Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.
Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

Academic Freedom and the LMS

This morning, I delivered this paper in the Academic Freedom session at the West Coast Division of the American Historical Association’s Conference in Las Vegas.  Thanks to my friend Hank Reichman for inviting me to participate.  I don’t usually write out my papers anymore, but I did this time so that I didn’t get tongue-tied by edtech-induced rage.  Being able to post it here on my largely inactive blog is a nice additional benefit.

I just started teaching a new course, filling in for a colleague who has left our university for greener pastures.  It’s a mostly online course, and one of the restrictions I faced when accepting it was that it had to be delivered through Blackboard, the learning management system (or LMS) on our campus.  In my usual online courses, I use the free version of Canvas, a Blackboard competitor.  Nevertheless, I accepted the rationale behind that requirement: that a group of incoming Freshmen needed to get used to the system that they would encounter most often once they started for real in the fall.  That system would definitely be Blackboard. 

I first encountered Blackboard around fifteen years ago.  I decided to go to a couple of training sessions just to see what this new online tool could do for me.  I decided quickly that whatever it offered wasn’t worth the trouble.  It was badly organized, hard to learn and didn’t offer anything besides a grade book that I didn’t use already.  Having used a competing learning management system for a few years now, I’m in a much better position to critique Blackboard than I was back then.  However, unless you too are burdened by having this particular LMS on your campus, that critique would not be very useful.  Instead, I want to offer a broader critique of LMSs in general as a threat to academic freedom because even if you don’t use whatever LMS your campus offers, their misuse is a threat to your freedom to teach your classes however you happen to see fit. 

Learning Management Systems first arrived on the scene during the mid-1990s as a way for universities to speed the offering of online classes. Your faculty can’t program? We’ll set up this shell course for them and teach them how to populate it with no coding necessary. It was kind of an AOL for the academic set, except you couldn’t pick up a disk at your nearest convenience store and your university paid the bill.

Somewhere in the first decade of this century, learning management systems evolved from what was then generally known as “distance ed” into ordinary face-to-face classrooms. Store your syllabus here. Upload your handouts here. Let your students see how they’re doing in the course at any time by uploading your grades into the LMS grade book. For people who wanted to quickly modernize their courses without building their own web sites, this proved tempting. For contingent faculty or faculty at community colleges, the use of the LMS quickly became an expectation for online and face-to-face courses alike. Indeed, as I’ve documented in the pages of the journal Academe, mandatory LMS usage is now fairly common at community colleges across the United States and even in other private and public institutions where faculty do not have the protection of tenure.

The American Association of University Professors has issued many statements concerning the relationship between academic freedom and teaching. For example, the 1999 Statement on Online and Distance Education reads, in part, “Teachers should have the same responsibility for selecting and presenting materials in courses offered through distance-eduction technologies as they have in those offered in traditional classroom settings.” What I want to argue here is that statement should go a little further: Academic freedom should not only include what professors teach, but how they choose to teach it. If you use a learning management system in an online or a face-to-face setting, all sorts of important choices about how you teach are made by actors that exist far outside any one faculty member’s control. No wonder so many faculty with academic freedom resist using their LMS, or at least refuse to do much with beyond employing its online grade book.

Here again I’m sorely tempted to start complaining about Blackboard again, and I will do a little bit of that in what follows. However, before I talk about any LMS mechanics, I need to emphasize that there are a lot more people involved in your campus learning management system than the people who created that system. In my case, it has been difficult to tell between which parts of Blackboard that I don’t like originate with Blackboard and which parts are a function of how our IT Department wanted Blackboard customized for our campus.

For example, when I was first figuring out Blackboard, I called our IT help desk and asked whether there was any other way to message individual students other than their university e-mail accounts, which in my experience very few of them ever check. The answer was no, because someone in our administration building had determined that any other means of communication was a potential FERPA violation. On the other hand, I had heard about how awful Blackboard discussion forums were long before I returned to Blackboard again a few weeks ago. Therefore, I’m almost certain that the fact that the comments there barely nest is entirely Blackboard’s fault. With many other complaints it’s impossible to tell who exactly is responsible because I wasn’t there when the decision got made.

If I’m teaching a face-to-face course I can hand back papers with grades on them, ask a student to visit me in office hours or – and sadly this is the most appropriate analogy to my first complaint above – ask students to give me an e-mail address that they actually check. With respect to class discussions, as long as I’m there to lead I can make sure that nobody’s points get lost in the back and forth of a large class by emphasizing their importance or requesting direct follow up. By teaching with Blackboard at CSU-Pueblo, I’m giving up both these prerogatives.

My usual workaround for the awfulness of all LMS discussion forums is to use Slack, the free office messaging program. Not only do the comments nest well, students can actually message each other without me seeing, which encourages them to be frank with one another, which is especially important if they’re doing group work. We can also use emojis and GIFs in Slack if we are so inclined. Perhaps most importantly for me at least, the smartphone app is really, really good so when I make an announcement it goes right to the notifications on everyone’s phone, so I can be reasonably certain that nobody will miss it.

