La Loca contemplates bespoke suits and online education. Historiann contemplates the profit motive at her allegedly non-profit employer.

I know many of my readers also follow Dr. Crazy, but just in case you missed her post from earlier this week, I’ll show you a preview and encourage you to go read the whole post over at her place.  First of all, she writes:

You might think that I am a person who would pass over an article about $4,000 suits in the New York Times, but you would be wrong.  Because the thing is, this article has a hell of a lot to say about higher education, I think, at least from my perspective.

Interesting, no?  She quotes from the story, in which the author explains why a guy making $4,000 custom-made suits only makes $50,000 a year himself.  “As I watched Frew work, it became glaringly obvious why he is not rich. Like a 17th-century craftsman, he has no economy of scale.”

[T]he phrase “no economy of scale” sure did stand out to me and ring a giant bell in my head.  And then I glanced back up at the preceding paragraph (the joys of reading on paper rather than electronically: you can return to a thing you otherwise would have glossed over), and I noted the following: “he explained how he customizes every aspect of its design” and then, “Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.”

Does this sound familiar to any of y’all?  ‘Cause it sure does to me.  Wearing non-fancy clothes to do heavy lifting? Check.  Customizing every aspect of the design for the individual?  Um, check.  That is, in fact, the entire pedagogical premise behind “active learning” in the classroom.  The inability of modern technology to create the particular product that Frew is selling?  Um, YES.  Look, I’ve taught online, and I have many students who’ve taken courses online, although not all of them have done so with me.  They and I will tell you that it is not the same fucking thing as doing it face to face. So the question then becomes, does a $4 suit do the same thing that a $4,000 suit does?

Not, can it “work”?  Sure it can.  Just like a suit bought used from the Salvation Army can work for, say, an MLA interview.  It looks like a suit.  It doesn’t fit as well, and it’s not designed to do the best ever for you, but it’s fine, right?  There may be stains, and sure, it might smell funny.  But the price is right.  Close to free, even.  Beggars can’t be choosers.  But is it the Platonic essence of suitness?  No, surely not.

Free advice for job seekers:  please don’t buy your interview suit at the Salvation Army, not unless you can get it cleaned and properly altered!

So you see?  Here are the problems: 1) value is not equal to price; 2) our business, the business of learning, just like the business of making a quality suits, relies on an apprenticeship system, because you can’t really learn how to do it without doing it while other people watch over you; 3) having a product available, i.e., the Kardashian Kollection,  basically sets it up that people without certain kinds of resources will buy crap rather than saving up for something that isn’t crap.

The future of quality higher education is not  MOOCs, just as the future of quality suits is not the Salvation Motherfucking Army.  The future of quality higher education is not “increased online offerings,” just as the future of quality suits is not buying a fucking suit online from a department store.  Sure, those are “options.”  Whatever.  Do you think that’s all the options that your kids deserve?  Do you think that’s all the options that you deserve?  Really?

Exactly.  But be sure to read the whole thing for yourself. 

Fresh, hot education! Get your education here!

And here’s a tip for you bargain-seekers:  you, too, can come to Baa Ram U. for just over $4,000 a semester!  Yes, you can study as an undergraduate in my department for $4,324.22 a semester.  You won’t be expected to take any of your courses online in my department–you can take all in-person, face-to-face classes with faculty who are active scholars as well as dedicated teachers.  In my department, I think the value of what we do is far above the price.  But that’s not all!  If you come to us for a Master’s degree, you can get it for free, and then we pay you a stipend on top of that!  No joke.  That’s true even for out-of-state students!  (Just be sure to establish Colorado residency for your second year in order to keep your tuition remission and your stipend.)

