MOOCs, Braindead Megaphones, the Golden Goose & the Artzt of Public Discussion


Talk loud and say something  (on-line title) Dopey Discourse Is All Too Prevalent (print title)

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:49 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

Recently I heard Karen Artzt, Ashbel Smith Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Texas at Austin, give a talk about some of her life’s work. She explained the process of searching for coding sequences in mammalian genomes and how the results help prevent physical defects from developing in young children.

Artzt was asked what new discoveries lie ahead. She took time to think and then said, “Progress in this field of research is saltatory.” She traced in the air with her index finger a research timeline marked by sudden steps upward.

In that moment, Artzt’s thoughtful command of language matched her mastery of science. Even those of us who abide by George Orwell’s rule to use plain English words whenever possible knew that the Latin-derived word saltatory — proceeding by leaps rather than gradually — was perfect.

Later, I wondered why Artzt’s reply struck us as so special. I think I now know why, and it is no trivial matter.

We are used to listening to what George Saunders calls “braindead megaphones,” presenters of information who, as the late godfather of soul and plain-speaker of many social and political truths, James Brown put it, practice the art of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.”

Artzt gave a direct answer. She did not pretend to know what she could not know. She did not preen as an expert in the spotlight. She told us the truth.

The truth is what James Brown learned growing up in the soul-destroying Jim Crow poverty of Barnwell, S.C. and Augusta, Ga. In his autobiography, Brown said that “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” was “aimed at the politicians who were running their mouths but had no knowledge of what life was like for a lot of people.”

Instead of straight talk and meaningful discussion, we get in the media and from our political, cultural and institutional leaders what Saunders calls “dopey communication.” Leaders have agenda to push and push fast. They short-circuit discussion and truly democratic deliberation. They speak to wide audiences who have little time to think over what is said and no opportunity to pose questions or counter arguments. Their language is vague, unclear, filled with jargon phrases and assertions unsupported by facts.

For example, UT Austin and the UT System have been mobilizing quickly to be major players in producing massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can be taken electronically by tens of thousands of students worldwide. UT President Bill Powers made a public statement in February, “Our faculty is enthusiastic about this frontier.”

This sounds good. But it is an assertion without proof. It requires that Powers knew that a solid majority of faculty members last February were very keen on the massive online course offerings. But he could not know that without a well-constructed anonymous survey taken after meaningful discussions with the general faculty in the many schools and programs across campus about the many pros and equally many cons of using MOOCs in higher education. It is savvier to claim faculty enthusiasm about a frontier. People used to braindead megaphones will believe it.

One reason to push ahead is that enthusiasts think there is lots of money to be made by developing and offering the MOOCs. Raising revenues is good, but only if we do not cause serious collateral harm to education.

No matter. The Institute for Transformational Learning was authorized by the UT System in August 2011 and established in 2012 “to leapfrog our current efforts” at blended and online learning. In other words, we are leaping right over wise broad-based deliberation.

The institute’s executive director Steven Mintz told the faculty council in March that the use of MOOCs “is the golden goose, and I want to support that goose.” But no one knows whether online courses will be the money-generator that Mintz imagines or the very fairy tale to which Mintz refers.

“The Golden Goose” is tale 64 in the Brothers Grimm collection. In it, all who greedily and without forethought try to pluck golden feathers from the golden goose become stuck to it and to each other. In the end they are thoroughly discomfited.

On MOOCs and other matters our university leaders should think carefully and make haste slowly. They should invite thought from the united faculty of experienced scholar-educators whose work is largely responsible for our ranking 25th among world universities in the latest “Times Higher Education” survey. They surely should know how to tell a golden goose from a goose that will lay a golden egg or no egg at all.

Palaima is a classics professor at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin.

One thought on “MOOCs, Braindead Megaphones, the Golden Goose & the Artzt of Public Discussion

  1. The following comments have come in:

    1. FROM: Ken Ashworth, former vice chancellor for academic affairs at the UT System and a commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. See: :

    Hurray for you for speaking up on this. For years I questioned the wisdom of long-distance learning to accrediting bodies and the federal government to no avail and only made enemies of those eager (purely on the basis of promoting a theory with no substantive proof and many failures en route) to push ahead without campus discussions beyond those on the entrepreneurial fringes, and to my knowledge never involving significant and thoughtful faculty members. I kept trying to get a dialogue started on serious considerations and to look at the downside of such efforts, but only got invited to conferences promoting the idea so they could have a target to ridicule for being so “old-hat” and conventional. Lately there has been little interest in this except among administrators; rarely are faculty even consulted. The president at NYU (written up recently in the New Yorker) is an example of over-reaching without faculty input on this – as well as on other academic matters.

    When Bush was still governor there was an effort to get Texas to join the governors of Utah and Colorado to create a Virtual University so the burden of state costs for more higher education could be avoided through off-campus and computer teaching. I wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “A Virtual University may Result in Virtual Learning” and got in trouble with Bush’s educational adviser, Margaret Lamontagne (later Spellings), who also was furious at me for not allowing Phoenix University of open campuses in Texas. She later became his Secretary of Education. That figures doesn’t it?

    And now the administration of A&M (not the main campus even, but from the Chancellor from the A&M System level) is planning a “Peace University” in Israel to deliver degrees there from A&M, again without faculty consultation or answers to funding or approval from the Coordinating Board. The school’s conservatism is touted as the perfect match for Israel. And the school also has a faculty beaten into submission on so many things that they probably will remain quiescent on this as well.

    Keep after this. If the idea of MOOCs had any merit, then this should be determined by faculty and not by administrators and the ‘bucksters’.

    3. Al Martinich, Roy Allison Vaughan Centennial Professor in Philosophy Department of Philosophy, UT Austin

    Professors who are developing online courses should at least think about the likelihood that universities will not be replacing all the professors who leave the university with new professors. What primarily drives the online revolution is that “lots of money [is] to be made by developing and offering the MOOCs.” As online enrollment increases, fewer professors will be needed.

    For our society the decline in liberal arts professors in part means that fewer people will be devoting serious study to the things that make a culture great–not wealth–but history, literature, languages, and philosophy. My guess is that online students will be less likely to continue these studies when they go offline.

    3. Robert Drews, Vanderbilt University: I suspect that the MOOCS will take over because they are efficient, but they will depersonalize education far beyond the auditorium-sized classes that we have long known.

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