Tressie McMillan Cottom on Coding Schools and the Sociology of Social Media
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist and educator whose work focuses on higher education, inequality, and the ways in which changing economic dynamics create new kinds of learning and credentialing.
We sat down with Tressie to discuss the role of technology and social media platforms in her educational work and sociological research, and the similarities between the recent phenomena of coding bootcamps and traditional for-profit technical colleges.
The Online Classroom
I wanted to start by asking you about Twitter. How do you use Twitter and other social media platforms as pedagogical tools?
It's an interesting question, because the answer is going to be different depending on when you ask it. Twitter in 2010 would be different as a pedagogical tool than in 2017. And that's true for all of the platforms. All of these platforms have the potential to be pedagogical tools—but we’ll always love the platforms way more than they love us. I think a lot about how Google doesn't really care about Google Scholar, but scholars live and die for Google Scholar.
You've got a robust community of academics on every social media site. Twitter is probably the most active, but I can usually find a group on everything: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. We're trying to figure out how our students are using those tools, but also how we can use them to democratize education. The platforms themselves don't care at all that we're using them that way—and that's why there is this constant tension.
To do it well, you've got to be totally immersed in the platform, because they change so frequently. And even minor changes to how the platform is designed can totally upend how you use it as a pedagogical tool. For example, changes to how replies and quoting works on Twitter will totally change how we use hashtags for classroom conversation.
What was the change there, and how did it shift your practice?
Hundreds of us use hashtags to do real-time online collaborative classrooms on Twitter. Changes to the design of tweet threading changed the way you can conduct these exchanges.
About three or four months ago, in an effort to get rid of Twitter “canoes,” they removed usernames as part of the text count for the tweet. This is probably a good thing for the general user of Twitter. But for a person who is using it to deliberately build some boundaries around the tweets for their students' safety, it actually made it harder.
When I have students who want to respond to me on Twitter, I now have to do a whole lot more teaching about how they can do that safely and responsibly—especially given the kind of stuff I teach about. I don't want my students trying to debate something like race or gender in the public domain, because there's a huge coordinated troll community looking for that kind of content so they can attack people.
The way the names are collapsed in the tweet structure now makes it much harder for my students to figure out if they're participating in a hashtag safely, and if they're talking to who they mean to be talking to. Small changes like that are always happening, and it can change how you use Twitter pedagogically.
But I obviously still think it's worth it. Even considering how much coarser and meaner those spaces have gotten—they're still worth it.
You use social media not only as a teaching tool, but as a way to conduct research. One of the things I loved in your book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy was your discussion of reaching out to digital communities, like the Sisters Working to Achieve Greatness (SWAG) group on Facebook—the “Swaggers,” as they called themselves—for African-American women enrolled in for-profit online education programs.
I’m curious about these groups and the role that they play in your work. When did you start using social media for research?
I'm a black woman, using social media like lots of other black women do. But because the things I study impact black women significantly, I get to see them unfold in real time around me on social media.
There was a two-year stretch where something like 60 percent of the ads that I was seeing on Facebook were for the University of Phoenix. And that's absolutely targeted at me—I knew that white men weren't seeing as many of those ads. So I started thinking about why that was.
One of the greatest tools you have as a sociologist, and especially as an ethnographer, is to discover data that other people couldn't because of who they are. I would have a very different experience of ads for educational products on Facebook as a white middle-class man. Because your online life doesn’t just reflect your natural interests, but something bigger. Our social networks are shaped as much by things like class and gender and race as they are by our personal interests.
I ended up in the Swaggers group not because of my research, but again, because of who I was. Somebody invited and added me to the group because I was a black woman in graduate school—so they assumed that I was attending an online or for-profit graduate program.
How did seeing these ads shape your research and your thinking about your work?
If people are in an online space, it's usually because that space is serving a purpose for them. The first thing for me to figure out was what that Facebook group was giving these women that their school wasn't. They created a community around the fact that they were outside the traditional academic norms—and they knew it.
I came to think of the group as the student lounge of online schools. Online schools can replicate the classroom space to a certain extent. But what they do a really bad job doing is the other important part of school: the social part. We don't know how to do social online when it comes to education. Which is weird, right, given all of the social media people have? But we have not figured out how to give that social experience to students online—and some students need it more than others.
