From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education

What follows is my contribution to a debate organized as part of “Open UBC,” itself the university’s contribution to “Open Access Week”. In the discussion that followed, another contributor to the debate characterized my talk as a series of “ad hominems” lacking substance and “besmirching” those who “stay up late to balance the university’s budget” and so ensure I am paid. I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of the argument is ad hominem, what substance it may have, and whether anyone is “besmirched.” But I do find it worrisome that disagreement and debate should be stifled in the name of civility or respect for senior administration.

UBC From Here

“From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education”

Let me begin by setting one thing straight. In the publicity for this debate, I am described as “a vocal critic of the current model of learning and assessment common in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially for the Humanities.” But I want to emphasize that I have nothing against MOOCs per se. More particularly, I have nothing against courses that are massive, open, and/or online. Most of the courses that I myself teach are both open and have a large online component, and some of them are also massive: Arts One Open, for instance, a course that I helped to pioneer (along with Christina Hendricks and others) has had over 65,000 views of its videos on YouTube alone. And we have achieved that kind of reach, let me add, without spending a single dollar of the many hundreds of thousands that UBC has lavished on MOOCs and the like as part of its so-called “flexible learning initiative.” We have shown, indeed, that something very much like a MOOC can be built and achieve enormous success by leveraging the talents and commitments of ordinary faculty even in the face of official indifference or outright discouragement.

So I am not someone who fears MOOCs. In fact, quite the reverse. This is true even when it comes to the mostly corporate, often for-profit ventures such as Coursera, EdX that have hi-jacked both the concept and the name of the MOOC from its home-grown, democratic, and open origins. While I have no doubts that the university (this university, the North American university, the university in general) has a thousand and one problems, as far as I am concerned the MOOC phenomenon doesn’t register even in the top hundred. Here of course (but not only here) is where I part company from much of this university’s senior administration. A year or so ago, as part of an extraordinarily fulsome introduction to a presentation by Daphe Koller, co-founder of Coursera, UBC Provost David Farrar declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Again, the university can, and should, be challenged in many ways. But in itself the challenge of the MOOC is relatively insignificant. So why, then, talk and think about MOOCs at all? Well, in the first place, because any challenge to the university and its business model is welcome, even if the point of the challenge that I myself would want to make is quite different from that presented by Koller and her venture-capitalist partners. And second, because the university’s reaction to the MOOCs is so very revealing. It shows us how much is rotten in the institution and how far we still have to go before we achieve the vision of a truly open education.

Read more… (.pdf document)

Higher Education, Technology, and the Corporate University

Saskatchewan

A few pointers to some more or less recent articles on contemporary higher education:

  • The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar”, camera-ready professors. Meanwhile, all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers. (Tarak Barkawi, “The Neoliberal Assault on Academia”. Al Jazeera America. April 25, 2013.)
  • Prioritizing is what you get when you hire administrators who can’t distinguish a university from a Walmart. Each department is to be evaluated as a profit centre. The knowledge factory that the university is currently running under the rubric of basic research will remain untouched (and probably augmented), for there is no aspect of its present operations that can be so easily and so profitably commercialized. Generally, however, the priority that each department receives will depend upon the revenues it can generate from research grants and from selling classes to its customers. The insistence on evidence-based evaluation is critical, lest some of the woolly-headed intellectuals retained to do the teaching should have derived some values through reading something other than the Globe and Mail Report on Business. (Jay Cowsill, “There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Cracking the Whip at the University of Saskatchewan”. October 10, 2013.)
  • The problem is not that the Open Movement is wrong. The problem is that the need for reform goes far deeper than simply making papers and data available under CC-By or CC-Zero. Exploitative publishing regimes are symptomatic of larger problems in the distribution of wealth and power. The concentration of wealth that warps so much of our political and economic life will inevitably warp the Open Movement toward unintended and unwanted outcomes. (Eric Kanza, “It’s the Neoliberalism, Stupid: Why Instrumentalist Arguments for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science are not Enough”. The Impact Blog. LSE. January 27, 2014.)
  • I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. (Tony Bates, “Time to Retire from Online Learning?” April 15, 2014.)
  • The threat that plans like TransformUS holds are both serious and ubiquitous. As it goes, the TransformUS brand is so deeply ironic that it offers an indication of what lies ahead. TransformUS is, at once, an incantation for complacency, as though self-transformation is impossible or inefficient (i.e. Please, Transform US!), and an unacknowledged reference to the transformations that helped to engineer America’s system of higher education. Indeed, TransformUS intones the rise of the market as a transformative agent, and the University as a key site in the manufacture of consent and consumption. (Eric Newstadt, “Why Buckingham’s Tenure is Small Stakes in a Big Game”. Impact Ethics. May 16, 2014.)
  • Arts Squared: A Virtual Square for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
  • A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a “bag of gold”36 for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun. It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice. (Jim Groom and Brian Lamb, “Reclaiming Innovation”. Educause Review 49.3. May/June 2014.)
  • “I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.” (Jon Marcus, “New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators”. The Huffington Post. June 2, 2014.)
  • Detroit in Ruins (Again)

    Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

    The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

    Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

    Detroit ballroom

    Speculative Fictions

    Speculative Fictions coverIn an epoch of postmodern, neoliberal “dedifferentiation,” in which the distinctions between the once-separate spheres of politics, economics, and culture have been steadily erased, what are the possibilities of “making a difference” through writing, film, or art? This is the question that Alessandro Fornazzari’s Speculative Fictions sets out to answer, with a focus on the Chilean transition from Pinochet’s dictatorship to the revived party system of the past couple of decades.

    But looking merely at the political transition, Fornazzari suggests (in the steps of Willy Thayer, among others) would be misleading. For the shift from state violence to today’s liberal democracy conceals other continuities, and perhaps other, more significant changes that have taken place on a different timescale. Indeed, the book outlines three “different transitional forms: the economic (the neoliberal transition from the state to the market), the political (the transition from dictatorship to democracy), and the aesthetic” (115). And it is ultimately the relation between the economic and the aesthetic that is of most interest here.

    Latin American fiction has often been read in terms of “national allegory” (in Fredric Jameson’s famous phrase). So, for instance, when the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century charted (say) a love affair between creole boy and indigenous girl, something was being said about the racial politics of the nascent nation state. Or Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo was not simply a small town somewhere on the Colombian litoral: it was Colombia as a whole, in microcosm, and in reading its story we also learned something about broader issues of (under)development and (post)colonialism. Or to take the example that Fornazzari studies at some length, the Chilean novelist José Donoso could publish an oblique yet unmistakeable critique of the Pinochet coup in part by dressing it up as a tale of a house in the country taken over by its servants. But what happens to allegory–and so to an entire mode of cultural representation–now that “the commodity exceeds and surpasses it” (35)?

    I’m not sure I entirely buy this argument. The claim for an equivalence between literature and the commodity form is too quick and, well, too abstract. And after all, it is by means of an allegorical reading that Fornazzari can declare allegory’s contemporary exhaustion; so it still in fact has its uses. But this is not to say that we can’t contemplate other modes of aesthetic and/or political engagement; Jameson’s reduction of all “third-world fiction” to national allegory was limiting in any event. And as Fornazzari points out, reading only in such terms is impoverishing: once the appropriate key is found (Macondo = Colombia; the country house = Chile), then it’s as though “all hermeneutical work can be considered over and done” (33). But the correspondences are always inexact, there is always too much or too little in the literary text to map out a one-to-one series of equivalences. Hence this book is dedicated to exploring the (allegedly) new “speculative cultural forms” that Fornazzari categorizes in terms of “antiallegorical strategies, second-order forms of abstraction, the dissemination of a stock-market model of value, and avant-garde models of political economy” (116).

