Thursday, June 13, 2013

Teaching and Learning in the Corporate Surveillance State

As we learn more about how the United States’ government has been monitoring the phone calls and emails of its own citizens, we should ask what will happen when many of our classes are taught online.  We already know that Coursera tries to prevent student cheating by identifying each student’s keystroke pattern, but what should really concern us is the ability of administrators and outside agencies to simply drop in and record faculty and students’ exchanges.  In other words, once we place our classes online, we turn an essentially private situation into a public forum, and we simply do not know who can monitor our courses and our students.

This move from private conversation to public access has already occurred on a massive scale since Google, Facebook, and other web-based corporations are selling the personal data that we freely place online.  Following the logic of Michel Foucault, we can see how social control has been historically tied to confession.  First the Church controlled people through confession, then the police and the state, and now people freely choose to put their personal data online. This corporate effort to monetize personal information must be placed within the context of the post-9/11 war on terror where the government uses fear tactics to force high-tech companies to hand over their massive archives of data.

In terms of higher education, I recently asked a university official how faculty would be evaluated if they taught their courses online, and I was told that instead of using the usual in-class peer visit, a faculty member or administrator would be given access to watch the teacher online.  I then asked what would happen if most of the teaching happened through email or Skype, and I was informed that the evaluator would be able to access these interactions. 

One reason why most professors have not thought about how the use of online courses could  affect academic freedom is that so far, most of the faculty teaching online have been non-tenure-track faculty with little if any academic freedom.  However, with the great push to move more classes online, the risk of losing academic freedom will affect everyone. 

In terms of students, these same risks apply.  Many of the online providers argue that the strength of their new teaching technologies are derived from the ability of the teacher and/or provider to monitor the students’ progress.  For example, one technique that is used is to time how long a student looks at a particular page or document.  This information is then fed into an algorithm that examines how well the student performs on a particular set of tasks.  This tracking and monitoring of students is often called an experiment, yet I know of no company that has been required to have students sign off on being human subjects of a scientific experiment.  Moreover, many of these companies are already working with online ad companies and vendors to sell student data and information collected by algorithmic search engines.

While high-tech education providers often state that their ultimate goal is to provide better access to high-quality instruction, this admirable rhetoric often shields us from seeing a whole set of dangerous unintended consequences.  As companies feed on our personal information and the government spies on our personal communications, we must question the future of total information awareness.           

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Zombie Bill: SB520 Passes out of the Senate

Senator Steinberg’s SB520 passed out of the senate by a 28-0 vote - with 11 Democrats deciding not to vote.  While many legislators clearly do not like the content of the bill, no one wants to kill the pet project of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Meanwhile, the bill has been modified several times, but even in its emptied-out form, it still seeks to incentivize faculty and campuses to create courses that can be shared between all segments of higher education, and it leaves the door open for private-public partnerships.

In the brief debate (go to the 3:06:00 mark) over the bill, one can hear all of the standard rhetorical moves that dominate the current conversation regarding high-tech solutions to various social problems.  Senator Steinberg begins his defense of the SB520 by stressing that online education is not a magic bullet that will solve all of the problems caused by years of state budget cuts to higher education; however, he quickly changes direction when he quotes two newspaper articles touting Coursera’s recent deal with several state higher education systems.  In pointing to this latest development, he stresses that California cannot be left behind in this new race to improve access and affordability through distance education.
This notion that we cannot be left behind in this high-tech race is a reoccurring theme heard throughout the public and political debate.  The idea here is that even if the costs and effects of digital education are still unknown, we must do it because others are doing it.  According to this group psychology, we must follow the crowd and ignore our own doubts and questions.  For instance, even though some professors feel that this move to online courses will reduce the number of faculty positions, Steinberg assures the faculty that this is not the intention of the bill, yet, it is important to point out that in the context of social psychology, individual intentions do not matter.  In fact, one of the first senators to speak in support of the bill, Wyland, intoned that we must realize that there is not going to be money to hire more professors, and so the only way to improve access is to do it online.

From Wyland’s Republican perspective, the downsizing of faculty is a given, and all public functions will have to do more with less.  This fatalistic logic is inherent to the promoters of high-tech solutions:  from their perspective, resistance is futile, and we cannot stop the “natural” progress of technological and economic change.  Of course, Wyland and the other Republicans who all voted with Steinberg show the bipartisan nature of this high-tech rhetoric: the Republican desire to shrink big government and privatize public institutions has joined hands with the Democratic need to be associated with progress and private-public joint ventures.

The Democrats and Republicans are also able to join together because they both embrace the false rhetoric of student-centered digital education.  While it is clear why the libertarian Right would like to turn higher education into a private affair pursued by private individuals preferably in the privacy of their own homes, it is less clear why the Democrats have taken the libertarian student-centered bait. However, Senator’s Torrez’s remarks shed some light on the issue. She argues that the only way she was able to graduate and get her degree from the national labor college was due to the fact that she could take all of her classes online.  The first thing to point out here is that the “liberal” national labor college has recently sold off its campus and is now entirely online. Thus, in the great tradition of Clintonian triangulation, a school dedicated to labor issues promotes a labor-destroying system; meanwhile students are celebrated as their futures are de-funded.

Whether it is intentional or not, the real driving force behind online education is the further dismantling of the teaching profession and the marketization of public institutions.       

Monday, June 3, 2013

Is There Only One Right Answer?: A Challenge to the Teaching of Math and Science in Higher Ed

Many current promoters of MOOCs and other distance education models argue that higher education can be taught in a much more efficient way in fields like computer science, math, biology, and chemistry. According to high-tech educators, the main reason why these important disciplines can be streamlined is that there is only one right answer to questions and tests, and so a computer can easily grade these courses.  On a most basic level, they claim that 2+2 will always equal 4, and thus, there is no need for creativity, critical thinking, or interactive discussions.

The problem with this logic is that it removes the STEM disciplines from any social, personal, or ethical context.  In other words, students learn that math and science are impersonal, value-free fields founded on established, unchallengeable truths.  While it is clear that students do need to learn basic formulas and concepts, all knowledge needs to be seen in its social and historical contexts.  In fact, not only do we want students to think critically about the information they learn inside and outside of their classes, but we also need to train scientists and engineers to be innovative and creative.  Moreover, with the increasing importance of issues like alternative energy, cloning, stem cell therapy, and climate change, science and math should be approached with ethical concerns front and center. 

Purveyors of MOOCs like to say that online classes will not be any worse than the large lecture classes that dominate the undergraduate curriculum, and they have a point when they make this argument; however, we do not need a race to the bottom: what we need is to re-commit universities and colleges to spending resources on undergraduate instruction.  Whether our goal is to compete in the global high-tech economy or train future citizens and responsible adults, higher education cannot be focused on simply transmitting and testing simplified facts and calculations.  In fact, it is surprising that many of the most ardent promoters of MOOCs are themselves innovative computer scientists who think outside of the established box.

While China sends its students to American universities in order to build a creative class, it is ironic that the U.S. is seeking to dumb down its own curriculum. As I often tell my students, it is rare in life that you are confronted with one right answer or a simple multiple-choice test.  Reality is far too complex for the reductive model of education that is often tied to MOOCs and a reductive vision of the STEM disciplines.