WIDE-EMU 2012: A Few Misc. Thoughts

WIDE-EMU 2012 (or is it WIDE-EMU 2?) happened Saturday at Michigan State and it all seemed to go off without a hitch, more or less.  There might be more later, but I thought I’d  write a down a few thoughts before I forget now.

  • This is the second version of the conference we ran successfully last year at EMU, and for me, I guess there are two related reasons why I think what we’re doing is important and valuable. First, there are not enough small, local, and low-stakes kind of conferences happening in the field, at least not in Michigan. I had a couple of folks from smaller colleges come up to me today and thank me (well, me and Derek and Bill too, of course) for doing this. Second, the WIDE-EMU is a “proof of concept” of the idea that if a conference remains small, if you can get a free space (in this case, classroom space at MSU), if most of the amenities (e.g., food, printed programs, other swag) are cut out, and if everyone embraces a little DIY spirit, and if you use tools like Google Sites and a few “borrowed” photocopies in the department– if you can do all that, then it’s really not that hard to run this kind of conference for free. And increasingly, I’m interested in conferences like this one: small and inexpensive.
  • My conference day started out helping people get started, registered, name-tagged, etc. I actually forgot a name tag, which is kind of bad since I’m one of the people who has preached the “bring your own name tag” message loudest. Anyway, after things got going, I wandered around and stuck my head in a couple of different sessions and I ended up staying for Becky Morrison’s and James Davis’ make/talk, which had become a sort of “let’s chat about our topic” since there were only four of us. I thought it was a great conversation.
  • Next, I went to Karl Stolley’s workshop on github– here’s a link to the materials.The good thing about it was I kind of feel like I want to learn something more about github (which is basically a place to share versions of open source code in a way that controls versions of that code) for all kinds of reasons and Karl knows plenty about it. The bad thing is/was I spent like 45 minutes trying install the necessary software and tools only to find that my stupid EMU computer is set up in such a way that I don’t have control to the root directory. (Note to self: erase EMU computer and start over on my own as soon as I have time).
  • Bill HD and Karl had had a little Twitter argument earlier in the week over the role coding should have amongst rhetoric/writing people; Karl obviously thinks “yes” and Bill had a blog post here more or less arguing “no,” or perhaps more accurately, “not so much.” I think both of them are right and wrong in that I don’t have the time/expertise/inclination to spend as much time with coding things as Karl would; on the other hand, I also don’t have programmers handy the way Bill does, so I have to do a little DIY if I’m going to get anything done. Besides, I think learning a little code– or even learning about code– goes a long way.
  • Anyway, after that was Bump Halbritter’s plenary talk “Teaching/Learning/Knowing Writing as Symbolic Action,” which was pretty good. I recorded it with my EMU’s new video camera and I’m trying to get it ready for YouTube on my other computer as I type this, so it should be available soon. Hopefully it turned out decent. His talk was largely about his forthcoming book, Mics, Cameras, Symbolic Action: Audio-Visual Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, which I’m looking forward to reading for my own multimedia writing classes.
  • Lunch was kind of a bust: the original plan was to get everyone to go to this food court area that was supposed to have a variety of options, but the only thing open was a very busy Subway. So there was more dispersal to different parts than I would personally have preferred. Bill and Derek and I ended up going back to the conference building and ordering Jimmy Johns, keeping Derek’s streak alive.
  • I went to an afternoon session on “Robots” lead by Bill and Mike McLeod. It mainly focused on a neat little tool called If This Then That and other stuff involving APIs. Again, I go back to coding versus not coding: on the one hand, some of this stuff is too difficult for me to wrap my head around, as I wrote about here in foolishly trying to teach HTML5 coding last winter. I feel like a lot of the programming/coding required to do cool Web 2.0+ things are beyond my level of expertise. On the other hand, I am constantly reminded that a little coding and experimentation goes a long way, and it is better to know something about these kinds of things than it is to know nothing.
  • I shared my session with Geoff Carter, who introduced an interesting assignment in interrogating/considering videos in writing courses and Michael Salvo, who kinda summed up the conference and Geoff’s and my presentation.

Here’s a video recording of my talk:

I think it turned out okay; it occurs to me now that this is the first quasi-scholarly presentation/thing about MOOCs I’ve done that I can legitimately put on my CV since I jumped on that MOOC wagon earlier in the summer. I am certain there will be more of that soon.

  • Then it was on to the #beerrhetorics, which was a chance to relax, eat, drink, and talk to good friends/colleagues from around the midwest who came into town for this year’s festivities. Good times, and I was the proud program coordinator/mentor as a number of folks spoke highly of the EMU grad students who presented this year. Well done!

Assuming I can get the movie of Bump’s talk to work (and I just got an error trying to import it– oh-oh), I’ll be posting that soon too.

So that’s about it. About this time last week, I remember thinking (and maybe even saying to Derek) I don’t see any reason to do this again, it’s a lot of work, I’ve got so many other things to do, blah-blah-blah, etc. And now after just wrapping it up, I’m already thinking about what we could do the same or differently when we do this next year. So the WIDE-EMU just might be rising again in 2013.


