Archive for the ‘rant’ 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.


(Not) Controlling the Future

October 19th, 2012

Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, gave a talk at the CUNY Grad Center yesterday. Titled “Today’s Big Higher Ed Debates (and CUNY),” it promised to treat such topics as “the 2012 elections, affirmative action, and the completion agenda.” (MOOCs and online ed figured prominently in the treatment of that last.) If this seems almost a miscellany, Jaschik’s conclusion stressed that these things did have a powerful common theme: higher ed is not in control of its future, and that is more powerfully true than ever before.

Regardless of who wins in the upcoming election, the underfunding of higher ed will continue — though probably be much worse under Romney and a Republican congress, while Obama will invest strategically, preserve some “entitlements” (like Pell), and maybe do even more if congress is constituted to allow that. Either way, we’ll need to do more with less, and that “more” will include more accountability (“Politicians love that,” quoth Jaschik) with less control over how we do the accounting and less in the way of rewards for hitting performance goals.

Affirmative action is pretty much a one-story issue, turning on a case currently before the Supreme Court. With Elena Kagan recusing herself, a prospective majority of the justices have a history of going against AA.  If UT loses, the opponents of AA stand ready to file hundreds of suits across the nation. The landscape could change pretty radically and pretty quickly, with schools forced to accept new determinations of whom they should admit.

Finally, there’s the completion agenda, which Jaschik says is mostly about cost, and about alternatives students can vote for with their feet. The prime catalysts for changes here are MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses offered by prestigious schools for free, if at no small cost for the schools offering them (Harvard and MIT put up $60 million for EdX). The attraction (or at least publicity) they have already exerted has been quite apparent over the past year. What’s new is the way big publics are bending that way, with UT’s sign-on to EdX as the recent dramatic example. The point here is that folks are not just jumping on a trend, but modifying it — creating consortia, ensuring credentialing, defining forms of payment, even granting credit. Things are moving fast on that front. Ditto the aggregation of Massive Open Online Courses into Massive OpenOnline  Curricula, or at least mix-and-match possibilities.

Pressed in the Q&A, Jaschik saw the long-term future as a two-tiered dystopia: with a de-diversified student population, even in the defunded publics, the most well-prepared (affluent) students will have all the advantages, while the rest, to avoid being shut out, will scramble for low-cost, DIY U ways of getting their higher ed.

My response? Having heard so many predictions and seen so few come true — the wait for the long-promised end of the world as we know it and my own personal rocket pack  will be a while yet — I think forecasters of social and technological change tend to focus on some things and not others in a world where everything is overdetermined (at least causally). The trends Jaschik outlines are clear, but so are countervailing ones: the plateauing of online ed (see what has been happening to the University of Phoenix and its parent Apollo Group lately), real if maddeningly slow progress toward equality (and legal assurances thereof), and my own personal favorite, institutional inertia (compare change in the world at large to change in the academic world over the last century).

This is not to say that Jaschik is wrong. He’s right about current trends, but no one can see well into the future. (Anyone who bet big on how Facebook had been trending before it went public knows this all too well.) If we don’t like what Jaschik sees ahead, and we should certainly resist the triumph of tiering, then resistance is in fact what is called for — steps in other, better directions. I should say what those might be, as well as why I’m not sure MOOCs are the answer (for one thing, in the ones this career pedagogue has taken, I’d fail myself), but that’s grist to the mill of another blog entry. Let’s just say, for the nonce, that if controlling the future is simply refusing to change, that’s not a real option.

No, I’m not going to say anything about CUNY’s experience with Blackboard 8. (Later.)

Yesterday, a colleague at the University of Central Florida, Chuck Dzubian, wrote to ask what I thought of Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Writing in the 21st Century.” Here’s what I wrote back:

I like Kathy’s piece. It is a little like the presentation she gave as the keynote for the big e-portfolio conference we had here at LaGuardia last year.

BUT (that’s a big “but”) ….

I think it’s all very oversimplified — a cartoon history and a cartoon call to arms. I acknowledge the inevitability of reductive thinking — one of my heroes, Terry Eagleton, says that without it thought itself would not be possible — but this ultimately is a serious flaw with the piece, and it needs some redressing.

KBY is a real assessment guru, and she has certain traits of a folks of that ilk. (Pardon if I offend.) She likes generalizations, patterns, models. This makes her history pretty bad, and her assessment of the present (“a new age”) worse — if quite thought-provoking. Her argument verges on technological determinism (of that rather more rare variety, the Pollyannish) at several points, but it is really most dangerous and dubious when it comes to her rosy examples. The “THIS IS SPARTA!” example (did she see “300“?) is, for instance, an elevation of a kind of verbal tic or literary/networked echolalia to the status of liberating collective/self-expression. You need to go to something like the beginning of Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (with its analysis of an affluent couple exacting networked vengeance on an Hispanic teenager who didn’t return a cell phone) to get a fuller consideration of the not-so-smart mob behavior that KBY is celebrating here.

I don’t mean to be too negative, but this is way too pat. The great lesson of the history of literacy is that there never is a “new age”: change is always underway, but nothing is ever lost — old prejudices, old behaviors, old forms keep persisting. Her two great examples are really testimonies to two very old acts of communication persisting in slightly new forms, two acts which might be reductively described as “SOS” and “Kilroy was here.”

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar