Saturday, May 4, 2013

San Jose State and the Harvard "Justice" MOOC

Since it's the weekend, and fairly quiet, I'm hoping people will forgive a lightly-contextualized "flava" post.  Members of the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, the Harvard "superprofessor"* whose MOOC on Justice they are being asked to "teach" (exactly what this would mean seems somewhat unclear to all involved) instead of a course of their own devising.

It's hard to choose just one part to post, since they summarize pretty much all the relevant issues, from the need to adapt curriculum to a local student population to the danger of class stratification in higher education to the irony of offering recorded lectures as an alternative to the supposedly-outdated in-person lecture model.  But I'll choose the paragraph below; if you haven't read the whole thing, you should.
We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general,and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU's contract with edX. . . .It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.
Sandel has released a brief, but basically sympathetic, reply.

*This term has been popularized in recent months by Jonathan Rees, who has written extensively about the potential implications of MOOCs for academic labor; he reports borrowing it from Minding the Campus (personal communication, 5/4/13; see comment stream below).  


  1. Probably it's because I'm a little overwhelmed with work this weekend, but I am not really sure what exactly San Jose State wants its professors to do, and how they thing it will be of benefit to anyone.

    I mean, what does it mean for these faculty members to "teach" the MOOC course? Why would San Jose State want to have its existing faculty start teaching someone else's material? Why would SJS want to pay for that material when they're already paying professors? I don't see the benefit. In fact, it seems to make the professors involved do a lot less work with course prep, etc.

    So what's the advantage? I understand the potential advantage to offering course credit to students that have taken MOOCs. YOu lure students in with the free, easy credits and then hit them up for the "real thing".

    Is SJS trying to set up a situation where they will have more and more MOOC courses, with only "facilitators" instead of faculty members leading things?

    I don't get it.

    Colleges will never be able to depend on MOOCs as sources of real credit or a solution to funding problems. Every sane person knows that.

  2. Is there anything we can do about 86ing the hat/tip thing. Cal is driving me absolutely fucking crazy about it. Seeing it sends him into a fit. He finds it either cloying, "too hip," pretentious, or "miserafuckable," depending on which email.

    I'm about 50% serious, and I won't even guess about Cal's percentage.


    1. Sorry; I didn't realize it was a controversial usage; I'd just seen it elsewhere, and was doing my best to follow the conventions (quite possibly, like some of my students, badly).

      So now we have an explanatory footnote -- which probably takes us from pretentious to ridiculously pedantic for the blog format, but never mind. I am, realistically, more than a bit pedantic (and am definitely not hip or pretentious; I'm not sure about miserafuckable).

      And thanks, Cal (or whoever), for the graphic. It looks kinda like a shrinky-dink that someone left in the oven too long (or perhaps not long enough) -- in other words, perfect for CM.

    2. [several typos in original version above; sorry]

      @Proffie: I thought it was a sort of an informal form of citation -- a way of crediting an idea and/or a link (probably, in most cases, the latter, so I may have been misusing the abbreviation as well as abusing Cal by including it in my post) to the blogger you got it from, but maybe not. Obviously I have waded into waters with which I am less familiar than I thought.

    3. I love Cal but I think he's just finicky about usage, and he'd mentioned the hat/tip thing earlier because to him it feels so blog-hip, created by a generation of Internet people who have absolutely no notion of what tipping a hat means. And because of that Cal thinks it's as if the use mocks something perfectly lovely in favor of a lazy attribution and link.

      Cal is fucking crazzy about usage, and I swear I never know if he's 100% serious when he writes me rants in the wee hours, or if he's just playing the role of cantankerous, er, elder!

    4. Thanks for the explanation, Les.

      I suppose it's also a gendered expression, and a gender-inappropriate one in my case, since I don't believe women tip their hats. Actually, come to think of it, that could get dangerous, since it might turn hat pins (which have, on occasion, been used as lethal weapons) into projectiles.

      I tend to be in favor of anything that resembles citation, however awkward or incomplete (on the internet or elsewhere), but far be it from me to spoil Cal's Saturday night, especially when there's an easy alternative.

    5. Hi Les and CC. Yes, I confess that Les is mostly right about her characterization of my various complaints about the hat/tip thing.

