Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nicholas Lemann on higher ed

Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker on MOOCs, with my comments:
Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale or, in the case of George W. Bush, both. That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting—the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.
Lemann also says that the name schools aren't charging enough, because the social capital that they confer means that people will pay any amount for them.
The top schools, led by Stanford, are now aggressively exploring online education, which they had previously left to the for-profits. This doesn’t mean that they will suddenly start granting degrees online to ten or a hundred times as many students; instead, they are likely to offer a second, cheaper (or even free) tier of education that will only enhance the lifelong value of their traditional, in-residence degrees.
I wondered about this: how could free online education "enhance the lifelong value" of a name-university education? Then I realized that what it really enhances is the brand. The top 20 or so schools are basically in a demolition derby to enhance their brands internationally--hence the MOOC concept.

It's possible or maybe even likely that both sets of brands, once the Ivy-lite brands become more available, will crowd out public education. Stanford degree-holders can run the companies, and Stanford-lite badge holders can run the machines. Public institutions can't even play in that demolition derby because they're too poor to buy the cars for it.

Once I thought of it in this way, the willingness of high-profile schools and professors to cheerlead for MOOCs made sense. A lot are probably motivated by altruism--teaching to the masses--but they don't particularly care about the effect on other universities because they don't have to. They'll still have their jobs and be teaching no matter what.

Lemann also sees (as I do, but he knows what he's talking about) the possibility of a two-tier educational system:
In higher education, the United States may be on its way to becoming more like the rest of the world, with a small group of schools controlling access to life membership in the élite. . . . All those things which commencement speakers talk about—personal growth, critical-thinking skills, intellectual exploration, breadth of learning—will survive at the top institutions, but other colleges will come under increased pressure to adopt the model of trade schools.
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2012/05/28/120528taco_talk_lemann#ixzz1wNcmjO6w

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Writing inspiration: keep going

Rachel Toor's article "Bad Brain Days" gives just about the right level of encouragement. You should go and read it, but the gist of it is this: keep going, even if you don't think what you're writing is working. Get it done, even if it's making you momentarily miserable.
Like Toor, I've finally figured out that sometimes, writing is not a joyful act and that sometimes it can make you feel as though your brain isn't working. What's been helping?
.. Recognizing that I'm too restless and energetic in the morning to write but that it's important to do something related to writing--reading, making notes, walking around. Once I'm a little tired, my resistance to writing goes down and I get at it.
--The key is to make something related to the project the first thing I do. If I warm up by reading things related to the project, I stay on task. If I check email or news sites at all, that concentration is gone. Those things are a trip wire to web distractions.
.. Counting, timing, goals, and rewards. Right now I'm excited about the work, but that leads to bouncing all around the manuscript, and that means not getting anything down. So I set the pomodoro time, write down the word count, write down a word count goal for the time, and get moving. It sounds mechanical, but there's something inherently gamelike in seeing if you can make or even beat the word count.
.. As Toor would say, keep at it. Or as another person told London Fog, "There will be good years, and there will be bad years, but it is always going to rain."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Writing inspiration post, Mad Men-style

Don, help me out here; I need to get this thing written.

 Don Draper via Henry V speech from Evangeline Morphos at WSJ:

This day is called the feast of Crispian…
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…
Prepare to take a great leap forward…
Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined
By that moment they got their first car.
When we land Jaguar, The world will know–
We have arrived.
(Shakespeare, Henry V Act IV, scene 3)

"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation."

"If you think a lot about it and then stop, the answer will come to you." (Don said it better, but I can't recall the exact words.)

"Fear stimulates my imagination."

I'll write a real post soon, once I get the thing written. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Come the revolution . . . the university could disappear

Maybe Facebook should hire Thomas Friedman to do its ads. His ad for Coursera (h/t Indyanna's comment at Historiann's) column on online education pretty much explains why the 100,000-person online class and the flipped classroom, with local professors as glorified tutors, is the way to go. The comments are good, and they ask the same questions we've all been asking and come to some similar conclusions.

But does a university have any other functions besides teaching students a specific body of information?
  • The university is an economic system as well as an educational and social system. If there aren't any large lecture classes, those being the province of the 12 or so online superteachers left in the system once this revolution occurs, what pays for the smaller classes, including practicum classes in things like nursing?
  • The university funds innovation, or rather it provides a support system within which researchers can compete for grants and so on.  What will support that kind of research once the professors and the university that supports them are gone?
  • The university is also a place where diverse interpretations can be debated and creative thought can be encouraged. It's easy to say that this creativity and diversity of interpretation will be preserved, but simple economics says that if Harvard is promoting its brand via a course in 18th-century poetry for free, "free" will drive out "expensive" and there'll be pressure to adopt one course to the exclusion of others. 
  • What'll happen when this course drives others out of the marketplace?  I'm sure it would be a fantastic course, but wouldn't everyone then be trained in the same way, without being able to talk to or question the professors in person?
  • We all laugh at the "yellowing lecture notes" stereotype, but are the lectures that are produced and put in the can for these courses going to be updated every semester, as a professor's course would be? 
  • Will the badges and certificates (which--sorry-- I keep picturing as being on a shoulder-to-hip sash like the one I wore in Girl Scouts) be accepted by companies by Microsoft, Apple, and Google?
It's hard to be against something that promises education for the multitudes, especially since Andrew Ng, whose 100,000-student class is a prototype, is so earnest and excited about it. It sounds so revolutionary to say "free education for all" or "steal this book" or whatever. How could you possibly want to withhold education from people who want to learn?

