Saturday, July 8, 2017

MOOCS: A Problematic Solution to the Disinvestment in Public Higher Education


I agree wholeheartedly with Bady’s cynicism of the speed, inevitability, and necessity of the MOOC movement. From 2011-2015 I directed a national pilot program funded by the Gates Foundation. The program focused on integrating civic engagement and course-based peer mentoring into developmental English and math courses to increase community college students’ sense of belonging and increase retention. At Gates gatherings attended by grantees in the field of developmental/remedial education at the community college level, Gates-organized presentations (sometimes co-presented with the for profit business execs from Udacity and Coursera) centered on the revolution that online education and MOOCs specifically would bring to higher education so that the traditional place-based concept of education might no longer be relevant. The Gates Foundation’s language echoed that which Bady is skeptical of: the MOOC is “a behemoth force that...is reshaping the face of higher education.” According to leadership at The Gates Foundation, the pace at which this change was to happen required the foundation to switch funding priorities and abandon any consideration of continued funding to its grantees, none of which were focused on MOOCs or online education. The program I directed aimed at making learning more collaborative and relevant to students’ lives was one of the casualties. Meanwhile, the neoliberal MOOC driven by what Bady described as “a desire to liberate and empower the individual, breaking apart actually-existing academic communities and refocusing on the individual’s acquisition of knowledge” would take center stage.

None of us Gates grantees were consulted during the foundation’s decision-making process that resulted in a complete change in their priorities. Entire books could be written about the problems with the foundation’s approach to education funding in the US both at the secondary and post-secondary educational levels. But I tell this story to highlight the practical impacts on students’ lives of the push to turn MOOC’s into credit bearing courses. Gates was able to drive funding away from collaborative, people-oriented interventions that supported developmental students in favor of pushing a pedagogy of individual gains through knowledge transfer via MOOC lectures.

For me, atop the list of reasons the change in funding priorities was so problematic was exactly the point that Bady eventually gets to: MOOCs are a poor solution for reaching vulnerable communities including the developmental students my program sought to support. He writes, “…If you want to use it to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities—which has been the historical mission of public education—MOOCs are a really poor way to do that. Historically, public systems like California’s provided high quality education to citizens of the state who could not have gotten the equivalent anywhere else. MOOCs promise to see to it that what the public universities are able to provide is not, in every sense, the equivalent of what rich people’s kids get.” Bady criticizes the MOOC delivery system for the way it caters to students’ short attention spans through bite-sized nuggets of knowledge transferred through lectures by prestigious professors. Not a pedagogy that has demonstrated success particularly with vulnerable students.

Bady makes the argument that with Harvard’s name behind the innovation the technology is "self-evident" and questioning the MOOC moment or the reasons for its existence is slowing down an inevitable force. (As an aside, it also so happens that The Gates Foundation’s support of the MOOC movement furthered its legitimacy.) He juxtaposes the two “origin stories” of the MOOC – one of a professor choosing to transition to the MOOC world to meet the needs of students "begging to be educated by a Stanford professor and Google" and another of a business executive continuing his business idea. He argues that the latter better describes the context since business interests not education drive the movement.

While I’m not as up on the trends in higher education as I used to be, I haven’t seen MOOCs become the dominant presence that the business execs claimed was inevitable. Bady writes that the MOOC moment “seems to me like a speculative bubble, a product which is being pumped up and overvalued by pro-business legislators, overzealous administrators, and by a lot of hot air in the media.”

In summary, Bady tells a story of business benefiting from disinvestment in public education that results in students not being able to access the courses they need. Business execs swoop in to save the day by dreaming up a cheap fix -chairless classes – MOOCs for college credit. This “solution” takes a turn away from the original intention of the MOOC to democratize education. Instead it maintains the status quo, diminishes the need to hire faculty, and devalues real student engagement while making no claim about MOOCs’ educational value. When the disinvestment in public education means that a cheap fix appears to be the only tenable way out (rather than fighting to reinvest in meaningful public education), MOOCs win regardless of their effectiveness.  

