As Koller Exits Coursera, Thinking About What’s Next with MOOCs in Context

Besides preparing for the start of the Fall term here at EMU, I’m also preparing for a return to Capri for the second International MOOC conference being sponsored by the University of Naples Federico II. No one is more surprised about this than me. As I wrote about/recapped last year, I assumed that my invitation last year was one of those once in an academic career kinds of things I got to recall while I was getting to retire or something. I guess now I get to tell the story of how I was invited twice.

The theme of last year’s conference was “The Future of Learning at a Distance and the Role of MOOCs,” and a lot (not all) of the talks were about the ways that MOOC were going to figure into changing higher education as we know it. The theme of this year’s conference is about “MOOC Identity,” concern with the fast changing nature of MOOCs, the role of professional and “less scholarly” MOOCs, and the evolving “corporate” and “academic” partnerships. Last year’s conference was great and I’m sure this year’s one will be too, but once again, a lot has changed with MOOCs in less than a year.

Which brings me to my point: as Rolin Moe discusses here and as Jonathan Rees discusses here, Coursera’s Daphne Koller’s is leaving and going to Calico (which is a Google/Alphabet company). On the one hand, she’s just the latest. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng left in 2012 (though both remain involved in Coursera on their board), and Sebastian Thurn stepped back from Udacity earlier this year (though he too remains involved, just not as directly).

On the other hand, Koller’s departure is different and important because she has been the face and driving force behind Coursera. She was the one who gave a TED talk where she said Coursera was going to bring the dream of higher education to the slums of South Africa.  She’s the one who (at least as quoted in Keven Carey’s The End of College) said something along the lines of “If only 2 percent of all the people in the world are willing and able to pay $74 for a service, that’s $10 billion a year, which is a lot of revenue for a company that can fit all of its employees into one part of one floor of a commercial office building in Palo Alto.” And she’s the one who later claimed that the hype around Coursera was always overblown and the company was doing well by pivoting as a credential provider, the kind of thing professionals might list as an achievement on their LinkedIn accounts.

Moe’s point is that MOOCs are a myth/dream/hope the EdTech world continues to chase:

We push MOOCs not because they have any chance of solving whatever it is which needs to be solved, but because we want to believe there is some one-click option that we could employ and it would create the solution we desire.  [T.S.] Eliot is the oft-quoted but wrong lens.  It is better to consider Barthes’ view of myth and the resurrection of the falsely obvious.  In his preface to Mythologies (1972), Barthes notes how the dominant cultural nodes throughout everyday life conspire to “dress up” our reality to contextualize it in terms of history.  This history should not be considered objective, factual or just but rather the determination of the dominant social climate of the time.  As Neil Selwyn (2013) notes, the expansion of technology (and the rise of EdTech) coincides with a growth in libertarian ideals and neoliberal governmental policies, a one-two punch of individual exceptionalism and belief in the power of the outsider.  We believe in the spirit of the entrepreneur, the perspective of the organization and the power of the technological.

Rees’ metaphor is of the abandoned ship, though he references the mysterious case of the Mary Celeste which was discovered abandoned but none of the crew members were ever found. The “MOOC ship” has/is being abandoned because it never lived up to the hype of the initial “mania,” but it is more than that:

If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities.  Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.

Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time.  Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.

I think Moe and and Rees are slightly wrong, but basically right. I say “slightly wrong” because, as I will be reminded once again in Capri in just over a week, there are many players still involved in the MOOC biz, and the ones outside of the U.S. have different reasons and means of support than the ones inside the U.S. As I learned last year, a lot of the MOOC efforts in Europe are government-sponsored enterprises of various types, and this year’s conference looks to feature speakers from Africa and India, two places that have different goals and needs with higher education generally and MOOCs in particular.

Also, let’s not forget that a) there are some Canadians (paging Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and George Siemens) who would argue in different ways that Coursera and Udacity and the like never were “true MOOCs,” b) there are still a lot of other big MOOC players where things seems to be going at least “okay” (EdX, for example), and c) just because someone leaves a company doesn’t mean the company is going under (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs immediately come to mind).

But again, Moe and Rees are basically right in that the hype of MOOCs completely transforming higher education as we know it has proven to be wrong and it was always wrong. For me, that’s part of what makes MOOCs all the more interesting to study as both another innovation– not a disruption– in distance education technologies, and also as a phenomenon about the glaring ignorance of how education “works” combined with ginned up fears of missing out.

A simple and cursory tour of the history of distance education demonstrates that there have been plenty of hyped phenomenons similar to MOOCs in higher education over the last 150 or so years. Some (radio and television immediately come to mind) had their moments but were ultimately transformed into something else– in the U.S., public broadcasting. Correspondence and “traditional” online courses were hyped, feared, and/or critiqued as threats to the foundations of “The University,” but they ultimately became relatively “normal” means of taking college classes in the U.S.

MOOCs have always had a significant student audience problem. Rees is right– a lot of the problem (based on my own experiences and writing about this, at least) is that the MOOC learning experience isn’t at all comparable to the actual college experience, face to face or online. And while talking about dropout rates with MOOCs is tricky for many reasons (Are MOOC participants really “students?” If they poke around a MOOC for a week and decide they aren’t interested, are they a “dropout?” If a participant gets what they want out of a MOOC but doesn’t finish, is that a “failure?”), any mode of instruction where over 90% of participants don’t complete the course for some recognizable and transferable form of “credit” is not going to replace what we’re doing right now.  But it’s more than that. I think it’s always been a problem of the MOOC providers offering a different “product” than what degree-seeking college students want.

