03
Sep

A Column Not to Be Dictated to by Reality Checkers

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
The Education of Oronte Churm

Some recent events have managed to lodge in my neural driftnet, collecting together in a way that makes me think they’re related. When this happens, I can get preachy, so be forewarned.

In freshman writing this week, we were discussing the nature of the “;academic conversation,” and at one point I (mostly, but probably not entirely accurately from memory) said, “;In the end, the goal of the academic conversation is an exchange of ideas and viewpoints in order to arrive at the truth.”

Here I paused, looking at the students. For some reason I felt compelled to add: “;That might sound quaint, or naïve, or silly, but it really is the goal.”

I wanted to kick myself in the ass right after I said this last part. It was like I felt compelled to apologize for believing not only that truth mattered, but that it could be achieved through conversation and collaboration. I felt as though I was telling them the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy liked to ride on the Loch Ness Monster’s back while waving at a herd of unicorns on the shore.

Even as the discussion marched on, part of my brain was wondering why I did this.

You’re thinking I’m about to talk about Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention, but no, first I want to talk about Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer is the mostly disgraced former New Yorker staff writer, who was first dinged for “;self-plagiarism,” a venial journalistic sin, before dipping into the harder stuff of fabrication, inventing Bob Dylan quotes for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and even engaging in a brief attempt at cover-up before caving and admitting the falsehoods.

In the wake of these revelations, Wired magazine, Lehrer’s original patron, commissioned a neutral third party review of Lehrer’s work for them, focusing on 18 of the 100’s of blog posts that Lehrer produced.

In his investigation, Charles Seife, a journalism professor and science writer, found issues in 17 out of 18 pieces. Following his investigation and an off-the-record conversation with Lehrer, Seife concludes “;that Lehrer's journalistic moral compass is badly broken.”

He goes on to say:

I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood. This shows not only in his attitude toward quotations but in some of the other details of his writing. And a journalist who repeatedly fails to correct errors when they're pointed out is, in my opinion, exhibiting reckless disregard for the truth.

Seife calls Lehrer’s transgressions “;inexcusable,” but also says, “;the industry he (and I) work for share a some of the blame for his failure.”

Seife describes how the system has changed between his time and Lehrer’s. (Seife, like me, is 10 years Lehrer’s senior.) When Seife was coming up, his work was “;scrutinized by layers upon layers of editors, top editors, copy editors, fact checkers and even (heaven help us!) subeditors before a single word got published.”

Lehrer, on the other hand, was operating “;without a safety net.”

“Nobody noticed that something was amiss until it was too late to save him.”

Okay, I’m definitely going to discuss Paul Ryan’s claim that he ran a sub three-hour marathon, a claim since admitted by Ryan (following an intense Internet crowdsourced investigation) as not being true (“walked back” in euphemistic politese) and that his one recorded marathon was much closer to four, rather than three hours.

No I’m not, I’m going to talk about the “;Harvard Cheating Scandal” where 125 students are accused of sharing answers on a take-home exam. This is “;nearly half” of the course’s total enrollment.

That barely audible sound you heard was the nation’s college instructors yawning with non-surprise at this news.

According to a Boston Globe report, in addition to the investigation and punishment of the guilty, “;The university also plans to bolster its anti-cheating efforts by better educating students about academic ethics.”

Heh. Heh.

The accused students are pushing back, claiming that a course previously viewed as one of the easiest on campus became suddenly difficult. They say the tests were confusing and unfair, unevenly graded by the 10 teaching assistants assigned to the course.

The core of their defense, as summarized by The New York Times: “;The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.”

Just a brief mention here about the Romney campaign ad that claims the Obama administration “;gutted” welfare reform. The ad is so misleading that even in a “;post-truth” campaign the normal false equivalence practices of our major media is breaking down and calling lies lies, rather than falling back on tortured euphemisms like politicians being “;on the edge of truth.”

Not long ago Lance Armstrong gave up his fight against allegations of systematic doping without admitting guilt. It’s true, Armstrong never failed a drug test, but numerous former teammates have testified to the pervasive use of performance enhancers during the era. In the words of sportswriter Bonnie Ford, summarizing the soon-to-be published account of former Armstrong lieutenant Tyler Hamilton, “;Cheating occurred on such a massive scale, in such mundane packaging, that it receded into the landscape and became almost invisible.”

Again, according to Ford, “;Hamilton — likely joined by most of the top riders of his time — viewed Armstrong's morality as no different than that of other riders. In Hamilton's telling, Armstrong just executed better, on the bike, in the pharmaceutical realm, and in securing protected status from the governing body of his sport: He trained hard, stayed on the leading edge of the curve of doping expertise, succeeded in having a positive test covered up. He profited hugely where others went broke.”

If Armstrong wasn’t doping, he was the only top flight cyclist not doing so, and somehow also beat everyone else who was doping at the same time.

The New York Times recently reported on a man named Todd Rutherford who saw a marketplace opportunity in providing five star customer reviews for books he hadn’t read. According to the Times, “;Before he knew it, he was taking in $ 28,000 a month.”