Here are some questions to consider as you respond:
1.   Have you ever taken a MOOC or online course? If so, does your experience jibe with Bady's assessment?
2.     Do you agree with Bady’s overarching arguments about the problems with MOOCs and his ideological critique of the drivers behind the development of MOOCs?
3.     Since many of you in this class are in K-12 settings rather than in higher ed, have you seen any aspects of the MOOC or online learning brought to the K-12 system? Can you imagine any benefits of bringing the MOOC/online learning to the K-12 setting?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Interpretive Potential

Tufte discusses the use of Powerpoint in education, corporations and government bureaucracies, making the claim that it favors format over content, commercializes learning, and harms visual reasoning.  He also makes the argument that if the content and quality of the presentation is lacking, then no themes, colors, or images are going to change that fact. He states,“Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure.” While I do agree that, of course, content and quality should be the main focus of the presentation, I also feel that people generally gravitate toward things that are pleasing to their vision. That is why we have the phrase don’t judge a book by its cover, something I find myself quite often doing. I think Powerpoint could be useful in certain settings where both the content and layout is fully developed. However, I have yet to be successful with this in my own classroom. I used Powerpoint in my classroom once last year for a project on the Holocaust. Students had to research an assigned topic and create a presentation where they provided information on the topic as well as used visuals. This year was the first year I had done it and I already know I won’t be doing it again next year. I noticed that students like working with Powerpoint so they obsess over the images, colors, and transitions for the presentation, spending little time focusing on the actual content. When it came time to present the information, it resulted in a boring reading of the information on the slides.

Another idea that I found interesting from his article was when Tufte brings up the use of visuals in Powerpoints and how the data is ultimately useless when it is not side by side, able to be compared. In Tufte’s words, they are filled with “the encoded legends, the meaningless color, the logo-type branding. They are uncomparative, indifferent to content and evidence, and so data-starved as to be almost pointless.” When reading this, I couldn’t help but think what Drucker would have to say about this. Without a doubt, she would agree with the Tufte’s dislike of the linear format of the presentation.

In her chapter, Drucker focuses on interpretive activity, discussing how “innovations in graphic conventions have arisen to support the scholarly activity” but also points out that little has been done when it comes to “imaginative writing practices (182).” Despite this fact, she does believe that the few examples that have arisen indicate that there is much possibility there. She also points out that there have been some great examples of artists and writers that have used visual and spatial writing but that these examples failed to reshape writing conventions that have been in place for far too long. While we use schematic and visual approaches to outline and prepare, the actual composition is generally still linear and traditional. Because of this, we are not giving the composition its full interpretive potential. When thinking about interpretive acts when composition is not done in the traditional sense, Drucker states, “Where and when interpretive acts takes place in the click trail and movement through and across different modalities of display is a pressing question when screen spaces, computational capacities, and constellationary argument and a diagrammatic approach to composition also include the synthesis of many voices, authors, contributions with and without attribution (185).” When so many other factors are put into place, the amount of interpretation that can be done greatly increases. In fact, the amount of interpretive lines that can be drawn are ultimately limitless. In this sense, reading cannot be viewed as just “an act of recovering truth” (191).

After reading both texts, I was left with the following questions:
-Do you think that Drucker would agree with Tufte that Powerpoint is evil?
-How do you feel about the use of Powerpoint in the classroom?
-Do you have any success stories with Powerpoint?
-Is there a way to use Powerpoint to create the kind of nonlinear, collaborative, and visual composition that Drucker talks about?
-Which do you think is true when Drucker asks, “Will we think differently because of the ways interpretation takes shape across networked contingencies. Or are these material conditions producing us as new subjects of a distributed imagination” (191)?


Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Third Era

Over the past few weeks, many of us have expressed discontent with the limitations that we feel imposed upon us by external forces: departments, districts, state laws, federal mandates. I’ve found hearing from others who share some of my concerns to be a professionally beneficial experience, and I feel as though what I’ve taken from this class has prepared me to shift my pedagogy in a direction that will help my students engage with digital writing in a meaningful way. This week’s reading however, opened a more fundamental question for me, one that is perhaps a bit frightening to engage with: can our current system be adapted to keep up with a rapidly changing world, or is the system itself so rooted in an obsolete way of operating that, despite the best efforts of hard-working teachers, it is incapable of being salvaged?
DeVoss suggests that we “may be entering a third era” for the American school system, an era “in which institutional, social, and technological innovations are leading people to ‘extended learning throughout life and over many venues.’” This era would be the next step in a chain that starts with the “apprenticeship era” of the colonial days and continues with the “universal schooling era,” rooted in the work of 19th-century reformers like Horace Mann which brought about the public schools we know today (143). Such a suggestion is radical—ask how closely your classroom resembles a blacksmith’s apprenticeship, and then try to imagine what a model for education that is as far removed from today’s classroom as today’s classroom is from an apprenticeship would even look like. Would there be a single teacher? Is there a teacher at all? How many students would there be? Would the students all be the same age? Is such a classroom even a physical space? Much of what DeVoss draws attention to in this chapter—that “digital environments…are typical ‘on’ 24/7/365” (146), that our “students are learning to think, to read, and to ask questions in networked environments (150), and that “school is just one node in a (potentially global) learning network that young people have the opportunity to inhabit” (148)—points to the basic fact that a school that operates under basic assumptions like timed periods/school days, a nine-month school year, or a physically constrained learning environment might not be capable of serving students who have grown up in a constantly and universally connected world.
In fact, not a single model that DeVoss cites in this chapter as an example of effective digital writing/learning is a traditional public school. The Science Leadership Academy, which has reimagined its pedagogical planning to focus specifically on “elements of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection” is an experimental and selective public magnet school (144). The Digital Youth Network is founded on the notion that “schools alone cannot be expected to provide full support for students as media creators” (144), and DeVoss herself emphasizes that the thing that “feels significantly different at this particular moment” is that the tools we’re discussing are “not primarily tools for institutions at all. They are tools for learners and writers, and as learners and writers begin to sue them across any areas of their lives outside of school, these tools will have a profound impact on the core business of life itself” (142).
I don’t want to undermine the impressive efforts, hard work, and good intentinos that teachers bring to the classroom. Nor do I want to ignore the fact that “not all students…have access” to the sorts of tools that this “third era” would be predicated on. At the same time, DeVoss’ concluding sentiment—that we should “guide and respond to our students’ writing even though technologies continue to change”—is a half-hearted and milquetoast response when seven pages earlier she was predicting a fundamental shift in what school is (150). I guess I’m wondering if we need to turn the sort of institutional skepticism that we’ve pointed at Google and Facebook over the past couple of weeks on the educational system, and not just the parts of it we dislike. It’s easy for us to blame that one vice principal, or the College Board, or MCAS, or any other aspect of our job that we feel limits us. It’s harder, though more effective, for us to make the small, individual changes that will actually improve our pedagogy, and we should all most certainly make those individual changes where we can. But it’s terrifying to wonder if whether the fundamental pillars that education as we know it today is built upon are beginning to crack.

To condense all of that into a more manageable list, I guess I’m wondering
  • Do you agree with DeVoss about “something being different” about this moment for education, or have changes occurred before?
  • If we are indeed entering a new era for education, what does it look like? What basic assumptions are we throwing out, and what new ideas are we bringing in?
  • What are the costs and challenges of that sort of radical shift?
  • Where will that change come from? Will it be built within existing institutions? Or is the model for education that we need so far removed from what we have that we must begin building it outside our existing schools?

MOOCS: A Problematic Solution to the Disinvestment in Public Higher Education

I agree wholeheartedly with Bady’s cynicism of the speed, inevitability, and necessity of the MOOC movement. From 2011-2015 I direct...