As I have blogged about before, there is consistent data about why students choose the institutions they choose, and by a wide margin, the top two reasons incoming students cite for their choices are the school’s academic reputation and the perception that the school’s graduates get good jobs. The cost of attendance as a reason for picking a particular school is more or less tied for third with financial assistance, schools reputation for social activities, and a visit to campus. In other words, while everyone agrees that tuition is too high, the cost of attendance doesn’t turn out to have a whole lot of effect on the choices going to college students (and their families) make. This survey data is very much in evidence in my local community, where the expensive (and the more highly perceived) University of Michigan attracts many more applicants than the less expensive (and less highly regarded) Eastern Michigan University. If costs were more important than perceptions about academic reputation and potential employment, then EMU would be the school turning away more than half of the people who apply.

In any event, Koller et al initially thought (hoped?) they would draw students away from a place like EMU (and maybe even U of M) because their certificate options were so much cheaper. But that’s like setting up a hot dog stand and trying to sell it to people who are trying to go out to a decent and multi-course sit-down meal. Worse yet, almost all of the participants MOOCs have attracted already have college degrees and they’re not that interested in paying for some “infotainment.” To extend my food metaphor a bit more: it’s hard to market hot dogs to people who really aren’t that hungry– oh sure, maybe they’ll have a sample, but they aren’t going to pay for one.

I think there’s also been a disconnect of perceptions of what MOOCs are potentially for between administrative-types (not to mention various pundits and politicians) and the faculty involved in developing and teaching MOOCs. None of the MOOC professors I’ve read, published in Invasion of the MOOCs, or interviewed for my current project think that MOOCs could replace the experience of taking an actual college class. MOOCs might be useful for lots of things (research, community outreach, PR, and maybe even a way to validate “life experiences” for credit of some sort), and maybe MOOCs make the idea of an online class more palatable. But that’s it.

So what I’m getting at is what’s interesting about looking at context of the rise and fall of MOOCs is not about MOOCs themselves. It’s not useful (or smart) for anyone to look at the “end” of MOOCs and to happily pronounce “well, I’m glad that’s over with and I’ll never have to worry about that again.” No, what’s interesting is seeing how the MOOC phenomenon has proven to be similar and different compared to earlier instructional technologies, and what impact MOOCs will have on what’s next.

Posted in Academia, MOOCs | 24 Comments

Meanwhile, a few pictures from my garden/yard

My silence here has been the result of being too busy about some things and not able to say much (yet) about other things. I’ve been too busy with teaching since the end of June– two classes, one of which was a mere six weeks long (and that was a mistake), and another that wrapped up on Monday. It is too much work too fast, but the money is hard to pass up. Without getting into the details of my salary, faculty teaching in the summer are paid 10% of their base salary per summer class they teach. That adds up so the work is welcome, though for a whole bunch of reasons, this might be the last summer I do this kind of teaching for a while.

And there are many things I would like to write about that I can’t write about here, at least not yet. Some have to do with ongoing scholarly projects, though the thing that is most on my mind that I want to write about but I don’t feel like I can has to do with some very strange faculty contract hijinks. But the dust has to settle on that first.

How’s that for vague?

Instead, I’ll mention three things that are broadly speaking in the department of what I’ve been doing lately/what I’m looking forward to doing soon.

Summer teaching went well, fall is coming soon. Like I said, summer (teaching) is over and prepping for this fall term is coming along, though oddly. I am preparing a face to face version of a class I most recently taught online (and I haven’t taught this class face to face in several years), and also an online version of a different class I most recently taught face to face. It is making me feel sort of backwards in an odd way.

This coming school year is the first year in some time where I won’t be teaching a graduate course, though the course Writing for the World Wide Web has both undergraduates and graduate students in it and I am continuing this year as the Associate Director of the First Year Writing Program and that typically involves a lot of connection with Graduate Assistants. I kind of miss the teaching, though I like the undergraduate teaching experience just as well and those classes have the advantage of not being at night.

Oh, and I moved offices, graduating (based on seniority– I’ll be starting my 18th year at EMU this fall) to a larger office with a window. More on that later I am sure.

I’ve been really into pizza lately because of this book, The Elements of Pizza. I bought it while we were up in Traverse City in May. Besides being a beautiful book, I very much appreciate the advice from Ken Forkish, techniques and recipes that walk the thin line of overly obsessive to playfully forgiving (it’s just pizza, after all). Forkish has talked me out of my childish visions of a backyard pizza oven and talked me into just getting it to work in my oven (though I am not sure my oven really gets hot enough, but that’s a slightly different conversation). I need to get his bread making book, Flour Water Salt Yeast.

The garden has been so-so. In some ways, it has been an example of neglect that has turned out kind of nice anyway:

Is it a garden or is it weeds?

All those white flowers that are kind of pretty are actually just weeds, and those weeds are kind of covering up other weeds. This close-up of some of the front-yard garden is a little nicer and more planned:

Flowers and stuff in the front

I’ve had two main experiments plant-wise this year. One is corn, which I planted as kind of a joke:

Corn?

The other is these basically black tomatoes which I believe are called “Indigo Rose:”

Indigo Tomatoes

Besides being really pretty, they have taken a bizarrely long time to ripen (and it’s kind of hard to tell when they’re ripe, too). And they taste like tomatoes.

