Archive for the ‘open access’ Category

The Problem(s) with Innovation[This is my keynote at the Bronx EdTech Showcase on 5/9/14 — (reconstructed) text of the talk here,with access to the slides by clicking on the image. The upper-case headings are also slide titles — so, should you want to see  the slides while reading the text, those headings will signal when to go to a new slide.]


I feel I need to justify the title a bit. I’m coming to you with problems? What’s that about? First of all, since all you folks are innovators, let me say that you are not the problem(s). On the contrary.

But if I ask how many of you feel as noticed and supported and impactful as you’d like to be, you’re probably aware of something we might call the problematics of innovation. More on that directly.

Second, this is not just an exercise in problem definition. I do want to get on to some steps toward solution(s). But it is better to define a problem before trying to moving on to a solution

So the Problem(s) with Innovation can be traced to a larger institutional problem — the reasons innovation doesn’t take hold are also the reasons institutions are notoriously slow to change.

I won’t deny for a moment that we are talking about complicated dynamics (or lack thereof) , but I’m a great believer in simplifying (if not oversimplifying).


So one way of looking at the problem(s) is to realize that we are dealing with a set of tensions — specifically, tensions between how innovation percolates up and how resources filter down.

Basically, we are talking about tensions between innovation being centrifugal and resource management being centripetal.

Innovation happens at the edges, is dispersed, scattered, disruptive because it happens outside of the established status quo.

Resource management is jtop-down: organized hierarchically, in clear chains of responsibility and control, subject to audits and so highly documented and monitored. (Anyone tried to get a purchase requisition through lately?)

Admittedly, there’s nothing epecially revelatory about seeing that ideas and money don’t flow the same way.

What’s worse, looking at it this way can induce apathy and even despair.

If we are going to think of what, if anything, we are going to do about this situation, we need to get to the bottom of these tensions.



The famous journalistic questions are supposed to help us analyze situations, but here I think they’ll just get us lost in the weeds. It’s time for simplification again. The key question is WHY? If these are differently motivated (as well as differently located) behaviors, what motivates them?


In a word, RISK.

  • Innovation is all about taking risk. It’s being experimental, trying things out, testing hypotheses, being able to fail, revise, re-try.
  • Effective resource management is risk avoidance. Resource management is essentially risk management.

The question is what happens when risk avoidance becomes risky.


It’s worth dwelling on the picture on this slide for a moment; it’s about Education, a bridge over Ignorance, and “Safety First” leads to the Road to Happiness.

Playing it safe might have been the Road to Happiness in 1914, but not in 2014.

The argument could be made that we have reached a game-changing moment when the most dangerous thing you can do is play it safe.


There’s an interesting analogy with not just what Steve Jobs said but what he was facing when, confronted with what seemed like insurmountable problems, he said ““The way we’re going to survive is to innovate our way out of this.” This was after he’d been kicked out of then brought back into Apple, post-bubble (and mid-recession, if not the Great Recession), with a sense that the excitement had gone out of technology while the pricy-ness and corporatization had escalated. In that crucible, we got Mac OS, the iPod and iTunes, the iPhone and iPad, IOS, and so on.

Jobs was not himself an innovator, of course, but he was a supremely effective driver, supporter, and vetter of innovations, roles that will be relevant to what I getting to.

In the meantime, think about where we are in higher ed:   Funding from all levels is receding. A degree has never been important, but resources are ever leaner. Technology promises solutions but also higher costs and complications. Calls for reform abound as the challenges, especially stories of crushing student debt, raise concerns that institutions of higher education are unresponsive, inefficient, unable to change. Whatever else higher ed does, it can’t do nothing.


That, of course, is part of the problem. Higher ed can be seen to be doing all sorts of things, but they are beginning to look like exercises in throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

Dan Greenstein coined the term “Innovation Exhaustion” to describe the point this has brought us to, specifically with respect to MOOCs, which went through a huge hype cycle – talk of “campus tsunamis” and “revolutions” gave way to disappointing results and shrinking expectations. I don’t want to get off on a MOOC tangent, but the really significant thing about that explosion of hype and activity was that MOOCs, by definition, don’t need the mobilization of faculty: they are the printing press revolution of our time, a dramatic scaling of reach and access to content – like the lectures of a single professor (just as the printing press could widely disseminate the views of a single author). MOOCs function on the star system; you just need a celebrity prof and a platform or provider. In short, you can circumvent the system. Resource management can just fund some “hot” someone or something, doesn’t need to innovate or even foster innovation.


This is against the Law – or at least “Carlson’s Law”  (Curtis Carlson being the head of SRI Int’l – one of those acronyms that doesn’t stand for anything, though it used to stand for Stanford Research Institute).  This is what Carlson says about how innovation works — these days, at least:

 In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

As a result the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.