In the words of the article’s author, David Streitfeld, “;Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth.”

The article quotes an email from a self-published author named Roland Hughes, who “;spent about $ 20,000 on review services.”

His goal: To go from, " 'being an author' to ‘being a recognized author.’ “;

If I were trying to lure you in with a hook, I would call this epidemic of dishonesty a crisis, except it’s the longest lasting, slowest developing crisis in the history of crises.

It’s only a crisis if human nature is a crisis. The temptation towards shortcuts to success dates back to a certain guy who had an interesting encounter with an apple and a serpent.

While much hay will probably be made of Paul Ryan’s imaginary marathon prowess, he’s guilty of something all of us have done in an effort to impress an audience. He was bragging. His audience just happens to be bigger and paying much closer attention.

Far more troublesome is the laundry list of lies contained in his convention speech, lies so egregious and obvious that they speak to something beyond the ways we fall short of truth, in that they suggest that the truth doesn’t really matter. The moral compass is not faulty, it is non-existent.

It was postmodern theorists who posited there was no such thing as truth, certainly not of the objective variety. We seem to be putting this notion to the test by daring to speak falsehoods that everyone knows are lies, even as they’re being spoken. Most of Ryan’s lies in his speech had already been discussed and debunked and yet he spoke them anyway.

Politicians seem immune from punishment for lying because lying is what politicians do. After Ryan’s speech, Wolf Blitzer of CNN said to his co-host Erin Burnett: “;He (Ryan) delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as Mitt Romney’s campaign is concerned, Paul Ryan on this night delivered.”

Is Wolf Blitzer, a journalist at a national news network he wasn’t qualified to report on the truth?

His co-anchor, Burnett replied: “;That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.”

Can we really be that mad at Jonah Lehrer?

What further interests me are the causes and justifications for these acts. The obvious rationale for lying about your political opponent is that the stakes are so high, everything must be done in pursuit of victory.

For Lance Armstrong, it appears to be a literal case of “;everyone else is doing it.” He just managed to do it a little better, besting the competition on all fronts.

I imagine something similar is at work in the Harvard scandal. The fear of being disadvantaged on the exam would become so great, that even the normally moral would succumb to the temptations of the dark side. Sure, they say, we probably stepped over a line or two, but they were lines everyone knew we were stepping over, so what’s the big deal?

The fledgling authors look at a landscape where it seems nearly impossible to draw attention to one’s work. Why not a shortcut? It’s just another form of marketing. The “;illusion of truth.”

Jonah Lehrer either never knew or didn’t care if there was a line. If he was operating without a safety net, it’s because he didn’t think he needed one, and he didn’t until he realized what was heading towards him was a snare, not a net.

I’m pleased to see that Jonah Lehrer has been caught and discredited, that his own magazine believed in the truth enough to investigate further, even as I'm certain he will return to prominence as a journalist in the not-too-distant future.

Likewise for Lance Armstrong. I don’t know that it’s pleasure I feel at these revelations, but it feels like justice. We can look at his career with clearer eyes, and still marvel at the accomplishments, but also know more fully where they are rooted.

If Harvard thinks that educating students about academic ethics is going to impact cheating at their university, they are kidding themselves. They’re also nuts to think they can give a take-home exam to hundreds of students. As with fact checkers at magazines who save sloppy or dishonest journalists from themselves, it’s silly to design a course in a way that encourages and incentivizes cheating. Did they think it wouldn’t happen because they’re Harvard?

I think it’s more likely to happen because they’re Harvard. If Harvard is it all like any other university, I can guarantee that where cheating is made possible, cheating is done, and there is very little guilt over it.

At the heart of all of these things, I think, is good, old-fashioned greed.

Maybe if we start naming things for what they are, we can get back to a place where truth is valued and recognizable and believed in.

These are all stories of greed: for attention, or grades, or money, or power, or some combination of all of them. Even as economic security becomes tougher to achieve for more and more people, we find ourselves in a kind of “;wealth worship,” where being a good journalist isn’t good enough if you can be a famous one, where we decide that we can run three-hour marathons instead of four, where we feel we deserve our A’s, or our good reviews or the Presidency of the United States.

I sometimes read about how the current generation has been ruined by the self-esteem movement, but they can hardly be blamed with their role models, champions who cheat, politicians who lie, journalists who don't believe there is such a thing as truth.

Or a teacher who is worried about looking like a square when he says he believes in truth. All of us are signaling that there’s nothing much worthy of belief aside from our own “;success,” our image, and how we’re perceived on some imaginary scoreboard.

These are all forms of cowardice, a lack of trust in ourselves and others, that we will not be judged of value unless we are perfect, if we are anything short of outstanding.

Twitter is neither better nor worse than any other medium for conveying truths: @biblioracle

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

26
Aug

Math Geek Mom: Fall Orientation

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
Mama PhD

In some of our classes that fulfill the math requirement for the core curriculum, we occasionally teach sections involving logic, asking questions such as, “;if we say ‘if A, then B’, does that mean that ‘if B, then A’?” I found myself thinking of these questions as I was delighted at the signs that sprung up on campus this week directing new students to various events on campus.

