Plus ha ha screw you, administrators: it makes the class better, but doesn't do anything to encourage making it bigger...

On a slightly different note: though I'm skeptical of MOOCs, I'm skeptical of what we do now in universities, too. I teach at a good regional school. Honestly, I don't think we, as a university, do a very good job, y'know, educating students. I've sometimes called what we do 13th-16th grades... I know some students--especially in the sciences--are busting their asses and learning something. But I also see a fair number of students who still don't seem to have learned much by the time they'r ready to graduate. They've gone through a lot of textbooks... Most of them have majors that aren't very hard. Many of those majors are vocational training masquerading as college majors...

Mostly I think that most schools just don't do a great job doing what they often seem to pride themselves on--teaching students to think. In a lot of the humanities and some of the social sciences, students simply pick up a kind of gobbledygook free-association masquerading as reasoning. OTOH, I've been told by far more than one science student that they spend too much time memorizing things and doing the math to really learn to think. So I'm not sure that MOOCs really are such a big step backward. Our classes are too big already...it's not like students get that much Socratic 1-on-1 with their profs. MOOCs might suck...but maybe no worse than college already sucks...

OTOH, the best professor I ever had told me that he suspected that students picked up intellectual character traits and habits of mind from their professors that are more important than any specific propositions they might learn....and I think that might be true.

So, to summarize this mess, my current guess is that technology can best be used in conjunction with normal teaching as two aspects of the same class. Students get exposure to a professor, but the work that can be done by students online--in their own time, when they most feel like it, when the spirit moves them, in the comfort of their own apartments--is done online. Students like that, and it's good for professors, too. It relieves you of the tedium of doing the more mindless stuff over and over and over for 40 years. Much of what goes on in almost any class can actually be done better like that.

My $0.02
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:58 PM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

At most universities, the undergraduate population is huge. Professors lecture for an hour or two a week in front of 3-500 students. Then the TAs (Teaching Assistants; graduate students) have smaller classes (30-50 students) where the interaction "engage the material" (supposedly) takes place.

Not much difference methinks from listening to someone lecture up on a stage or watching it on a monitor of some sort. Telepresence...you know? You don't interact with lectures anyway....

And yeah, I know quite a few professors who won't allow recording or any kind of broadcast of their lectures. I think a big part of this is like that old New Yorker cartoon:

::guy walking into home carrying papers and books; says to wife:: "I've been replaced by a videotape of me teaching!"

Many universities are attempting to monetize this though; "distance education" and "on-line learning" and other courses that are very $$$ and lead to some kind of certification or degree.

post script: I feel fortunate to be able to view a TED talk rather than having to attend a lecture at a U somewhere....
posted by CrowGoat at 5:43 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also see a fair number of students who still don't seem to have learned much by the time they'r ready to graduate.
Whatever else they are or are not doing, many of them are helping to pay for the large apparatus of the university to make itself available to the ones that are busting their ass to take advanatage of it. So that's something.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:48 PM on May 29, 2014

An astute random commenter on the internets last year said: "A MOOC is like a textbook."

A good MOOC can potentially be a pretty decent learning enhancing device, just like a good textbook can, and a shoddy MOOC will just be annoying and eventually discarded, as has been seen. The real issue was that MOOCs were being over-hyped as the future of all educations as we know it, and it implied a cheap way for colleges to trawl for fees on a minimal budget, but Distance Education requires a reasonable investment in instructor feedback in order to be effective.
posted by ovvl at 5:50 PM on May 29, 2014

What’s more, experience has shown that online discussion boards are no replacement for face-to-face interaction; for talking through ideas, methods, or techniques.