But those who are cheerleading for this movement aren't answering those hard questions with anything like the serious approach that they use for other topics.  Do they put on Unicorn Dazzling Rainbow Goggles before they write those columns?

And for the record, I don't think that all universities will disappear. High-status universities will always remain for the Eloi. For us Morlocks?  What's your guess?

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Five Commandments of Writing: A Response to the 10 Commandments of Twitter

At the Chronicle, Katrina Gulliver has written the "10 Commandments of Twitter" for those who want to break into this medium. Most of the actual commandments are pretty basic: ask questions, engage in conversation, don't just post news articles, and, implicitly, don't just use Twitter for self-promotion, although some well-known people do exactly that. She also recommends that you "show your personality" since it "impresses students."

Here is the key point I'd like to address: "Twitter can be something you have on in the background while you work."

That all depends on how you define work.  I can stuff envelopes and look at Twitter.  I can alphabetize student papers and look at Twitter.  I can grade and look at Twitter or organize my bookshelves and look at Twitter. I could certainly write a blogpost and still look at Twitter.

But write and look at those Twitter pop-ups every 10 seconds? Not so much. I'm ready to throttle the little TweetDeck bird after about 5 minutes.

I look at the advice from real writers on the sidebar, on the web, from a lot of my previous posts quoting writing experts, and from Boice and Silvia, and they all have just about the same Five Commandments:

  1. Thou shalt leave the internet off or at least minimize distractions while you write.  
  2. Thy writing should be thy sole focus for a period of time.  "Multitasking" is a myth if you're actually writing something worthwhile that requires thought. 
  3. Thou shalt give thyself an extended period of time, if possible, so that thoughts can develop.
  4. Thou shalt not interrupt the "flow" of writing that occurs once you get absorbed in your subject for the day, especially not for extraneous stuff like worrying about whether you turned in a report or whether X likes what you did that day. 
  5. Thou shalt write every day, in the morning, if possible, or whenever works best for you. As Francis Ford Coppola puts it in his comments on writing, get up and write before anyone has a chance to be mean to you, to which I'd add "including you being mean to you," by giving space to that incessant internal monologue of tasks and worries. 
The thing is, as Gulliver correctly states, you can't just be on Twitter a little bit. The reason that's a problem is that it, like Facebook, has become such a primary means of scholarly communication for a lot of groups and scholars. Ignore these two, and you miss out on important information because that's where the information is being disseminated.  

So here is the quandary: 
  • To write and eventually be part of the scholarly conversation, you need fewer distractions and as much time as you can manage to actually do the writing. You need to slow down, minimize interruptions, think, and pay attention to what's in your head.
  • But to be part of the scholarly conversation, you have to pay attention to Twitter and Facebook on a daily (or, for Twitter, several times daily) basis, since there are resources there that you won't find elsewhere. You need to speed up, be ready to be interrupted, follow links when they occur (and everyone has a link to share), and give your attention to social networking. 
Someone needs to reconcile the 10 commandments with the 5 commandments. 


Monday, May 07, 2012

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream (a non-academic post)

 . . . or not. It is summer, but it is academic summer, which means as much gearing up to write as the winding down of classes. Time to take stock? Okay.
  • It was a heavy service semester, but the service brought some recognition from administrators whom I didn't think knew I existed, so that was good.
  • It was a good semester for being more assertive, possibly because of all those service meetings in which I had to take a leadership role.
  • And, in Mad Men thoughts: Joan would not have said "it is what it is." She would have said "that's just how it is" or maybe "and that's the way it is" and made a joke of it because that was Walter Cronkite's signoff line for years.
  • And that song was perfect, although like Historiann and everyone else, I'm starting to worry a lot about a certain petulant character who is looking more and more fragile with every passing episode.  
  • When I saw the title of the episode, all I could think of was the last line of Plath's poem: "And I eat men like air." 

Saturday, May 05, 2012

More Questions on MOOCs

[Edited to add: As Joshua Kim points out at IHE, Brooks doesn't differentiate between MOOCs and regular online courses.]

Those questions about MOOCs just won't stop cropping up.  Jonathan Rees asks, "What's the difference between a MOOC and the University of Phoenix?" His answer is "branding" or "not much," but then he also wonders what MIT and Harvard are getting out of edX.

