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Apples and oranges.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/07/2020 - 7:32am in

When I was growing up, a copy of the New York Times was on the breakfast table every morning. Even though this is why I feel culturally compelled to maintain my subscription, I suspect I have the same rules that most readers who think like me do: Avoid stories about the denizens of Pennsylvania diners who are sticking with Trump. Don’t click on Bret Stephens’ columns for any reason. Always check the Magazine and the Book Review.

Of course, we college professors understand that the NYT‘s  higher education coverage is often terrible, but I always end up clicking on that stuff anyway and then wish I hadn’t afterwards. I’ll assume you already saw this morning’s virus-related example. My first thought upon reading the headline was, “I’m glad that justifiably worried college professors will see that they’re not alone,” but then I saw the “faculty are the problem” framing build throughout the piece. Nevertheless, it was the final two paragraphs of that story that drove me completely over the edge:

“Nine out of 10 are worried,” he said, especially with the recent rise in cases in California. He is not scheduled to teach until spring, he said, but he expects to sit out that course for health reasons and on principle, because he does not think it is fair to promise students something they will not get.

“It’s not possible to replicate an in-class experience,” he said. “It’s a kind of bait and switch.”

If you’re trying to replicate a face-to-face experience in your online class, buddy, you’re definitely doing it wrong. And while the problem of faculty who think this way is nowhere near as big a problem as the coronavirus, at least this is a problem that we have the power to fix ourselves. 

Before I started teaching online, I got myself a series of appointments with an instructional designer. Literally, the first thing she told me was not to try to move my face-to-face class online because it wouldn’t work. I took this an opportunity to rethink everything about the way I teach. To blow my survey course up and rebuild from the foundation to take advantage of the online environment.

I understand why when the coronavirus first became a thing, everyone’s first inclination was to just start Zooming their lectures. Now that campuses across the United States appear to be ending emergency remote learning  without really fixing the coronavirus problem, if you can use the quality of your online course as a reason to stay safer than you would be otherwise, doing right by your students may just be a matter of life and death. By taking advantage of what an online setting offers you, teaching online will be a lot more like apples and oranges rather than a bait and switch.

If you want to create a good online course, don’t deliver content. Build something useful together instead. Figure out your pedagogical goals; then figure out what tools will help you achieve those goals; then build your course around those tools. Some of them might be in your learning management system. Some of them might be on the open Internet. If you don’t know where to look, there’s probably a center somewhere on your campus that would be delighted to help you find the right ones for you. 

When I first started teaching very late in the last century, I specifically remember telling students that the only Internet sources I wanted them to quote should come from the Library of Congress. That’s obviously changed. Particularly when it comes to history, there has been an absolute explosion of high quality sources available on the Internet. There is no reason that your students, no matter what your discipline, can’t contribute to that huge collective pool of knowledge.

I was too old to get a digital humanities education, so instead it was a 2013 JAH article by Michigan State’s Peter Knupfer that opened my eyes: to what’s possible. He created a class around the Civil Rights Movement in Lansing, Michigan with the public in mind:

The students’ previous work in history had been for an audience of one, their instructor, and once that client had been satisfied the students had moved on. When I asked what had happened to those previous papers and projects, in every case the students told me that the materials were either now discarded, or tucked in the recesses of a hard drive or in a professor’s file cabinet. Yet the students were extremely proud of this work, expressing a strong sense of ownership and intellectual investment in what they had done. The knowledge they had gained from the experience was still available to them, waiting another opportunity for expression, but under what conditions and how that might occur was very difficult for them to say. Some indicated that they planned to use an old paper as a writing sample for a graduate school application. No one had thought of self-publishing it, recasting it as a project for a different audience, or condensing it into a piece to submit as an op-ed, blog post, or other form of publication.

Their work product was a resource guide for a library web site.

As technology has improved since Knupfer’s class, I’ve been bringing students to local archives, teaching students the program Scalar and then publishing those projects on the open internet. As long as archives remain closed or unduly risky, I’m going to use Pressbooks to get classes to write large collectives texts. No matter what tool I use, my goal is to have everyone contribute to the mass pool of collective knowledge rather than try to shut the class off from it.

When you build something, you can turn the Internet in your online classes into a benefit from being online rather than something that draws attention from you during your lectures. While learning new computer tools may seem scary, your willingness to explore them together with your students means you’re modeling good behavior rather than depending upon what used to work for you when you were in college.