This is the week of fall orientation on our campus, and the folks running the programming came up with a great theme for this year. They noted that “;Ursuline Fall Orientation” could be abbreviated as “;U.F.O.”, and this led to the arrival of a large number of signs across campus with cute drawings of flying saucers with adorable Martian-like creatures in them. I laughed at them, and then found myself back to the problem of asking if something that is identified as a UFO is still able to be classified as “;unidentified.” I suppose it does not matter, as long as students follow the signs to get to the next meeting or lecture they need to find. In the mean time, those of us on the faculty are scrambling to finish the preparation for classes that started when the summer seemed to end incredibly abruptly, leaving us teaching classes in lecture rooms that were still uncomfortably hot.

But it is not just Ursuline’s school that seemed to start very early this year. My daughter’s school started early, too, leading to a dilemma as I needed to figure out how to handle attending orientation for her school and teach my already running classes. Her school scheduled her orientation day on a day when I teach all day, bringing me back to the paradox of teaching in a college.

May people who are not professors view us as having very flexible schedules, which we do, to a degree. While our schedules are very flexible in some ways, as we can take work home and do it on the weekends, they are incredible inflexible in other ways, as we cannot take a “;day off” once classes have started, as those in many in jobs outside of academia can do. Indeed, if we absolutely cannot make it to class one day, we need to find a substitute for that class. As you can guess, for those of us teaching subjects like Calculus and Statistics, or worse yet, the major-level mathematical theory classes, finding a substitute at the last minute is often impossible, and so we need to find other options.

As it worked out this year, my daughter’s fall orientation left me in the position of having a Calculus class to teach at a time when there was no one who could substitute for me that day. As my husband was not available at that time to handle orientation, I had to do some creative work in trying to be in two places at one time.

I created a worksheet for my students to do during the start of the class, and had a proctor come in to give it to them during that time. I planned to make it to class as quickly as possible, as soon as I met my daughter’s teachers and helped my daughter set up her locker. It worked out fine, but it once again left me with the question of how one juggles the demands of a job in the marketplace in the midst of society’s common expectations that such demands do not exist, or at least not for both parents.  Such expectations are common in this part of the country, where it is common for one of the parents to parent full time.

Of course, I realize that such a commitment to my daughter’s education could have been just as difficult even if I did not work in the marketplace, as it could have been possible that I had duties to care for another child or a parent during that time. However, as I do work as a professor (a fact that I am thankful for each day), I would like thoughts from my readers about how to handle matters when our jobs conflict with our duties as a parent. And I am also curious as to how, when necessary, to talk to her school about perhaps revising their expectations of when I am available.

I hope to figure this out soon, but for now, I stumble along. Someday, I realized, will look back on this struggle with nostalgia. For, I realized, as I helped my daughter find places for everything in her locker, that the days are numbered when she will even want me involved in such aspects of her life.

Wishing everyone a wonderful and productive new school year!

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

19
Aug

A “Social,” Totally free and Openly-Licensed Intro to Sociology Textbook

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
Hack (Higher) Education

I underline and highlight as I read and scribble copious notes in the margins of books (or sometimes, particularly in a book that I used for teaching, on a color-coded series of sticky notes that serve a dual purpose of bookmarking particular passages). But as I found myself reading more and more digital texts in recent years, I’ve struggled to adjust my note-taking habits to the new format. Sometimes it just wasn’t that easy technologically to take notes (I had to ditch my old-school Kindle for this very reason); sometimes it wasn’t that easy to find the notes I’d digitally jotted down; I worried that, much like ownership of digital texts is in question, my notes might just disappear if a platform owner decided to yank them (See: Amazon’s infamous 1984 incident).

But while The New York Times and others have worried that e-books spell the doom for marginalia, I’ve long felt like they offer an interesting opportunity, too. What if we can more easily share our notes? What if we could see the authors’ commentaries on their own works? What if we could easily read experts’ highlights? What if a class could work together on the pages of an assigned reading -; asking and answering questions, and in turn giving the professor a sense of what’s being read and what’s being understood?

Many of these things are problems that the education startup Highlighter has been tackling, initially offering a JavaScript plug-in enabling “;comments in the margins” on blogs and websites. (I chose Highlighter as one of my favorite startups of 2011). Since then, the startup has shifted its focus slightly to become an education publishing platform that lets textbooks be published for the Web (as well as in PDF, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and ePUB) -; all with built-in social marginalia features.

Today Highlighter announced that it’s partnering with the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a non-profit committed to finding ways to lower the cost of textbooks, to product a book for the upcoming Fall term -; Introduction to Sociology. The textbook, created by OpenStax College and Rice University is free and openly licensed.

Highlighter and 20MM describe it as “;the first student-faculty interactive textbook” insofar as it will offer these social highlighting, annotating, commenting and sharing features. The Highligher version of the textbook will also let professors place students into smaller study groups for easier social interaction and enables them to track students’ reading and note-taking progress within a topic or chapter.