This is pretty interesting (and verifiable) when you think about it. Access not just to knowledge but to tools (not least of all the tools for tapping into “the wisdom  of crowds”) ought to foster innovation, at least as long as we don’t have things getting in the way.  The critical thing is figuring how far we should be “moving down.” (Quite a ways, perhaps, but how far is too far?)

THE (GOLDILOCKS) POINT – what’s not too high up, nor too low down

That’s not just a place – remember that we’re talking about not just the location but the motivation of behaviors.

So, let’s think about what we want from Innovation and Resource Management. [Two more  mind maps.]

In both cases, we are thinking about two things – rights and benefits. (You could also call them expectations / goals & outcomes, especially if you’re doing Middle States work.)

Bottom line: Innovation needs Freedom and Flexibility; Resource Management (RM) needs Accountability and Evidence.

Above all, they need each other: Innovation is like a plant that needs watering; RM is like a watering can that has no reason for existing if it doesn’t support growth. They meet at Visibility: Innovation needs to get noticed; RM needs to notice what to support (if that watering can is not just going to soak the entire landscape — and remember that water here is a metaphor for money).

Steps in this direction

Let’s take ANOTHER LOOK AT CARLSON’S LAW, specifically what he says about the “sweet spot.”

Innovators have to notice each other, work together, realize that a rising tide lifts all their boats. They may be distributed out there at the fringes, but they need to find a way to find each other, work together, collaborate. So what are the ways?


The CUNY Academic Commons is  a great example of providing the means and  the tools to invent and collaborate. It was itself built by collaboration. Memorably (I still get teased about it), I had told the team, “If you build it, they will fund” – and they did. By the time we got funding, a team had put together a beta version that had literally hundreds of people in it, banging away at it. I’m not sure that’s the model, but it is a model.

You’ll be hearing later, in the lightning panel, from members of one of the largest and most active groups on the Commons, the CUNY Games Network. If you think for a moment about the many skills sets entailed in  educational gaming – you need design specialists, pedagogy people, programmers, and, yes, gamers – you realize that you have to tap into many fields and folks to get what you need. You pretty much have to work collaboratively. They do. The conference — the CUNY Games Festival — they put on in January was amazing.

Speaking of conferences, think how much collaboration this one represents, and how much use it made of the Commons platform.

I could go on, but I need to go on.


This survey is the brainchild of another group on the Commons, the Innovative and Disruptive Technologies group. Realizing that supporting innovation, especially disruptive innovation, is probably not going to be a matter of telling the powers that be, “Give us money and we’ll do cool things,” the IDT group has accepted the challenge of documenting innovation that’s already out there and at work in CUNY, the better to build on that.

The trick is that this also requires collaboration. Enter the CUNY Innovation Survey. The approach taken is through self-reporting. We’ve reached a point in the survey responses where we have representation from all the campuses, and you can browse through the projects that way, but you can also view by category, type, and time of submission.

The point is giving the requisite visibility to what is going on — avoiding reinventing the wheel, failing to find synergies, but also learning from diversity (e.g., different approaches to eportfolio), and there are many things we can learn from each other.

In fact, one of our greatest resources in CUNY is each other. We are a multi-campus system that can and should learn from multiplicity, should share and diversify but also consolidate and reinforce effective practices and innovations.

Logical next steps (not yet taken because they have to be endorsed above my pay grade, and at this exquisitely transitional moment for CUNY, but there are encouraging signs that they may be): 

  • Structures for funding local innovations, start-ups, and plans. (I’m not speaking of external grants, which contribute to the ephemerality of innovations — the money stops flowing and the innovative practice dies or goes dormant; instead, I’m speaking of opportunities for CUNY to invest in its innovators — and invest further if successful innovation seems worth scaling up.)
  • Structures for developing springboards for collaboration: participatory MOOCs and workshops and roundtables or seminars that ready faculty to learn more, get to the next level.
  • Opportunities for mentoring – both to do it and to have it done unto you, and in environments where everyone has the time to do this.

I’ll leave you with means of contacting me, and how better than through MY CUNY PROFILE, a major feature of a major upgrade of the Commons. What you’re seeing is just the top: you can also find my bio there, my publications, my interests, my positions (more than you want to know, really). It’s something everyone should use, particularly for a point of connection I’ll draw your attention to – the CUNY.IS/your-name-here URL shortener. This is not an act of hubris but an acknowledgement that, like the hundreds who use the same kind of CUNY.IS/_____  quick link (may there soon be thousands) we are all CUNY: together, collaboratively, we are what CUNY is.

That’s one the thought I’d like to leave you with, that and

Innovation is not tech; Innovation is people.

The solution is not a hierarchy; the solution is a network.