He and I agree on this one, which the writers in the previous post agree on as well: Eyeballs, baby.  It's all about the eyeballs.  Mark Zuckerberg and the Google team aren't the only ones who know how to measure and then monetize our increasingly tiny attention spans online.

That's the social contract of the Internet, or rather the web (since pre-web Internet didn't have this feature in the same way): you get free content, and unless the content was put there by an insanely idealistic person, what you give in return is your data. You type in personal information, and if you don't lie routinely when filling in web forms, your information gets used in ways that maybe you don't like.  Yes, there are lawsuits to prevent the more egregious abuses, but that's how it works.

Rees links to David Brooks, who like the 300+ commenters has some questions about online education. Now, Brooks has some questions but concludes that it'll be all rainbows and unicorns because the "best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online." The rest of them? Well, they'll wither away, because that's how capitalism works, but not to worry: something else magical will spring up to absorb that labor force, just like the magical jobs in manufacturing have sprung back.

But here are those pesky questions that Brooks dismisses, along with some possible answers.

Q: Many of us view the coming change with trepidation. Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience?

A: Maybe or yes, depending on how it's done.

Q:  Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy?

A. I'll let the philosophers answer this one, but what do you think? 

Q. Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?

A. That ship has sailed everywhere BUT in the traditional classroom. If we don't make deep reading   a sustained practice by teaching it, who's going to? On the other hand, Margaret Soltan appears to be teaching this in her UDEMY course on poetry.

Q.  If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?

A. As one of the commenters pointed out, a few weeks ago Brooks said those not at Harvard and MIT could become glorified graders. We'll be handmaidens to greatness. What's not to like about grading more papers without the satisfaction of teaching? Woo hoo!

Q.  Will academic standards be as rigorous?

A. Do they need to be, if no credit is being given? What's the system of checks and balances here? Who's giving credit, and to what end? Who's doing the assessment for these courses? This seems to me like asking whether you ought to fold the dinner napkin in the shape of a swan when no one has yet made a plan for buying the groceries, inviting the guests, and cooking the meal.

Q. What happens to the students who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour?

A. They already have the motivation to stay glued to their laptops (or phones). The question is whether they'll watch a canned lecture when other sites beckon.

Q. How much communication is lost — gesture, mood, eye contact — when you are not actually in a room with a passionate teacher and students?

A. How would you answer this one?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

MOOC Roundup

It's getting hard to tell the MOOC players without a scorecard, so here's a scorecard or maybe a bingo card. I'd tag this with the label "MOOC," only the New and Improved Blogger doesn't give you any way to add them.
  • Harvard and M.I.T. are teaming up with edX, a massive course platform built on the MITx version that MIT rolled out earlier this year. (NYTimes, Inside Higher Ed. I thought there was one at The Atlantic, but I couldn't find it.) 
  • Coursera. Penn, Stanford, Michigan, and Princeton's version of the above.
  • Udemy. This is the one that Margaret Soltan is using and blogging about over at University Diaries.
  • Udacity. This one seems to be a computer science version exclusively.
  • Not online but massive and reported on in the Chronicle, so I'll include it here: a 2,670 student class at Virginia Tech that is so inspiring that all 2,670 chimed in to say how awesome it is in the comments.
Any questions?
  • Will any of these places give you course credit with MIT and Harvard names attached? Please stop asking rude questions.
  • How will these courses be graded? "The edX project will include not only engineering courses, in which computer grading is relatively simple, but also humanities courses, in which essays might be graded through crowd-sourcing, or assessed with natural-language software. Coursera will also offer free humanities courses in which grading will be done by peers."
  • What will happen to traditional universities? Mid-level ones ought to be worried, says "George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University." 
  • Why? “Online education is here to stay, and it’s only going to get better,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, a past president of Tufts who is a member of the Harvard Corporation. Dr. Bacow, co-author of a new report on online learning, said it remained unclear how traditional universities would integrate the new technologies.
  • What role will faculty have? “What faculty don’t want to do is just take something off the shelf that’s somebody else’s and teach it, any more than they would take a textbook, start on Page 1, and end with the last chapter,” he said. “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.” 

Random bullets of "Tuesday's dead"


  • Yes, indeed--I've spent the whole day wondering things like "Why are the trash trucks coming around on Tuesday?" and only just now figured out the reason.
  • The bad news part: I'm a day more behind on grading than I thought.
  • The good news part: I was so absorbed in making writing discoveries that I didn't notice which day it was.
  • The Mad Men predictions part: You heard it here first--Megan is French Canadian because she is going to turn into Margaret Trudeau, a vibrant young woman who marries a powerful, sexy older man but decides that it's not for her.  Next time, it won't be Don and Harry shilling for Heinz Beans backstage at a Rolling Stones concert; it'll be Ms. Zoobie Zoo (okay, Zou Bisou Bisou) herself, with a camera.  I know--MT is not French Canadian by birth, but let's see what happens. (Hence the 1970s clip below.)
  • Back to writing and grading.