Last week my Twitter feed briefly turned into a kind of massively open online course about MOOCs, in response to this thoughtful critique by Aaron Bady of an earlier post by Clay Shirky advancing an optimistic view of the role that free, open courses can play in reforming higher education. Bady begins his discussion of Shirky’s post by taking issue with one of the key analogies — that MOOCs are like Napster. He briefly points out that teaching is different from performing music in important ways, and moves quickly on to dissect the persuasive rhetorical devices in the Shirky piece.
But I was left contemplating what it would mean if MOOCs really were like Napster. “If that’s true,” I thought, “then the next generation of university faculty will be dependent on casual work and Kickstarter campaigns to support their scholarly work.”
What hasn’t come up much in this discussion as far as I have seen, is what the consequences of the whole world learning AI from Sebastian Thrun would be for the faculty currently teaching AI courses who happen not to be Sebastian Thrun. Teaching such courses is in essence the “day job” of faculty whose vocations are some other form of creative and/or scholarly work. It’s not that we don’t take our teaching duties seriously. Most professors even enjoy teaching when our load is reasonable. But ask any career academic if they’d rather teach “3 and 4″ until retirement or spend the rest of their careers in the library, the lab, or the studio, and you are not likely to find many takers for the pure teaching gig.
Thus, any enthusiasm for the liberating possibilities of MOOCs for students has to be tempered by the recognition that, given their potential to create capital-biased technological change, that is how they will be used by universities and their private sector partners — to cut costs and increase revenue by undercutting labor.
We should also be thinking seriously about what the consequences will be of handing resources developed by employees of non-profit universities, mostly for no extra pay, over to for-profit entities whose first responsibility is not to students, not to faculty, but to their investors. Steven Poole’s take-down of the way corporate juggernauts use the appeal of “openness” to exploit independent “content producers” seems hyperbolic on first reading, but I have found myself unable to come up with any convincing counter-arguments as to why the people designing the iTunes platform for Apple deserve to have salaries and career stability that the people who create the actual entertainment that people flock to iTunes to buy can only dream of. Just now, for example, when trying to decide on whether “content producer” was really a thing people say, I found this gem on TechCrunch, which asks “Can Content Producers be Disruptors or is Content Only Meant to be Disrupted?” Obviously a rhetorical question. When has a book or a symphony, or a scientific discovery ever done anything to alter the course of human events as radically as, say, “shrinking a market” by taking “$5 of revenue from a competitor for every $1 you earn?”
What has happened in one industry after another is that it has become standard practice to tell people who create anything of aesthetic or intellectual value that they are going to have to be cool with getting paid little or nothing for their work while the people who develop the closed platforms used to “share” what they produce burn through a few rounds of VC money figuring out how to monetize their users. So this summer, I read about Mark Zuckerberg refinancing his multimillion dollar mortgage at 1% interest and then about how the members of Grizzly Bear contemplated whether they would be able to afford health insurance.
I just can’t imagine this playing out too differently in academia. We are such easy marks. Compared to academics, indie rock musicians are positively entrepreneurial. Just look at how we have allowed for-profit publishers to amass fortunes built on our free labor. Decisions about how MOOCs get implemented will be made above our pay grade, anyway, by university administrators who are constantly faced with difficult decisions that pit fiscal realities agains institutional ideals. I would not trade places with them, and I don’t want to caricature them as ruthless pragmatists with no patience for the life of the mind. But it seems hard to explain the alarming shift toward dependence on precarious labor over the last decade, with non-tenure track faculty positions added at approximately three times the rate of tenure-track or tenured positions (raw data are here) without assuming at least a weak bias in favor of budgetary concerns over the ideal of academic freedom.
It seems unimaginable that this same cadre of managers would mount a spirited defense of academic freedom in the face of promised reductions in cost, increases in revenue and overall brand enhancement held out by MOOC advocates, even if these promises are mostly hot air from “technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills.” But just because one’s decisions over time reveal a toward bias fiscal concerns does not mean that one is necessarily making good choices, even on that score. As evidence, take the proliferation of deans and senior administrators staffing development offices, technology transfer offices and offices charged with identifying funding opportunities and negotiating partnerships with industry that have mushroomed at universities across the country while “efficiency” is achieved — no doubt, with the help of well-paid consultants — by cutting undersubscribed courses, gutting departments that operate at too steep of a deficit, and generally requiring greater productivity from full-time faculty.
I don’t know if MOOCs will really do what their proponents promise, or what their detractors fear. I am fairly certain, however, that any gains in productivity they produce will not be used to liberate more time for the scholars, scientists, artists and inventors who have until recently had a somewhat safe home in academia. Any reduction in the number of hours of faculty time required to teach these online courses is much more likely to result in layoffs for adjuncts, and greater pressure on full-time faculty to do more service, or generate more extramural funding, or both.
You may have a hard time sympathizing with tenured and tenure-track faculty concerned about the erosion of the relatively copious intellectual and personal freedom their positions provide. You may even feel a touch of schadenfreude. “Good! Let them see what it feels like to work for a living!” Of course there’s a problem with a system in which the relative freedom of a few full-time tenured faculty is in effect subsidized by the wage slavery of a highly trained, deeply indebted and criminally undervalued precariate.
