Tim Feriss’ 4 hour workweek and “outsourcing” to get to the $10K college degree: what could go wrong?

This morning, I stumbled across a “guest blog” at University of Venus (part of Inside Higher Ed) by Terrance Bradford-Muhammad titled “Creating a Degree for 10K.” Apparently, Texas Governor Rick Perryhas issued the “challenge” to his states’ universities to create a $10K college degree, one that included tuition and books.  Right after that, Perry issued a “challenge” to Texas cattlemen to produce a steer with steaks that taste like unicorn and that poop cherry jelly beans.

I jest, of course.  A $10K degree is ridiculous.

But Bradford-Muhammad takes on the challenge and suggests that maybe the way to get to that $10K degree is by following the outsourcing techniques suggested by none other than Tim “The Four Hour Workweek” Feriss.  Here’s a long quote to give you an idea what I mean:

In Timothy Feriss’ 4 Hour Workweek, he discusses the idea of “Automation,” meaning building a sustainable and automatic stream of income. It includes several techniques like drop-shipping, Google Adwords and Adsense, and outsourcing, all techniques a university could use (Timothy Feriss: Outsourcing Life). In some cases it has already begun.

The private (for-profit) sector residence life program I worked for was outsourced to a third party housing provider that leased land from a university. The company built and maintained the buildings, operating the program with its own employees. This cost the state nothing and, instead, put money in the state’s pockets (if a state can have such things).

Still not a believer? Think of this. Drop shipping is a product delivery method where the seller accepts payment for an order, but the customer receives the product directly from the manufacturer. In these arrangements, the retailer is the middleman between the manufacturer and the customer (Wise Geek). Think of online universities and of the professors who teach part-time from their homes. The state could rid itself of “brick and mortar” classrooms and arrange a teaching contract between the professor and the students, allowing the professor to decide where, when and how learning would take place. Cost to the state? Nothing.

By the way, Bradford-Muhammad is a PhD student in “student affairs” at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  Not sure how that studying is going there, frankly.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Feriss’ system is foolproof and sound, so simple that all you have to do is describe it and it works.  It’s not that Feriss does not have any good points– I’ve written about some of them before— but I think it’s going to take a wee bit more than referencing a chapter in a pop self-help book to make it so.  But still.  Also, let’s just assume that a) the compensation for this kind of work was comparable to what professors earn now, and b) all of the other key trappings of the “real job” aspect of things– minor details like insurance and retirement plans– could be addressed.  Two more mondo-huge assumptions, but again, let’s just go with it.

On the one hand, this system would be pretty sweet:  “the university” then becomes more or less a broker matching up students to instructors, and the students/instructors work out the details.  In fact, in a broad sort of way, this is what is happening now in the realm of teaching part-time and online:  you pick up an online class here and an online class there, and through that, the instructor cobbles together some version of a paycheck.  Hypothetically, someone who either  negotiated a higher salary than the usual per-class rate or someone who was willing to take on a ridiculous number of classes could make some very good money.

But Bradford-Muhammad is forgetting one critical thing about the way universities operate.  At least two-thirds of my time as a tenured professor is spent on things other than teaching.  Besides teaching (and by “teaching,” I mean assigning things, leading discussions, creating assignments, and the tons of reading/grading I do associated with specific courses, all of which I am doing online currently), I have lots of responsibilities involving things like meetings that make the “business” of the department go ’round; I advise students about degree programs or particular classes; and I work with my colleagues on developing and changing curriculum.  And by the way, these other “not teaching” things today occupied more of my time than the teaching things yet again today.

Oh, and I didn’t mention any assessment or program review work, also stuff we need to do nowadays in part to satisfy people like Rick Perry who are demanding accountability in public educators.  That’s not an unreasonable demand, even if the the process of institutional assessment/program review is often pretty goofy.  But it is also not a cheap demand to satisfy.

Anyway, it’d be nice if drop-shipping and outsourcing could work in this setting.  If it weren’t for the fact that most of the cost of higher education has nothing to do with the teaching.