Posted in Life | Leave a comment

Clinton’s not exactly brilliant plan on addressing costs in higher ed

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed the other day about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “innovation” plan for helping to address costs in higher education. I am sure there is a lot more to this than what IHE was able to summarize, but here’s part of what IHE said:

The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation.

For entrepreneurs, the plan proposes letting them and potentially their first 10 to 20 employees defer payments on their student loans, penalty-free, for up to three years “as they work through the critical start-up phase of new enterprises.” Entrepreneurs whose start-ups serve “distressed communities” or “provide measurable social impact and benefit” will after five years be able to apply to have up to $17,500 of their loans forgiven.

There’s also a big emphasis on STEM programs, education toward jobs, etc., etc.

I think Alexander Holt has a nice follow-up column to this, also in Inside Higher Ed, “Clinton’s Giveaway to Silicon Valley.” Among other things, Holt points out that more STEM training isn’t automatically “the solution” since there is some evidence that there is actually a larger supply of STEM trained would-be employees than jobs, that the status quo already has loan deferment plans along the lines of what Clinton is proposing, and the last group of students who college students who need financial help from the government is would-be entrepreneurs. To quote:

If Clinton wants to give away money to people who will eventually be wealthy, this proposal is a great idea. People working in tech start-ups will likely go on to earn a fairly high income in life. If a young entrepreneur has a degree from a good school and highly valuable skills, she can still get a high-paying job even if the company fails. If her company succeeds, she will eventually have a lot of money.

And just to add: for the most part, Clinton’s plan to help entrepreneurs is not going to help most of the students we have at Eastern. Most/many of our students are from working class/working poor backgrounds and they are often first generation college students. These students are getting college degrees to get a foothold into the middle-class. Sure, some of our students have Silicon Valley-like savvy and the desire to start their own businesses, but the vast majority of our students are trying to get into an already existing field and business. The same probably goes for most students at most universities, actually.

But speaking specifically about MOOCs and alternative providers: Clinton (and whoever she is listening to on this) is just flat-out ignoring how higher education works. I’ve blogged about this many many times before, and I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly new or controversial. To sum up:

  • MOOCs and professional training enterprises (like Lynda.com) are mostly useful to adults who already have college degrees and jobs who are seeking additional training and credentials, and particularly training and credentials in IT related fields. Traditionally-aged (18-21 year olds, more or less) would-be college students are interested in a degree program, not miscellaneous classes that they cobble together from various MOOCs and “boot camps.” This is why MOOCs have been pivoting to the adult/corporate training market and away from the higher education market.
  • While everyone agrees that college is too expensive and that the costs should be contained, the solution is not to offer cheaper and largely unproven alternatives. Rather, the solution (IMO) is to look at all of the alternatives that already exist. Unlike in a lot of parts of the world, in the U.S. we have hundreds of community colleges and regional universities (like EMU) that are geographically accessible.
  • Furthermore, (as I’ve blogged about before too), while the costs of attendance obviously matters to traditional college students and their families, it is only one factor students make about where to go to college, and it’s usually not the most important choice. The Higher Education Research Institute has been surveying first year students for fifty years, and in answer to the question about what was “very important” in their decision about where to attend college, cost consistently runs behind “the college has a very good academic reputation” and “the college’s graduates get good jobs,” and it is almost tied with “the college has a good reputation for its social activities.” If cost was the most important reason for why students decide to go where they go, Washtenaw Community College would have to turn down a significant percentage of the students who applied and the University of Michigan would be begging people to think about going there. In short, the solutions being proposed– making higher education cheaper– doesn’t address the real problem, which is access to high quality higher education.
  • To the extent that MOOCs are going to be useful for students earning college credit, it is most likely going to be for things like the College Level Examination Program (aka CLEP tests), advanced placement, or for various “experience-based” degrees and credits. For example, Georgia Tech has an Online Masters of Computer Science program that is running more or less as a MOOC. As I understand it, a lot of the students in this program are IT people who are well-versed in the kinds of things they are studying.The students enrolled in this program are there not so much to “learn new things;” they are there to prove to a credential-providing institution that they already know these things. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t going to help the 18 to 20 year old looking for experience in the first place.
  • While the dropout rates in MOOCs might mean a lot of different things, one thing is for sure: students who successfully start and complete a MOOC for credit have an unusually high level of self-motivation and ability to work independently. Most traditional college students are not like this. Actually, most everyone is not like this.

Now, if Hillary et al were to call me and ask for my ideas, the first thing I would suggest is that they look around them to the solutions that exist in the form of accessible community colleges and regional universities like EMU. In theory, I’m for a system where students can attend universities like EMU for free, though in practice, I worry about the strings that would be attached to that kind of program by the Feds (as if Institutional Assessment of various flavors wasn’t bad enough). Besides, it’s a fantasy to think that Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) can wave a magic wand and make that happen over night.

What could happen more easily (maybe?) is the Feds could boost the amount of money going into the Pell Grant program, they could ease the restrictions on how students can use that money (let them go to summer school, for example), and they could roll back the cost of student loans to either zero points interest or the same as the prime rate. There is absolutely no reason why the Federal government ought to be making any money off of its student loan program.

But then again, no one asked me, so….