But the problem is not that some people are granted the freedom to do work that they find intellectually satisfying, even if it doesn’t have any obvious way of generating revenue for the university. The problem is that only a minority of university professors actually get to exercise this freedom in the context of jobs that provide a decent salary and reasonable security.
Why? And is it inevitable that any “disruptive” technological change will make this situation worse? Is there a way to adapt to this and thrive? Could we become more entrepreneurial? Would it help? I feel I should confess here that in a moment of panic and despair, when a series of grant proposals reflecting my best efforts to present the ideas that I was most excited about working on for the next several years were triaged early last summer, I briefly found myself enthralled with the Four Hour Workweek.
I was drawn to the idea that the author, Tim Ferriss, had discovered the secret of doing more with less, and I liked his attitude about carving out time for himself by working smarter rather than working harder. Because I was working very hard, and it wasn’t producing results. An iconic moment in the book is when he cites the scene in Wall Street where Charlie Sheen says he just wants to gut it out as a trader long enough to save up a pile of cash and ride a motorcycle across China. He urges the reader to consider how much it would actually cost to ride a motorcycle across China. Actually you wouldn’t need to be a millionaire to do that. Why not do it now?
The problem is that he advocates escaping the drudgery of the corporate world by more or less turning yourself into a corporation. What is the logical end state of a largely Ferriss-based economy, where everybody constantly seeks to cut their costs and boost their efficiency by any means possible? Many of his strategies are effective precisely because a relatively small number of people pursue them. Frank Bruni’s deconstruction of his “starter pistol in the checked bag” trick nails this. One guy getting his luggage flagged by the TSA (therefore making it less likely to get lost) wins. A whole airport full of bags with pistols in them is bedlam. Ferriss’s free-form adventure lifestyle depends on the existence of an infrastructure that provides him with digital assistants in far-flung cubicle farms, manufacturers who engage in god knows what kind of labor practices in order to meet low bids, and what are sardonically called “fulfillment centers” — vast warehouses that replicate developing-world working conditions all over exurban America.
When venture capitalists and startup gurus talk like anarchists, or align themselves with pirates, or zen monks, or promise any kind of liberation or democratization, you can be pretty sure you are getting hustled. Because they don’t necessarily share any ideals with anarchists, pirates, buddhists or revolutionaries; rather they adopt ideas that have revolutionary cachet as a tactic toward growing their brand. Ultimately they are hoping to generate some kind of return on investment in terms of cold, hard cash. That is their mission. For now, MOOCs are free, but they are run by for-profit entities funded with gobs of cash from VCs, which, last time I checked, doesn’t stand for Venture Communists, so one imagines these folks expect some kind of return on investment. Peek behind the curtain of all the talk of democratization and providing free services for free so that all of the disadvantaged children of the world who have broadband internet access can go to Stanford for free, and you will see the usual exploitative relationship between capital and labor: “Obviously, for these large-scale plays into open education to be successful, faculties can’t be half-assed in their adoption.”
Got the message, faculty? Don’t be half-assed when working for free to produce content that will become the property of a for-profit start-up that financial analysts imagine has the possibility to return many multiples of their millions of dollars of venture capital. That money is not for you. That money is going to the core of the business. People who work at Coursera itself get competitive compensation by Silicon Valley standards, and free catered lunch every day. Those people are not doing anything so mundane as actually developing courses and teaching students. They are building the distribution software and growing the market. These are Coursera’s values, not the “content,” which is viewed as a renewable and cheap resource, and certainly not the production of new knowledge, or the preservation of academic freedom.
Education is a human right. There must be some way to provide it for free without trading on massive exploitation of labor. The story of MOOCs so far demonstrates that faculty will willingly work very hard for little else than the satisfaction of sharing their knowledge with thousands of students at a time, and that students will engage with them and learn something substantial outside the context of a formal educational setting. This a good use of everyone’s time. It’s what we could all be doing with our newly found leisure if we had Keynes’s predicted fifteen hour work week.
Indeed, it’s what Buckminster Fuller had in mind when he made his famous remark about the foolishness of needing to “earn a living.” Everyone deserves a living. Arguing in favor of the premise of a Universal Basic Income, Peter Frase takes the eminently reasonable position that technology should be used to liberate people from the need to do meaningless tasks just to survive, and allow them to spend more of their time pursuing things that they find fulfilling. MOOCs could contribute positively to this, by dramatically expanding access to opportunities for substantial learning. In the short term, however, they are likely to play an important role in devaluing and destroying one of the few humane and satisfying forms of employment left: teaching in exchange for time, freedom, and access to resources for scholarly activity as a university professor. We should be working to expand this kind of freedom to more people, not take it away from the few who already have it.
Image credit: Worker productivity vs. median income growth from National Bureau of Labor statistics demonstrate what labor has gotten in return for increased productivity over the last three decades, i.e., basically nothing. From Wikipedia, which, come to think of it, makes an interesting foil for the nascent for-profit MOOC industry…