Incidentally, in my more grumpy academic moments, I’ve wondered about the finances of this kind of approach on a personal level: that is, how many courses would I have to teach in the shady world of proprietary and/or online universities to get to the break-even point relative to my current salary and benefits?  Twice as many courses a year?  Would the trade-off of not having to deal with any of the non-teaching stuff make it worth it?

And say, what if I followed Feriss’ advice and outsourced some of my own grading and other paperwork in the process?  Can a part-time instructor hire a subcontractor?  Hmmm… that’s just crazy enough to work….

Five to Ten Minutes with an iPad2: A review

As a previously sanctioned iPad expert, I felt obligated to at least go and check out the iPad 2 in the Apple store today.  Now, if you want a long, detailed, and smart review of the new iPad 2, go read this piece at Engadget. But if you want my five to ten minute thoughts, read on.

First off, I showed up at the Apple Store in Briarwood at 10:30-ish or so and there was a line out front.  Am I going to have to stand in line to go into the fracking store?!? I thought.  Happily, no; this was for people who were planning hoping to buy one today.  More on that in a sec.

Anyway, that problem solved, I went in and started playing with a white iPad 2 (if I get one, I might go with white).  True, it’s thinner and lighter than the original iPad, but not that noticeably so, in my view.  It was noticeably faster with the new processing chip, though most of the apps I monkeyed with were the same on this as iPad 1.

From my point of view, the two big differences with this new one are GarageBand and iMovie.  I downloaded GarageBand for my current iPad just the other day, and it is a complete hoot to play with.  Now, I have no musical talent whatsoever and no real knowledge of audio recording technology.  The only thing I can do with GarageBand on my computer is record podcasts and other audio note/response recordings along those lines, and for all I know, the GarageBand for the iPad is, relative to these other tools, crap.  But it seems pretty powerful to me.

iMovie will not (apparently) work on the first generation iPads, and this might be the thing that really pushes me into the iPad 2.  It’s kind of a shame because recording video from another source and importing it to the first gen iPad seems like it would be a workable solution to me.  Anyway, frrom what I can tell, iMovie for the iPad is a lot like all of the other apps for the iPad (and this includes GarageBand, I assume):  they might be better called “lite” versions of the desktop software because they are just that, stripped-down versions.  I know more about iMovie than I do about GarageBand, and this was very clear in the few minutes I spent on it.

Oh yeah, and there are the cameras too.  Here’s 13 seconds of video I took:

The first lesson learned here is that it is perhaps best to video in landscape mode, but you get the idea. I don’t know if there is a way to zoom with this video, but I suspect there is, and I know that I could have cropped it in different ways in iMovie, either on the iPad or exported to the full version on a computer.

One other thing I learned in my 10 minutes:  those snazzy magnetic covers that are available with iPad2 don’t work with the original iPad, which is a bummer.

Will it be worth getting one?  Well, depending on how the rest of birthmonth works out, sure, I think so.  Though it might be tricky.  It turns out the store was sold out of them, and one of the guys working there told me that people were waiting there in the hopes that maybe– just maybe— there were some iPad2 in the shipment that was due to arrive any minute.  Jeez, it’s like trying to get a Wii all over again.  On the Apple web site, they’re saying 3-4 weeks for shipping.

To me, the real usefulness of these things for me are potentially in teaching, especially when it comes to things like the movie project I have students do in English 328, the “media authoring” course I’m trying to get off the ground at the graduate level, and/or the kind of simple multimedia projects students do in first year writing.  Basically, for $500 for the iPad2 itself and another $100 or so worth of software and maybe some other add-ins (a microphone, for example), you’ve got a device that can take (so-so) photos, record audio (including an instrument plugged into it), and record HD video.  And with iMovie, GarageBand, and Pages, you’ve got a pretty powerful and simple multimedia platform that is damn near perfect for teaching and the enthusiastic amateur.  And it all weighs less than a pound and has a 10 hour battery life.   Whoa.

On Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” (and Phillip K. Dick and porn)

Finally, finally I’m returning to my posts on scholarship review, this time with Marilyn M. Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted,” which is in the February 2011 issue of College Composition and Communication. It’s taken me this long to get back to this in part because I’ve been swamped beyond repair with school stuff (indeed, I’m writing this post in 2-3 minute bursts yesterday and today in an effort to break up the marathon of grading, email catch-up, and other paperwork), but also because this is a long and complex piece.  It’s a lot more “theory heavy” than what I’m used to with the CCCs, and frankly, it is a piece I have some complicated and mixed feelings about, as my headline might suggest, and it’s made me think.  A lot. Continue reading “On Cooper’s “Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted” (and Phillip K. Dick and porn)”

Das Gradeinator

I’ve been thinking about grading a lot lately– well, “lately” meaning the last year or so.  I had a few thoughts about grading in general here last year, and also here, where I reflected on a particularly unpleasant discussion with a student about a grade on a project.  At the end of last term, I had decided I was going to try an experiment in English 328, the “advanced writing” course of sorts I’ve taught at EMU dozens and dozens of times over the years.

Basically, what I did was this:

  • Each student would submit a draft without their name on it for peer review.  (I should mention a) I’m teaching online, so these students don’t necessarily know each other that well to begin with, and b) I combined two online classes into one big group, which I probably wouldn’t do again, but that’s a slightly different story).
  • For each student’s essay, I created google docs survey with rubric/peer review questions, some very structured, some open-ended.  That’s 28-30 or so surveys that are individual documents.
  • Then I figured out who would review who, striving to make it so that no one reviewed each other– that is, student 1 reviewed students 2, 3, and 4; student 2 reviewed 5, 6, and 7; and so forth.  This was a math problem for me that took a while to resolve.
  • Then I distributed the still anonymous essays along with corresponding google doc links  to each member of the class for them to fill out.
  • Then, I collected those responses from the surveys, dumped the results into FileMaker, and then distributed them back to students in a readable fashion.
  • After students received feedback from their reviewers, I then gave them the chance (via a SurveyMonkey survey) to review their reviewers on a simple number scale.
  • And then, I more or less repeated the whole thing, but for the second time around, students assigned 100 out of the 150 points for the project as a grade (the other 50 points were tied to the “review of reviewers” and my own assessment).
  • I reviewed the survey results for each student, read through each essay myself, assigned my portion of the grade, made any other adjustments I thought necessary (for example, when students clearly didn’t follow the assessment instructions), and then passed all of this back to students.

You got all that?

That was the “Gradeinator v.1,” or at least what I was calling it.  A better name will need to be in place eventually for marketing purposes, I’m sure.  Right now, I’m working with what I am calling “Gradeinator v.2,” where I attempted to use one very large SurveyMonkey survey (hundreds and hundreds of questions, with lots of skip logic) to handle all of the reviews.  My theory was that this would be easier than Google Docs/Survey, but as I am going through and tabulating things now, I’m not convinced that is the case.  That might be more about my lack of me knowing what I am doing more than anything else though; more on that in a bit.

Now, I suppose the first question any sensible person might have here is why in the heck would I do this in the first place?  It’s certainly something I’ve wondered about myself, believe me.

Basically, I was trying to do three things.  First– and I always knew this was a long-shot– I was trying to see if there was a way to save some time with grading.  Second, I wanted to make peer review a little more systematic, and, by adding the anonymous feature, I wanted to make it a little more “honest.”  My theory was that one of the reasons why students sometimes give kind of lame peer review was because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and making things anonymous might make it more about the “writing” rather than the “writer.”

And third, I wanted to minimize my role as “the grader” and to empower the students as critics.  This is an advanced writing class after all, one where must about all of the students in the class are hoping to be secondary school teachers or professional writers of some sort, and it seems to me worthwhile trying a different way to highlight the critique process.  What I’m getting at is I wanted to find a way to emphasize my role of “facilitator,” while at the same time recognizing that the teacherly role of final decider really never goes away.

