For TeachLab’s second Failure to Disrupt Book Club episode, Justin Reich is joined again by friend and colleague Audrey Watters to reflect on their conversation with special guests George Siemens and Elizabeth Losh. They discuss Failure To Disrupt’s Chapter 1: Instructor-Guided Learning at Scale and Massive Open Online Courses, looking at “three big bets of MOOCs,” and exploring why MOOCs failed to achieve their most ambitious goals. “I don't know if I've ever seen an ed tech thing where we can spend eight years talking about, "What is it?" We've been trying to define, "What are MOOCs? Are MOOCs this, are they that? They're not this, they're not that." I find it fascinating why we're finding so much difficulty really nailing down what MOOCs are and what role they play.” - George Siemens, Writer/Professor/Researcher
For TeachLab’s second Failure to Disrupt Book Club episode, Justin Reich is joined again by friend and colleague Audrey Watters to reflect on their conversation with special guests George Siemens and Elizabeth Losh. They discuss Failure To Disrupt’s Chapter 1: Instructor-Guided Learning at Scale and Massive Open Online Courses, looking at “three big bets of MOOCs,” and exploring why MOOCs failed to achieve their most ambitious goals.
“I don't know if I've ever seen an ed tech thing where we can spend eight years talking about, "What is it?" We've been trying to define, "What are MOOCs? Are MOOCs this, are they that? They're not this, they're not that." I find it fascinating why we're finding so much difficulty really nailing down what MOOCs are and what role they play.”
- George Siemens, Writer/Professor/Researcher
In this episode we’ll talk about:
George Siemens is a writer, theorist, speaker, and researcher on learning, networks, technology, analytics and visualization, openness, organizational effectiveness, and complexity in digital environments. He is a Professor and the Executive Director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at University of Texas, Arlington and co-director for the Center for Change and Complexity in Learning at the University of South Australia.
Elizabeth Losh is a theorist and scholar, and the Gale and Steve Kohlhagen Professor of English and American Studies at the College of William and Mary. She specializes in Rhetoric; Digital Publishing; Feminism & Technology; Digital Humanities; and Electronic Literature.
Resources and Links
Watch the full Book Club webinar here!
Check out Justin Reich’s new book, Failure To Disrupt!
Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
Justin Reich: From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. We're starting our second episode of our book club series about my new book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education. This week, we're talking about chapter one, Instructor-Guided Learning at Scale and Massive Open Online Courses. Once again, I've got my good friend Audrey Watters here to join the conversation with us. Audrey, thanks for coming back.
Audrey Watters: Thanks for having me.
Justin Reich: So, in part one of Failure to Disrupt, we're looking at three genres of learning at scale, three genres of learning environments with many, many learners and few experts to guide them. As we separate technologies into these three genres, we're going to ask the same question over and over again. Who guides the experience for learners? Sometimes, the experience, the sequence of learning events, is set by an instructor. Sometimes, it's set by an algorithm and sometimes, it's set by a network of peers. Today, we're going to talk about learning experiences, things like massive open online courses where there's an instructor or a team of instructors that's setting a sequence of learning events for a student. This is Instructor-Guided Learning at Scale.
To help us with this book club conversation, we invited George Siemens and Liz Losh. George Siemens is one of the earliest developers of things that got called Massive Open Online Courses, the early connectivist Canadian massive open online courses, and he was also an instructor for later generations of courses with edX and an advocate for universities to be exploring these new ways of teaching and learning online. Liz Losh, more of a critic, although she too created different kinds of online learning experiences that attempted to reach people across different scales but usually in a feminist tradition that was meant to critique the year of the MOOC and the surge of interest in MOOCs during this period of time. Audrey, do you have anything to add to what I just said?
Audrey Watters: I'm not sure that I do. If I thought about what to say, it would certainly be that ... Yeah, I think you actually, in that summary, covered exactly the reasons why George and Liz were perfect.
Justin Reich: Audrey, what did you think were the most interesting parts of the conversation that we had with George and Liz?
Audrey Watters: This was a great conversation. Two of the things I thought were most interesting were when George Siemens pushed back on you with your failure to include much about the global impact of MOOCs and also when we talked a bit about COVID and, I think, some of the external forces then and now that influence MOOCs.
Justin Reich: Right, the same technology but how it's being received and used and integrated into systems in very different contexts over the last decade.