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, Scholarship, The Happy Academic | Leave a comment

EMU attempts to cut costs by focusing on the little things and ignoring the obvious problems (you know, like football)

Everyone at EMU received an email from interim president Don Loppnow with the subject line “Campus message: Dining services,” but what I really think this message is about is the title I have for this post. In the nutshell, one of the “budgeting by a thousand tiny cuts” measures the EMU administration has decided to take is to outsource dining services. The talk of this has been going on for quite a while now, so this is hardly a surprise.

I have to say I’m confused by the potential benefits of all this. Loppnow’s email claims that everyone that EMU now employs in dining services will remain an EMU employee in dining services with the same contracts and what-not. Plus an outside vendor will bring in all kinds of new food options– food trucks!– and do all sorts of renovations to dining halls and all of that. Well, where’s the cost savings then? It sounds more like an act of creative bookkeeping combined with a willingness on EMU’s part to give whatever outside vendor the profits from their food truck et al enterprises.

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t completely disagree with the administration’s move to outsource this stuff and there are a lot of other institutions like EMU that already do this– though Michigan prisons outsourced their food options too, and that’s worked out not so great. EMU claims an outside vendor will invest “millions” in upgrades over the course of the contract, however long that might be. But again, this move doesn’t seem like much of a budget cut in the sense of actually “saving” money; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyplace where the administration has given an actual dollar figure on how much money EMU saves in this move.

Anyway, here’s the passage of the email (I include all of it below) that I initially skimmed past that made me spit up my coffee when I read it again this morning:

It is important to note that Eastern’s overarching institutional priority is to provide our students with a solid educational and research experience – one that will lead to successful careers upon graduation. While our current food services operation and employees do an excellent job, food services is simply not the University’s core mission. Educating students is.

LOL! LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL! LOL!LOL!LOL!LOL! LOL!LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL!

ROTFLMAO!

Hmm, I wonder what other things EMU spends too much money on that is clearly not a part of our institution’s mission to provide students with a solid educational and research experience? Who else is doing an “excellent job” but is doing work that is simply not a part of our core mission?

Jeesh.

Look, if EMU wants to outsource dining services because they think we’ll get better food for slightly less cost for us (and obviously a big profit for whatever vendor wins the contract) and if everyone actually does keep their jobs, then I have to say I’m ambivalent. The EMU-AAUP’s argument has been that dining services people will end up losing their jobs and/or not be in a bargaining unit anymore and it will result in lower quality food, the administration’s argument is the opposite. Both of these arguments are predictions.

However, a) there is absolutely no way that the overall budget savings from this plan are going to make a difference in dealing with out of control spending from sports, and b) while dining services might not be a part of the “University’s core mission,” it’s a hell of a lot closer to that mission than football.

Continue reading

Posted in EMU, EMU-AAUP | 1 Comment

A Candy Bar Explanation of My Ambivalence of Clinton v. Sanders

As I write this post, the news is that Bernie Sanders is meeting with Barack Obama to (I guess) come up with an elegant way to exit the race to be the Democratic nominee for president, a race he’s pretty much lost to Hilary Clinton. Soon we will all be able to move on.

Frankly, I’ve felt quite ambivalent about the process. While I know many people (mostly indirectly and on social media) who had a religious and fanatic devotion to Bernie Sanders and/or a burning white-hot hatred of Hilary Clinton, I felt and continue to feel unusually ambivalent. I’m okay with either of them and have been all along. I voted for Clinton in the Michigan primary, but I was totally okay with the fact that Sanders won it. If the conversation right now was about how Sanders had pulled off the political upset to win the nomination, totally fine with me.

So the whole social media phenomenon of things like #iguessimwithher or the sentiment summed up in this excellent post at Good Bad Librarian! “I’m With Her (But We’re Seeing Other People)” or pretty much a third or more of my Facebook/Twitter feed for the last several months– this whole thing has been hard for me to understand and hard for me to explain.

And then it hit me: from my point of view, Clinton and Sanders are each a half of a Twix bar.

Surly you have heard of this candy bar (not necessarily my “go to” choice, but one I always enjoy), but just in case: as Wikipedia reminds us, Twix “is a chocolate bar made by Mars, Inc., consisting of biscuit applied with other confectionery toppings and coatings (most frequently caramel and milk chocolate). Twix bars are packaged in pairs, although smaller single bars are available.”

And surly you have seen the humorous commercials about the battles between “Left Twix” and “Right Twix.” The basic premise here is the two “inventors” of Twix split the company over vehement disagreements over what is actually nothing. “Left Twix flowed caramel on cookie, while Right Twix cascaded caramel on cookie,” and so forth. The comedy, obviously, is in the fact that the differences being observed between Right and Left Twix are non-existent.

So for me, that’s pretty much the Sanders v. Clinton debate. Though I am certain there are those who might read this and say I WILL NEVER EVER EVER VOTE FOR RIGHT TWIX AND THAT DAMN LEFT TWIX RIGGED THE PROCESS FROM THE BEGINNING.

Or is it Right Twix who did the rigging? I forget.

Posted in Fun, Politics | Leave a comment

In which I recall a less serious time when a small child wandered off

The case of the child wandering into the enclosure for Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo brought back the memory of the time when Annette and I lost Will at the mall.

He was somewhere around two and a half or three years old. For some reason (I cannot remember why now), we thought it was a good idea to get a proper little kid portrait of him done at JC Penney. I believe we were there in the morning on a slow day in the summer, and I recall we were early for our appointment. So we had to keep Will entertained for the fifteen/twenty minutes, and we did this by chasing him around the mostly empty store. Will ducked into/underneath a circular rack of shirts or something on hangers, Annette and I ran around opposite sides of the clothing rack, and he popped out the other side, laughing hysterically. Simple, goofy fun. We repeated this routine at least three or four times.

