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A MOOC Point

March 12th, 2013

the first of the cards from the Rorschach inkblot testI’m beginning to think that MOOCs, at least conceptually, are like Rorschach blots, good for getting commentators to divulge their fundamental premises about the means and ends of higher learning. Case in point: Thomas Friedman’s recent NY Times op-ed “The Professors’ Big Stage,” with its very title invoking the “sage on the stage” some of us thought higher learning had risen above. Like Friedman’s January piece “Revolution Hits the Universities,” it has generated a lot of anger among academics.

Richard Wolff, professor emeritus, says the revolution heralded in the earlier op-ed is about as revolutionary as the “transition from hamburger to ‘hamburger helper.'” “Thomas Friedman has as much credibility on education as I do on dunking a basketball,” writes John Warner, a visiting professor who gives his piece the frank (and, frankly, apt) title “An Ad Hominem Attack Against Thomas Friedman.” Carolyn Foster Segal, another emeritus, accuses Friedman of “contradictions, shallow thinking — and an error in basic arithmetic.” (Oddly, the error is in favor of Friedman’s argument: he mistakes a 60-90% improvement in the pass rate as improvement by 30% when the pass rate has actually improved 50%.) And Rebecca Schuman, another visiting prof, accuses Friedman of proposing an “über-oligarchy” where only “stars” have a shot at the “big stage.”

I could go on, but there’s a neat symmetry to this too-small sample, and it gives me enough to make a MOOC point. Wolff is right: Friedman is one of those “hyper promoters” of change, and it’s not hard to take him or the MOOCs he extols down a notch or three because of the hype factor. But the argument for change is never just an argument that a particular change is good; it’s also that what it represents a change from does in fact need improvement.

This is where the attacks on Friedman show their own vulnerability. MOOCs may not be all he cracks them up to be, but academia-as-we-know-it is no great shakes either. Take Schuman’s “über-oligarchy” remark: “What Friedman proposes is nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much.” Warner, the other visiting prof, goes after Friedman by tallying “the big, obvious wrongs on Friedman’s record” on other scores but doesn’t discount the potential of MOOCs, saying, “I think it’s inevitable that MOOCs have a role to play in making education accessible. I also embrace the potential of technology to provide access to a greater diversity of thinking and give voice to differing opinions.” That seems oddly deferential for an ad hominem attacker.

The emeriti, as you might expect, take the long view. Segal sees MOOCs — or the likelihood of falling, Friedman-like, under the spell — as a chronic academic fascination with change for its own sake: “Academicians often fall prey to magical thinking; at my former college, each time we hired a new provost (10 in my 16 years), we were certain that this was the one who would be our savior.” Wolff, who taught economics at U Mass Amherst for 35 years, makes the heart of his critique a still broader historical view, saying Friedman “wastes no time pondering all those past technological changes with the potential to free human beings from mind-numbing drudgery that have left us working longer and harder than ever.”

So, whether we’ve been down this road before, or we’re worried about being stuck on an access ramp, the road itself seems to be in pretty bad shape. Whatever else they present as, MOOCs seem to be assuming the status of a critique, not of what they can do, but of the way things are.




Adopting or Adapting?

April 5th, 2010

Those who may have missed Anya Kamanetz’s DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education got several chances of late to get at least a sampling e.g., her contribution to the “debate” staged by the NY Times under the title “College Degrees Without Going to Class,” the recent interview of her in the Chronicle, and her “Adapt or Decline” piece in Inside Higher Ed. (Arguably the best introduction to her thinking, short of the book, is an extended video of her holding forth for half an hour.)

Inevitably, what she sees as an opportunity — to cut costs and forge new paths given the availability of open educational resources (OER) — seems a danger to others. David Wiley says in a recent blog post that if you turn students “loose with links to some OER and expect good things to happen for more than 5% of them, you’re just off your rocker.” Similarly, Michael Feldstein, in his blog E-literate, holds that most “students are not autodidacts,” and so it is not clear to him that “the blossoming of open education for their more fortunate peers will do anything for them other than suck the much needed funds out of an already badly underfunded education system.” These takes exasperate Stephen Downes who thinks they confuse the baby with the bathwater: “The reason we have so many students who are utterly unable to learn for themselves is precisely *because* of corporations and institutions.”

