Universities on the Defensive: What is it we do

July 25, 2012 at 3:29 am 19 comments

Ian Bogost’s piece (linked below) on Georgia Tech’s involvement in Coursera is biting and to-the-point.  “The fundamental problem isn’t one of cost containment, it’s one of funding—of understanding why the cost containment solution appeared in the first place. We collectively ‘decided’ not to fund education in America. ”  Why is Georgia Tech doing Coursera?  Why are any of the other schools doing this?  He argues that nobody knows, that everybody is doing this because they are trying to position themselves as a member of the elite, as being in the lead.  It’s a defensive posture.

Are Universities under attack?  De-funding is a form of attack.  Why do we have universities, then? What do Universities exist for?  Why did we collectively decide not to fund education?  Maybe decision makers don’t understand what we do.  And the question at hand: do MOOCs replace what we do?

I’ve been thinking about this, while living at one of the world’s oldest and most influential universities.  Teaching is not all that they do at Oxford, though I do think that they are particularly good at real education and not just imparting knowledge.  The issues of what Universities are for were raised at the C21U launch almost a year ago.  Educating students is only part of what Universities do (and there is some question about whether MOOCs education or simply train).  But when it comes to education, a research university can provide a unique learning experience.

I love teaching at Georgia Tech’s Study Abroad program at Oxford. The location is amazing, but that isn’t the greatest value of the experience for me–and I hope not for the students. I love the opportunity to interact with students intensively (in class, at meals, on the street, and even in the pubs), to spend every day in the classroom, and to grade everything myself and get a sense for how everyone is doing.  All of us GT faculty are here to teach.  There’s a community of scholars. I meet weekly for dinner (and often over breakfast) and conversation with a group of similarly minded GT faculty who really care about teaching and students.

For me, the experience informs my research.  The intensive interaction with a small number of students is my opportunity to try out new ideas (like worked examples with self-explanations and pixels in a spreadsheet) and inform my intuition about whether or not they might work.  It’s the first stage of design-based research: I’m trying to make something work, with small numbers, when I can really see what’s going on.  This is more than teaching for me — it’s an intense, immersive, research-informing experience.

I believe that the students are getting something unique out of this, too.  Excuse me for being immodest here: This is what I’m good at, and what I’m trained for.  This is why I’m a professor.  I’m a good teacher, but I also have decades of experience as an education researcher.  My students know that I’m trying new ideas out with them.  I tell them (in both of my courses) about what I’m trying and why I’m trying it and about my research agenda.  Even those students who are “just” taking a first-year-level intro to computing course are hearing about the research context and how it informs what we’re doing. My colleagues who do not do education research also wrap their courses with their research context.  Every course is infused with the passion of a scholar who talks about what they study and why they think it’s amazing and fascinating.

This is education that a University can offer, uniquely.  My students are learning knowledge and skills and perspectives, in a rich and intense and personal experience.   It doesn’t always work so well, I admit.  I can’t do the kinds of things I do here at Oxford in our enormous courses in Atlanta.  And this kind of education isn’t for everybody.  Turadg told us that we need a variety of learning systems for a variety of needs.  I definitely have students who are going through the paces and aren’t interested in taking advantage of the whole experience.

I’m damn sure that there is no MOOC that can replace what is going on in my classrooms this summer.  Now, society can decide that what I’m offering isn’t worthwhile, or is too expensive, or can be offered to too few students, or may even not as work as well as I hope.  Maybe that’s the real danger of MOOCs — it offers something for free (to the students) that seems as good as what a good University education could be, or as good an education as members of our society need.

Maybe what we in Universities ought to do is show people more often what it is that we do and explain why.  We need to be able to show people why what we’re offering in a University is better than a MOOC and is valuable to the greater society.

Institutions like mine are afraid of the present and the future yet drunk on the dream of being “elite” and willing to do anything to be seen in the right crowd making the hip choices. The provostial email also notes, “It also is significant that Georgia Tech is a founding member of this group.” Group membership is a key obsession of university administration, and it’s why they take systems lik the US News rankings so seriously. Of course, all such structures are partly fictions we invent to structure our lives and society. The Ivy League isn’t a natural law or a God-given lineage.

In this respect, Coursera’s clearly got the upper hand among institutions that fancy themselves elite: once they get a critical mass on board, the rest don’t want to appear left behind. Given the recent drama at the University of Virginia, whose president was fired partly for failing to blindly adopt online learning only to be re-hired after a PR-nightmare only weeks before UVA announced their participation in Coursera anyway, you can see how Presidents and Provosts across the land might be ready to sign on for defensive reasons alone.

via Ian Bogost – MOOCs are Marketing.

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Pixel Spreadsheet in a Media Computation class: Exposing data abstraction with Excel Who funded the Internet? I care that you don’t know what it is!

19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Guzdial  |  July 25, 2012 at 6:23 am

    A hilarious blog post, which is also riffing on what we do as professors in the context of MOOCs: http://eyeoned.org/content/midsummer-whimsy-how-to-write-recommendations-for-847-students_349/ I particularly enjoyed the quote: “I have a MOOC. It’s called a blog, and it produces exactly the same revenue as the MOOC would.”

