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.


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.


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.


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?


Rights are mainly a matter of declarations. They are, in short, the product of a speech act. Undeclared rights are not rights at all. Hence the history of human rights is also a history of their repeated enunciation and articulation, from the Magna Carta on. But a declaration also implies an audience, and a process of interpretation. Hence, alongside this history of speech acts is a parallel (parasitical?) history of interpretation and commentary. Often the modus operandi of that commentary is the laborious process by which an event is reconstituted and reimagined: What exactly did the framers mean?

And if a declaration is an event, an irruption onto the scene of political discourse (dated: 1789, 1948…), then usually interpretation is the province of an institution (a Supreme Court or similar), whose judgments may or may not come to be seen as events and so new declarations, that have in turn to be interpreted in subsequent institutional deliberations. Such is the temporality of rights discourse: the violent irruption of the event is followed by the (quite literally) stately progress of deliberation and interpretation.

But some events are less eventful than others. The “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” is, frankly, a bit of a damp squib. It comes late to the scene of rights declarations (which were piling up thick and fast by the middle of the twentieth century). Belatedness is not itself a curse: the more recent a declaration, the more likely it is to declare a new right, and thus to up the ante of the game of eventful articulation. The Canadian Charter, however, manages to be both almost entirely derivative and singularly Canadian at the same time.

The derivativeness is in the first instance linguistic. And I don’t merely mean the phrases (e.g. “the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”) clearly lifted from other, similar documents. More to the point, and despite being described as a document that articulates the values around which the Canadian people can unify, the Charter’s language is distinctly uninspiring.

It doesn’t help that the document’s very first clause is the famous “Limitations” clause that states that the rights that follow are “subject [. . .] to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” This may seem like an eminently sensible and pragmatic reminder that rights are mutually limiting: the right to free speech, for instance, is limited by the right to non-discrimination; hence bans on hate speech. But it sure takes the wind out of the Charter’s rhetorical sails.

Imagine the crowds that surged on Parliament Hill, urged on by the slogan “Fight for your Rights! Subject only to Such Reasonable Limits Prescribed by Law as Can Be Demonstrably Justified…” Actually, you can almost imagine an Ottawa crowd moved by such a slogan. Hence the distinctively Canadian tone of the Charter: so very sensible and self-limiting. Quite unlike the US Bill of Rights, for instance. And the Canadians not only begin with a “Limitations” clause; they also end with a “Notwithstanding” clause, which basically means that the Parliament or a provincial legislature can suspend almost any of the Charter’s provisions for (a renewable) five years.

In short, if every rights regime comes into being and operates between the twin pressures and temporalities of an insurgent event on the one hand, and that event’s institutional interpretation and assimilation on the other, it’s very clear to which of the two Canada’s Charter leans: it’s a tool of state management much more than it is the result of popular struggle. Its time is not that of revolution (still, by contrast, hard-wired into the US Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen) but of pacification.

And so no wonder that Harry Arthurs and Brent Arnold can conclude that the Charter is essentially useless:

Progress towards the vision of Canada inscribed in the Charter has generally been modest, halting, non-existent, and, in some cases, negative. What we claim is that the Charter does not much matter in the precise sense that it has not – for whatever reason – significantly altered the reality of life in Canada.

[. . .]

Canada’s political culture today is less vibrant, less democratic, than it was a generation ago.

[. . .]

The plight of Aboriginal peoples has not been much ameliorated, if at all. The project of multiculturalism, which is mentioned but not given prominence in the Charter, has seemingly gone off the boil. Immigrants – despite new guarantees of their legal and equality rights – seem to be having a tougher time integrating into society and the economy. (“Does the Charter Matter?” [Review of Constitutional Studies 11.1 (2005)]: 38, 111-112)

And why exactly has it had so little impact, or has what impact it has had been mostly negative? Essentially because it substitutes fictive abstract equality for real material differences. This, after all, is the fundamental move of all rights discourse, from the founding conceit of moving from natural to civil rights. Again, as Arthurs and Arnold put it:

If one were to establish a gradient that descends from the most affluent to the least affluent members of society, one would find at each point on that gradient not only lower living standards, but lower levels of educational attainment, health, personal safety and security, civic participation, political influence, and respect from police and other state officials. Moreover, as one descended the gradient, one would almost certainly encounter members of Charter-protected groups in ever-increasing numbers. [. . .] The best prospects for greater progress towards the equality values of the Charter would therefore be to redistribute wealth.

[. . .]