Then he vanished. I mean completely, like that Vegas-styled magic trick where they drop the curtain and there’s nothing there. Nothing.

As I recall it now, I felt a mix of panic and disbelief– panic for the obvious reasons, disbelief because he literally vanished. Annette and I frantically searched the nearby clothing racks yelling WILL! WILL! WILL!, and generally freaked out. We got a hold of some kind of manager and told her what was going on, and as I think about it now, her reaction was reasonable to the point where this had almost certainly happened before. There was some kind of announcement about a lost child and we continued to look for him.

Then we found him– I think it was actually Annette who found him– outside the mall entrance of JC Penney’s. He was standing and carefully examining a kiosk that was selling mini aquariums that contained very small and colorful frogs. As I believe Annette recalls it, she said something to him like “OH MY GOD, WILL, YOU RAN OFF! DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” and Will’s reaction was something like “What’s the big deal? I wanted to look at the frogs.”

And after we all collected ourselves, we had Will’s portrait photo made:

TinyWill

(At least that’s my memory of this– maybe Annette and Will will have slightly different takes on this).

In any event, filtering this back to the current story about killing a gorilla/”bad” parenting/bad kids:

  • It’s sad, but it kind of sounds like they had to shoot the gorilla. I’ve also heard that these kinds of incidents of people getting inside enclosures or animals getting out are obviously rare but not as uncommon as I for one would hope.
  • There was an interesting little piece in the New York Times, “Who Is to Blame When a Child Wanders at the Zoo?” which, among other things, points out that some kids are a lot more “wily” than others. (Not that Will was really like that– this is the one and only time he did something this wily). And this article also makes me wonder about some discussion about blaming this child– I mean, isn’t this the kind of action that suggests a certain level of intent and agency on his part?
  • I don’t blame the mother in this story, but it probably would help her case a bit if she had said something about how she messed up and she felt bad about what happened.
Posted in Family, Life | Leave a comment

A less than complete recap/blog post about #cwcon 2016

I was in Rochester, New York last weekend for the annual Computers and Writing Conference at St. John Fisher College. This was not my first rodeo. I think I have about 20 different presentations at probably about 12 different meetings, maybe more. I have a love/hate relationship with the conference. C&W will always have a place in my heart because it was the first conference where I ever presented– back in 1994– and maybe because of that (and also because I’ve always thought of it as the conference that most closely aligns with my research and teaching interests), I have found the whole thing kind of frustrating in recent years.

A better and more complete (albeit more chaotic) way to get a sense of what happened this year is to go to Twitter and search for #cwcon. I tried to make a Storify of all the tweets, but the limit is 1000, so I only was able to get tweets from Sunday and some of Saturday. If I get around to it, maybe I’ll make another Storify or two– unless there’s a better/easier way to capture all those tweets.

Anyway, a recap from my POV:

  • Bill Hart-Davidson and I drove there together. Bill and I have known each other since 1993 (he was on that panel with me at C&W in Columbia, Missouri back in 1994, and he claimed on this trip that Cindy Selfe either chaired our session or was in the audience, I can’t remember which) and we both like to talk a lot, so there and back was pretty much seven straight hours of the Bill and Steve talk show. It’s a good thing no one else was with us.
  • We got there Wednesday late in the afternoon and played a quick nine holes with Nick Carbone before meeting up with a bunch of Ride2CW and conference goers at a lovely place called Tap & Mallet.
  • Bill and I stayed in the dorms at St. John Fisher. Dorms are a staple of #cwcon, but this is the first time I’ve actually stayed in them mainly because ew, dorms. But given that the hotels for the conference were almost 10 miles away and St. John Fisher is small private college, we both opted for the calculated risk that these dorms would be okay. And that risk paid off, too. The only things missing from the room were a television and, oddly, a garbage can.
  • Bill ran a workshop Thursday, so I ended up hanging out with Doug Walls (soon to be faculty at NC State, congrats to him) for a lot of the day and then working on school stuff back in the garbage can-less dorm.
  • Had kind of a weird Friday morning because I woke up for no reason at 5 am or so, went back to sleep thinking that I’d wake up at 8-ish and I ended up sleeping until 10 am. So, with the morning of the first day of presentations thoroughly trashed, I went to the George Eastman Museum instead. Pretty cool, actually.
  • Friday afternoon, I saw some presentations– a good one from Alex Reid, and an interesting/odd session from some folks at East Carolina called “Object-Oriented Research Methods and Methodologies for Open, Participatory Learning” which was not at all what I was expecting. It ended up mostly being about using fortune tellers/cootie catchers as a sort of heuristic for writing research. Showed up a little late for a panel where Bradley Dilger and crew were talking about the Corpus & Repository of Writing project. Interestingly, there were a number of talks/presentations/workshops on methods for capturing and/or mining a lot of “big data” in writing– well, big for our field at least. What I didn’t see much of was what all this mining and corpus-building gets us. Maybe the results will come eventually.
  • Went to the banquet/awards/Grabill keynote. More on the awards thing in a moment, but to kick off the after-eating festivities, there was a tribute video to Cindy and Dickie Selfe who are retiring this year. The set-up for the banquet made watching the video pretty impossible, but it’s on YouTube and it’s definitely worth a watch. Both of them have been such giants in the field, and it really is a lovely send-off/tribute.
  • Jeff Grabill gave a good talk– it’s right here, actually. I think he thought that he was being more confrontational than he actual was, but that’s another story. Alex Reid has a good blog post about this and one of the other key things going this year at the conference, which has to do with what I think I would describe as a sort of question of naming and identity.
  • Speaking of which: my session was on Saturday morning. My presentation was about correspondence schools and how they foreshadow and/or set the groundwork for MOOCs. It was okay, I guess. It was a sort of mash-up version of a part of the first chapter/section of this book I’ve been working on for far too long (which is also one of the reasons why I’m not going to post it here for now) and I think it’s good stuff, but it wasn’t really that dynamic of a presentation. I ended up being paired up with Will Hochman, and his approach was much more of an interactive brainstorming session on trying to come up with a new name for the conference. I don’t know if we “solved” the problem or not, but it was a fun discussion. Lauren Rae Hall and she created a cool little conference name generator based on stuff we talked about.
  • Walls made me skip the lunch keynote to get pizza (twisted my arm, I tell you!) and then I went to the town hall session where Bill was on the panel. Alex Reid blogged a bit about this (and other things) in this post; while I suppose it was interesting, it was another example of a session that is advertised/intended as one where there is going to be a lot of audience discussion and where, after the many people on the panel all said their bits, we were pretty much out of time. And then we drove home.