Audrey Watters: And why was it that MOOCs became such a phenomenon? Why did we end up with the year of the MOOC?
Justin Reich: And why was 2020, in some respects, both the year for growth of MOOCs but still a sort of disappointment in terms of their limited integration into our pandemic-hobbled remote schooling? Well, good. So during the book club, we asked our guests to share their edtech stories, a moment from their life that got them interested in these topics. Let's start by listening to Liz's edtech story, and then we'll dive into the conversation.
Elizabeth Losh: My edtech story begins in the late '80s, early '90s, when I was a freshly-minted undergraduate-degreed person from an Ivy League institution teaching at a delinquency prevention center and running a computer lab there. There was something called the Public Electronic Network, or PEN. It was a system that allowed digital deliberation for the city of Santa Monica. Howard Rheingold writes about it in a couple of his books. I had these students who had had contact with the justice system and were in this after-school diversion program doing, not quite informal learning, not quite formal learning, kind of the place in between. It was also a coercive space because they had to go there as part of their probationary role. And I thought, "I'm going to put these kids on PEN, and this is going to give them the opportunity to communicate with their elected representatives and participate in local governance in ways that will make them feel like they're real citizens of the city rather than criminals."
Initially, it did not seem to be working because the students, they lost their passwords. This was when ... George remembers these days, when you had these really long, unwieldy usernames and passwords that were being generated by these places that were used to mainframe computing. So the students just didn't like it. They just felt like it was busy work. Then suddenly, one day, it seemed like overnight all of the students were on the computers and they were all on PEN. They were actually trying to convince their siblings and cousins and friends to come to the after-school center. Suddenly, everyone was on PEN, and I was like, "This is the greatest thing. This is so exciting. They must be having these wonderful, cerebral political discussions." Of course, they were just using PEN to talk to each other. It was essentially just high-tech passing notes.
At the time, I was completely crushed by this, because I felt my techno missionary ideals were somehow being betrayed by these students. And yet, later, I came to understand it was a kind of politics with a small p, and that they were doing political action by connecting with each other. And that connection can be a political act. So then I've been involved in all kinds of crazy pedagogical experiments. One of them is the selfie course, which I just put in the chat, and the one that I was involved with for the longest time was FemTechNet, which distributed open collaborative course that was a response to MOOC madness. Generally, I've been in the skeptical camp rather than the charismatic camp, to use Justin's terms. And I've written a couple of books about online learning. Like Justin, I'm very interested in thinking about educational technologies broadly and realizing how things like chairs that move, are educational technologies. And windows that bring in light are educational technologies.
Justin Reich: So, as Audrey said before, one of George's critique of the book is that it doesn't really address the global impact of MOOCs. For instance, much of my discussion addresses the two big US providers of massive open online courses, Coursera and edX, but it doesn't really talk about FutureLearn, although there's some references to researchers from the open university where FutureLearn came from. I think George makes an excellent point here. One of the consistent failures of scholars of education technology from the United States is that they pay too much attention to the United States and not enough attention to the rest of the world, and I think George gets that critique exactly right. So let's listen to what he has to say.
George Siemens: Let's say what's gone with FutureLearn. FutureLearn has a fairly different pedagogical model than what edX and Coursera have, and you'll see it in that a lot of the people who were involved in the development of FutureLearn have a background in learning sciences or in teaching and learning online or something. If you look at the people who-
Justin Reich: As opposed to the computer scientists who founded Coursera and edX and Udacity.
George Siemens: Exactly, yeah. It's the equivalent of, say, in 1998, the computer science ... Or somebody lands on the US soil and proclaims it for Queen of England kind of thing. It's there, it's understood, it's a domain, it's established. That's what digital learning was pre Sebastian Thrun and Norvig and eventually edX with [inaudible 00:09:05] and others. There was a space of literature, a space of practice that goes back 30 plus years. So I think that's probably the biggest thing that would, including, say, a FutureLearn angle, is the fact that this was a group of people ignorant of a domain discovering a domain that was already established. When you see it from that lens, especially with a company like FutureLearn, you see that you can have a different product that emphasizes different approaches to teaching and learning and that is much less instructivist.
