The end of one short term, the beginning of another, and an “open learning” invitation

We have two short (7.5 week) terms here at EMU during the summer, and today I’m wrapping up the first one.  I have been teaching a couple of sections of English 121, aka “freshmen comp,” and it’s been interesting.

My two sections were made up of students far from the typical demographic of that course with only a handful of true “First Time in Any College” students for fall and winter terms, though the low number of FTIACs is more typical of the spring/summer terms.  I had several students who thought they were about to graduate but they had somehow managed to not take one of the only universally required courses earlier– usually because of transfer issues.  I had several ex-military folks and a couple of unemployed/underemployed and (approaching) middle-aged and older folks attending to finally finish a degree.  I had a number of high school-aged kids who are attending EMU through the Early College Alliance program, which means my youngest students were somewhere around 15 and my oldest was (I think) about 65.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I’ve had a number of recent “what are you people teaching in first year composition?” encounters with others at EMU in the last couple of weeks.  Under the best of circumstances, it’s an impossible class, really.  It’s bad enough that we assume that students can take a single course in a single semester in their first year of college and in this course, they can learn everything they will need to learn about writing clear, “correct” prose and research skills for the rest of their college careers.  The idea that I can teach and students can do all that in 7.5 weeks (instead of 15) is ridiculous.  I tell students throughout the term that I wouldn’t take my course if I was in their shoes because it’s too much work crammed into too small of a segment of time.

But for the most part, students rose to the challenge, and in an interesting and unexpected way, I think the diversity of the students made for pretty pleasant groups of people in both classes.  I once again used RiP!  A Remix Manifesto as the framing device/topic for the term, and students found a lot of great things to write about.  One thing that’s always nice to see is when a student begins the class knowing almost nothing about whatever it is they decide will be their topic of research and they end it still enthusiastic and a whole lot more knowledgeable than when they started.  So it’s all good.  It’s not enough (it’s never enough), but it’s a good start.

Oh, and another thing I did this term this term was I incorporated a bunch of readings from Writing Spaces.    The results were generally good but mixed– and I mean that as a good thing, because not everything can work equally well in all situations and because I assigned a lot of these readings based on the abstracts and/or titles.  There are definitely some pieces in there I’ll be using again the next time I teach fy comp, which could be as soon as this fall or as late as– well, who knows.

But I am turning around and starting up another class for the second part of the summer term in just a few days.  Beginning on July 2, I’ll be teaching a 7.5 week and online version of English 444:  Writing for the World Wide Web.  This is a course I created shortly after coming to EMU back in 1998 and I’ve taught it now at least a dozen times in different formats and versions.  I’m very much looking forward to what we’ll be doing this summer especially after learning from some of the less than smart choices I made in trying to include HTML5 coding last term.  Ain’t doing that again, and the same goes with this “Content Management Strategy” stuff, though for different reasons I might come back to in a different version of the class.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far into this post and you’re interested in joining in on the upcoming version of English 444, feel free.  I can’t give you MOOC-like badges or actual credit or grades or anything like that, but since I spent a fair amount of time over the last couple months bitching about the overselling of MOOCs and open learning and all the like, I figure the least I can do is invite people to see how I do things.  Seriously.  Sign up if you want to comment, or just read along on the site.

MOOCs and “Prior Learning Assessment”

More in the series of “the summer of MOOCs” articles and posts here:  Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article, “Making It Count.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are not credit-bearing. But a pathway to college credit for the courses already exists — one that experts say many students may soon take.

That scenario combines the courses with prior learning assessment — a less-hyped potential “disruption” to traditional higher education — which is the granting of credit for college-level learning gained outside the traditional academic setting.

Here’s how the process could work: A student successfully completes a MOOC, like Coursera’s Social Network Analysis, which will be taught this fall by Lada Adamic, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. The student then describes what he or she learned in that course, backing it up with proof, in a portfolio developed with the help of or another service, perhaps offered by a college.

There’s also this handy flow-chart:

This isn’t a bad idea in theory and maybe even in practice.  It kind of reminds me of the old days when future lawyers went and studied to take the Bar Exam without needing to go through that pesky law school business.  I believe this is how Lincoln became a lawyer.