The app is built in HTML5, meaning it’s accessible across devices and platforms and via modern browsers.

Highlighter has also landed contracts with a handful of universities that will utilize the startup’s publishing platform for course material.

I recently wrote that the latest round of textbook-related news was banal at best. But the social components, along with the OER materials and the flexibility therein, do offer something a lot more interesting here, I think.

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

19
Aug

#ASA2012

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
University of Venus

I’m at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver through Monday and I’ll be writing up short dispatches and posting them here at UVenus.

Liminality  -I am in a funky space located somewhere between a sociologist and a member of the press. I’ve been attending/presenting at ASA since the late 90’s and this time, I am representing UVenus and Inside Higher Ed. It’s a strange feeling, a space of watching and observing rather than participating. I’ll write more on this as the weekend progresses.

I received my Ph.D. in 2004 and, after a short stint as a faculty member, took a dean position and dove into administration.  At ASA2010 in Atlanta, I presented two papers -; one in Sociology of Culture (based on my dissertation research) and one in Sociology of Education (based on my administrative work). That was also a time of straddling two worlds: academic and administrator.  I was very much aware of watching faculty members at work, watching the boundaries of a discipline being actively maintained, watching graduate students being indoctrinated into the discipline through the mechanizations of a professional society.  As an administrator, I was aware of how this helps faculty become known entities in their worlds and increases their status. I was also aware of how this takes them away from their institutions, departments, students. It is not a bad tension but it is a place of push and pull.

Writing for UVenus, I can’t help but think of our writers and readers as I attend sessions, read the Twitter feeds, and watch the interactions. The Twitter feed is dominated by the voices of PhD students and early-career faculty -; resisting the indoctrination and professionalization while realizing that “;success” requires some sort of acquiescence.  I’d like to hear more from you in the comments on the good and bad of attending conferences.

I attended a fantastic panel on Inequalities in College Access and Completion yesterday afternoon and I’ve asked a couple of the presenters for their papers.  I’m hoping to write a more substantive post on this topic later this weekend. One important issue that came up at the end of the series of presentations was around the obligation of an academic to the people she studies. Do we prioritize the “;purity” of our research over the lives of those we study or vice versa? For me, this comes back to one of my favorite topics -; the role of academics with regards to public engagement.

Stay tuned for more and follow the Twitter chat at #ASA2012. 

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

10
Aug

Following the Lead of McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
Technology and Learning

We can debate Brian Kibby's vision that higher ed should go completely digital in 36 months. Many of us have already commented on his essay "Digital Deadline", and I'm sure that you will have some strong opinions as well when you go back and read his piece and the subsequent discussion.

What stands out for me is not so much KIbby's arguments, although I do think they are interesting even if I don't share all his beliefs, but that Brian Kibby is the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Kibby's essay is the opposite of the bland corporate speak that we often get from employees of for-profits in the educational technology and publishing sector. I love the Kibby is willing to passionately lay out a vision for change in higher ed, one that many people will strongly disagree with.   

It is certainly true that Kibby is writing about his own industry in his essay, and that McGraw-Hill does have a stake in the digital transformation, but I do not believe that Kibby's article was at all a piece of marketing. One would hope that a leader in the educational publishing field would have strong opinions about the future of his own industry and the role that publishers can play in transforming higher ed.  

Perhaps "Prbanks" said it best in his comment to Kibby's article when he wrote:

"One should not be so quick to judge Mr. Kibby's motives simply based on where he works or what he may or may not stand to gain for taking such a bold position. Reading the article carefully reveals (at least to me), that his position is far more of a challenge than a prediction. Perhaps if we viewed the world more directly through the eyes of today's students – the ones that can type circles around most of us (including me) on a mobile device – Mr. Kibby's enthusiasm and passion wouldn't seem self-serving to so many folks on here. Just because he's involved in a for-profit endeavor doesn't mean he's out for pure personal gain".

I've always wondered why more employees of for-profit educational and publishing companies don't follow Kibby's example and publicly engage with our IHE community. When I speak to the professionals who work for ed tech, for-profit education, and publishing organizations I find them to be passionate, knowledgeable and article advocates for change. Unfortunately, the opinions of people who work in the for-profit sector are underrepresented both in the article and blog comments, and in the Views section. 

Why don't we see more participation from people in the for-profit edtech, education, and publishing sectors in our IHE community? My sense is that for-profit companies have not done enough to incentivize, train, and support their employees to participate in online communities such as IHE. Employees are concerned about expressing views that may run counter to corporate messaging. The idea that public communication is something that the public relations people do is deeply entrenched, and it takes an active and concerted effort from company leadership to empower professionals throughout the organization to engage in a public dialogue.

I also think that employees may be worried that whatever they write will appear "self-serving." That even if one's boss supports public participation within web communities such as IHE that the community itself will de-value any contributions. I think all of us who work in the non-profit education sector need to do a better job of inviting our for-profit, edtech, and publishing colleagues to all the communities in which we interact.   