To circle back to Anya Kamanetz, her “Adapt of Decline” imperative is a slightly more evolutionary version of “Do or Die.” But it’s addressed to institutions. And the people who, well, people those institutions have their own spaces in which to move and their own decisions to make. That would be a good reason to note that Anya Kamanetz’s imperative is, as the Chronicle article notes, a “moral imperative” — to give the full headline “Anya Kamenetz Invokes ‘a Moral Imperative to Cut Costs’ With Technology.”

This might be a call for some personal if not institutional adaption. ‘Tis the season for textbook adoption. It could be interesting to break the mold, go for something new — digital content, open access publications, e-resources from the library, things you can link to rather than have your students buy. It’s not a giant step. But it’s a step. If your CUNY faculty, your university is already taking steps to save your students money on texts. Why not go the institution one better?

Dispelling Myths about Online Ed

February 24th, 2010

I need to be careful, and not just because one person’s myth is another person’s religion. I was motivated to post on this because of a commentary piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed titled  “Combating Myths About Distance Education.” My first reaction to this was to roll my eyes, thinking “Oh no, not again.” One of the great myths is that “distance education” is an appropriate term for online education (and not, increasingly, a misnomer). But an even greater myth is that whatever-you-call-it is easy to define (and so to combat or dispel whatever one regards as myths about it): all you need to do, according to this myth, is tell the truth, and the scales will fall from the eyes of the unbelievers (or believers, depending on your perspective).

Well, the truth is that things get more blurred all the time. Is online ed about distance or local outreach? (Increasingly, it’s the latter.) Is the true point of contrast face-to-face? (Then what about the single biggest growth area, hybrid or blended learning?) Is it all about asynchronous interaction — a sentiment so widely shared at one time that it made sense to call the biggest journal in the field the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks? (Then what about all the work with synchronous interaction, especially in the very course management systems and programs that used to be wholly asynchronous?) And then there’s the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Ed has never been friendly to online ed, loving to invoke specters of diploma mills, spy cams, and faculty being automated out of existence, all of which is just plain silly.

So I didn’t expect much from the article. I was pleasantly surprised. I can’t say it was full of revelations, but it resisted easy generalizations and stereotypes. The real gripe of the author, a librarian at Yale who teaches a variety of library and literary studies courses online, is that he gets no respect — senses that online ed people are the Rodney Dangerfields of higher education. Memorably, he noted that one “big state university” he taught for “does not even acknowledge its online instructors as members of the faculty on its Web page. In the department’s eyes, I am, like Pinocchio, not a ‘real boy.'”

There were things in the article I disagreed with, inevitably. For instance, he draws an easy distinction between undergraduate and graduate instruction that, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is another thing that’s blurring, and blurring because of online ed (and what access to the internet does to the need for instruction as “information transfer”). Inevitably, to make his point, he restored to generalizations, even stereotypes.

So what amazed me most — what motivated me to go online and post about this — was one of those generalizations I did not take exception to. In fact, I’m not sure it is a generalization with exceptions — which, of course, violates the general rule for generalizations. In contrasting online with face-to-face instruction (and the possibility, even invitation, posed by the latter to let the student sit there passively in the classroom), he says that when students  “take good courses online, they are required to be full partners in their learning process.” I realize you have to stress that key word “good” there, but, if you do, that holds — and so does the contrast if you insist you’re comparing it with good F2F instruction: there are simply too many barriers to full partnership in the classroom, like the impossibility of everyone answering a discussion question almost any time one’s posed (a standard expectation in online instruction).

So I came with low expectations, but seem to have found a real touchstone. Or should someone tell me to take my rose-colored glasses off?

Sizing up models

April 12th, 2009

We in CUNY like to think we’re big. And we are: a multicampus university with nearly a quarter of a million degree students — the largest urban university system in the world. So when I was recently asked to review the program document for Project Bamboo, “a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, and inter-organizational effort” involving over 110 institutions, I realized I had a chance to see what thoughtful people were saying about a project still larger than the CUNY Academic Commons, and still, like ours, very much in the beginning stages.