MOOCs Regroup

November 27th, 2013

Disk area reassembled as parallelogramLast Thursday and Friday Daphne Koller of Coursera and Anant Agarwal of edX gave keynotes at the 19th Annual Sloan-C Conference on Online Learning. (Sebastian Thrun of Udacity gave the most talked-about keynote at the 18th.) It was a good way to check the progress (or lack thereof) of the major MOOC providers. Most of their moves here lately have been lateral. If you believe Slate’s rather hyperbolic headline “The King of MOOCs Abdicates the Throne” (subtitle: “Sebastian Thrun and Udacity’s ‘pivot’ toward corporate training”), one of the big three has basically left the field. That article in Slate is actually based on another in Fast Company — “Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course” — and it was interesting to see some of the things Thrun is quoted as saying there emerge as subtexts in the keynotes of Koller and Agarwal. (This also gives me a slightly different angle than that taken by Tony Picciano in his already published remarks on the Koller and Agarwal keynotes.)

One important source of news about MOOCs of late has been San Jose State University, where faculty have been pushing back on the administration’s interest in trying out MOOCs and MOOC variants. Some of the experiments went south, with students using Udacity performing less well than those in traditional courses. This gave impetus to faculty senate actions sanctioning the administration and requiring faculty approval for such experiments, and that of course is notable and newsworthy. But so is Thrun’s reaction (in the Fast Company interview) to the poor performance: “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives. It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

That’s at odds with much of the MOOC-boosting talk about extending reach and access. At the Sloan Conference, both Koller and Agarwal were careful to show pictures of students from India and Africa, getting access to higher education they would otherwise have to forego. But the pictures were freeze-frame instances: this was recourse to the anecdotal, and the anecdotes were incomplete. Agarwal concluded his presentation with the story of Claude Mukendi of South Africa, whose access to college instruction was blocked by poverty and family tragedy, notably the death of his father. But it was an unfinished story. Claude was now taking college courses thanks to edX, but to what end?

Surely it’s too soon to tell, with MOOCs so new. But the fact is that the presentations of Koller and Agarwal were prepared as a spate of stories appeared, not just of Thrun’s “abdication,” but of the limited reach of MOOCs. There’s mounting evidence that MOOCs are more about extending the educations of the already educated. One example, a story coming out of an international conference on international education, was headlined “International Reach of MOOCs Is Limited by Users’ Preferences,” and cited Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, as saying that the international students he spoke to “understood that they could enroll free in courses from top universities, but they still wanted the college experience on a campus, even if it wasn’t at Harvard or Princeton. ‘People would rather spend $250,000 in U.S. than take a free course from Stanford,’ he said.” And Torbjorn Roe Isaksen, Norway’s minister of education and research, noted the potential of MOOCs to reach globally but noted that it was largely unrealized because “data from companies that provide MOOCs show that most of those who enroll in the courses have already completed degrees and are looking to further their learning.”

That was precisely the point of a study released last week with the headline “MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds.”  Focusing specifically on Coursera, and coming out the day before Koller’s keynote, the study found that “”more than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.” This was found to be true of international students as well. The conclusion? “The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” according to the study’s six authors.

This is the demographic drift that has sent Thrun after corporate e-learners, apparently, and while Koller and Agarwal never abdicated access as a high mission, they were scrambling to acknowledge uses that brought them closer to the already college-going if not the already college-educated. Both extolled the virtues of blended learning — of using MOOCs and MOOC platforms to supplement conventional college instruction. Koller used the “best of both worlds” line that is now standard for positive descriptions of blended learning. And Agarwal even went so far as to define “improving on-campus learning” as one part of the 3-fold mission of edX (the other two being “extending access” and “facilitating research about learning”). For her part, Koller (who, being the corporate as opposed to the open source MOOC provider, got much snarkier comments on the twitter backchannel) acknowledged that so many college-educated participants argued for the importance of MOOCs to “life-long learning,” and she cited a lecture by Christian Terwiesch of Wharton who said that MOOCs (specifically Coursera) should pursue a “blue ocean” strategy — i.e., should go after untapped education markets rather than compete with traditional higher ed offerings.

The gist, apparently meant to be comforting, is that MOOCs are out to augment rather than replace what is being offered in the higher ed sphere. Examples of the research that would improve learning did not seem hugely impressive:  Agarwal showed a graph of how quickly students stopped attending to video lectures in over 30,000 viewings as “impressive proof” that the ideal video lecture should not exceed 6 minutes; and Koller extolled the virtues of machine grading and peer grading (the former encouraging a video-game-like interest in retesting for a higher score, the latter getting students to apply and so more deeply experience evaluative criteria). But anyone who thinks this reconfiguration of MOOCs as more supplemental and augmenting means their days as disruptors are over should read about MIT’s new strategy for using edX in its campus based courses. According to the article (mostly an interview with Agarwal) in Inside Higher Ed, “An education from MIT may soon involve a freshman year spent completing online courses, two years on campus and a fourth ‘year’ of continuous education.”





