The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia. These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.
MOOCs are designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering. Public institutions of higher education then become shells for private interests who will offer small grants on the front end and reap larger profits on the back end.
At present, MOOCs are being proposed as solutions to enrollment shortages, among other things, in open-access institutions such as community colleges. The MOOC crowd promises cost savings, efficiency, improved access and the answer to our “completion” woes. The concern as voiced by Arne Duncan himself is that in our quest to increase completion, maintain quality and save money: “The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that doesn’t mean anything.” Wethinks he doth protest too much.
And that’s the big lie behind this allegedly noble quest to provide much broader access to higher education and improve student learning. There is not a bit of proof that MOOCs will do so in any meaningful way. The notion is to turn community colleges into Petri dishes for MOOC experiments, principled objections be damned. There are costs to cut in the public sector and dollars to be made in the private sector.
The much-hyped arrival of MOOCs has been made possible by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a host of the usual corporate education reform suspects, who have long been involved in a full-court press propaganda campaign for their venture/vulture philanthropy.
Some of these interests are trying to figure out schemes for monetizing MOOCs in such a way that the small percentages of students passing MOOCs in cyberspace would pay institutions for certificates of competency awarded for completion of prescribed course regimens. Indeed, colleges and universities conceivably might even cash in further by recommending the most successful students to corporate interests … for fees.
Critics, meanwhile, are easily dismissed as part of the corrupt old world of failed higher education, troglodytes as afraid of this bold new magic as cavemen were of fire. And to the consternation of the self-proclaimed “change agents,” those reactionary faculty shielded by union contracts and powerful academic senates stubbornly resist the next new wave. Never are the implications of the MOOC offerings — typically announced with fanfare — outlined with respect to faculty and classified staff workloads (e.g., registering students and setting up and maintaining the technology infrastructure for individual course sections which, in some cases, have enrollments in excess of hundreds or even tens of thousands of students). Students will grade each other, or course work will be evaluated through word recognition computer software programs. Faculty, the promoters tirelessly stress, just must stop lecturing, instead becoming “facilitators” for student engagement in experiential education. And what of the student support services? Or, perhaps, in this idyllic (or should that be dystopic?) educational space, those needing support are just left out in the cold, after corporate partners first have made their millions though software sales.
In the San Diego Community College District we have dared to step in front of the vaunted train of progress that many of us see as nothing more than a repackaged Taylorism for academia. The San Diego City College Academic Senate recently passed a resolution decrying the move toward MOOCs. The resolution followed on the heels of a faculty presentation at the San Diego Community College (SDCCD) Board of Trustees meeting in response to administrative attempts to circumvent the departmental and collegewide shared governance process so as to rush through grant applications for MOOCs at both City and its sister college, San Diego Mesa College, before any campuswide discussion had occurred. This resulted in Chancellor Constance Carroll declaring a one-year moratorium on MOOCs in the SDCCD while a task force investigates the appropriateness of this new form of instruction for our district.
In our view, the central philosophical flaw in the MOOC paradigm is that proponents believe that there is nothing to be lost in turning professors into glorified tutors, parts of a larger information delivery system. What this misses is the key fact that the heart of what we do as college educators has to do with the immeasurable human interaction that we have with our students and the vital social experience of the face-to-face classrooms. This is something that simply can never be reproduced by a new technology, no matter how advanced.
Demoting professors to the level of information delivery systems may be gratifying to our detractors and financially attractive to bean-counters but it won’t improve education in the process of “transforming it”; it will degrade it. But to the academic Taylorists, who don’t believe in anything that can’t be quantitatively measured, this kind of thinking is destined for the dustbin of history.
No doubt the brave new world of MOOCs will give lots of people who can’t go to Harvard access to “Harvard,” but it won’t be same. Indeed, the future of higher education will be less egalitarian and far more two-tiered with the sons and daughters of the elite still receiving real top-quality educations while other folks will get something different, quick, cheap and easy.