    Some of these cultural forms are, frankly, more interesting than others. In some cases they are little more than symptoms of transformations located elsewhere, and at times Fornazzari struggles to differentiate his analysis from a rather crude economic determinism: new models of labor or subjectivity emerge and are duly registered or reflected in a book such as Arturo Fontaine’s Oír su voz. Fornazzari claims that in this paean to finance capitalism, “the realist storyteller ultimately eludes the neoliberal ideologue” (47), but he doesn’t sound too convincing or even too convinced of this himself when he concludes that the book can be read as “a literary treatise on the concept of human capital” (51). A lot’s riding here on the adjective “literary,” which is rather undermined by the account of the “saturation of the novel with the discourse of political economics” (45). How different is it really from the text that Fornazzari immediately goes on to consider, El ladrillo: Bases de la política económica del Gobierno Militar Chileno, characterized here as “in an of itself, an unremarkable economic text” (52).

    Or is the point that, in an age in which the line between economics and culture is blurred, the economic text takes on something of the literary? If so, it’s not particularly shown for El ladrillo. Elsewhere in fact it’s suggested that neoliberalism ushers in “a brutally realist order of things” that has no time for “literary rhetoric” (32)–as though realism itself were not simply another rhetorical mode. I wonder, too, how this argument meshes with that of Erika Beckman, whose recent Capital Fictions demonstrates the complicity of literature and mercantile economics in the early part of the twentieth century. Indeed, the further one progresses with Speculative Fictions, the more dubious its central premise becomes, that (now, for the first time) “everything including commodity production has become cultural, and culture has become profoundly economic” (7). If anything it’s a testament to the rather more complex and detailed cultural readings that Fornazzari provides–of the novelist Diamela Eltit and, perhaps especially, the work of visual artist Catalina Parra–that we soon become dissatisfied with such sweeping generalizations.

    For in the end, though there have no doubt been profound changes in Chile (and elsewhere) in economics, politics, and culture, and their mutual relations, these developments have taken place on different timescales and in line with each domain’s own (never fully autonomous but never fully dependent) logics and rhythms. So, for instance, this book also shows that the ground for Pinochet and the Chicago Boys’ transformation of the country’s economy was already laid by the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei in the 1960s. The political regime, by contrast, was repeatedly upended in a much swifter (and traumatically abrupt) series of ruptures and upheavals. And in cultural production we see plenty of residual elements as well as (what Fornazzari suggests may be) emergent forms that point beyond our contemporary condition.

    So the three spheres are not (yet) fully aligned, and each has its own history and its own trajectory. It’s perhaps this feature of what we could (however old-fashioned it sounds) call “combined and uneven development” that ensures that there is some space still for critique and contestation. The immense virtue of Fornazzari’s book is that it quickly points us away from its somewhat simplistic premises and towards the far more interesting task of exploring the real complexity, the paradoxes and ironies as well as the continuing cruelties, of a society that is in no way as dedifferentiated as its right-wing boosters (and many of its left-wing critics) would like to think.

    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.

    TED

    The Wednesday quotation, part XVII: Nathan Heller on TED:

    TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel. (“Listen and Learn: The TED Talk Phenomenon”. New Yorker [July 9 and 16, 2012]: 73.)

    I really dislike TED. For what it’s worth, there’s nothing I dislike more about it than the cult of the nauseous Sir Ken Robinson. But that’s just a symptom, one among many. We could put it this way, rewriting TED’s trademark slogan: they’re not ideas, and they’re not worth spreading. They’re merely balm for the neoliberal soul, a cynical veneer of supposed intellectualism to leaven the effects of the market.

    interactivity

    Here’s the keynote address I gave recently to “Access 2011: The Library is Open”: “From Access to Interactivity”.

    You can also, if you are so minded, watch a video of me delivering the talk.