Unfortunately, if the principle behind the Blackboard installation that only allows e-mail messaging ever gets applied to my class, I am in deep, deep trouble. I recently confessed my heresy to an administrator in the hopes of finding an early solution to the problem and I realized that this kind of inherent conservatism extends well beyond FERPA. His argument was that if our accrediting body ever asked for the documentation from my class and the university couldn’t produce it because they didn’t control it, we might have a problem on our hands. I argued that hundreds of faculty all over this country are using Slack in their classes and so far no university has lost their accreditation as a result. Besides this, that kind of risk aversion will inevitably stifle pedagogical creativity, either by faculty all using the same bad online tools or by eschewing online tools and classes altogether.

At present, I’m working on a happy compromise with which both faculty and my administration can live. While we’re not quite there yet, what I have learned is how important it is that faculty can’t just let key decisions about their online tools be made by other people. If you don’t, expectations will change while you cover your ears and hum loudly. Mandatory LMS usage will come not as a command, but in the name of your students or in the name of “efficiency” at your university and you will be swept up by change nonetheless.

I believe it is far better for faculty to be proactive. Ride the wave to save your prerogatives rather than just hold on for dear life. Technology will set expectations for the classrooms of the future, and if there’s no faculty representation in those discussions everything will change – probably for the worse – because of our lack of input.

The most important standard I would bring to any discussion about what technology should be employed on campus and the faculty role in how it should be employed is that faculty deserve the same prerogatives when they use an online tool as they do when they are teaching in an entirely conventional face-to-face classroom. To suggest anything else defeats the purpose of moving any part of a class online in the first place. I fear that administrations tend to favor contingent faculty for online teaching precisely because they don’t expect them to utilize their traditional prerogatives in any classroom setting because they are too worried about their continuing employment.

The second standard I would bring to any discussion of how technology like the LMS should be employed on campus is that faculty should be offered as many technological choices as possible and that they should be the ones who make the final decision about which ones they use. My co-author Jonathan Poritz and I compare the ideal edtech situation to a buffet in our 2016 book Education is Not an App: The future of university teaching in the Internet age. Everyone eats what they want or perhaps chooses not to eat at all. It is the administration’s job to lay out the table rather than to force the available offerings down anyone’s throat.

The final standard I would bring to a discussion of the LMS is that the result should be as close to the open Internet as humanly possible. That means faculty have to be able to employ tools that exist entirely outside their LMS if they so choose, like Slack or Hypothes.is, the open source web annotation program. The best LMS available will play well with programs like these, as Canvas has tried to do – and I think the most recent versions of Blackboard does too – so that faculty can run them inside their campus shells with no extra logins and little trouble. To do otherwise is to go back to the days of Internet walled gardens, like America Online. And after all, college campuses are the kinds of places that are supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology since they have so many smart people on them. Treat those smart people like the average corporate peon when it comes to how they teach – the action at the center of their job descriptions – and you are going to have a lot of very unhappy smart people on your hands.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Freedom, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

Throwing out the syllabus and starting over from scratch.

In 1999, I learned two different computer programs which have both changed my professional life for the better ever since. One was Microsoft Excel. Not being a statistics guy, I barely touch on its full capabilities. Nevertheless, it is absolutely perfect for calculating grades. Something that a long time ago once took me about twelve hours per semester now takes about thirty minutes – less if I don’t make at least one mistake writing the function.

The other program I learned back then was what they used to call Microsoft FrontPage. That was their web page program. While I have never become particularly good at making professional-looking web pages, I can say with certainty that I have not handed out a piece of paper in class during the entire twenty-first century. I have always posted my syllabus online, along with any handouts or assignment sheets that I’ve needed to use. This is not only good for the trees, it’s good for keeping your progress in class perfectly aligned with course calendar as you can update it as you go.

Don’t know what’s going to happen that day? Check my web page. Want to know whether you should take my class in the first place? Check my web page. The syllabi are all there. They don’t get scrubbed every semester.

The Components of a Syllabus:

While I know that I am hardly alone in putting my syllabi on the web now, I also know that the professoriate is far less than 100% web-enabled because I still get plenty of bureaucratic demands to send my syllabi along to some bureaucratic functionary as Word documents for review.  In Texas, faculty are required to post their syllabi online – sadly because right-wing state legislators wanted to know if professors are inculcating students with leftism. I actually think this is a good idea mandated for the wrong reason.

But that was almost eight years ago now. I think the far more interesting question now is, what exactly is a syllabus anyway?

