Tree Sitting

Clay Shirky observed at the Awl last week that he and I disagree over whether the trend toward MOOCs in higher education is reversible—he says no, and he says that I say yes—and I suppose he’s right, so far as that goes. But I don’t think that goes very far.

There were a few cheap shots about “teamsters in tweed” that were worth noting. A lazy trope that depends on the belief that unions are essentially illegitimate, selfish, and retrograde, it’s a sly dig that lets him insinuate without directly asserting that anti-MOOC academics are self-interested and conservative luddites, that we are somehow positioning our own self-interest in opposition to the deep public spirit of Silicon Valley. It also passes along the insinuation that academics are powerfully unionized, which is far from the truth; as Jonathan Rees points out, would that we were more like teamsters. But I’d just like to note the cheapness of that critique before moving on: as if self-interest is some unique academic perversion, as if Shirky himself lacks bread and a knowledge of which side it is buttered on, and—most importantly—as if the drive to make money off of students isn’t the only reason Silicon Valley is getting on the MOOC bandwagon. Because, of course, this was my original critique of Shirky’s language of “we educators”: he rhetorically inhabits that position in order to pooh-pooh its legitimacy as an opinion. He signs up for team education in order to run up the white flag on our behalf. Thanks, but, please, no thanks.

So I want to shift the debate a bit. Shirky thinks in terms of “disruption” and what can come of it, in theory. I think in terms of what the “disruption” of the University of California system looks like in practice, as a complex of politicians, financiers, and career administrators move in lock-step to transform it into a self-sufficient corporate entity, and to enrich private industry in the bargain. I see a group of decision-makers who quite manifestly do not know what they are talking about and who barely try to disguise it, for whom “online” is code word for privatization. If I am against MOOC’s, I am against the way “MOOC” is being experienced in California, in practice: as an excuse to cheapen education and free the state budget from its responsibility to educate its citizenry.

Shirky’s optimism isn’t totally unfounded, of course; a good MOOC is a good thing. The problem is that it isn’t what it threatens to replace. And Shirky’s optimism effectively obscures the deep and profound fatalism that drives his argument: the future is here, so bend over and think of England; the future is coming and it isn’t all bad; the future may be worse in crucial ways, but it could also be cheaper too, so yay. Michael Sacasas calls this a Borg complex, and that seems at least partly apt.

A Borg Complex is exhibited by writers and pundits whenever you can sum up their message with the phrase: “Resistance is futile.” The six previously identified symptoms of a Borg Complex are as follows:1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology; 2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur; 3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns; 4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia; 5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation; 6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate; 7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for the achievements of the past.
But while this kind of neoliberal fatalism can be staged with a semi-happy ending, it’s still Margaret Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative, only now with more technology. And graphs don’t assist or elucidate the argument; they end it, making further argument unnecessary.

Again, a MOOC that is truly open and free—and high quality—is a wonderful addition to the public sphere, a boon to students who are poorly served by the present system. And polemics like Shirky’s get traction because his complaints about the status quo are grounded in real problems (albeit problems created by the same financiers and politicians who now propose to solve them). But if we blow up the status quo, the fact that the future could potentially be better doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be much worse. That the glass is half-empty is not an argument for dumping it out. Do we know where the new water is going to come from? Making grand predictions about what MOOC’s could be—while merrily destroying the actually-existing thing it might potentially replace—is a recipe for disaster.

The central figure in Shirky’s article is the assertion that “MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree” and he goes on to argue that while most people focus on the lightning (“on MOOCs as the flashy new thing”), he wants to talk about the tree. That’s fine. I want to raise the stakes: let’s talk about the forest he’s missing when he focuses on that tree. The rhetorical function of “MOOC” is this bait and switch: MOOC is a fantasy of potential, a stand-in for what could be, whose possibility makes it unnecessary to produce evidence for its plausibility. This is also why Shirky doesn’t talk about the lightning that’s destroying the rotten tree. He doesn’t talk about what will replace “College” once MOOC’s have destroyed it, or defend the proposition that a world with MOOC’s instead of colleges is a good thing. He just talks about how terrible actually existing college is. The aftermath can take care of itself; the futurologist places his faith in it, but he does not subject it to all that much scrutiny.

I'm not sure the tree is dead, much less rotten. But even if it is, a good forester knows that rotten trees are useful things.