I’m impressed by the thought and work that has gone into this draft, and I think there’s a great deal to learn from it, particularlly from the Scope of Work section. But I also see a general flaw that I hope don’t afflict the Commons: Bamboo seems too technology-driven, too interested in how, taking the what and the why as givens or as questions largely answered by the status quo.

The reason Bamboo seems so tool-focused and technology-driven comes, strangely enough, from the realization that it shouldn’t be: the articulation of the Program (2.3) is framed just that way: “Because Bamboo is much more than technology, the program includes three distinct areas of focus and leadership: Bamboo Explore, Bamboo Plan, and Bamboo Build.” These areas are oddly incommensurate. Bamboo Explore (2.3.1), because it is about needs assessment, focuses on givens, presumes community.  Very little is said about it beyond making it the realm of requirement gathering. Bamboo Build (2.3.3), at the other end of the time spectrum in this oddly linear plan, is about tools we can come up with only after Bamboo Plan  (2.3.2) has done the prioritizing and planning. So of course the most is said about Bamboo Plan, the mapping activity predicated on satisfying existing needs by means of tools yet to be developed, even determined.

I suppose somewhere in the discussions someone has said that this is about community-building as well as tool-building, and that these are transformative as well as recursive activities, but things are not laid out (and certainly not numbered) that way. Instead, we begin where we are, by asking what needs we have now that things we can build will address. This has a kind of logic to it, but I think the plan reifies what’s wrong with most technological development: it doesn’t acknowledge how means transform ends (admittedly a hard thing to do at the outset). And so it is essentially about using tomorrow’s tools to address yesterday’s needs.

The counterintuitive power given the status quo in what is supposed to be a great leap forward does have much to do with where and how you start. I’m willing to stake a lot on the idea that, even and especially in big projects, it actually makes sense to build the plane and fly it at the same time. That way you’re in transit when you try to figure out where you are and what that may mean about what you need.

Need as Opportunity

April 5th, 2009

April 1st was CUNY’s annual joint meeting of the Academic Council (the council of CAOs or chief academic officers) and the Administrative Council (the council of COOs or chief operating officers). The focus is always on the budget, but it is also about whatever other especially pressing issue confronts the University. This time it was enrollment growth.

CUNY has grown 16% in FTEs (full-time enrollments) over the past five years. That’s dramatic growth, but economic downturns have a way of moving dramatic growth into the realm of high drama. This year, applications are up 11% over last year. On average, students are taking more credits. Retention has improved (one of the main but also under-acknowledged reasons for enrollment growth, too often thought to be all about new applicants).

What pushes this into the realm of high drama (as if you don’t already know) is that we are pressed for space. Even if all building plans are completed, CUNY will be 10% behind the national standard for accommodating current enrollments. And we know enrollments are on the rise. Dramatically. What’s more, it’s not as if CUNY cram more and more students into large lecture classes (even if we wanted to): only a little more the 10% of all the classroom space in the University can handle classes of 50 or more.

When I hear such facts, two words occur to me: blended learning. If ever there was a time for a reasoned use of partly online and partly on-campus instruction, it’s now and in the immediate future. More pedagogically sound than large lecture courses (which depend so much more on passive absorption, so much less on interaction), they also, at least conceptually, could allow us to recoup classroom space (to say nothing of saving commuting time for both faculty and students).

To make this idea a practical reality, we’d have to get organized. Any use of blended learning for the conservation of classroom space would have to be carefully planned. This goes without saying. What’s at least as obvious, given our recent experiences, is the need for greater confidence in the technological means. We’ve been buffeted by problems and outages, so much that some CUNY faculty have declared that they’ve had it with Blackboard in its current version and centrally supported form.

Like everything else about academic technology that needs work and thought these days, this strikes me as an opportunity for the CUNY Academic Commons. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support an innovation, to nurture it and refine it into full viability. If we can use the Commons to discuss the kinds of strategic planning that would allow blended learning to create real institutional benefits for us, we might be able to move BL from a means of pedagogical enhancement to a means of improving access and increasing revenue. If this isn’t a use of technology that administrative leadership can get behind, what is? And if this isn’t the time — a tough time when we have problems academic technology can help us solve  — then when?

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