Is Frank Bruni right? Is Minerva the future of higher education?

No.

And I know Bruni is wrong because I wrote a book about this.

The longer version:

From yesterday’s New York Times comes this column from Frank Bruni, “How to Go to College During a Pandemic,” a fawning admiration of the Minerva Project (or School? or Institute?), an elite, experimental, and all online college. Minerva is not that new, relatively speaking– it was formed in 2011– and it is tiny. According to this article from the student newspaper for Claremont Colleges, Minerva claims it is more selective than Harvard, and it has a total of 631 students, 78% of whom are not from the U.S.

I learned about this op-ed from this twitter rant from John Warner, and I’d recommend reading that for some of the reasons why Minerva specifically ain’t it. I agree with everything Warner says here: an exclusive, private, expensive, online university that replaces the luxuries of a f2f campus with a program where students “periodically move to a new city that becomes their campus, but only temporarily” is not where higher education is going– at least it certainly is not the direction higher ed should be going. As Warner said on Twitter, the “radical thinking” that higher education needs in this country is robust public funding.

This is not to say Minerva isn’t a good school, and I am sure the students who attend that program have a fulfilling experience. But Minerva reminds  me of other unusual institutions like Deep Springs College, which is a junior college and also a working cattle ranch enrolling about 26 students at a time. It’s “free” for students, though in exchange, they work on the ranch which is located in what can only be charitably called the middle of nowhere. Or Black Mountain College or Naropa University or other now defunct art schools more notable for their contributions to the avant-garde than the history of higher education. It also kind of reminds me of the opposite of higher education, the Thiel Fellowship which paid would-be college students $100,000 to not go to college.

So for Bruni to suggest that Minerva represents a “creative mix of disruptions and rebellions that could, in some form, have application elsewhere” is just wrong. And as an aside: I subscribe to The New York Times, I think it is a great newspaper, and I often like what I read from Bruni. But honest to God, I really do not understand how this got published.

Like I said, I wrote about this in my book More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs.  While my book is primarily about the rise and fall (sort of) of Massive Open Online Courses, it’s also about how MOOCs were not something new but rather part of the ongoing history of distance education. Higher education has been rethinking and “disrupting” its modes of delivery for more than 125 years, with correspondence courses, radio and television programs, “regular” online courses and universities, and MOOCs (which still enroll tens of millions of participants), all offered through a series of non-profit and for-profit entities, a host of public and private partnerships. All of these different educational disruptions/innovations/experiments and the people behind them– including Minerva– all have two similar and contradictory goals: how can we change the mode of delivery of higher education to extend opportunity to eager learners who do not otherwise have access, while simultaneously also making money?

THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON SINCE THE TURN OF THE LAST CENTURY. MILLIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE ATTENDED AND COMPLETED COLLEGE THROUGH ONE OF THESE PROGRAMS. NONE OF THIS IS NEW. NOT AT ALL.

And yet, Bruni shares a delightful piece of marketing and promotion for Minerva (I’ll bet their website hits are way up), pronounces it as the disruption we’re waiting for, and tops it with whip cream and a cherry. Why can’t I get the Times to publish anything I write?

A F2F Writing Class Can’t Work With Students Six Feet Apart, and ADA Has NOTHING to Do With COVID

EMU’s leadership had a virtual “town hall” meeting this morning about plans for fall 2020. While the presentations from the administration folks went on (the president, the provost, the department head for nursing who was on the public health committee, and the CFO I believe), faculty were invited to submit questions in writing that would be taken up after the presentations were completed. Judging from the parallel discussion that was happening on Facebook, a lot of faculty had the same question I have had for a while now: can I preemptively opt into changing a course now scheduled as f2f to an online format? Provost Rhonda Longworth’s answer to this question was not reassuring to me. To sum up:

  • If a faculty member doesn’t want to teach on campus, they need to go through the ADA process to demonstrate an underlying medical condition or disability (which, the more I think about it, is the wrong standard, as I’ll get to below here).
  • The administration’s guess/estimate is there are only enough large classrooms or other spaces (like ballrooms) to accommodate somewhere between 12% and 35% of classes to be offered f2f. This strikes me as an alarmingly large range for this estimate. In any event, Longworth said we don’t know how many classes we will hold on campus until we have clearer data on how many classes we can hold on campus, and she hopes to have that data by the end of the month.
  • And then this (which is pretty close to a direct quote from Longworth): “I can’t make a promise that every instructor can request to teach online. The goal is to balance what faculty can teach online effectively, and then go from there. I think everyone can have the format they want, but I can’t guarantee that.”