  • 2. Tony Hursh  |  July 25, 2012 at 7:18 am

    “Why do we have universities, then? What do Universities exist for?”

    From what I’ve seen in recent years, universities exist to employ and pay administrators. Everything else (including educating students and doing research) is a distant second.

  • 3. Alfred Thompson  |  July 25, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I have also been thinking a lot about this recently. We do read a lot of the same things after all. 😉 I was thinking back to my own undergraduate experience. I attended a small university where I was able to develop one to one relationships with many of the faculty. These relationships, especially in computer science, had a huge impact on the way I saw the field, how later I taught the material myself and generally contributed to my education in ways that are not always easy to quantify. Would I have had the same (or as good) experience in a MOOC? I tend to doubt it very much. There were too many conversations outside of class that were too individual. Can we get there with online forums? I don’t think so. Online interaction which can be good even great is not (yet?) quite the same.

  • 4. Mike Lutz  |  July 25, 2012 at 10:38 am

    I have three children.

    Daughter #1 went to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology, where I teach) where she received her degree in mathematics. Classes generally had 50 or fewer students and were taught by full-time, tenured faculty. Upper division classes were in the 20-30 student range.

    My son went to Western New England College (recently renamed Western New England University), where he received a degree in Mechanical Engineering. WNE(C/U) is a small college with an even smaller engineering school (approx. 100 students per class across all engineering disciplines). Classes were obviously very small, with lots of interaction with faculty who cared deeply about teaching. I was deeply impressed.

    Daughter #2 went to Georgia Tech and received her degree in Industrial Engineering. While she had some excellent professors, most of her classes had high enrollments (including a required upper division HCI or Ergonomics class – can’t remember which – in a large lecture format with over 125 students). While she doesn’t regret going to Tech, it should be apparent that she didn’t receive anything like the close interaction with researchers that Mark describes above. I really don’t see how her *undergraduate* *educational* experience was enhanced by attending a research university; certainly I believe my son and daughter #1 had much better such experiences.

    Unfortunately, the academic culture in the U.S., dominated by Presidents and Provosts who only understand a research model, is relentlessly driving RIT, WNEU, and a host of other schools traditionally focused on undergraduate education, to move towards the research university model. This, of course, means either or both larger lecture sections and courses taught by TAs, adjuncts and contract lecturers rather than full-time faculty. I predict that many of these schools won’t make it. Be that as it may, if this is the wave of the future in residential higher education, no one should be surprised that lower-cost, online education looks increasing attractive.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 25, 2012 at 11:51 am

      I did insert the caveat, Mike: “It doesn’t always work so well, I admit. I can’t do the kinds of things I do here at Oxford in our enormous courses in Atlanta.” You raise a really good point. My students are paying a lot for this experience. It’s taken a lot out of effort on my part to make it work. It is certainly expensive. And it is a shift away from what the research University is typically engaged in. I am doing research here (e.g., finishing ICER papers, reviewing student work, working on NSF paperwork), but it’s not my central focus — and that’s different from what I do in Atlanta.

  • 6. Cecily  |  July 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Positioning is a funny thing, isn’t it? I think a lot of the MOOC action right now is very driven by novelty and not by necessity. MOOC’s seem to be a trendy way to attract grant funding and that is approximately half the business model of an R1 school, so this particular coalition shouldn’t surprise anybody. The fact that all of our favorite R1 schools are posturing and positioning yet again, shouldn’t really surprise anybody either. What would be surprising would be if something/anything came out of the millions of dollars that will be spent on this current trend that could transcend novelty and actually deal with something resembling necessity. It seems like every time I turn around, there are certain people/places that are getting more grant funding– Pittsburgh public school system is a classic example. I have talked to colleagues who wouldn’t send their kids to the public school system there, so my impression is that it must be pretty bad. Yet, they continue to get grant after grant funded. My suspicion is that the people writing grants for them are VERY good at positioning, but I remain skeptical about whether or not they are solving any real problems. I am also skeptical about whether or not the problems the pervade Pittsburgh public schools can be solved with money, as my impression is that the bigger problem is broken families, and sometimes all the money in the world can’t fix a broken family.

  • 7. Kevin Lahey  |  July 25, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    This is the second “Oh, but we provide an amazing in-class experience for students, MOOCs could never do that,” rant I’ve seen in the last week. It misses the point.

    The point is that most of us don’t have access to small classes with engaged professors. In my undergraduate experience at a large state university, I was lucky to have one professor a semester who was truly engaged, and really lucky to have a class with fewer than 40 people in it (the smallest CS class I was in had 26 students).

    As a high-school junior, I haunted the local university library for chemistry books, and won the local Chemathon contest. As a college freshman, I was so turned off by the giant chemistry class and obviously-bored professor that I skipped most of the classes and just barely got by. Way to crush my enthusiasm.

    If a MOOC can offer a better experience for those hundreds of thousands of interested students who don’t have the privilege of experiencing a small class environment with devoted instructors, why not go for it!?

    (I suppose, as a caveat, that I ought to add that I did have great one-on-one experiences with some amazing professors, but I had to work at it, and not many of my fellow undergraduates got that experience, alas.)