Relying on this old post on this same subject, I can still find the way that the State of Texas decided to define the components of a syllabus:

(A) satisfies any standards adopted by the
institution;
(B) provides a brief description of each major
course requirement, including each major assignment and
examination;
(C) lists any required or recommended reading;
and
(D) provides a general description of the subject
matter of each lecture or discussion;

That’s not a bad list when you think about it. I do all of them already. If you don’t, I think you’re doing your students a disservice.  At the very least, they deserve to have some idea of what their semester is going to be like before the deadline to change classes arrives.  Heck, I think you and your students are both better served if they know this before they sign up for your class in the first place.  The more they know, the better.

Of course, the problem with this philosophy is that it can make for some really, really long syllabi.  The amount of language that I have to include in my syllabus as mandated by my institution has only grown the longer I’ve been here.  The longer I’ve taught, the more hypothetical problems I’ve actually experienced in class.  The more hypotheticals I’ve actually experienced, the more I want to include language in the syllabus to take care of those hypothetical problems.  This has proved particular true with entirely online classes, where written rules are particularly important since the written word is practically the sole means of communication between students and the professor.

What is the result of a very long syllabus?  Fewer students read it and everybody ends up frustrated.

If Your Syllabus Is the Size of a Small Book Why Isn’t It Organized Into Chapters?:

BlackBoard is the Devil and it was my only option here for most of my career.  That’s why my hatred of Learning Management Systems is well-earned.  I’ve softened somewhat while teaching online because I was able to build my course on free Canvas for educators.  However, as I get better with WordPress, my hope is to transition off it entirely.  In the meantime, I’m at least benefitting from a system that is organized far more instinctually than BlackBoard is.

I’ve come to think of it as a closed teaching web page of its own.  There’s a place for the syllabus.  There’s a place for assignments.  There’s room for your handouts.  You can even run online textbooks inside of it.  There’s actually room for a lot more than that, but that’s all I use.

The reason that I want to move all of this off into my own domain eventually is so that I can keep all of the constituents of a class in one place that I and I alone control.  This way I can keep vestiges of the class around for future classes to build upon – like links to past online assignments and blog posts from students that explain particular tools better than I can.  If I ever get into Hypothes.is to mark primary sources (like most historians seem to use that tool), I can preserve earlier annotations on my media files too.  Perhaps most importantly, outside the LMS is far easier to integrate and utilize portions of the wider world wide web.

But this makes for an absolutely massive amount of words for students to read.  Even if not all of this material is in the syllabus, referring back to various pages has become difficulty for me because although I remember the rules of my own classes I can’t always remember which rule appears on which space.

One of the things I’ve doing lately is writing my syllabi in Scalar, the media publishing program out of USC.  It’s not just that it’s good for including media of all kinds.  It’s the structure of a Scalar into chapters and sub-pages.  Scalar is a good way to post and then relegate the contents of previous classes into a part of the syllabus where people can find it when they need it – or, more often, form to show it to them when they could use it – but not to have that content distract them from the main components of the class.

A Syllabus Built for the Web:

This may be the absolute least interesting thing you can possibly do with Scalar, but it suits my current needs.  But what about everybody’s syllabus needs for the future?

Suppose you want your online syllabus to actually take advantage of what the web can do rather than just be a paper document that happens to be posted online.  How would you change its organization?  How would you change its structure?  How would you prioritize the components of the syllabus so that students saw the parts they needed when they needed them, but could still find the parts that they didn’t need as much when and if they needed those?

This is really tentative, but I’m imagining a syllabus which has the (B) and (C) components of the Texas definition of a syllabus up at the very top.  The (A) parts – stuff like learning outcomes – would be hyperlinked from somewhere up there, but not taking up the prime real estate of this new kind of document.  Most of the top tier of this layered syllabus would be the calendar – (D) in the Texas definition –but the kind of language that describes the subjects of the assignments would be hyperlinked from the short description of each each individual class.

The idea would be for students to get what they needed when they actually needed it.  Don’t tell them what the paper question is until you actually start discussing the paper, unless they decided to click ahead.  Don’t describe what’ll be covered in the midterm on the main syllabus.  Describe it on the midterm page that they’ll probably only start reading when the midterm comes into view.

I might change my mind about this one, but why should students worry about exactly how their final grade is going to be computed until the end of the actual course?  Perhaps that information belongs not at the top (where I have it now), but at the very bottom of the main syllabus, after the calendar, or maybe on its own page hyperlinked from the final.  Prioritize the most important stuff.  Bury the rest – not so deep that it never gets discovered, but deep enough as to to make the idea of reading the syllabus at all seem a lot less onerous.

My idea here is to let the rules and regulations of the class unwind gradually as those rules and regulations actually apply.  They’ll always be available for the perusal of those students who are particularly worried about such things, but my redesign would be for the vast majority of students who want you to explain absolutely everything they need to know on the syllabus and then forget about it.  If nothing else, this would free up more time on the first day of class.

