The Quasi-Sentient Professor

stepford

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague who works in a creative discipline at the very fine but underfunded non-flagship state university where I work as a professor of linguistics told me about a recent conversation she’d had with a senior administrator at our institution, in which he had explained to her with apparent enthusiasm that the university will have computers that will be able to do her job in 10 to 15 years.

A day or two later, another friend who is also an academic, although unlike me she is at a small, decently funded private liberal-arts college, posted a status on Facebook expressing her frustration over a lengthy outage of her college’s online Learning Management System, or LMS (a phrase that I use here with all due mockery). The outage interfered with the ability of her students to submit their assignments on time as well as with her ability to access their work, respond to it, and provide grades and feedback according to the schedule she had set out.

And then last Thursday, this article showed up in the New York Times, unironically titled “Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break.” It caught my eye initially because of the unintentionally if grimly hilarious headline. I thought the idea of a potentially permanent “break” for professors from doing our, you know, jobs had to be a joke, with a punchline that probably involved the unemployment line.

As I read about this magical software, especially in the context of those two exchanges with my colleagues and some other recent developments in educational technology, it got me thinking once again about the future of higher education in this country, a topic I take up every so often in this space, only this time the result is what I hope turns out to be nothing more than a particularly vivid paranoid fantasy on my part.

(Note: In my defense, there have been times when things have in fact come to pass that I also thought — hoped — were merely paranoid fantasies.)

As you are undoubtedly aware, there’s been a lot of buzz and a lot of enthusiasm out there recently about a new model for higher education in the form of online course offerings designed to serve tens of thousands of students at a time, with the ostensible goal of bringing higher education to the masses by offering free enrollment to virtually (see what I did there?) everyone on the planet with an internet connection. While it is only fair to point out that some of the enthusiasm is coming from known yutzes who enjoy well-earned reputations for being wrong about pretty much everything, there is also plenty from people who ought to know better.

Known in the EduBiz as “MOOCs,” which in education parlance stands for Massive Open Online Courses (to distinguish it from how it is understood in other parlances), these mass-enrollment courses are already being offered by several elite universities (elite as in highly selective and jaw-droppingly expensive), which are developing and offering the courses in partnership with what I am going to call content vendors, all of them privateand some of them for-profit. The enrollees get what they are paying for in terms of the credit hours they earn, which is to say they earn none, at least for now.

As a professor, I’ve had occasion to think quite a lot about MOOCs lately (not to mention about the mooks who are helping the industry with its marketing). And as a professor, but also as a citizen and taxpayer, I have some thoughts about what these developments in the brave new world of online higher education might come to mean for the old-school kind of higher education, the kind in which actual students attend actual classes at an actual university and interact with actual faculty.

I am pretty skeptical that significant cost savings for states and institutions are likely to result from the increasing emphasis on online “education.” What seems far more likely is more shifting of support away from students and public institutions as public money is diverted into private pockets. (As of this writing, the California state legislature is considering a bill to require public universities in that state to accept credits from online courses offered by for-profit vendors. As Jon Wiener put it in a March 14 article in The Nation, “Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit.”)

The well-funded march toward significantly expanded roles in higher education for MOOCs and other educational technologies is likely to come at enormous cost to the students, faculty, and staff at non-elite institutions, which serve 97% of college students in the U.S., by reducing the non-virtual options for them (but not for the affluent), thereby exacerbating an already highly problematic two-Americas class divide in higher education. In a December 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk make this pointed observation about some of the “MOOC revolution‘s” most visible fanboys:

The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal-arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less-wealthy, less-prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.

Carlson and Blumenstyk quote David Stavens, one of the founders of the for-profit ed-tech start-up Udacity, who earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton and graduate degrees at Stanford, and who told Time magazine last October that “there’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”

“But if you can’t,” say Carlson and Blumenstyk,

entrepreneurs like [Stavens] are creating an industrialized version of higher education that the most fervent disruptionists predict could replace mid-sized state institutions or less-selective private colleges.

The ubiquity of the practically evangelical zeal for the MOOC as the answer to the “problem”of higher education, which of course is not at all the problem they think it is, and the increasing emphasis on and expectation that faculty and students will use LMSs that in the experience of lot of their users so far seem to be little more than obnoxious, cumbersome “solutions” to a problem that doesn’t exist, unless you count the entrepreneurial problem of how to find new ways to make money by squeezing it out of struggling students and underfunded colleges and universities like mine.

Of course I am well aware that MOOCs and Learning Management Systems are not the same thing. But the connections are clear and obvious. Let’s see if I can parse them out.