Even if you don’t end up building something, when you think outside the box, it becomes possible for any professor in any discipline to build a good online class that won’t leave your students feeling cheated in any way.

These days, your life might literally depend upon it.

Robert Solow on 'Why Economies Grow'

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 10/05/2020 - 9:32pm in

As a follow-up and companion piece to my previous post, I decided to publish a transcription of a lecture on economic growth by Robert Solow that I transcribed originally as an aid for friends and colleagues who were studying economics. Although the lecture was given by Prof. Solow a few years ago during the height of the financial crisis, it contains loads of timeless insights, some of which is useful to be reminded of in the current situation, as discussions about the output gap resume in the next few years (see chart).

However, it's extremely important to keep in mind that in our current predicament as a result of covid potential GDP will also likely take a huge hit, as businesses and employees require some catching up in terms of business practices (misaligned with changing consumer preferences) and job training (due to skills entropy from employees being on furlough), to name only a few aspects that are likely to be impacted. In many ways, the post-covid period will bring us back to the type of economic analysis that used to occur a long time ago when natural catastrophes had significant and frequent impacts on economies' productive capacities.

The video of the lecture is included down below, though the sound quality is very bad, which is why I recommend reading the transcription instead (and you'll get through the transcript much faster by reading it).

Key insights are highlighted in bold font. Enjoy!

The business of this course is the long run. What are the sources of economic growth in the national economy or in the larger economy? Where does growth come from? And the policy implication – well, not implication, but policy question – is ‘How do you get an economy to grow rapidly and to have that growth widely shared in the nation?’
But there is a problem – it is a problem that appeared in the slides that Prof Newstone showed. It is a problem about getting there from here. So I’m going to start by talking a little bit about right now – this is not going to be the usual stuff about the financial crisis and all that – I have something else in mind.

There is something very odd about our economic situation in the US today. I read just recently an estimate from the Federal Reserve that about $7 trillion worth of wealth has been destroyed in the last year or year in a half (in 2008-2009). The country, so to speak, is $7 trillion poorer than it was.

When I wasn’t having a conversation with Cathy in the car, I was trying to divide 7 trillion by 300 million--the population of the US--in my head. It comes to about $23,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. Some, of course, have lost more, some have lost less.

What I want to point out is how strange that is: $7 trillion of wealth has gone down the drain but the productive capacity of the US economy – the capacity of our system to produce goods and service for its people – hasn’t diminished at all. In fact, it is undoubtedly higher than it was a year ago or 18 months ago: the labour force is a couple percent larger, the skills and education and training of the population is certainly not deteriorating and have probably gained. The net investment in capital has been positive – it’s been declining – but has been positive.

So we have a bigger stock of productive capital in the economy now than we did a year ago or 18 months ago. So the productive capacity of this economy is bigger than it was, despite of this $7 trillion of disappearance of wealth. If you are thinking of buying the US economy as a gift for your boyfriend or girlfriend, it would be worth just as much as it was worth – you know, like a used car – it would be worth just about as much as it was worth a year ago.

So in that sense we haven’t lost anything at all. But, of course, the point is we are in a recession. It is one year old according to pundits. And according to other pundits, or the same pundits, it’ll continue for at least until the second half of this year and maybe beyond. And the point is we are not using the productive capacity that we have.

You saw the unemployment numbers that Professor Newstone showed you. It is a lot harder to measure excess capacity in industry than it is to measure unemployment, but there are such figures, and they show an increase in unused capacity. So we have this machine for producing the goods and services for the population and we are not making full use of it. And that under-use of economic capacity, of productive capacity will go on for a long time. Even if the economy turns up in the second half of this year we will undoubtedly finish 2010 still with some slack in the economy because the slack disappears only gradually. 

So if you are interested – now, this is the point, this is why I started this way – if we are thinking about the long run growth of the economy (which means the long run growth of its capacity to produce), it’s not a separate but it’s an analytically slightly different problem to make sure that that capacity is used.

As long as we are not using all of the capacity that we have, the economy and the decision-makers in the economy are not likely to be motivated to do the things that increase potential output, that increase the productive capacity very rapidly.

So the short-run order of business – policy business – for us and every other rich country in Europe or Asia right now is to close that gap or narrow that gap between productive capacity and actual output, which means fundamentally trying to increase the demand for goods and services. And to do that in a way that at least doesn’t create obstacles to the long-run growth of the economy once the gap is closed, and maybe does some things that will help it.

