Thanks MLA, but…

As The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed both reported, The MLA has come out with “new guidelines” urging the consideration of digital work in the review, tenure, and promotion process for English department faculty.  Which is good, I guess.  But as I wrote about way back in January:

  • Since there have been “English” department (or at least comp/rhet) scholars have been trying to get “digital scholarship” to count for decades, this is a little late;
  • Lots of places– including EMU– figured out quite a while ago how to count alternative formats of scholarship toward tenure and review, and lots of places– also including EMU– have a significantly more reasonable process toward getting tenure than the “book plus” of research one institutions; and
  • I will believe that these new guidelines and truly digital scholarship will be seen as valuable as monographs/print when people like Cathy Davidson, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, David Weinberger, and other prominent and current digital media scholars proudly announce their new web site rather than their new book.

So yeah, thanks, I guess.

Getting started with Bonk’s “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success”

I’ve been teaching at least some of my classes online since 2005 and I’ve been using various other online tools (what I’ve heard described as “blended” learning, whatever that means) for a lot longer than that.  But I’ve never taken an online class before, and I haven’t exactly done a lot of studying of online pedagogy, certainly not from the perspective of education scholars.  So when I read about Curtis Bonk’s Massively Open Online Course about teaching online, I figured what the heck?  I signed up.

It’s very very early, of course.  The class technically doesn’t start until Monday.  But there are already a couple of things that give me, well, pause.

First, there’s the introductions part of the class, which is basically 1200 or so different people posting a message that says “hi, my name is…” with not much other interaction.  How could there be, really?

Second, Bonk posted this introduction that comes across to me as, well, goofy:

I’ve been known to make a few attention-getting and goofy videos for my online classes too, but there sure seems to be a lot of props here.  But hey, who knows?  Bonk has a fist full of articles and books on online pedagogy and somebody must think he knows what he’s talking about or he wouldn’t be doing this at all.

Third, I think Bonk signals here a bit as to what Blackboard’s interest in this whole MOOC thing is all about.  As Bonk explains in this video (at about the 9 minute mark), week 5 is going to feature the folks from Blackboard coming on the site to more or less explaining all the “cool” Blackboard tools we’ve been using.  Now, I don’t know if this is what’s going to happen, but it sounds like the angle here is Blackboard is going to try to sell us on Blackboard, sort of like the way that textbook companies try to sell faculty on their textbooks and other products.   Which again makes me think that this whole MOOC thing is mostly a marketing stunt.

Skeptic that I am, we’ll press onward.


Welcoming our robot grading overlords

Well, no, not really– but I thought that post title might be provocative, sort of like writing essays in a way that tricks the grading software.

There’s been a lot of discussion on things like WPA-L and elsewhere about “robo-readers,” as this New York Times piece sums up well, “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously” and this further discussion on Slashdot. The very short version is it turns out that machines are just as capable of scoring writing that is completed as part of standardized tests– things like the GRE or SAT or other writing tests that ask students to respond to a very specific prompt.  Writing teachers of various flavors– the WPA-L crowd in general and Les Perelman from MIT in particular– are beside themselves with the wrongness of this software because it’s not human, it can be fooled, and cannot recognize “truth.”

Of course, ETS and Pearson (two of the companies that have developed this software) point out that they don’t intend this software to replace actual human feedback, that they admit this is not a way to check facts, and the software is not a good judge of “poetic” language.  And I’ve also seen plenty of humans fooled by untruths in print.  But never mind that; writing teachers are angry at the machine.

Now, I mostly (though obviously not entirely) agree with my WPA-L colleagues and Perelman, and, as I wrote about in my previous post, I’m not a fan of education that eliminates teaching and minimizes the opportunity for learning simply to jump through a credentialing loop.  So yes, I would agree that taking a batch of first year composition papers and dumping them into the robo-reading hopper to assign grades would a) not work and b) be bad.  Though again, it also appears that the people who have developed this software have the same position.

But let’s just say– hypothetically, mind you, and for the sake of argument– that this kind of software and its inevitable improvements might actually not be evil.  How might robo-grading (or maybe more accurately automated rating) software actually be “good?”