The other aspect, in China, because it's so difficult ... If you follow the edtech unicorns thing, most of these companies are valued at a billion-plus. I think was it five or six of the top 10 are out of China? We don't know how authentic that. We know evaluation is vaporware the whole way through, even until they go public and so on, so there's some issues with that. But a group like China, which when I was on a panel just at the start of the COVID crisis from, I guess it was [inaudible 00:10:08] and a couple other universities in Beijing and Shanghai. And they were talking about how quickly they had to basically move hundreds, thousands of courses online that included over 10 million faculty University props in China. And they did this at a scale of a few weeks. And central to this was using this approach for PD development. By this approach I mean the scale component.
I have no idea what the cultural pedagogical roots of education in China are, obviously we know they're fairly constructivist, I'd love to know more about what they are. So I think that's one thing that including, who's likely the largest MOOC provider right now in China is Shu Tong, ex example. Would be interesting to see [crosstalk 00:10:56]
India has a number of players in the MOOC space, or the MOOC ish space that have monetized different components. But they haven't formally launched on to the instruction at a distance scale the way that China has emulated the edX, Coursera model.
Justin Reich: One piece to look at is this thing called Swayam, which is another enormously large MOOC provider. But yeah, when you have countries with more than a billion people in them, things are different. I visited China to discuss MOOCs once. And definitely the vast scale... Somebody was giving a presentation on a project which was a pilot study that they were doing of a teacher education program, and there are 300,000 people that were enrolled in the pilot study. And I was like, "You got a pretty good sized pilots to take on there." And then-
George Siemens: Can throw a question back to you, Justin.
Justin Reich: Yeah.
George Siemens: As the author, post, you talked last week when you and Audrey and Chris Smith, how you were basically doing your revision of the forward and stuff as COVID was unrolling. So if you were to look at it now, from what you've seen how MOOCs have been used, especially by American universities, this three, four or 500% increase in registration, would you say something different about the role of MOOCs in classrooms as we've seen the adoption rate outside of what you framed in the chapter being people who already have a degree? What would you have written differently if you were to look at it now or anything?
Justin Reich: Yeah. No, that's a great question. Certainly, there was a moment like on March 23, when I'm sending in the copy edits being like, "Is there anything I'm going to be horribly embarrassed by six months from now as the world change?" So there are huge new registrations in some places in Harvard edX and MITx and Coursera. I think one challenge that I'm having with everything around COVID analysis is that there's not a lot of data about what's actually being done. It seems to me like the actual nature of that practice matters a lot. My intuition is that the number one category is people with additional leisure time studying stuff on their own, that the second category is some kind of assignment from professors of being like, "I'm still going to teach my Zoom class. But here's a supplementary resource that you could check out."
The thing which, and I am fully ready to be proven wrong on this. But I feel like the thing which has not happened is, hey, these rinky-dink Zoom classes that we all are having to make up in the midst of a pandemic with children running under our feet are pretty bad. Why don't we just send people to Coursera, or edX, or Futurelearn, to take classes that cost 10s of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. And I just don't see a surge of demand for that, even though the demand is not that high, it's even less than what I thought it would be.
I thought many more people would say, "Look, we know that there are challenges for people who struggle with self directed learning aren't in the condition to do good self directed learning. But boy, we've put a lot of money and effort into these and seems like now is the time to use them." And I'm really quite shocked at how little that has been. The only answer that I can come up with, which is like, I have two data points in this, I heard a series of surveys from people at MIT, and one survey of a whole bunch of college students in Bangladesh, that somebody at the World Bank did. And like half, these college students they could survey in Bangladesh wanted live synchronous instruction. And I just think about like, Bangladesh can't be one of the world's leaders in the internet connectivity, there has to be device ownership, there has to be all kinds of challenges that those students are facing. Just like there are all kinds of challenges that American students and faculty face.
But for all that, people still, if they get to choose what kind of higher education they want, most of them want a human being to connect with, even if that content is not as good as what might be offered in some other circumstance. And that seems like a fatal flaw of the whole enterprise of scaling up, is that you can't scale up that sense of connection to a person that you know. I don't know Liz, what would be your answer to George's question?
Elizabeth Losh: Well, I think that the interesting thing about COVID, and all the people teaching on Zoom right now, part of this is... I have been observing Zoom classes and looking at what my peers are doing and also looking at what people I supervise are doing with Zoom. And I think it's actually, what is working is actually not going big, but going small. So for example, I was using the breakout rooms for these design challenges. And students could pick a design challenge that they would go into a group of like three or four people, and they just have to talk about this challenge based on the reading, that they would then have to come up with some solution for it. And we'd vote for what the challenges would be. And then students would choose the breakout room where they would be working on the challenges.