But it doesn’t take much to spot some potential problems, too:

  • “Credit for prior experience” is essentially the formula used by diploma mills to justify their fake degrees– the “PhD in life,” so to speak.  So until that well-deserved bias is overcome, getting actual college credit from an actual college will be tricky.
  • The problem with prior experience is you have to actually have prior experience.  I of course do encounter students at EMU who come into classes I teach with a lot of worthy prior experience.  Just the other day, a new grad student asked me if she could get college credit for her prior experience as a teacher (the answer was no).  But for the most part, the reason why students come to college in the first place is they don’t have prior experience.  So while some combination of MOOC/prior experience thing might be useful for adults returning to college after years in the workplace, it isn’t going to be too useful for most of our students.  And by the way, it’s the younger, more traditional college students who are going deepest into student loan debt.
  • What exactly would this credit “count” for, anyway?  Take the example of the course mentioned in the introduction:  that Social Network Analysis course looks like it might be pretty cool, but what exactly would we count that as at a place like EMU?  It probably wouldn’t correspond to anything in the Written Communication major, and I don’t think it would count here as a gen ed class.  So at best, someone could transfer this class as just “credit,” and any transfer student can tell you that that’s not very useful.
  • Even this article says that the process someone would have to go through to make MOOC credit count might not be worth it, “that students might decide it’s easier to retake an equivalent course at a traditional college than to seek prior-learning credit for a MOOC.”

Radiohead v. Red Hot Chili Peppers

Annette and Will and I went and saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 1 and then Annette and I saw Radiohead just this past Monday.  Besides putting me way WAY over my usual “one big arena rock show every two or so years,” I thought I would do a little comparison/contrast.

Who/what kind of music:

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Post punk funk pop music, heavily influenced and identified with Los Angeles, CA.  They’ve been around since 1983 or so, meaning they are my age or older– well, the original members are at least since there has been quite a bit of rotation with a brand new guitar player in his thirties.  They just got into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, too.

Radiohead:  British quasi-pop alternative rock, eclectic and sometimes “difficult listening music” with lots of electronic and experimental music influences.  Cerebral lyrics and complex sounds ranging from really loud to really quiet, often within the same song.  A little younger, but not much– early 40s.

Performance style:

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Shirtless and/or baggy shirts with pants that inexplicably had one  leg cut short with colorful soccer socks.  Much running about, jumping, leaning against each other, dancing around, etc.  Chatty with the crowd and jam playing between songs.

Radiohead: Jeans and shirts– could have been a bunch of GAs. Standing and playing, save for Thom Yorke’s twitchy dancing.  Not a lot of talking and it seemed like they had to completely rearrange the stage and every instrument between every song.

The crowd:

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  White, mostly middle class, and a variety of ages– Annette and I were fairly close to the middle of the age demographic, though there were plenty of college kids and even kids Will’s age.  In my view, a sprinkling of frat boy and/or hard rock kinds of folks.

Radiohead: VERY white, which I found striking from our seats looking at the “festival seating/standing only” floor.  More college-aged– Annette and I were a bit more on the older side, though not by much.  Annette said she hadn’t seen this many “geeky white boys” at a show in a long long time.


One of those not new (but new to me) web sites is, which is “the setlist wiki.”  So, want to know what they played?

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Lots from the new album, but also lots of “greatest hits.”  Looks like they pretty much play the same list pretty much every night.  One encore.

Radiohead: Lots from the new album, lots of older songs and a number of kind of obscure songs, too.  To the extent that they have “hits,” I guess they played them, though I personally was disappointed that they didn’t play more from In Rainbows.  They appear to mix up the song order and choices a lot and even played a brand-new song in the first encore (they always do two) that they premiered the previous night.

Lighting/Special Effects:

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Very elaborate light show with lots of moving parts and a big screen that showed a lot of narrative-like movies/images accompanying specific songs.  Loud, of course.

Radiohead:  Very elaborate light show with lots of moving parts, though a lot more abstract, which makes sense given the more varied setlist.  Loud, of course, with bass that made my fillings rumble.

The venue(s):

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Joe Louis Arena, which is both conveniently and inconveniently located in downtown Detroit.  Home of the Redwings, which is pretty obvious no matter what direction you’re looking in that building.  It’s old with dubious bathrooms and crowded walkways outside the actual arena.  I thought we were going to get crushed by the crowd surge on the way out of the show.  We were stuck in the parking deck for close to an hour.

Radiohead:  The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is both conveniently and inconveniently located far north of Detroit.  It’s about an hour away from us, and the easiest way to get there was to actually drive downtown first and then get on 75 north.  “State of the art” pro basketball facility (the Pistons) with grand walkways and elaborate restaurants and bars outside the actual arena.  Huge parking lot (and not a parking deck), which really worked out well for us:  we saw this show on a Monday before Annette was going to Boston and I had to teach, so getting back home at 1 am was not an option.  We left before the second encore, avoided the crowd, and whisked out of the parking lot and on to the interstate.  We were well on the road before the show was over.

