• October 21, 2014

A Truce on the Tech Front at San Jose State

A Truce Over Technology 1

Ramin Rahimian for The Chronicle

When they finally met to talk about blended learning and online instruction, Khosrow Ghadiri (left), an engineering lecturer at San Jose State U., and Peter Hadreas, a philosophy professor, agreed more often than not, to their surprise.

Peter J. Hadreas is tapping his knuckles on the desk again. He was a jazz pianist before he was a philosophy professor here, and it's hard to tell if the tapping is an unconscious tic or a rhetorical technique, but he does it every so often when he is focusing very hard on what he is saying and wants you to do the same.

"To have somebody in front of you whom you really believe is going to try to find the truth of things even if it goes against the group—to see somebody like that is as powerful as learning what ad hominem and half-fallacies are," he tells us. "I don't think the screen can do that."

He's talking about online education, of course—a high-profile issue here at the San Jose State University, where Mr. Hadreas is chair of the philosophy department. He says the web is great for transmitting information, but that the most important exchanges occur among humans face to face. Teaching philosophy, for example, is not just about plunging a bunch of data into another person's brain; it's also about empathy, spontaneity, and the sense of embarking—together, and in good faith—on the mission of learning. The key, in other words, is trust.

The man sitting across from Mr. Hadreas agrees. He's Khosrow Ghadiri, a part-time lecturer in electrical engineering here. He believes the web can help hammer home the bedrock concepts at the foundation of his discipline. But he still sees his presence in the classroom as essential for students.

"They need authoritative figures, so that when they ask the question they believe you," Mr. Ghadiri says.

Sometimes he'll overhear his teaching assistant give a perfect answer to a student's question, he adds. "But the students, they don't believe him. They verify it with me."

The two men share a laugh—which is odd, because they're supposedly enemies in the struggle for the soul of public higher education.

San Jose State has made itself the center of a national debate over what kind of role online teaching tools—particularly those developed by nonuniversity providers—should play in traditional classrooms. In the debate, Mr. Ghadiri and Mr. Hadreas have become notable for representing points of view that are opposed, if not actually exactly opposite. But months into San Jose State's high-profile experiments with massive open online courses and their cousins, blended courses, the two men have never met before this morning.

To be fair, I had been reporting on San Jose State for months without having met them either. So, on a sunny Monday in October, the three of us agree to meet in Mr. Ghadiri's classroom to find out what, if anything, we can learn face to face that had not been apparent from a distance.

As it turns out, no fisticuffs or hot-tempered exchanges take place. No one accuses the other of holding back higher education or driving it into a ditch. There's none of the overheated rhetoric typical of online comments, op-eds, and other forums for jousting over what higher education needs in this time of technological innovation and economic upheaval.

There's not, I learn, really very much disagreement at all.

Trust has been scant at San Jose State University over the past year. The Academic Senate, citing a lack of administrative openness and "extremely low morale," last week asked the chancellor of the California State University system to review governance at the university. Budget woes here have coincided with controversial experiments involving MOOCs that have drawn intense scrutiny from the media, faculty unions, and other observers.

"What I didn't hear as this was being talked about, by the president and just about everybody who is talking about the value of flipped classes, is how labor-intensive it is. They don't talk about that."

Online courses are nothing new at San Jose State, an institution of 31,000 students in the heart of Silicon Valley. But by last spring, Mr. Hadreas and his philosophy colleagues thought that the administration's enthusiasm for online education had gotten far ahead of the faculty's. They were also concerned about the company that the university's president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, was keeping. He had appeared at press conferences with the leaders of Udacity and edX, two major providers of massive open online courses, and had volunteered San Jose State to test whether online tools originally developed for MOOCs might help the university graduate more students at a lower cost, both to students and to the state.

"We must seek new ideas and approaches from other industry sectors and promote audacious thinking through carefully reviewing and adapting effective innovations," the president wrote in a report.

The idea of bringing MOOC materials into the curriculum struck the philosophy professors as more than audacious. So when their dean asked one associate professor to consider using edX materials from Michael Sandel, a Harvard University government professor, in one of the department's courses, Mr. Hadreas and his colleagues went on the offensive. They wrote an open letter, addressed to Mr. Sandel, that cast his MOOC as a Trojan horse and warned of "products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities."

The letter became a manifesto for the backlash against MOOCs. Mr. Hadreas says he wasn't the primary author, but as chair of the department he became the letter's public face. Shortly after it was published, Mr. Hadreas was singled out at a meeting of the University Council of Chairs and Directors. "They stood and applauded," he says.

Khosrow Ghadiri had none of Mr. Hadreas's concerns last fall when he started putting MOOC materials on his syllabus.