So how would you redesign your syllabi if you threw out its existing structure and built it up again from the very beginning?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

What I’ve been doing lately other than blogging…

I wrote this for our local paper, the Pueblo Chieftain, with the title “New Education, Same CSU-Pueblo.”  I learned today they published it earlier this month, but  I missed it at the time since it wasn’t online.  Since it wasn’t online, I’m guessing they won’t mind if I publish my last available draft of the article here:

Did your college education look like mine?  Not that long ago, I listened to instructors lecture in huge rooms, wrote papers, and took tests that were graded by teaching assistants.  I barely talked to my professors at all.  

Things have always been a little different at CSU-Pueblo.  We’re a relatively small school with classes where it is difficult to get lost in the crowd.  Faculty are always available in their office hours to talk to if a student is having trouble.  The college experience is changing thanks to the Internet, but CSU-Pueblo is keeping the same friendly, personalized attitude towards education that we’ve always had.  

You’ve probably heard of online education.  It is now possible to take nearly any course using a computer, usually at a time that suits the schedule of anyone who has other things to do with their life.  They’re really useful if you already have a career, or need to work while being a full-time student.  

CSU-Pueblo now offers a range of online and partially-online courses because having this opportunity can make the difference between students dropping out or graduating.  

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working in our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), developing my own fully-online history class and helping other faculty learn about the tools available to them so that they can make the most of what’s on the Internet in their courses.  In all my research into this subject, the most important thing I’ve learned about online education is that all online classes are not the same.  

Plenty of them are dull, largely-automated, cookie-cutter classes designed primarily by for-profit companies and taught by faculty who are not really paid to care whether their students graduate.  The universities that run their online classes this way are just looking for a quick buck by expanding enrollment opportunities to as many students as possible.

At CSU-Pueblo, the CTL is encouraging faculty to bring the same friendly environment with individual attention to the university’s online courses as we do for our face-to-face classes.  Take an online course with one of our instructors, and you won’t be treated like a number.

If you have trouble, you’ll be able to find your professor on campus during office hours.  Enjoy the experience, and you’ll be able to take a face-to-face class with that professor next semester if you’re so inclined because plenty of our best professors are taking the plunge into online or partially-online courses.

The Internet also is changing the way that face-to-face teaching is being carried out on campuses across the country.  In my case, I gave up lecturing a few years ago so that I could concentrate on teaching the students in all my classes the kinds of Internet-related skills they’ll need to thrive in the modern world.  

Much of the time, my students create media projects rather than write papers.  Instead of memorizing historical facts, they contribute to the pool of reliable information on the Internet by building wikis or editing existing Internet resources.  By acquainting faculty with these new online tools, we are helping our colleagues update their pedagogy for the 21st Century.

The term “digital natives” gets thrown around a lot these days in order to suggest the existence of an online-related generation gap between the old and the young.  In my experience, however, both young and old alike have an unreasonable fear of trying anything on computers that is more complicated than running the average iPhone app.

Sure, many faculty show PowerPoint slides during lectures, but unless the lecture is about the Internet, what does that teach their students about how to handle the technologies of the future?  Right now, as the Internet moves from a novelty to the center of nearly every aspect of daily life, is a perfect time for faculty and students to come to grips with technology together.  

Go ahead and enroll in any old gigantic online program if you want to experience a poor substitute for a traditional college education in which the professor plays only a minimal role.  At CSU-Pueblo, we’re building a different kind of  online course as part of this different kind of education.  It’s both cutting edge and personal, because the introduction of new technology doesn’t mean we have to give up being the same friendly campus that we’ve always been.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Online Courses, Teaching, 0 comments

The all-faculty university.

JP and I wrote about Western Governors University in Education Is Not an App.  Therefore, when I heard that the Inspector General’s Office at the Department of Education had asked for $700 million dollars back after an audit that found no substantial faculty interaction between faculty and students – indeed, that WGU was essentially a correspondence school – my first reaction was:

via GIPHY

My second reaction….and I’m not entirely proud of this…was:

via GIPHY

After all, here’s a university with the innovative hook of getting rid of faculty. Maybe not completely, but they obviously believed that they could take care of most of my job by replacing me with a “program mentor.” Is it any wonder that I would take this personally?

Seriously, how bad must the situation at WGU be if this kind of decision could go down during the Trump Administration at Betsy DeVos’ DOE? It must be mind-blowingly awful. Yet that hasn’t stopped the inevitable, “The Department of Education is stifling innovation” hot takes from coming. The one that tipped me over the edge into writing this is from Anya Kamenetz at NPR:

“The audit is akin to taking horse-and-buggy era laws and applying them to the automobile,” argues Phil Hill, an independent expert on educational technology who has consulted for institutions including WGU. “It’s really rooted in a traditional classroom model of seat time.”

Under this interpretation of the law, Hill says, if a statistics instructor gives a 45-minute live lecture three times a week to 300 students, that’s “regular and substantive contact.”

If students view that same lecture in video form, and that same instructor, with the same credentials, is available as needed to help students one-on-one or in small groups, that wouldn’t count. That’s despite research showing that the second model can help students understand concepts more thoroughly and often progress more quickly.

