Laura Gibbs

Mega-Post about Excellent Book: Education is Not an App

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Jun 3, 2017

So, tomorrow is a big day for me: I'm going to the Domains17 conference in Oklahoma City, where I will get to meet in person a LOT of long-time online friends, as well as reconnecting with many people I have not seen in years. Naturally I gave myself a homework assignment to gear up for the event (an open-ended, un-graded homework assignment, ha ha). From the conference program I learned that Jonathon Poritz is attending (and presenting!), and I am pretty sure Jonathan Rees said he was going to be there also... so that was a perfect excuse to re-read their wonderful book:


The Book: Education Is Not an App: The future of university teaching in the Internet age (Economics in the Real World) by Jonathan A. Poritz and Jonathan Rees


education is not an app book cover


Reading the book this time around, I think I appreciated it even more because I knew right from the start that their emphasis is consistently on the positive actions we CAN take as faculty, even in the gloomy economic and political contexts in which we work (even more so now in Trump times). So, in brief, here are my thoughts; it's tl;dr I know, but honestly it was so hard to keep myself from transcribing even more thought-provoking quotes. Anyway, here goes...




The theme of the book is CONTROL: "who will ultimately control those technologies moving forward: faculty, administrators, or the companies that profit from the sale and use of those technologies." ... I would add students to that list also; one of my big goals as I teach my online classes is using tools side by side with the students and encouraging them to use tools that they choose, based on their own goals and priorities as users of technology, including technology that is part of their education. That is a theme the authors address later too. :-)


And I really like how the idea of control relates to the app-versus-program theme (as already in the title of the book) sets up a really important contrast: "the word app exists solely to draw the distinction between two kinds of software: plain old programs, which presumably try to turn the power of that universal Turing machine in your pocket or on your desk into a tool that you control, and apps, which exist in a controlled and monitored environment and should not be expected to be free to do your bidding. Apps are the serfs of the society of computer programs. [...] This is not what we do in higher education; seek constrained truth for the advantage of specific powers that be. It is not something we should allow edtech in service of higher education to do either." 


Wow. There is so much that resonates with me here (esp. as a teacher of WRITING), and it also gets at what I am so resistant to the mobile-first approach to ed tech insofar as mobile is very much the domain of the apps. Yes, it's a loose metaphor... but a very powerful one, and they are able to make good use of it throughout the book.


I am also relieved that this book, slim though it is, tries to weave the themes of the adjunctification and defunding of public higher education in with the theme of ed tech's emergence over the past 25 years; my academic career has coincided with that trifecta: I work as an adjunct at a public university (same university since 1999)... and I very much value the Internet and its possibilities as having given me the opportunity to do good work DESPITE the fiscal and political climate. So, yes, I love the Internet (the free, open Internet), and that has been my ed tech space of choice. Unfortunately, ed tech has often gone in the opposite direction of the Internet (and on that, see the great FLOSS chapter below).


So, in short, I agree totally with this expressed goal: "We believe that every student, in person or online, deserves a caring teacher committed to their personal achievement in higher education" ... and I also share the authors' dismay at faculty who have not taken it upon themselves to stay informed about ed tech issues and to speak out about them: "too many professors have responded to this kind of expensive technological utopianism by deferring to administrative initiatives no matter how unwise they happen to be." 


Sad to say, I've definitely seen that at my school. For example, in investigating our MOOC-for-pay venture with History Channel (my thoughts on that subject here), a reporter for Inside Higher Ed found it hard to get faculty to speak on the record about what was happening. Now, just a couple of years later, the History Channel venture seems to have disappeared from the scene entirely. We failed to have a real debate about it at the time, and by sweeping it under the rug afterwards, we are missing out once again by failing to explore what happened in order to learn from those mistakes in order to do better (one hopes) next time. We all need to keep on learning, and an open, honest, well-informed public discussion needs to be part of that learning process IMO.


2 Online Education


The economic context here is the university budget and the ways in which schools try to use online courses to reduce costs, and likewise big lecture courses; there are so many parallels between the impersonal format of big lecture courses and the impersonal format of online courses when conceived as a cost-cutting initiative. And the theme of faculty voice emerges clearly here too: "One of the many reasons why online education saves money for schools is that they can farm those classes out to poorly paid adjuncts who must remain voiceless to keep their jobs."


One of the themes that the authors missed in this chapter is the bizarre practice of charging ADDITIONAL fees for online courses, which anecdotally I've heard happens at many schools. At my school, the original online course fee (penalty) was $25/credit-hour in 2002, and now it is up to $40/credit-hour, a 60% increase that is nearly double the rate of inflation (38%) over that same time period. Where does the money go? I have no idea; it certainly does not go for the salaries of online instructors. My salary has gone up a grand total of 7% over that same time period, far less than inflation. But hey, at least I have a job, a full-time job with benefits, far better than the kinds of adjuncting that the authors document in this book and which has been abundantly documented even in the mainstream media over the past few years (at last).