What’s Good about MOOCs? (or, they aren’t about selling textbooks– they are textbooks)

Before I get to an answer to my post header here, a few updates, links, and other observations:

  • I have yet to hear from Coursera or anyone else about my certificate (or lack thereof) for completing World Music. Judging from the conversation on the World Music Facebook page, I am far from alone. On the one hand, there’s a huge “who cares” element at play. After all, I didn’t pay anything for the experience, there are a lot of bugs they’re still trying to work out, etc., etc. On the other hand, if Coursera et al can’t figure out something as simple as who does and doesn’t get a meaningless “certificate of completion” at this stage of the process, why should we trust these people to give real credit later on?
  • There have been tons of MOOC articles/links out there lately, far too many to mention here. One of my favorites though was CHE’s “How the Embrace of MOOCs Could Hurt Middle America” by Greg Graham. (It’s behind the Chronicle firewall, unfortunately.) It’s kind of an unfortunate headline, but I think Graham is spot-on in this piece. He argues that a lot of the enthusiasm for MOOCs by their practitioners is flat-out ego:  “If 160,000 people signed up for an online course I was teaching, I’d probably take my shirt off, write 160K on my chest, and run around campus whoopin’ it up…. Well, the longer I live, the more I realize people everywhere are just as likely to be driven by ego as by higher ideals.” Graham also points out one of my concerns about MOOCs in the long-run: “Ironically, although the move toward online education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most elite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
  • Nicholas “The Shallows” Carr weighs in with “The Crisis in Higher Education.”  I agree with a lot of what he’s saying here and I’m glad he makes the connection to correspondence schools of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, but I think he makes the  same mistake that a lot of commentators for or against MOOCs have made, that online education is synonymous with MOOCs, which is of course not the case.
  • Cathy Davidson has a pretty good post on HASTAC, “What Can MOOCs Teach Us About Learning?” I think her points about “what I find depressing about MOOCs” to be especially true; for example, “so many of them are talking heads on a screen.   I mean, really?  That’s the best we can do in 2012?    All the research shows that the single least effective mode of learning is from the lecture.  It’s least effective for retention and it’s vastly less effective than experiential, project based learning when it comes to having subsequent applicability to new situations, to application beyond the final exam.” Exactly.

But enough hating. What are MOOCs good for, anyway?  Here are two things I’m going to try to keep in mind as I embark (more passively) on two new classes, An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python” and “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution.”

Continue reading “What’s Good about MOOCs? (or, they aren’t about selling textbooks– they are textbooks)”

Five ways EdX can help “the little people:” you know, community colleges, etc.

I still have a “what’s good about MOOCs” and/or “MOOCs are textbooks” post in me, but I wanted to post briefly about an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “5 Ways That edX Could Change Education” that came out a few days ago.  It’s mostly in the vein of articles about the great potential of MOOCs, this from the comparatively conservative and slow-paced edX group.

But this part annoyed me. After discussing the succes of bringing a small MIT-like class and lab to Mongolia for three months, there’s this:

EdX is now preparing a bigger experiment that is expected to test the flipped-classroom model at a community college, combining MOOC content with campus instruction. Two-year colleges have struggled with insufficient funds and large demand; they also have “trouble attracting top talent and teachers,” says Anant Agarwal, who taught the circuits class and is president of edX. The question is how MOOC’s might help community colleges, and how the courses would have to change to work for their students.

“MOOC’s have yet to prove their value from an educational perspective,” says Josh Jarrett, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which backs the community-college project. “We currently know very little about how much learning is happening within MOOC’s, particularly for novice learners.”

Why does this annoy me?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the initial claims were true, that one of the problems two-year colleges face is insufficient funds, this despite the fact that many community colleges have been better off than four year schools under both Obama and Bush II. First off, I might have a bit of a chip on my shoulder here since I teach at an “opportunity granting” university to begin with, but I don’t think the troubles CCs and schools like EMU are having stem from an inability to attract top talent and teachers.  In fact, I don’t know what evidence is there for that assumption at all, other than “we all just know” that the talent and teachers at places like MIT and Harvard have to be the best and obviously welcomed at CC’s and lesser colleges and universities.

Second,  if Agarwal really wanted to replicate the success of his Mongolia experiment elsewhere, he (and edX) would send some “talent and teachers” and lab equipment into some inner city school districts in Boston or Philadelphia or Detroit or something and see what happens. Using this experience as a justification for an online class involving thousands of students just doesn’t make any sense.

And third, there’s this point from Josh Jarrett, that “MOOCs have yet to prove their value” and how we don’t know how MOOCs can help “novice learners.” Everything else I’ve read about MOOCs suggests that the drop-out rate is extremely high, which I think is pretty good evidence MOOCs are not well-suited for novice, ill-prepared and otherwise disenfranchised students. But beyond that, just how many “novice learners” have these MIT and Harvard people ever dealt with in any classroom setting, let alone an online one?

I think it might be useful for edX and their ilk to look at this from the other direction. Instead of claiming that they must know best (since they are “the best”), why not start with the premise that community colleges and regional universities might have something to offer the world about MOOCs and working with novice learners? After all, CCs are the places that actually have taught these students for decades, so they might know a little something about how to do it. Further, it is the CCs and regional universities in this country that (other than proprietary schools) have done most of the online teaching and they’ve been most successful at holding down costs.

I mean, I realize the folks at MIT and Harvard (and Stanford, Princeton, U of M, etc., etc.) are really smart and I presume they’re well-intentioned. But isn’t it more than arrogant for these folks who have almost no previous experience in online teaching and who are charging students $30-50,000 a year in tuition to come into CCs and tell them they can solve CC’s problems with free online classes?