Archive for the ‘collaboration’ Category

CUNYfying Uses of Technology

December 5th, 2016


[This is the keynote address given December 2nd at the 15th Annual CUNY IT Technology Conference. If you click on the image you’ll get the publicly posted Prezi presentation in a separate window. The headings and other text in blue type will indicate when to advance that presentation, if you want to use it.]


CUNYfying Uses of Technology

The title may call for some unpacking.  The whole talk is about what I mean by CUNYfying, so we’ll see how I do; I hope it will come to seem more than an awkward pun.  Since my bag is academic technology – technology used in the service of our core mission of teaching and learning – that’s the technology I’ll focus on for the most part. By growth, I mean not just increase in size but progress– moving forward as well as getting bigger. And by what’s in our DNA, I mean that our opportunities are what they are because we are a genuinely unique system, in situation, in mission, in prospects.


Who We Are & What We Have

I think any talk about CUNY should start with a map. (This is one in a series by Michael Dorsch of the Futures Initiative, about which I’ll be saying more later.) We can talk about how big we are (only Cal State & SUNY are larger), but the truly unique thing about us, what sets us apart as a university system, is how close we are. No other system comes close to our closeness.


The Shared Landscape

That closeness is not just geographical proximity. As Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein advanced the theme of the Integrated University, part vision, part realized promise. I want to look at some aspects of that – common systems and a Common Core as well as the Commons; a way to take in what is offered, even and especially if you’re a student: a level playing field in terms of bandwidth and access (fully in place this very academic year); a movement from locked down licenses and siloed services to shared apps and shared services.


Why This Is Important — In the Abstract

Harvard prof Jonathan Zittrain (in The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It) came up with his 5 Aspects of Generativity as a way of navigating between two dystopian extremes: a corporatized, locked-down ‘net on the one hand, and one where malware and misrule have sway, a kind of wild west of the web. The middle way is one of general, mutual, palpable benefit – uses and practices that are also motivations for following them that are leverageable, adaptable, easy to master, accessible, and transferable. Instruction and communication in particular move from presentational to the collaborative, from the static and established to the flexible and evolving, from the top-down hierarchical to the shared and democratic, from siloed programs and practices to rich integration and collaboration. Motivations for adopting and adapting become self-driving and truly generative.


Examples of Incubated Innovation

Maybe that’s a little abstract. So let’s look at some examples, incubated projects that became project incubators – examples of what I mean by generative.

The Commons

First and foremost is the CUNY Academic Commons, launched in 2009 and directed by Matt Gold and a team of real wizards, notably lead developer Boone Gorges. They’ve created a platform for social activity that knits the work and the people of CUNY together. It is the single most successful academic social network based at any university. Now with almost 10 thousand members and over 750 groups, the Commons is, as its name suggests, an open marketplace of activity and ideas – an open source platform (actually a kind of mash-up of open source technologies) informed by an ethos of openness. Anyone can look at almost anything—and, if you’re CUNY, you can join in. Matt Gold has suggested that one of the most important principles of the Commons is serendipity – the chance discovery of that person or group that will take what you’re dong to the next level.

The CUNY Games Network

is an example of this. The answer to the question implicit in the headline of the edtech newsletter Edsurge “How Did Four Community College Professors Spawn the CUNY Games Network?” is “They used the CUNY Academic Commons”: a few faculty interested in educational games founded a group on the Commons. The CUNY Games Network could be searched for and joined. That may sound like no big deal until you realize how many different kinds of people and skills sets educational gaming take: you need people interested in design, in coding, in animation, in pedagogy, in so many things – and they’re likely to be  scattered all over the place in terms of campuses and disciplines. Within a year or so of finding each other, the CUNY Games Network (now 169 members strong) was sponsoring conferences (which they insist on calling games festivals), securing platforms for the building and deployment of games, building advising teams to help those new to gamification. This is beyond anything mere proximity could make happen. And it is clearly, truly generative.

Commons In A Box

Talk about generative: the Commons began to breed. With the success of the Commons, the development team (presumably because they didn’t already have enough to do) created Commons In A Box, or the CBOX project, and preconfiguration of open source tech like WordPress and BuddyPress, replete with themes, plug-ins (many of them of CUNY’s own devising, like email notification of posts & activity). It has been downloaded about thousands and thousands of times. There are over 500 installations up and running. The CBOX showcase gives a sampling the institutions and organizations using CBOX. I was long an admirer of the SUNY Learning Network, so I love that the SUNY Learning Commons is a CBOX installation. The MLA Commons — built by the Modern Language Association, the largest academic professional organization in the world — is a CBOX installation. One of my favorite SF authors, Neal Stephenson, is involved in a project called Hieroglyph that brings scientists together with science fictionists to imagine hopeful futures. It runs on a CBOX. Amazingly cool. Amazingly generative.