So it was actually this sense of the way that Zoom as a technology can actually create even more intimate spaces for learning and conversation, that feel even more dependent on interpersonal relationships, I think is important. And I think also, because students have have felt that they've lost so much autonomy right now, that just being able to choose what breakout room you go into, rather than have it randomly assigned by the software, which is what most instructors do, means a lot.
Justin Reich: And it's autonomy with social consequences. MOOCs provide all kinds of autonomy for people to be able to choose whatever discussion forum they want to enter or what order of videos they want to watch, but it has virtually no impact on the other people who are around you in the way that engaging in choosing a Zoom Room will impact the way that you connect and socialize with other people around you.
Audrey Watters: George moves the conversation back to MOOCs. And he talks about what they are, what they're not. And which is really interesting considering that MOOCs became such a phenomenon. And I think that people have this idea in their head about what a MOOC is, what a MOOC does, what a MOOCs involved with, what problems they solve. And George has a lot to say about that.
Justin Reich: Let's listen to what they had to say.
George Siemens: One thing that's fascinated me is, MOOCs have been here now for, in their current form, for about eight years as prominently represented by American universities. And I don't know if I've ever seen an edtech thing where we can spend eight years talking about, what is it? We've been trying to define what are MOOCs. Are MOOCs this, are they that? They're not this, they're not that. I find it fascinating why we're having so much difficulty really nailing down what MOOCs are and what role they play. Part of it might have been early on, unfortunately, the edtech hucksters came out and told us they were going to be everything and change the world. And folks like Clay Shirky, who declare that universities have met their Napster moment. And I still think there should be public shaming of people who've made these ridiculous statements. And this public shaming should occur, at least until an appropriate period of penance has been achieved.
But those kinds of statements come out and we've been so wrong so often. And then right after that happened, then, of course, there was this corrective cycle and faculty who'd been under siege with this idea of MOOCs being the be all and end all. Suddenly, MOOCs fizzled by their transformative capability. And then those faculties turned to declare MOOCs dead. MOOCs would continue to get hundreds of millions of dollars annually in funding and financing and adding hundreds of millions of students annually. Clearly they're not dead. Clearly, they're playing a role somewhere.
And I'm just fascinating why it's been so difficult for us to be able to say, what are MOOCs? And what role do they play? And that gets back to a quick point before I throw it back to you Justin, is one thing I like that you got on early in the chapter or maybe in the previous chapter, actually, where you started to make this argument or this discussion around, why haven't we seen this change that we were promised with all things edtech? And it's a real interesting interplay of how do systems of systems change? And you get into this a little bit where you're like, "It's not just this one component, you can't just dramatically innovate and disrupt one part, because that part is connected to every other part." So if you want to do MOOCs, well, you got to go back and say, "How are student loans funded in the US?" Because that's going to make a massive difference.
But you can't innovate and disrupt, to use that word, without this other piece over here. Well, if you do that piece over there, then you also have this other part of a credential or a degree, how can you make that as a possible output? So the reason I think it's been so difficult to see the desired impact is, it's an interconnected system of systems, and tweaking and innovating one part of it and then blowing the hype out about it is just a recipe for failure. But anyway, just a few quick thoughts on that.
Justin Reich: Liz, you were involved in a bunch of efforts that were creative critiques of the MOOC movement, or at least I positioned FemTechNet, you can tell me if I'm wrong here, as intended to be a creative critique of the movement. What parts of that critique still seem salient to you? What are parts of that critique that you think really got heard and got through in higher education and the public more broadly? And then what kinds of things do you think people still need to hear?
Elizabeth Losh: So, FemTechNet was interested in the fact that there was a lot of interest in feminist theory in different online communities. And despite all of the online misogyny, and all of the harassment that takes place around issues of the study of gender and sexuality online, that there was also a lot of interest. And so, a group of feminists science and technology researchers thought it would be led initially by Anne Balsamo and Alexandra Juhasz, thought that instead of having this idea of the single source of knowledge broadcast these video lessons, that we should instead model how knowledge is co constructed, and how knowledge exists in dialogue. So the idea, the initial videos, would be that they would be dialogic and that they would show two feminist scholars talking to each other and be an invitation for the students to talk back and create videos themselves.
