Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads

(Army of Darkness reference for the uninitiated.)

I hereby volunteer: the next pundit who talks about how MOOCs are going to save higher education some big bucks needs to meet me for drinks at the establishment of his or her choosing, I’ll foot the bill, and in return I just ask for the chance to politely and rationally CHEW THEIR FUCKING EARS OFF. And then if they really want they can write an op-ed the next week and pretend they thought of everything I said by themselves and I’ll never let on otherwise.

Do you really WANT TO SAVE SOME MONEY using INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY? Ok, try this one on for size. Why weren’t you blathering on asking why the heck we all bought Blackboard or if you really want to go into the dark ages, WebCT, for years and then kept buying it when we had a less expensive (though not free, if you look at support and management costs) open-source alternative? Especially asking why institutions that didn’t even necessarily need a course management system bought them and got stuck with them and came to see them as indispensible when at least some of the time they were really just exotic devices for password-walling-off fair-use excerpts of material used in classes?

No, no, even better. All the institutions who can create consortia and companies to offer MOOCs seemingly on a wild impulse, try asking why have they been incapable of creating far bigger and more ambitious consortia for open-access publishing of scholarly work, something that’s been technically and institutionally plausible for a decade. I’ve always heard that the first problem is the stubborn desire of individual institutions to go it alone, maintain their independent identity. But suddenly hey presto! MOOC-collaborations galore. Maybe it’s because the for-profit publishers whose monopoly pricing has punched hundreds of universities in their unmentionables didn’t want an open-access world to come into being, and whispered in the right ears. If the idea of big savings and ethical transformation in higher education bundled together makes you so hot you want to call your publisher right now and pitch “The World Is Open” or some such thing, this is your meal ticket, not MOOCs. MOOCs are the freak-show tent off to the side by comparison.

If you want to talk about savings, those are two big areas: platforms and products that could be hacked out cheaply if only faculty and staff user communities were as flexible and adaptable and mildly literate about information technology as everyone else in the world and were therefore also universally pressuring for open-access publishing created and maintained by truly massive consortia of higher education institutions.

But that’s not what the mainstream media pundits are blabbing about everywhere because none of them know shit about higher education budgets and none of them know shit about information technology and none of them lift a finger to know anything more than whatever it is they heard from some guy whose brother’s friend knows a guy who knows a guy. They just open their columns to the most top-level stream of today’s information buzzery and let it dump into their column inches like an overflow sewer in a hurricane.

Again, pundits, let’s talk. MOOCs are damn interesting, you betcha, but seriously, if you think they’re about to solve the labor-intensivity of higher education tomorrow with no losses or costs in quality, you have a lot of learning to do. Not just about the costs and budgets of higher education today, but about the history of distance learning. Right now you guys sound like the same packs of enthusiastic dunderheads who thought that public-access television, national radio networks, or correspondence courses were going to make conventional universities obsolete via technological magic. And hey, if you’re that keen on the digital, skip the drinks, I’m happy to educate you via email.

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15 Responses to Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads

  1. Julian Long says:

    Wow! Hi Tim. Is there something I haven’t seen that’s got you steamed today?

    I’m still on the NDLTD mailing list, though I’ve lost touch with much of the activity in that movement since I retired. Many of its real practitioners these days dream of expanding into scholarly publication beyond theses and dissertaions.

    This fall I’m using Blackboard for the first time. My “seminar” has been crammed with 30 students, and I’m thinking that a little online community may help us all keep up with one another. I first thought I’d use Moogle because it’s open source; I installed it and experimented with it a bit. But the university owns Blackboard, and I finally decided that my using Moogle (which I would have housed at my blog) was an act of private subversion that might be unfair to my class. Some universities are using Moogle; I don’t know how many.

    I really like your Japan piece. Does your first photo depict a diorama?

  2. melissa says:

    I’ve been trying to make sense of the theory behind MOOCs, connectivism. It makes little sense to me and I can’t jump from the assertions to application. There seems to be a confusion between knowledge and learning for one thing, but at least I can form a thought about that.
    Do you have any opinions? I’m lost.

  3. AcademicLurker says:

    Excellent rant.

    Since the whole MOOC craze took off, I’ve been trying to get some one to explain to me why this is so totally different from correspondence courses or taped or televised lectures. So far nothing.

    It’s like we’ve time warped back to 1996 when you just append “online!” to anything and have people eating out of your hand.

    Incidentally, I teach in a program where we do record lectures and put them online and it’s not as problem free (pedagogically speaking) as everyone seems to think. And this is in a traditional “the students are actually physically on campus” institution.

  4. Erik Simpson says:

    Terrific post, Tim. I have been ever more dismayed by the willingness of institutions and individual faculty to let Blackboard and the like close off our teaching materials. And I am baffled by the spread of the MOOC phenomenon, in that I don’t understand what problem MOOCs mean to solve, why they have attracted venture capital, and so on.