For starters, if this software is used in the way that ETS and Pearson say they are intending it to be used– that is, as a teaching/learning aid and not a grading tool per se– then it seems to me that this might be potentially useful along the lines of spellchecks, grammar-checks, and readability tests.  Is this a replacement for reader/ student/ teacher/ other human interaction in writing classes of various sorts?  Obviously not.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful to readers, particularly teachers during the grading process.

Let’s face it:  the most unpleasant part of teaching writing is grading– specifically “marking up” papers students turn in to point out errors (and in effect justify the grade to the student) and to suggest ideas for revision.  It is very labor-intensive and the most boring part of the job, as I wrote about in some detail last year here.  If there was a computer tool out there that really would help me get this work done more efficiently and that would help my students improve, then why wouldn’t I use it?

Second, I think Perelman’s critique about how easily the machine is fooled is a little problematic– or at least it can be turned on its head.  It seems to me that if a student completing some standardized test writing is smart enough to out smart the machine– as Perelman demonstrates here— then perhaps that student actually does deserve a high grade from the machine.  It’s kind of like Kirk reprogramming the “no win” Kobayashi Maru test so he could win, right?

Third– and this is maybe something writing teachers in particular and writers in general don’t want to accept– writing texts that are well-received by machines is a pretty important skill to master.  I know that’s not the intention of this robo-reading software, but my writing teacher colleagues seem to suggest that this is not only an unnecessary skill but a particularly dangerous one.  Yet there is an entire web business called Search Engine Optimization that is (in part) about how to write web pages to include frequently searched keyword phrases so that the results appear higher in search engine– e.g., machine– results.  The keywords and structure of your resume can be half the battle in getting found by a potential employer who is using searches– e.g., machines– to find a match.

Anyway, you get the idea.  No, I don’t think we ought to turn over the teaching/grading function in writing classes to machines, and I don’t think a robo-grader is going to be able to look into the soul of the writer to seek Truth anytime soon.  But I think the blanket dismissal of and/or resistance to these kinds of tools by writing teachers is at best naive.  It’s probably more useful to imagine ways these tools can help our teaching practices in the long run.

Learning vs. Teaching vs. Credentialing

There’s been a couple of interesting developments in higher education news in the last couple of days that has me thinking more about how the “education” part of things in colleges and universities actually works.  First, there’s the announcement that U of M and  several other universities will be offering “free courses” on a variety of different topics for anyone out there on the internets who might be interested.  This is being done through an outfit/start-up called Coursera, which I assume is making money through data mining of its users and maybe by eventually morphing into an actual credit-granting enterprise.  Here’s an interesting quote from the article about this:

For U-M, adapting to the platform gives faculty a unique way to communicate with alumni and prospective students.

“This is a great way for alumni or prospective Michigan students to experience a little bit of what a U-M education is like,” Scott Page, the professor teaching Model Thinking, said in a release.

Added Martha Pollack, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs: “This is one more way for us to connect with prospective students and alumni.”

The other event– seemingly the opposite kind of thing but maybe not– comes from Inside Higher Ed in the article “Pacing Themselves.”  Here’s a long quote:

The media conglomerate Pearson today announced a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana to provide online, self-paced courses that the company says will help Ivy Tech deal with student demand and overcrowding issues in required general education courses.

For Pearson, which already sells modules for instructor-led courses, the move represents a further step in the company’s strategy of inserting itself into virtually every area of e-learning short of full degree programs.

“We thought it was time for us to have a self-paced play that our partners could then plug into their institutions and get more students into higher education,” said Don Kilburn, the CEO of Pearson Learning Solutions.

Meanwhile, the partnership allows Ivy Tech to refer certain students to hands-off self-paced general education courses — which it does not currently offer — without building such courses itself.

“It is a way to test out that modality and see if it works for some students without taking a lot of business risk on our own,” said Kara Monroe, associate vice president for online academic programs at Ivy Tech.