But this tale of two futures is perfectly in line with the thinking of the plutocrats who brought us the “productivity revolution” in the business world. There they got a smaller number of American workers to labor longer hours for the same money and fewer benefits while increasing productivity and bringing record profits for those at the top. In the realm of higher education, they can blame the colleges for the fact that fewer graduates are prepared for employment in the austere marketplace that they fostered while milking our schools for profit and transforming them to their purposes at the same time. It’s nice work if you can get it.
In the meantime, our job as professors, according to the dictates of the emboldened technocrats, is to become rope-makers for our own professional hangings. The debate here is not really one about technology and higher education, as most of us know that online education is now a permanent part of the educational landscape with legitimate uses. No, what this MOOC debate is about is whether we blithely open the door to the gutting of what is most precious about what we do.
If the unthinking technophilia and new Taylorism which MOOCs represent ends up killing face-to-face education as we know it, it won’t be because the technology offers a superior form of education. It will be because our visionless political and educational leaders have almost entirely abandoned educational values for market values. As many scholars have noted, in the era of neoliberalism we have just about given up on the notion of education as a public good rather than a mere commodity. Let’s hope we don’t allow this near-total triumph of market values to destroy one of the last public spaces in our society not completely determined by greed and instrumentalism. As opposed to the creed of the forces of privatization, we believe that there are still things whose value cannot be determined by the market and that education in a democratic society should be much more than an instrument of our economic system.
Six community college faculty members
Jennifer Cost is chair of English department at Mesa College.
Jim Miller is professor of English at San Diego City College.
Jonathan McLeod is professor of history at San Diego Mesa College.
Marie St. George is professor of psychology at San Diego City College.
Peter Haro is president of San Diego City College Academic Senate.
Jim Mahler is president of the American Federation of Teachers for the San Diego and Grossmont–Cuyamaca Community College Districts.
Fifteen years ago, my attendance policy in media ethics class was considered so unusual that The Chronicle of Higher Education did a news story about it, titled, "Ohio U. Professor Will Take Any Excuse for Students' Absences."
The article, still online, shared my reason for accepting any excuse, as long as a test or project was not scheduled for that day. I wanted students to assess their priorities. What was more important — attending class, or nursing a hangover from a Thursday night on the town?
I continued to teach at Ohio until 2003, when I became director of the journalism school at Iowa State University. My contract was entirely administrative. In other words, I did not teach a class again until the fall 2012 semester, when I took over the media ethics class of a faculty member who passed away suddenly. (See the essay "24 Hours" in Inside Higher Ed.)
More on classroom absences momentarily.
As an administrator, on a few occasions, I had to cope not only with stringent attendance policies of faculty but also their own attendance in assigned classes.
Case in point: In 2009, my administrative team began to see declining enrollments in our degree programs in advertising and journalism and mass communication. We identified two primary causes for the drop in pre-majors. We were requiring an "English Usage Test" before students could become our majors, and it seemed that students were not getting sufficient instruction in high school on grammar, spelling and syntax — essential in our disciplines.
Then we discovered the attendance policy in our required orientation class. Students failed the course if they missed one, yes one, class.
We changed that attendance policy in 2010.
As director, I have had to take action on occasion when instructors cancel too many classes. Official Iowa State policy states that faculty members are "required to be on duty during the academic year on those days when classes are in session." Professors may arrange for others to manage their responsibilities when they are away from campus while classes are in session.
However, before professors can take time off for personal or professional reasons, they are expected to fill out a form specifying dates they will be gone and how their courses and other obligations will be covered.
Of course, accidents, emergencies and illness can strike without warning. In those cases, we ask that the instructor contact the main office so we can post information on classroom doors or arrange for others to take over classes.
We do not police these policies, but we do expect faculty to adhere to them. You may want to consider that level of trust with your students.
After taking over our media ethics class, with one day’s preparation, I had to create a new syllabus within hours. That’s when I decided to implement the attendance policy that attracted so much attention at Ohio University in 1997.