Actually Phil, they’ve tried the “show the class videos and make the instructor available for questions” plan before. They were called “Massive Open Online Courses.” Does anybody remember MOOCs? A statistics instructor in a large lecture hall may not be the ideal pedagogical situation, but he can nonetheless 1) Take attendance 2) Read the audience to see how they react to individual nuggets of information and 3) Give a test that doesn’t require a machine to grade it so that he can check the student’s work and see where they went wrong. Even a faculty-led online class can include the kinds of interactions that make some version of all three of these things possible. A poorly-paid, and poorly trained “program mentor” interacting with the student entirely online can’t.

What has always made me angry about Western Governors University is their decision to go with a next-to-no-faculty model when the costs of faculty have been dropping for about forty years now. What am I talking about? Here’s the Guardian from this morning:

Sex work is one of the more unusual ways that adjuncts have avoided living in poverty, and perhaps even homelessness. A quarter of part-time college academics (many of whom are adjuncts, though it’s not uncommon for adjuncts to work 40 hours a week or more) are said to be enrolled in public assistance programs such as Medicaid.

They resort to food banks and Goodwill, and there is even an adjuncts’ cookbook that shows how to turn items like beef scraps, chicken bones and orange peel into meals. And then there are those who are either on the streets or teetering on the edge of losing stable housing. The Guardian has spoken to several such academics, including an adjunct living in a “shack” north of Miami, and another sleeping in her car in Silicon Valley.

All of this gives me an idea: Let’s create an innovative university that’s run entirely by faculty. It could be an autonomous collective where everybody picks the courses they want and the technologies that serve their needs the best. Perhaps we can elect a sort-of “Executive Officer of the Month” to liaison with the DOE and other government agencies when we need to, but the key point is that we could then be for damn-sure that education would always come first.

After all, who plays a more important role in keeping your university running, the faculty or the associate deans? We could probably use technology to eliminate both groups, but in only one of those cases would getting rid of them entirely turn your college into a correspondence school.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, MOOCs, Online Courses, Teaching, Technology, 2 comments

I have run out of interesting things to write about edtech.

Welcome to the new More or Less Bunk. I think this is version #4, if memory serves me well. I redesigned it again because I’ve started guesting in that computer science class I described in this post. Since I knew I was going to have to describe how to build actual web pages, I had to build one myself.  That would be my new landing page, and I had to redesign here at the same time because of the way I structured this site back in 2014.  I have more to do here, but this is yet another example of learning by doing on my part. I remain stunned that this sort of thing is now technically half my job description.

With more actual doing, I’ve become far less interesting in pontificating.  It helps that I’ve been writing my next actual history book all summer. Lately, I’ve been doing a deep dive into the history of catsup!  So you’ll understand why I don’t much care about MOOCs or personalized learning or the coming faculty apocalypse (which, of course, JP and I already covered here).  Since I’m running a Faculty Learning Community (a term I picked up from the one and only Adam Croom) for our very incipient Domain of One’s Own project on campus starting in August, I still have to follow this stuff to some degree.  However, I’m pretty sure that I’ve run out of interesting things to write about edtech.*

However, before I leave this subject for what may be a pretty long while, I thought I’d review where we’ve been over four versions of this blog.  In 2012, a bunch of people in Silicon Valley started claiming that MOOCs were going to disrupt education and make universities obsolete.  I spilled a ton of pixels worrying that they might be right.  It turns out they were wrong.  But the really interesting question from the history of technology standpoint is exactly why they were wrong.  The rather surprising popularity of this post about edtech and refrigerators made me want to review this because maybe it’s not quite as obvious to some people as it is to me.

Disruption theory is built on analogies.  If I remember right, Clayton Christensen invented disruption theory by looking at the computer storage industry, then applying those lessons elsewhere.  Eventually, he applied the same principles to higher education.  The same way that Silicon Valley shills like to pitch things as “Uber for____,” there are useful versions of this kind of argument and less useful versions of this kind of argument.  Frankly, I’m not sure that this is the correct chronological order, but “Uber for hotels” gets you Airbnb.  On the other hand, disrupting education the same way that Zip Disks disrupted the computer industry during the 1990s gets you a really shitty education – a.k.a. MOOCs.

The obvious reason for this is the degree to which the new thing replicates the old thing.  Storage is storage.  Someone’s house still gives you shelter, just like a hotel.  Someone’s car still gets you where you’re going.  And in all three of these cases, it gets you what you want much, much cheaper.  Reach back to refrigerators, and the new technology is actually a vast improvement over the old one, ice boxes.  But i turns out that there isn’t much of a paying market for watching professors lecture and answering a bunch of multiple choice questions, at least among potential college students.

But even if there was, completely disruption isn’t exactly inevitable.  Sometimes the hotel itself is the reason for your visit.  Whether it’s a conference or just the pool and the buffet downstairs, hotels will always have something on Airbnb.  To go back to that refrigerator post again, some people  actually prefer going to the laundromat that owning their own washer/dryer – particularly if they don’t have their own house.  Sometimes even if the experience seems better, disruption may take time or might never happen at all because of strange cultural considerations that mere business professors will never bother to contemplate.