Of course, the Charter was not designed to transform Canada’s political economy. On the contrary, when it was adopted, its architects took considerable care neither to protect property nor to redistribute wealth. (113-114)

But is this not what all rights declarations do? It’s not merely that the Canadian Charter happens to be one of the least interesting and least effective instances of such rights discourse. It also demonstrates to us something shared by all such discourse. For it always ultimately is a matter of replacing popular struggle with bureaucratic institutions.


June’s riot here in Vancouver was gradually being forgotten (we realized that the sky hadn’t in fact fallen down on our heads), but then the disturbances in England rather rudely brought it briefly back into consciousness.

The observation that other people riot too (and the sky doesn’t fall down on their heads, either) should give the lie to some of the more ridiculous reactions to our own little affray. “World class” cities are just as likely, if not more so, to experience social disturbance of this sort. And I doubt anyone likes the English any the less (or any the more) than they did before the violence broke out. In the end, for better or worse–for better, I think–Vancouver’s just not so very special. It’s much like other cities its size in many ways. But with more mountains (and more rain).

It was strange to see elements that had marked Vancouver’s riot reaction mirrored or repeated in London. It’s true that in the British capital nobody was quite so stupid as to suggest that the rioters were somehow not the “real” Londoners. But there were some other tricks that they may have picked up from us.

For instance, there was an attempt make an exhibition of ostentatious community spirit by coming out with brooms and cleaning up the streets the morning after. But, as here, they found that the bulk of the work had already been done by municipal crews in the early hours. Local councils such as Croydon and Hackney politely said “Thanks but no thanks” though they took people’s phone numbers just in case. Not that it’s likely they ever got in touch later: public sector cuts already mean that there’s nobody even to manage volunteers. Unable to show off their civic virtue by volunteering, then, as in Vancouver people had to make do with scrawling graffiti or sticking post-it notes on boarded-up windows to convey their messages of pride and social scapegoating.

The big difference between Vancouver and England emerged in the courts. In London and Manchester all-night sittings of magistrates meant that hundreds of people were processed within days (effectively, hours), and some extraordinary sentences were handed down while everyone’s pulses were still racing: four years for a Facebook update, for instance, even though it was fairly obviously a joke (in however poor taste) that led to no violence at all.

Seeing the speed with which these grim punishments had been doled out rather woke us up over here as we were led to wonder if anyone had actually been charged over our own riot, some two months later. It seems in fact that two people have been charged, but none so far convicted. The police are still building their case,

The good citizens of Vancouver have reacted rather shame-facedly to this disparity between trigger-happy England and dilly-dallying Canada, asking why the wheels of justice couldn’t turn a little faster over here. But I’d have thought we might be proud of the fact that we haven’t resorted to the kneejerk response of what are effectively kangaroo courts under pressure from political rhetoric and general public hysteria.

In British Columbia, we still hang on to old liberal shibboleths such as the principle of the separation of powers. If we’re going to be smug (and we are), let’s be smug about that for a while.


Almost a week ago, shortly after Vancouver’s hockey riot, a number of presumably young people, in many cases very likely still drunk or high on adrenalin, stumbled to their computer keyboards and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to boast, no doubt also to exaggerate (and in some cases to invent) their contributions to the evening’s antics, they celebrated the disturbance and their part in it. With dodgy syntax and an even shakier grasp of spelling, they gloried in the violence.

If you live in Vancouver, there is every chance that you know their names and what they said. Their updates have been plastered on the numerous “name and shame” social media vigilante sites. One of them has even had his status update set to music, in a song that denounces him as a “fucking moron.” They have been forced to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, and even go into hiding as a tide of righteous vengeance sweeps the Lower Mainland.

At around the same time, perhaps a little earlier, a rather larger number of presumably somewhat older people, who in many cases had enjoyed a beer or glass of wine or two in front of the TV and high on adrenalin, also went to their computers or grabbed their laptops and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to broadcast their views on the scenes of disorder, looting, and overturned cars in downtown Vancouver, they cheered on the police’s part in the disturbances. Often invoking the hockey chants that had resonated throughout our team’s playoff run (“Go Canucks Go!!!”) they called for still more violence, if need be unaccountable to any authority, to be rained down on the troublemakers.

(Fortunately, the Vancouver Police Department didn’t hear or listen to these calls, and beyond the use of tear gas and pepper spray generally refrained from physical violence against the crowd.)

Whether you live in Vancouver or not, there is little chance that you remember this second group of people’s names and what they said. Their updates received their share of “likes” at the time, but are quickly fading into history. Nobody calls these upstanding citizens morons. None of them has had to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, let alone go into hiding. It seems that there’s no problem glorying in violence so long as you pick the right team, and join the tide of righteous vengeance rather than going against the flow.