MOOCs in the Rear-View Mirror

December 20th, 2012

from the blog Scott AfarIt’s been a big year for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), indeed the Year of the MOOC. No one has done a better omnium gatherum of what the year has brought in the way of MOOCs than Audrey Watters. Her excursus on “The Year of the MOOC” reminds us just how new a phenomenon the MOOC is, at least as it has come into focus in the public eye. Watters gives a timeline of what happened when: in January, Sebastian Thrun, after his famous success with an AI course enrolling over 150,000, announced Udacity, the first of the entrepreneurial MOOCs; MITx opened enrollment in February; Coursera launched in April; in May, Harvard joined with MIT and MITx became EdX, which Berkeley joined in July, etc.).

At least as usefully, Watters offers (just below that timeline) “The Forgotten History of MOOCs,” a reminder that all these headline-grabbing moves (mostly at/by elites that had heretofore done little with online education) were preceded by other epochal experiences in open online ed. The real ur-MOOC was a 2008 course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” offered by Stephen Downes and George Siemens; practicing what it preached, the course, taken by a score of University of Manitoba students for credit, was also available free and online, and a couple thousand signed on.

As Watters notes, Downes has since distinguished between “cMOOCs” — those holding to the connectivist principles of that first course — and “xMOOCs“; the latter are not just massive but massively resourced, entrepreneurial, and, for better or worse, the focus of the most attention. Pundits like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have seen them as the disruptors and even saviors of higher ed, but analysis of enrollments suggests that most of the people taking them are not college students but professionals in the field, other adult learners, and especially international lookers-on. Most who offer them don’t offer course credit, and most of those who take MOOCs don’t complete them. (Tony Bates, drawing on Downes’ distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, notes “current xMOOC completion rates of 10% or less.”)

Touted as forces of disruption, they have themselves been disrupted, changed in telling ways. In addition to an impressive list of elites (including Princeton, Duke, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins), Coursera has been gathering unto itself an impressive stash of venture capital, and so has also been the focus of most of speculation (sometimes more than speculation) about the monetizing of MOOCs. Besides having their openness as well as their free-ness questioned (see “How Open Are MOOCs?“), these putatively free and open courses have been harnessed in interesting ways — to institutions using them for credit, to grants and experiments. They are part of a move to “Freelance Professors,” and even a move from “MOOCs to MOCCs” (Mid-Sized Online Closed Courses).

The tide has turned in another way: an increasing number of commentaries and analyses are highly critical of MOOCs. Much of this turns on the appeal the represent to the advantaged, to those that already have learned how to learn (essentially as autodidacts). This is not just the theme of “The False Promise of the Education Revolution,” the lead/cover story of the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but of recent articles in The Atlantic, The Economist, and others.  (The lead-in to the article in The Economist –“creating new opportunities for the best and huge problems for the rest” — seems the soundbite least likely to be embraced as a slogan by the xMOOCs.) Some critiques have a distinctively dystopian flavor, like “The End of the University as We Know It,” in the January/February 2013 issue of The American Interest.

All this said, MOOCs remain the most potential-rich instructional resource to come along in a long time, perhaps since the invention of the printing press, and it would be unwise to presume that this year has seen that seam played out or diluted beyond recognition. The potential of MOOCs to offer a newer, richer instructional content in dramatically scalable ways may be the biggest thing to hit higher ed since textbooks, even as it opens new possibilities for new kinds of interactions between student and instructor, student and student, student and content. That potential is no more fully realized than it is exhausted. Expect better (if not bigger) things to come from these Massive Open Online Courses.

Degrees of Openness?

November 12th, 2012

At the EDUCAUSE conference in Denver last week, Clay Shirky did the big keynote. Though you wouldn’t know it from its title (“IT as a Core Academic Competence”), it was all about openness. The coverage given it in the Chroncile‘s blog — “The Real Revolution Is Openness, Clay Shirky Tells Tech Leaders” — makes that pretty clear.

What is less clear these days is what we mean by openness. And that’s increasingly important. An odd indication of that was a display in the middle of the registration area at the conference: a rectangular mat of astroturf was marked “The IT Landscape” and three “real estate” signs planted in it read “MOOCs” and “Openness” and “Analytics.” (Whoa, I thought. Just three things? Was someone stealing the signs?)

Whether there are other prominent trends, I think we all recognize not just the importance of these, but their complexity, the ambiguity and ambivalence around them. It’s not hard to see that “analytics”  — use-tracking, data-crunching, and the like — is rich and vareigated, and the recent NY Times piece on MOOCs (see my blog entry last week) stresses a growing sense that MOOCs come in vastly different sizes, flavors, and  valences. But isn’t open, well, an open-or-shut deal?

No. In a consumer culture that taught us all, at a very early age, that “free” almost always meant “strings attached,” we’re finding that open doesn’t always mean wholly open. This varies according to what we put the word “open” in front of — words like “access” and “standards” and “source” — but we shouldn’t get lost in the weeds. Some restrictions on just how open things are matter more than others, because some things are matters of flow and principle.

