Archives for December 2013
Having been a professor for a while, I have learned the obvious: fads come and go in higher education. In some cases, a fad turns out to not be a fad—that is, it lodges in the system and becomes part of it. At this point, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be a fad. Within the academy, administrators and some faculty sing the praises of the MOOCs…at least until one starts asking for specific details. Then the song turns to whistling and a bit of hand waving, followed by a quick departure from the stage. Outside of the academy, MOOCs have also become a subject of buzz—there are those eager to use MOOCs as money siphons and others who delight in throwing around the term at every opportunity—ranging from motivational speeches to training sessions.
While there is a multiplicity of issues relating to MOOCs, one obvious point of concern is how the MOOCs are going to be monetized. That is, how will the MOOC companies make money in order to sustain the MOOCs and, perhaps, make a profit.
One of the biggest and best known MOOCers is EDX. This nonprofit is funded by MIT and Harvard, which puts it in a fairly good position in terms of money. Since EDX is a non-profit, it does not face the burden of generating a profit. Since it is backed by two academic powerhouses with considerable funding, it can rely on them for the cash needed to keep their MOOCs MOOCing. That said, EDX might not be able to rely on the funding indefinitely and even a non-profit needs cash flow to keep it in operation.
Other big MOOCers include the for-profit Coursera and Udacity. Unlike the non-profits MOOCers, they face a dual challenge: 1) having enough cash to stay in operation and 2) making a profit. For profit MOOCers are typically funded by venture capitalists who are gambling that the MOOCs will be MOMMs (Massive Online Money Makers).
One rather obvious challenge of monetizing the MOOCs is the “Open” in “Massive Open Online Courses.” For the most part, “Open” is taken to mean “free.” One obvious problem with a business model based on giving away the sole product for free is that free product does not, in general, result in much income. The obvious solution to the lack of income from being free is to make the product non-free. However, this would require changing how people see the “Open” in “Massive Open Online Courses” or changing “MOOC” to “MOC” (For “Massive Online Courses”).
If MOOCs become online paid classes, then they would need to offer services that people would be willing to pay for and they would need to compete with established alternatives (such as universities). This could be done by providing a better or cheaper product—or, as some for-profit colleges do, massive advertising and perhaps a bit of deceit.
Not surprisingly, the for-profit colleges do provide an excellent look into how to monetize a MOOC. The for-profit colleges have managed to tap into federal money quite effectively: in 2011 25% of all Department of Education financial aid money went to the for-profits. They have also tapped into Pell Grants and veteran’s educational benefits. No doubt the for-profit MOOCers will endeavor to follow the same tactics, only with the MOOC spin on the selling. MOOCers are already hard at work lobbying and have enjoyed considerable success, especially with certain governors. As such, student financial aid seems to be a likely source of money for well-connected MOOCers. Of course, this would just be the same as the for-profit colleges, only with massive classes. This might result in change in education from a small scale operation (in terms of class sizes) to what could be regarded as industrialized education: massive production via automation. Naturally, there are concerns about the quality and value of such massive courses—at least to those who are concerned about education.
MOOCers can also make money by selling their services to existing universities. Based on my own experience and a bit of research, many administrators and politicians are excited about using MOOCs to reduce the cost and increase the availability of public education (and funnel money to the right people). A university might fund MOOCs and allow students to take them for free (which would be the traditional MOOC) or they might offer MOOCs as they would offer an online course of their own—by charging students a fee. This might seem to be an odd approach for a university—like a sign shop hiring someone else to make their signs or McDonalds hiring a catering service to make the food they will sell. After all, universities already have people who create and teach classes, namely professors. Why not have university faculty create and run the MOOCs? The obvious answer is that faculty are often not “the right people” when it comes to who should be receiving the money.
