MOOCs as capital-biased technological change

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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…


  1. Posted December 21, 2012 at 5:04 PM | Permalink

    Excellent analysis. I’m becoming increasingly wary of MOOCs and other forms of “educational entrepreneurship.” I wrote a post critiquing StraighterLine’s new Professor Direct program for many of the same reasons you cite here.

    • J Zevin
      Posted December 21, 2012 at 5:40 PM | Permalink

      Oh I saw that piece on copy/paste, and — not surprisingly — agree with the thrust of it! But what did we expect from a service whose name is a play on a grocery delivery service? Since finishing this post, I have also been reading Chris Ruen’s FREELOADING which treats the post-Napster music world in detail, and is excellent, and not as much of a downer as you might expect! The irony is that many people who do creative work are naturally in favor of free and open distibution models. But the main way to monetize their work is by some kind of barrier-based business model.

      The way science is funded untethers creativity from distribution in a very humane way. The funding is there for us to do the science, and we are then expected to give the results away for free. This is only politically viable because science is perceived as a powerful stimulus to the economy. In fact it is getting harder and harder to fund scientific research that does not have clear “translational” goals, i.e., economic outputs.

      So, we need to change our politics. We need to recognize that some kinds of work produce a common good and that if we want it all to be freely and openly shared, we’re going to have to take care of the people who produce it somehow.

      • Posted December 24, 2012 at 12:53 PM | Permalink

        Well said. That’s exactly why I was drawn to MOOCs in the first place–the potential for free access and the ability to give away knowledge. My skepticism is kicking in now that it seems like the generosity of creatives and artists is being capitalized on without reciprocity.

  2. Posted December 21, 2012 at 7:00 PM | Permalink

    This is very smart. Some comments:

    1) The difference between skill-biased and capital-biased tech change is the key normative point here. For decades, economists sanctioned inequality as justified because it rewarded more skilled workers. Now, even people like Krugman are realizing that that view of the world is tautological–it could only work by assuming that productivity and pay were linearly correlated.

    One cannot compare the skill of people who teach and those who create iTunes platforms; it’s not like an economy where the latter suddenly make 10X what the former make has, by that very fact, identified 10X more skill-as-such in the programmers.

    2) There is a lot of cultural work to be done to make the MOOC an alternative to in-person experiences of college. As Cathy ONeil notes, college has at least 4 facets:
    learning itself,
    research, and

    The VC’s behind MOOCs need to convince people that their capital-intensive approach is effective at supplanting most of these, and/or that the facets it can’t supplant aren’t that valuable.

    3) There are some past precedents for such changes in values that can lead to changes in service delivery. For example, consider the efforts of entrepreneurs to replace human care workers with robots:
    The key point here is to get the society as a whole to all agree that these are wonderful, so that the vulnerable who, say, object to the robotized care can be marginalized as unreasonably demanding.

    Similarly, a lot of the “cost cutting” accomplished by corporate raiders in the 1980s depended on their getting society to accept their slashing of what had been implicit contracts between workers and firms. And the decline of lawyer jobs arises out of a very well-funded movement to characterize regulation itself as a cost:

    4) The key here, also, is to get universities and teachers at them to worry that they will “miss the boat” if they don’t do the MOOC approach. It operates the way ranking systems do (that reward schools for givign scholarships to students with high scores on tests; see, or the race-to-the-bottom on Google News (that cuts off traffic to firms that might have the temerity to demand a share in Google’s revenue from aggregation.)

    5) The Katz and Goldin book on the “Race Between education and Technology” is effectively rendered obsolete by the notion of capital-biased technical change. But its title rightly suggests that the future of humane possibilities in politics and economics depends on education about the need for fair distribution of the gains from automation. That’s an education those at the top of the pecking order need far more than those at the bottom.

    • J Zevin
      Posted December 21, 2012 at 7:23 PM | Permalink

      Awesome. Looking forward to reading these in depth. Thanks.

      And why am I not surprised that mathbabe has something smart to say about this? I last saw her at a Free University lecture in Madison Square Park. (A massively open offline course, I guess?) Her take reminds me of Kerim Friedman’s piece the first MOOC was a book, also very much worth a look.

  3. Posted December 24, 2012 at 10:29 PM | Permalink

    great post – I’m glad to have discovered your blog. You raise the classic question of why wealth goes to the intermediary rather than to the producer, to mix 21st and 19th century terms. It’s another good moment in your post when you say you don’t know of a real answer to this. Out of politeness we refrain from discussing how labor exploitation is intrinsic to capitalism, now with a neo-veil of creativity as the prime feature of the exploiters (Valley folk, VC). But the ideal of the self-directed work week of 4 or 15 or 35 hours may help people raise these questions about changing utterly bizarre allocations of resources and creative autonomy.

  4. Posted December 28, 2012 at 10:59 AM | Permalink

    If Clay Shirky is for it, I’m agin it. Especially if he’s taking his Gnu Media bullshit to the Gnu University.

  5. DensityDuck
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 11:27 PM | Permalink

    “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…”

    Heck, we already knew that. Wikipedia exists because internet users will willingly work very hard for little else than the satisfaction of sharing their knowledge with thousands of other internet users at a time.

    “[MOOCs] 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.”

    But why should “time, freedom, and access to resources for scholarly activity” be something that university students subsidize with their tuition? Why do we have to have that fig-leaf of teaching? “Prof’s never in his office and his grad student does all the lectures” is not just a National Lampoon punchline. Maybe if what the professors want is to do research and write articles, they should find someone willing to pay them to do research and write articles. Tuning up a hot rod might be a humane and satisfying form of employment, but if my mechanic quotes nine hours to do a job and then spends eight of them tuning up his hot rod, then I don’t say “I’m happy to pay extra money if it supports his ability to engage in a human and satisfying form of employment”.

    • J Zevin
      Posted January 6, 2013 at 9:37 PM | Permalink

      I am with you on students not being forced to subsidize this with tuition money. I think education should be free for everyone. I don’t pretend to have any answers about how to do that. They seemed to manage OK in Canada and the UK for a while, but that’s changing…

      As for professors finding “someone willing to pay them to do research and write articles,” this is actually what we spend an enormous amount of time doing. In fact a common complaint among researchers is that we spend as much or more time writing grant proposals to fund research than actually doing research. If teaching were all done by adjuncts or via MOOCs, it would leave everyone in the position that those of us on “soft money,” already endure, i.e., constant pressure to raise funds with no job security. It is not exactly a situation that encourages careful contemplation or slow, laborious work on unpopular topics, but those are just the sorts of things that often produce unheralded breakthroughs, and anyway expand the boundaries of human knowledge.

      As for subsidizing your mechanic’s time working on the hot rod, I am actually OK an indirect form of that called unconditional basic income. But I realize that’s not an incredibly popular position.

  6. acs
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 10:13 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for this insightful analysis.It is one of the best I have read.

9 Trackbacks

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    [...] the word MOOC again. I’m not sure whether what seems to me like a recent spate of anti-MOOC writing that I’ve encountered makes me more likely or less likely to take up this new banner. [...]

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  6. [...] Just asking). There’s an excellent post debunking MOOC triumphalism, which notes that pro-MOOCers are counting on an exploitative labor model (emphasis original, boldface mine): When venture capitalists and startup gurus talk like [...]

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