So it was all good. Well done, St. John Fisher people! Though I can’t end this without beating the drum on three reoccurring themes for me, the hate dislike/grumpy side of me with #cwcon:

First, I think the work at reconsidering the name of the conference is perhaps symptomatic of the state of affairs with the general theme of the conference. “Computers and Writing” is a bit anachronistic since the definition of both “computers” and “writing” have been evolving, but it wouldn’t be the first name of an organization that seems out of date with what it is– the “Big Ten” with its 14 teams immediately comes to mind. So maybe the identity issues about the name of the conference have more to do with the fact that the subject of the conference is no longer a comparatively marginalized sub-discipline within composition and rhetoric.

Take that with a significant grain of salt. I was on a roundtable about the “end” of computers and writing in 2001 and we’re still chugging along. But that video honoring Cindy and Dickie Selfe featured some other senior members in the C&W community remembering the “old days” of the 1980s and even early 90s (really not that long ago, relatively speaking) when anyone in an English department working with a computer was considered a “freak.” Scholarship and teaching about technology and materiality (not to mention “multimodality” which often enough implies computers) might not be at the center of the field, but it’s not on the “lunatic fringes” of it anymore either. That’s good– it means folks like the Selfes were “right”– but it also makes #cwcon a little less “special.” I can go to the CCCCs and see lots of the same kinds of presentations I saw this last weekend, not to mention HASTAC.

Second, I really wish there was a way to hold this conference more regularly some place easy to get to. Rochester wasn’t bad (though still a regional airport), but in recent years, #cwcon has been in Menomonie, Wisconsin; Pullman, Washington; and Frostburg, Maryland. And next year, it’s going to be Findlay, Ohio, which is good for me because that’s only 90 miles away but not exactly easy for anyone planning on not driving there.

And third, there’s still the lack of basic infrastructure. As Bill and I discussed in our 14+ hours of car time, HASTAC specifically and Digital Humanities generally have their own organizational problems, but at least there are web sites and organizations out there. We’re a committee buried in a large subset (CCCCs) of an even larger organization (NCTE), and as far as a web site goes, um, no, not so much. During the many awards, I tweeted that it sure would be nice if there was a page of winners of various things posted somewhere. Someone who will remain nameless said it was all they could do to not tweet back something snarky about “where.”

If I get the time or energy to track that info down, I’ll post it here or somewhere else….

Posted in Academia, Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, Travel | 4 Comments

Instead of banning laptops, what if we mandated them?

Oy. Laptops are evil. Again.

This time, it comes from “Leave It in the Bag,” an article in Inside Higher Ed, reporting on a study done by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker, all economists at West Point (PDF). This has shown up on the WPA-L mailing list and in my various social medias as yet another example of why technology in the classrooms is bad, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Mind you, I only skimmed this and all of the economics math is literally a foreign language to me. But there are a couple of passages here that I find interesting and not exactly convincing to me that me and my students should indeed “leave it in the bag.”

For example:

Permitting laptops or computers appears to reduce multiple choice and short answer scores, but has no effect on essay scores, as seen in Panel D. Our finding of a zero effect for essay questions, which are conceptual in nature, stands in contrast to previous research by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), who demonstrate that laptop note-taking negatively affects performance on both factual and conceptual questions. One potential explanation for this effect could be the predominant use of graphical and analytical explanations in economics courses, which might dissuade the verbatim note-taking practices that harmed students in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study. However, considering the substantial impact professors have on essay scores, as discussed above, the results in panel D should be interpreted with considerable caution. (page 17)

The way I’m reading this is for classes where students are expected to take multiple choice tests as a result of listening to a lecture from a sage on the stage, laptops might be bad. But in classes where students are supposed to write essays (or at least more conceptual essay questions), laptops do no harm. So if it’s a course where students are supposed to do more than take multiple choice tests….

After describing the overall effects of students performing worse when computing technology is available, Carter, Greenberg, and Walker write:

It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point. In a learning environment with lower incentives for performance, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distracting behavior, and larger class sizes, the effects of Internet-enabled technology on achievement may be larger due to professors’ decreased ability to monitor and correct irrelevant usage.” (page 26)

Hmmm…. nothing self-congratulatory about that passage, is there?