Here’s an excerpt:
You can miss as many lectures as you like, as long as an exam or project is not due that day. Simply write a brief e-mail to me explaining the real reason for the absence. The only requirement is that you tell the truth. Do not say you were ill if you overslept, for instance. Do not invade your own or another person’s privacy in telling the truth (i.e., simply say you had a medical appointment – don’t explain symptoms). Send the e-mail to me before you miss the scheduled lecture or deliver it within 24 hours. Note: Title your absence email "462 Absence."
The attendance policy also has a section for late and early departures from class. Nothing can be more disturbing to the instructor or the class as a tardy student clumsily opening the door during lecture or a student leaving before the lecture ends. The latter also suggests something the teacher said was so disturbing that students just had to leave when they really only had to relieve themselves.
So I designate a row of chairs near the exit as "liberty seats," meaning students may come and go as they please if they sit in that row.
But what about students who violate the attendance or seating policy? Again, an excerpt from the syllabus:
Failure to Follow Attendance Rules: If you miss a class without e-mailing an excuse letter, your final grade will drop by 50 points out of 1000 for each occurrence. If you come late or leave early, without taking a reserved seat in the back row near the rear exit – and then fail to write an email explaining why you had to leave — your grade also will drop by 50 points for each occurrence.
How will I know who’s who, who’s lying and more, if I don’t also take roll? Well, I can download photos of my students from the registrar’s office so that I can identify them if I have to over time. In other words, students may be able to get away with skipping class and not emailing me initially — which only encourages future infractions — but sooner or later I catch up with them and their lies.
And remember, this is a media ethics class. If you lie in any ethics class, you go to hell — literally, I tell them.
But the best part of the attendance policy is compiling the class report detailing just why students miss class.
Here are a few examples, names withheld, of course, from last semester’s ethics class:
It just so happens, tomorrow is my birthday. Not just any birthday you see, and I know you like us to be honest; it’s my 21st ... at midnight, tonight. I should also add, I am a senior and the last person I know to turn 21. So, I have this weird feeling that tomorrow's 9 a.m. class is going to come up and hit me like a brick wall. I don't think I'll make it, but hey, you never know! I could rally!
*** Professor Bugeja,
I was absent for 462 yesterday and here’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. While I was walking to class, a raccoon was in my path that was squirming and running around. I knew something was wrong since it was out in the daylight, so I called animal control. They asked me to keep an eye on it so it wouldn’t run away (although I’m not sure how much help I would have been if it had). By the time the animal control woman arrived, I was 30 minutes late for class with a 10-minute walk ahead of me. I didn’t want to be rude and show up that late, so I didn’t come into class.
As a final gesture to students, I post a chart that summarizes why they missed class and why others who had taken the class previously also missed. Categories include:
Career-related conflicts: Working for a student media outlet or part-time job.
Academic-related conflicts: Working for other classes or student organizations, sororities, fraternities, etc.
Family-related conflicts: Dealing with emergencies, weddings, outings.
Romance-related conflicts: Indulging in Valentine’s Day, excursions, rendezvous.
Health-related conflicts: Dealing with illness or honoring medical/dental appointments.
Overslept: Falling asleep in rooms, newsrooms, etc.
Funeral: Coping with death of parents, relatives, friends, associates.
What surprised me was how reasons for missing class at Iowa State in 2012 were so similar to reasons at Ohio in 1992-2003. The world has changed so much since then, especially in the digital classroom. Nobody missed class because of Facebook, for instance. In fact, the only technology-related absence concerned a student missing class from Oct. 29 through Nov. 2 to attend a Microsoft conference in Seattle.
To view reasons for missing class in a downloadable chart, click here.
Also consider this: Stringent attendance policies may be necessary in small workshops, labs or other group-related classes. I get that. I also know we’re very good at finding reasons why students should attend our classes but usually not very informed about why they actually skip.
In the end, it’s their tuition dollar and their grade.
