Brave New McGill

There are things we used to do in person that we can now do entirely remotely, using machines. We can rent movies (Netflix), have sex (pornography), gaze into the eyes of a friend (Facebook), and develop a crippling insecurity about our careers (LinkedIn).

(Some people still like to do these things in person. Soon these losers will be called Luddites and mocked openly by children on city streets.)

Starting in 2014, we will be able to add another entry to this ever-expanding list: attending McGill University.

Through their increasing dominance of the lives of North American human beings, the iPeople of Silicon Valley have also made significant progress in mangling all language utterly. So, here comes another cute sounding techno-word-noise that will be passing through all our lips over the next several years: MOOCs. The acronym stands for Massively Open Online Courses – and if you don’t know about them, you should. Because they know about you, and they’re headed straight for us.

MOOCs are a growing (marauding, maybe) trend in academia, and allow students from anywhere and everywhere to take college classes, sometimes paying money, sometimes for credit. There are a couple of companies – consortiums, in edu-speak – that partner with universities to offer MOOCs. Some are for-profit and some are not-for-profit, if the latter still means anything. They’re all the rage in academia, with heavy hitters like MIT, Harvard, and the like getting on board.

McGill’s Senators learned about them at the meeting on January 23 from Provost Anthony Masi.

There was furrowing of brows and wagging of jaws amongst faculty and student Senators. There was talk of the “exporting” of the “McGill brand.” There were questions about form, shape. How could we grade these massively open courses? Who’s going to grade 1,000 papers? McGill employees? People on other continents? One professor advocated for “ancient” methods of pedagogy. Others were enthusiastic about MOOCs, trumpeting their “accessibility.” Will students get credit? How much would this cost? The verbal construction “if and when McGill [decides something]” was used, and often.

It was decided that discussion had been good and helpful. Lots of food for thought and all that. On to the next topic. That evening, I filed a story for The Daily, which contained discussion of McGill’s budget as well as the provisional protocol on protests – the juicier elements of the Senate meeting, I thought. This was how provisional the Senate discussion on MOOCs seemed. I left Senate thinking that we might have at least a year or two to prepare for the dawn of the age of remotely administered tele-pedagogy at McGill, before the cyber-sun rises over the St. Lawrence and we all bow down to worship its electro warmth.

Exactly a month later, it was announced – remotely, via an MRO email – that the people who decide these things had decided. McGill shall have MOOCs, and it shall be good. The announcement thanked the contributions of the “Academic Working Group on Innovative Pedagogy,” which few people had ever heard of. The words do not appear on the McGill website. Some Senators thought that they, in fact, were the people who decided things. An email was circulated among Senators, asking some essential questions, questions like: What? When? How?
According to a follow-up email from Masi, Senate had decided (even if they didn’t know they decided). What? In the Achieving Strategic Academic Priorities (ASAP) policy statement. When? Back in October. How? Masi pointed them to several sections of the paper – an eighty-page policy statement containing mostly platitudes like “achieving new directions” and “dynamic learning environments.” The letters ‘MOOC’ appear three times in the paper. The first appearance of the word is in the context of McGill studying MOOCs. On the following page, the paper says that McGill will implement “Action 2.7.1,” and study the “integration of information technology into pedagogy… based on analytics derived also from [MOOCs].” The third time MOOCs make themselves known is some thirty pages later in a summary of all the previous action plans. Action 2.7.1 now has an interesting change – the phrase now reads “McGill’s own MOOCs.” So there we go. Masi’s email went on to assure Senators that, “if and when new courses or programs may be offered via this consortium for McGill credit, Senate will have an opportunity to discuss these issues again.”

It seems like the dense interplay of words and their meanings are a big part of the MOOC experience at McGill. When he was reminding Senators that they had already voted for MOOCs, Masi also wrote that his take-away from the MOOCs discussion in January was that “McGill should occupy the MOOCs space…deliberately.” It’s an interesting word, deliberately. As in the opposite of “accidentally,” which might be a description of how Senate came to vote on MOOCs back in October. Besides, Masi writes, MOOCs were implicitly recognized ten years ago, when Senate voted to allow the recording of lectures. “Modality of delivery” cannot be used to say that a course doesn’t meet McGill’s standards, Masi wrote.

In other words, Senate voted twice to approve MOOCs, in the administration’s mind. The first time they voted, MOOCs didn’t exist (ten years ago). The second time, they voted based on the words “McGill’s own MOOCs,” which weren’t actually a thing.

Responding to Senators’ concerns at the March 20 Senate meeting, Masi said that MOOCs have been discussed dozens of times, because ASAP has been discussed that many times. He also assured Senators that all issues that are truly academic (including specific courses) would be brought before Senate in the future.

So that’s how McGill (or some part of it) decided to get into MOOCs,.But what are we to make of MOOCs themselves? It’s still quite early in the MOOC epoch of higher education. All of the questions asked at Senate still await answers. It hasn’t been decided or announced yet whether or not McGill’s MOOCs would be available for credit, but it’s a possibility.

