From Here

A revised (mostly shortened) version of a paper that I gave at UBC in October. This version was presented at the Modern Languages Association, here in Vancouver a couple of days ago, for a panel on “Rhetoric of Crisis and the Politics of Cuts”.

“From Here: ‘Flexible Learning,’ the Specter of MOOCs,
and the University’s ‘New Business Model,’”

A few years ago my university rebranded itself, adopting the slogans “From Here” and “A Place of Mind.” The marketing whizzkids came out with a series of posters that consisted of full-colour photos of scenes from Vancouver and around the British Columbian mainland with the tag-line “From Here.” Few of these images illustrate the university campus or indeed any other recognizable academic premises. So, for instance, one poster depicts a solitary young woman in the middle of what is apparently verdant wilderness, looking out towards mountain peaks in the mid-distance. Printed prominently above her is the declaration “Human Rights Defended From Here.”

From Here

I used to pass this poster every Monday evening as I taught a class on “Human and Civil Rights in Latin America” at the university’s downtown campus, not in some solitary idyll but with a full complement of garrulous students. Each week, the purpose of the poster would bewilder me more. My students equally had no idea. If anything, it seemed (and seems) a bizarrely ethereal conception of the university as a place that (despite the slogan) has no actual physical location, and thus no need of material resources. Who needs buildings? Or even teachers? Or fellow students? A “place of mind” is not, apparently, a place in the real world of human interaction and sociability, even if is a vantage point from which (supposedly) pressing social issues such as human rights might be somehow addressed. A “place of mind” is an idea of the university emptied out. It is the endpoint of the process presciently described by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins when he argues that the university is now organized around a conception of “excellence” that “no longer has a specific content” (17). As Readings puts it, “what is crucial about terms like ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ (and even ‘University’ at times)”–I would add, today especially “University”–“is that they no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas” (17). Hence we are now have a “posthistorical University, the university without an idea” (118). And while it is worth criticizing this in itself–for what, in the end, is a university without ideas?–Readings also argues that this is part and parcel of the institution’s corporatization and its succumbing to the logic of the market. It is further worth pointing out that (for all its aspirations and claims) the university makes for a notably poor and inefficient corporation. Google or Facebook, let alone Ford or General Motors, have a much better sense of what they are about. The university as means without ends, means without meanings, is in no fit shape to compete with them.


Enter the MOOC, or the “Massive Online Open Course,” which strangely mimics the ethereal nature of the “From Here” brand. The MOOC, a set of distributed classes independent of institutions, takes literally the suggestion that learning can take place anywhere. It says: who needs universities, anyway? In response, UBC’s provost, in his gushing introduction to a presentation by Daphne Koller, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Which is revealing not simply because it is above all business that occupies the provost’s mind. But because it is a recognition that in converting itself into a business, the university has done it wrong. No wonder that, despite the gush, the provost could be described as “spooked” by the coming of the MOOCs. And then perhaps on the principle (if indeed principles are at issue) of better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t, the university quickly and enthusiastically, and with little in the way of consultation, signed up for a partnership with Coursera, this venture-capital upstart, and started throwing resources at what it calls “flexible learning” while withdrawing them from, for instance, the Faculty of Arts. Since then, however, like the most fickle of lovers, we learn (but not why) that we are ditching Coursera for EdX. But whoever the partner may be, MOOCs or something like them, we are breathlessly told, are the future. And the university, which for all its talk of innovation and “from here” is desperate to copy whatever Stanford or Harvard, McGraw-Hill or Pearson, are perceived as doing, and so to welcome what emphatically comes “from there,” has therefore jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance.

The problem is this: MOOCs and the like can only be framed as the future by means of a shocking ignorance or amnesia about the past. For almost everything that this so-called revolution in learning claims to offer was promised, and indeed anxiously anticipated, by an earlier generation of theorists and critics of higher education, such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. We should, after all, hardly fear a challenge to the education system. The university has historically been challenged, and rightly so, on a whole series of counts. Massive Open education has been a radical dream for at least half a century. What is new with the MOOC is only its cooptation by capital, and the supine and superficial reaction it has provoked in university leaders who have forgotten the true purpose of education. Educational technologists Brian Lamb and Jim Groom argue that we have to “reclaim innovation,” for there is nothing innovative about “bringing things to market.” There is nothing innovative about selling things. Innovation has to be reclaimed from this banal reduction to the norms of the market. Similarly, we have to reclaim the MOOC. Rather than the lack of ambition inherent in the notion of responding to McGraw-Hill, our aim should be to continue the best traditions of the university, even and especially when they involve long-standing critiques of the university. And we can, and should, do it (really) “from here.”