And we were influenced by the thinking of Leigh Star around boundary objects. What does it mean to treat learning materials, not necessarily as didactic instruction, but instead as opportunities for different communities to do sense making activities around them? And that we could create these videos and other materials that people would then be free to do they wanted with. And if they want to teach a course about feminist science and technology studies in their local library, as one woman did with a bunch of people who were just interested in feminism, you could. And we tried to encourage students to speak back to the group.
Now, the problem is, like any feminist organizing, there's going to be strife, particularly around issues of intersectionality in the ways that white feminists can use up all the oxygen in a particular... So that there were prestigious white feminists associated with elite institutions. And then people who are more precarious in academic institutions, who might also have a more radical politics, that they wanted to offer a more radical education model rather. So there were constant conflicts. Any kind of feminist organizing, there's got to be a lot of effective labor around. It's also hard, if you just do regular co teaching, that's hard. I always don't understand why universities give half credit to faculty members for doing co teaching. Because I like to joke, it's like driving a car with two steering wheels, right?
Co teaching is really hard. It's twice as much effort. It's not half as much effort. And so, FemTechNet created some great resources. Particularly, I think the stuff created by the Center For Solutions to Online Violence that's designed to create toolkits for dealing with online harassment, I think those materials are also really useful. So there's a lot of useful stuff there. But I feel like in some ways, that was a fantastic experiment that I'm not as actively day to day invested in it. Because FemTechNet was a second job for me. I was spending about 20 hours a week doing FemTechNet stuff.
Justin Reich: And the contrast with, it's interesting to hear you talk about, "Here, we're going to put conversation at the center of what we're doing in conversation, especially about these topics comes with real challenges, real challenges of managing these misunderstandings, or different perspectives, or all those kinds of things." And I think, MOOCs in some ways, even when they're on controversial topics, can relegate that to the corner by putting them into forums, which are in many ways less central to the experience than they were in FemTechNet.
I did a series of studies, I don't know, 2014 2015, about discussion forums in MOOCs, and whether or not there were going to be conflicts between Republicans and Democrats in courses about introduction to American government and introduction to education policy, those kinds of things. We devised this whole research agenda, which was based on using machine learning to, surveying people about their beliefs and using machine learning to detect conflict. And then where we found unproductive conflict figuring out ways of making the dialogue more productive. Except in these courses, we could never find unproductive conflict. Basically people were like, "I know you don't believe me." We published this paper in 2016, right as the nation was in the midst of tearing it apart. And we said, "If you want to have a civil..." I think it's probably still true to some extent. But in 2016, for sure, if you want to have a civil conversation with people who didn't believe in what you believed in, grounded in empirical facts, the forums of saving schools and introduction to American government on HarvardX were actually pretty good places to go to do that.
But I think part of it is that they were marginal to the [inaudible 00:27:04] of the enterprise, there was a place that they go to hang out, but not really go in.
Elizabeth Losh: Yeah. One of the things I was interested in, in the war on learning too is, people using the forums for purposes other than what they were intended for. So particularly people who were essentially using the forums for things like finding romantic partners, who might be interested in the topics that you were interested in.
Justin Reich: Learning English is another huge one.
Elizabeth Losh: Yes, learning English.
Justin Reich: [crosstalk 00:27:33] all kinds of research that we do with people telling us like, "Yeah, I'm not really that interested in accounting, or ancient Elizabeth in poetry. It's just, "It was the course that was running and it was in English, and I wanted to learn something from it."
George, one claim that you've made that I would love to have you interrogate in light of the arguments in the book is something like, I think you've claimed that, "It is really important for universities to be investing in MOOCs in online learning in some future turn towards digitization." Part of the argument in the book is that some of the universities that did that really didn't get much out of it, that there were a handful of places that found themselves, if you picked the right subject area, and you have the right team, and you invested enough, early on, you might have come out ahead or okay. If you're Georgia Tech, putting in the first online Master's of Computer Science with 7000 people in it, that you're in good shape.
But if you're not the first person to market, or you don't get the right product market fit, I think there are places like the University of Texas System, which invents invested a million dollars into a new center, which closed not too many years later. In your view, there's argument that universities need to be investing in MOOCs or things like MOOCs even when, it seems to me many of those investments don't pay off, and sometimes they simply end up, even when they're successful, they're successful in just a sustaining kind of way.
