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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rebuilding Public Universities in the Wake of MOOCs

by Leslie Bary, Department of Modern Languages, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

As I mentioned in my last post, I teach Latin American literature and culture in a public research university that, having lost half its state funding over the past five years, has moved at near warp speed to an entrepreneurial model. So as to become more current on pedagogical and policy issues affecting us and other institutions in similar situations, this summer I joined a Coursera MOOC (Massive open online course) and a Facebook group where faculty from around the country discuss online teaching. I reported on that largely negative experience in this space.

I have also been thinking about MOOCs in their global context. They have been aggressively promoted as strategies for teaching large numbers of students, in ways both more “efficient” and more pedagogically sound than the courses we give now. The companies offering these courses, as well as some faculty developing them, have  presented MOOCs as a altruistic way of extending the resources of our most privileged institutions to students worldwide.

This discussion condescends to foreign universities, an issue on which Jon Beasley-Murray has written
eloquently. It also condescends to the hundreds of thousands of students at U.S. public colleges and universities who have enrolled only to find that their institutions are being defunded and dismantled at a furious pace.

Many of us know the situation first-hand.  Universities nationwide are being forced to curtail programs. Students graduate with a debt burden that severely limits their horizons. Many faculty are part-timers without access to a living wage, let alone resources for teaching or professional development. Libraries have had acquisitions budgets eliminated, and journal subscriptions cut. Faculty and students are no longer considered primary stakeholders in the university, and administrators are tasked with repurposing our institutions to more commercial ends.

Serious as this situation is, it is premature to take it as a fait accompli whose remedy will be MOOCs and other corporate solutions. Focus groups and “town hall” meetings at our universities may urge us to leave the past behind, invent strategies for accommodation or survival, and accept corporatization as the only viable solution to the funding crisis. But the interest venture capital takes in us should indicate that we still have assets worth saving. To put the case more strongly, we are assets worth saving. We should push back against the defunding and dismantling of our institutions.

My second MOOC is underway. It is far better conceived than the one I took earlier in the summer. Our professor is accomplished in his field, and acts responsibly in the course. Fascinating global students with good English skills, strong academic backgrounds and rapid Internet connections, are benefiting from the experience just as I am. But a course, or courses, are hardly a replacement for a university.

The image of “traditional” universities the MOOC enthusiasts tend to promote is unrealistic. My own not-particularly-elite university, for example, has robust distance learning programs for those who cannot travel to campus, and is expanding its online offerings. We have textbooks in some basic courses, but we supplement them heavily with current media and scholarly work. Class time is for discussion and exploration, not “lectures.” We have well administered course websites, richly enhanced with a variety of media. Colleagues from around the country give guest lectures, in person and by Skype. In-state tuition and living expenses together are $15,000 a year. We are not “broken,” but we have surely taken a beating. We have good rates of placement in jobs as well as in graduate and professional schools, but we would like to offer more.

Rather than accept further gutting and the corporate solutions that are a domestic version of structural adjustment, we should work to meet our actual needs. Much more than support from Udacity or Coursera, we need, not in any particular order:

a. For the library: acquisitions, as there are fields in which we own no materials from the present century; and continued maintenance of all current subscriptions.

b. For study abroad: expanded programs, office support for these, and also locally based financial aid supplements since we are utterly dependent upon Federal scholarships, which are inadequate.

c. Smart classrooms: so we can access the Internet and use other a/v materials in all courses, without having to apply ahead of time for use of a special room on a special day.

d. FTEs, so students are not taught by a patchwork of adjuncts, and tenure-track lines, so that students can be taught by experts currently engaged in research.

e. Salaries and benefits adequate to recruit and retain quality faculty. At present we only contribute 1.5% of salary to retirement funds of new hires. With the lack of raises since 2008, instructors are now teaching up to seven courses per term to make ends meet. This cannot fail to have an impact on the quality of instruction.

f. Restoration of regular sabbaticals, summer salary support, research and travel funding, including funding for travel to discipline-specific conferences on pedagogy; and funds for the acquisition of books and other research and teaching materials.

All of these these things, it should be noted, are not luxuries, but essentials if we are to maintain and enhance quality teaching and learning, and research. They are what we have renounced as budgets shrank. These, and not corporate pedagogies, continue to be our needs.

The MOOC fervor has been instructive because it so well illustrates the mechanisms, both practical and rhetorical, by which institutions are gutted and public monies are moved into private coffers. Arguments for expanding access to higher education ring hollow in the absence of credible public investment in it.  When defunding requires us to cut services and raise tuition, it is easy for some to say that quality and value are declining. The problem must be pedagogy, they say, and the answer must be a new, commercial product.