But do you ever hear about departments like mine in the ridiculous conversations about the “high cost” of higher education (at private, selective  universities and at for-profit universities) on the one hand, or from the bloviating fools pushing online online online ed for all?  No.  Are we ever congratulated for the hand-crafted educational work that we do at prices that most families in our state can afford?  No.  Do you ever hear about the value of what we do?  No, because like the $50,000 a year tailor, we’re getting by, but we’re not making money hand-over-fist for ourselves or for someone else.  And that, friends, is increasingly how my department is being evaluated:  are we generating revenue for our allegedly non-profit employer by offering online classes?

I will stop writing now, because I’m running out of italics and bold letters to emphasize my outrage.  Over to you, friends, and thanks to Dr. Crazy for her most excellent rant.

23 thoughts on “La Loca contemplates bespoke suits and online education. Historiann contemplates the profit motive at her allegedly non-profit employer.

  1. I can’t think of a single thing that I did in either of my two classes this morning–and hope to re-create in one of them in an hour–that actually reached the level of an, I don’t know what to call it, an “educational moment” (and there were a number of such moments today), one of those times when you think you’ve conveyed an insight that even YOU didn’t have until a second before you uttered it, that would have had a tactical or methodological analogue on-line. And this is not just a reservation along the lines of “oh, the students would be sitting there and not seeing me wheel and pivot and wouldn’t pick up the subtle visual clues supporting the insight,” either. It’s me too. I like to riff and rant at the keyboard, but I don’t think that in the absence of the sheer kinetics of the classroom–the piece of chalk that you put down and then it rolls off the edge of a table and onto the floor and you pick it up, the projector screen that detatches from the hook on the chalk tray and rolls back up with a wham, or even the noisy kids in the hallway who make me walk over and awkwardly close the door–I would even have half of those insights, or any of them. The standard educrat shrill about this kind of objection is: “how can you be sure until you try it, come on, teach a few classes online, we’ll even set you up with a webinar, we’ll work this out together…” but I just don’t buy it. While you’re “just trying it” a few times, the distance ed jump crew is repurposing the room you abandoned so the strategy team can meet to develop more “content.” [Ever notice how the infrastructure underlying “virtual” pedagogy never seems to require any less actual physical real estate than it did before?]. Plus, what inane proposals could you *not* advance behind the “you can’t criticize it until you’ve tried it” rationalization?

    As with the vexed subject of “assessment,” I think we need a fifty year teaching and learning equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study before we go to policy-making much less “scaling.” Let’s find a nice island for Team Coursera, and in say 2062 bring back a hundred or so of their best second generation customers (distance-taught by people who were distance-taught), and let’s see if they can outthink and outperform my hundred seminar and library rats in whatever that era calls a reality game. Two out of three falls, and if they win, I’ll go digital.


  2. We live in an oligarchy. The only value is money and empty talk; nothing else exists. So far, there are no reports of barricades, tire burning or fire bombing. Until those things start to happen or the unimaginable election of an intellect president with a positive vision takes place, online will be the name of the game.

    Trying for the one thousand time to make an argument against online no matter how profound is a waste of time and energy.

    My approach is mix online with face to face. In cases of pure online (e.g. student are geographically dispersed), I use team work to encourage internal discussion, have interactive assignment (i.e. graded assignment have to be responded to), use discussion boards and wikis and encourage use of tools and gadgets (may not apply to History classes).

    Quixotism leads to great literature, but not much else. Teachers will not start the revolution.


  3. I would be open to looking at the evidence of online teaching’s effectiveness if my department were being asked to teach online courses because it was an effective way of reaching students who are not being well served by our traditional courses. (Only if someone showed me evidence that we are not serving our students well by teaching them in F2F courses in the first place, of course.)

    But in the case at my uni, that’s not why we’re being told to teach online courses. Online courses are being pitched to us as a revenue generating scheme, not as a service to students or as something that’s pedagogically useful and sound.


  4. I agree with koshembos that hybrid classes can work well but one needs to think carefully about pedagogy and goals. In my observation, good online teaching requires as much or more time than live teaching. In that case, the cost savings here is entirely in real estate and the fund generation is in fees.