George Siemens: That's a very long conversation. So I'm going to try and just get to the gist of it the way that I see it. So the argument I've been making for probably 15 years, the main argument has been, if you want to understand the future of knowledge systems, you have to understand the architecture of information. And that is, how are people creating, sharing, disseminating, exchanging information? And Liz touched on this with the MOOC in the work she was talking about. Where you have, in a traditional course, you have a faculty member who is the brilliant expert. In a feminist MOOC, in contrast, you have multiple voices, each having some degree of awareness about the position that they occupy in the conversation, and in some cases, the limits of what they occupy in that position.
So, that's possible in a digital environment. And it's not necessarily possible in a regular classroom. You cannot have a classroom with 4000 people each sharing their own opinion. And there are no mechanisms to essentially take the best ideas, advance them, amplify them, improve them. And the best idea itself is a subjective statement. So if that's the core argument, that the future of universities will be those that mirror what is possible with information, not a new argument, there is a text reinventing knowledge that I've mentioned many times in the past, which makes a similar argument that says, "Right from the start of the Library of Alexandria, and even prior, the way that society built knowledge institutions was a byproduct of what they did with information."
So for example, the development of Lyceum in the academy in ancient Greek, Greece was a byproduct of this mode of, we can communicate audibly in exchange in the rise of rhetoric and those kinds of approaches. Eventually, even the development of classification systems like Dewey and others, were a byproduct of the need for the growth of information and how we manage it and address it.
So that's my core view. How does that impact universities? Well, we don't know what necessarily has successful impact in various education settings, it does require you experiment and you play a lot. Are MOOCs the solution? Of course not. And I said this right at the start, is that MOOCs are not the trend that matter. They're a reflection of a number of factors that are at play. Clearly, the idea of learning at scale resonates with someone or else they would have just died off right up front. We would have run them and that would have been it.
So there must be some degree of resonance with someone. Is that resonance with the corporate providers that are trying to find a way to increase their training and development for their staff with reduced costs? Possibly. Is it for people who are in different parts of the world who might not have access to a lot of the instructional opportunities that MOOCs afford? Perhaps. Could be the same in parts of Canada and the US alone, where there are regions where you're outside of the main area where you can have access to an anthropology prof and you really super duper love anthropology, such as my daughter does. And she finds that you can take it on MOOCs, but you can't take it at her local university and the list goes on.
So I do think, call it something else, not MOOCs, but universities need to be playing in the spaces that allow us to do different things with information. That shifts the power balance of who can say it, who can listen to it, who can influence it, who can adjust it. Now, MOOCs have been a defined entity that allows people to be able to do that in a structured way, it gives it a name and it allows us to say, "Hey, we're also doing that thing."
Now, it'd be very interesting to see post COVID, you mentioned your instinctual assessment of how MOOCs were impacted by COVID. I think my assessment instinctually is, and I've seen this unfold from University of Texas Arlington particularly, where we didn't have a well developed infrastructure for teaching online. Everything had to be built up from scratch, really down to a new department, recording studios weren't available, tool sets weren't available. Everybody settled on teams, not because it's a fantastic tool, but because somebody came by and said, "Hey, use Microsoft Teams," and now it's our primary instructional tool. No intention, no critical thought. It was all just, "We got to get online, we have to do it now." I'm not blaming UTA for that. They literally had no choice but to try and move things online.
So I think the focus of doing something experimental is that there's intentionality, there's a set of structured questions, you're not buying the product of the first person that knocks on your door with a viable resource will be used, that you'll end up using, I should say. So I still maintain, yes, playing in the spaces where interesting things are done with digital information is vital for universities. Today, that place is MOOCs, or a few years ago that place was MOOCs. There's a number of things emerging that it may end up being going forward. But universities absolutely should be perpetually tinkering with how it is that they do the core things that they do. They've mass... And I do blame University leadership here. They've massively missed out on the digital revolution that everybody saw coming for three decades. And they failed to prepare their institutions on their faculty for what it means. And as a byproduct, they've had to outsource much of their core capability to external for profit providers.
Justin Reich: And when you say, outsource their core capabilities, you particularly mean partnering with online program managers, partnering with organizations that say, "Hey, give us some money and we'll do your online instructional design for you." When in any kind of instructional design really ought to be the core competency of universities. That we should outsource our janitorial services and our accounting, but not how we do teaching and learning.