(Full disclosure: This is a cynic’s polemic on a particular and particularly important development at McGill and elsewhere. There have been far more optimistic assessments elsewhere in these and other pages.)

The chattering classes are certainly very excited. In January, New York Times columnist and high priest of chattering, Thomas Friedman, wrote that MOOCs were a “budding revolution.” Apparently not impressed with the actual revolution that’s been going on in Egypt over the past two years, Friedman fantasizes in his January column about how the revolutionary MOOC might change American foreign aid. “For relatively little money,” he writes, “the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator,” blah blah blah. Nevermind that there is a bricks and mortar university in Cairo that has been around for about 1,000 years. America will build an internet cafe with some MOOCs and presto, “revolution.”

As Friedman’s column reflects, much of the rhetoric coming from MOOC proponents is about accessibility. Higher education is not accessible enough, costs are rising everywhere, and a massively open online course solves this problem, goes the argument. MOOCs would make a place like McGill more accessible, but that’s based on the assumption that the sounds and images beaming out of computers in a MOOC would still be “McGill.” The jury is still out on this one, and probably will be until we get a better idea of our future with MOOCs. And by jury I mean students, faculty, and staff, who should be the only ones allowed to make judgments on these matters.

There are some very serious concerns being raised already. Through their union, professors at the University of California at Santa Cruz have asserted a claim for the intellectual property of their lectures, out of a fear that a MOOC consortium would use them to make money. The UC system is moving toward joining Udacity and Coursera, commercial enterprises, while McGill has joined edX, a non-profit started by MIT and Harvard, so the situation in California isn’t entirely analogous to McGill. Fundamental questions remain over what exactly MOOCs will mean for professors. They will be the ones producing the type of content that MOOCs advocates are so sure can be easily beamed to thousands around the world. Professors were certainly split on the issue at the Senate meeting I attended, and again at the January 23 meeting. These were the only two meetings where professors have had a chance to talk about MOOCs.
The dystopian vision – to which I am prone – is a future in which “McGill” is nothing more than a flag fluttering over an empty Arts building, next to some of the most expensive, high-tech, state of the art (read: least accessible) research labs around, while most of us students blink into computers along massive computer banks, or at home peering out of our blinds trying to remember what the wind smells like. The vision might be a bit alarmist, but back in 2005 who would have thought Facebook would be something that might get us passed over for a job, based on some red cup pics from high school? Certainly not most.

Here’s a sense of just how seismic the geeks are saying MOOCs will be for our conception of higher education: Clay Shirky, the New York University professor and New Media guru, has said that this early phase of MOOCs (into which McGill is diving head first) is the equivalent of Napster, and the traditional university, the music business. Remember Napster? Now compare that to iTunes, podcasts, and Mediafire. We know that McGill is seeking to cut costs wherever it can, and why would we pay someone, like a professor, to teach a course on Shakespeare year after year? Hamlet hasn’t changed, and the scholarship about Hamlet certainly doesn’t change on a year-by-year basis. So why should McGill waste money? McGill could just record the best lectures with a superstar professor and knock out five years of professor salary from its books. To be clear, this is not what has been proposed at McGill, but if this early crop of MOOCs is Napster (because university bosses are clearly following trend-setters like Shirky on this), the mind boggles to think of what these techno-beasts will look like in ten years.

We should all be concerned about a much scarier logic at work here, and it is this: when computers break, it’s relatively easy and cheap to fix them. When the fleshier machines that work on this campus malfunction (get sick, demand higher wages, or question how decisions get made) it’s very expensive, time-consuming, and simply inefficient for the administration to fix them. If the administration’s rhetoric during the MUNACA strike last year was any indication of how the grown-ups in James think about this place, it’s that misbehaviour like strikes cannot be allowed to disrupt the “business as usual” ethos of the McGill campus. Machines don’t put strain on the well-oiled functioning of a university the way human beings do. There will never be a situation in which we have to place a court injunction on a machine. Machines can’t organize and make demands. (At least they can’t for now; we’ve all seen Blade Runner.)

* * *

When Richard Brautigan was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology, he wrote a collection of poems called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” A stanza or two of the title poem is worth reprinting:

I like to think
(right now please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Think of your favourite experiences in university. I bet they don’t involve a computer screen. Mine involve human contact with professors and classmates, meandering conversations where it felt like breakthroughs in my thinking were being made. This cannot, and will not, be replaced by a MOOC. I want those experiences to be genuinely accessible, not a computerized machine-mediated version of them. The process by which McGill came to join a MOOC consortium leads me to believe – this is based on nearly four years of reporting on this institution – that the decision was made before Senate ever got a chance to say anything about it. The same people who are trying to make this place less accessible through their tuition hikes are telling us that – not asking us if – MOOCs will solve that problem for us. If that sounds strange to you, it is. Let us remain students and teachers, not users and content producers.