Academic Works + The Commons

The Academic Works project is the Institutional Repository for CUNY, managed by the CUNY Office of Library Services and the CUNY librarians and called for by a resolution of the CUNY University Faculty Senate, created to preserve and disseminate faculty research such as articles and conference presentations; educational materials that can be shared with students and colleagues; student theses and dissertations; CUNY’s scholarly journals,; and so on.Academic Works makes these more discoverable, more secure, and above all freely accessible. There’s a map of the world at the bottom of the home page where you can watch the downloading of publications from all over the planet in real time – more than a quarter million this year. I have one article (co-authored with Matt Gold) downloaded over 800 times (because it’s co-authored with Matt Gold; still, very cool).

Now imagine that connected to your profile on the CUNY Academic Commons, which is just one aspect of what the OLS and the CAC teams have been doing with a planning grant from the Sloan Foundation. The plan is to join the IR’spreservationcapacity  and searchability to the social activity of the Commons. They share an ethos of openness, but in other ways they quite different. Standalone IRs tend to be static; things can just sit on the digital shelves. Social networks tend to get focused on the moment at the expense of what’s gone before, the best of what’s been thought and said. We have a chance to combine the preservation and taxonomic organization of the IR with the intensive social interaction of the Commons – so individuals point others to resources, create study and discussion groups, and who-knows-what-else. This will be something quite new – and quite CUNY.


Something else that is quite CUNY – CUNY Advance

The coinage is Ann Kirschner’s – she’s the former Dean of Macaulay Honors College, now Special Advisor to the Chancellor — but the fairy dust (money) came from Allan Dobrin, until recently our Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration. He wanted us to do cool things with ed tech — things he would, within reason and fiscal constraints, provide the wherewithal for. So if the ethos of the CUNY Academic Commons is openness, that of CUNY Advance is support. It does not begin with ideas  — I should stress this — but seeks them out, understanding that innovation is distributed while resourcing tends to be centralized. One way of doing that was the CUNY Innovation Survey that Lisa Brundage, Director of CUNY Advance, put together. It really is wonderful – every campus and (if feels like) every possible use of ed tech seems to be reflected, but we had to ask people to fill out a survey, so there is no doubt a lot more out there than we haven’t captured.

Science Forward

One beneficiary of CA support is an interdisciplinary approach to science semi-simultaneously piloted at Macaulay and Hostos called Science Forward. The point was to rise above introductions of specific disciplines to delineate scientific ways of thinking (the science senses). The cornerstone of the project, the part CUNY Advance supported, is the Science Forward Video Series: over a dozen high quality videos that are both rich and accessible, specific and interdisciplinary, featuring CUNY scientists – and open to anyone to use.

Science Sims

With the understanding that visualizations support learning, especially in certain learners, Science Sims is a project devoted to science simulations. The twist is that they are built by students.  Here are just the Math sims from the full catalog of sims. The site notes that many simulations are old, and look like ‘90’s video games. “These sims are fresh – built by students using modern javascript libraries. Sure, one day, they too will be old–but that day is not today!”

Flipped Gen Chem

The oldest, biggest, and greatest of the CUNY Advance projects just two weeks ago won, at the Online Learning Consortium  Conference, the OLC Digital Learning Innovation Award. These are the slides showing the results that (I think) clinched the award. They’re the results of an approach where all the instructional content is delivered online, then students meet once a week to do problems, ask questions, compare notes. The results are for repeated offerings of courses across multiple campuses using the same tests and often the same professors. So the comparison is not just between the Traditional (TR) and Flipped (FL) approach but between strikingly different demographics that lead to a 40% difference in the student success rates. And see what the Flipped approach does? (Note the blue rectangles.)  It effectively erases that difference. It doesn’t just bump up success 15% over traditional even where students are stronger. It takes the students who couldn’t succeed and shows them how to. And it does this when the students and tests are the same, with huge Ns and over repeated terms.