So what’s the deal with education technology?  MOOCs were and remain a mostly lousy experience, except for corporate training apparently – perhaps because corporations don’t much care about the quality of the student experience.  Various efforts to disrupt other aspects of the college experience with edtech have met varying receptions.  Sometimes the reception has been good (think textbook rental services, for instance).  Sometimes the reception has been bad (think e-textbooks, for instance).  If the savings are worth the inconveniences of an inferior experience or can somehow provide a better experience, those companies will prosper.  If they aren’t, then we’ll have yet another fad on our hands.

What I’ve learned in my years of studying this topic, is that there are actually a ton of really devoted people who are trying to develop and utilize various educational technologies to create useful and – at least in some cases – superior experiences to how colleges and classes operate now.  These efforts are, as you might expect, hugely labor intensive.  Therefore, they seldom appeal to private Silicon Valley companies trying to make a quick buck.  They do, however, appeal to all of us who are in higher education for the long run and a willing to try something new.

I got drafted to teach WordPress in a computer science class because I became one of those people.  What used to be peripheral to my job has moved to the center thanks to learning by doing.  While I may share a few of those experiments in this space moving forward, I’m afraid my days of long-winded pontificating about edtech are over.

Maybe it’s time to try history blogging again.  Anyone want to hear about the history of catsup?

* The one exception to that statement is an article that JP and I have in the hopper.  Actually, I drafted it from one of Poritz’s ideas and he’s been sitting on it for a few weeks now. It may see the light of day eventually, but if you’re reading this JP, I think you know what you have to do in order to make that happen.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in MOOCs, Teaching, Technology, 3 comments

Gophers.

I got exciting news yesterday: I’m becoming a computer science professor! I’m alright. Nobody worry ’bout me. It’s just for three days.

You see, my friend JP is teaching a CS class for pre-college Freshmen this summer and it’s going to start with getting them Reclaim Hosting sites, then teaching them how to control their own domains. Poritz, who codes his own pages like most people write prose, is so far ahead on this he actually needs help explaining this simplified process to ordinary people, so I’m coming in for the first three days to help talk the students through this process. Ironically, I’m hardly the greatest WordPress web designer in the world. [Indeed, THE Jason Jones owes me an e-mail or at least a post on improving one’s WordPress skills so I can redesign this site again as practice.] Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve become quite good at modeling “Let’s all learn this together” behavior.

This is necessary because this whole concept of “Digital Natives” is complete rubbish. Yeah, I know that’s a rather common sentiment (at least in well-informed circles), but I’d actually go one step further: A lot of old people like me are a lot closer to being digital natives than college students are. After all, I was on a college campus for most of the Nineties. I actually learned (and have now completely forgotten) Gopher in an 80-part e-mail course. By which I mean, this gopher:

Not this one:

via GIPHY

Or this one:

So I literally have decades of experience being uncomfortable on the Internet.

I’d argue that this is a good thing. One of the many things I learned writing a book with Poritz was the origins of the fake word “app.” Yes, I already knew it’s short for “application,” but what JP taught me is that the whole point of applications is to perform a particular function for you so that you don’t have to worry about it. By making things more easy, you’re more likely to hand over your cash, your data or perhaps both.

As a stereotypical liberal college professor, the whole “Fake News” thing from last year scared the Hell out of me, and would have done so regardless of the outcome of the election. Since the Internet is so important to everyday life and is already (for good or for evil) taking over the college classroom, I’m committed to helping students understand how to think critically about something that’s inevitably such an important part of their lives. With an epidemic of fake Founding Fathers quotes perverting our politics, the relationship between this project and history professing should be obvious.

Or we can all be gophers and climb back into our holes and wait for Bill Murray to blow up the golf course for us. Pardon me if I prefer to be more pro-active.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Personal, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

The means of educational production.

I’ve had two articles come out in the last two days, and I think both deserve at least a shout-out here. The first is a Chronicle Vitae “column” about teaching that has been well-received on Twitter. Give it a look if you’re interested in teaching….or trucks.

The second is a collaboration between my co-author Jonathan Poritz and I in the AAUP journal Academe. While it obviously shares some similarities to Education Is Not an App, I like it a lot because it’s such a good collaboration that I can’t tell where my ideas stop and JP’s begin. The one exception to that is the reference to the “shopfloor” in the title of the essay (as I’m the labor historian of the two of us) – and a few very stray references to Marxism/Leninism in the text.

This is the residual to what was the first conclusion to this piece, all of which ended up the cutting room floor. However, I want to resurrect a bit of it here for the sake of added value. While JP and I were discussing shared governance during the planning process for that article, it suddenly struck me just how unique shared governance is. After all, what other worker besides college professors have even a fraction of the control over the conditions of production that we do? We work alone. As long as we don’t make the mistake of using the learning management system there are few direct records of our work and our output is almost impossible to measure accurately.

