Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
24May/130

Looking Beyond A Digital Harvard

ArendtWeekendReading

Graduation is upon us. Saturday I will be in full academic regalia mixing with the motley colors of my colleagues as we send forth yet another class of graduates onto the rest of their lives. I advised three senior projects this year. One student is headed to East Jerusalem, where she will be a fellow at the Bard Honors College at Al Quds University. Another is staying at Bard where he will co-direct Bard’s new Center for the Study of the Drone. The third is returning to the United Kingdom where he will be the fourth person in a new technology driven public relations start up. A former student just completed Bard’s Masters in Teaching and will begin a career as a high school teacher. Another recent grad is returning from Pakistan to New York where she will earn a Masters in interactive technology at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.  These are just a few of the extraordinary opportunities that young graduates are finding or making for themselves.

graduation

The absolute best part of being a college professor is the immersion in optimism from being around exceptional young people. Students remind us that no matter how badly we screw things up, they keep on dreaming and working to reinvent the world as a better and more meaningful place. I sometimes wonder how people who don’t have children or don’t teach can possibly keep their sanity. I count my lucky stars to be able to live and work around such amazing students.

I write this at a time, however, in which the future of physical colleges where students and professors congregate in small classrooms to read and think together is at a crossroads. In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller has perhaps the most illuminating essay on MOOC’s yet to be written. His focus is on Harvard University, which brings a different perspective than most such articles. Heller asks how MOOCs will change not only our wholesale educational delivery at state and community colleges across the country, but also how the rush to transfer physical courses into online courses will transform elite education as well. He writes: “Elite educators used to be obsessed with “faculty-to-student-ratio”; now schools like Harvard aim to be broadcast networks.”

By focusing on Harvard, Heller shifts the traditional discourse surrounding MOOCs, one that usually concentrates on economics. When San Jose State or the California State University system adopts MOOCs, the rationale is typically said to be savings for an overburdened state budget. While many studies show that students actually do better in electronic online courses than they do in physical lectures, a combination of cynicism and hope leads professors to be suspicious of such claims. The replacement of faculty by machines is thought to be a coldly economic calculation.

But at Harvard, which is wealthier than most oil sheikdoms, the warp speed push into online education is not simply driven by money (although there is a desire to corner a market in the future). For many of the professors Heller interviews in his essay, the attraction of MOOCs is that they will actually improve the elite educational experience.

Take for example Gregory Nagy, professor of classics, and one of the most popular professors at Harvard. Nagy is one of Harvard’s elite professors flinging himself headlong into the world of online education. He is dividing his usual hour-long lectures into short videos of about 6 minutes each—people get distracted watching lectures on their Iphones at home or on the bus. He imagines “each segment as a short film” and says that, “crumbling up the course like this forced him to study his own teaching more than he had at the lectern.” For Nagy, the online experience is actually forcing him to be more clear; it allows for spot-checking the participants comprehension of the lecture through repeated multiple-choice quizzes that must be passed before students can continue on to the next lecture. Dividing the course into digestible bits that can be swallowed whole in small meals throughout the day is, Nagy argues, not cynical, but progress. “Our ambition is actually to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience.”

harvard

It is worth noting that the Harvard experience of Nagy’s real-world class is not actually very personal or physical. Nagy’s class is called “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization.” Students call it “Heroes for Zeroes” because it has a “soft grading curve” and it typically attracts hundreds of students. When you strip away Nagy’s undeniable brilliance, his physical course is a massive lecture course constrained only by the size of the Harvard’s physical plant. For those of us who have been on both sides of the lectern, we know such lectures can be entertaining and informative. But we also know that students are anonymous, often sleepy, rarely prepared, and none too engaged with their professors. Not much learning goes on in such lectures that can’t be simply replicated on a TV screen. And in this context, Nagy is correct. When one compares a large lecture course with a well-designed online course, it may very well be that the online course is a superior educational venture—even at Harvard.