Besides the fact that there is no decent evidence that the students at West Point (or any other elite institution for that matter) are on the whole such special snowflakes that they are more immune from the “harm” of technology/distraction compared to the rest of us simpletons, I think one could just as easily make the exact opposite argument. It seems to me that is is “quite possible” that the harmful effects are more magnified in a setting like West Point because of the strict adherence to “THE RULES” and authority for all involved. I mean, it is the Army after all. Perhaps in settings where students have more freedom and are used to the more “real life” world of distractions, large class sizes, the need to self-regulate, etc., maybe those students are actually better able to control themselves.

And am I the only one who is noticing the extent to which laptop/tablet/technology use really seems to be about a professor’s “ability to monitor and correct” in a classroom? Is that actually “teaching?”

And then there’s this last paragraph in the text of the study:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material. Rather, our results relate only to classes where students have the option to use computer devices to take notes.   We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, facebook, twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades, or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers. Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis of using technology in the classroom, additional research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted.(page 28)

First, laptops might or might not be useful for taking notes. This is at odds with a lot of these “laptops are bad” studies. And as a slight tangent, I really don’t know how easy it is to generalize about note taking and knowledge across large groups. Speaking only for myself: I’ve been experimenting lately with taking notes (sometimes) with paper and pen, and I’m not sure it makes much difference. I also have noticed that my ability to take notes on what someone else is saying — that is, as opposed to taking notes on something I want to say in a short speech or something– is now pretty poor. I suppose that’s the difference between being a student and being a teacher, and maybe I need to relearn how to do this from my students.

This paragraph also hints at another issue with all of these “laptops are bad” pieces, of “whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers.” Well, maybe that is the problem, isn’t it? Maybe it isn’t so much that students are spending all of this time being distracted by laptops, tablets, and cell-phones– that is, students are NOT giving professor the UNDIVIDED ATTENTION they believe (nay, KNOWS) they deserve. Maybe the problem is professors haven’t figured out that the presence of computers in classrooms means we have to indeed “teach differently.”

But the other thing this paragraph got me to thinking about the role of technology in the courses I teach, where laptops/tablets are “used deliberately in classroom instruction.” This paragraph suggests that the opposite of banning laptops might also be as true: in other words, what if, instead of banning laptops from a classroom, the professor mandated that students each have a laptop open at all times in order to take notes, to respond to on-the-fly quizzes from the professor, and look stuff up that comes up in the discussions?

It’s the kind of interesting mini-teaching experiment I might be able to pull off this summer. Of course, if we extend this kind of experiment to the realm of online teaching– and one of my upcoming courses will indeed be online– then we can see that in one sense, this isn’t an experiment at all. We’ve been offering courses where the only way students communicate with the instructor and with other students has been through a computer for a long time now. But the other course I’ll be teaching is a face to face section of first year writing, and thus ripe for this kind of experiment. Complicating things more (or perhaps making this experiment more justifiable?) is the likelihood that a significant percentage of the students I will have in this section are in some fashion “not typical” of first year writing at EMU– that is, almost all of them are transfer students and/or juniors or seniors. Maybe making them have those laptops open all the time could help– and bonus points if they’re able multitask with both their laptop and their cell phones!

Hmm, I see a course developing….

Posted in Academia, Computers, technology, etc., Internet, Technology, The Happy Academic | 3 Comments

“Up North” Vacation Haikus

We went to Glen Arbor
Stayed in a Homestead condo,
on Sleeping Bear Bay.

The condo (view from the lake)

Empty Beach With Annette

Off-season, we had
the complex and the beach to
ourselves. It was odd.

Cool, mostly sunny,
but so buggy with midges.
That is off-season.

Work station in Glen Arbor
Working outside meant
buggy gnatty midge bugs all
over my laptop.

Midges live two days
mating in grey swarms alight,
flying up my nose.

Sunset

View of Sleeping Bear Bay

Spooky view

Still, it is lovely,
the bay view always shifting,
shining, orange, blue, grey.

Empire Bluff Trail Selfie

We hiked the Bay View
Trail, Empire Bluffs, Cotton-
wood, Leelanau State Park Trails

How long were these hikes?
We don’t know, but none of the
markers were correct.

For example:

The sign said two miles
Three miles in, we discovered
It was more like five.

Amical and Chicken Pot Pie

blu Duck Confit No. 6534

Excellent eating:
Art’s, Amical, La Bécasse,
and, as always, Blu.

But with the condo
kitchen, we ate mostly at
home. Keeping it real.

It was beautiful
just hanging around the house,
watching Netflix, etc.

Annette Puzzles 1
An OCD dream
An Edward Gorey puzzle
with a thousand frogs.

Annette and I worked,
lots of writing and school stuff.
Class planning and more.

Will didn’t have work.
School was over, he was bored,
Played lots of video games.

Piles of work await
Naptime lures like siren song,
Behind but rested.

(Links to the Flickr set, and thanks to Annette for her haiku contributions).

Posted in Family, Fun, Life, Travel | Leave a comment

An Open Letter/Blog Post About Sports at EMU

Dear Interim President Loppnow, Incoming President Smith, members of the Board of Regents, Heather Lyke, and anyone else who is interested (not to mention everyone associated with EMU– students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc.– who thinks it is time to do something different with football specifically and athletics generally):

Hi, how’s it going? I’m fine, thanks.