Read this as a PDF document.

Zapatos en las piedras

Zapatos en las piedras poster

Raúl Gatica (ed.), Zapatos en las piedras: Seis narradoras(es) latinos en Canadá / Shoes on the Rocks: Six Latin American Storytellers in Canada (Oaxaca: 1450, 2013)

Reading a bilingual book can make for an odd experience. There is something both excessive and strangely tantalizing about it, depending in part on your own linguistic expertise. If, after all, you can read both languages, the doubled text can seem surplus to requirements, leaving you with a slight conundrum: which version to read? But if you are able to read only one of the two, some frustration or doubt may ensue: does the translation match the “original”? Are you really reading the same text as others are? By trying to be inclusive, to appeal to as many potential readers as possible, bilingualism also necessarily introduces divisions and questions about the limits of inclusiveness, the price to be paid for any such gesture.

It is appropriate, then, that such issues arise in a book by migrant writers: in this instance, Latin Americans in Canada. For migration and exile also always give rise to queries about limits and boundaries, dilemmas and choices, translation and inclusion. There is something unsettling about an acknowledgement that borders are not fixed, and that the same object, the same text, can look very different depending on where we are coming from. And though it is true that none of the stories in this thought-provoking collection are directly about the “Latino-Canadian experience” (whatever that may be), it is interesting that they are often concerned with the paradoxes of excess and insufficiency, too much and too little, and with the problem of (mis)matches.

For instance, the collection’s opening story, an excellent little parable by Dafne Blanco, traces the disconcerting effects of what is at first a very slight disturbance: somehow, people’s “socks were disappearing, that is, only one from each pair” (25). Everyone, then, is forced to go about with unmatched footwear. Reactions vary: the Justice of the Peace avoids the topic; others “walk around unabashed as in a ridiculous parade” (26); the narrator forces his children to wear boots; a black market in matching socks provides the rich with a “symbol of social status” (27); the pharmacist creates an illusion of symmetry with paint and adhesive tape; and the beggars on the church steps wear “plastic bags of matching hues covering their lower extremities” (29). Ultimately, the mystery is perhaps resolved in the person of Doña Jacinta, the local coffee vendor who is seen wandering off with “an enormous sack, seemingly full of little rags, which never leaves her sight.” Doña Jacinta is also known for serving watered-down coffee that gives the story its title: “Agua de Calcetín”; “Sock Extract.” Is a diluted drink too much (water) or too little (coffee)? It is both at the same time. But rather than complaining, the narrator praises the variety and unpredictability that results: it “tastes a little different every day, it is always so flavourful; what is your secret?” (29).

Other stories contain other tales of mismatch: unrequited or excessive love or desire, for instance, in Mónica Paz’s “La catadora” (“The Taster”) or Raúl Gatica’s “Al revés” (“Upside Down”). Heinz Avendaño’s “Donde hay cenizas, fuego queda” (“Where There is Ash, Fire Remains”) features a lover who literally ingests his beloved, as though to thereby eliminate the drastic distance that has come between them. Two tales revolve around surprises thrown up by gender ambiguity or transsexuality: in Avendaño’s “Alejandra e Ignacio” (“Alejandro and Ignacio”), a dinner date brings a twist to the friendship between old schoolmates; in Rosas Rojas’s “Mujeres” (“Women”), a couple fight when a secret is revealed. Indeed, consistently these stories of disparity and difference (too much or too little, or both) revolve around secrets of some kind. The collection is permeated with a vague sense of uncertainty and unsettlement, with an ever-present feeling of potential transformation or dislocation. What becomes important is how people react to and live with such uncertainty, how they become open to difference or try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

There is nothing wrong with a little uncertainty. Indeed, many of the contributions to this collection encourage the notion that any event can and should have a multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations. One of my favourite stories is also perhaps the darkest: Dafne Blanco’s “Juicio sumario” (“Summary Trial”) revolves around two deaths. A mother has died, and her demise brings her now grown-up children together–but also sets them apart–as they are prompted to think back to their father’s death from suicide, some eighteen years previously. He had killed himself in peculiarly unnecessary (“corny” [80]) and spectacular fashion: hanging in his bathrobe from the chandelier in the library. He had left a note, “peeking out of his pocket,” not fully contained by his clothing, but by contrast this was too little: it said “Yes, I did it,” without explaining what “it” may have been (77). Each child therefore imagines his or her own take on the mystery, the source of their father’s guilt, none of which quite matches. And though ultimately we seem to be given the “right” answer, this is not to say that the others are wrong, because each is an insight to some aspect of the patriarch’s character. Their excessiveness is somehow appropriate, though even so they are all somehow insufficient, for we can never know exactly what someone else feels or thinks. The best we can manage is one attempt after another to interpret and understand, in as many languages as we can.