Both of these events problematize in strange ways this mission of education in colleges and universities.  And by “educational mission” of the university, I basically mean three things:

  • Learning, or more accurately, extending to students the opportunity to learn.  Universities are pretty good at that, but so are lots of other things– wikipedia, the public library, and other web sites, a good book, life, etc.
  • Teaching, which is when a professor (or instructor or adjunct or grad student) guides a student in learning something.  There’s really nothing I teach that students can’t learn on their own through some of the things I mentioned as sources for learning, but the advantage students get in being taught a subject by someone who knows a lot about the subject is guidance, interactions with other learners, systematic efficiency (because teaching is really good at steering learning in a way that is less likely to be counter-productive), positive (and negative) feedback, and so forth.
  • Credentialing, which means some sort of evaluation that is recognized by others as having some merit.  Practically speaking, this means a “seal of approval” (e.g., grades) given by teachers for these discreet learning units we call “courses,” which are systematically taken (a “major” which leads to a “degree”) and which are also validated by institutions (say EMU) which are in turn validated by both official evaluators (say the North Central Association) and unofficial but certainly more powerful evaluators (various “top university” rankings like US News, what employers say, word of mouth, etc., etc.).

Now, learning, teaching, and credentialing are obviously all related, though in complicated ways.  For example, teaching someone something is not the same as them learning it.  It takes a willingness to learn and to be receptive to teaching,  and everyone who has ever taught– especially something that is not considered by many “fun,” like first year composition– knows there are a surprising number of students who don’t seem able or willing to take on the learning challenge.  Another example:  a lot of professors are completely comfortable with the teaching and learning part of education, but most would just as soon avoid the credentialing/grading part of what we have to do to make this whole enterprise work.  Faculty get even more squeamish when we talk about the mean cousin of credentialing, assessment.  

Anyway, to turn back to what I think is troubling (at least to me) about both the Pearson Learning Solutions and the Coursera deal.  It seems to me that the Pearson “solution” is a rather cynical way of skipping ahead to just the credentialing leg of the stool and calling it a day.  There’s obviously no teaching involved and with only an e-textbook and “10 free hours of online tutoring support,” it doesn’t seem to me like there’s much of a chance for a lot of student learning here either. Besides that, the credential they are trying to provide here is minimal at best.  I mean, given that the unofficial value of an Ivy Tech Community College is probably pretty low to begin with (certainly relative to the institutions sponsoring Coursera courses), what does this sort of move do to the perceived market value of their degrees?

The Coursera “great minds” courses might seem at first to be a completely different and more noble venture, but it seems to me that this isn’t education.  Sure, there’s a lot of learning potential with these classes, but so what?  There are already plenty of places on the ‘net to learn about science fiction and fantasy literature, for example.   As of right now, U of M (and I suspect the other institutions associated with this) is not really thinking of this as education at all; it’s marketing, something that might connect with alumni and maybe with potential students.

Of course, this could change.  I seriously doubt that U of M would ever accept their own Coursera courses as credential-worthy credit that is the same as their more traditional courses, but that doesn’t mean that Coursera isn’t going to try to sell that credit to someone else.  Inside Higher Ed had an article on all this, and here’s a passage that made me think this idea of Coursera granting credit ala Pearson:

“There are no definite plans yet for what courses, if any, might have certificates and, if they exist, how much might be charged for them,” wrote MacCarthy via e-mail. “That said, if there were to be some monetization and revenues in the future, universities would partner with Coursera in determining any future structure or pricing for certificates.”

Ng, one of the Coursera founders, said “no firm decisions have been made yet” on how the company’s university partners might recognize the achievement of their non-enrolled students. “We’ve had informal discussions with the partner universities about different certificate options, but the final decision will be made on a per-university and per-course basis,” Ng wrote via e-mail.

These certificates wouldn’t be the same as credit– well, at least initially, and at least at a place like the University of Michigan.  I can imagine a scenario where the Ivy Techs of the world say “sure, we’ll count that as credit,” and I can also imagine a slippery slope where all kinds of institutions– maybe never U of M but places like EMU– start counting a certain number of these certificates as transfer for things like general education.