The project, led by Pam Mills and Donna McGregor (formerly of Hunter, now of Lehman), began with an epiphany. Teaching in sections of 1000 students or more, they realized they could do this better online – that it was already a kind of distance ed. But realizing that was just the beginning. They threw out the textbook, and they designed the course from scratch on pedagogical principles of scaffolding, self-pacing, constant assessment. The Commons team built a platform to their specifications – this was a case where technology was not a box we fit the course into, but a reimagined pedagogy that defined the box. That’s one reason I should stress that the full title of the OLC DLIA (already long enough) is the Faculty-Led DLIA. Pam and Donna believe they hit on principles that apply to all STEM instruction. If you are involved in that, I would talk to them. Make this even more generative.


Online Courses and Global Search

We can’t all be Pam and Donna, reinventing courses and pedagogy from scratch and defining customized platforms, but a lot of us can benefit from innovations (and, yes, shared landscapes) that were seeded long ago and might, just might, be coming to fruition now. I got the title of Director of Instructional Technology back in 2001 because we needed PI for a generous grant from the Sloan Foundation. We promised a couple hundred online and hybrid courses and not just hit but nearly almost trebled those targets. We got another 4-year grant and did more. And we evaluated the heck out of those courses. Students reported that interaction with their instructors was twice as high as in traditional courses, that interaction with their peers, 3 to 5 times as high. They thought they learned more, they thought they worked harder, and they wanted to do it again. (The instructors said the same thing, which clinched it for me.)

A sidebar: That Director of Instructional Technology title changed to University Director of Academic Technology in 2008 (why? Slight pay raise, plus and acknowledgment that that Academic Tech takes in things – digital scholarship, IRs, etc. – that aren’t strictly instructional). Either title guarantees one thing: you get bombarded by vendors. So I have a boilerplate response. It begins “You are confusing me with someone with staff and a budget.”

But CUNY gets a two-fer from me. In 2008, I became CAO of a school—the CUNY School of  Professional Studies– that now has more than a dozen online degrees, with more on the way. Because it’s amazing what you can do with staff and a budget. That’s just at SPS. (I have to give a shout out to the school that’s our host: John Jay has a bustling, burgeoning online program, with its own online degrees and programs—and more on the way.) Back to SPS.  Because 8 of its online degrees are bachelor’s degrees– by the way, ranked by US News & World Report in the top 5% of all online bachelor’s in the country (and #1 in NYS)—we had to build an online General Education curriculum. Something interesting happened afterwards: University-wide Gen Ed reform, with at least the prospect that all courses are generally transferable.

Remember:  transferability is that one of the five aspects of generativity. Let’s think how that might work, not abstractly, but practically. First, there’s a ready-made online Gen Ed curriculum, so any school can now build a fully online undergrad degree with just the courses in the major – do 15 or so online courses, and you have an online degree. Second – but likely more important with Gen Ed accounting for more than a quarter of all undergrad course work, online Gen Ed means a lot of courses students could take to advance their academic progress, a lot (here’s the key) that might fill out fuller schedules if some of the courses could be taken online, guaranteed to fit any schedule as long as students take the time to do the work. Right now, a third of our undergraduates are part time – how much could we move them to full-time and get them across the finish line faster with the option of online courses?

Of course they’d have to be able to find them. Enter Global Search, a tool built by a crack CIS team led by Zev Jeremais and Youngren Ponnuraj and just launched in July. It allows any student to search by across institutions by course title, type, general ed category, mode of delivery, and so on.


What This Can Mean

Basically, we have an accelerator. What it accelerates is first and foremost degree completion. This in itself builds enrollments on the established and hardly counter-intuitive principle (the term in the research is academic momentum) that students who earn credits and satisfy degree requirements more quickly not only move faster through the curriculum but are retained at a much higher rate(because less likely to fall by the wayside). So this “accelerator” can retain and accommodate more students, while making things easier for faculty as well as students in a University where everyone commutes. It can extend outreach and capacity without building new buildings even as it raises reputations and profiles. Think about an online MBA at Baruch might mean, for instance, or an online Cybersecurity degree at John Jay. (I know they’re thinking about it.) Think about what extended reach combined with relatively low tuition can mean for CUNY schools generally.


CUNYfying, then, means…

First of all, further realizing and enhancing the core mission of CUNY, of access and/with excellence. I am a little distrustful of that latter term. Like Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it’s difficult to define. But I think we can all get behind a near-synonym we can actually point to and measure: student success — getting students through, getting them degrees, readying and not just credentialing them for the world as it is now. I think we are poised to do that better than ever.