As I have written here before, the value of MOOCs is to finally put the college lecture course out of its misery. There is no reason to be nostalgic for the lecture course. It was never a very good idea. Aside from a few exceptional lecturers—in my world I can think of the reputations of Hegel, his student Eduard Gans, Martin Heidegger, and, of course, Hannah Arendt—college lectures are largely an economical way to allow masses of students to acquire basic introductory knowledge in a field. If the masses are now more massive and the lectures more accessible, I’ll accept that as progress.

The real problems MOOCs pose is not that they threaten to replace lecture courses, but that they intensify our already considerable confusion regarding what education is. Elite educational institutions, as Heller writes, no longer compete against themselves. He talks with Gary King, University Professor of Quantitative Social Science and Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s President, who see Harvard’s biggest threat not to be Yale or Amherst but “The University of Phoenix,” the for-profit university. The future of online education, King argues, will be driven by understanding education as a “data-gathering resource.” Here is his argument:

Traditionally, it has been hard to assess and compare how well different teaching approaches work. King explained that this could change online through “large-scale measurement and analysis,” often known as big data. He said, “We could do this at Harvard. We could not only innovate in our own classes—which is what we are doing—but we could instrument every student, every classroom, every administrative office, every house, every recreational activity, every security officer, everything. We could basically get the information about everything that goes on here, and we could use it for the students. A giant, detailed data pool of all activities on the campus of a school like Harvard, he said, might help students resolve a lot of ambiguities in college life.

At stake in the battle over MOOCs is not merely a few faculty jobs. It is a question of how we educate our young people. Will they be, as they increasingly are, seen as bits of data to be analyzed, explained, and guided by algorithmic regularities, or are they human beings learning to be at home in a world of ambiguity.

Most of the opposition to MOOCs continues to be economically tinged. But the real danger MOOCs pose is their threat to human dignity. Just imagine that after journalists and professors and teachers, the next industry to be replaced by machines is babysitters. The advantages are obvious. Robotic babysitters are more reliable than 18 year olds, less prone to be distracted by text messages or twitter. They won’t be exhausted and will have access to the highest quality first aid databases. Of course they will eventually also be much cheaper. But do we want our children raised by machines?

That Harvard is so committed to a digital future is a sign of things to come. The behemoths of elite universities have their sights set on educating the masses and then importing that technology back into the ivy quadrangles to study their own students and create the perfectly digitized educational curriculum.

And yet it is unlikely that Harvard will ever abandon personalized education. Professors like Peter J. Burgard, who teaches German at Harvard, will remain, at least for the near future.

Burgard insists that teaching requires “sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

ard

Burgard is right. And at Harvard, with its endowment, professors will continue to teach intimate and passionate seminars. Such personalized and intense education is what small liberal arts colleges such as Bard offer, without the lectures and with a fraction of the administrative overhead that weighs down larger universities. But at less privileged universities around the land, courses like Burgard’s will likely become ever more rare. Students who want such an experience will look elsewhere. And here I return to my optimism around graduation.

Dale Stephens of Uncollege is experimenting with educational alternatives to college that foster learning and thinking in small groups outside the college environment. In Pittsburgh, the Saxifrage School and the Brooklyn Institute of Social Science are offering college courses at a fraction of the usual cost, betting that students will happily use public libraries and local gyms in return for a cheaper and still inspiring educational experience. I tell my students who want to go to graduate school that the teaching jobs of the future may not be at universities and likely won’t involve tenure. I don’t know where the students of tomorrow will go to learn and to think, but I know that they will go somewhere. And I am sure some of my students will be teaching them. And that gives me hope.

As graduates around the country spring forth, take the time to read Nathan Heller’s essay, Laptop U. It is your weekend read.

You can also read our past posts on education and on the challenge of MOOCs here.

-RB

5Apr/130

Making the Grade

ArendtWeekendReading

I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.

grading

Flickr, MacVicar

So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.

The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.

Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.

Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.

chair

There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.

According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read.  Here is what the group says in a statement:

Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.

What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.

There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.

Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.

It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.

edx

It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.

In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.

And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.

If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.

I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.

-RB

23Jan/130

The Higher Education Bubble? Not So Fast.

We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.

In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.

Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value.  We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.

Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.

More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.

For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.

Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post,  has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:

  1. [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.

Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.

It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:

[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.

Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.

I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.

As I have written before:

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.

-RB