In sum, this is a fine and well-written (and well-translated) collection of stories. It is varied and inclusive enough to satisfy different moods or allow diverse approaches to similar themes and preoccupations. But it is short enough to leave us wanting more.

MOOCs and the Humanities

Watchmen ClockSo, there’s a lot of fuss about online and “flexible” learning, MOOCs, and the like these days. My posts on Eric Mazur and Coursera have drawn a fair amount of traffic to this otherwise rather neglected and sporadically updated blog. Welcome, new readers.

Another post on my blog

Let me make a couple of points clear:

1) I am not against technology, least of all online technology, in education. If anything I’m an early adopter. I’ve been using blogs in my courses for as long as I can remember. I was one of the first to use Wikipedia, in a rather successful project on the Latin American Dictator Novel. Indeed, a commenter over at “More or Less Bunk” very kindly said “The touchstone here is Jon Beasley-Murray’s Murder, Madness, and Mayhem class. In terms of exploiting the pedagogical potential of the web, nothing else even comes close.” He or she continues:

But MM&M did not turn Beasley-Murray into a global celebrity, nor has it inflamed the hearts of neoliberal university trustees–for the simple reason that, unlike the MOOC, it doesn’t feed into the techno-utopian fantasy of automating higher education and driving its price to zero.

Indeed. It is not technology that is at issue or at fault here. It is the shallow, decontextualized, and unthinking way in which it is presented and equally thoughtlessly lapped up by an institution that has apparently lost its way.

2) I’m not even particularly against MOOCs. In fact, I’m so not against MOOCs that I have spent much of this past year helping to start something that may turn out to be something of a DIY, home-grown MOOC. We’re calling it Arts One Digital.

But the challenge in all my experiments with technology in the classroom, and perhaps above all with Arts One Digital, is how to use it effectively in the Arts and Humanities.

Here at my institution, at least, the discussion (such as it is) about flexible learning and MOOCs has been dominated by the sciences. For instance, at the Coursera event, not one of the contributors to the debate came from the Arts or Humanities: not Koller herself, not the panel (which was chaired by the Dean of Sciences), not the introduction (by the Provost, a Chemist). All the questions from the floor were also by scientists, bar one from a member of the Faculty of Education (who asked about Coursera’s business model; subsequent discussion was quickly shut down). Concluding remarks came from a Vice President who is in the Arts, but an Economist (that “dismal science”). Even so, quite bizarrely, at one point the moderator felt the need to “put in a word for the sciences”! Yet most people I know in the Humanities weren’t even aware of the event, or the subsequent talk by Eric Mazur (a Physicist), introduced by the Academic Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology (also a Physicist).

Perhaps the oddest thing is that the Faculty of Education itself is barely present and certainly not officially represented on my university’s Flexible Learning Leadership Team or its Implementation Team (which comprises an Economist, a Physicist, a Zoologist, a Management Consultant, a Geologist, and yet another Management Consultant). If I were a member of that Faculty, I would be livid at the lack of faith the university places in the people it pays to be its experts on education. It’s astonishing. This strange marginalization of the real experts explains in part the shallowness of the thinking and knowledge on pedagogy that is repeatedly on display. At the end of the video of his talk, as he is taking off his microphone, you can hear Eric Mazur turning to the session chair and asking him if he had ever heard of Paulo Freire’s classic text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Sadly, we don’t hear the chair’s response.

What are the consequences of this sidelining of the Arts and Humanities? This has been discussed at length elsewhere, but I want to note a couple of points…

1) The model for online student learning and assessment is almost completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its dependence on multiple-choice tests. This has been perhaps the focus of critique of MOOCs from the Humanities, but it’s obvious enough that the kinds of thinking and response expected in the Humanities is very poorly assessed by multiple choice. There are alternatives, particularly peer grading, but these bring with them their own problems as anyone who has ever incorporated peer feedback into a Humanities course knows.

2) The model for conventional teaching practice is likewise completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its dependence on lectures. I was surprised by Mazur’s contention that we are subject to the “tyranny of the lecture” as though that were the only medium of instruction in the contemporary university. In my nine years at my current job, I have only ever given four formal lectures–all of which, incidentally, I gave in the past year. At least in my corner of the Humanities, we teach almost exclusively in a seminar format (and I never use a textbook). This doesn’t mean that my classes are tiny–this is a large state institution, and numbers range from about 15 to 50. My general rule of thumb for a seminar is that if the professor talks for more than ten minutes consecutively at any one time, then something is going wrong. I do break this rule, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because something is indeed going wrong. But I bear it in mind constantly. If that’s a “flipped classroom,” we have it already.