Realizing the virtues of closeness (synergy is another word I don’t quite trust) means understanding closeness is not identity. Unlike Penn State, which also has 24 campuses but the slogan “One University geographically distributed,” we don’t all represent different points of access for the same curriculum. We are a federation of campuses with different constituencies and different purposes but lots of overlaps. That’s a good thing because I believe less in redundancies than richness and reinforcement, less in conflicts than complementarity. But what’s really good about closeness not being identity is what closeness then leads to:

  • Innovation, bred by difference, comes from the edges not the center (the more fringe the better); it bubbles up rather than trickles down
  • Incubation. If you want more than random acts of innovation, you need to incubate (support) –incubate, not impose University-wide adoption, but to nurture to maturity
  • Dissemination is the next step—etymologically that is spreading the seed, and, by extension, letting it take root and give fruit in different ways at different places
  • Collaboration is the key – collecting and conferring on effective practices that vary by context and constituency – and making those visible (closeness is sharing) –

Because I’m feeling that I’m getting abstract again, let me show you an example of what collaboration can look like, and how much difference it can comprise. Cathy Davidson (keynoting this conference 2 years ago) started the Futures Initiative here at CUNY and one of its first fruits was a course on Mapping the Futures of Higher Education that was actually a network of courses – applications of new pedagogies and technologies and  shared practices and compared notes across more than a dozen courses, disciplines, and campuses – where else but in CUNY?

The thought to leave you with:

The goal is not to catch up but to leapfrog*

*Not to get to where everyone else is (or is trying to get to) are but to go beyond them in our own way

not parity, but integrity*

*not to be on the same page with everyone else but to write our own story

To our own selves be true.


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 top-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 especially 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.


“Skepticism Abounds”

September 6th, 2013

Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man (Jacob Jordaens,1642)

“Skepticism Abounds” was the short bit before the colon when, last week, Inside Higher Ed sent out news of its Gallup poll on faculty attitudes towards online learning — both the article and the survey itself. (It was billed as a survey of attitudes on technology, but the focus was really online instruction.) The overall picture was still dimmer than the pretty dim view painted last year by the (also IHE-sponsored) Babson surveys, titled “Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education” and “Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology” (blogged about here and there). The surveys then and now differ in method and focus (about which more anon), so this is a little apples-and-oranges, but the difference between them feels like a shift from anxious ambivalence to dug-in resistance. The question is why — why a year of moving ahead in time seems such a step backward in faculty attitudes.

Well, what a year it has been: the Year of the MOOC, as we have seen it called in the NY Times and elsewhere. Dominating the news about online education, MOOCs have not been faring well of late. There’s been a pronounced backlash, even complaints about “innovation exhaustion” and “MOOC fatigue.” Compelling recent examples include concerns from those actually offering MOOCs. In one case, a dean at UC Irvine reaffirmed MOOCs’ outlier status with a MOOC on zombies; as he said by way of explanation: “In a way, I feel that the MOOC conversation has been hijacked by the fact that they look like academic courses and people are trying to give credit for them.” That “hijacking” posed a different problem for a Princeton prof offering a popular sociology MOOC; worried about franchising or some form of co-optation, he just stepped away, as a recent Chronicle article recounted, quoting him as saying, “I’ve said no, because I think that it’s an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities. And I guess that I’m really uncomfortable being part of a movement that’s going to get its revenue in that way. And I also have serious doubts about whether or not using a course like mine in that way would be pedagogically effective.”

When you have earnest and erstwhile MOOC advocates voicing such concerns, we’ve really hit the trough of disillusionment in the hype cycle. And this is relevant to those surveys because of a “horns effect” — the devilish dark side of the halo effect. It’s a kind of guilt by association, a tendency to broad-brush online ed with the taint of MOOCs and their problems with faculty buy-incompletion rates, and pedagogy.

That said, the news from the Gallup survey is grim all around, going from bad (half-way acceptance by those who have done online) to worse (general skepticism from those who haven’t). Surveys, by their very nature, thrive on points of contrast, and whereas those Babson surveys last year contrasted faculty attitudes with those of administrators (who seemed comparatively bearish and bullish on online learning respectively), the current survey does lots of disaggregation among faculty groups — depending on where they teach, what teaching modes they’re familiar with, etc.