      I'm just an advisor and a community member. I don't make the rules of usage. I'm an old English prof, 30 years worth. I get hard and fast rules in my head, and they sometimes become quite inflexible thoughts about the way we use language.

      H/t just gets under my skin. I have pals who would disown me if I ever texted LOL, for instance.

      Use it if if works and if it comes into usage on the page. Sorry for being so weird...


    6. Has the original post been edited? I don't see any reference to a "hat/tip" or "h/t", and as a result, this thread is confusing and frustrating. I've never heard or seen the term before. I'm interested in citation conventions in the online world and would have liked to be able to follow the issue.

    7. I did not edit the h/t reference out. CC did that. And it was done because I probably stirred things up by reporting how Cal hates the h/t thing.

      Here's a brief bit from Wikipedia about h/t-ipping:

      In the 2000s, the term "hat tip" (often abbreviated to "HT" or "h/t") rose to prominence in the blogosphere to acknowledge someone who has made a significant contribution toward an effort, or someone who drew attention to something new or interesting. It is considered good netiquette when sharing a link or news item to give a hat tip to the person from whom you learned of the item. The on-line versions of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times regularly give hat tips to users who bring ideas for articles to their attention.

    8. Sorry, Surly. I should have explicitly said in my comment that I'd edited the post, and replaced the h/t (which was just that, in parens, plus a link to Rees' blog) with a footnote. Then I edited the note again when Rees weighed in to say where he'd found "superprofessor," and I added that information. So, there was lots of editing going on, which I wouldn't usually do once a comment stream was established, but I thought it was clear what I'd done, and why, from the comments. In retrospect, I could have explained better.

    9. And thanks for the further info, Les, and the explanation, Cal. I can definitely see use of the abbreviation becoming customary on the page if I used it, and someone else picked it up, and so on. If it makes your skin crawl, that strikes me as good enough reason to avoid it on CM (I'm not fond of LOL myself, though I don't think I'd disown anybody for using it, just lower my estimation of their skill in expressing themselves a notch or two).

  3. Stella, the idea is that SJSU and the CSUs in general will expand "access" (to a totally cut-rate, shitty education) via MOOCs. The legislature has slashed and burned the UC system so hard that CA students are now not guaranteed a college education through the UC system (they are being replaced by out-of-state and international students who pay a bigger tab), so the master plan is dead. As some CA students are turned away altogether, enrolled students can no longer get the courses they need to graduate because of reductions in faculty FTE. Now there is a "solution," via a bill in the CA legislature that would force the UC system to accept courses from for-profits for UC credit, effectively privatizing the system, or parts of it, and divesting the faculty of meaningful control over curriculum. The whole MOOC thing is not benign. It is disgusting and enraging, and bravo to faculty who are refusing to participate.

    1. Thanks for this context, F&T. I agree.

    2. In the case of MOOC material "taught" by professors at San Jose State, are they aiming for a higher student:teacher ratio, or somehow hoping the leverage a very small number of Ph.D.s to serve as instructors of record (for accreditation purposes), while having most of the actual work done by cheaper labor? I'm still not quite clear on what the plan there is, or why it's supposed to be more "cost-efficient" than, say, letting the professors adopt a textbook and teach their own class. I'm assuming it's some sort of "pilot" for a nefarious plan that has yet to completely unfold. At the moment, I agree that one of the most alarming things is that the principle of faculty control of the curriculum seems to have completely gone out the window; there's no evidence that the administrators made even a window-dressing attempt to run their plans past the faculty. Very distressing, and very, very scary.

  4. CC,

    I definitely didn't coin the term "superprofessor." I saw it first on "Minding the Campus," of all places. I will admit to flogging it mercilessly though.

    1. Thanks for the clarification; I will amend the footnote.

      Come and see it, kids! Scholarly conversations! Peer review! Live though not quite in person!

  5. In the original Chronicle article, an administrator at SJSU is quoted as saying the profs retain full control of their courses, and are "free to determine how much, or how little, of the edX materials they will use in their blended courses".