This strategy has been exposed, but the discussion may have taken us all too far towards redefining university education as credentialing, and teaching as training. The same propositions will continue to arise, in service of the agenda towards-- or against--hiigher education that has been in place since the Reagan administration. We should not allow those who view us as resources to exploit define our problems, or prescribe their solutions to us.  We should instead press for the needs of public colleges that we have come to understand from the inside.


Leslie B. said...

My friend from MOOC #2 did not like this piece at all, however ... seemed to think I was stingy wanting to put my own university first, before offering free courses to persons worldwide.

How to explain that if you do not take care of yourself too, you soon have nothing to give away?

How to explain, as well, to the MOOC gods that my friend, although not US, is also not one of the poor ... and lives in a city with universities that offer the degree programs he is interested in?

In fact: the MOOCs seem to work best as a collaboration among global elites -- Duke courses for the well-enough-heeled elsewhere ..., perhaps... ? ... we say we are "helping the poor" because we have foreign students, whom we consider "poor" because they are not US elites ...???

Chris Newfield said...

a big blind spot here is the free content model--certain categories of knowledge workers are now often expected to work for free. Two big sample categories are interns and adjuct professors, both the product of dubious labor practices tied to universities, and which are now producing a backlash. A third is peer instruction, in which students teach other students (often while paying for the course in which they're participating). MOOCs attracted initial interest with the peer-to-peer model, but in the one case where we have some MOOC budget data for a quality program, it doesn't seem that they can afford to teach the world for free either (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/06/24/essay-sees-missing-savings-georgia-techs-much-discussed-mooc-based-program). I'm all for teaching the world with free courses, starting with free public universities, which of course means that the society as whole agrees to pay via taxes for the education of its young, its cocitizens in need of retraining, its neighbors who can't live by HBO alone, etc. This would include wealthy nations helping to pay for the universal education of poor ones. that would involve real negotiation, real politics, real taxation, and real funding, not a trick in which one exploited group is asked to sacrifice for an even more exploited group across a technologized distance.

Leslie B. said...

This is key, the free work. Everything is so parceled out now. Example: we are supposed to account for every minute spent, but cannot count letter of recommendation writing in that. So that is technically done on free time, not as part of what one does because of being on salary. Example: because people do not get credit from own places for being external reviewers for tenure, they require payment for this. So more of the work which is required to make things run, is not considered work, so is done for free or as consulting. Then, peer instruction: I'm all for paid peer tutors, but peer instruction is exploitation no matter how you slice it. Free public universities, yes. And yes, it would take more than smoke, mirrors, and guilt tripping (or HASTAC-style cheerleading).

Leslie B. said...

Oh, and on free work, consider the mail I just received:

Leslie Bary,

The latest information from The Modern and the Postmodern on Coursera.

To students participating in the peer assessment process:

Responding to student feedback, we have changed the number of required evaluations. Please note that, starting from the third assignment, the number of required assessments will be increased from three to five. You will receive a 20% penalty if you assess fewer than 5 assignments.

Rebecca Michelson
Teaching Assistant

Unknown said...

Hi Leslie, Really you are excellent in expressing your thoughts. You have given too much knowledge about online distance learning and other online programs. keep it up...

Leslie B. said...

What happened after my second MOOC ended:

Dear Leslie Bary,

I hope you enjoyed The Modern and the Postmodern. If you would like to support Wesleyan’s effort to offer future Coursera courses, please consider making a gift to the Wesleyan Fund in support of online education by clicking here. Any amount you are able to donate will be greatly appreciated.

Of course, this is entirely optional and will have no bearing on your future participation in any Coursera course. We plan to keep our classes free, but we do have costs in producing them.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely yours,
Michael Roth
President, Wesleyan University

Dear Professor Roth,

Thank you for the course, which was truly enjoyable. I have some questions, however, about the above appeal.

It is my understanding that Coursera is a for-profit corporation, and that it is in fact turning a profit. You and your university are apparently donating time, equipment, work and expertise to Coursera, which charges students money for its “signature” diplomas. Student data may also be used by Coursera to profitable ends.

Now, we are also asked to donate money to you so that you can donate further effort to Coursera, which will then profit by our donations to you as well as your own, and your university’s donations.

That is, we are being asked to donate to Wesleyan so that it can donate to a for-profit corporation. I must ask: in what understanding of the concepts of “reputational assets,” of “branding,” of “market exchange,” or of “public service” does this make sense?

I strongly feel that this form of revenue creation is beneath the dignity of Wesleyan University–not to mention your own, and the dignity of our fields and our profession. I also question its legality. I do hope you will rethink these tactics.

Yours very truly,

Leslie Bary

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