I’ve learned a lot already and I’m learning more; in no particular order:

  • On the whole, this process has a certain amount of “truthiness” for me.  I do think that the peer review is better through this more systematic “rubric” approach and also when its anonymous, though these peer reviews are far from perfect.  My students tend to cautiously agree:  they tend to see the advantages of anonymous peer review, but they also see problems with it, notably that it isn’t really possible to ask “follow-up” questions about particular points of critique.  Though I should also point out that a lot of my students are thrown off by the “weirdness” of all this, and I am sure that the reviews at the end of the class will demonstrate that not everyone was on-board with this.  I will also be taking a poll for the next big peer-reviewed assignment on the process that students want to follow, and the results of that poll might be telling.
  • I like the process of reading students’ assessments and then making my own assessment, because what happens most/much of the time is I am able to build constructively off of my students’ comments.  That makes me feel more “coach” and/or “team leader”-like, rather than the final judge/authority/teacher, if that makes sense.  I have many more opportunities to say “I agree with what your peers said about your essay” with this set-up.
  • But I have to emphasize most of the time and not all of the time, because even well-intentioned and earnest students have given some not excellent feedback.  Even with a rubric and guidelines and my coaching/instruction and all the rest, much of the feedback has still been– to be blunt about it–irrelevant.  I’m talking about critiques of font choices, how the pages are numbered (or not), really petty (and debatable) comments on grammar, etc.  And then there were also a number of student reviews and assessments that are just lazy, comments along the lines of “good!” and just giving “A”s without anything remotely helpful. The kind of reviews that are useless to students are also  impossible for me to build off of in any meaningful way.  Though I know this is all part of the learning process and it appears that the comments on the Gradeinator v.2 are better.
  • Anyway, the next time I do this (if there is a “next time”), I’ll be assigning points to students on the quality of their assessments, either instead of or in addition to the quality of their reviews.  That’s the teacherly part of things, I suppose, but I kind of feel like some folks need to be held accountable for their less than stellar reviews.
  • The technical part of the process– setting up the surveys, dumping the data into things like FileMaker, on and on and on– is an enormous pain in the ass, far far more time consuming and tedious than I had anticipated.  It was a little easier to do this the second time around, but just a little easier.  Of course, the thing is grading itself is kind of tedious, so I can’t really say if this is more or less tedious than the more traditional sitting down with a stack of essays with a pen.  More time-consuming, but that’s slightly different.
  • A lot went wrong, and went wrong in unanticipated ways.  Some students filled out the wrong surveys.  Some students supplied letters instead of numbers for grades, and it’s hard to average the letter “B” in with two other numbers.  And when students are late in handing in work or in getting the surveys done, well, that can mess up the works for others– that is, if a student doesn’t do the peer assessment they were supposed to do, then that means one of her or his peers doesn’t get the feedback/grade.

I think the most useful, interesting, and/or frustrating part of this for me is what I’ve learned a lot about things like Google Docs and Excel, and I know even more clearly now that there is much I do not know about these things and much I wish I could know about relational databases and programming.

I do not know if this is actually true, but it feels to me like this is a system that could be largely automated.  First, a student go to a web site and uploads her document for review.  Then, probably based on being informed about this or maybe based on some sort of due date, that student goes back to that web site, enters in some identifying information, and she is then taken to the documents she needs to review.  She completes them and submits them back to the system. Then, when her peers have completed their reviews of her project, the student receives an email alert and a link to review those reviews.  And as an instructor, the idea is you can watch, participate, or otherwise intervene in the process.

If all this were possible– if this could be set up with some kind of content management system or other database program, and if it were easy enough to customize the rubric/review questions based on an assignment and goals and such– then it might both save a teacher some time and make for a richer teaching experience.  Maybe that’s a big “if,” maybe not.

Anyone out there interested in a programming project?