    It’s about Borges, libraries, library fines, open source, primitive accumulation, and difficulty, among other things. What follows is the opening paragraph or two:

    Librarians have seldom been paid a handsome wage. At the Miguel Cané Library, in the Buenos Aires suburb of Almagro Sur, in the late 1930s the going rate was some 210 Argentine pesos a month. On the other hand, it could hardly be said that the work was particularly taxing. The library assistant tasked with cataloguing found that he could do his job in an hour or so each day, which left plenty of time for reading, thinking, and writing. Sometimes he got to thinking about the library itself, or about the place of the library in the world. He thought, for instance, that in some ways the library was a mirror of the world: after all, if you wanted to find out about some aspect of the world, you could come to the library and look it up. The library had books of Geography, History, Physics, Maths, Literature, Art: every conceivable topic. It might be an unprepossessing building in the suburbs of a city in an obscure Southern Hemisphere country, at the periphery of civilization, but a library had everything. You could spend your life there, without ever exhausting what it had to offer. If the library was big enough (and the assistant librarian imagined a library that had every book ever published, and perhaps even every book that could conceivably be published) you could even get lost in it. The library was a labyrinth, but also a rather miraculous thing, a double of the universe.

    In September 1945, the library assistant published a short story about just such a miraculous double of the universe, hidden in an obscure corner of Buenos Aires that was nearly as unlikely as the Miguel Cané library itself. In this story, the narrator, a rather awkward and shy middle-aged man, discovers that an acquaintance of his, an aspiring but not very talented poet, has a secret. He still lives in the house where he grew up, which is located on a non-descript city-centre street. But the house harbors a surprise: on the staircase in a basement under the dining room is an object that is only some “two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained within it” (Borges, “The Aleph” 283). This is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (281). This strange, mysterious thing takes the logic of the library to the limit: it is the absolutely universal contained within an extremely limited, compressed and particular space. The poet calls it an “Aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the number one in Hebrew, which in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition is the number that contains all other numbers. As the narrator tells us of his encounter with the Aleph, in it he “saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid [. . .] saw horses with hand-whipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand” and so on and so forth (283). He is practically struck dumb by the experience: “I had a sense of infinite veneration, infinite pity” (284).

    But if the Aleph is a fantastical version of the library, a library that takes up the smallest amount of physical space but encompasses the entirety of the universe, there is one significant difference between the two. The library is public, while the Aleph is private. The incompetent poet emphases, “his words fairly tumbl[ing] out,” that “It’s mine, it’s mine; I discovered it in my childhood, before I ever attended school” (280). It’s his prized possession, and he keeps it absolutely to himself, hiding it from everyone else. He only shows it to the narrator in desperation, as his landlords threaten to tear down the house and so destroy the basement, the staircase, and the secret they harbor. But the narrator, having seen this precious thing, is struck by a fit of jealousy and refuses to help the pathetic poet’s campaign to preserve his precious property. Cruelly, the twist in the tale comes when the narrator refuses to admit that he has seen unusual at all in the cellar, and suggests therefore that the poet must be suffering from some kind of delusion. He should “take advantage of the demolition of his house to remove himself from the pernicious influence of the metropolis [. . . ]. I clasped him by both shoulders as I took my leave and told him again that the country–peace and quiet, you know–was the very best medicine one could take” (284). The poet will pay the price for keeping his Aleph secret, a private hoard rather than a public good: by prohibiting access he has sacrificed even his own opportunity to enjoy this miraculous discovery. He will be laughed out of town as a madman if he so much as mentions the existence of this all-capacious universal library.

    The universal and all that comes with it–the university, the library–is always in peril if it is treated as private possession rather than common treasury. It would be nice if we could conclude that, by contrast, it is in safe hands if it is the property of the state. But shortly after publishing the story of the Aleph, its author, the library assistant, was summarily fired and offered in compensation only the post of “the inspectorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets” (qtd. in Williamson, Borges 292). Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest writer (and incidentally also the country’s most famous librarian), was out of a job.

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