    That said, in response to AcademicLurker: I took one of the Stanford MOOCs, on database programming, and it was much better than something like televised lectures would have been. (My blog post on the experience is linked to my name, I think.) If you give a Stanford computer science professor–and one who has written textbooks and thought a lot about teaching–the challenge of designing a MOOC, she will come up with some interesting and effective things to do with the format. Therefore, although I have a hard time understanding how MOOCs could be an “existential threat” to most forms of higher education, I do understand why people see something in them that separates them from Great Courses CDs and the like.

  5. A very enjoyable rant. But sadly it obscures the validity of the central point. Opening access to knowledge and knowledge networks is a good things. In fact, I have often pointed out that the only educational reforms to ever succeed were ones of open access (Chinese imperial examinations, universal primary education, GI bill). But their successes were not educational but political. They opened up opportunities for engagement and discursive legitimacy for more people than had them before. There is no straightforward utilitarian link between access and success. The argument is and should be a moral one.

    So while MOOCs are kind of fun pedagogically their potential for transformative change is in widening access to increasingly (financially) inaccessible institutions. This not going to be a neat process (sorry, but quality has nothing to do with any of this). And this access will change the institutions (as much as those accessing them). And that’s a good thing. They wouldn’t pose an existential threat to existing institutions until a new generation of employers would start saying, show me your MOOC portfolio. But by then the existing institutions would be different enough to either be irrelevant already or be ready to provide the version of the MOOC of that time.

    So are MOOCs the same as old time correspondence courses? Yes and no. Contrary to the popular definition of madness, if you try often enough to do the same thing over and over again, maybe you’re eventually do it differently enough or in a different enough context that you will finally get a different result. It’s not guaranteed (like monkeys typing Shakespeare), but it’s possible. The example is educational video. It kept failing and failing for more than half a century until YouTube and Skype came along. And lo and behold. I’m learning as much from videos as I used to do from books. So MOOCs have a chance to be different from correspondence courses because of their scale, the technology available and slightly different metaphors. But, they could just as easily fail. Only time will tell.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s right, Dominick. In fact, it’s what I’ve said here in some previous entries on MOOCs and what I said at greater length in a paper I just delivered in Japan. The previous history of distance education doesn’t make MOOCs uninteresting, nor does it demonstrate that they’re doomed to fail. But it does suggest that there are a whole host of serious challenges to any effort to democratize education via new media technologies. My ranting here is that this history, and its lessons, is being completely obscured in the current pundit-level conversation. What all the MSM pundits and reporters are focusing on is the use of MOOCs as a way to save money, which is almost certainly not what they’re going to do, unless they’re used as a crude wedge to force further adjunctification, which won’t in the end have anything to do with the technology OR the objective of democratizing or distributing higher education.

    I’ve suggested in a previous entry that one great thing about MOOCs is that they are effectively a new form of publication–a much enhanced version of an “educational book”. Which, by the way, lets us think about how faculty might participate–and be given credit for participating–in a MOOC without that being a way to get uncompensated teaching work out of them.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh yeah, Julian, by the way, that is indeed a diorama. Very cool dioramas in the Tokyo-Edo Museum.

    I don’t think it falls to individual faculty to use Moodle or some other alternative–the point is that Blackboard has been an institutional purchase. Many IT staffs have to buy into a kind of one-size-fits-all infrastructure because faculty in general are so passive and illiterate about IT that they can’t be relied upon to seek and use tools on their own. I think you plausibly could have an IT operation at a university that took care of the root-level server and database infrastructure and then provided just-in-time support to faculty who were individually responsible for their main work toolkit (word processors, email, browsers, etc.)

  8. Withywindle says:

    The implicit argument of the MOOCs is that most college education has already collapsed in quality to the point that there is no opportunity cost in adopting a MOOC model. I find this a plausible assertion. But presumably adopting a MOOC system confirms our despair that we can improve upon the current disaster.

  9. Contingent Cassandra says:

    I’ve been told that the one phrase one should not say in front of our online education support folks is “correspondence course.” Never mind that they (like the worst of the old-time correspondence courses, radio courses, TV courses, etc., etc.) seem almost entirely focused on content delivery, with little sense that education might also consist of developing skills, and that that requires teacher/student (and student/student) interaction around assignments. I guess it’s a case of the ghost at the banquet, or perhaps the elephant in the room.

    In any case, that was a most satisfying rant, and echoes much of what I (someone who actually likes teaching online, but in an extremely interactive, labor-intensive, and hence not cheap, way) have been thinking.

  10. Contingent Cassandra says:

    Oh — and as a faculty member with a 4/4 writing-intensive load, I do want my institution to provide a LMS, and tech support for said LMS. I’m somewhat IT literature, and somewhat willing to become more so, but not at the expense of the very limited time I have for research and writing (and playing around with DH tools for presenting my research in new and interesting ways). It’s also easier on the students if there’s a default system to figure out (since they’re not, as we all know, quite as tech-savvy as many assume, or at least not patient in figuring out tech when the payoff isn’t entertainment). But I’m not fond of the WebCT/Blackboard platform, and do, indeed, wish my institution had put more thought into making, and continuing to make, that purchase.