Dead Trees as Resources for Forest Wildlife: "Although dead wood might seem expendable in a forest or may even be regarded as unsightly, it serves an important role in supporting wildlife and assisting ecological processes. Dead wood may be in the form of snags (standing, dead trees), dead limbs, or logs. All provide habitat to numerous animal species and play an important role in nutrient cycling...Snags and logs are not signs of unkempt forest, nor are they waste materials to be discarded. Rather, dead trees are home to many animals and storage for moisture and nutrients. Because so many animals rely on dead wood during some part of their lives, snag, limb, and log retention is an essential component of any wildlife conservation or management plan."
Rotten trees might be useless for someone who wants to clear-cut the forest and sell the timber—you can’t make a rotten tree into a table or a chair—but if the health of the forest is your concern, you leave that rotten snag where it is, where its slow decomposition provides a crucial home for all sorts of bugs, birds, and other critters, and where the slow and natural process of its decomposition will feed the ecosystem in ways nothing else can. A forester who burns down all the rotten trees in a forest is an idiot.

Are we talking about forests or universities? Both. Long before Silicon Valley discovered that overcrowded lecture classes were something they could rhetorically leverage into investment opportunities, faculty have been fighting to keep their classes small, and slowly losing. They’ve been losing because the administrative class—and the investment bankers that sit on university boards of regents—have wanted to spread academic labor as far as possible, to make it as cheap as possible to teach as many students as possible. Today, that teacher to student ratio has become—perversely—an excuse for exponentially increasing it: students who have too little contact with faculty will now get even less. Will we call that victory?

Put differently: what makes us think that “green shoots” will replace the tree once it has been lightninged to death? And is “lightning” the best forestry metaphor for education? I prefer the metaphor I put forward in the first piece—and which Shirky was riffing on, I think—which is a landscape of plants and also the animals that feed on them:

"Academic culture is a huge and diverse ecosystem. People who come along with grand plans about how everything is going to be transformed so often don't have even a very shallow understanding of how that ecosystem works: You have all these Silicon Valley venture capitalists who are going to blow everything up and transform it; what you're really talking about doing is killing all the green plants in the ecosystem and then expecting the deer to have something to eat; no; the deer are going to die.

We’ve all heard the story about how forest fires are actually, counter-intuitively, good for forest ecologies. Shirky’s metaphor presumes, I think, that you know that this is the case. But forest fires are only beneficial to complex and biodiverse systems if the burn is selective, and especially if it’s controlled: the big trees must survive, because the undergrowth can quickly restore itself. But what if all the trees are destroyed? That’s not a beneficial burn; that’s clear-cutting.

I grew up in an 80 year old forest—a forest which was clear-cut in the early 20th century—and the difference between that and an old growth forest is staggeringly huge. You can only miss the difference if you’ve never seen the real thing, and when I saw the real thing—in a 140 acre patch of land that was accidentally left uncut, 80 years ago—I was, indeed, staggered.

MOOC’s are a word for forgetting that universities have never grown without being planted, for trusting that just as students can teach themselves, universities will magically grow themselves, too. Because of technology, and the market, and also technology. It allows us to forget that the deer will get hungry once all the good stuff is gone—once the last vestiges of state supported higher education has been burned to the ground—and that they will have no choice but to queue up for whatever slop the market deigns to provide them. They might not even know what they’re missing. And it’s a word for forgetting that the people who make MOOC’s will have a profit motive, a monopoly, and private ownership of a delivery infrastructure that tax-payers will have paid for.

It’s the kind of word that makes you understand why tree sitters would chain themselves to old growth forests.

Part of the problem is that Shirky organizes his narrative according a strict unilinear chronology—using graphs in which the question of the future’s inevitability can beg itself—but I’m interested in thinking in terms of budgets, of where the money goes and why. Here, for example, Bob Samuels does the numbers to demonstrate that the amount of money it would cost to make all public universities free is not only much lower than we might expect, but much closer to the amount of money our state and federal governments already spend. Samuels’ short working paper is not the end of the discussion, of course, nor is Mike Konczal’s “Could Dismantling the Submerged State Surrounding Student Debt Pay for Free Colleges?” necessarily the final word. But this kind of work shows us a different future, in which a different set of choices and priorities suddenly transforms the world we so comfortably imagined ourselves to live in. Another world is not only possible, it’s plausible: when I got my BA at Ohio State, I paid $6k a year and never had a class in my major with more than 30 people in it, and almost always headed by a tenured professor. That’s not some fairyland utopia. That was 2001.