My favorite part of this chapter was at the end, where the authors write about the huge opportunity costs as funding is poured into top-down ed tech initiatives instead of actual technology that faculty and students would choose to use if they had more control: "Think of the money that would be saved on expensive licensing contracts for learning management systems with non-essential features added to make them seem more attractive [...] which most faculty members don't even use. Think of the improvements i[...] if faculty members could focus on technologies that help them teach rather than those that can be used to track their every interaction with their students. Think of the exciting skills the students will learn." 


Exactly! I am very glad that, unlike other instructors, I have had the freedom to build my classes focused on the technologies I choose and that my students choose, rather than being confined to the LMS.




I almost skipped reading this chapter because it is an extremely depressing topic for me. My school is one of many that spent millions of dollars on a MOOC (mis)adventure. If you were fortunate enough to have slept through the whole rise, decline, and fall of the MOOC empire, you can use this chapter to see what you missed. My favorite quote from the chapter was this: "What professors should fear is not the MOOCs themselves, but the kind of university governance that makes this kind of abuse possible."


And again, it comes down to voice and the imperative need for those of us with expertise and experience to speak out: "That's why every professor, online or in-person, needs to make it abundantly clear to their employer, their students, and the general public what they bring to the table when they're doing their job. That list should include knowledge, experience, insight, and inspiration — among other traits. Faculty can win this debate as long as they explain how their industry can still use technology to benefit students without becoming automated."


And I have to say kudos to Jonathan Rees (one of the two Jonathan authors here) for the way he used his blog to speak out about MOOCs over the years; you can see his blog here: More or Less Bunk.


4 Free/Libre/Open-Source Ed Tech


This is my favorite chapter of the book. It is super-informative about copyright and openness, and it features a brilliant convergence between that kind of freedom and what we call academic freedom: "any piece of nonfree software used at a university is a failure of academic freedom simply waiting to happen, waiting for the first truly innovative teacher or researcher."


I'm not going to try to summarize all the topics covered here: just read it! I learned a lot I did not know before, and I also really appreciated the clarity of the presentation which helped me to see connections I had never thought about before either.


And this chapter also features one of my favorite Latin mottos: sapere aude, dare to know. For which there is a cat of course:



sapere aude


5 Unbundling


This chapter presents some big questions to which there are not easy answers, both in terms of course content and authorship/ownership, and also in terms of higher ed curriculum and degrees. For more about textbooks, see the later chapter on open access and Creative Commons licensing.


What is clear is that automation is not the answer, and, like the MOOC chapter, this chapter has some really good observations about the dangers of automated grading and the drift towards quantifiable learning where content knowledge trumps critical thinking and creativity: "By limiting the contact between students and their instructor, unbundled classes have to focus on how much content a student remembers rather than the kinds of skills that they develop. Anyone who really cares about teaching should consider that outcome shameful."


And, I love this counterpoint to the people who keep insisting that somehow the mind-numbing simplicity of an LMS is a virtue: "Real life is chaotic. The World Wide Web is chaotic. Innovative online instructors can teach practical web skills along with their original disciplines as long as they have enough control over the design of their classes."


Thank goodness that for all the years I have taught online I have had that freedom, and I have made good use of it semester after semester.


6 Electronic Taylorism


This one is right up there with the FLOSS chapter as being my favorite. I had heard of Taylorism before, but I learned a lot that is new here, and the shift from craft production to mass productive is a really helpful way to understand the deskilling of teachers AND the deskilling of students, turning potential craftsmen into cogs in a machine. As a teacher, I see myself as practicing a craft (the craft of teaching), and I also see myself teaching a craft: I teach writing, and my goal is for students to see themselves as writers, as word-crafters, becoming skilled and confident in their use of the written word.


This also the chapter in which the authors tackle the problem of the LMS (plus, even worse: automated homework systems), and of course I have to note here the irony of writing about this book at an online community sponsored by Canvas/Instructure. That deserves a blog post of its own but, suffice to say, my favorite thing about Canvas is actually this community and the way that Instructure devotes real resources to this community where we can all speak out and share our ideas; I just wish we had such an open and lively online forum about educational technology at my school! 


The authors rightly point out that automation does not work for "an industry where the autonomy and agency of the works is an essential ingredient of their labor" ... and, I would add, the same is true for students: in my classes, student autonomy and agency are key ingredients in the overall success of the class. I want academic freedom for myself, and I want it for my students too. The authors emphasize this key argument in their concluding chapter also (see below).


I would also endorse their modest proposal about academic IT support being part of the faculty; right now, few of the instructional designers at my school are teaching on a regular basis. I am sure we would all benefit if teaching were an essential part of their job, at least one actual class per year and, ideally, per semester.


And my favorite takeaway from this chapter is about best practices and how they are part of the Taylorism tradition. Now, when I next run into someone invoking "best practices," I will be able to launch into an informative rant about educational Taylorism: "These are covert attempts (perhaps entirely unconsciously) to deskill the faculty, to set up systems of education into which any warm body can be inserted in the role of professor, no matter how little knowledge, experience, or insight they have." Exactly because the pernicious implications of "best practices" are often beneath the surface, it's even more important for us to call them out!


