Monday, April 14, 2014

Random Reflections on MOOCS - Your Research in the Form of a Kitten

George Freeman, FAUW Past President

What a wonderful world that has comedians in it!  I say this because people sometimes ask what it’s like (from the point of view of an engineer in my case) to be involved with university politics through FAUW or its umbrella organizations (OCUFA and CAUT).  It’s really hard to explain but if you have seven minutes and thirty-four seconds to spare, you can actually sample the emotional side of the story via a satirical video entitled “The Expert (Short Comedy Sketch)”  by Lauris Beinerts which has swept through the gossip channels of the technology world this past week


To fully appreciate the video, watch it right to its end.  The basic premise is a meeting (“Our company has a new strategic initiative” ) of some marketing and business types with an expert in the drawing of red lines.  As the story starts, the expert is told “We need you to draw seven red lines.  All of them strictly perpendicular; some with green ink and some with transparent. Can you do that?”  It is the expert’s evolving attempts at rational opposition, and his ultimate stance, which seem so representative of universities and their evolving relationship to the political-industrial forces in society.

I’d like to postulate an Anderson scale (after the expert in the video clip). 

Let’s define early Anderson by his response of “To draw a ‘red line’ with green ink is – well if it is not exactly impossible, then it is pretty close to being impossible.”  Most faculty representatives to political bodies, myself included, look like early Andersons.  We believe in arguments based on fact, truth revealed though replicable proof.  Scholarship, in short.

Let’s define middle Anderson by his response of “OK. Let me draw you two perfectly perpendicular red lines, and I will draw the rest with transparent ink.”  Sounds like a good university administrator to me.  Saying close to what government and industry wants to hear but projected on the axes of what we believe possible or desirable.  Think Waterloo’s strategic plan, its strategic mandate agreement with the province, or our salary settlement under the ‘zero-zero’ directive.  At best, promoters and protectors of scholarship (and why good administrators must themselves be scholars).  Viewed by scholars as bending the truth half the time.

Woman from "The Expert"
This leaves late Anderson, defined by his final response of “Of course I can. I can do anything. I can do absolutely anything.  I’m an expert!”  In the world of business and politics, people like experts to give solutions, not expose problems.  Pointing out that the space of feasible solutions is empty will often get you the look on the left – what I interpret as dreams deflated by facts so far from the listener’s comprehension that she can’t experience them as factual, only as disappointment in the speaker.  Naïve regarding scholarship and offended by its argumentative, exploratory flavour, in short.

Cuddled up to this domain of infeasible solutions seems to live a concentration of higher-education commentators and consultants.  Lately, they like to talk about big cost savings in university teaching.  Think HEQCO and its reportsThink Robert Dickeson and his program prioritizationsThink William Bowen and MOOCs.  I have some early-Anderson thoughts on Bowen’s and Dickeson’s books which I hope to write into posts.

Professor George Freeman
What about your research and the kittens?

The utterance which will not leave my head, the question to the red-line-drawing expert which prompts Anderson’s final response in the sketch, is “When you inflate the balloon, could you do it in the form of a kitten?”  I hope you’ve watched the video so you fully appreciate the balloon (“It’s red”) and the kitten (“Market research tells us our users like cute animals”).  I claim we can map the expert to a researcher, balloon inflation to a researcher made to align his or her field with a strategic direction imposed by someone else, and the kitten to research which must take a completely pre-specified form in terms of its conduct, presentation, and impact.  The research environment of 2014 in Ontario universities in a nutshell (unless you have early luck or your natural expertise is in one of the balloon-inflating areas, and you carefully follow a few pragmatic rules along the way).

Unfortunately, if your experts in lines must inflate balloons in the form of kittens, resource consumption, in both time and money goes up sharply.  Both in the research and in the balloon-accountability, kitten-measuring support staff.  One of the strangest aspects of university politics is that research is primarily assessed by how inefficiently it is done (numbers of dollars, researchers, papers, or citations) without any per-unit normalization.  Thus, this inefficiency looks good, is compared and rewarded.  Quality has a downward force acting on it.  Volume (cost) has an upward force acting on it.  How this ultimately plays out is obvious to anyone near my age who grew up watching the late-1970s Ford Motor Company or the Vietnam war.

What does any of this have to do with teaching and MOOCs, you might ask?

My observation would be that a true ‘university course of study’ is an extension of the scholarship world of the expert to include the evolving minds of students.  I would place this in juxtaposition with a simple ‘course taught at a university,’ i.e., the public mindset of a pre-existing body of knowledge moved into the student’s head by some actions on the part of very expensive experts, and then certified.  Something which is just a ‘course taught at a university’ is little better than a good book read in a university library – the university plays a very small part in it.  Full-scale automation might make economic sense there.  However, a true ‘university course’ depends heavily on scholarship and its supportive environment.

In my humble opinion, what we see happening with the balloons and kittens is the space of scholarship being taken up by an unnecessarily large volume of formulaic research activity.  Little is left for the other reason for the universities’ existence, those evolving minds of the students.  This is squeezed over time into the hands of staff, non-research faculty, low-paid sessionals, or computers.  In a society increasingly reliant on innovation for prosperity, I think we want more true university courses, more of the scholarship space opened up to teaching and learning.  This needs a reward structure vastly different from the so-called ‘world class’ one being cemented into place now.

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