“MOOC” is a narrative, in other words, a way of thinking about and describing how education can occur online in the most optimistic terms. It’s a way of taking a thing as non-specific and formless as “disruption” and giving it a shape and a form. But it’s also a way of taking a thing as specific as the fact that San Jose State is shedding labor costs by putting their classes online, and making it sound like what they’re doing is “increasing access.” This is the narrative trick that allowed Shirky to write a column that describes how higher education as we know it will be and must be destroyed and then have it be titled “How to Save College.”

It looks like the title was changed, at some point, to “Your Massively Open Offline College is Broken,” though you can still see the original title in the URL. For all I know, Shirky himself might have requested the change; certainly it was an odd way to title the piece.
You can argue that destroying “College” and replacing it with something qualitatively different is inevitable and even that it’ll be a good thing. But you can’t argue that destroying the village is necessary to save it. Or, rather, you can’t unless you’ve so profoundly warped the concept of “creative destruction” into something that implies that all destruction is creative. Only then can “disruption” come to seem like a good thing, by definition, and this is so often what “MOOC” is taken to mean, in practice.

When regents and administrators and edu-preneurs talk about MOOC’s, after all, they mean outsourcing classes at San Jose State to a for-profit corporation. That’s literally the privatization of a public resource. It is not a coincidence that San Jose State is a place where a lot of low-income, non-white students get their college degrees: it isn’t the children of the upper-middle class that go to Berkeley or UCLA who will be the canaries in this coal mine. And it’s also not a coincidence that SJSU’s press release uses the narrative of MOOC to describe a set of courses which are not free, and thus, not really “Open.”

As they put it: “Those are just some of the reasons the university has partnered with Silicon Valley startup Udacity to offer San Jose State Plus, online courses for academic credit. These types of classes are called MOOCs (massive open online courses), and San Jose State administrators say this new program marks the first time a MOOC is being offered purely online for credit.”
They’re not expensive, of course; for some students, they might actually be a better deal, if they stay cheap. But why would we presume that they will? For one thing, this MOOCification is explicitly a pilot project. If it works—and the self-fulfilling prophecy of these kinds of “experiments” ensures that they pretty much always “work”—it will be expanded. Unless the structural problem of California public education is solved—which is that it has to be paid for, and the state doesn’t want to pay for it—those classes will rise in price, as surely as the sun rises in the East.
For another thing, if you actually look at San Jose State’s tuition structure, you will see that all full-time students pay a mandatory fee of about ~$3k, and half-time students pay half that, also mandatory. Unless I’m misreading that website, students wouldn’t pay less if they took a cheaper class online. They’d just get an online class where they would have gotten a classroom. My prediction is that this is the direction we are actually headed in: non-SJSU students will have the option to pay (a small amount) for an online SJSU class (allowing the university to make some extra money), but the students who are actually on the degree path will experience little or no cost reduction.

In this way, the (misapplied) word MOOC becomes a license to privatize. When a public institution outsources its classes to a for-profit corporation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—nor is it all that new—but that’s what it is: shifting the burden to educate the state’s citizens to a corporation who can make money from doing so. And yet, by using the magic word “MOOC,” the privatization disappears in a puff of euphemism. We are instead “expanding access.”

To think around this euphemism, then, we need to be clearer about what we are talking about when we talk about MOOCS. Those classes at SJSU are not MOOCS, by the definition that’s meaningful to me. They’re massive and online, but they are not open, and they’re barely courses. Moreover, if what Coursera and Udacity do is a “MOOC,” then isn’t the internet itself a kind of giant MOOC? If we think of “it” as a big and messy library, that is accessible to any and all who have access to it, it’s certainly a classroom for the self-motivated, and a rich one at that. But the things that are called MOOC’s, aren’t they just one version of the way the internet freely and massively circulates information?

If we think of MOOC’s and college classes in terms of student experience, there’s a spectrum of experience which extends from the rigidly conventional classroom at one extreme—directed by the heavy head of an instructor, who sets readings and directs the process—to the library of the world, in which the learner directs herself without any externally imposed guidance at all. On the one hand, the classroom as pedogogical despotism, enlightened or otherwise; on the other, the platonic ideal of the university consisting of a library and a bed, where nothing stands between you and the fount of knowledge. Go forth!