Some things are mildly encouraging (though hardly counter-intuitive), like the way familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt for online: those who have taught online are over three times more likely to believe online ed can achieve the same learning outcomes as face-to-face instruction, and the confidence heightens with every step closer to home, so that this is even more true of courses in one’s field, and still more true of “the classes I teach.”

The general distaste for MOOCs reflected in the poll may stem from a lack of familiarity, but the distaste and disbelief surely shows. Over three-fourths of faculty thought the press had overhyped the value and potential of MOOCs — as did nearly three-fourths of technology administrators. That was one of the few points they were that close on. In a semi-scary divergence, tech administrators were twice as likely as faculty to agree with statement “MOOCs make me excited about the future of academe.”

But nobody’s all that excited, and that goes for online learning generally. Of all faculty, just over 20% agree that “online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses,” and nearly 50% disagree — this despite the long-standing and growing body of research that there is in fact comparability, a body so longstanding it has come to known as the “no-significant-difference phenomenon,” one trumped by a more recent meta-analysis concluding that online works actually slightly better that face-to-face, and blended learning better than both. So we have a situation where faculty opinion not only seems overwhelmingly negative, but overwhelmingly at variance with evidence-based research, something that is supposedly the stock-in-trade of faculty opinion.

And yet this is really an invitation to miss the real point, which is not to decry subjectivity (might was well lash the waves and chain the wind). Here’s the burning question: who made face-to-face teaching the gold standard anyway? Isn’t the preponderant, inescapable, in-your-face evidence that of enormous variations in quality and efficacy in all kinds of teaching — in-person, online, and, yea, even in MOOCs? Is the goal to make online or other modalities as much like the status quo of current classrooms as possible? Really?

That being a rhetorical question (with a transparency bordering on sarcasm), the most telling commentary on the poll — invited by Inside Higher Ed and cited in the article that announced the poll — was really about the essential irrelevance of the points of comparison. And this was put beautifully, compellingly, by Cathy Davidson:

We should all be thinking of more interactive, human, creative, student-centered ways of teaching that help prepare students for the current world where, since April 22, 1993, anyone with a connection to the Internet has the capacity to think an idea and then communicate it to anyone else with a connection to the Internet. That is, for the first time in human history, we have a power of connection and a responsibility of connection that is instantaneous and global. Yet we are still teaching students as if that power did not exist, we are doing little to train them (or ourselves) for the harrowing and inspiring (both) powers of this world. Having a ‘doc on a laptop’ (my phrase for the video equivalent of the ‘sage on the stage’) yap at you from a computer screen does not prepare you for a digital world any more than a lecture course. BOTH need new paradigms, new thinking of everything from what we mean by teaching, what we mean by learning, how we help students integrate subjects that have been separated by our educational system for the last 150 years, and how we move away from standardization to iterative, customized, collaborative, and creative thinking.


Nibbling at the Edges

February 5th, 2013

StillLifewithMouseIt’s a revelation to realize that all the recent, highly hyped moves by MOOC providers, which some see as revolutionizing universities, rely so much on the traditional forms and appurtenances of higher ed: the branding (especially of elite colleges involved in enterprises like edX and Coursera), their more well-known or telegenic faculty (lecturing as in days of old), the tests they use to approve credit (the latest: MOOCs to pass CLEP tests), and the institutions themselves (for which MOOCs can serve as a gateway drug in projects like MOOC2Degree).

And maybe revolutionizing the core functions of higher ed is not the best ambition to have. Such revolutions have been foretold before; the highways are littered with their wrecks. Those as old as I may remember that television was once supposed to be the irresistible juggernaut; they may even remember the fate of Sunrise Semester, a collaboration between CBS and NYU that died in 1981. A relative, The Mind Extension University, as well as attempts to offer credit via public television have done no more to displace higher ed. As for online ventures that were supposed to redefine universities, their name is legion, and they include (among the bigger names) AllLearn, Fathom, and the US variant on Britain’s Open University. Just as with ventures like edX and Coursera, major/elite universities were involved then too. Fathom was Columbia’s baby, and Stanford, Oxford, and Yale were behind AllLearn. NYU had a venture called (what else?) NYUOnline that failed. Spawned by the excitement around the dotcom bubble, these things have come and gone.