Finally, we should recognize that thoughtful participation and contributions to our IHE community, contributions that I think Brian Kibby models, involve the investment of time and energy. The people I know who work in the for-profit sector are staggeringly busy.  They would like to write, blog, and comment more – they just don't have the time. This is an issue for the leadership of these companies, as they need to find build in the proper incentives and rewards for this sort of engagement.   

I don't know Brian Kibby, but after reading his essay I'm much more likely to want to speak with him and learn more about what McGraw-Hill is up to in the digital education space. Business in higher ed is built on relationships, and getting your company's people into the discussion is the very best form of outreach.

Does your company encourage you to follow Brian Kibby's lead?

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

02
Aug

Or, I could blame “lower ed” . . .

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
Getting to Green

It's probably a little bit (but only a little bit) unfair of me to lay blame for the cultural immaturity that is consumerism at the door of American higher education.  After all, most of the behaviors and expectations that prevent children (consumers) from becoming adults (citizens) are established well before entry to college or university.

Some of it, of course, comes directly from advertising.  One of the lessons I taught my kids early on was that commercials are lies.  All of them.  Some are big lies, some are smaller lies, but none of them tell the truth.  A bit later, I taught them the corollary that advertising is proof that most grown-ups will lie for money, and that even more grown-ups are willing to be lied to if money is involved.  All my kids grew up to be skeptics, and each of them has a well-developed capacity for cynicism.  (I have no idea why.)

With the amount of TV most American kids watch before they even enter pre-school, the groundwork for consumerism has clearly been laid.  With the proliferation of cable channels targeted specifically at kids — all the way down to toddlers — it can be laid more efficiently and effectively than ever before.  Nothing like advertising to unformed minds in images and simple terms/concepts that they can relate to.  Heck, if you can get the concept of "McDonalds" or Cocoa Puffs firmly rooted before the more general concept of "food" is fully established . . .

But the truth of the matter is that most early schooling — heck, most schooling at any level — reinforces submission to authority (including the spurious authority which is the mainstream media) rather than teaching resistance to it.  The earliest task of public schooling is to socialize students.  Public teachers at all levels who succeed are ones who master classroom management (read: discipline and the constant inducement of submission).  Typical pedagogy reinforces subservience to textbooks, to testing protocols, and to the premise that what's being taught is what it's important to know.  The authority of the information, the validity of the tests, the importance or even relevance of the specific material covered — no teacher who regularly undercut any of these implicit messages would likely remain employed.

Additionally, typical pedagogy teaches individualism.  Group projects are the exception, not the rule, in most classrooms.  Solidarity among students would be many teachers' (and even a higher percentage of principals') worst nightmare.  Pour the knowledge into the individual, test what knowledge is retained by the individual, reinforce the separate identity of each student.  "Divide and conquer" is a common tactic in schoolrooms.  Unfortunately, it means that high schools graduate students who think of themselves as divided and expect to be conquered.  What more could a market campaign designer hope for?  (This is one area in which home-schooled kids may have a leg up on the typical public-school product.  Of course, many of them have even more so been divided/set apart and conquered in other areas of their cultural lives.  Sigh . . .)

So is it fair to expect higher ed to, even partially, reverse or offset the implicit cultural messages with which are incoming students have been deeply imbued?  Perhaps not fair, but necessary.  After all, if not us . . . who?  The transition from high school to college/university at least offers a juncture at which significant change in attitude and awareness might be introduced.  One expectation of incoming first-year students is that college will be different and, in some ways, it is.  But the inherent authority of the textbook and the emphasis on the individual (now seen as a consumer of education) persists.  Questioning of the system, or of the societal norms it reproduces, is hardly encouraged in most undergrad curricula.  Indeed, it's relatively rarely encouraged even in grad schools.

Of course, if teachers and principals would be threatened by consciousness and solidarity in public school students — most of whom still live at home and thereby are at least minimally subject to parental influence — just think how much more professors and deans of students would be threatened by the same in a population that has (commonly) just moved out of the parental home and might well be toying with rebellion.  Moreover, as part of institutional attempts to promote successful transition and increase student (particularly first-year) retention rates, a lot of effort goes into making sure that the college/university experience isn't too different from what the kids are used to.

But . . . if we keep doing what we're currently doing, we're going to keep getting what we're currently getting.  The graduates we turn out are well-conditioned to their role as consumers.  And consumerism has aspects that are very unhealthy for the economy, the environment, and democracy.  The net effect of all our little tactics, seen at a macro-level, seems to be more destructive of a healthy society that reproductive of it.

Maybe institutions of higher ed can influence the pedagogy and practices of universal public education — after all, that's precisely what happened a century ago.  The standard mix of high school subjects became standardized based on expressed requirements for admission to college or university.  If we (particularly the most prestigious of us) shift what we're looking for in applicants, high schools will (over time) shift what they emphasize in their graduates.  Inquisitiveness can be fostered but, at present, it's not seen as a priority.