On the one hand, it’s easy to interpret this statement as meaning that most classes in the fall will probably be online. This seems especially true with any class with more than about 25 students simply because we do not have that many rooms where more than 25 people can all be sitting six feet apart. On the other hand, Longworth specifically said she might not be able to honor requests for faculty to teach online, I believe in part because of  my previous blog post on EMU’s “bait and switch” marketing campaign. The administration has advertised the promise of f2f offerings and the provost just said she could not promise that all faculty who want to teach online will be able to do so.

It is very likely that any class with more than 40 students will be online. But there are also a lot of classes like the ones I teach where the cap is around 25 students, and my fear (heightened by this town hall meeting) is the way that the administration will sorta/kinda fulfill its promise of f2f offerings is to insist these classes are held on campus, and probably in lecture halls designed for 100 or more students.

Currently, I’m scheduled this fall to teach three classes. Two were scheduled as online offerings long before the pandemic. The third class, called “Digital Writing,” was scheduled to be f2f. The cap on that class is 25, and realistically, it probably won’t get above about 15 students. Back in April or early May, I asked my department head to move that f2f class online because it seemed pretty inevitable to me that this was where this was all heading anyway and I’d just as soon teach it online. The response I got was (basically) that was no longer possible because students were starting to register for the f2f version– unless I wanted to contact all those students and get them to agree to it being online. About 2 weeks ago, I once again asked if I could have this class moved online. That time, the response was “probably but not yet, let’s wait a bit. This class is going to end up online so there’s no need to do the paperwork.” Well, after today’s town hall where the provost very clearly said there was no guarantee that requests to teach online would be honored and that requests like that had to be made through the ADA process, I decided to email my department head again.

Here’s an excerpt of that email (I have left out four of the six reasons I gave for wanting my class moved online because most of those other four reasons are kind of specific to this particular class):

“The first and most important reason (and I am only now bringing this up after I started to think how I would teach this class f2f if I had to) is pedagogical. I don’t think it’s possible to teach an effective f2f writing class that requires everyone to stay 6 feet apart. Like most other people who teach writing, my classes depend A LOT on small group work. Students do small group discussions about readings and what-not, they do small group work frequently for peer review, and in this class, I generally make the last project (which involves writing, story-boarding, recording, and editing a public service announcement-styled short video) collaborative. These activities will not work if students have to sit 6 feet apart. Students would literally have to shout at each other, could not share a computer screen, etc., etc. In contrast, I know from previous experience these activities will work fine online through a combination of asynchronous discussions and synchronous video conferences with either Zoom or Google meetings. ”

and then a bit later:

“And yes, I am concerned for my own health and the health of my wife because of what strikes me as being asked to take an unnecessary risk.

“The standard EMU (and lots of other universities) has decided to follow is to require faculty who don’t want to teach on campus to seek an ADA exemption. That strikes me as extremely problematic because while it is true that most of the deaths from Covid have been older folks with some kind of preexisting condition, there have also been MANY examples where perfectly healthy and otherwise able-bodied people have been infected, faced serious illness, and even died. I’ve read several articles like this one from the June 8, 2020 NYTimes where they surveyed a large group of epidemiologists and asked them when they would feel comfortable resuming various activities during this pandemic, and the range of responses provided here suggest that even the experts are in a moment of “it depends” and/or “we don’t really know.”  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/08/upshot/when-epidemiologists-will-do-everyday-things-coronavirus.html