As I explained to my class, my attendance policy may look lenient at first blush, but I also can document that students with the fewest absences also almost always boast the highest grades. There is a correlation there, and I have the data to prove it.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
Ulrich Beck is an internationally known and highly influential sociologist -- easily one of the biggest names in social theory alive today -- and he is to be thanked for finding a way to talk about postmodernity without subjecting us to that word. He refers instead to “second modernity,” and understands it less as a period than as a process. Old-model modernity came from the advance of scientific knowledge, mass production, and instrumental rationality, which broke down patterns of pre-industrial social life and replaced them with its own institutions, such as the nuclear family and the nation-state. With second modernity, individuals are increasingly capable of questioning and challenging those institutions as well, creating new forms of relationship or affiliation.
In particular, Beck’s work on the concept of the “risk society” helps make sense of a contradictory phenomenon. The prediction and control of risk becomes a normal part of life under first modernity. “If a ﬁre breaks out,” he writes, “the ﬁre brigade comes; if a trafﬁc accident occurs, the insurance pays.” But at the same time, our technologies and second-modernity lifestyles don’t inure us to risk. On the contrary, they generate and expose us to new kinds of risk: identity theft, for example, or bizarre meteorological events resulting from global ecological changes. (Or “allegedly” resulting from them: Beck indicates that cultivating ignorance or denial of the new dangers is one possible social response.) Furthermore, the emerging risks tend to be on a scale that cuts across national borders: the globalization of unanticipated danger.
Beck’s latest book in translation, Twenty Observations on a World in Turmoil (Polity), is a collection of sociological commentaries originally published in European magazines and newspapers between July 2009 and September 2011. Theorizing via journalism means painting a landscape from the back of a moving train. But Beck’s established concepts are broad enough to fit the contours of the major events of the past few years, which he lists as “the nuclear worst-case scenario in Fukushima, the global financial crisis, the chaos in the European zone, the uprisings of the Arab spring, as well as the protest movements in Athens, Barcelona, New York, Moscow, etc.” All of them were, he writes, “by nature transnational and therefore cannot be understood and explained within the frame of reference of the national outlook.” (The same would be true of other developments from this period that come to mind: the British Petroleum spill, the Wikileaks document releases.)
Elsewhere, Beck has referred to “zombie concepts”: ideas that are no longer alive but continue moving and, presumably, eating our brains. And the nation-state as a basic scene or subject of political action is, for him, clearly one of the most noxious. At the same time, the new sources of danger are of a nature that makes planning and preparation (by whoever, on whatever scale) both critically urgent and almost impossible. “If man-made climate change has gone beyond the point of no return,” Beck writes, “if terrorists have access to atomic weapons, if the global economy has already imploded, then every measure comes too late! Therefore, we have to invest in new technologies, develop new notions of justice, reduce our consumption and pump billions into failing banks in order to prevent ‘the worst,’ which must never occur and in the face of which our concepts fail.”
That they do. A refusal to think apocalyptically may soon count as irresponsible. And yet Beck’s notes are not despairing. In one essay the argument makes a detour to the American philosopher John Dewey’s book The Public and Its Problems (1927). “According to Dewey,” he writes, “a transnational public sphere powerful enough to create a community arises not from political decisions but from the consequences of decisions which have come to seem problematic in the eyes of citizens. Thus a publicly perceived risk triggers communication among people who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with one another. It imposes obligations and costs on people who resist – and who often have the prevailing law on their side.”
Or, to put it in a 1960s way, "democracy is in the streets." We will need what he calls a “global domestic politics” – one recognizing that the well-being of the rest of the world is, after all, a matter of enlightened self-interest. People will have to assume a second-modernity reflexive stance toward their own status as national citizens, and create new modalities of political belonging. The contours of such a politics are barely visible in Twenty Observations: a cross between the Occupy movement and the European Union, perhaps, with some Wikileaks features thrown in. Beck will presumably have more to say about it in his future work.
As for the book now in hand.... Well, the implication seems to be that the transnational public sphere will emerge (and a practice of global domestic politics to go along with it) only in the wake of worldwide catastrophe, not before. And that is an optimistic reading. But then Beck is looking at things from the back of the train, and really doesn't know any more about where it is headed than the rest of us.