3) The model for the course curriculum is also, in turn, completely derived from the Sciences, particularly its basic continuity from year to year. My eyebrows were raised at Koller’s contention that lecturing was “easy” because all you do is dust down last year’s notes. Of the four lectures I have given at UBC, none had been given before; and I don’t expect ever to give them again. This is in large part precisely why I wanted them to be recorded and put on line. (See me lecture on Robinson Crusoe here and here. You won’t have another chance!) More generally (and I recognize that I may be slightly unusual here), I very seldom teach the same course twice, and when I do I try to avoid if at all possible setting the same texts again. The range of what I am paid to teach–generally, Latin American literature and culture–is so wide that I feel I should try to do as much justice as I can to that breadth and diversity. Equally importantly, I do not want to be stuck teaching (say) Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende for the rest of my days. Even when I return to García Márquez, for instance, we’ll read a different one of his novels every year.

All of this is in addition to the fact that, when the Arts and Humanities are left out as they have been, almost all sense of history, politics, and culture is also elided. This is not to say that Science is apolitical (far from it) or that scientists are not political animals. It is merely to point out that some of us in the Arts and Humanities are paid (by the university) to teach and think about issues such as the history of education and educational reform, the politics of the institution and previous missions civilisatrices, and/or the cultural differences that a company such as Coursera wants so blandly to homogenize. So, for instance, I am paid to know a little about Latin America, which is why Koller’s unthinking condescension about Peru and Peruvians jumped out at me. But there are many other voices missing from the debate–so much so that it is barely even a debate, as any dissent is stifled in the name of efficiency and in the face of bewildered enthusiasm for what is (supposedly) new and shiny.

The Arts and Humanities should have a vital role, critical and self-reflexive, that would complicate current discussion of technology in the classroom, and more broadly enhance our understanding of the university’s many challenges and possibilities in a global, wired world. But what we get instead is kneejerk enthusiasm and self-defeating short-termism. This is not the fault of the Sciences themselves–they should clearly and obviously be part of the conversation, too. It is, rather, the fault of an administration and senior management that has for some reason lost faith in its own mission and its own values, and in the people that it itself employs to think about and even question that mission and those values.

Coursera Condescension

Daphne KollerYesterday I watched the video of Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, speaking at UBC a couple of weeks ago. After her presentation, three UBC professors who have taught or are currently teaching a Coursera MOOC contributed to a panel discussion.

In many ways, neither the talk nor the discussion were particularly illuminating. Koller gave a talk that, I understand, she has been giving for some time. It’s the basic schtick for Coursera: “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.” It begins with the mathematical sublime, stunning us with the sheer numbers who register or show initial interest in Coursera offerings. And it transitions smoothly through the prestige of the universities who have signed up so far (“30 of the top 60 universities worldwide,” represented by their logos) to the pathos of individual cases.

For the first of three “vignettes” that she provides, we dwell on Raúl Coaguila, a Peruvian who won a Fulbright, we are told, thanks to his Coursera expertise. Because the fact is, Koller informs us, there is “not very much computer education to be had in Peru.” Only Coursera could give him this opportunity, dedicated as the company is to “people whose lives have been transformed by education that they would never otherwise have had.”

As soon as I heard this, I wanted to call bullshit. Because I’ve been to Lima (and Cuzco and Trujillo and Huamanga…) and pretty much all you see are endless adverts for computer courses at the multitude of local colleges and universities. Try for instance, the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas or the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería. Or even the venerable Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which has been teaching computing for over seventy years. Heck, this October you could take part in the V Congreso Internacional de Computación y Telecomunicación, hosted at the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

What, did Koller think they live in mud huts down there?

In fact, if this is the same Raúl Coaguila whose user page you can find on the Coursera site (and it’s likely: 24 year old male from Lima, Peru, with a strong interest in computing), then in fact he did his BA in software engineering at (precisely) the aforesaid Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas. Indeed, his LinkedIn profile suggests that he has been teaching there for the past three years.

Now, none of this is to say that putting Coursera on his CV didn’t help Raúl in his Fulbright application. Nor that he isn’t a Coursera fan. On the contrary: he’s clearly heavily involved in the site, listing 21 courses from “Machine Learning” to “Introduction to Guitar.” (It’s not clear how many–if any–of these he’s completed.) And he’s satisfied with his experience enough to encourage his followers on Twitter to vote for the company as “Best Education Startup” in the 2012 Crunchie Awards. Sadly for Raúl, they only came second, losing out to Codecademy. But he’s also a fan of sky-diving (hardly a regular past-time of Lima’s urban poor), and who knows if that influenced his Fulbright assessors just as much, if not more, than his application’s mention of Coursera.

