The Cyberteacher

What I’m about to say verges on the apocalyptic. Perhaps, in large part, because they quickly disintegrate into hyperbole, apocalyptic discourses tend to be easily dismissed. So I’m just going to own it. I’ll only add that apocalyptics, undeniably, have a certain rhetorical value. I suppose I’m adding that as a gesture toward self-justification. But, I digress.

My actual concern is about the possible futures of higher education. This is a subject I’ve been somewhat myopically tracking in news feeds in recent months. One obvious reason for this is the fact that I’m a dissertating PhD candidate, going on the job market in the fall. I’m trying to discern as much about the possible futures of the academy as I can. So that I can speculate wisely. Overwhelmingly, it seems that the magical bullet distracting many from narratives of academic collapse (and titillating commentators like Thomas Friedman) is the MOOC. The Massive Open Online Course. I have so many things to say about the MOOC. I’ve already said some of them, elsewhere. But I want to avoid making this commentary a wastebasket of opinions and gripes. Mostly, what I want to think about here is the kind of digital pedagogy they’re likely to advance, and the spooky virtual specters of the cyberteachers who might operate them.

Early online courses (the sort you’d see not only at the University of Phoenix but, also, local community colleges, small state schools) were often relatively small. Small enough, at any rate, that students could interact directly with the instructor, and get real feedback. But, in these courses, the digitization of pedagogy was already shifting toward a decentralization of the instructor. Instructors, in many such online courses, are to serve more as “facilitators” than “professors” (i.e.; “person who professes”). This requires a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation. I know this because I’ve built and taught these courses. And instructors are, still, required to serve as assessors and evaluators of student work. Which can be time consuming when students are producing a lot of digital content. But, still, there’s no bright spotlight on a stage that’s performatively occupied by the teacher-as-lone-ranger.

The Early MOOCs (we’re talking: courses developed only a few short years ago) were a departure from these forms of online teaching, in the sense that they broke free of some of the more rigid and structured aspects, such as the LMS (learning management systems). They amplified this decentralization of the instructor and played up the collaborative nature of learning. This kind of pedagogical project continues in, for example, the DOCCs (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) being planned by the Fembot Collective’s FemTechNet. These are strategic interventions, meant to challenge the MOOC as course delivery model. The course is still massive, open, and distributed. But the pedagogical emphasis is on real human interaction. I want to make it clear that I’m deeply interested in the forms of digital pedagogy that are emerging from both of these educational contexts.

But the MOOC is another force of digital nature. By which I mean, I suppose, that it’s capitalizeable. The corporatization of the MOOC (through companies like Udacity, edX, or Coursera), combined with the academic credibility granted through their partnerships with ivy leagues like Harvard has created another sort of pedagogical beast, entirely. Sure, there’s a lot of work going into these courses up front (hence, I was glad to see this recent acknowledgement of how exhausted the MOOC faculty are already feeling). But the MOOC, as a course model, seems to rely deeply on automatization. Course work is, most often, graded by “automatic graders”; the social presence of instructors is, more often than not, a pre-recorded video of the instructor doing his or her “professing.” A lot of emphasis is placed on the student’s need to be “self-directed.” Because, as it might happen, the student herself will be the only human body holding her accountable to participate.

It’s this dependence on the automatic, that generates this specter of “the cyberteacher.” It seems to me, when I gaze apocalyptically into the possible futures of academia, that the MOOC is merely serving as a vehicle to advance the increased automation and mechanization of teaching and learning. Once the MOOC is built, the video recorded, the auto-grader set up… all that’s really needed is some technical assistance to manage students’ access to the course. There’s no immediate need for a real human instructor (or a distributed set of human instructors) to give critical feedback, to facilitate some form of mutual accountability, or to perform and model the kind of intoxication or joy that comes with learning. Instead, students will have access to an educational model produced as if by assembly line: standardized and streamlined for efficiency. They’ll interact with the cyberteacher: a complex set of digital tools and software that can manage their learning with a cool and detached virtual ease.

In this sense, frighteningly, the MOOC seems like the next logical frontier in the increasing contingency and “adjunctification” of labor in higher education. Faculty unions in California are already arguing that MOOCs might do some serious damage to collective bargaining agreements, as some faculty have already agreed to assemble MOOCs for free. But to get even more apocalyptic than that, it seems like this specter of the cyberteacher – emerging from the shadows of the murky MOOC lagoon – is some dystopian icon of the brave new cost-cutting educational future. What better way to cut labor costs in higher education than to simply replace human educational laborers with software?