I’m not saying that professors should have completely unfettered control over their workplace. That’s why it’s called shared governance, after all. However, our training and expertise has traditionally bought that us far more autonomy than most other workers. Technology is a threat to that autonomy. If you want to see why, look at practically every other post on this blog going back five or six years.

But – and this is where my epiphany come in – unlike skilled production workers, college professors don’t have to unite with anybody in order to control the means of production. By employing whatever educational technology best suits our needs, we can ride the wave of automation all by themselves – like my Chronicle Vitae piece suggests, automating the tasks that should actually be automated, and utilizing our skills to combat the edge cases that come up in teaching every day. Because we already control the means of educational production, we don’t have to give it up without a fight.

The problem comes up when either the labor supply expands beyond what the market can absorb – see Marc Bousquet on grad students as a waste product – or when technology enables our employers to try to re-define what learning is. Shared governance is our protection against both these kinds of changes. That’s why fighting for its continuation can be revolutionary all by itself.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Shared Governance, Technology, Writing, 1 comment

Clayton Christensen hates you and other observations.

I know this article about our old friend Clayton Christensen is old news now, but I was caught up in the end of the semester when it came out and have only gotten to writing about it now:

In a speech Thursday at Salesforce.org’s Higher Education Summit here, Christensen spoke at length about disruption theory broadly and discussed its application to colleges and universities. Higher education, he explained, was among the industries that “for several centuries was not disrupted,” but “online learning has put a kink in that.”

Technology itself is never the disruptor, Christensen said; a new business model is. But “it is technology that enables the new business model to coalesce, and that’s what is happening in higher ed now….

“If you’re asking whether the providers get disrupted within a decade — I might bet that it takes nine years rather than 10,” he said, to a smattering of gasps among the nearly 1,500 attendees.

So there’s absolutely no evidence yet of disruptive innovation in higher ed yet Christensen doubled down on his theory? What else did you expect from someone who runs “a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.” Whose world is the Christensen Institute allegedly improving?:

Our higher education research aims to find innovative solutions for a more affordable, sustainable postsecondary system that better serves both students and employers.

Faculty? Not so much.

Reading Christensen party like it’s 2012 again reminded me of the first online conversation I had with Stephen Downes way back in those days before I even knew who Stephen Downes was. This is me in the comments to that old post, after Downes criticized me for being more interested in my own job than in universal education:

I’m certainly not going to remain in the global one percent if you succeed in making my job obsolete. Yes, there will still be a Harvard and there will still be a Yale, but state regional comprehensive universities will dry up like dust when the government funding moves entirely online.

You seem to welcome that, Stephen. Do you expect the tens of thousands of people who depend on these kinds of universities and the communities that depend on those universities to welcome that too? [A]m I supposed to just sit quietly and take one for the team?

But forget about me for a moment. If half the colleges in America actually closed, as Christensen STILL predicts, not just faculty would suffer. Administrators, staff, cafeteria workers…all of them would become jobless whole college towns would keel over and die without the economic engine that the local university currently provides. Billions of dollars that would have stayed circulating in those communities would be sucked up and distributed among investors and programmers in Silicon Valley. How exactly does this outcome serve those area employers? And what good is your online college degree if your hometown just died in the process of making it affordable.

Around the same time that Christensen Chicken-Littled himself onto the front page of IHE again, I marked yet another keynote by Audrey Watters which I thought might be useful at some point in the future (and, of course, it was). She’s talking about a different subject here, but I think this principle remains applicable:

Our institutions do not care for students. They do not care for faculty. They have not rewarded those in it for their compassion, for their relationships, for their humanity.

Christensen claims his schtick is non-partisan and improving the world, but it’s really just warmed over Social Darwinism from the late-nineteenth century.  You can dress up Herbert Spencer in the fig leaf of social science and technological philanthropy, but that doesn’t make his core philosophy any less cruel.

Posted by Jonathan Rees, 1 comment

With or without edtech.

Earlier today, my Twitter friend Jon Becker @ed me a link to an EdSurge essay about edtech and refrigerators, suggesting that I was “the only person qualified to comment on this.” Indeed, I can say with some certainty that I am the only person in the world who has written two books on refrigerators who is also interested in education technology. So when the Clayton Christensen Institute for Cheerleading Disruption of All Kinds throws a slow, hanging softball made especially for me, how can I possibly resist?

For those of you who refuse to read anything produced by the Clayton Christensen on principle (and I have some sympathy for that position these days), let may save you a click. The author, Julia Freeland Fisher, uses research on comparative appliance adoption rates by her colleague, Horace Dediu, to argue that:

[I]t’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.