Back then, he was just another lecturer at San Jose State. That changed when he "flipped" his introductory course on circuits, incorporating video lectures and other materials developed by edX, the nonprofit provider of massive open online courses. The experiment—in which he assigned online lectures from edX as homework and used class time for quizzes and group work­—was an overwhelming success. Student pass rates were less than 60 percent in the two traditional sections of the circuits course. The pass rate in Mr. Ghadiri's section was 91 percent.

He soon became a beacon for technological experimentation at San Jose State. This spring, when President Qayoumi announced a new Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning, he tapped Mr. Ghadiri to help teach professors from other California State University campuses how to use edX materials in their own courses. Andrew Ng, one of the founders of the MOOC company Coursera says he is a "huge admirer" of Mr. Ghadiri, and has "learned a lot from him."

The philosophy professor and I meet in Mr. Ghadiri's classroom at about noon, just as the sun is burning away the last of the morning fog.

Mr. Hadreas is 68 years old, with tortoise-shell glasses and thinning, gray-white hair combed from the front of his scalp to the back. He comes off as shy and a bit guarded, but he speaks confidently in a resonant baritone.

We sit in the back, at one of many small tables that fill the classroom in lieu of individual desks. Mr. Ghadiri gives group quizzes at these tables at every class session. Group work is not just a cornerstone of the flipped-classroom model of teaching; it is also a characteristic of engineering work. "In industry, they are as a team—they are not individuals coming up with a circuit," he explains later. "So they are going to work as a team of three, so that they can figure out how to communicate with each other."

The homework was to watch videos, on the edX website, of professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lecturing on the day's lessons. After watching the videos, Mr. Ghadiri's students submitted forms rating each lesson on a four-point scale from easiest to hardest. Now, Mr. Ghadiri begins the class by going over the topics his students seemed to struggle with the most in a lecture of his own.

Mr. Ghadiri is tall, with a generous waistline and spectacles befitting a 62-year-old academic but the thick, obedient coiffeur of a younger man. He speaks slowly and emphatically, wrestling his Iranian accent through every sentence. He paces at the front of the classroom for about 25 minutes, talking through slides describing basic signals and unit step functions.

Then Mr. Ghadiri sends his teaching assistants around with the group quiz. A low din rises as the students turn their attention from the professor to one another. Mr. Ghadiri heads for the table in the back, and greets Mr. Hadreas with a warm handshake.

After the group quiz, he explains, the students will take individual quizzes to test their comprehension alone. Counting individual and group quizzes, the students will take 60 in-class assessments over the course of the semester. "Every single day, even if they don't watch the video, they come here each day and face that," says Mr. Ghadiri, pointing to the quiz sheet. "They cannot ignore it!"

The quizzes are an experiment—and, like most of the experiments Mr. Ghadiri is running in this class, they have nothing to do with MOOCs. He's using the video lectures from edX as a resource akin to a textbook, but he's also using a textbook—an electronic one, written by Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and the founder of edX, who is supplying electronic versions to Mr. Ghadiri free.

"We are not committed to the edX," he says. "But at least I want to be able to tell faculty: We did an experimentation, edX does this good, this one"—he points to a piece of hardware that his students are plugging into their laptops to simulate a circuit board—"this one does this good, textbook does this good. You choose. Pick and mix."

As for the quizzes and feedback forms, Mr. Ghadiri writes those himself. He corrects the quizzes and collates the data without help from edX. It's a lot of work. "Eighty hours a week," he says.

Peter Hadreas's eyes widen. Mr. Ghadiri repeats the figure twice for effect.

This, perhaps above all else, makes an impression on Mr. Hadreas. He knew Mr. Ghadiri's course was not supposed to curb labor costs the way proponents hope a MOOC would, with one professor presiding over a virtual classroom of thousands of students. But he thought the point of infusing a traditional course with online technology was to make it more cost-effective, and Mr. Ghadiri seemed to be doing more work than ever before.

The university says the savings from courses like Mr. Ghadiri's will come with the higher pass rates. At San Jose State, half the cost of putting a student through a course comes from tuition, and the rest is subsidized by the state. "Each time a student retakes a course, the student and taxpayers pay twice," says Pat Harris, a university spokeswoman.

At the same time, Mr. Ghadiri is putting almost all of his time and energy into this course.

"This is really what is eye-opening for me," says Mr. Hadreas, as Mr. Ghadiri ducks away briefly to help a student. "Because what I didn't hear as this was being talked about, by the president and just about everybody who is talking about the value of flipped classes, is how labor-intensive it is. They don't talk about that."

At a time when classrooms are becoming laboratories, when instructors are constantly collecting data about their students and using that information to refine their teaching, an 80-hour work week is the price Khosrow Ghadiri pays for his autonomy. He could, in theory, direct his students to edX's online quizzes, which are graded automatically. But he believes students won't be as energized, or motivated to persevere when stuck, without their classmates and professor there, in the room, to unstick them.