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  July 26, 2012 at 2:27 am

      Kevin, you raise a fair point that I do consider. The kind of education I describe is expensive. It’s not what most people have access to. But from our current position, we have more than one possible move. One move is to pay the price (or find ways to reduce the price) to give more people access to the kinds of education I describe. Another way is to move to MOOC’s. I’m not convinced that MOOC’s are better than what you’re describing. There are other moves. For example, the evidence for Intelligent Tutoring Systems is stronger, and we have more successfully used cognitive tutors in blended classrooms, so that you can combine access to high quality information and access to engaged professors.

      • 9. Kevin Lahey  |  July 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm

        To be fair, I’ve yet to try a MOOC, and I’d never even heard of an ITS (thanks for the pointer!). As a CS practitioner, I tend to try to stay up to date by reading research papers, following mailing lists, going to conferences, and contributing to open source. I’m a networking/systems guy, but I’ve been thinking that taking a MOOC in something like AI would be a fun challenge, and might expose me to some new ideas.

        I guess one of my problems with the current system (and the cost of that current system) is the way that the rewards are parceled out. My tax dollars go to support these institutions, but only a subset of the qualified students get to benefit from them. The sharpest people I’ve ever worked with, folks who’ve led large open-source projects, who’ve cranked out RFCs left and right, who would rewrite a giant device driver over the weekend, never finished their undergraduate degrees. Similarly, I’ve worked with some complete bozos, with awesome pedigrees, who couldn’t program at all (yet were working jobs that required it).

        If the experience of an involved professor and a small class is too expensive to provide to everyone, I’d like to ensure that we’re more careful about who we do provide it to, especially when I’m footing part of the bill. If you can instead make it less expensive and available to more folks, then go, go, go! We need more sharp folks in CS! This is important stuff.

  • 10. pboothe  |  July 26, 2012 at 11:46 am

    If educational quality and personal attention is why universities are better than MOOCs, then said universities had better reward their professors for providing those things. Right now, it looks like they are continuing on the path of the last 100 years, and continuing to give research more and more importance. If tenure and promotion are determined solely by research quality/quantity and success in finding funding, then teaching will suffer. Even with a well-meaning and idealistic professoriate who want to teach well, you will eventually get the behavior you reward.

    I spent my undergraduate years at a small liberal arts college that focuses on STEM – it was wonderful (albeit a lot of hard work)! Lots of mentoring from professors as well as individualized attention made the difficult curriculum feel worthwhile. As a grad student, I was shocked to see how poorly undergraduates are treated at large universities. At my undergraduate institution, professors could fail to get tenure through poor teaching or poor research. At my graduate institution (like many/most other phd-granting institutions), only research really counted. The difference in student engagement in courses (both professor-student and student-professor) was dramatic.

  • […]  It rings all too true.  Beki’s response buoyed me up, and made me think (yet again, as I did earlier this week) that I do appreciate my job — and being a teacher for me (like Beki) is the best part of it. […]

  • 12. mgozaydin  |  July 27, 2012 at 11:21 am

    For teachers, it is hard to admit that online course is even better than f2f of any. Sure not all online courses are good.
    But please go to http://www.edx.org this september ( even now you can register) and take MITx Electronic Engineering Course 6.002x
    You will see that the course is 100 times better than your course.
    You will see that how thousands of students are interacting, helping to each other, making friends from different parts of the world .
    Believe me MIT is different than any other online courses in the world . They are the best. They will be better every day too since they have the money to do it .

    Try to take a position at online learning. In ten years you will be jobless.
    And you cannot stop the world, may be only delay .

  • […] here: About the worked examples that I’m trying out in Oxford, the PixelSpreadsheet, and contrasting the study abroad I’m teaching on and MOOCs.  I mention that I’m doing an end-of-term survey about how all this worked, and I expect to […]

  • […] teaching “Computational Freakonomics” and “Media Computation.” Since I did new things in Media Computation this term, I put together a little survey to get students’ feedback on what I did — not for […]

  • 15. Why aren’t Universities Free? | Managua Gunn's Pirate Haven  |  September 5, 2012 at 5:37 am

    […] Universities on the Defensive: What is it we do (computinged.wordpress.com) […]

    • 16. Muvaffak Gozaydin  |  October 27, 2012 at 7:05 am

      Because they have a huge cost
      MOOC has a very little cost per person therefore
      fee is also very small .

  • […] Universities on the Defensive: What is it we do « Computing Education Blog […]

  • 18. Fight the MOOCopalypse! « Computing Education Blog  |  October 5, 2012 at 6:16 am

    […] (or worse, support of) the MOOCopalypse (#2).  I completely agree with others in this thread (and wrote a blog piece recently saying similar things): We teach way better than any MOOC can.  If we do teach more with MOOCs, we should be the […]

  • 19. Loving Coursera MOOCs | jill/txt  |  October 16, 2012 at 5:56 am

    […] tend to get defensive about MOOCs, as Mark Guzdial wrote in his Computing Education Blog: I’m damn sure that there is no MOOC that can replace what is going on in […]


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