The other thing that both Pearson and Coursera are attempting here is a version of education without teaching.  This is patently obvious in the Pearson/Ivy Tech arrangement, but it is also the case with the Coursera courses.  The idea here is to have tens of thousands of students in these classes– potentially a great learning environment, but not something where you could really expect any meaningful teaching.  At best, the teaching that might take place is in the form of an army of part-timers to watch over those thousands of students participating in discussions and quizzes and the like.  That appears to be the case with their hiring.

So I really don’t think this is the future of higher education on the internet.  At least I don’t hope this is the future of higher education on the ‘net.  I’d kind of like to keep the teaching in education….


“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

I got suckered into a point of purchase/cash register impulse buy the other day.  It was The Altantic, and the thing that got me was the cover headline “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  I should have known better.  After all, this is the same magazine that brought us “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” a few years ago.

As was the case with the Nicholas Carr article (and I can now only assume that Stephen Marche, the author of this Facebook piece, is busily preparing a book-length treatment on his topic), I think the answer to his headline is “not really, but it’s more complicated than that.”  Marche is a clear and thoughtful writer, and if nothing else, I can see this being a useful reading in one of the various classes I teach where social media comes up as a topic, particularly undergraduate classes.  As I understand it, I think Marche is saying that a) there are lots of things that have increased “loneliness” (and we’ll get to whatever the heck that is supposed to mean in a moment), and b) it depends a lot on how you use Facebook.  Marche trots out a lot of pretty well-known bits of pop-research/knowledge on how suburbia, television, etc. (think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) have caused us as a culture to be more lonely, all of which is to say that at its worse, Facebook is one among many contributors to loneliness.

And then there’s this quote paraprhasing John Cacioppo, who Marche calls the “world’s leading expert on loneliness” (and of course I need to point out that being the world’s leading expert on anything is lonely, and being the leading expert on loneliness has to be the most lonely of all):

Facebook is merely a tool, he says, and like any tool, its effectiveness will depend on its user.  “If you use Facebook to increase face-to-face contact,” he says, “it increases social capital.”  So of social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy.  If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.

Duh, right?  And I assume we can substitute “talk about issues of the day with people far away from you” or “meet for dinner and drinks” or “invite people to a party” for “football” and be fine.

Ultimately, I think this article raises a couple of questions that are different from the nature of social networks and Facebook per se.  First, how is it that psychologists study “loneliness?”  Because while Marche does a good job of citing/quoting from the scholarship on this, it all seems kind of sketchy to me– though, of course, this is not my area of expertise.  For example, according to Marche, the “best tool yet” for measuring loneliness is the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is basically 10 questions, each of which begin “how often do you feel…”  Here’s a link to an interactive version based on the survey; for me, my answers boil down to “it depends.”

Second, I always wonder about the extent to which the issue is not really “loneliness” but the complex emotions and connotations of the word “friend,” and how Facebook’s choice of that word complicates our relations between “friends” on Facebook and our relationship/interactions with Facebook as an interface and a tool.  Would there be articles like this one if Facebook had chosen instead to call the people you connect with “contacts,” or “connections,” or “acquaintances?”  After all, my Facebook friends in “real life” actually range from “people I care about and love deeply” all the way down to “people I don’t know at all” and even a few “people I actually don’t like or trust.”   What if we instead had “followers” ala Twitter, a social network which (at least so far) seems significantly less emotionally loaded than Facebook?  What if Facebook had always had categories of designating the degree of friendship and the nature of the connection, sort of like the professional Linkedin?

So, even though Marche is suggesting Facebook as a service is making us lonely and disconnected (and it’s not as if he’s the first person to make this claim), I think the real anxiety around Facebook is with its implications on “friendship.”  Facebook flattens the inherent hierarchy of friendship and relationships, putting “BFFs,” boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses, ex-Sig-Os, frenemies, work colleagues, people you went to high school with, and Velveeta Cheese all in the same big bucket– and let’s not forget that’s a bucket Facebook draws on to sell us specifically targeted ads.   It is nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing to think that my friendship status with people and products are on Facebook essentially the same thing.