A big one — it was certainly big in Shirky’s keynote — is not just what “open” means you have access to but what you can do with it. For some people (I count myself one), the idea that you are on the ‘net not just to look but to do is key, the Web  2.0 difference, the difference between passive consumption and creative re-production. In what Lessing has taught us to call a “remix” culture, the ability to use what we find and even repurpose it is critical.

Which is why one response to Shirky’s keynote — an article appearing the day after in Inside Higher Ed— is worth noting. In “How ‘Open’ Are MOOCs?” author Steve Kolowich reports Shirky as saying that “the most provocative aspect of MOOCs is not their massiveness; it is their openness.” “Or their lack thereof, ” continues Kolowich, and then goes on to cite the terms of service from the big MOOC providers: edX ‘s statement that “All rights in the Site and its content, if not expressly granted, are reserved”; Coursera’s restriction that, beyond personal and informal use, users may not “copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives [sic] works of the material”; Udacity’s similarly worded prohibition that its users “may not copy, sell, display, reproduce, publish, modify, create derivative works from, transfer, distribute or otherwise commercially exploit in any manner the Class Sites, Online Courses, or any Content.”

This is not the point to get all huffy and suggest that these entities, having invested so heavily in their free (but only to a point) offerings, have no right to say as much. Openness is more a spectrum than a state, and I find one of my earliest entries on this blog, over three years ago, was a meditation on how open the CUNY Academic Commons should be. (The consensus-determined answer can be had with a quick scroll to the bottom of this or any page on the Commons: the default is licensing under Creative Commons; just which license can be confirmed with a click.)

What makes the restrictive terms of service from the major MOOC providers a real issue may be their role, less as massive open online courses, than as conspicuous  (“massive”) elements in the universe of open educational resources (OERs). Here, it seems, they are not on the most open end of the open-ended spectrum, restricting not just the use of materials but also the capacity of their courses to count for anything. “You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera,” Kolowich quotes from that company’s terms of service, “or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera” — this to explain why Antioch University had to enter into a contract with Coursera to count any of its courses for credit.

Again, the issue is not whether Coursera had a right to do what it did when it “drew a line on the extent to which the company would allow outsiders to use its resources without paying to do so” (as Kolowich puts it). The issue is whether we are all fully aware of how not-so-open are some massive open online courses whose openness is declared in their label and encoded in their acronym. And this seems especially consequential in light of a survey Kolowich reports on but doesn’t actually mention by name: Growing the Curriculum: Open Education Resources in U.S. Higher Education (November 2012). The survey shows that 65% of the chief academic officers surveyed thought OER could save money for their institutions, but when Kolowich asked Jeff Seaman, one of the survey authors, if any were aware of licensing issues or any restrictions on openness, his response was telling: “‘Not mentioned,’ said Seaman. ‘Not on the mindset at all of these chief academic officers. The idea of who did it, how I can use it, what the permissions are for use, can I re-purpose it — never appeared in any of the examples that they described.'”


An “IR” of Our Own

October 29th, 2012

CUNY Open Access LogoThe culmination of Open Access Week at CUNY was a series of presentations at the CUNY Grad Center on Friday the 26th. And while it’s wrong to settle on one day in a whole week of events, still more wrong to highlight just one presentation among many, I’m going to do it anyway. Jill Cirasella of Brooklyn College (and of the UFS Open Access Advisory Group) gave a presentation that explained “Why We Need an Institutional Repository.” That explanation (available with a click on the afore-offered hyperlink) is 36 slides of compelling information and argument everyone should take the time to go through. But let me highlight a few of the main points here.

As Jill notes, one of the reasons we need an Institutional Repository (IR) is because we said we do. The University Faculty Senate passed a resolution in support of “”the development of an open-access institutional repository for the City University of New York” in November of last year, and the full text of that resolution is available in a report posted by (guess who?) Jill Cirasella.

The reasons for having an open-access IR (like the resolution’s whereases) are many, and they include the observation that most universities (especially universities anywhere near the size of CUNY) have them. But this is more, much more, than a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.

As Jill’s presentation makes compellingly clear, there are may potential benefits to CUNY, including raising its profile and strengthening its reputation, and doing so not just in the academic world but in the wider public realm. That would of course be away of doing the same for its faculty, but it would also make their collaboration easier and more productive, even as it would make it much easier for them to share materials with students, who would in turn be spared textbook costs while  improving their information literacy. Libraries as well as students would save money by purchasing less of what doesn’t get used while having more (open) access to what does.

In fact, there are so many reasons to do have an IR (reasons which should be considered with Jill’s fuller treatment of them, complete with graphs of expenditures and quotations from reports) that the only real question might also be the obvious head-scratcher here: why haven’t we set one up already? The short answer: we want to do this right. This isn’t the first or second time I’ve talked about an IR for CUNY in the last few months, and the one thing I keep returning to is the other no-brainer besides doing it: doing it differently. Too often IRs are static dumping grounds or the digital equivalent of vanity presses. We have an opportunity to learn from what has been done — and to do better. One great chance for us is to modify the essentially static nature of the Institutional Repository (the name itself signals something staid and inert) by tying it to the dynamism of the CUNY Academic Commons.