Let me stress that in no way do I want to suggest that Raúl Coaguila is an undeserving recipient of a Fulbright. I wish him well in his future studies (and hope he takes care with his sky-diving).

But I do object to the romanticized pathos invoked by Koller (here and increasingly as her talk goes on): the conceit that Coursera’s object is to lift up the impoverished in Latin America, Africa, and the Third World more generally. Or the notion that North American universities’ participation with her company is the best way to make up for lack of educational capacity in the global South. Beyond the immense condescension and ignorance that it betrays on her part, I bet she isn’t spinning this line to her venture-capital investors. And I’d rather she didn’t spin it to us.

Eric Mazur and the Suppression of a Utopian Past

Eric MazurThe past few days my institution has been hosting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has made a name for himself in the world of “flexible learning” for his tweaks to the university lecture format to create what is sometimes called a “flipped classroom.”

His visit was much hyped by the university, and drew a large crowd. As he himself tells us, it was his fourth lecture in as many countries and as many days. Mazur is a big shot.

Essentially, his pedagogical tweaks involve the use of technology to incorporate student feedback and discussion. His technique is for the lecturer to introduce a concept, then pose a question. After responses to the question have been gathered, students discuss their answers among themselves before answering the question again; the lecturer goes over the correct answer and moves on. The point is that ideally students will have taught each other during the discussion phase, as will be demonstrated by their improved responses the second time they answer the same question. Not a bad idea per se, but hardly earth-shattering.

In short, Mazur argues for the inclusion of brief bouts of so-called formative assessment in what is otherwise a rather traditional teaching model. Mazur calls this “peer instruction.” He has a book on the topic. These days, more importantly, he also has a website he’d like to sell you. And so the product pitch is on.

Because otherwise there was little of any substance to his presentation. Yesterday, Mazur spent the first third of his uninterrupted two-hour spiel with some fairly jokey and anecdotal critique of the lecture format as a vehicle for student learning. The second third was devoted to selling us on the peer instruction technique. And the final third was a pitch for the product itself.

Pedagogy of the OppressedMazur’s thoughts on pedagogical theory were astonishingly superficial and, frankly, uninformed. Early on in the lecture, in response to a question, someone in the audience mentioned Paulo Freire’s “banking model”. For this indeed was precisely what Mazur was saying, that (in Freire’s words) in the conventional system:

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

But Mazur had patently never heard of Freire. Nor, it seems, was he aware of any other aspect of educational theory from the past fifty years.

It is not that one cannot criticize Freire (not least for a somewhat simplistic view of how banking works). But such criticism and dialogue with the past is impossible from Mazur’s position of total ignorance. An entire body of knowledge is being forgotten or suppressed. And this is rather convenient for the bevy of people who are trying to sell us their latest tweaks and gadgets.

For the point is that Freire was against the banking model in part because he was against banks: his argument is a radical critique of a hierarchical social structure and its economic underpinnings. His is a “pedagogy of the oppressed” because he believes that the current educational system perpetuates inequality, and he wants to do something about it.

Mazur’s aims are precisely the opposite: he wants to benefit from social stratification (leveraging his Harvard credentials) to make financial profit. A few weeks ago he sold his technology start-up to the corporate giant Pearson for somewhere between five and ten million dollars in hard cash (though he retains a position as consultant). For a company that’s less than two years old, that’s a quick buck indeed.

It is insulting on many levels to sit through a presentation such as Mazur’s: insulting to anyone who has spent any time reading and thinking about education; and insulting to be treated only as potential customers for a hard sell. But the broader issues are more concerning still.

For this is where we are at, with the current fuss about flexible education and the like. The radical educational proposals of the 1960s and 1970s are being rediscovered, now that their promise is finally realizable thanks to technological innovation. But their utopian thrust has been lost, their politics have been gutted, and everything has to be “monetized” as part of a massive round of enclosures in which for-profit start-ups and mega-corporations colonize the captive educational market.

The tragedy and the scandal is that universities such as my own allow this to happen. Driven by a desire to do what Harvard (and Stanford and the like) do, they lay down the red carpet, this week to Mazur’s shallow shill, last week to the founder of Coursera. They turn their backs on a whole field of educational theory and enquiry, in favour of the latest huckster with a fancy website. And they forget entirely what the university is supposed to be about, or what in the 1960s and 1970s we thought it could be about.

We have the means to make a previous generation’s utopian dreams real. But we have forgotten their vision, and want only to buy and sell the means as though it were an end of its own.