    Online content delivery will only turn out to be a money-maker for certain groups. Here on my campus, online classes are assessed an additional fee–so no savings for students. Where does that money go? Not to the units that pay to teach the classes. No, it goes to the non-teaching educrats occupying former library space in the center for “online excellence” or whatever it is called.

    The true titans of the information economy are well aware of the money available for vacuuming. Our patsy state university presidents and provosts and their various campus innovations are just feed for the suction device.

    One of the defenses of the MOOCs is that while they are free they are also not for credit. No worries, it’s just a way to spread the good news. Well, Pearson–the parasites who have made a mint by producing the tests that are both the diagnostic and the cure for the alleged crisis in education–now plans to offer tests to evaluate what MOOC participants learned so that the MOOC experience may be converted to college credit. $89 a test. Social entrepreneurship my a$$.


  5. “Do all state school boards subscribe to the same journal or something?” I think so. Or they just clip out some incredibly dumb stuff that David Brooks or Tom Friedman wrote, pass it around the board, think that they have a clue, and start firing people.

    We are indeed ruled by incompetents spouting businessspeak-inflected, edu-fad-tastic neologisms and chasing Shiny Metal Objects. (Have you optimized and synergized today? Was that a rude question?) Once again I ask: did all of them suffer major closed head traumas in the past 4 years, leaving them entirely unknowing about the dot-bomb of 2001, “Dow 36,000,” and the 2007-08 housing bubble implosion? (Not to mention the great tulip bubble of the seventeenth century.)

    Truffula is right. This bears repeating and tattooing on the inside of my left thigh:

    Where does that money go? Not to the units that pay to teach the classes. No, it goes to the non-teaching educrats occupying former library space in the center for “online excellence” or whatever it is called.

    The true titans of the information economy are well aware of the money available for vacuuming. Our patsy state university presidents and provosts and their various campus innovations are just feed for the suction device.


  6. truffula: I had forgotten that the NYTimes had something about MOOCs for credit last week, and it looks like Baa Ram U. is trying to get out of the gate first, viz’t:
    Colorado State to Offer Credits for Online Class
    By TAMAR LEWIN, Published: September 6, 2012

    As millions of students have flocked to free “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in recent months, higher education experts have focused on two big questions: whether universities will begin to offer credit for such courses, and what might be done to prevent cheating.

    On Thursday, the first glimmers of answers began to emerge. Colorado State University’s Global Campus, an independent campus that is part of the Colorado State University system, said it would give three transfer credits to students who complete Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine, a free course offered by Udacity, and take a proctored test. While the Global Campus is apparently the first American institution to offer credit for a Udacity MOOC, several European universities have already done so.

    “Our students have been asking for credit for the courses for a while, and Colorado State has been very excited about online ed, so this was those things coming together,” said David Stavens, Udacity’s co-founder. Almost 200,000 students have enrolled in the class, which is the company’s introductory computer science offering, and its most popular, Mr. Stavens said. “We’re talking with other schools, but we’re not ready to name them yet,” he added. [End of excerpt]…

    Isn’t that amazing? At my school the Political Science department couldn’t develop a course on non-governmental organizations, nor could Physics and Astronomy decide to teach about superstring theory without jumping through a year’s worth of committee and senate hoops to persuade every cook and baker and horse-shoer who happened to hold faculty status anywhere that the change was not going to affect somebody else’s enrollments, or cause somebody’s external accreditor to question the credentials of their majors. But U-dacity can just slide onto a campus with a “proctored test” and kaboom, the credit hours will be rolled onto the transcripts.


    The President at Penn wrote a completely disingenuous column about that institution’s embrace of the Coursera borg in the alumni rag this month, beginning with an irrelevant and historically-dubious analogy to some 19th century law professor’s alleged spontaneous invention of the socratic method on the first day of classes in 1882, and running out the new orthodoxy that what Historiann calls technoskepticism toward this kind of thing is effectively the newest version of backward thinking and closed-mindedness. I will note again that the chair of the relevant faculty senate committee there announced in May that the faculty had not been consulted on this. And the president’s column indeed began with the statement that (to paraphrase) “Provost [ ] and I were excited to take this initiative…” I’d call *that* approach to curricular decisionmaking pretty backward and close-minded.