Another approach, borrowed from the freemium games, is to provide the basic product for free and then make money charging people for extras. For example, a student might be able to take a class for free, but have to pay a fee to get a certificate proving that she passed the course. This would require offering courses where the certificate would mean something (or hoping that people will buy them to print to hang on their walls). As another example, the basic course could be free, but students would have to pay for extra tutoring or access to premium course material. Given the success of freemium games, this could be a viable option for the MOOCers—provided they can offer premium options that people will buy in quantities enough to sustain the MOOCer. One point of concern is, of course, that the freemium approach could run counter to one of the “selling” points of MOOCs, namely that they are supposed to open education up to the masses. If people have to shell out for premiums and these premiums are actually important or essential to the course, then the divide between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot will exist in the land of MOOCs—just as it does in traditional higher education. But, perhaps the premium content would still be far less than the cost of traditional education.
Whatever the approach, the MOOCers are going to need to monetize the MOOCs. This might result in the MOOCs ceasing to be MOOCs—that is, becoming just more online for-profit colleges (only with really big courses). Then again, maybe MOOCs will go the way of Friendster rather than becoming the Facebook of education.
Cheben at Paizo Store & DriveThruRPG
The good folks of Cheben have four problems they need solved. To start things off, the dead have been walking about in the old graveyard and scouts have reported seeing something else skulking around the old mausoleum. Good Father Rollin would go deal with them himself, but he is busy ministering to the spiritual needs of the community.
Second, goblins have been spotted near the old auxiliary armory and it is feared they might have set up a base of operations on the island. The militia would handle the problem, but the mayor worries that the goblins might be engaged in a ruse to lure away the defenders of the town.
Third, an area of woods near the town is permanently in shadow, no doubt due to magic of some sort. Two hunters have gone missing in the woods and others have reported siting strange creatures in the woods. The town wizard would deal with this, but he is busy with critical research, which leads to the final problem.
Kosven, the town wizard, needs some brave souls to investigate an old and abandoned library. The library has reputation for being haunted and no one in the town wants to face what lurks within its walls.
As usual, it is up to starting adventurers to solve the villagers’ problems. Or die trying.
Cheben is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 1st-3rd level characters.
Here are some of the features of the adventure:
- Detailed color maps for the adventure.
- Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
- New Monsters (Paper Phantom, Silent Guardian (Least), Rage Wolf, and Whip Plant).
- Retro Art (=Bad Art).
- A complete campaign starter adventure with four distinct adventure areas.
Available on Amazon
Available at DriveThruRPG
Available at the Paizo Store
See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
Kant & Sexbots
The Fox sci-fi buddy cop show Almost Human episode on sexbots inspired me to revisit the ethics of sexbots. While the advanced, human-like models of the show are still things of fiction, there is already considerable research and development devoted to creating sexbots. As such, it seems well worth considering the ethical issues involving sexbots real and fictional.
At this time, sexbots are clearly mere objects—while often made to look like humans, they do not have the qualities that would make them even person-like. As such, ethical concerns involving these sexbots would not involve concerns about wrongs done to such objects—presumably they cannot be wronged. One potentially interesting way to approach the matter of sexbots is to make use of Kant’s discussion of ethics and animals.
In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. They are mere objects. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them. Sexbots would, obviously, qualify as paradigm “objects of our inclinations.”
Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).
While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.
While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?
Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.
Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.
Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.
In the case of the current sexbots, they obviously lack any meaningful moral status of their own. They do not feel or think—they are mere machines that might happen to be made to look like a human. As such, they lack all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own.
Oddly enough, sexbots could be taken as being comparable to animals, at least as Kant sees them. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for sexbots. Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Perhaps this would also apply to sexbots. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to such objects. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether sexbots are more like animals or more like stones—at least in regards to the matter at hand.
If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog. This should also extend to sexbots. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a sexbot would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with a sexbot would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior. It is also worth considering that perhaps people should not engage in any behavior with sexbots—that having sex of any kind with a bot would be damaging to the person’s humanity.
Interestingly enough (or boringly enough), this sort of argument is often employed to argue against people watching pornography. The gist of such arguments is that viewing pornography can condition people (typically men) to behave badly in real life or at least have a negative impact on their character. If pornography can have this effect, then it seems reasonable to be concerned about the potential impact of sexbots on people. After all, pornography casts a person in a passive role viewing other people acting as sexual objects, while a sexbot allows a person to have sex with an actual sexual object.