“From what I can tell (from what I’ve read, listened to on the radio, seen on TV, etc., etc.), a lot of these choices are inherently personal. I am not too worried about walking around outside without a mask, going to a store with a mask (especially if that store limits the number of people inside, requires others to wear masks, if it’s easy enough to create distance, and you aren’t just hanging out in that store), ordering take-out, etc. I’d be okay with going to a restaurant if I was seated outside, though I haven’t done that yet. I played golf once and it was fine, though my partner and I did opt for our own carts. I had my hair cut last week, and it felt safe to me. My wife and I have had people over to sit around six feet apart in the backyard. And so forth. The point I’m trying to make here is I am not someone who has (IMO) overreacted and not left their homes more than a handful of times and only when absolutely positively necessary. I do not have an illogical fear that the virus is just waiting to get me.

“At the same time, everything I’ve read/heard/seen suggests that being in an enclosed space with others for an extended period of time is still risky, which means I am personally not willing to do things like go to see a performance of some sort, go to the movies, go to a religious service (which wasn’t exactly on my to-do list anyway, but you get the idea), attend a f2f department meeting (I hope we keep doing those on Zoom anyway), go to a casino, or go to a sporting event. I think being in a classroom with 20 or so students for an extended period of time falls into this category of risk. Even in normal times, it’s pretty common for me to catch a cold or something from my proximity to students; I’d rather not risk it with Covid.

“Now, I would probably feel differently about this if I either hadn’t taught a lot online over the last dozen or so years, or if I taught in a subject where f2f interaction was essential. It’s not my expertise of course, but I don’t know how you teach online stuff like a chemistry lab, a ceramics class, an acting class, a dance class, etc. But that clearly isn’t the case here. I have lots of experience teaching online, and writing (and I’d argue ‘English’ in general) is a subject that does work well in an online format. I mean, I’m already teaching two writing classes online, and this class– called DIGITAL WRITING– lends itself to the online format. So the only reason I can think of as to why this class should NOT be online in the current situation is because the administration is requiring that we run at least some classes f2f, and a small class like this one might allow the folks in Welch to honestly claim they did indeed offer ‘plenty’ of f2f offerings as promised. That’s not a very good reason for me.”

We’ll see what happens next.

Higher Ed’s Reopening Plans Have Gone From “Wishful Thinking” to “Bait and Switch”

The tl;dr version: universities are running a “bait and switch” marketing strategy for fall 2020. Plan for online courses because it’s the only option that makes any sense, and it’s time that university administrators admit that.

Back in late April/early May, about a month after all of higher education got into the online lifeboats to salvage the term and at around the same time when, predictably, faculty and students with zero prior experience with online learning declared that the last month proved online courses were just “the worst,” we started seeing major universities announcing their plans to be open for f2f classes in fall 2020. I blogged a bit about it here. Purdue’s Mitch Daniels had a series of eyebrow raising ideas about how things could work in the fall, and while I disagreed then (and I do now) with Brown’s Christina Paxson’s reasons for reopening, at least she was honest: universities need the money.

Other universities soon followed, and, with the notable exception of California State University’s announcement that they were planning on primarily online courses for fall 2020, the pattern has been the same: universities are planning to be back in the fall with f2f classes and students in the dorms. EMU released its own statement along these lines both as ads on regional television and with this extended YouTube video.

All of these plans were short on details and long on emotions (not to mention carefully worded hedges), and they reminded me of what people say after a hurricane or a tornado. It’s a weather news cliché at this point. There’s the video footage of the storm hitting, the stock photo/video of the beautiful home or popular seaside restaurant as it was before, and then the after the storm ruins with a tearful family or owner proclaiming “We will rebuild!”

Hey, I get it. The first response to the hurricane destroying your business or a pandemic destroying your school year is to fight back, to at least pretend to have a little hope and optimism. The first thing you say to someone laying on the pavement and clinging to life after a car accident or a heart attack is “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to make it!” even when (especially when) you know that’s not true.