  7. Some people can learn very well by following a set of readings and a course design. They’re the lucky few. There are others who go through the online hoops to get the qualifications while truly learning very little at all. But you’re right that to teach well, to help people really learn, often isn’t easy or easily replicable work. I’m seeing this not only in my own students, but in my daughter’s final year of high school.

    Good teachers matter a lot. They make a great difference and we’re keeping that in mind as she starts to apply to university. I know that wherever she goes there’s a good chance that she’ll have a few bad teachers. But I’m warning her now to beware our province’s publicly stated goal to have 2/3 of all student coursework taken online. Yes, I’ve seen some well-designed online classes but I can tell you that unless you already know the material, it’s a lot tougher to do well than it is in the classroom!

    I’m with Melonie Fullick on this one: very suspicious about the whole rhetoric of “online is innovative but face-to-face can’t be” –


  8. Indyanna: yes, it’s fascinating to see the very different standards applied to F2F teaching versus online ed. To wit:
    *Our faculty have to have Ph.D.s in our fields. Online instructors? Grad students are regularly employed by other departments in my college.
    *Whereas all of our untenured and adjunct faculty must be observed in the classroom and tenured faculty must write letters reviewing their work, there are no protocols or guidelines for reviewing online teaching that I’ve seen so far. No worries!
    *All of our courses have to be approved by various curriculum committees at the departmental, college, and university level. Online classes? Whatever!

    Since online ed clearly doesn’t need to meet the same standards as our other faculty and classes, and since the uni seems to be eager to ditch the usual protocols of self-governance and collegial feedback/review, why can’t this blog count as much as a book for my promotion case? Who gives a $hit about peer review, because we’re not reviewing anything any longer! Whatever!

    Janice: thanks so much for that link. Fullick pretty much sums it all up. I know it’s crazy expensive, but maybe you should consider sending your daughter to a U.S. liberal arts college. The authoritarian tone of the language that Fullick quotes is truly disturbing re: Ontario’s goals for higher education.


  9. This semester I’ve been teaching a version of my regular course as a group independent study to three students, each with a reason why they can’t take the regular class. We meet once a week by skype, they write extra papers, and as the semester goes on, I hope to do less and less talking. And the end of our meeting yesterday, one student said to me, “This is so much better than a regular class”. And I thought, of course it is: I’m paying attention to three people here, not 25. But of course that isn’t scalable.

    There was an image floating around the book of the face this week that said “‘I wish a politician with no teaching experience would just come in and tell me how to teach’ said no teacher ever.” That of course, says it all. (Sorry I can’t find the source image to link to…)


  10. Most university administrations cannot tell the difference between good education and worthless one. Since our influence on university operations is marginal, our utmost and final duty is to our students. If that means maximizing the quality of online courses, this means that we must do it. Complaining until we are blue in the face doesn’t help anyone.


  11. I’m teaching an online class this semester. Mostly because I wanted less time writing lectures (since I’m learning the whole mommy-professor balancing thing). My university was thrilled since they didn’t have enough classroom space for all the classes they wanted to offer.

    My class is capped at 20, it’s a writing course, and it’s really an online independent study guided by me. Most students couldn’t wait to sign up for it, and then immediately dropped the course when they saw how much work they had to do (150 pages of reading a week, weekly discussions based on the readings, 5 papers based on primary sources, all revised, and a final exam). That leaves me with motivated students. And so far I’ve been very impressed. The discussions are great. I can focus more of the class on reading comprehension and writing skills. And my students get solid information from the readings, and other online sources (it’s on visions of the Apocalypse in history) which since they are mostly seniors they are able to critically analyze.