7 Social Media


Given the emphasis that the authors put on faculty speaking out, they also need to attend to the protections faculty might expect and the risks that they face, and the focus of this chapter is on faculty use of social media; that's what this chapter is mostly about.


For me, the more important use of social media is as a way to connect my class to a larger context (esp. a global context), and also as a way to escape from the trap of disposable assignments by using blogs and creating their own websites. I definitely prefer that world of blogs and websites to the world of Twitter, although if I were not teaching writing, I might find myself gravitating towards Twitter and microblogging as opposed to the prodigious writing students currently do for my classes.


Anyway, this chapter resonated less for me since it did not address some of the main social media issue that I am always wrestling with, which is how to bring my classes out into the open Internet while also making sure that my students are going to have a high-quality learning experience in that open space. Long story short: YES, it is possible to make it work. :-)


8 The Zero-Marginal-Cost Education


This chapter returns to the economic themes of the open chapters, and it picks up on the theme of copyright/copyleft with a detailed discussion this time around of open access and Creative Commons licensing, along with open textbooks. And I eagerly await the day when this vision comes to pass: "All that is missing before open textbooks become the dominant, widespread standard — aside from changing the neoliberal mindset we mentioned above — is a public archive of open textbook chapters and sections under CC license, with a small amount of software to help put together these fragments into an official-looking book."


In the context of the LMS, I should note that Canvas (unlike D2L, which we used for 10 years at my school) allows you to create fully open courses, with Creative Commons licensing as set by the instructor. At least, that is how it is set up at my school. As I've learned from participating in the Canvas Community, there is a whole range of ways that institutions configure their Canvas systems, ranging from options that give lots of control to faculty (thankfully, that is the case at my school) to options in which faculty have much less control over their course design and content.


As the authors invoke at the end of this chapter: "Information wants to be free." I agree! And since my school is already charging my students a fee/penalty just for taking my courses online (see above), I feel even more obligated to make the course materials available to them for free — and that is the "free beer" sense of free. :-)


9 Conclusion


This chapter is so encouraging and inspiring that I really don't even know what quotes to pull, but since the authors chose to put this in bold italics, I will do so likewise: Every real student deserves individual attention from, and interaction with, a real teacher.


And while the earlier chapters focused largely on faculty and their working conditions, this chapter shows how that ultimately brings us back around to student learning, again with bold italics: Professors' working conditions are their students' learning conditions; professors without autonomy and agency cannot teach those characteristics.


That, to me, is the key: I need autonomy and agency so that my students can enjoy the same.


Juxtaposed to autonomy and agency is the pernicious business of marketing, which the authors also address as a technology issue in this chapter: "the Internet has become an avenue for administration, staff, and governing boards to seize greater control of every aspect of university life. Because of a culture which expects websites only to be concerned with marketing, universities think that they need to have 'consistent branding'". This is very much the case at my campus, and, to take just one example, our MOOC misadventure was primarily a marketing experiment, with responsibility for evaluating the success of our MOOCs being handed over to the web marketing group, not to academic faculty.


I think it is ultimately reassuring that these problems are not as new as we might think, and one of the most profound connections in the whole book I think is this one about Taylorism and academic freedom: "We have seen how the advancement of a Taylorist agenda and its necessary deskilling was such an existential threat to the creative and educational missions of higher education that the whole concept of academic freedom had to be invented as a defense."


Wow. I had never really stopped to ask myself about the historical circumstances that led to the formulation of the principle of academic freedom, and I am really struck by how completely relevant that context is to the dangers we face today.


So, there is lots to ponder here, and you can also take a look at Jonathans' Laws (yes, apostrophe is CORRECT: the Laws of the Two Jonathans) which provide a handy summary of all the foregoing:


(1) Every real student deserves individual attention from, and interaction with, a real teacher.

(2) Professors’ working conditions are their students’ learning conditions: professors without autonomy and agency cannot teach those characteristics.

(3) Your university is not broke: The root causes of IT decisions are ideological and political, not economic.

(4) Edtech wants to be free. FLOSS is the best way to build that freedom.

(5) It is the responsibility of the academic faculty to keep current on technological developments, no matter how far outside their comfort zone such learning may be.


And hey, I have a cat for learning about technology of course; it was inspired by Laura Ritchie's book, Fostering Self-Efficacy in Higher Education Students (2015). What Laura Ritchie says here about students works for faculty too: "By taking responsibility, having purpose, and believing in their actions, students ultimately will be in a position to shape the technologies they use, instead of allowing technology to shape them. Without this outlook, the empowerment of having information at students' fingertips is false, as they are not being empowered to creatively use their own agency."


I shape the technology; it does not shape me.


Okay: my bag is packed, my homework is done......... I am so ready to go to Domains17. 


Hopefully I will have some awesome stuff to blog about here as a result. :-)