Author: Jeffrey R. Young
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What’s life like after quitting a tenured job as a professor to become a freelance educator, making video courses and podcasts for a living?
That’s one question we had for Kevin deLaplante, who did just that when he left Iowa State University in 2015 to focus on running his Argument Ninja Podcast and teaching courses on his online Critical Thinker Academy, both aimed at bringing concepts from his scholarship to a popular audience.
One area he’s exploring these days is the rise of tribalism in U.S. politics and culture, and how that’s leading to polarization that is making it hard for us to talk to each other. He’s arguing for a new kind of “tribal literacy,” so we can better understand how humans are hard-wired to be drawn to certain tribal behaviors that, in too large a dose, can lead to trouble for societies. He says that, perhaps surprisingly, he has more time now and can explore the topic more broadly than when he was a traditional scholar.
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He made the move to his new phase of scholarly life during a rush of enthusiasm for so-called MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, that big-name colleges were starting to offer low-cost higher education to a wider audience. It looked like there was going to be a big realignment. But the big shiny revolution didn’t exactly happen.
So we also asked deLaplante what he thinks about the broader landscape of online education that he’s part of.
EdSurge: What got you started making online courses on your own?
deLaplante: I started creating videos as an extension of my classroom teaching—some version of the flipped classroom where you’re doing lectures all the time, you’re doing the same intros to this figure, or whatnot. You imagine: wouldn’t it be nice if I could have a version of that lecture recorded, and it’s a format that you like and then you could upload it on a web server so the students could look at it. Then you could switch up the kind of activities that you’re doing in your classroom time.
That means that the students then get to access that content asynchronously on their time. That was something that Khan Academy understood—the value for students to access content at their convenience in the environments in which they’re comfortable, and to be able to see the same lecture over and over again.
I think the broader reason why I was thinking along these lines was because I always had an interest in public education. When I started as an undergraduate student, I was a physics major and I became a philosophy of science student and then I went to graduate school to study philosophy of science. My heroes at the time were people like Carl Sagan. He was a well-known astronomer, but he was also using television and film and these other multimedia technologies effectively to communicate these big ideas to a broader audience. I really responded to that. I was thinking about cool ways of communicating these interesting philosophical and scientific ideas in a way that was accessible to the public and went beyond just writing books.
In 2015 you actually left your university job. What made you decide to leave and focus on these other activities.
The vision was partly to be mobile. My wife was never a fan of the town that we were living in when I was an academic. We were thinking about ways in which we could be portable and mobile, and that means really having a location-independent business from which we need to replace my salary.
The most positive jumping off moment was when I realized I’d made $30,000 in extra income in 2012 or something like that. That was a combination of speaking gigs that came not out of my academic work, but because of the videos I put on YouTube.
The first year I put my courses [on Udemy, an online course market], I had about 12 hours worth of content. I threw it all up there back in 2013. In the first month, I made $800 bucks.
So you have been doing this full-time for three years now. Is it sustainable? Did you pull it off?
I’m still here working from my basement in Ottawa.
Back in 2015 there was still excitement around Massive Open Online Courses and other online learning, and I’ll admit I was thinking more professors would break off on their own like you did. But other than a few unique stories, it’s not that common. What do you think about where things are now compared to that moment when you left as far as the landscape of this independent educator world?
One thing that happened is that the academic institutions all bought into online courses. Now they saw an audience that had to be served in order to [be competitive] for students.
But there has to be demand from educators and teachers who want to make this shift. It’s quite risky. It’s an unusual path, and there’s every social incentive [to stay on a campus] as you become socialized into academia.
You’re socialized not to think about going out on your own. You’re socialized to believe that research has to be done a certain way—this is the path. Once you deviate from that, once you start considering these alternatives, it’s not something that you share. When I was harboring these interests in alternative forms of education and possible career paths, I never told anyone in my department who I didn’t trust.
It was secret?
It was. It was in some ways an open secret. I could say, “Well, I’m working on these video courses as a supplement to my own teaching.” They certainly were supportive of that. You could take workshops on how to use audio and video. The institution was interested in faculty who were pursuing audio/visual projects. I actually took a bunch of those free courses.
As soon as you start talking about [going off on your own], it’s like, “Then you’re not serious. You’re not a serious academic anymore.”
I remember at the time talking to people secretly, and they’d be like, “Yeah. I’d love to do this.” They’re kind of privately envious of the idea of having the freedom to do these things. It was all kind of hush-hush. In that sense I think that the broader picture is that there’s these incentives to do things to maintain the status quo, even in an environment where the jobs are rare.
I also never thought that my moving to teaching online was some indictment of classroom teaching. I also never imagined it as a replacement for it. I still don’t. The difference between developing YouTube videos and stringing them in a sequence to provide a structured learning experience and actual teaching is night and day. It’s the same as the difference between buying a textbook on biology and going to a classroom where they teach the content in that textbook.
My video series … becomes like a multimedia textbook.
But aren’t there downsides of going solo? The fact that you have to get people to somehow sponsor you or your work, is that a negative influence on your research that you were protected from as a faculty member?
The commercial side of this proposition is going to keep some people away from it, for sure. If they recoil at that thought then they’re going to have a hard time, because there’s just no doubt that you have to think like an entrepreneur some fraction of the time in order to do this successfully.
Business and income cannot be bad words, and academics are very poorly socialized on this. There are a lot of mindset issues with academics who have never had to confront the economic realities of the institutions in which they work. It’s an interesting dynamic. I think if you’re an independent content creator, you do have to be careful about trying to chase audiences and do what you think audiences want as opposed to what you think is important, or what you’re good at. Just like any business.
In your podcast these days you are talking about “tribal literacy” and the growing polarization in the U.S. How worried are you about our level of functionality in our democracy?
I’m very worried.
I’m a philosopher of science by training. Back in the day I was a complex systems philosopher of science. I studied complex social and physical and biological systems. I think social polarization is a complex social phenomenon. It probably has a set of complex origins, like multi-scale, multifactor origins. Part of what I’ve been doing with my recent videos, and some of the stuff on the podcast, is trying to map out my understanding of the dimensions of this problem.
When I sketch out my next podcast episode, it looks like it’s the section of a book.
I’m not teaching in a classroom so I have the time to read stuff and do these projects. One of the misconceptions about this is that when you leave academia to do online teaching, you’re basically giving up research. It’s certainly not the case for me. In fact, I’ve probably written more and done more reading since I’ve been independent than I was doing as a paid academic.
So in a way I’m still trying to figure out the lesson or takeaway from deLaplante’s story. Is he the beginning of a new kind of public independent scholar? Or is this just a unique tale of someone with a rare mix of skills and interests willing to try this?
And if this is going to be some kind of trend, is that a good thing or a bad thing for higher ed and the broader society? Do we want a world where each scholar has to convince an audience of students to come study with them, and will that leader to broader access to education. Or is that a recipe for disaster, and do we need to fiercely protect these campus structures to give the structure to philosophers and other thinkers to thrive and explore whatever they want, no matter how popular their ideas are or not. Or can we have both?