Sad, that.  But maybe it goes a way to explaining how a nation which idealizes the decisive independent individual more and more consists of self-declared individuals whose main experience of 'personal freedom' seems to be reflexively making exactly the same (market-constrained, marketing-instilled) choices as everyone around them.

Society is not — all of us collectively are not — benefiting from the collective impact of those choices.  We need to learn to choose better. 

Anybody know a teacher?

 

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

25
Jul

How It Sounds

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
Confessions of a Community College Dean

Sometimes it’s the offhand comments that tell you the most.

In a conversation a few days ago, some thoughtful faculty noted in passing that the state’s constant drumbeat about job placement and STEM fields — two different things, btw — was becoming a factor in faculty morale in the humanities and social sciences. They heard every invocation of college-as-personnel-office as an attack on what they do, and as a harbinger of even-more-diminished resources to come.

I couldn’t blame them, really.  Budgets are tight, new state and federal money (when it exists) tends to go to more favored areas, and it’s not hard to read the public mood.  

As someone who has attended more Employer Advisory Boards than is probably healthy, I can attest that much of the “;practical-versus-pure” dichotomy is overdrawn, if not simply false.  But the political rhetoric is pushing in one direction, so some folks — understandably, if unhelpfully — are compelled to push back in the other, thereby implying that the terms of the discussion are correct.  If I could, I’d love to convene some much larger Employer Advisory Boards and invite both politicians and the English department to observe silently.

Even in our most baldly vocational programs, employers consistently make it clear that their greatest need, and disappointment, with new employees is with the soft skills.  Even in technical areas, we hear consistently that anyone who wants to move above the entry level needs to have good communication skills, good workplace savvy, and a basic sense of numeracy.  The employers are still willing to do a certain amount of training on their own specific systems; what they want from us is people are who have the skills to be trainable and employable.

In their more thoughtful moments, I’ve heard politicians acknowledge that.  But in the heat of legislative battle, such counterintuitive truths don’t get heard.  Instead, we fall into stereotypes of “;ivory tower” academics not preparing students for the “;real world,” and we believe somehow that if we could just reduce education to training, everything would be fine.

It doesn’t work like that.  It has never worked like that.

The relevant question is not whether we should fund, say, chemistry, as opposed to sociology.  (Last week, the Freakonomics folks — whose readers tend to have economics backgrounds — did a poll asking which social sciences should die.  Shockingly, economists didn’t choose economics.)  That’s the wrong question at the systemic level.  (It can be the right question on individual campuses, but that’s another issue.)  Both majors can produce thoughtful people who have something to offer, and both can produce drones.  And especially in the first two years of college, it makes sense for students to have at least some exposure to each discipline, or at least to similar ones.

At its core, some very smart economists say, the jobs crisis is not primarily about having too many sociology majors.  It’s about having a too-skewed distribution of wealth, a too-powerful financial services industry, and too many people making life choices that any competent sociologist could tell you don’t lead to good outcomes.  I’m much more worried about college dropouts — especially those with heavy loan payments — than I am about graduates with degrees in comparative literature.  

Historically, the liberal arts grads have struggled somewhat to get the first real job, but have done quite well for themselves once they’ve made their way in.  They just need that first foot in the door, which is a tall order during a nasty recession.  But let’s not confuse the effects of the nasty recession with the value of the liberal arts education.  And even more importantly, let’s not make the mistake of purging the “;gen ed” courses from the technical and vocational fields.  Technical firms need managers too, and those managers will need to be able to understand people, write and speak well, and make decisions with limited and flawed information.  

Attacking the humanists is not going to solve the recession.  It simply is not.  If the employers with whom I speak are to be believed, that’s the last thing we should do.  Short-term training is, at best, a short-term solution; if we really want long-term prosperity, we need people who bring the whole package.  That means recognizing English and history and, yes, sociology as integral parts of our mission.  The answer isn’t to hit back with the virtues of irrelevance; it’s to affirm the relevance of the educational core.  We need people who know enough to listen to the offhand remarks.

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

17
Jul

Thinking about Coursera’s Growth

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

Blog: 
Hack (Higher) Education

The online education platform Coursera announced today that 12 more universities had signed on as partners, joining the 4 that were part of the startup’s launch in April. Joining the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, University of Michigan and Stanford are Georgia Tech, Duke University, University of Washington, Caltech, Rice University, University of Edinburgh, University of Toronto, EPFL – Lausanne (Switzerland), Johns Hopkins University (School of Public Health), UCSF, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Virginia.

That last university is a particularly interesting one, considering the role that MOOCs played in the ouster of UVA president Teresa Sullivan by its Board of Visitors. The decision-making at UVA is the focus of much of Inside Higher Ed’s Steve Kolowich’s article on today’s news. Kolowich chronicles the negotiations among UVA deans, faculty members and Coursera, noting the irony that these discussions were ongoing as the BOV fired Sullivan for failing to have an adequate response to their questions about the university’s plans to respond to the Stanford-model MOOCs. The plans are clear now: join the Coursera platform.