I’ll start with the LMS my institution uses, which touts its products and services thusly:

Breaking down barriers to education, obsessing over the learning and instructor experience, and focusing on an open and extensible platform, we have built a tightly integrated suite of products that is providing a more engaging, intuitive and personalized learning experience than ever before. We provide a seamless experience for creation, delivery and management of courses, allowing users to collaborate and connect around content and activities. From simple to sophisticated, we support a variety of learning environments limited only by the vision of the educational institution.

I think most professors consider “providing an engaging, intuitive and personalized learning experience” to be very much a part of our job descriptions. In addition to the scholarly work those of us at research universities are also obliged to do, the “creation, delivery and management of courses” describes precisely a significant component of what professors do for a living. And yet we seem to be farming that work out to a company that does not actually seem to be doing it. (If they’re “obsessing” over my experience, this is the first I am hearing about it.)

The sentiment my friend expressed in her Facebook post in response to the crash of her institution’s Learning Management System at a critical time was nothing unusual. A lot of us in what is becoming the EduBiz can recount similar and numerous examples of platform failures and the ensuing angst on the parts of students and faculty.

Oh, have I mentioned that my friend’s class is not an “online” course? And that neither are most of the courses my colleagues and I teach but for which we are expected to use LMSs? Our classes meet in the traditional way, meaning in a classroom on a regular schedule, with students and a professor in the same place at the same time.

And so what (finally) struck me after years of hearing frequent and similar technological tales of woe from students and from colleagues was that whether we’re talking about my friend’s decently funded private liberal arts college or my perpetually underfunded nonflagship state university, even our old-school, “traditional,” in-person courses, as distinct from courses that are taught partly or completely online, are moving toward models in which we — students and instructors — are increasingly expected to participate in electronic interfaces in order to submit course work (students), access student work (us), provide feedback and grades (us), and access said feedback and grades (students). We’ve added an extra layer to our own workloads, or rather, had one added, and to the workloads of our students by imposing the online submission-and-feedback platform on them and between us. And our universities are both paying private vendors a boatload of money for the pleasure.

So, what is the LMS for? Why are we using it? Why are we using technologies that intrude into our interactions with students without reducing anyone’s workload but rather adding to it in the form of often user-unfriendly, stress-inducing, time-wasting frustrations, and surveillance-enabling systems that hardly anyone on my campus seems to like except for administrators who don’t actually have to use them? Where is the evidence that these systems are actually improving instructional quality or learning experiences or outcomes in any demonstrable, documentable ways, that this is something other than just the latest look-busy, look-like-you’re-fixing-some-problem administrative/private-sector boondoggle?

It is hard not to imagine that we are all, students and faculty alike, essentially functioning as unwitting, uncompensated, and non-consenting participants in massive beta testing of commercial online platforms, the most successful of which are venture-capitalized, with return on investment (and then some) anticipated to come via student tuition dollars, even if some (but by no means all) of the products are “free” for the time being.

This brings us back to the magic grading software, brought to a college near you by EdX, a private non-profit which if you’ve been following developments in educational technology you’ll recognize as one of the “big three” MOOC developers. The machine-scoring software “uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers.” But human beings are not quite obsolete in the process of responding to student writing. The NYT reports:

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

In other words, the software needs to be “trained” by sentient beings, who initially do the work themselves until the application catches on and and can do the work itself. That must be what the senior administrator who announced to my colleague that a computer would be able to do her job in a decade or so meant when he said computer would learn its trade — make that my colleague’s trade — from the colleague who would be training it (and perhaps ultimately herself out of a job).

The other money quote is this one:

EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it.

I have strong feelings of my own about the efficacy and ethics of machine scoring (as do many others), but at the moment they are peripheral to the cause of my larger unease. I promised a paranoid fantasy, and I intend to deliver. Here it is:

The magical grading software is described in the NYT article as a tool for “freeing professors for other tasks” (such as filing for unemployment benefits?). Everyone who’s ever taught knows how labor-intensive, time-consuming, and draining it can be to engage with student writing, at least if you’re doing it right, and I would not blame anyone who has to do it on a regular basis for being tempted by the possibility that there might be software that could help to ease a workload that can quickly become overwhelming. Leaving aside for the moment the humanistic and ethical arguments against the use of machine scoring, which are legitimate and compelling, there is another serious ethical question, and it has to do with what the developers might be getting in return.

I’m talking about data: the data that students and instructors generate in the course of using these products and platforms, including MOOCs, LMSs, machine-grading software, and whatever else might be coming next. These platforms need human input to work and to improve. The senior administrator told my colleague that the software he was all excited about would learn to do her job because she would teach it to do her job. EdX’s grading software needs instructors to teach it to grade. Of course it’s free. How in the hell else would they get anyone to use it and, in the process, provide all this free labor to EdX?