Most actual classes lie somewhere between these two extremes; some classes are rigid and tightly directed while others are basically a group of people in a room having a conversation, loosely coordinated by a person whose role may be closer to facilitator than director. Actually-existing MOOC’s are much closer to the “library and a bed” model of education: there is much less teacher to get in the way of your learning. And this is always going to be the case with classes in which “online” is a license to be the massive. When a lecture class has 400 students, MOOC boosters talk about how terrible it is; when a MOOC has 4000 students, though, the addition of “online” has performed some strange alchemy, turning a digital lecture class into pedagogical gold. And this is the entire structural logic of the MOOC as a concept: with great technology, comes great student to teacher ratios. There is no MOOC without this imperative to shed pedagogical labor.

Out of this imperative comes the core of the MOOC as a concept: the students are on their own. If the teacher to student ratio is 1 to 1000, or 1 to 200,000 (rather than 1-18 or 1-30), the students are free to learn or to avoid learning, as they see fit. Some structure is still provided, of course—there are peer discussions, and reading lists, and suggested exercises, anything that can be cheaply reproduced and distributed—but without the presence of a teacher who sees you, without the surveillance of grading, and without the social pressure of a classroom environment, students can easily get by without doing nearly as much, if they want. No one will notice. No one will care. They are free. Is this a good thing?

If you are a self-directed learner, you may thrive in a system which gives you some (optional) structure and (optional) guidance. But since the entire model is built on a massive reduction of pedagogical labor, you damn well better be that kind of learner. And if you are that kind of learner—if all you need is slightly more than a bed and a library—then you don’t really need a “class” at all, do you? Nor would you be getting one: you would be getting a special kind of online text, one which is slightly more interactive than a web-site, but basically not distinct from a well-organized blog. Such things can be a wonderful addition to the universe. But calling them “classes” is begging the question that a class is no more than that, and I am consistently amazed that anyone would make that mistake.

See this discussion of the difference between a classroom and a MOOC, for example (by actual students!). Some choice selections: “what’s been overwhelming for me so far (and as others have mentioned) is the sheer amount of posts in the discussion forums. In a way, I guess it’s helping me learn how to skim and find posts that I want to comment on or take note of, but it doesn’t feel like a class at all. Not to me, at least…All I have to go off of (as a student with no teaching experience) are my own classroom experiences. I’ve always found that the best classroom discussions I’ve been involved in were ones guided by questions and interjections from my teachers. I’ve also found that some of the most annoying (and least productive) classroom discussions I’ve been a part were ones where the teacher basically sat as an observer and did not mediate the discussion at all; other students began speaking way off topic and the entire discussion derailed pretty quickly.”
Let’s turn away from the mythical percentage of students who are so self-directed that things like “instruction” only get in their way. What about students who require and benefit from reinforcement, encouragement, direction, and/or externally-imposed discipline? They will not get it, and many will not continue their education. They will fail, or at least the ones who don’t learn to be more self-reliant and independent. Now, you may or may not think this is a bad thing; after all, there are those who think too many people are getting a college education, and that only snobs think a universal college education is something to aspire towards. I am not one of those people.
See this piece I wrote on Rick Santorum’s polemic against universal college education, for example.
I am not one of those people because I do not think the primary function of a college education is its function as a gatekeeping institution, charged with the task of separating the hewers of wood and drawers of water from their managers and masters.

Nor do I think a self-reliant college student is necessarily a good thing. In a well-run seminar, students must disagree with each other respectfully, must try to persuade, argue using facts rather than polemic, and face the people with whom they disagree. They have to find points of agreement within their disagreements—or I strive to find it for them, anyway—and it’s by finding ways to explain to each other what they disagree about that the class makes progress. And this is what distinguishes the classes I count a success from the classes where I feel like I failed: while a bad class remains split between active teacher and passive/reactive teach-ees, a good class is one in which the group develops its own vocabulary, its own history, its own personality, when unresolved discussions in week one and two structure the kinds of unresolved discussions we have in week three and four, and so forth. You only understand your own position, I think, if you understand why others don’t share it (and why they believe what they do).

In short, my story of a good class is not a narrative of conformity and control: it’s a narrative of socialized disagreement, of a group of people that can respect and work productively through and around and about everything that divides them. I find it easy to picture doing this in a classroom space. I find it hard to imagine doing this in chat-rooms, discussion boards, comment threads, and emails.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Years in a classroom as an educator have given me strong opinions about why my classes fail and why my classes succeed. The sooner you learn your students’ names—and the sooner they get comfortable with using each others’ names—the more successfully they will engage with each other as people, rather than as props for their own monologues and performance. Managing time is an art, but it’s an art that depends on reacting to sub-verbal cues: knowing that you can sustain a discussion on character for only about 40 minutes before they get bored, for example, and how to mix discussion with in-class writing to keep a two hour class from going stale, and knowing when and where you need to drop the discussion you’d planned to teach in favor of the discussion they clearly walked into the classroom wanting to have… all of these decisions must pivot on something as small as the look on a student’s face, the character of a silence, and the reactions of students whose intellectual personalities you’ve come to know intimately. Try to do that on a discussion board. Seriously, try it.