So, imagine it is now January 2011 and the American economy and the economies of the other rich countries – developed countries of the world – are prospering reasonably well, are using their capacity, have closed that gap. Then the question is: What makes them grow? What economic activities that take place have the effect of increasing the capacity of the economy to produce useful goods and services? 

Now, you won’t be surprised – in fact, I’m staring at this monitor here and it says: so what determines the rate of economic growth in the economy? And that’s the question that I want to come to now, and it becomes relevant after we have done the short run task of closing that gap. There isn’t any one word or two word answer to that question. 

And I should make it explicit that I am thinking now about what determines the rate of economic growth in a rich economy, in an advanced industrial economy. I am not thinking about developing economies where the answers are related but the answers are somewhat different.

And the truth is that for an advanced economy the answers to that question – what are the sources of growth of national output, of productive capacity – are really the usual suspects. They are things we have known about now for quite a long time. And basically, what matters is what you might describe as investment in a very broad sense. I have to emphasize “in a very broad sense”.

What increases the productive of an economy like ours is investment in physical capital, in machinery, in computers and all the rest of that, investment in what economists call human capital, meaning skills and capacities of workers and people who work in the economy, and investment in new technology.

And here there is a slight difference between the US and even most of the countries in Europe. Not quite across the board but in most branches of industry the US is the technological leader. The gap was very big at the end of the Second World War and has closed considerably. But still, if you look at sector by sector, with some exceptions, the US is the technological leader.

Other countries of the world, that were even fairly rich countries have the luxury of being able to acquire technology by innovation, essentially by adopting, using what is already known. This country (i.e., the US) is in the position of having – so to speak – to invent its own future.

So basically, if we are looking now at the US, the things we have to look after in order to have a successful fairly high rate of growth (we can talk about the equity issues later) are a high rate of savings and investment in plant and equipment. I’d rather have the saving done here than abroad so that, in effect, the capital equipment that is built by investment in this country is owned in this country, and the returns to it stay in this country. It’s not necessary but it’s probably desirable. 

We need an extraordinary amount of emphasis – and we’ll talk more about this later – on investment in human capital, on producing the labour force that has the skills that are necessary to successfully operate that plant and equipment. And that is especially important because a country like this also has to invest in new technology. There is no place it can copy from – it has to in most cases create it itself.

Now, when I say new technology, the phrase tends to have a “high tech” air about it. But I don’t mean it that way.  New technology needn’t be high tech. It turns out that – in many ways – the most important contributors to productivity in the US over the last decade or two have been the application of information technology to wholesale trade, retail trade and financial services.

In fact, there are studies trying to understand why the major, big European economies, Germany, France, UK and Italy have lagged behind the US in productivity terms, general productivity terms. And the common answer seems to be that they have been slow to adapt the information technology to the service sectors. In manufacturing, there is very little gap, if any. But the gap is in the service sectors. 

So, this is extremely important. And I want to emphasize it, even at the risk of some repetition. One of the standard, valid, almost universal generalizations about the way people behave economically is that technically the income elasticity of the demand for services is high. All over the world, as incomes rise, personal incomes rise, people want to spend, [and] choose to spend a larger fraction of that income on services rather than goods. And you can understand why that should be so.

So this means that most of the rapidly growing advanced economies grow more rapidly in the service-producing sectors than in the goods-producing sector. There are exceptions to that. A country like Germany – to a lesser extent Japan, or formally Japan, not so much anymore – has a strong bias toward trying to make its living from simply exporting high quality manufactured goods. You notice I said exporting because the population of Germany, like the population of anywhere else, wants to consume services as it gets rich, not goods.

So those are the things, the essentially important things that a country like the US needs to do to generate long-run growth of productive capacity. 

I should say, in terms of policy, that you should beware of any universal advice like “well, the market will take care of that”. You know, if the alternative to the free-market economy is some kind of central planning, there is no question to where the advantage lies. But there is absolutely no evidence in the historical record of the advanced economies that zero regulation or weak regulation of industry is somehow conducive to rapid growth, or that minimal involvement of the government in the economy is conducive to rapid growth.

The functions of the government in terms of long run growth are just what you would deduce from what I have already said: promoting research and development, providing incentives for investment when they are lacking, taking care of education, and looking after mobility. By the way, it is probably also true that a country – there is less evidence for this generalization, but it’s probably also true – that business cycle instability is bad for economic growth.

