On Heroism: Or, Why Academia Needs More Boldness

Batman and Superman are ready to fight the powers of evil…as soon as they finish their ice cream. Hey, we all have our priorities.

Superhero movies are all the rage these days. We enjoy escaping reality for a while to watch larger-than-life characters fight high-stakes battles for the survival of the planet, or the species, or the universe, or whatever. In these movies, we expect great things of our heroes. They conquer evil and vanquish vexing villains, sometimes with assistance, sometimes solo, but always because they’re good people, working for the forces of good. We know that, too, you see, and because we’re also good people, we cheer for the heroes as they risk everything to save us all. And in the end, the hero prevails, the day is saved, and we can all breath a sigh of relief as we exit the theater (or the couch) and return to our more mundane daily lives—planet, species, and universe (or whatever) all intact. We expect a lot from our heroes, yet all they ask in return is our support.

In higher education these days, it seems we need a hero or two. The pesky, pernicious powers of evil ed-tech are wearing away at our ability to function, to teach, and to rid the world of cheating and plagiarism once and for all. Yet for all the noise we generate about cheating and plagiarism, it seems the problem is getting worse, not better. It’s as though we’ve done nothing to address the problem.

The Academic Response to Ed-Tech

The natural reaction from folks in academia is to observe and criticize the changes and trends they see going on around them. It’s our job, isn’t it, to watch the world and help others think through what’s going on inside it.

Except in ed-tech, we sort of suck at that whole “helping others” business. Technology changes our teaching rapidly, made all the more true by the rapid and perpetual development cycle of apps and platforms. It seems all anyone does nowadays is update everything. The way something worked last week is different from how it works today. We have grown so accustomed to change that we expect to see it where we merely expect it, despite any supporting evidence. That might keep an entire army of technical writers employed, except does anyone ever read technical documentation any more? Not when YouTube exists. Someone else has already posted a video showing how to do things the new way.

The Need to Adapt

With technology changing all around us, we have yet to learn to be nimble and flexible. Our institutions and classes haven’t reshaped the ways in which we work and think and learn. We haven’t adapted to the new opportunities or challenges of tech. Of course, what we don’t talk about is how we rail against a platform or technology or approach as we go right ahead using it. Remember how angry we got at Twitter for being the bastion of entitled white dudes and a threat to women? Twitter didn’t change, and yet academics continue congregating there because it’s an effective means to stay in contact and stay informed. Or, it seems, to roast a colleague for taking a job opportunity.

Why should academics, known for being stodgy and with a demonstrable record of inflexibility, expect someone to switch from good to evil as easily as changing out his business cards? When Sean announced that he was moving from one institution to another, all hell broke loose. People reacted as though Sean would nearly overnight go from critiquing the ed-tech establishment to becoming part of the machinery. To switch sides and join a bastion of exploitation against which we’ve been railing all these years. People have reacted as though they expect him to abandon his principles. They act as though he plans to become an evil mastermind bolstering the position of an evil company. Mind you, this is a company which many of the critics claimed to know little to nothing about before this move. In short, people got angry with the person they’ve known and respected for years because they’ve read a couple headlines just now about some company and think it’ll never change.

Corporate Culture

To those who claim to think about ed-tech or pedagogy and have never heard of Course Hero: Shame on you. This behemoth has been around for a while, and many of our students knew about it long before we did. And anyone who has nodded sagely in disappointment about “cheating culture” in our schools without knowing about Course Hero has no idea what they’re nodding about. Anyone who designs courses or assignments, anyone who teaches general-education classes or using course shells designed by others without knowing about Course Hero has homework to do. There’s a black market of your material out there, granting broad access to the assignments we regularly issue. The site is a savior for students who don’t want to play along in a course that expects students to blindly go through the motions like so much grist in a mill.

Will Sean change the corporate culture? Will Course Hero suddenly become an ethical company and a bastion of true, self-motivated learning? Or will they build a resource for students that teachers would be proud to refer to? I doubt it. Sean is but one man with but a single oar; Course Hero is too large a cruise ship to reverse course with a little bit of drag off the keel.

Learning about, and then critiquing, the behemoth is exactly what thoughtful pedagogues should be doing. At the same time, we should be able to separate critiques of a corporation from attacks on the person newly joining it.

History Repeating?

We’ve seen this David-vs-Goliath scene before, with the same actor playing the hero’s role. Sean once held a position at Instructure, the company behind the venerable Canvas LMS. Just like his current move, Sean went there as the insider provocateur. His goal was to stir up dust, generate conversation, and provide an outlet for pedagogues to see themselves using Canvas. He did his job well. The Keep Learning blog gathered a following and a reputation, and Sean created a reputable—and respectable—face for Instructure.

But then he left. Keep Learning went offline. The work Sean did closed up and faded away as though a wound on the corporate skin.

I expect a similar story here. Sean will join the ranks of Course Hero. He will ask the challenging questions he’s promised to ask. He’ll generate meaningful discussion about the nature of education. He’ll emphasize the role we all play in helping students learn how to learn. And for a while, Course Hero will be at the tip of our tongues. They’ll get free advertising and free room and board inside our grey matter. And we’ll all know that one guy who, you know, maybe means that behemoth might not actually be quite as awful as we thought. Maybe? And then at some point Sean and Course Hero will go their separate ways, and the legacy Sean will leave behind will remind us once again that the work of critical digital pedagogy requires vigilance, diligence, compassion, and most importantly people.

On Reactions

Others have chosen to lash out against Sean’s decision. They feel betrayed because the face of DPL apparently abandoned his flock to join the ranks of the wicked. I choose instead to believe that people and companies rarely make drastic changes. Sean will do good work, and we’ll all be able to keep learning from him and the discussions he fosters. Course Hero will go on profiting off the donated labor of students and will continue to be a place where students think they can get around the work of learning. And we’ll all continue to bemoan the state of labor in academia via threads on Twitter.

In the meantime, I’m going to throw some popcorn in the microwave, sit back, and watch. I’ll watch folks who swear that education is all about people suddenly forsake their mantra because they believe a corporation will break the person they’ve held in highest regard for nearly a decade. I’ve known Sean through no fewer than five different places of employment. I also know, thanks in large part to the work of Audrey Watters, that ed-tech will not save us. It won’t save Sean, either. But heroes don’t need saving. Just support.