    I see the problem with MOOCs, but that doesn’t mean that all online classes are awful.


  12. H’Ann – thanks for the shout-out, sister 🙂 I don’t think that the analogy is perfect, but I did think that it was worth thinking about, and I’m glad that my readers and yours have done 🙂


  13. Pingback: Lemmings. « More or Less Bunk

  14. There’s even a possible climate change angle in urging students to be locavores of knowledge in showing (or even just claiming) that the 100 acre server farms needed to maintain MOOCs are spewing forth more carbon than they are saving in the physical mileage covered by student commuters they would reduce. Or wage class warfare on the “job destroyers” at Coursera Capital Management because as online rises, there goes physical plant management, housekeeping, purchasing, brick and mortar vending empires, cafeteria, the works. Rile up Main Street, invoke the inevitable death of the Southeastern Conference, the agonizing withering away of Bracket Sunday, the content starvation of College Humor. Leave it to the computer science geeks in Palo Alto to unravel the possible logical or empirical flaws in these nightmare scenarios. That should buy a year or two anyway for more coherent strategies to emerge. 🙂


  15. A-HAHAHAHAHAhahahahaha! Of course!

    I’m sure that We Take Your Course will be a highly lucrative venture. Since universities like mine are looking for ways to “increase revenue,” they should set up their own course-taking services to sell to the nominal “students” who sign up for our online classes!


    Like I’ve said before: it’s the old “feed the rats to the cats and the rats to the cats, and get the skins for free!” scheme.


  16. Theoretically, one of the reasons faculty in my school/program are being pushed to go online at least part of the time is the reason MsMcD mentioned: lack of classroom space (especially lack of the one-computer-per-student classrooms that really do make sense, and work well, for writing classes). Since I’m currently free to offer tailored/handcrafted/artisanal courses (at only the cost of exhausting myself a bit more than a 4/4 load already does), I’m willing. But there seems to be an increasing push toward standardization in online classes (all in the name of quality, of course; who knows what professors will do if you don’t keep a close eye on them?) And much of the infrastructure (e.g. course designers) seems predicated on the assumption that we’ll be uploading coursepacks from publishers. So I have to wonder: though classroom space is certainly a problem (as are parking and traffic in the whole metro area from which we pull), is there another underlying/overarching agenda? Thank goodness for the internet, which allows us compare notes. We may be luddites*, but at least we’re informed, connected, ones.

    *I think this label is one we’re going to be hearing more and more, and will have to be careful to combat, since it probably describes a space where the ongoing MOOC story and this week’s CSU English ad kerfuffle meet: one way to dismiss older/experienced faculty who express doubts about online education (and are generally mouthy and opinionated and inclined to claim that they should be the ones to set quality standards for their own students/curricula) is to claim that they’re/we’re just uncomfortable with new technology, while all the shiny new Ph.D.s whom the online educrats would like to make into glorified T.A.s (at best) are comfortable with it, and know how to make it work. The “it can be done well, but it’s not cheap, it’s not scalable, and it doesn’t look like a MOOC” argument that MsMcD makes (and that I’ve made elsewhere/other times) might be the middle road. Or so I hope. It’s also possible that standing in the middle of the road increases the chances of getting run over.


  17. @Janice: consider looking west or east when your daughter goes to university, or at least get her out of the Ontario sinkhole. I compared notes with a bunch of Canadian friends recently, all of whom had attended/TAed at universities in more than one region of Canada: in the west, particularly BC and Alberta, second year and above liberal arts courses, which in Ontario usually have 100+ students, are normally capped at 30-42 (there actually still being lots of money sloshing around Western Canada). In the east, all the small (by Canadian standards) universities–Dalhousie, Acadia, St. FX–are madly competing to become Canada’s answer to American-style liberal arts colleges (for 6-8 thousand, only a little above normal). Southern Ontario (by which I mean U of T) may still be pulling in a lot of research dollars, but as far as teaching goes, even places like Queen’s are falling off the map.


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