For countries that are given to wide fluctuations like the ones we were looking at a few minutes ago, that’s not helpful for long-run growth because it adds to uncertainty. The likelihood of broad fluctuations adds to uncertainty is bad for all forward looking activities, like investment, like mobility, like education.

I wanted to say one more thing about the issue of mobility. When I say mobility, I mean industrial mobility and occupational mobility. In a rapidly growing, technologically-based economy, people have to change the nature of their jobs frequently and capital has to flow freely from obsolescent industries to new industries.

It is very important when you come in this course to talk about issues of equity. I think it is very important to find ways so that the burdens that are associated with necessary mobility don’t fall on workers and other people who are ill-equipped to prepare them [for that eventuality].

Dislocation and sometimes dislocation is probably an inevitable part of fast, mainly technologically-based growth. But it is the task of economic policy to find ways of combining that with income security, up to now, where it’s mostly below the median for incomes.

Academic Freedom and the LMS

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 02/08/2019 - 9:48am in

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, 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.

How not to Ruin Everything: Futures Thinking Launch

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/03/2019 - 11:56pm in

Launch event for Futures Thinking, a new research group looking into future problems and opportunities created by advances in technology and artificial intelligence. In literature, in popular media, in scientific research, and in public consciousness, discourse about the future, machine learning, and the human elements of digital technologies proliferates more now than ever before. Thanks to developments in artificial intelligence (AI), we are able to speculate about how our fundamentally social species might interact with performatively human-like machines of our own making. Television shows like Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale, and novels like The Circle or Never Let Me Go speculate about dystopian futures that reflect political realities not unlike those that are currently unfolding in the Global North.

Ethics in AI are much debated in science fiction. However, the scholars in the fields of AI and those in literature, history, and gender studies seldom interact to discuss the realities and probabilities of the future of a technologically advanced mankind. Crucially important to our network is the recognition of how narrative informs and shapes the future. Bringing scholars of historical and literary narratives into conversation with ethicists and developers of digital AI technologies is of paramount importance to futures thinking.

Discussion on AI and global governance is thriving at Oxford, while speculative fiction is an important emerging field in literary studies. This network brings these fields into conversation. We extend from exploring speculative fiction research, questions about the robustness of machine learning, the future trade-offs between privacy and security, to thinking about how we might use historical feminist consciousness-raising methods to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration.

We are keen for interested parties to join our group so if you work on or are interested in any aspect of futures thinking, be it in science or the humanities, in any of the University’s divisions, please contact us and come along to our events!

We are a network founded on principles of access and inclusion, and strive to host events that consider the lifestyle ethics and carer-responsibilities of our members and attendees, as well as their access needs, pronouns, and other inclusion needs. Please do contact us for further information on our manifesto.
Chelsea Haith, Futures Thinking Founder, DPhil in Contemporary Literature

Prof Robert Iliffe, Professor of History of Science

Dr Gretta Corporaal, Sociologist of Work and Organisations in the OII

Dr Alexandra Paddock, Editorial Lead on LitHits, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of English

Prof Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, LitHits Founder, Professor of English and Theatre Studies

Alice Billington, Futures Thinking Co-Convenor, DPhil in Modern History

Throwing out the syllabus and starting over from scratch.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/03/2018 - 8:31am in

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
(B) provides a brief description of each major
course requirement, including each major assignment and
(C) lists any required or recommended reading;
(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 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?

The all-faculty university.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/09/2017 - 5:25am in

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:


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


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.

All well at Harwell: visiting Jisc’s cyber security hub

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/09/2017 - 9:04am in



Ant Bagshaw visits the nerve centre of the world-leading Janet academic network, and talks to the staff who keep UK institutions connected and speed up your on-campus netflix streaming.

The post All well at Harwell: visiting Jisc’s cyber security hub appeared first on Wonkhe.

Digital sanctuary and anonymity on campus

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/09/2017 - 9:09am in

Sian Bayne, in an article based on her ALTC2017 keynote, argues that anonymous social media spaces can give students the opportunity to seek the support and advice they need - but there are also risks for institutions.

The post Digital sanctuary and anonymity on campus appeared first on Wonkhe.

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

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 13/07/2017 - 9:16am in

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.

Universities are failing to equip enough students with digital skills

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/06/2017 - 9:01am in



Universities must better integrate digital skills into curricula in order to remain relevant and competitive, argues Jisc's Paul Feldman.

The post Universities are failing to equip enough students with digital skills appeared first on Wonkhe.