I don’t mean to single out EdX, because they’re all doing it. The machine-scoring software is just a particularly obvious example of how the knowledge and labor of instructors is being expropriated without their knowledge or consent, let alone any compensation. It is also an example of how student work is similarly being pirated.

And don’t even get me started on these insane surveillance-enabled e-books now being tested at Texas A&M. According to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times, professors using the new digital-book technology can monitor the extent to which students in their classes are doing the assigned reading:

They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.

Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class — a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

OK, never mind that I exactly ZERO interest in trying to micromanage how and when the students in my classes do the reading and whether they highlight or not or anything else that is inappropriately invasive, not to mention that it would be one more massive time-suck for instructors to contend with. Instead, can I just say please make this stop already? I started writing this post on Sunday, and today is Thursday, and I can’t get it finished because every day there is some new announcement of some new kind of intrusion into the work that students and instructors are trying to get done if these bastards would just leave us the hell alone already and get over their obsession with how we are doing it and when we are doing it and how they can monetize it even more! and at this rate, I am at serious risk of becoming the blogging equivalent of the contractor who got the Winchester House bid if the line doesn’t get drawn somehow, preferably now-ish. (But no.)

Anyway, I am not talking about personal information or privacy issues, necessarily (although there are potentially serious issues with that as well). I am talking about private companies appropriating the intellectual property of college students, in the form of their uploaded coursework and online interactions, using data-collection instruments that include but are not limited to machine-scorers, LMSs, plagiarism-detection programs, MOOCs, and whatever else might be headed our way, and using data that rightly belongs to the students, not to Coursera or EdX or Udacity or whoever else comes along looking for a piece of this lucrative action, all of it collected without informed consent or compensationhowever they choose and in ways that none of us really has the slightest idea about.

And I am talking about private companies collecting and using for their own interests, again without informed consent or compensation, data that belongs to instructors and that is the product of their expertise, experience, and labor. In its most obvious form, that data comes out of the instructor responses to those first 100 papers that they must grade in order to “train” the machine-scoring software to take over that job. But why wouldn’t all our online interactions with students be collected and analyzed in ways that benefit the companies who collect them, whether via MOOCs, LMSs, or any other proprietary platforms?

The whole thing is starting to remind me of how the good ol’ boys of Stepford had their wives read long lists of words into tape recorders so that the voices of the compliant robots with which the actual human women would soon be replaced would sound authentic. The robots looked just like the original humanoids, only with 100% less feminist consciousness and no backtalk.

Coursera, one of the major for-profit MOOC companies, announces on its website that they

envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few.

If it weren’t for all that pesky interaction with students and engagement with their work, one professor could indeed teach “not only thousands of students, but millions.” At the very least, we could certainly generate a lot more student credit hours than we possibly can now. This is something our institutions seem to want.

Of course, there is a catch, and it is kind of a big one. According to a March 2012 report in Inside Higher Ed by Ry Rivard, self-explanatorily titled “Coursera’s Contractual Elitism,” Coursera is “contractually obliged to turn away the vast majority of American universities” because it has committed to offer courses exclusively in partnership with 62 “elite” universities in the U.S. EdX, Rivard reports, is also known for its “exclusivity” and will work with only 12 elite institutions. “Scores of universities have sought to partner with Coursera or edX,” he notes. “Most, of course, have been denied.” He concludes that “Most liberal arts colleges, community colleges and regional public universities could never join — and many public research universities haven’t been asked either.”

In other words, if these trends continue in the implementation of “disruptive” educational technologies (so named by the kind of people whose kids’ educations are unlikely to be disrupted, because disruption is for commoners), and with the money and power they’ve got behind them, the odds are in their favor, there is pretty much no chance that it will ever be any of my colleagues at this very fine but perpetually underfunded non-flagship state university (including me) in front of those “tens or hundred of thousands of students at a time.”

Maybe computerized grading of student work will eventually be seen as deal-breakingly problematic, even in the world of for-profit educational content providers, in the ways its critics have delineated and/or in other ways, and human interaction will eventually triumph as something that matters.

But whether that realization ever comes to pass or not will make little difference in the lives of most professors, regardless of their status today as tenured, tenure-track, or contingent, because when you’ve got rock-star professors from Harvard and Stanford and MIT whose brilliance will be beamed all over the world to “not only thousands of students, but millions” at a time, the best we chumps can hope for is to be the ones to do the do the engaging with and responding to the writing of all those thousands or millions of students, that is, if we haven’t by then interfaced ourselves into obsolescence via those LMSs and machine-scorers and whatever might be coming next, by donating our knowledge, skills, experience, and labor to corporate entities who are all too willing to take that from us without informed consent, without compensation, and without a word of acknowledgment or thanks.

I realize this is a horribly dystopic vision, and I hope to God I am completely wrong about all of it.

Update: Please, please make it stop.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s