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.

From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise

UBCIn a marvellous essay of a couple of years ago on the gutting of British academia, Stefan Collini compares the British Government’s White Paper Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System with the celebrated Robbins Report on higher education, which was published in 1963. (He had already reviewed the Browne Report, which lay behind much of the White Paper.) As Collini points out, the 2011 White Paper cites Robbins, but

It may have been unwise for the drafting team at [the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way.

Quoting at length from the 1963 Report, Collini observes that

what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

It is not, Collini continues, that we should “indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago.” Rather, he concludes:

To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.

Similar conclusions can be reached, if on a smaller scale, by comparing the language and arguments employed within my own institution to describe its educational ambitions (or lack thereof) in two key documents: first, from 1963, Discipline and Discovery: A Proposal to the Faculty of Arts of the University of British Columbia; and, from 2011, A Place & Promise for Arts: UBC Faculty of ARTS Strategic Plan, Fall 2011.

The point of such comparison, however, is neither nostalgia nor critique for the sake of critique. It might, by contrast, help prepare us better for the challenge we currently face. That challenge has only become more acute over the two years since the UK White Paper and the UBC Strategic Plan were published, as the dramatic expansion of the commons promised above all by digital and online technology is met by a ferocious drive towards enclosure and “monetization” on the part of for-profit enterprises from Blackboard to Elsevier, Taylor and Francis to (most recently and most insidiously) Coursera.

More, anon.

Nikkei

Unlike the cathedral, Nikkei Place, the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, is a rather impressive building, set in an attractive garden on a quiet suburban Burnaby street. Yet what’s inside is something of a disappointment.

Beyond the nice garden, elegant façade, and airy foyer, the building is essentially little more than a souped-up community centre, with the usual array of rooms to rent at prices we are assured give excellent value for money.

The museum itself is simply a small room off the foyer, and apparently there’s no permanent collection. The exhibition when we visited was “Tenugui: Design Excellence in Japanese Daily Life,” a display of Japanese cotton hand towels accompanied by a short video, some prints in which these towels feature, and a couple of other bits and bobs.


The exhibition is pretty and informative enough, don’t get me wrong. It takes an everyday object that can no doubt easily get overlooked, and shows both the multitude of its uses (hand towel, headscarf, glass cleaner, handkerchief…) and the way in which its simple but elegant motifs, usually either abstract (dots, circles, lines) or drawn from nature (flowers, grasses, seeds, suns), always exceed its utilitarian functions. This is a design philosophy of unobtrusive adornment: an apparent contradiction in terms that structures everyday life in Japan.

But the strange thing is that this is indeed an exhibition about Japan. Given that we are at the Japanese Canadian National Museum, it’s odd that there’s no attempt to address the Canadianness of the Japanese Canadian experience. What new uses or meaning accrete around tenugui outside of Japan? What new motifs appear as the cloth is transculturated or appropriated into other visual traditions? (There was at least one design with penguins; are there any with polar bears, beavers, or hockey pucks?)

In short, instead of providing a window into “the history of Japanese Canadians” (as the museum’s mission statement has it), we have instead a dehistoricized celebration of one small remnant of the Japanese motherland. It’s as though the hand towels themselves, with their ordered repetitions, were a synecdoche for a vision of Japanese culture in its entirety as always the same, intact in all its incarnations.

It’s not surprising that a diasporic community should have such a nostalgic and idealized vision of its cultural roots. But I’m not sure why it should be enshrined so uncritically in an institution that has at other times had so much more interesting things to say.

Tanabe

Today to Burnaby Art Gallery, which has a show of works on paper by Takao Tanabe.


I’d never heard of Tanabe, but I liked what I saw. The pictures were mainly landscapes, mostly of Canadian scenes (the West Coast, the Rockies, the Prairies), often verging into abstraction.

I liked best the series of pictures of the Prairies, which were on the cusp between landscape and abstract: graphite on dark paper, a thick line roughly outlining the horizon and maybe rain above or grass below.

Burnaby Art Gallery was interesting too: occupying an old mansion house that has more than its fair share of history; the building was previously used variously as a monastery, a cult’s headquarters, and a fraternity house.

poster

I pass this poster every Monday, in the building where I teach a class on Human Rights. Seeing it always induces a kind of cognitive dissonance, as my class is explicitly not a defence of human rights, but a critique. I happen to think that that’s the business of universities: critique, questioning, critical reflection.

Anyhow, the poster is an advert for UBC, featuring a solitary figure on a mountain top and with the slogan “Human Rights Defended… From here.” I have little idea what it’s supposed to mean, and there’s not a word of explanation either on the poster itself or anywhere on the UBC website. The image certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do either with the university or with human rights.

Any ideas?