As we got into May, university presidents and officials began describing their plans for reopening, and it became clear these “plans” were not much more than “wishful thinking.” For me (and pretty much everyone else I know who actually teaches college classes), the plans just raised more questions. How are you going to have f2f classes that are physically distanced? As it is right now, my university is reluctant to run any class that is less than 3/4ths enrolled because (or so we are told) we can’t afford that; so how is a class purposefully kept at half capacity possibly going to work? Where are you going to put these classes, anyway? Where is the money going to come from to pay for mandatory testing, for everyone or randomly? What about these antibody tests– are they going to get more accurate? Or are we just giving up on testing entirely? What is the plan when (not if, when) students, faculty, and/or staff get sick and need to be quarantined? Is EMU going to just send those people home, and thus endanger the sick folks’ relatives and friends? How are we going to require everyone to wear masks while on campus? Given that the classroom buildings are barely cleaned now, how is the university possibly going to clean them even once a day (never mind between classes)? Who thinks teaching behind a plexiglass shield is a good idea? What if I as an employee am not willing to sign a document that says I won’t consider the university liable if I get sick, am hospitalized, or even die from Covid-19? And so forth.

Now and just within the last week or so, it feels like we’re entering into new phase. We have gone from “hope and optimism” and “wishful thinking” to a situation where it is clear these plans for a robust number of f2f offerings this fall just aren’t going to work. Here are a few simple examples of things I’ve seen recently, articles and commentaries that are getting a lot more pointed in questioning university administrator’s plans and motivations:

  • To help pay for its (always strange and unrealistic) plans for reopening, Purdue is asking for donations specifically to pay for things like face masks, hand sanitizer, virus tests, and plexiglass shields, and they’re doing this with a campaign (here’s a link to the web site for it) that has the feel of one of those “feed the children” or “save the stray dogs” ads– “just one dollar a day can make such a difference,” etc.
  • IHE published an opinion piece by Lia Paradis (a history professor at Slippery Rock) called “A Day in the Life This Fall (Faculty Edition),” which describes the many ways the administration’s plans for reopening can and will go wrong.
  • From sociology professor Deborah J. Cohan in Psychology Today comes “Pandemic U,” where (among other smart things) she says it’s “profoundly revealing” that after years of universities encouraging students and faculty into online classes they are now insisting on face-to-face classes in the midst of a pandemic. “In and of itself, this rich irony should cause us to question motives. It is nothing short of institutional gaslighting.”
  • In a New York Times Op-ed with one of the clearest headlines I’ve seen in a while, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy,” psychology professor Laurence Steinberg draws from his expertise to explain something every person who actually teaches college has known forever: 18-24 year olds engage in a lot of risky behaviors and do not follow rules like staying six feet apart, wear masks in public places, etc.
  • And from Forbes, where economist Andrew Zimbalist and Donna A. Lopiano ask the rhetorical question “Has Higher Education Lost Its Mind?”  Specifically, has college sports lost its mind as we are already seeing the craziness of preparing for the all important football season while players increasingly become infected with Covid-19.

In short, the message “we will be open this fall” is now just a “bait and switch” marketing strategy, and it’s been that way for a while. Would-be and returning students said back in May that they would be less likely to start or return to college in the fall if they had to take classes online. Universities in turn said “oh, don’t worry, we’re going to have f2f classes,” albeit with a ton of hedges and qualifiers that I am guessing most students and their families ignored. That’s the bait. Once students are “locked in” for the fall term and it is too late for them to change their plans, universities will start announcing that despite their best efforts, they just aren’t going to be able to offer many (any?) f2f classes after all– darn it!– and if students want to go to college in fall 2020, they’re going to have to take their classes online. That’s the switch.

Bait and switch is usually described as a scam, though it’s such a common marketing strategy nowadays I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. What else would you call these “Black Friday” deep discount sales on giant flat screen TVs? Adding the phrase “while they last” doesn’t make it less of a bait. Regardless, it certainly isn’t an ethical practice.

I have no way of knowing for sure if this was the plan my university’s administration had all along or if it has just kind of evolved into this. And to be completely fair, maybe there will be some kind of Covid-19 miracle before the start of fall, or maybe in the next two months, these crazy, fantasy, delusional plans for successfully holding f2f classes really will come together and it’ll all be great. But I’ve also seen administrators at EMU (and elsewhere) do some pretty shady and dubious shit in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me much if this bait and switch was part of the plan all along.