The Commons is itself an example of what we need to do. It was not the first of its kind, but it was so clearly the most innovative that it has become an award–  and grant-winning exemplar, now completing a plan to make its ways of working more available to others. Its Commons In A Box project has institutions lining up for their “box,” from other schools to a huge professional organization like the Modern Language Association. We can, at least potentially, have a similar effect on the world of IRs, islands on information too often unvisited. We have the means to network ours with our constituencies’ needs and interests. But we do need to get started.

Change and Persistence

September 27th, 2012

My title might seem a crass reminder of the so-themed CUNY IT Conference in late November, and it is, but it’s much more about the thinking provoked by reading through the proposals submitted, something I’m doing with a dozen other raters. (We come up with scores independently, then compare notes.) The question is not just what persists but what’s worth investing in. The economy’s turning around, innovation’s resurging, and we need to think about what we need.

We could start with what Derrida called une réponse de Normand (a favorite strategy of his): saying what it is not. What won’t serve us well is mere trendiness, the sorts of things fixated on by the popular press. The one constant is that we’re awash in innovations with the lifespan of mayflies, particularly new devices (or new versions of old devices). This is not to say that these things don’t make a difference, that they aren’t important. But the latest take on the new iPhone is a good deal less important than having a mobile strategy.

That goes for teaching trends as well. I’ve probably said enough about MOOCs, though the latest turn in the conversation, manifested here and there, is that these massive open online courses might be good for textbook publishers as well as publicity. So we’re starting to see ways of making money on vast “free” courses, but the fact is that you are not going to change education a course at a time, however “mega” that course is, particularly if you don’t bring the faculty on board. You need strategies (like the flipped classroom) that affect teaching and learning much more pervasively and generally.

What you especially need in all this swirling ephemerality is a center that holds — and remembers. That’s why it’s so exciting that discussions are beginning around an institutional repository for CUNY, one that might not be the static stash of PDFs so many IRs are but something much more dynamic because linked to the activity of the CUNY Academic Commons.  If we could devise a way to help faculty represent themselves and their work (possibly even work in progress or in sites of collaboration) through an IR, that could be a very exciting prospect.

For an inkling of what this might amount to (and a needed corrective to my snarky remark about static stashes of PDFs), see my July post on interesting work from the Digital Conservancy at the University of Minnesota. If we look to some of these more innovative models, there’s a chance for CUNY to leapfrog from the back of the pack to the front, from being one of the relatively few universities without an IR to a university redefining the possibilities for IRs. The Commons has shown a capacity to get out in front thus. We did it once. We can do it again.

And we have good reason. Venues for scholarly publication are at once shrinking (especially university presses) and expanding (especially for new, non-traditional forms and formats). Teaching innovations are proliferating, but so is the need to share them — and to separate the wheat from the chaff. Open pre- and post-publication peer review is becoming more widespread. CUNY faculty can look elsewhere for such innovations, but they would be so much better off if they had their own resources for vetting, sharing, and archiving their stuff. And so would CUNY.

A new report on faculty attitudes regarding technology is out from the Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed — a follow-up to the report they released in earlier this summer (and I reviewed in a blog entry back then). Both reports mine the same survey, so the information here is not new, just more granular. And while the former report’s title, “Conflicted,” captures the mixed feelings faculty have (and especially the different responses different members of this very diverse group have to a number of different technology-related issues), this report’s title flatly declares them “Digital Faculty.” Is that a fair description? Not yet.

Titles, of course, can only say so much, and the report itself details some telling points of conflict and divergence. Accentuating the positive, the overview in Inside Higher Ed says, “In general, professors are pro-digital.” But the devil is in the details, and even in some of the broad strokes. Faculty are more fearful than excited about the growth of online education generally; ditto the growth of online outlets for scholarship. What’s more, this report breaks out gender differences, and it shows that women report doing more online but also feeling more stress. Cathy Ann Trower, director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, says this makes sense, that “women often feel more compelled to be immediately responsive to students and colleagues than men do.”

Trower’s take provides an interesting angle on the results: if faculty are in fact “digital faculty,” it may be more a reluctant acceptance of change than an enthusiastic embrace. The survey’s key strategy — to ask whether faculty are fearful or excited about different uses and manifestations of technology (and to insist on a choice of one or the other) — does not allow us to know about gradations of feeling. We can only infer, as Trower did.

Some things the survey results do make clear. Since the survey was done of administrators as well as faculty, we can see these two groups seem to see things differently. Administrators consistently overestimate faculty use of technology, particularly the use of any learning management system (LMS).  As I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, co-directors of the Babson Survey Research Group, note, “Administrators perceive a much higher degree of faculty use of LMS systems for every dimension than faculty actually report.”