They’re ancient history, largely forgotten in the current discussions of MOOCs. And they may have important lessons to teach, given the shared reliance on the old instructional paradigm of highlighting the lecturer rather than the learner, of putting content and coverage before collaboration and reflection. But maybe some lessons actually have been learned, if not by excited lookers-on like Tom Friedman, then at least by the providers themselves. Maybe the claims and plans of those earlier failures are one reason why today’s MOOCs began more gingerly, nibbling at the edges, neither charging tuition nor offering credit at the outset. Carefully open about what they might become, they keep changing partners and purposes. We’ve seen ACE consider endorsing credit for MOOCs; we’ve seen MOOCs partner with public institutions like UT and Cal State to address such issues as the cost of higher ed and the problem of remediation; and now we’re seeing MOOCs used as test prep.

In other words, nibbling at the edges brings MOOCs ever closer to core functions, and one fascinating example is the prospect of freshman comp via a MOOC. In “Here a MOOC, There a MOOC: But Will It Work for Freshman Composition?” Karen Head, an assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, approaches that prospect with salutary skepticism but real resolve. Though the course will not be offered for course credit, it is committed to grappling with some formidable questions, notably, “How do we evaluate writing assignments in a course with potentially thousands of enrolled students?” And though it has the resources of the Gates Foundation and Coursera at its proposal, Head sees these as mixed blessings, particularly in the constraints  imposed on the project.

We’ve just seen spectacular justification for her unease at the same institution: Inside Higher Ed (in an article titled “MOOC Mess“) reported yesterday that Georgia Tech had to suspend a Coursera course offered there because of crippling problems, a MOOC (ironically) intended to provide instruction in how to design online instruction; the Chronicle, in its take on the snafu, noted that “design flaws and technical glitches” had made the course (titled “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application”) “an Internet punch line.”

So there are growing pains. But you could say the same of the journalistic blogs that have redefined (if not eliminated) the newspaper industry. That Georgia Tech experiment in making a MOOC the place where 1st-year college composition happens is well worth watching, however things bode at present.


Positive Backlash?

November 19th, 2012

 Late last week, after all the attention given to MOOCs (massive open online courses), something new(?) made the news: a consortium of 10 schools the Chronicle of Higher Ed described as “highly selective” and Inside Higher Ed described as “elite” announced that it would be providing (regular-sized) online courses for credit. Since online courses have been providing college credit for decades — this has been done both by no less estimable schools (Penn State’s World Campus comes to mind) and by larger consortia (like the Educational Technology Cooperative of the 16-state Southern Regional Education Board or SREB), the question is what’s really newsworthy here.

There are several possibilities. One is simply that, in the wake of all this interest in MOOCs, anything they seem to have inspired is more news about them. And news of this new consortium fits. “The elite-branded, massive courses now being rolled out through Coursera and edX have set the stage for the 2U consortium,” says Steve Kolowich in the IHE article, “but the online courses from the consortium will not be MOOCs.”

What will they be then?  “The idea is to replicate not only the content and assessment mechanisms of traditional courses,” continues Kolowich,”but also the social intimacy.” Hmm. In other words, they will be much like the courses that for years have been offered by UMass Online, the SUNY Learning NetworkUniversity of Maryland University College (UMUC), usw.

But wait. What was that about 2U? Maybe that’s the noteworthy bit. What’s that exactly? The Chronicle article notes the consortium will be “using software from 2U, an education-technology company formerly called 2tor.” More than an LMS (it does involve design support and connective tissue for the consortium as well software),  2U does not displace the participating campuses’ own faculty (or, apparently their “highly selective” admissions and pricing), which raises real questions about the howling hyperbole of a headline Forbes came up with for 2u”s role in this venture: “Private Company Solves US Education Problem.”

The fact is that the consortium does need help (if not a national solution) because top-tier schools do so little with online education, or did till MIT and Harvard begat edX and Stanford profs begat Coursera and Udacity. Interestingly, this new top-tier consortium doesn’t seem very clear on why they are doing online ed. The Chronicle piece, which concludes with a bulleted list of the 10 schools involved, is all about how the online courses would benefit their study-abroad students — so much so that, though these remain the principal examples, there is now a correction of sorts: “This article was updated. An earlier version said that the courses were primarily designed for study-abroad students.”

So we have a mixed picture. These schools are offering online courses with paid help and unclear motives (except that others are getting headlines for doing it — why not us?). If they are really doing anything new besides charging more and being pickier about their students than most, it’s hard to say what, so that comments on the IHE article include snipes like “What I don’t get is the spin game and how some of these institutions are recasting or rehashing old programs as something new – and do it with a straight face.”