Either way, it does appear to be a marketing strategy that has worked– at least so far. According to this article in Inside Higher Ed, enrollments in public research and regional universities for the fall are not much different than they were last year. EMU was specifically mentioned in this article. “Eastern Michigan University, like many regional publics, does not use the May 1 (or this year June 1) deadline day to reply to an admissions offer. Currently, the university is down 8.4 percent on new students for the fall, but it has two more registration dates in June to close that. The university is also offering students who want them a single room.” And frankly, that drop in enrollments isn’t necessarily tied to Covid-19 at all since our enrollments have been falling for a while, mostly because of the demographics of the state and the upper midwest.

At this point, I don’t really care if this was the administration’s intention all along or if this was just a strategy they stumbled into; I just want them to tell everyone the truth about what is becoming patently obvious with classes this fall term. If it’s a class that can be online, it will be online. If it’s a class that can’t be online (say some kind of chemistry or biology lab, a ceramics class that requires a kiln, a class about welding, etc.), it is either going be held under strict limitations to maximize safety, or it’s not going to be held at all. I want my university to tell this truth because it is the ethical thing to do, and because faculty who are going to teach these classes and students who are going to take these classes need to start making plans.

Be honest for a change of pace.

The Elite “College Experience” is Not Compatible with Covid-19

There are two different but related stories about higher ed and Covid-19 right now, both of which speak to the stark differences within the hierarchy of universities and online teaching. And spoiler alert: students and faculty elite universities do not like online courses one little bit.

I think this article sums it up for the lawsuits being filed by some students against their universities: From ABC News, “College students clamor for tuition refunds after coronavirus shutters campuses.” The complaints basically boil down to two things: demanding refunds for fees paid on things students can no longer use (dorms, meal plans, lab fees, etc.); demanding their money back for tuition for classes that were forced to go online. It is worth noting these are class action lawsuits being ginned up by some law firms who appear to specialize in these kinds of class action things.

Then there are the calls from university presidents to get back to campus. There was Purdue President Mitch Daniel’s plans for getting Purdue back on campus in the fall, which (as reported in USA Today here) includes a vague goal of separating folks based on age, with the goal of “keeping the university’s younger population separate from older demographic groups that are more at risk from the virus. ‘Literally, our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them,’ he wrote.” Also this weekend is an op-ed in the New York Times “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It,” by Christina Paxson. Paxson is the President of Brown University and an economist by training. Among other things, she wrote:

As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. This is especially true for lower-income students who may not have reliable internet access or private spaces in which to study. If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.

First off, I think students certainly ought to get a refund for housing, meal plans, lab fees, and all of those things– and I think most universities are doing something like that. But with tuition, we start to get into a more murky territory.

Granted, a class that shifted into the online lifeboat to finish the term is not the same as it would have been if it had stayed face to face all year. But if the goal was to complete the courses and thus grant students credit for their course work so they could continue to make progress on their degrees or to graduate, there weren’t a lot of other alternatives. In fact, it seems to me a very fair response from universities to these lawsuits would be something along the lines of “Here’s a refund for your tuition, but you aren’t going to get any credit for those courses.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what these students and their lawyers have in mind.

As far as Daniels and Paxson go: I think everyone is hoping that universities open in the fall, though as I’ve heard repeatedly from various talking head experts on cable news, the virus is driving the timeline and no one knows what the conditions will be in September. If we’re still in a world where we’re supposed to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks, and generally distance ourselves from each other, then the re-opening is going to be partial at best. And the idea that we can separate younger students from older faculty (will faculty be teaching behind a plexiglass barrier? will they be zooming in to classrooms filled with students?) is kind of goofy.

But I think these complaints and plans really highlight three long-standing realities in higher education in this country right now.