What do refrigerators have to do with restructuring schools? In order to use a new refrigerator, consumers only had to plug them in. In order to use washing machines, on the other hand, consumers needed plumbers to help them and maybe a whole new set of pipes in their houses. That’s why refrigerators became much more popular, much faster than washing machines and that’s why you need to change the way schools are structured so that they can best take advantage of all the wonderful new education technology that EdSurge must cover every day.

The first thing that jumped out at me about this article was Fisher’s basic dates in the history of the refrigerator. She says the refrigerator debuted in the 1930s. The first electric household refrigerators appeared during the 1910s. They were already being mass-produced by the late-1920s. “Refrigerators quickly took hold,” she writes “gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s.” I actually used the exact same statistic in my book Refrigeration Nation (p. 179, for all my fellow refrigerator aficionados who want to consult your own copies), but I used it to make the exact opposite point about refrigerators. In 1957, when over 90% of American households had refrigerators, only 12% of French households had refrigerators and less than 10% of English households did. If refrigerators were really that great, why didn’t they too just plug them in and enjoy the bounty?

As a historian, this is where I became really curious about where Fisher got her statistics. While she namechecks her colleague Dediu, there’s no link in the piece to any published study about refrigerators and washing machines. Indeed, the only link in the entire essay is to a general study about technological diffusion. There’s a chart in Fisher’s essay about comparative adoption curves, but there’s no source listed for that either. Other than completely leaving out the bottom left, the curve for refrigerators looks OK to me, but how can I trust her point about washing machines if I don’t anything about the source? How can I be sure that this isn’t the edtech equivalent of fake news?

That’s why I opened a book. Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother is a classic in the history of technology and pretty close to the only scholarly work that tackled the history of refrigerators at any length before I did. Since it is a general history of appliances, I figured it might have a little bit about washing machine adoption rates in one of the sections I had forgotten about. So I pulled it down off my shelf, turned to the index and quickly hit the jackpot; “washing machines…diffusion, 195-96.” Here’s the quote:

“[I]n 1941–roughly thirty years after they came on the market, and twenty years after the prices had fallen to more or less reasonable levels as a result of mass production–only 52 percent of the families in the United States owned or had “interior access” to a washing machine. Thus, just under half the families in the land were either still hand rubbing or hand cranking their laundry or using commercial services.”

If you’re wondering, the Fisher/Dediu number is about 10 percentage points lower than the one that Cowan used. Perhaps this can be explained by the difference between owning a washing machine and “accessing” a washing machine in the basement of your apartment building or taking your dirty laundry down the street to a laundromat. But for purposes of Fisher’s overall point about edtech, this distinction means everything.

Can you live without a refrigerator? Most Americans can’t. [Indeed, the refrigerator adoption rate in the modern US is actually 99.5%.] However, French or English people in 1957 still had easy access to fresh meat and produce at large markets.  Many still choose to live that way today because fresh perishable food tastes better. Americans, on the other hand, tend to preference convenience over taste. That’s why the refrigerator industry was one of only three in the whole United States to grow during the Great Depression.  Anyone who had any money to spend at that time greatly valued the added convenience of electric refrigerators over ice. By 1960, the old ice industry basically disappeared because it ran out of customers.

Can you live without a washing machine? Of course you can. That’s why there are still coin-operated washing machines and laundromats. Keeping your food in other people’s refrigerators isn’t an option in the United States, but you don’t need constant access to a washing machine in order to get your clothes washed by machine when needed. In other words, owning your own refrigerator is close to the only way to have access to refrigeration, but dragging your dirty clothes to any laundromat is a reasonable way to get access to a washing machine even if there is none in your home or apartment.  There’s only one way to keep your perishable food fresh, but there are plenty of ways to get your clothes washed whether you own a washing machine or not. In short, refrigerators are close to a necessity. Washing machines are just really, really convenient.

Can you live without edtech? [You just knew I had to get around to edtech here eventually, right?] Shockingly enough, there were actually good schools in the United States long before Bill Clinton and Al Gore decided to put a computer in every classroom. Plenty of teachers and professors offer great classes of all kinds without anything more sophisticated than their voices and a chalkboard. Weirdly enough, just this morning, right after I read that article, I was pitching our dean on starting a digital humanities program in our college. “What about the professors who don’t want to use technology?,” he asked me. I said I would never in a million years force any teacher to use technology if they don’t want to, but it’s a actually a good thing if students have a wide range of classes in which they can enroll, some of which use educational technology and some of which don’t.

Which brings me to the fundamental problem with the Clayton Christensen Institute for Cheerleading Disruption of All Kinds. The whole assumption behind that article is that one technology will always inevitably drive another technology to extinction: Refrigerators will completely replace ice, washing machines will completely replace washboards and edtech will completely replace conventional teaching. That is only true for the first of those examples (and even then, only really in the United States). Whether teachers want to teach with or without edtech is a cultural decision, not some hard and fast rule determined by the universal laws of technology.

Unless, of course, you have some other axe to grind…

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Refrigeration Nation, Refrigerator, Teaching, Technology, 5 comments