    If that's true, it is no different from a lower-div course with a "standard text". For courses like calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, there are a handful of texts used by just about every U across the country. Now, in theory I am free to control the content (emphasis, structure) of these courses when I teach them. And until fairly recently I was doing things like picking obscure/ancient (and much better) texts instead, or even gasp basing the course on my own lecture notes (Germany-style). The resistance from students is incredible--they are then forced to come to class, and can't find solutions to the problems on the internet. So they drop in droves, write poor reviews, and in the end by spending more time on teaching, I risk my job. So in practice I am forced to use the mass-produced texts, and if students would rather watch part of the content delivered by an entertainer (as opposed to taxing their reading skills), it is immaterial to me.

    The problem is that what SJSU is really doing is testing if "success rates" are higher (or identical, with lower cost) when the canned lectures are used. Public Us consider themselves under pressure to graduate more students with deeply reduced budgets, even as the quality of high-school education has declined. You can't keep a minimal level of intellectual integrity under these constraints (instead I think the "flagship" state Us should draw the line, and restrict admissions so as to keep state funding per student constant; of course they can't do that.)

    So I think there will (as the philosophy prof says) indeed be a bifurcation into two types of school (the well-funded, usually private, and everyone else). And even within the same school, for the basic courses with rigidly defined content and a mandated text, there is really no added value in using TT faculty (who will generally try to avoid teaching them), so we'll see a split there as well; there are courses in my dept routinely taught by grad students, visitors, lecturers and TT faculty, and it is but a small step to add "online content" to the mix.

    1. ....And we weaken ourselves even more. Lookout, here comes Angry Birds University!


      I blame the two party system and American capitalism, but I feel the ones truly responsible for the last twenty years of train-wreck have been the "Libertarians" and their real form, the GOP. Over and over again I have seen them screw up energy deregulation, guns, national defense, financial markets, foreign affairs to the point where I begin to ask: can we finally call them traitors? They act like saboteurs, and unlike saboteurs in Germany or the Soviet Union they don't wind up being shot, gassed, defenestrated, run over by a tank, deported. Is this Hillbilly's Revenge for the Civil War? Or is John Boner really an Iranian agent?

    2. There is something American about it, but it is not just capitalism. Germany is capitalist, too (albeit with the social safety net we sorely lack), yet so far they haven't allowed standards to erode, and (public, free) universities there seem comfortable with a high attrition rate (probably since technical post-secondary tracks leading to a comfortable life are widely available.)

      Maybe it is the cultural imperative to democratize access and formal achievement; to avoid even the impression of "elitism" or "tracking", when a certain amount of these things is inevitable if degrees are to mean anything. And then there is the "we have the best higher ed system in the world" self-image (hence nothing to learn from other countries). In fact at most places, graduate engineering/science programs survive only through recruiting foreign graduates, and now it's gotten to the point where American tech companies successfully lobby to change the immigration system so as to make it easier to higher engineers trained overseas (see NYT 5/5/13).

      But you're right Strel, it's the Karl Rove vision of the future at work: having succeeded in destroying public high schools, they can't wait to do the same to public higher ed. Governors and state legislatures are happy to cooperate.

    3. F&T--I've heard that about the California system. I can see that accepting MOOC and for-profit credit would alleviate the course crunch. What I can't see is why they don't just hire more teachers. I'm sure they use adjuncts. If an adjunct makes 3500 per course, and teaches 35 students, that's a hundred dollars per student. Surely a three-credit course costs many times that in tuition. Summer courses are a real money maker for my university, because they pay profs shit and rake it in from the many students.

      I tend to be very sanguine about accepting credit for for-profit/MOOC courses. It's a terrible idea, a terrible terrible idea. But more for students than for faculty. There will be a tipping point in which it will be realized that you cannot outsource faculty, just like you cannot outsource nursing.

      The proof of this will make itself known as these students with MOOC and for-profit credit slither their way through their bachelor's degrees. Intro and core courses may be outsourced, but upper-division courses--no. These students will ascend only so far and no farther. Then they'll be flushed out. They will be bitter and angry and feel very ill-served, only this time it won't be the "for profits" that are getting the heat.

      Everyone thinks these MOOCs and for profits are the answer to all our problems. They're not, and time will tell.

    4. "terrible terrible idea" -- I could not agree more, but I worry that there won't be any "flushing" where I work. Facing mutiny, will my upper-division colleagues cave and accommodate themselves to a new normal? The system of which my institution is a part is really pounding that "retention/completion" drum, so I'm not optimistic.


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