Moreover, there are always a handful of hyper-eloquent students who need to be persuaded—sometimes nudged, or even pushed—to step back, and to listen to other voices in the room. There are also, always, at least a handful of students that will not talk at all, unless you cultivate them with more skill than I sometimes have. It’s only by reading a student’s face that you can ascertain that she has an unexpressed idea burning in her brain, that all you have to do is ask her to speak up, and she will. And that then she’ll speak up again. And again. But this only happens when you’ve established a relationship of trust; when students are comfortable with you and with their classmates, you can see their minds working even when their mouths are closed. When they are not, you can’t; they come to class with a mask on, and they speak as they think they are expected to, performing a pose of what they think intellectual engagement is supposed to look like, the artifice rather than the substance.

I could be wrong; I only know what I know from a decade of experience as a teamster in tweed. But I do know something. I know that when I have occasional reading quizzes, my students do more of the reading. When I do not, they do less of it. And students who do the reading tend to find the classroom an enriching and even enjoyable place to be. Students who don’t do the reading, do not, and go through the motions. The former learn something; the latter get a grade. Which is the kind of student you want college students to pay to become?

I think there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and desire, among the MOOC crowd, for students who can be essentially self-motivated and individually oriented, and there’s so much enthusiasm for it that they start to believe that a classroom that essentially teaches itself is a good thing, even the best thing. Why have a paid instructor reading and grading student work when the students themselves can read and grade each other’s work? It is, after all, cheaper. Well, here’s one reason why. But another reason is that autodidacts who live in their own brains are not really in great demand. Even if we reduce the purpose of education down to job training—and this is a huge reduction—education is a process of socialization. Most of the actual knowledge you learn in the course of your education will be forgotten, unused. But the social skills and social knowledge you acquire in the classroom and outside of it is an important part of what makes you the person you are, for better or for worse. If we take a process of socialization and make it a process of anti-socialization—if to be “at” college, you must be alone in front of a computer—we take the dynamic that creates the legendary poisonous atmosphere of “the comment thread” and use it to create adults. To my mind, it is impossible to argue for this proposition.

Someone like Malcolm Harris is basically opposed to education, as such, exactly because the classroom represents this kind of subject-making discipline, because the classroom and the prison—as he sees it—have too much in common for the former to be embraced as a nurturing place to send kids, essentially by force. What one might call discipline and guidance and structure, Malcolm might call “violence.” Of course, he’s also against capitalism, the state, and patriarchal oppression of women, so to be clear: he’s a wild and crazy anarchist radical communist, and so his opinions can safely be ignored. He probably thinks Occupy was a totally good thing, too.

Malcolm’s position, however, is consistent. If you agree with him that the kind of discipline which pedagogues impose on their students—or the kind of power which is represented by giving a student a grade—is a form of violence, or coercion, or illegitimate control, then you are likely to see free-range children as a much better alternative to forcing them to go to school and submit to that kind of authority. I don’t agree with him, but I understand why he believes what he believes, and I respect his opinion, even if I don’t share it. He’s not wrong that at least some kinds of pedagogical control are little more than social violence, enacted on the bodies and minds of adults who we call “children” and deny the agency of choice. And I’ve learned a lot by thinking through why I don’t agree with him, a process that has caused me to take up the force of some of his critiques.

Shirky’s position—and that of most MOOC-boosters—does not seem consistent or coherent to me. There is a pulsing drumbeat of desire for a world in which self-directed learners direct their own learning, in which young people volunteer to learn whatever it is that they are supposed to learn, and in which the pedagogical labor of directing, encouraging, structuring, and disciplining the learning process is totally unnecessary, and need not be paid for. It is a fantasy. If you eliminate teachers and the broader structures of pedagogical authority that they make up, you have gotten rid of “education.” You can say that this is a good thing, if you like. Malcolm might think it is. But you cannot pretend you are saving a thing by replacing it with something that is utterly different. Sometimes destruction is creative. Sometimes it is simply destructive.