Maybe so. On the other hand, that gives the MOOC People a challenge, an incentive to improve their discussion fora to the point where they can come closer to the ideal. When I took a Udacity course, they perhaps hadn't got very far yet compared to what is possible. It was the first time that class had happened, and strange to think of future students repeating in their own ways most of the discussions that were going on, in their own future instances of the same forum. It had a little something that has gone missing from well-known online communities, that sense of isolation and impermanence which I find conducive to open discussion. You don't get that on Metafilter for example, where every comment is visible to the whole world and will probably remain so forever. It's easy to forget that most of the time, but it's just not the same as something like a mailing list formed for a particular temporary purpose, with a limited number of participants most of whose names you recognize, everyone there with the intent of talking through ideas, methods, or whatever is appropriate to the course. Thinking of MOOC classes artificially splitting up their students into groups like they presumably still do somehow brings to mind not the university setting where that happens naturally, but more of a martial form of organization, fresh recruits being mechanistically split up into little groups with the idea of promoting some kind of social cohesion. There are all kinds of other ways it might work. Perhaps there will be some innovation.
posted by sfenders at 6:30 PM on May 29, 2014

where professors are forced to stuff the warm gelatinous sculptures of their conceptual edifice into the cold Tupperware boxes of mythical categorical clarity

Speaking of The New Yorker, do they still run that little "Block That Metaphor" thing down at the bottom of columns?
posted by thelonius at 6:40 PM on May 29, 2014

I think the basic conflict is that as a society we need to be asking what these futuristic educational institutions cultivate on the whole—independent thought, or dependent thought. And whether as a civilized society, which kind we want to encourage.
posted by polymodus at 10:53 PM on May 29, 2014

What’s more, experience has shown that online discussion boards are no replacement for face-to-face interaction; for talking through ideas, methods, or techniques.

I know I am biased because I took part of both my undergraduate and post-graduate courses by distance learning (and not MOOCs - back in the old days - for my undergraduate stuff you were still sent huge learning packs and sent back in hardcopy papers) and this whole idea that you NEED face-to-face learning to understand anything doesn't hold up for me. And yes, I have taken subjects where there were weekly tutorial groups where we discussed etc. Sometimes fun, a lot of time a waste of time.

Distance education is an old concept, and has been serving a lot of people very well before MOOCs, before the internet. I'm not saying University can't be a great experience 'in the flesh' but working on making studies more accessible to more people using current technology is frankly a good thing. I find it very interesting that many people I read/hear talking about the horror of MOOCs or internet lead learning are the same people who would happily trill about 'checking your privilege' on most topics, but don't seem to think it applies to the privilege of being able to physically attend a university.
posted by Megami at 11:23 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

An astute random commenter on the internets last year said: "A MOOC is like a textbook."

To me, a simpler comparison is rhat a mooc combines the UK's Open University, which has been running for like fifty years, with the educative majesty of youtube comments.

Or, to be less snarky, they do the same thing my mom's videotape oriented correspondence courses did in the 80s, but on computers and faster.

Not nothing, as distance education has always worked and been important for some students, but about as revolutionary as a mystery novel where it turns out the butler did it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:30 AM on May 30, 2014

I have such a hard time with this topic because

this whole idea that you NEED face-to-face learning to understand anything doesn't hold up for me

absolutely, online education caters exactly to how I learn anyway. And some of the claims people make... I mean just to start, the idea that a video of a lecture is worse than a lecture somehow? Despite the fact that are enabled to watch it whenever you actually have time and are awake. And that you can rewatch any part if you lose focus instead of having to tediously take notes to make sure you don't miss anything?

But at the same time I realize that isn't how everybody learns (I'm the guy who used to intentionally skip any class before 10:30 AM or so and learn it from the textbook), and even more so I'm of course worried about what happens to the teachers (a profession which, not coincidentally, has ensnared just about every member of my family at some point) in the same way I am dozens of other middle-class professions threatened by technologies that otherwise I would love.
posted by atoxyl at 1:38 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, academics can fight back if they don't like it, or even better use that same medium to shape the conversation the way they want it. Somehow we (academics) have been handed with a gigantic megaphone, let's say something interesting with it. This might require rethinking a bit what it is that academics actually do, and if we couldn't do it better. In other words, the dinosaurs might have found their meteorite.

I am preparing a course on Coursera starting June 23rd. It's called "Massive Teaching: new skills required" and addressed, it seems, to many of the posters in this thread.

I think teaching on the web should happen very differently than what is currently done. Here is a sample video from the first week:

Here is the outline, but bear in mind that the first week is positive about MOOCs, while the remaining two are much more critical:

And here is my background, as it is relevant to this:

Join me in the class if you would like! And yes, this is social, so get your colleagues to enroll as well!
posted by b9492e7f929dab23426aa2b344d3d5bef083f7e1 at 3:00 PM on May 30, 2014

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