On the other hand, many of the results do justify the “pro-digital” claim. While faculty are more fearful than excited about the growth of online education, more than 70% are more excited than fearful about the growth of hybrid or blended instruction, and almost that many feel that way about the “flipped classroom” — the use of technology to offer instructional content so that instructors can spend less class time lecturing and more time interacting with students. Most also feel positive about the growth of online educational resources (OER), as they do about the growing use of OER and e-textbooks to replace traditional textbooks.

Still, the results of the survey, mined more thoroughly in “Digital Faculty” report, underscore the ambivalence of the report titled “Conflicted.” Part of it could be that faculty, if they are “digital faculty,” may feel themselves more defined that way than defining themselves that way. (Issues of agency, like gradations of feeling, are not easily gleaned from the survey results.) And uncertainty as well as ambivalence has to be a part of any thoughtful response to change. The sentence in the Inside Higher Ed article that really struck me as this one: “Asked for their gut reaction to the emergence of ‘outlets for scholarship that do not use a traditional peer-review model,’ 64 percent of professors said it mostly filled them with fear.” If “fear” is the right word there, it would be mostly fear of the unknown or at least unsettled, and that will be with us for a while.




It was pointed out to me that my last blog entry (on what we need to know about how we and our students are reading) left out any mention of the one big knowable among the unknowables: that our students are paying way too much for textbooks. True. So it seemed providential that today’s Inside Higher Ed had a piece on free textbooks titled Textbooks Unbound.

The punny title was one way of signifying that the article focused primarily on Boundless (“The Free Textbook Replacement”).  And the ambiguity of that parenthetical (does it replace textbooks for free? or does it replace free textbooks?) is also significant. Unlike purveyors of free textbooks like Flat World Knowledge or the Community College Open Textbooks Collaborative, Boundless starts with what instructors want from a textbook and aggregate that from what’s out there. Given the growth of open educational resources (OER), that’s a lot, but it’s also a lot to look for (or look through), hence the utility of something that pulls these things together and packages them.

As the article in IHE points out, it’s also another kind of threat to the standard business model for textbooks, sort of the second swing in the 1-2 punch. Giving whole textbooks away is one thing, but when you start pulling stuff together (including multimedia, things that go beyond what you can find in a standard text), that creates real problems for publishers. The article is really on the stir that has resulted from publishers crying foul, and especially the federal court complaint filed by such major players in the textbook publishing industry as Pearson, Cengage, and MacMillan. Ironically, because Boundless uses open content, the suit charges that it’s ripping off the structure of existing textbooks, filling them with freely available content but retaining (borrowing?) a form that students and instructors are used to. And the real irony is that this repackaging that retains the package’s traditional shape comes from giving professors what they (supposedly) want: the same old same old, only without the cost.

This seems to be that familiar shuffle of two steps forward and one step back: we have free content that approximates what publishers have been (over)charging for, but in the same form. What transformed the music industry was a transformation of the way we experienced music, not just the way we bought it. Music was suddenly not just cheaper than formerly but more mobile, more find-able, more share-able. We didn’t have to buy an album to get the sought-after song. We didn’t have to search through used record stores to find that beloved old tune. It wasn’t just the price.

What if we similarly transformed the way we brought together and assigned content for a course? What if it wasn’t a matter of assigning one chapter after another? What if professors didn’t give students basically what they themselves were given at that age and stage, all pulled together in a compendium? What if students were able to choose and provide at least some of the reading? What if the discovery of it was part of the learning process? And what if only some of it was found and the rest made by the class?

Boundless has made a new move both the publishing industry and on OER, but there are lots of moves still to be made.

“Moving Down”

June 6th, 2011

So many things make me think about or seem to relate back to the Commons that I’m rarely surprised by that anymore. But I didn’t expect Thomas J. Friedman’s “memo” to China’s President Hu Jintao to be one. His NY Times op-ed piece caught my eye this weekend because of another surprising conjunction: in something titled “Advice for China,” the subject line of the “memo” read “The Arab Spring.”

Actually that wasn’t so surprising. Point #1 was about the inadvisability (and the near impossibility) of censorship, and how that was borne out in so many places, so often by means of digital/social media. (Already I was thinking about the Commons, having gone on record about its openness being key to its generativity.)

But it was really Point #2 that caught my eye:

The second trend we see in the Arab Spring is a manifestation of “Carlson’s Law,” posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: “In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.” As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.

Hmm. I’m not thrilled about “moving down.” (I put it in the title at least as much to problematize the phrase as to celebrate it.) I’ve developed a distrust of spatial metaphors, something that goes back to an argument James Joyce had with Wyndham Lewis (but this is not the place to go into that).  Suffice it to say that spatial metaphors tend to deny time and process, affirm hierarchy, and do other suspect stuff. Still, the participle  “moving” qualifies that denial of process. And it’s not people on high who are moving down (like some contemporary form of noblesse oblige). It’s that “sweet spot for innovation”  that’s making this move.