These kinds of potential changes in higher ed, brought to us on behalf of the MOOC, are often defended and justified with a combination of arguments for cost-cutting measures that might reduce the burgeoning expense of education, along with a plug for their ability to democratize education. But how much of a difference will cost-cutting measures really make, if they end up serving primarily to create a class division in education where those who pay top dollar can get “humanistic” eduction (i.e.; instruction by human bodies, in the flesh) and those who lack the funds get the automated version? This, perhaps, “democratizes” education in the way that fast fashion retailers like H&M have “democratized” fashion. The corporation gives a segment of consumers access to a cheap imitation of a luxury good, while ensuring that the laborers who produce that good are subjected to unsafe working conditions. Democratization, in other words, as a bit of lipstick for the pig: superficial, deceptive.

Look, I realize that this is a polemic. And, perhaps, I’m telling a story about something that will never really happen. But feel compelled to address it, because I think this possible future is possible enough to be disconcerting. And I’m consistently surprised by how little my academic colleagues seem to know about these developments, and how little they seem to care. Sure, higher education is changing, because it has to change. The conditions for its existence are shifting. The extent to which this prophecies doom for “the humanities” has long been an open question. But the extent to which the human elements of education are also at risk should, I think, be a pressing question as well.

11 thoughts on “The Cyberteacher

  1. As a mathematician, I feel in an even more precarious situation (though it may be off-topic for this blog). In lecture-style courses, it’s hard to make the case that a flesh-and-blood lecturer is better than video of a really good instructor. I think the direction we’ll be heading in is online content replacing lectures, supplemented by discussion sections/tutorials to the extent that institutions can afford them. It’s not clear to me that this would be that much worse a model, except that I actually can’t imagine students bothering to listen to the online lectures. (Though maybe I exaggerate the degree to which they pay attention/learn anything from flesh-and-blood lectures. And my habits have never adjusted to watching video on my computer anyway, which means I’m quite different from most of today’s students.)

  2. From the perspective of one who has determinedly down-sized and de-technologized my teaching, you are absolutley correct in your concern. Here in Christchurch NZ we had a series of earthquakes that resulted in lecture spaces being temporarily out of operation. Management pushed very hard for MOOCs/video lectures, on-line courses as a ‘facilitating access’ move; yet at the same time embarked on a policy of radical downsizing of academic staff. Anything replicable becomes problematic for ‘flesh and blood’ teaching when an institution seeks to cut costs.
    Yet also remember that, if given the option and the experience, intelligent students prefer low-tech classes in which the lecturer engages them in a debate and discussion of ideas. I now teach courses using only a whiteboard and pen and students claim to enjoy them more and learn more than any high-tech or on-line course.
    In the end MOOCs etc are an option only if academics decide to make them so; as academics- or more so as intellectuals, we have to have the integrity and courage to stand up for what we believe- or maybe that is the difference between an academic (a knowedge factory functionary) and an intellectual. Intellectuals can operate within universities but you have to always stand apart from the herd who seek managerial approval and endorsement whatever the result.
    Central to all of this is, as you note, the difference developing between elite and mundane higher education-so it is class in both the marxist and the bourdiuean (taste and distinction) senses; are moocs actually kitsch opiates?

  3. Mike,

    I would dispute the notion that academics have that kind of power. IF society at large and the local administration requires it, then academics will have to harness more power than just being an intellectual and educator to fight it. Standing up can get you fired. Junior educators won’t have the standing to stand up for principles. Academics would have to either unite as a sizeable force or become part of something much larger.

  4. Beatrice, thanks. I had not head of DOCCs — sounds intriguing. And I agree that H&M provides a scarily accurate picture of where we are going.

    Hugh Thomas, I hear things like this a lot: “In lecture-style courses, it’s hard to make the case that a flesh-and-blood lecturer is better than video of a really good instructor.” But in my lecture-style course I ask lots of questions and have students read things in groups and share their thoughts every so often — as well as “just” lecturing. I think this is the best kind of lecture-style course, because it gets information out there in a fairly ordered fashion, but it also engages students. The problem is that a videotape of even the best professor teaching with these techniques will not work at all. The students in the “audience” will not be able to engage the professor or their classmates in the same way. I’ve already encountered this with courses recorded with iTunesU and the like — students will say that they simply check out when professor starts conversing with students or when there is a “think pair share” sort of activity. The problem, it seems to me, is this: people assume that lecture courses are boring and dumb and only feature the professor talking, and so they want to replace them with TED talk style lectures (cheap, scalabe, and “interesting”.) But the choice isn’t between passive listening to a live teacher and passive listening to a video stream. Some folks are trying to do stuff with “Google Hangout” that would allow for distance courses actually to engage people, but this won’t work for a large class size.

  5. Jason
    i agree with you re the position of junior staff- but i have been here 14 years.I am mid-career and have a responsibity and the power to stand up for what is right. don’t get let down by the self-interested actions of more senior ‘academics’…

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