Now that my winter semester is completely wrapped up and I’ve had a chance to catch my breath for a week or so, I thought I’d take a moment and respond to the open letter (open email?) you sent out last week (which I include in the “Read More” section at the bottom of this post), and I also thought I’d share some thoughts on the interview EMU Athletic Director Heather Lyke gave on Michigan Public Radio last Friday, April 29.

First off, let me say that I like football, I really do. I don’t love football or any sports honestly, but I do like to watch football on the weekends when it’s on, I like basketball, it’s fun to go to a Detroit Tigers game, and so forth. Second, I see the benefit of sports for students, even in college, in terms of comradery, discipline, teamwork, school spirit, and all of that stuff.  That said, I also think student athletes and their fans would get these benefits if we competed in a lower-level division or even as non-scholarship clubs. Heck, I saw these benefits for the kids when my son was playing on a soccer team in elementary school.  But I will agree there is a benefit to “the sports” in general.

Third, while the funding for sports at EMU is more lopsided than at most universities, it’s bad all over. There are only about 25 or so universities in the top division where sports is more or less a profitable or break-even proposition, and, at least according to this USA Today site on NCAA Finances, all of the schools in the MAC are subsidizing more than 50% of the cost of sports with general fund revenues. Heck, of the 231 schools listed in that USA Today page, 151 of them pay at least half the costs of stuff like football with tuition.

So yeah, in response to the HBO Real Sports special featuring EMU’s over-spending and losing ways in football, I feel your pain and I understand the administration’s and the athletic department’s desire for a full-throated defense of the program and the refusal to change. But damn, if you are going to stick to football at EMU, you need to do a better job defending it.

Your open letter, the one sent around by Loppnow et al, is completely unresponsive to the joint report presented by student government, faculty senate, and the union. I mean, I can understand why you all don’t agree with that report, but “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO” is not a counter-argument. And do some math: if we’re spending $27 million a year of tuition money on athletics, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to praise the athletic program’s success at raising $430,000 in fundraising efforts.

Then there’s that interview with Lyke. Jeesh, talk about being in a hole and thinking that the solution is to keep digging. Most of her answers were just random word salad nonsense, as in “The demand [for football] is in the belief that its a value to the university. The pride that it does bring back, and the qualities that intercollegiate athletics teaches young people, I think are irreplaceable.” Seriously, what does that mean?

I get it, there are some simple facts on the ground that are hard for Lyke to dismiss, but her inability to handle this is staggering. It turns out that the guy interviewing Lyke, Lester Graham, has a child attending EMU. At the 4:35 or so mark in that interview, Graham asks flat-out “how does my EMU student benefit” with EMU being in Division 1 athletics.

Lyke responds “What your student gets, you know… when you chose Eastern Michigan, and the time that they chose they knew they had division 1 athletics–”

“–not a factor,” Graham interrupts. “Was not a factor.”

Then Lyke, digging furiously, says something like “Correct, so it’s, um, it’s not a factor in wether or not they um they… you know, I would hope that that student find value in adding diversity to the, you know, landscape and the culture of the university. There are kids that have unbelievable talents in all sorts of things. We have an unbelievable forensics team, we have an unbelievable slam poetry team at Eastern Michigan, we have fabulous art…” and so forth.

Graham pointed out that none of these things have anything to do with support to the athletic department, and Lyke goes back to the earlier statement that we are not thinking about getting out of the MAC or football, full stop.

And then there’s this “diversity” thing, which does appear to be Lyke’s way of saying that college athletics brings a lot of African American students to EMU who otherwise wouldn’t be here. This is a particularly weird claim and it makes me think that maybe Lyke has never actually been on campus at EMU, because if you went to places on the main campus (besides the administrative building, Welch Hall, or maybe a press conference of some sort), you’d see a lot of diversity of students who have zero to do with sports.

Anyway, just to wrap this up, I’d like to make some suggestions to anyone who might be reading this.

First, if the administration, the Board of Regents, and the Lykes of the world really believe that EMU should keep spending this much money on football, then you all need to get some evidence on your side and you need to make a better argument than you’re making here. “We are going to stay in football and in the MAC because we said so” is the logic of a toddler, and people running universities and getting paid as much money as you are all being paid to do this work should know better.

If it turns out that the reason why you are all saying what you are saying is because there are no logical reasons for staying in Division 1 football (and I suspect this is the case), then I think it might be time to take a deep breath and figure out an eloquent way to exit big time sports and save face. I understand Lyke’s point about how EMU has commitments to the MAC through about 2020 so we can’t just pull the plug, but you could start talking now about the “strategic and added value” move to a different conference, to re-emphasizing different sports, and so forth.

And I have to say that if you think about this for a moment, this is potentially a huge opportunity for all of you administrators, board members, and athletic director-types. This is a chance to stand up to the “arms race” in college athletics and to finally say “enough is enough.” This is a change to do something bold, innovative, smart, and brave, and this is also a chance to truly cast EMU in a more positive light.

Finally, to the rest of the EMU community who thinks we spend too much money on sports: we can’t just let this go. If there is going to be any change at all (and that’s still a big if), we need to keep reminding whoever will listen that we’re spending too much money on this stuff. Big-time sports might make sense at the University of Michigan or Michigan State, but they don’t make sense at a place like EMU.

Thanks for reading and have a good summer,

–Steve

Continue reading

Posted in Academia, EMU, EMU-AAUP | 3 Comments