First, students/faculty/presidents/etc. at elite universities have very different assumptions about what “the college experience” means, at least compared to the rest of us. For elite universities and/or colleges and universities that cater to upper-middle-class and above 18-22 year olds, taking classes is just not what it’s all about. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of academics at elite institutions is extremely high and that’s still the main reason why these students attend these schools. But it’s also a whole lifestyle of dorms or near campus apartments, sporting events, frats and sororities and clubs, parties, beautiful buildings and campuses, etc.

We have all of those things at EMU too, and for a lot of the students we have in that 18-22 year old demographic, those things are important. But most of our students come from the sort of backgrounds where they do not assume all these things are that necessary, at least not compared to the students at the University of Michigan just across town. Frankly, a lot of our students are a lot more involved in the campus life in Ann Arbor than they are at EMU.

Most of my students– some of the 18-22 year olds, almost all of the older students– don’t have time for these extras because they are working. And I don’t mean “working” the way a lot of the students at UM work, with a part-time job to make some beer money and maybe help out with the expenses mostly being covered by the parents. No, I mean working to pay for living: rent, cars, mortgages, kids, etc.

Look, I get it. I was exactly like these elite university students when I was in college at the University of Iowa, and my wife was more or less a student like this at Virginia Tech. Our son was one of these students at the University of Michigan. If online classes were a thing in my day, I might have taken one– and I did actually take a correspondence course to earn enough credits to graduate, a story I tell in my book More Than a Moment.  For all of us, our undergraduate days were important life-shaping times because of the whole “college life” experience. But this is not the only way to go to college, and to suggest otherwise is a good example of unchecked or unnoticed privilege.

This leads to my second point: elite universities don’t like online classes because they are not the college experience (see above) and they still believe online classes are for poor people. That quote from Paxson is disingenuous because she must certainly know the students most likely to take online courses are indeed lower-income students. Why? Because students with less money and more grown-up obligations come to places like EMU, or they attend a completely online university, maybe even one of the mega-universities (Southern New Hampshire, for example) that have been doing high quality online education for years and years.

And online education works. We’ve done research on this for years. In general, the data suggests any college course which a) is routinely taught in a large lecture hall format or taught as a small (less than 40, but ideally about 20) group discussion; b) is primarily based on reading, discussion, writing, quizzes, and tests, and c) does not involve any special equipment (e.g., a chemistry lab, a kiln, a potter’s wheel, a welding torch, etc.) or that requires hands-on practice (e.g., medical procedures, cosmetology or barbering, engine repair, etc.) can be taught online just as effectively as it can be taught face to face. I do realize there are a lot of important college courses that fall into the “c” category of things and can’t be offered exclusively online. I do not think I’d be comfortable undergoing surgery by a physician who trained exclusively online. But thought-out and carefully planned online courses work in the majority of subjects and college classrooms.

Plus most college students– certainly those who attend community colleges and regional universities like EMU– have been taking classes online for a long time. Roughly speaking, almost a third of U.S. college students have taken at least one online course. About 15-20% of college students are taking courses exclusively online, and these online courses and programs are no longer just the products of sketchy for-profits.

But the perception is still there, particularly among the elites, that online courses are for “not real” and/or for poor people. It reminds me a bit of what was going in in the realm of MOOCs a few years ago: all these elite universities were developing these MOOCs they were hoping to somehow monetize by getting students to pay for credit to transfer to another college. But these same institutions were very clear that they would not accept MOOC credit for their students: that is, the University of Michigan is completely fine with students from say EMU paying for their MOOCs and then having that class count as transfer credit, but there was no way UM was going to accept MOOC credit, even when the MOOC was developed and taught by the same faculty teaching the face to face version of the UM course.

Last but not least, Higher Education is going to need a bigger bail-out and some kind of government intervention to change the funding model. This is an issue I am certain Daniels, Paxson, and (at least some of the) students suing would probably agree about. Costs in higher education have been driven up for decades for lots of reasons, but what that means now is so-called public universities have the same business model as private universities. EMU is in the same boat as Brown because most of our revenue comes from tuition, and, as Paxson put it, the loss in tuition revenue this fall, “…only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic. It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.”