And thus ends big expensive shows for a while.  I would have liked to have gone to Deathcab for Cutie (they are going to be in the area in July), but these concerts and the kitchen budget are probably going to prevent that.

“Haven’t we said this before?” A blast from the past about correspondence courses, fwiw

For some reason while I was at the gym this morning (maybe because it’s been a while since I had time to go to the gym, maybe because of other things I was reading, maybe because all this MOOC and other online education stuff has been on my mind), I thought about a minor project/presentation I gave back in 2001 at the Midwest Modern Language conference as part of a “special section” for computers and writing.  The talk was called “‘Haven’t we said this before?’ What the History of Correspondence Courses Teach Us About the Promises and Problems of Online Distance Education Courses.”  In brief, the talk (and I include it all after the jump for anyone interested) was my response to David Noble’s critique in Digital Diploma Mills and also an article in Mother Jones highly critical of online education.

Much of my argument– which was meant to suggest that correspondence courses way back when weren’t great but they weren’t horrible either–  was based on my reading of a 1938 University of Michigan MA thesis by Anthony Matulis about U of M’s correspondence study programs way back when.  I still remember that project, looking through very old and largely abandoned texts about correspondence schools.  It was kind of fun work; I might try to go back to it.

Anyway, I thought I’d share it here, for what it’s worth.  I think the analogy between classes by mail and online classes is still relevant, and I think it might be useful for some of these “MOOCs are going to save and/or transform higher ed as we know it” to recall that people said the same thing about correspondence courses 100-some-odd years ago.

Continue reading ““Haven’t we said this before?” A blast from the past about correspondence courses, fwiw”

Udacity joins Pearson in skipping this whole pesky “education” thing (and more complaining about MOOCs)

A couple months ago, I had a post here about how I see “education” working as a combination of learning, teaching, and credentialing.  In that post, I pointed out that ventures like Coursera are at this point PR vehicles for the elite universities because they are offering “courses” to the masses but they would never actually accept these courses as credit at said elite universities– in other words, there’s no way the University of Michigan is going to accept a certificate or badge of completion as credit toward one of its degrees, even if students pay for the privilege.  However, as I also pointed out in that post, that doesn’t mean less elite institutions like Ivy Tech aren’t willing to count these things.

Well, now Udacity is doing the same thing.  To quote from their blog:

Today, we’re excited to announce a partnership with Pearson VUE, a worldwide provider of testing services. Students may still complete a Udacity class on our website as they always have. And now, students wishing to pursue our official credential and be part of our job placement program should also take an additional final exam in a Pearson testing center. There are over 4000 centers in more than 170 countries.

I came across this news via George Siemens’ elearnspace.  Siemens, who is a Canadian researcher/teacher about technology in education and who has been a pioneer of Massive Online Open Courses, is critical of this move.  He sees Udacity as essentially “selling out:”

Udacity is recognized as an innovative model of learning in the future, but, in order to gain legitimacy, decides that a connection to the established testing system is more important than blazing a new trail. This connection serves to reinforce the existing educational model rather than to continue the path of creating a new one. As Udacity creates similar connections to other education companies and organization, it quickly becomes apparent that the network being created is one of validation and lockin, rather than innovation and a new vision for learning. You can’t do much innovation if your point of departure is blocked by existing testing and assessment models.

True enough, but I guess I’m more cynical than that.  I see Udacity as merely “buying in:”  that is, I think the unspoken goal of Udacity, Coursera, and other comparable projects has always been to leverage the assessment industry and generate “cheap credit” that might be applicable at less picky colleges and universities.

Now, I do appreciate the fact that entities like Udacity do extend some opportunity to education to the rest of the world and that comes across in Udacity’s press release.  Still, if you follow the money, I don’t think Udacity and Pearson are in this to extend opportunity to people in Sri Lanka.  No, I think the goal of these entities is to compete in the higher education market in the U.S., Canada, and maybe some of Europe, and specifically, to compete with the “lower half” of that market:  for-profit universities, community colleges, and (probably) opportunity-granting regional universities and colleges.