On the plus side, they’ve redirected attention from those massive open online courses that don’t offer credit (yet) but are mostly free (for the time being) to the online courses that do earn credit, are taught by regular college faculty, and do charge tuition — just like other online courses have been doing for two decades. It’s more the Emperor’s Borrowed Clothes than the Emperor’s New Clothes, but it’s good to see the attention redirected from MOOCs for a moment, almost like a positive backlash to those elephants in the room.

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.

That’s not a blog title. It’s a book title. The (e-)book is free, and its full title is Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, released this month. You can approach it from a couple of angles — a downloadable PDF and a WordPress site.

Users of the CUNY Academic Commons may be tempted to give the former a pass — the latter has contextualizations, access to particular chapters, etc. But here’s one reason to resist that temptation: the PDF, unlike the table of contents on the WP site, is annotated. It’s almost impossible to read through and not want to read more about any number of entries, especially the ones in the substantial first section “Changing Pedagogy.”

It’s also almost impossible not to wonder if CUNY could do something like this. All the work was volunteered, managed by three editors abetted by nine “co-designers.” It collects material from UM’s academic technology showcase held this past spring (yes, that recently). And it is made available through online an open-access repository for UM faculty scholarship formally known as the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy. The publication is all under a Creative Commons  (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0) license.

There’s a lot to admire here — and maybe emulate.


“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.

What Could Happen

October 18th, 2010

In my last entry, grandly titled What Will Happen, I allowed that my prediction was only the tiniest of inferential leaps. What will happen is basically what has happened and what is happening: technological change gathers momentum as well as speed. So we’ll be using more technology, and there’ll be more of it to use. But what will that get us, and where? That’s harder to say since we seem to be at a fork in the road, and neither path seems promising. In fact, I called them the twin dystopias.

On the one hand — this is the direction pointed out in the “Web Is Dead” argument made by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolf — what we get online is what we pay for, or at least that’s increasingly the case. Entrepreneurs have managed to make the Internet pay by delivering stuff directly to us (and not just stuff but services, especially “apps”). Formerly, we would search for and often stumble upon things on the still largely open Web; now they come right to us, often on new devices, and with a bill.  This might be preferable to those who know just what they need, but it also conjures up a cyberfuture that is increasingly monetized, corporatized, and locked down, with everyone marching in tune.

The opposite face or evil twin of this online Monopoly game is what pay-as-you-go software-as-service is in response to: the way things used to be (and to some extent still are): “Open, free, and out of control.” (That is the wonderfully succinct way the “Web Is Dead” article described the World Wide Web before the advent of services and apps, when it was just you, your browser(s) the Web.) If that centrifuge of possibilities wasn’t totally out of control, it was fragmented, complicated, redundant, and damned near impossible to keep up with. So the opposite of everyone marching in tune is everyone dancing as fast as they can, trying to keep up with the changing kaleidoscope of things they might like, use, and need (including the likelihood that these things would disappear or transmogrify almost without warning — since a world so changeful is populated with ephemera).

These, then, are the twin dystopias:

Courting Chaos. It’s not hard to see how the proliferation of devices and services can threaten to overwhelm us, fragment our attention and suck up all our time. If you’re an administrator or faculty developer, there’s the added concern of what, in this flood of technological change, you should put your money on. What’s going to have legs?  What’s going to be washed away in the next wave?  These are not easy questions to answer, and not knowing where to focus one’s energy or resources can be a big obstacle to getting invested in the first place.

Chained to a Big Change. The anxiety may not be over what to choose, but over being stuck with what gets chosen. Our activities may be modified and even commodified by forces beyond our control. A world so interconnected gets shaped by the means of connection, defining the forms and formats we use to interact. Those that gather currency become our standards of exchange. (Is there really any other good reason most documents are generated in Microsoft Word?) We may even wish that, say, scholarly or textbook publishing settles on a stable business model so we don’t have worry about what device or standard or format to use. If that means seeing a particular corporate logo or clicking on a corporate icon (the way many of us see/use Adobe now), so be it.

If you feel you are already living in not one but both of these dystopian visions (and you are), you will also see what’s really scary about them: they are not mutually exclusive. You can be overrun by both the monopolists as well as the myriad possibilities. That prospect gives special urgency to and places special demands on what should happen (the next installment).

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