George Siemens: A big part of it is just simply intentionality. Are you in control of the very thing that you contribute most meaningfully to society? And universities are still in control, but they are less in control than they were 20 years ago. Because one way to look at it is, you've got this entity of higher education that plays a role in society, you have a peripheral system which we'll call the corporate system, that has been for a long period of time, looking at ways that they can enter the university or the K-12 sector and generate some efficiency for the system and economic value for themselves. Universities are reasonably self contained. The digitization process that universities botched, provided a massive doorway, and initially it was just Microsoft sells you things or Canvas sells you an LMS. And then you're like, "Well, that's okay." That's like hiring an engineer to come in and build, an architect and designer to come in and build a classroom, it's the same thing.
But now you have the same organizations coming in and actually doing the core thing that you're supposed to be doing. They're doing the tutoring, they're doing the grading, they're doing the recruiting, they're developing the curriculum, they're teaching the curriculum. So at the state we're going, without being needlessly negative, is we are creating a disaggregated system, or we are dis aggregating a system that is being put together and re stitched with corporate interests. And that will give us a Frankensteinian model of higher education. And I've whined about this for years, that the people who are most... And there was a period early on where a lot of, I'll use the word progressives, but there was a lot of people who genuinely fascinated this opportunity for innovation in the education sector. Because we could do away with this idea of these traditional blocky bureaucratic universities.
And I love universities, I love higher education experience, I love the hope they give to people. And even when I was arguing, you cannot do away with universities, they play a vital countering balance to the other power institutions in society. And now we're seeing that that very system is being disaggregated by individual functional pieces that are core to their long term existence. And I cannot see, unless there is a sustained and focused push back, that in their current form they'll be sustained over the next 20 years. Simply because we will have offloaded so much of the core functionality to external providers, it'll still exist as a university, but it will not have the effects that it has today.
Justin Reich: So Audrey, this part of the conversation was really helpful for me, because I've heard George be a substantial advocate for MOOCs for many years. And it sometimes struck me that his advocacy about the benefits of MOOCs went beyond what I have actually observed. But then I heard him talking about MOOCs as an opportunity for universities to be exploring the digital space, to be exploring the future of information, and that I find more compelling than the investment in any particular medium like MOOCs.
Audrey Watters: This is important, because I think George said that if we had just been able to explore MOOCs, play around with MOOCs, maybe they'd work and maybe they wouldn't, and maybe they would have just gone away and we'd have moved on to some other experiment. But instead, we saw this massive influx in investment. And really, the ship got turned towards MOOCs in ways that perhaps wasn't responsive to what universities needed to prepare for the future of education, but was really about responding to what corporate interests and investment interests thought the future of learning should look like.
Justin Reich: It's like they gotta be doing something in this space. But maybe they shouldn't be doing quite so much of what Silicon Valley tells them they ought to be doing.
Audrey Watters: These giant promises. Yes.
Justin Reich: Yeah. Little bit less giant promises, a little bit less corporate interests, but the same commitment to saying, there's some digital future here for universities. I don't think anyone disputes that. But what's the right way to explore that digital future is an important question.
Audrey Watters: And our universities, two universities actually have an active stake in this. One of the points that George made is that so much of this is being outsourced. So universities are outsourcing the teaching, the development of curriculum, the assessment, and at what point do we really see universities become emptied out, disaggregated, I think he says, and rebuilt as a neoliberal university.
Justin Reich: Having outsourced some of their core capacities, core competencies, and having outsourced exactly the kinds of exploration, that I think George is arguing that they really need to be doing themselves. Audrey, thanks so much for joining us.
Audrey Watters: Thank you, Justin.
Justin Reich: Thanks for joining us for the failure to disrupt book club on chapter one, Instructor Guided Learning at Scale and Massive Open Online Courses with George Siemens and Liz Losh. Very grateful to both of them for joining us along with Audrey Watters. I'm Justin Reich. Thanks for listening to TeachLab. I hope you enjoyed that conversation. Be sure to subscribe to TeachLab to get future episodes on how educators from all walks of life are tackling distance learning during COVID-19. Be sure to check out the new book, Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education, available from booksellers everywhere. You can read reviews, related media, and sign up for online events at failuretodisrupt.com, that's, failuretodisrupt.com. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, recorded and sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe. Until next time.