I think we see that affirmed daily, in the bits of news or insight we get tweeted, the interactions we see aggregated, the sudden or surprising affinities that are also provocations. For me, all of this was extracurricular before the Commons. Now, though the Commons still feels extracurricular, it has brought work closer to play and colleagues closer than they’ve ever been (particularly in the ease of contact and the serendipities of connection).

If this is the sort of thing that’s happening, that’s good. It should happen. There ought to be a law. And apparently there is.

What Should Happen

October 20th, 2010

Here’s the final part of the talk I gave at Queens College a week ago, broken up by its tripartite title: “What Will Happen, What Could Happen, What Should Happen.” In the previous (middle) installment, I had been speaking of the twin perils threatening our experience of the Internet:  whirling chaos and corporatized control. When conjuring two evils, a standard move is to identify the lesser one. That might seem an easy call here. Why wouldn’t we prefer multiplicity, even hard-to-manage multiplicity, to the monopolistic throttle? But the proliferation of possibilities does have its genuinely pernicious side. The open web has given us viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks, and other fun stuff. One thing openness is open to is the unsafe. And one attraction of the locked-down approach is that it can lock the unsafe out.

John Zittrain is very much aware of this threat in The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It. In many ways that is what his book is about (though I’ve linked to the wiki rather than the book). While he takes the perils of malicious hacking seriously — truth to tell, he makes them seem really scary (apocalyptic doomsday stuff) — he feels openness is vital, primarily because that’s where we get what we most value: innovation. And he feels that innovation, or productive change, is so valuable that it’s worth risking disruptive change.

So Zittrain argues against  the corporatized and the locked down — the equivalent of the tethered appliance (his term). He poses and unpacks a critical field between disruptive change and what he calls appliancizing: he calls this generativity, and it has five aspects: leverage (making it easy to do more), adaptability (making it easy to change), ease of mastery (making it easy to adopt), accessibility (making it easy to gain entry), and transferability (making it easy to share). To an educator no less than a technologist, these are all desiderata. Our best uses of academic technology will maximize each one of these.

I think the CUNY Academic Commons, the social network built by CUNY academics for CUNY academics, has these features – including their downsides, since they are not risk-free propositions. (We need to be wary of the downsides, but we need to embrace the generativity, so in each case I sketch the trend and the tension, indicating where we want to go, and how far may be too far.)

Leverage (enabling people to do more/other/better than before)

  • Working when possible and necessary –>working whenever the spirit moves: The “anytime” nature of online interaction frees groups from need to arrange a time and get a room, but it also invites incursions on members’ time, fragmenting attention and diffusing energies.

Adaptability (structures are matters of convenience & serviceability, not tradition & governance)

  • Compartmentalization –> recombination and even re-compartmentalization: Freed from those places (topoi: disciplines, departments, campuses) to which they were assigned, faculty can follow interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary interests, regroup and reconfigure. But realignments involve refocusing, choices of new alliances, even new kinds of enclosures.

Ease of Mastery (openness and adoptibility make choice, not expertise or role, the motive force)

  • Externally imposed direction –> self-direction: While hardly unconstrained, deciding where to invest time and effort becomes more a matter of choice rather than assignment. Choose well. Marshaling time becomes increasingly critical, as does deciding which options to pursue or invest in, since the alternative is a scattering of attention and investment.

Accessibility (scope of activity is not dictated by rank/organizational experience)

  • Hierarchical relations –> flattening and re-formation: The imposition of a social network imposed on a work culture defined by rank and position has a democratizing effect that is both liberating and disturbing: authority, once characterized by limited access, is now forged by responsiveness; leadership is gauged by helpfulness, not determined by a chain of command; expertise is demonstrated by engagement in conversations taking place across the social environment.

Transferability (the ease of sharing, of cross-fertilizations)

  • Ownership –> co-authorship: The ability to say, “This is mine” is undermined by the collaboration that characterizes the new environment. Individual contributions (posts to a forum, additions or revisions to a wiki, entries on a group blog) are not hard to pinpoint, but they are contributions to a larger whole, a group effort. The individual has to give some motive force and ownership over to the group, while the effort is less malleable by individual will, more subject to group dynamics. When our best work comes from putting our minds together, academia needs to rethink rewards and promotion standards.

If you think of your own work with academic technology, whether it’s online and/or blended learning (the Big Kahuna at present) or some other aspect like work with educational gaming, open access publication, podcasts and rich media and so on, you are likely to see these features (both the benefits and dangers) reflected in your own work. But the great exemplar for me, the macrocosm of our many microcosms, is the Commons.

So the alternative to the twin dystopias is not a utopia, a no-place, but a real place. And since we’ve been talking about movement and change, it would be better to cast this place, not as a static site, but as a vessel in motion, navigating between the Scylla of monopolistic lockdown and the Charybdis of whirling change.

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