The whole point of going to an elite school when you're not elite is so you can make friends that will change your life—they even put it in the pamphlet. The students in the Swaggers group were trying to do the same thing. They were hacking the inequalities of education using social media. They were hacking their educational spaces to make up for the deficiencies of their programs.
And I thought that deserved a respectful sort of attention. We don't typically think of women, especially women of color, as having that kind of agency. We don't talk about women of color creating their own online spaces, and hacking technology to make it work for us—even though we do it all the time.
Before, you were talking about how certain subjects of conversation might make your students a target of online trolls. Are there ways that your students have hacked platforms like Twitter or Tumblr to create a safe space for their conversations?
Yeah, it's tough and an ongoing issue.
I’m currently building a master's program in digital sociology, and one of the first things I did was put the curriculum online. And immediately I was like, “Oh, no, that's not gonna work.”
In my class I say words like “racism” eighty times a day, and in grad school you forget that this does not typically happen in polite conversation. In my world, it’s nothing for me to say something is sexist and racist. But in the regular world, these are hot-button issues. I can’t have my students grappling directly with these topics in public, because they are attached to the institution, which makes them much easier to doxx. We’re a public institution, so all you need is a username and you can reverse engineer who they are.
We've thought a lot about what to do about this. Some of the ideas have come from the students themselves. We previously had a “real name” policy, and we changed it to let students use aliases. That provided a bit of a buffer.
We also shifted to no longer conducting the tougher discussions in public. Now the public space is more about the students interacting with a lecture or talking with an expert. We hope that gives them more of a buffer, because any attack will generally be directed at the professor as opposed to the student. It’s my job to be there to take the heat for them.
Do the students use these strategies in other parts of their online lives?
These are kids who grew up with nanny cams, GPS on their phones—they are so intimately aware, and sometimes scarily comfortable with, how much they're being surveilled. They are deeply aware of the fact that they are always being watched—which is so interesting to me. And they’ve developed all kinds of hacks to protect certain parts of their privacy.
They have the social media profiles that their parents know about, and then they have what they call their real or “backstage” accounts. Once you get to know them, they'll say things like, “Oh, the first time I gave you my professional Twitter account. Do you want my real Twitter account now?” “Oh, you want me to use my real Instagram, or my ‘Gram-gram’?”
They do all of that without thinking. For the class, our challenge was being really deliberate about saying, “No, we want you to keep your personal social media space. But let's create this professional avatar for you to use on social media when you're in class”—and we know those are different things.
It has caused us to rethink everything. I'm older than they are, and for me, my professional account is my account. I don't have split accounts, and I find that most people in my age group are the same way. So I’m learning from them as much as vice versa. The younger students know this stuff naturally and intuitively.
Have you seen doxxing and trolling increase over time, or become more frequent as certain changes in the platforms happen? Or has it been pretty constant?
There are peaks and valleys. In 2010, when you said something stupid or somebody was shaming you online, there would be a huge storm, with a pretty obvious tail. The first hour was the worst, you would peak at hour four, and then it would start to trail off. By the third or fourth day, you knew could come back to your account.
What has changed is not only the architecture and design of the platform, but the impact of highly financed outrage machinery. That's the thing we didn't have ten years ago—we didn't have right-wing sites like Infowars. That's changed the scale and the life course of the attacks.
Now something can happen to you on Tuesday, and it looks like it dies out by Thursday, so you think you can get back to your regular social media use. Then one of these outrage machines—either algorithmically driven, or a network of people who trawl for this kind of stuff—revisits your content two weeks later, and you're right back in the cycle again. It starts to feel never-ending, because there's no natural conclusion to a conflict. I think that's why so many people are retreating from these platforms.
The Rise of the Code School
In Lower Ed, you discuss the current landscape of technology education. In my experience, people typically don’t think of coding bootcamps as for-profit colleges, even if they recognize them as for-profit institutions. How do these camps fit into the world of for-profit education, and into the economy more broadly?
In my book, I talk about the “Wall Street era” of for-profit college expansion that began in the mid-1990s. Well, that’s also when the current coding bootcamp moment began, because of Y2K.
The Y2K crisis started heating up around 1997. There was this widespread coding error related to calendar data that people feared would break computer systems in 2000—so you needed a mass army of workers to go out and fix it. The question was: who was going to reprogram all of these systems?