Incidentally, Siemens also has a really good post on his (and his colleagues) vision(s) of MOOCs, one that I would argue is at odds with corporate model that is all the rage as of late.  Go read it, but basically, Siemens’ vision of a MOOC strikes me as about community and connection, with an emphasis on student-centered learning and on the value of making things and student contributions to the learning process, as opposed to the “sage on a stage knowledge delivered from the elite leaders to the unwashed masses” model of the Coursera/EdX/Udacity/et al of the world.

I still don’t think MOOCs are the future of education, at least on this continent and as long as the credential of the college degree is so important.  Or let me put it this way:  I will believe in the viability of MOOCs and open education when that young person applying for an entry-level job in the Federal government or for the Bank of America or “insert your major employer here” with a “non-degree” series of badges and certificates from various free/low-price online entities wins that position over a young person with a bachelors degree from a traditional university.

That said, I’m all for the MOOC model that Siemens is talking about.  I don’t know if they are educational per se, but they are certainly great opportunities for learning and teaching, and maybe someday we can figure out a way to make them legitimately “count” for something.

Experience, Memory, and maybe Situation

Via this episode of A Show with Zefrank, I came across this really interesting talk by Daniel Kahneman at TED:

Kahneman is talking about the study of happiness and how that is fraught with problems, but the thing I’m particularly interested in is the distinction he makes between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self.”  I’ve never heard this one before.  To summarize these two summaries: the experiencing self is the “right now” and only lasts about 3 seconds at a time.  The remembering self is the part of your self that puts together the narrative of a life, and it does this by picking and choosing particular segments of your experiencing self– and, by definition, discarding most experiences. One of the rather odd features of this paradigm is that memories drive experiences.  To quote from zefrank quoting Kaheman, “We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences  Even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences.  We think of our future as anticipated memories.”  In the video I link to above here, Kaheman talks about this in relationship to happiness and also how we think of past experiences like surgeries and vacations– it makes sense, believe me. Kaheman goes on to describe the “tyranny” of the remembering self with what I think is another pretty compelling example:  we often experience things more for their value as a memory than for their value as an experience, though we spend much more time actually experiencing (and discarding those experiences) than we do remembering.  The example Kaheman has is a particularly memorable vacation that he went on to the Antarctic:  it lasted three weeks, but he says he has only “consumed” those memories for 25 minutes.  And as zefrank observes, we all force our experiencing selves to do certain things only so that we can have the memory as opposed to the value of the experience itself.

Another example that immediately comes to mind is writing.  We tend to block out the bulk of the actual experience, focusing in on break-throughs and good moments (or especially bad ones, I suppose), and I think just about all writers prefer to have written to the actual act of writing.

Now, I am assuming that Kaheman intends us to view all this imprecisely and perhaps even metaphorically:  that is, I don’t know if your experiencing self really only lasts for 3 seconds, how much time your remembering self re-experiencing things, etc., not to mention that I suspect the division between the experiencing self and remembering self has to be a bit fuzzy.  I mean, what do you call those experiences where you are remembering in the first place?  Doesn’t the act of remembering itself have to be “an experience,” so to speak? But this does get me going in thinking about rhetorical situation, especially in relation to immediacy, not to mention writing itself.  I’m not sure I have the right way to explain this yet, but what Kaheman is saying here for me helps to reconcile the either/or dichotomy of the origins of situations as discussed by Vatz and Bitzer.  Bitzer argues that situations exist prior or our recognition of them and we make rhetoric out of them, and Vatz argues the opposite.  But maybe both are correct in that rhetorical situations are born in the experience self (thus Bitzer’s argument) but can only be acted on by the memory self (Vatz’s argument).

Or maybe it points to the reason why we can’t really make sense out of most rhetorical situations until after they reach some point of closure because really, experiencing self doesn’t make much “sense” out of anything.  It experiences and that’s that, while the only way to mediate experiences– that is, for audiences to make meaning of the message/event of rhetors (think of the triangle here, people)– is via the remembering self.  Remember (no pun intended), if the experiencing self is happening every 3 or so second, what other choice would we possibly have?

So, maybe the point of various memory technologies is to extend that experiencing self into longer bits of time, or to at least assist the remembering self into finding clearer meaning in moments.  Think of stop-action photography:  an apple being shot or other similar things takes on a different meaning when mediated through a specific technology like high-speed photography.  The experiencing self is not at all capable of capturing this kind of detail, but I would assume that if you witnessed the event life the remembering self would sew together the experiencing self with the image?  Maybe?

Anyway, I think I need to read some more of this stuff….