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Historians Respond to MOOCs: The Taylorization of the Historian’s Workplace

Jonathan Rees, February 2014

Like so many people today who want to disrupt higher education, Frederick W. Taylor, an early management consultant, fashioned himself as a reformer. He wanted to change the American workplace in order to take command of the shop floor “out of the hands of the many workmen” and place it under the absolute rule of management, “thus superseding ‘rule of thumb’ by scientific control.”1 By cutting prices on goods despite paying the most productive workers more, this kind of reform was supposed to benefit labor, capital, and especially the public at large.

To me, Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) represent the potential for the Taylorization of the academic workplace and are therefore a threat to the “rule of thumb” judgments upon which the historical profession depends. Neither of the historians with MOOCs in this forum risk being forced to operate under a stopwatch, nor would I suspect that they want any other historians to be subject to similar conditions. Nonetheless, the Taylorization of the academic workplace could occur at schools that accept MOOCs for credit. MOOCs might also be used as a cudgel to cut educational labor costs in for-­credit classrooms at cash-­strapped public universities like mine.

Anybody who pays attention to the vast literature on educational technology should be familiar with the term unbundling. Educational reformers use it to connote the kind of division of labor and specialization that Frederick Taylor adored. Why should anybody provide content for their classrooms, they ask rhetorically, when the best professors in the world can be piped in via the Internet? This practice, the argument goes, will allow professors in less prestigious colleges to concentrate on giving students the individual attention they deserve. The recent vogue for flipping our classrooms—that is, having students watch videos for homework instead of during class time—is not specifically MOOC­related. However, using MOOC content to flip classrooms is another possible use for this technology.

Despite the fact that MOOCs have been a hot topic for well over a year, there are very few history MOOCs compared to the number of MOOCs in other disciplines. Jeremy Adelman and Philip Zelikow were two of the first historians to sign up to run MOOCs with a major commercial provider, yet very few historians have followed them down that path. While I admire their willingness to experiment with new technologies, my guess would be that many other history professors with the opportunity to teach MOOCs have been scared off by the pedagogical sacrifices this kind of teaching would require.

The possibility of flipped classes in history illustrates one of those sacrifices well. When approached with the possibility of flipping my own classroom, I always ask, “When will my students have time to do their reading?” Students at Princeton or the University of Virginia might be willing to make time to watch lectures and read textbooks or monographs, but it is always a struggle to get my history students to do any reading at all. Loading them down with taped lectures only makes that possibility more remote.

Both Adelman and Zelikow have been experimenting with flipping their own classrooms. This is an ideal situation as they are both experts in the particular world history content they choose to teach. Unfortunately, any other historian making use of their content will have to adapt to their particular historical content preferences. I can’t help but wonder whether students will understand who their real professor is in this situation.

Yet such sacrifices are only one way that MOOCs could de-­professionalize, or even de-­skill, large segments of the professoriate. Historians who do not select their own content or write their own lectures could easily be replaced by personnel with less training, perhaps graduate students or people with no training in history at all. Or perhaps the schools that license history MOOCs will hire no onsite teaching help whatsoever and simply let students fend for themselves.

There is no question that MOOCs might be good for teaching some subjects to some people. Computer scientists, for example, seem to love them. However, sacrifices have to be made in order to teach a history MOOC, and many of those sacrifices are designed to save the cost of additional pedagogical labor.

In Adelman’s course, all the required MOOC essays are graded by peers rather than by anyone trained in history, including his grad students. Zelikow has eliminated the essay-­grading labor problem by foregoing writing assignments entirely. Neither of their history MOOCs has any required reading. I understand why these sacrifices may be a practical necessity to run a MOOC, but the best possible history education requires reading and direct personal contact with a trained historical professional.

As a result of such sacrifices, the same de-professionalized fate could await professors who run MOOCs too. The faculty behind one psychology MOOC offered by the commercial MOOC provider Udacity utilized a “Udacity employee to turn their lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and jokes.”2 The head of the Harvard/MIT MOOC collaboration edX has even suggested that Hollywood stars might run the MOOCs of the future because “really good actors can teach really well.”3 If MOOC providers avoid assigned reading because it isn’t sexy enough to attract tens of thousands of eyeballs they can eventually monetize, then why not bring in Matt Damon to lead a class? The commercial logic behind both decisions would be exactly the same.

I recognize that nobody involved in this discussion welcomes these outcomes, but anybody who doubts that such scenarios are possible hasn’t been paying attention to the higher education press for at least the last decade or so. Desperate times breed desperate measures, especially when cash-­strapped administrations are involved. To those who do not understand our discipline, one size will likely fit all, no matter how ill-­suited their solutions happen to be.

Aaron Bady, an African literature specialist and postdoc at the University of Texas at Austin, who has written extensively on MOOCs, summed up my attitude toward the kind of academic capitalism that motivates so many of these courses in a blog post he wrote in early 2013. The “MOOCification of higher education,” he writes:

could be done well, I think, but it won’t be. Instead of using new technology to do what we have always done, but do it better, it will be so thoroughly co-­opted and driven by venture capital that it will be another battering ram against what’s left of high quality, low cost higher education. And it will destroy subjects and disciplines that aren’t conducive to being MOOCified, like mine.4

I would argue that the same thing is true for history.

For historians, the keyword in MOOC is “massive.” History professors can’t teach what our discipline does best if we have to do it for tens of thousands of people at once. History MOOCs require sacrifices in the name of efficiency and financial expediency that no credit-­awarding university should tolerate. To ignore the fact that some schools will do so anyway will not only make it harder for the next generation of historians to find jobs, it is in effect an insult to our collective expertise because it will distort the definition of what professional historians do for a living beyond all recognition.

—Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo. He is the author of Representation and Rebellion: The Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914–1942 and Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances and Enterprise in America. His writings on MOOCs have been published by Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae project, where he is a regular columnist. He is proud to have completed Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC in fall 2012 but forgot to ask for his completion certificate.

Notes

1. Frederick W. Taylor, quoted in Simon Head, The New Ruthless Economy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 26.

2. Jeffrey R. Young, Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education’s High-Tech Disruption (Washington DC: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2013), Kindle.

3. Jeffrey R. Young, “The New Rock­Star Professor,” Slate, accessed December 2, 2013.

4. Aaron Bady, “A Moment of Dreaming about Higher Education,” zunguzungu (blog), The New Inquiry, January 2, 2013, accessed December 2, 2013.