So you saw an explosion of short-term training schools for A+ certificates, an entry-level IT certification, or the C++ programming language. In fact, many of those schools were the precursors for the growth of for-profit colleges.
Today’s coding bootcamps are effectively the exact same thing: they are the short-term training solution that gets created when a quick, unpredictable demand for workers arises in this one sector of the economy. Colleges aren't set up to do on-demand short-term training. Community colleges are, theoretically, but they need more lead time to develop a curriculum.
So it's come full circle twenty years later. Bootcamps and for-profit colleges come from the same era, and serve the same purpose. And the challenge for them is the same challenge they faced in the 1990s. There's a very small pool of academically well-prepared, financially well to-do students who can afford to pay for this training and who can benefit from it. If you want to expand beyond that very small pool of people, you only have a couple of directions you can go in. You can raise the price to offer better instruction—which is what students will need if they're not entering the school already academically well-prepared. But if you do that, you gotta figure out a way for them to get a student loan to pay for it.
If bootcamps don't solve those problems, they can’t survive. We’ve seen that with the recent closure of a major bootcamp company, Dev Bootcamp. They said, "We never figured out our business model." Well, yeah: your business model is broken because people don't have money. You can't solve that problem unless you get into the federal student aid system—and if you do that, you're just a hop, skip, and a jump away from being the University of Phoenix.
What about technical colleges that offer technology degrees? What sorts of things to they teach? What do they purport to prepare you for? What do those careers look like?
There's a lot of variation depending on where you are. What you'll mostly find is that those programs are extremely well-tailored for entry-level jobs in the tech sector—although not the tech sector of the popular imagination. They're not thinking Google—they're thinking the Department of Defense, or the local healthcare system.
But when you go to places where there's not a tech labor market in the area, which is probably true for the majority of for-profit colleges—based in mid-size and small cities without close proximity to federal or state government—they're offering technology degrees to prepare people for jobs in the local mid-tier service sector. The curriculum is usually basic applied troubleshooting—first-line customer service, the people who provide routine technical support for a website or something.
That we are calling both of those a "technology degree" is actually part of the problem. Because if I am in the small-to-mid-size town, I have little reason to know that the degree is vastly different from what other people think of as "technology." That's why technology degrees do not translate very well across the labor market. Employers can't tell what it does, because there is so much variation.
In my personal experience working in a technical college, what we were calling a "technical degree" was really more about fixing technology—applied, small-scale electrical engineering. And that fell under the umbrella of “technology.” So a technology degree can mean anything from fixing radios to using programming languages. The word “technology” has lost its meaning.
What is the relationship between coding bootcamps and these technical degrees? And what’s the difference in audience between these two types of programs?
The difference is about status. If you've got a little bit more status—not necessarily money, but you were better prepared in K-12, or you have better family resources, or you live in a larger urban area—you are probably more attracted to a bootcamp than you are to the University of Phoenix. Whether you end up going to a bootcamp or the University of Phoenix is probably about who you are and where you come from.
In many places, a bootcamp is still seen as having a bit more prestige. But if people don't know anybody in the tech sector, then they go to what's available. And nobody can beat the advertising and name recognition of the for-profit colleges. So the differences are mostly about how much status people are bringing to the problem—and that affects how are they going to get trained for the tech labor market.
The tech industry has problems recruiting and retaining women and people of color. One of the things that bootcamps have done is brought a more diverse set of people through the door. Do you feel that these for-profit coding bootcamps could actually help alleviate inequality—or are they deepening it?
What I suspect is happening is the same thing that we see happen in traditional higher education at elite universities. Schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have historically had diversity problems. To get better, they cherry-pick the best students from minority groups, because they have the prestige to do so.
To diversify, a bootcamp like General Assembly probably does something similar. Because bootcamps have a bit more prestige than some other on-demand training program, they can skim off the top and take the best students from underrepresented groups.
Some people can look at that as an achievement. But as a sociologist, my question is not about what's going to happen to the top 2 percent of people. I tend to worry about the bulk of the people in the middle: the 80 percent. And so if bootcamps are able to skim the cream of the crop off of the top to try and solve the diversity problem, that's only really solving the diversity problem for those individuals. It's not solving it for groups of people who are still trapped in this unequal system.
It’s not that I think these programs are bad. It's great for the individual—just like I think it's great for the black kids every year who get into Harvard.
But usually if one kid makes it, a hundred didn't.