  11. VL says:

    I just got back from a trip to D.C., where I spent a glorious day at Dumbarton Oaks. One of the plaques flanking the entrance to the gardens reads in part:

    “Those responsible for scholarship at Dumbarton Oaks should remember that the Humanities cannot be fostered by confusing Instruction with Education…that gardens have their place in the Humanist order of life; and that trees are noble elements to be protected by successive generations and are not to be neglected or lightly destroyed.”

    Obviously the first part of that quote is directly relevant to the discussion of MOOCs — but I include the last bit because I think nurturing a garden is a much more apt way of thinking about educating students than ‘transmitting information’ or ‘downloading data into their brains’ or whatever impoverished metaphor might be au courant these days.

  12. Griffin Olmstead says:

    Hi Professor,

    One comment you made about “for-profit publishers whose monopoly pricing has punched hundreds of universities in their unmentionables” (I assume you mean academic journals) caught my attention because it’s a debate that I’ve seen crop up from time to time. On face, it seems like a net benefit to education, and consistent with the philosophy of schools like Swarthmore, to have open-access academic publications. Something I’ve never seen addressed is the issue of quality control. While we’re talking about the importance of quality scholarship in education, it seems like we should be looking for more good filters rather than fewer. Even an open-access journal needs someone to do the editing, organize the peer-review, etc., and that requires funding. Some groups might get lucky and be funded by some university or philanthropist, but it seems that many others would be at risk of becoming a kind of highly intellectual crowd-sourcing. How could such a system continue to guarantee that articles in the American Historical Review, for example, are more objective and reliable than publications from the Heritage Foundation?

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Griffin: the quality control question is discussed a lot in the open-access movement, and at least some of it is a red herring. There’s no reason why an open-access journal can’t be a peer-reviewed journal and many are. The work of peer reviewing for journals is presently almost entirely a volunteer affair, done by professors. Most editorial boards also do their work as volunteers. So it has very few costs. What you call “luck” is already what journals have, and the entire mechanism is completely mobile to an open-access system. It’s one more case where the current situation is economically stupid to a staggering degree (e.g., we are giving away high-value volunteer labor to for-profit publishers who then charge our institutions for the volunteer work of researching, writing and peer reviewing by selling back the products of our labor to the institution).

    Where journal editors are paid or peer reviewers compensated, those costs could be borne by the kind of consortia I sketch out above. Essentially a good open-access journal needs funds for: the small costs of editorial work and the larger potential costs of ensuring access, preservation, and forward migration of the publication.

    The question of whether we need strong filtering systems and whether existing peer review provides that function as well as it might is a different question, though. PLoS 1, for example, is providing a successful model that pulls inanother direction. But that’s a different discussion.

  14. AcademicLurker says:


    To second what Timothy Burke said, at least in the sciences this is a non-issue. The editing and refereeing of manuscripts is basically all done on a volunteer basis by faculty members. The only value that publishing companies added in the past was typesetting and physically printing and distributing the material, all of which required specialized equipment and skills.

    Today with all of that online, the only things keeping the scientific community from going all open access tomorrow are:

    1) Inertia
    2) The fact that companies like Elsevier own vast amounts of the back catalog for many journals.

  15. PQuincy says:

    A satisfying rant — and I can only agree on the mystery of why for-profit publishers have cornered the journals market and make a mint selling us our own volunteer work — though much more in the sciences than humanities, in truth. Most humanities journals still run on the old volunteer basis, with modest institutional support (always in greater danger), though the big ones — e.g. AHR — obviously have professionalized, though to no great value to the profession, it seems to me in that case (aside from running a lot of reviews).

    But the case for self-created software environments is a little trickier. I work at a university with a great, entrepreneurial IT staff who have thrown a lot of energy into various ‘custom’ applications for administrative functions and into customizing Blackboard for our use. And though I respect and support their work, I have to say their ‘custom’ applications (for things like graduate admissions [working pretty well] and academic personnel [a wrongheaded disaster in every way]) are rarely as polished as commercial software. Designing good complex environments is really hard, and requires not only substantial resources and a long wait from investment to return, but also years of iterations that (if those doing the work are competent and properly managed) make the environment better over time.

    The challenges are great. Blackboard is certainly not ideal, and their habit of changing interfaces every 3-4 years, just as 1,000s of professors had finally figured out how to use the existing interface puts them up with Microsoft on my hate-list, but on the whole, they system now is smooth and doesn’t have the quirks and balks that our homegrown software has, even at its best.

    Sadly, I’m skeptical about the ability of loose, non-profit and ad hoc coalitions of complicated institutions to have both the skills, the capital and the stamina to produce high quality online systems, at least for now.

    But open source journals and avoiding sharks like Elsevier, Kluwer, and Springer: absolutely! Guest editing a special issue of a journal recently with one of these companies was a nightmare, including typesetting by diligent but poorly informed Sinhalese typesetters that rendered dates as numbers. Did you know that the American Revolution began in 1,776? Oy!

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