So he writes and grades all his own quizzes, and collects and collates feedback from his students on his own. But Mr. Ghadiri admits that this is not a sustainable system. Even he would run out of steam eventually.

This is where MOOC companies can help, says Andrew Ng.

Mr. Hadreas and I are sitting in Coursera's headquarters in Mountain View, not far from the San Jose State campus. If Mr. Ghadiri's classroom isn't the belly of the beast for Mr. Hadreas, then surely Mr. Ng's office is. Coursera, which is backed by tens of millions in venture capital, is the largest of the MOOC providers, and perhaps that's why it strikes the philosophy professor as the most sinister. "Frankly, several administrators have indicated that the one we don't want to work with is Coursera," he tells me later.

So Mr. Hadreas is surprised to find himself liking Mr. Ng very much.

The Coursera co-founder, who is also director of the artificial-intelligence laboratory at Stanford University, is about as nonthreatening as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs come. This, arguably, has been the key to Coursera's success in earning the trust of the many prestigious universities that have signed contracts with the company. Unlike the theatrical Sebastian Thrun, Mr. Ng's counterpart at Udacity, and the hyperactively on-message Mr. Agarwal at edX, Mr. Ng comes off as restrained and not particularly eager to impress.

Which is exactly what impresses Mr. Hadreas. At one point, Mr. Ng displays all the zeal of a doctor reading a patient his vitals as he enumerates what he believes Coursera does well, and what it does not. One thing it cannot do well, at least not yet, is create and assess students' noncognitive skills—their "capability in terms of teamwork, communication skills, ability to regulate their own anxiety and work through problems," says Mr. Ng. It is a moment that the philosophy professor finds particularly memorable. "His point of view was very honest," says Mr. Hadreas later, driving back toward San Jose. "That, I think, is what people pick up on: that this person is, actually, an honest man."

One thing Coursera can do well, according to Mr. Ng, is to supply professors with online course material, like videos and worksheets, while helping them collect and analyze student data.

The company has been focusing more and more on the services it can provide to professors running blended online courses like Mr. Ghadiri's. "Of course the vision is that the instructor should have pedagogical control," Mr. Ng says, "but if we provide more materials to them to use or not use as they please, that will allow them to reduce their workload."

"I think that creating more content for an instructor to use, so long as the pedagogical control is in the hands of the university or the instructor—it seems that can only be to the benefit of the faculty or the university," he continues. "Ultimately the control rests in the hands of the university."

He pauses a beat. "The university-slash-faculty."

At San Jose State, the administration and faculty are still sorting out the dynamics of control when it comes to online and blended courses.

The Academic Senate is considering a new policy that could give tenured and tenure-track faculty in each department veto power over any new contract with an outside entity to "deliver technology-intensive, hybrid, or online courses or programs," according to a draft provided to The Chronicle. The policy would also make clear that professor workloads related to such courses would accord with union standards, and that professors keep "the same control and ownership of the substantive and intellectual content of their hybrid and online course-related materials" that they already enjoy in their traditional courses. That measure will come up for a vote in December.

In the meantime, the university is trying to rebuild a sense of trust on campus that has diminished during a year of poor communication, acrimony, and fear. That process began last week, when the Academic Senate and President Qayoumi met face to face in a classroom on the second floor of the engineering building.

President Qayoumi delivered what was, by several accounts, an emotional, off-the-cuff speech, in which he endorsed the call for an independent review of governance at the university. That measure passed by an overwhelming margin.

Nobody knows what MOOCs—and the new companies and technologies that have come with them—will mean to traditional universities and the professors who teach there.

In the absence of that certainty, it appears that the battle lines will be drawn, for better or worse, along lines of trust. And the main difference between Mr. Hadreas and Mr. Ghadiri, it seems to me, is how much each trusts the San Jose State administration.

In their letter, Mr. Hadreas and his colleagues speculated that administrators want to use vendor-supplied online courses, MOOCs in particular, to "replace professors" with "glorified teaching assistants."

But Mr. Ghadiri reads nothing sinister into the president's push for technological experimentation on the campus. Online tools notwithstanding, he sees himself as more indispensable than ever. The flipped classroom simply would not work, he says, if his students were left in the care of teaching assistants—glorified or otherwise. Mr. Ghadiri admits he was taken aback in April when he read that Mr. Hadreas and his colleagues were not even willing to run an experiment to see if the edX video lectures worked in their classes. But he says he understands how philosophy is different from electrical engineering—that learning outcomes cannot be as easily measured, even at introductory levels. And he agrees unequivocally that professors should be in charge of what they let into their own classrooms.

Mr. Hadreas, meanwhile, praises Mr. Ghadiri's dedication to finding ways to be innovative on his own terms. "I really do respect the experimentation that you're doing, and all the work that you're putting into finding the best way to work it," he says, tapping the table emphatically with his knuckles. "It all seems very valuable."

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