And in the medium to long term, I think we need to get to a place where public universities receive most of their funding from the government, and we need to really get over the idea that higher education is defined by the “college experience” of the elites and flagships. The feds and the states (and ultimately tax payers) are going to have to step up and fund higher education so that tuition can be reduced.

But more funding from government will (and should) come with restrictions on how that money is spent, and a lot of the money we waste in higher education in this country– sports, luxurious dorms and recreation facilities, and so forth– are what the elites and flagships out there see as part of the college experience. And that is a problem for the Browns and Purdues of the world: why would a student pay whatever it costs to go to Brown to take online classes (even temporarily) if that student could take a similar online class from a regional university or community college for significantly less money?

No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic

The TL;DR version: this isn’t how I thought my already online classes were going to go, and, if you’re a college teacher and the way you’re trying to cope is to stick with your original plans no matter what, stop it. No one should fail a class because of a fucking pandemic.

To continue:

Continue reading “No One Should Fail a Class Because of a Fucking Pandemic”

Help! I have to suddenly teach online! What should I do?

As the number of universities (including my own) announce covid-19 plans that include requiring all classes finish out their terms online, I’m imagining an increasing number of college instructor and faculty-types doing a Google search along these lines of “how to teach a course online.”

Some of these administrators requiring this move or faculty who have avoided and/or complained about online courses might want to ask for advice from people like me who have a lot of experience teaching online, though frankly, that’s far from certain. After all, MOOC developers didn’t ask experts in online pedagogy when they launched. (Which reminds me, More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs seems like it might all of a sudden be a little more relevant right now. Take a look at the free sample that includes the introduction and first chapter and if you want the book, use the promo code KRAU at checkout and then it’s only $13.77).

In case there is someone who has been asked to suddenly stop what they’ve been doing for decades (let alone all semester) in order to shift everything online, and that person did a Google search and then landed here, I thought I’d jot down a few bits of advice based on my experiences and research about online teaching.

Continue reading “Help! I have to suddenly teach online! What should I do?”

A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online

I’m not that worried about getting and dying from Covid-19 (though I don’t know, maybe I should be), but I can understand why people are concerned both for themselves and for others, and I can understand why there have been travel restrictions and school closures and all the rest. So while it’s probably too late to contain coronavirus and perhaps we’ve all already been exposed to it anyway, I do get why events are getting cancelled and why potentially sick people are self-quarantining and the like.

Which brings me to this year’s annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, scheduled to take place March 25-28: perfect timing for Covid-19 to have everything cancelled and all of us home and alone and and constantly washing our hands, and not conferencing in Milwaukee. Well, potentially; and if the conference goes on as planned, I’m still planning to go. But that’s all still a big “if.”

Now, one of the things that’s come up a lot on Facebook and Twitter and the like is the idea of “just move it online.” I’ve been saying a version of that myself, though though long before coronavirus. I know first hand that “just move it online” is not something that just happens magically, quickly, easily, and for free. But I also have some ideas on how this might work, and because it came up on Facebook (Julie Lindquist, who is chair of the conference this year, asked me to share my thoughts) because I’m procrastinating from grading, I thought I’d write about that.

The TL;DR version: the conference should have a web site and allow online participants to share links to their online presentations on that web site.

A few disclaimers. First, I don’t have much of a dog in this fight because while I’ve been going to the CCCCs off and on my entire career, it’s just not that important of an event for me any more. Second, I have systematically avoided getting involved in some kind of CCCC or NCTE service and I’m not planning on starting now. Maybe that is a mistake on my part, but it is what it is. And third, I’m not talking about doing away with the face to face conference. I think that’d be a bad idea. Rather, I’m just talking about giving people the chance to participate while not actually being their physically, and I’m talking about a way of preserving and sharing presentations beyond the moment of reading a paper and pointing at a slide show in a nearly empty room at a conference hotel.

Fourth– and this is an important one– the CCCCs can’t “just move it online” in less than three weeks. It is simply not enough time. Yeah, it sucks and it sucks a lot, and maybe participants could try to use Google Hangout on their own (see below), but I think it’s too late for the CCCCs organizers to systematically create an official online presentation mode. What I’m talking about here are ideas to think about for next year and beyond because there are lots of reasons to make academic conferences more accessible beyond a pandemic.