The rapid expansion of Coursera’s partners, along with the equity investment made by two of them, certainly suggests that many institutions are preparing to face what the New York Times’ David Brooks called the “;campus tsunami.” Initially, Coursera had to woo schools and professors; now schools and professors are approaching Coursera, which offers universities its technology and expertise in teaching and grading “;at scale.” And while this might demonstrate what Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng told me -; that “;MOOCs are not a passing fad” -; it’s not clear yet how MOOCs will evolve as they expand to new disciplines and new universities and/or how these MOOCs will change higher education in turn.

It’s the latter that seems to elicit the most excitement and concern. Georgia Tech computer science professor Mark Guzdial has shared the email that faculty received there announcing its partnership with Coursera. In it, Provost Rafael Bras offers reassurance that “;we are not abandoning our central mission of residential undergraduate instruction. In fact, we view this as an opportunity to remain true to our pledge to define the technological research university of the 21st century by exploring new modes of instruction and operation. What we learn from the Coursera and other similar experiments will above all benefit our own students and strengthen our existing programs.”

That echoes how Ng and his co-founder Daphne Koller describe Coursera as creating a “;better education for everyone.” When I spoke to the duo when Coursera launched, Koller said that the creation of these online courses will make for robust and active learning experiences on campus. There is a “;growing amount of content out there on the Web,” she said, and “;the value proposition for the university isn’t getting the content out there but rather the personal interaction between faculty and students and students and students.”

That is part of the value proposition of the residential campus experience, I’d argue. When I asked Ng about the impetus behind these universities’ signing up for Coursera, he said that both faculty and administration were pushing for it. But students at these universities, not so much. That’s not to say that students in general aren’t interested in the free online classes -; Coursera boasts 1.5 million course enrollments by over 680,000 students. But these students aren’t necessarily that same population served by a residential campus. (According to demographics from Ng’s Machine Learning class offered last fall, only about 11% were in undergraduate degree programs.) In The New York Times today, University of Michigan (and Coursera) professor Scott Page says, “;There’s talk about how online education’s going to wipe out universities, but a lot of what we do on campus is help people transition from 18 to 22, and that is a complicated thing,.” He adds that MOOCs would be most helpful to “;people 22 to 102, international students and smart retired people.”

Who’s being “;helped” here is a crucial consideration -; for institutions, for faculty (both research and instructional faculty), for enrolled students and for learners everywhere.

A few lingering questions:

  • How will the University of Washington’s plans to offer credit for its Coursera classes work? (And related: how will concerns about online cheating be addressed? Udacity partnered with Pearson for this.)
  • How will a partnership with Coursera change universities’ other online course offerings? (These universities and other universities, pre-existing and planned programs, and particularly for-credit ones)
  • How will the peer grading work? (History professor Jonathan Rees raises questions about how well students will be able to evaluate one another’s assignments.)
  • With all these online lecture-based course options, whither the offline lecture-based course offerings? And how will funding models have to change for universities if students opt to learn “;elsewhere” for these credits?

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

10
Jul

Taking into consideration options

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Blog: 
Getting to Green

Recently, I was talking to a friend of the family.  A middle-aged woman with a PhD, she's fluent in three languages and has spent a reasonable portion of her life in Europe.

One question that came up was why, in certain countries, people might be disallowed from spending their own money to buy health care that the relevant national health care system might deem to be unnecessary or of low priority.

The basic premise underlying that question, of course, is that people who have sufficient money should be able to spend it on anything they choose.  It's a pretty common premise, particularly in this country.  But it's not completely true.

When some function is seen as critical to the functioning of society, the application of money to advantage one individual over another is no longer seen as consumer choice, it's seen as corruption.  People shouldn't be able to spend money to get better treatment from the justice system.  They shouldn't be able to spend money (at least, not directly) to influence people when they're in the voting booth.  And they shouldn't be able to buy legislation (again, at least not directly). 

Physical security and equal treatment before the law is something a just society provides.  Universal education is something a just (and wise, and capable) society provides.  And, for the citizens of most developed countries, health care is something their society (just) provides.  Some of those countries have decided that allowing private money (and private providers) to enter the health care market is as corrupting as allowing bribery of police or judges or legislators.  As Hannah Arendt said, "Society is the form in which the fact of mutual dependence for the sake of life and nothing else assumes public significance."  Health care would seem to qualify.

My concern is not that this woman (a US citizen) doesn't have universally-available health insurance.  (Her husband is a federal retiree; health insurance isn't a problem for them.)  Nor do I worry that, in spite of having traveled and lived extensively in countries with universal health care she still doesn't understand how it works or how it affects social dynamics.  My concern is that she seems typical of so many Americans who appear unable to imagine any situation other than the one in which they currently find themselves.  No health care finance system other than the one we have (except, perhaps, the one we had before the Affordable Care Act was passed).  No education system other than the one we have.  No legislative system other than the one we have.  No military other than the one we have.  No economic system other than the one we have.

Have we created a generation or three with no real sense of possibility?  And if we (society) have, how much of the damage has been done by those of us in education?

