The American Academy

I am at the 2015 AAAS conference in San Jose with my wife, Natasha, to see for myself the decadent state of American biological science. Now that Putin has rehabilitated Lysenko — the traitor Sakharov would spin in his grave to hear it — there is no limit to our future. We attended the plenary lecture of one Daphne Koller, who is supposedly a “big cheese,” but I have not heard of her, as she has never received the Order of the Badge of Honor. Next to us was a young, American, red-haired scribbler with a laptop — doubtless some kind of junior graduate student — and despite the enormous screens with Koller’s image on them, I found myself looking over his shoulder to see what he was writing. To my horror, at the end of the lecture, I found that I had remembered every word he had written, but none of Koller’s lecture. To get it out of my mind, I am reproducing what he wrote in its entirety:

I’m at the plenary session with Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera, one of the two major MOOC companies. It’s a straight-on paean to the things, rosy beyond all belief, and even more rosy in 2015 than in 2012.

There are a few slight problems with MOOCs, which is one of the reasons there’s been almost no time allotted for questions.

MOOCs make it possible for only a few professors to teach hundreds of thousands of students; grading is taken care of either by computer (for most structured question types) or peer grading (for everything else.) Crowdsourcing, usually acquired for free, is used to accomplish most other tasks, such as translation of course material into multiple languages. Coursera’s investment is mainly in its computer infrastructure, including mobile apps and sophisticated analytics, and secondarily in the acquisition and filming of “talent” to teach its courses.

If indeed Coursera continues to grow, a few things will happen to its supporting ecosystem; like most colonialist enterprises, it pays little attention to the ecosystem that has made it possible. The academic enterprise, in my conception, consists of three things: preserving knowledge, transmitting knowledge, and extending knowledge. The only thing anyone understands needs to be paid for is transmitting knowledge: teaching and grading. In a world where only a few professors are teaching and where no one, adjunct or otherwise, is grading, the ecosystem will fail. There will be no more “star” professors to teach the MOOCs (or to do other research), there will be no graduate students or postdocs to follow along after them, and there will be few undergraduates, distance or otherwise, who will care to enter into such a tenuous enterprise as post-secondary education. We would need something like a “Farm Bill,” where, just as farmers are paid not to plant corn, professors, adjuncts, and graduate students are paid not to teach or to grade. Try getting that through a Tea Party Senate. Coursera parasitizes off the top of the existing academic system; its instructors have appointments at their own institutions, the names of the institutions are used to add prestige to Coursera’s courses’ certificates of completion, and the lure of the classes is that they are taught by conventionally, prestigiously educated people. When Coursera starts to “eat its own dog food” and feature premium classes taught by people possessing no credentials other than their own certificates, perhaps then they will begin to be in earnest.

But perhaps they are already doing this, in a sense. All non-objective grading in Coursera is done by groups of five peers. None of these students may know the right answer. It is entirely likely that a few of them will know the wrong answer, which they will transmit to their less-certain peers. This is why, in more conventional institutions, feedback is provided by people more knowledgable and experienced than the students themselves. Here, though, Coursera risks transmitting ignorance; what it gains, however, is that grading is not a cost center — at all. Ms. Koller, who, by the way, seems to have obtained every achievement and credential one could possibly have short of a Nobel Prize, was a little shy about admitting that Coursera hasn’t made any money yet. That day will come, and some very important part of the educational chain will very quickly become very expensive — likely after conventional instutions have fallen by the wayside.

But, in the audience, I could see people nodding. “Science has grant money for professors and postdocs. Teaching and grading are inconveniences. As long as we get grants, they’ll leave us alone, and perhaps we can make some extra money on the side by teaching one of these courses.” But an ecosystem is an ecosystem. The failure of one of its parts means the inevitable, wrenching alteration of the rest of its parts. They just don’t see it yet.