Why Do Professors tend to be Liberal?
One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While there are obviously very conservative universities and conservative professors, this talking point has considerable truth behind it: professors in the United States do tend to be liberal.
Another common conservative talking point is that the academy is hostile to conservative ideas, conservative students and conservative professors. In support of this, people will point to vivid anecdotes or make vague assertions about the hostility of various allegedly dominant groups in academics, such as the feminists. There are also the usual vague claims about how professors are under the sway of Marxism.
This point does have some truth behind it in that there are anecdotes that are true, there are some groups that do consistently express hostility to certain conservative ideas, and some professors do embrace Marxism or, worse, analytical Marxism.
Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.
As to why professors are liberal, Gross expands on an idea developed earlier: typecasting. The general idea is that professors have been typecast as liberals and this has the effect of drawing liberals and deterring conservatives. A more common version of typecasting is gender based typecasting. For example, while men and women can serve equally well as nurses, the field of nursing is still dominated by women. One reason for this is the perception that nursing is a job for women. In the case of professors, the typecasting is that it is a job for liberals. The result is that 51% of professors are Democrats, 14% Republican and the rest independent (exact numbers will vary from year to year, but the proportions remain roughly the same).
It might be thought that the stereotyping is part of a liberal plot to keep the academy unappealing to conservatives. However, the lion’s share of the stereotyping has been done by conservative pundits—they are the ones who have been working hard to convince conservatives that professors are liberal and that conservatives are not welcome. Ironically, one reason that young conservatives do not go on to become professors is that conservative pundits have worked very hard to convey the message that professorships are for liberals.
While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.
One factor worth considering is that professors have to go through graduate school in order to get the degrees they need to be professors. While there are some exceptions, being a graduate student gives a person a limited, but quite real, taste of what it is like to be poor even when one is working extremely hard.
While it was quite some time ago, I recall getting my meager paycheck and trying to budget out my money. As I recall, at one point I was making $631 a month. $305 went to rent and I went without a phone, cable, or a car. Most of the rest was spent on food (rice puffs and Raman noodles) and I had to save some each month so I could buy my books. I did make some extra money as a professional writer—enough so I could add a bit of meat to my diet.
While I was not, obviously, in true poverty I did experience what it is like to try to get by with an extremely limited income and to live in cheap housing in bad neighborhoods. Even though I now have a much better salary, that taste of poverty has stuck with me. As such, when I hear about such matters as minimum wage and actual poverty, these are not such theoretical abstractions—I know what it is like to dig through my pockets in the hope of finding a few missed coins so I can avoid the shame of having to return items at the grocery store checkout. I know what it is like to try to stretch a tiny income to cover the bills.
I have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.
Another factor worth considering is that some (but obviously not all) professors are professors because they want to be educators. It is hardly shocking that such people would tend to accept views that are cast as liberal, such as being pro-education, being in favor of financial aid for students, being in favor of intellectual diversity and tolerance of ideas, favoring freedom of expression and thought, and so on. After all, these are views that mesh well with being an educator. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. After all, some people want to train others to be just like them—that is, to indoctrinate rather than educate. However, these people are not nearly as common as the conservative talking points would indicate. But, to be fair, they do exist and they perform a terrible disservice to the students and society. Even worse, they are sometimes considered great scholars by those who share their taste in Kool Aid.
Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas. After all, what rational person would knowingly support an ideology that is directly detrimental to her profession and livelihood?
Thus, what probably helps push professors (and educators) towards liberalism and against conservatism is the hostility expressed against professors and educators by certain very vocal pundits and politicians. Fox News, for example, is well known for its demonization of educators. This hostility also leads to direct action: education budgets have been cut by Tea Party and Republican legislatures and they have been actively hostile to public educational institutions (but rather friendly to the for-profits). As such, the conservative pundits who bash educators should not express shock our outrage when educators prefer liberalism over their conservatism. Naturally, if someone insults and attacks me repeatedly, they should hardly be surprised when I do not want to embrace their professed values.
It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.