 

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U

02
Jul

six Approaches the iPhone Altered Larger Ed

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Technology and Learning

This past Friday was the 5th anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. Over at the NYTimes Bits blog Brian Chen, author of Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, has some observations about how the iPhone changed phone and software industries. 

The way to think about the iPhone in relation to higher ed is less as a single product but a new product category. This category, which includes Android/Google and maybe eventually the Windows 8 phones, equals smart phone plus an app ecosystem.  The carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T etc.) remain a critical (as they own the cellular network), but annoying component of this ecosystem. Annoying because their voice/data pricing plans are only getting more expensive, restrictive and confusing as the hardware and software on smartphones improves exponentially each year. Any impact that the iPhone and its cousins achieve in higher ed will be in spite of, rather than because, the big cellular companies that we all must endure.

How has the iPhone changed higher ed?

1. A Glimpse Into A Mobile Learning Future: The iPhone has allowed us to clearly peer in our learning future, and that future is mobile. The only limitation will be that processing power, storage and software will improve faster than our ability to re-engineer learning tools around the mobile form factor. What would an LMS (learning management system) designed from scratch for Apple's iOS and Google's Android look like? Can we imagine virtual synchronous classroom/meeting tools such as Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate look like with a native mobile design?). The iPhone screen seems plenty big enough, the rate-limiting step of the iPhone as a learning platform seems to be the keyboard. Mobile devices are great for content consumption, not so wonderful for creation (and education depends on creation). Despite the challenges, it seems clear that the ubiquitousness nature (always with us, always connected) of the iPhone type device will make mobile the primary platform for 21st century learning. We are evolving to a place where our mobiles are extensions of ourselves, our outboard brains and always at hand communications and entertainment devices. Where gaming and social media and communication go, education will soon follow.

2. The Apps vs. Browser Debate: To a great and growing extent education is already mediated through technology. We interact with our fellow students, professors, and course content via software. This software is moving from our computers to our smart phones (and tablets). The question is, how what form will this software take? Will it be delivered through the browser or an app? Perhaps the browser/app debate will soon fade, as native apps become web apps – simple shells around browser based content and data exchange. The desire to avoid the expense and complication of coding separate apps for each platform (iOS, Android) and for the Web is understandable. I'm unconvinced, however, that this approach will provide us with high quality mobile (and mobile educational) experiences. The gold standard for apps in my experience is the NYTimes and Amazon Kindle iPhone app. These apps are easy to navigate, sync automatically, and work offline. Reading a book with the Kindle app or news through the NYTimes app causes the device to recede into the background. I don't know of any education app that performs as well as these two examples, and I have a hard time believing that when that app comes it will not be a native mobile app.   

3. The Mobile Services Imperative: Every college and university feels the pressure to mobilize our web content. All the work we have done in the past 20 or so years to get our higher ed content and services to the web seems inadequate if this same content and services are not available for smart phones. Where we are going to get the resources to bring everything we do on the web to the mobile screen is a reasonable question. The web work will not go away (it will expand), and the pull to mobile will only get stronger. Will web sites designed with RWD (responsive web design) techniques be robust enough to perform on iPhones at the level that our students, faculty, staff, alumni, potential students expect? Can we avoid coding around native apps, and instead go with a write-once display everywhere web app strategy, allow us to move rapidly and cost-effectively enough into our mobile campus future?

4. Device Proliferation and Support Challenges: Campus technology services and campus applications now need to work with both computers and mobile devices. Do you have an easy way that your students, faculty and staff can get their iPhones on your secure wireless network, your printing and application authentication systems? What devices will you support in your student help desk? How far will you go to help your professors troubleshoot their mobile devices? What training, advice, and support will you offer instructors on incorporating mobile phones into teaching?    

5. A BRIC Education Growth Roadmap: The BRICS are Brazil, Russia, India and China – they are the fast growing emerging economies with huge populations and a rapidly increasing role in global trade, manufacturing, services and consumption. We could (and should) spend lots of time thinking about the opportunity to export US higher education to the BRICS, and to grow the footprint of our educational technology and educational publishing companies in these countries.   As the action in higher education moves from the already wealthy to the growth economies (the BRICs and beyond … such as South Korea, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, and Nigeria), the mediating technology will be the mobile device. The BRICS largely skipped over landline technology, jumping directly to cellular phones. The demand for educational services at every level will be way larger than traditional place based (campus based) institutions could ever provide.  Education will be mobile. Campuses will still be built, but the great volume of educational interactions will take place on the mobile phone.

6. The Disappointment of Unrealized Mobile Education Potential: The final way that the iPhone has changed higher ed over the past 5 years is the degree to which the iPhone has not changed higher ed. The mobile education hype has outpaced the mobile education reality. Smart phone education applications and service continue to be an appendage to those designed for the web.  We lag behind in delivering our students the course, library, and campus services and content that they want on their mobile devices.  We have very little understanding of how we can incorporate these handheld mobile computers into our teaching. And from what I can tell, Apple, Google or Microsoft have not made education a core part of their long-term mobile strategies.    

What would you add to this list of how the iPhone changed higher  ed?

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U