With that, some brainstorming/ideas: Continue reading “A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online”

Still more on the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit (or not)” project, in which I go down the tangent of note-taking

I spent most of my Thanksgiving break  back in Iowa, and along the way, I chatted with my side of the family about my faculty research fellowship project, “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” It’s always interesting talking to my non-academic family-types about academic things like this.

“So, you’re on sabbatical right now?” Not exactly. I’m not teaching so I can spend more time on research, but I’m still expected to go to meetings and things like that. Though honestly, I’ve skipped some of that stuff too, and it’s generally okay.

“Is there some kind of expectation for what you are supposed to be researching? What happens if you don’t do it?” Well, it is a competitive process for getting these fellowships in the first place, and there’s of course an expectation that I’ll do what I proposed. And I have done that, more or less, and I will have to write a report about that soon. But the implications (consequences?) of not doing all of what I originally proposed are vague at best.

“So, you’re not really working right now?” No no no, that’s not true. I’m working quite a bit, actually. But I’m doing this work because I want to, though I’m doing this work mostly at home and often in pajamas and I have an extremely flexible schedule right now (which is why we’re going to Morocco in a few days, but that’s another story for later), so I can understand why you might ask that.

“Being a professor is kind of a weird job, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is.

Anyway, since I last blogged about this project back in September, I’ve been a bit distracted by department politics (don’t ask) and by prepping for teaching in the Winter term, which for me involves some new twists on old courses and also a completely new prep. But the research continues.

Back in October, I put together and conducted a survey for students and faculty about their attitudes/beliefs on the use of laptops and cell phones in classes. Taking the advice I often give my grad students in situations like this, I did not reinvent the wheel and instead based this survey on similar work by Elena Neiterman and Christine Zaza who are both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and who both (I think) work in that school’s Public Health program. They published two articles right up my alley for this project: “A Mixed Blessing? Students’ and Instructors’ Perspectives about Off-Task Technology Use in the Academic Classroom” and “Does Size Matter? Instructors’ and Students’ Perceptions of Students’ Use of Technology in the Classroom.” I emailed to ask if they would be willing to share their survey questions and they generously agreed, so thanks again!

I’ll be sorting through and presenting about the results of this at the CCCCs this year and hopefully in an article (or articles) eventually. But basically, I asked for participants on social media, the WPA-L mailing list (had to briefly rejoin that!), and at EMU. I ended up with 168 respondents, 57% students and 43% instructors, most of whom aren’t at EMU. The results are in the ballpark/consistent with Neiterman and Zaza (based just on percentages– I have no idea if there’s a way to legitimately claim any kind of statistically significant comparison), though I think it’s fair to say both students and instructors in my survey are more tolerant and even embracing of laptops and cellphones in the classroom. I think that’s both because these are all smaller classes (Neiterman and Zaza found that size does indeed matter and devices are more accepted in smaller classes), and also because they’re writing classes. Besides the fact that writing classes tend to be activity-heavy and lecture-light (and laptops and cell phones are important tools for writing), I think our field is a lot more accepting of these technologies and frankly a lot more progressive in its pedagogy: not “sage on the stage” but “guide on the side,” the student-centered classroom, that sort of thing. I also was able to recruit a lot of potential interviewee subjects from this survey, though I think I’m going to hold off on putting together that part of the project for the new year.

And I’ve been thinking again about note-taking, though not so much as it relates to technology. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are two basic reasons in the scholarship for banning or limiting the use of devices– particularly laptops– in college classrooms, particularly lecture halls. One reason is about the problems of distraction and multitasking, and I do think there is some legitimacy to that. The other reason (as discussed in the widely cited Mueller and Oppenheimer study) is that it’s better to take notes by longhand than by a laptop.  I think that’s complete bullshit, so I kind of set that aside.

But now I’m starting rethink/reconsider the significance of note-taking again because of the presidential impeachment hearings. Those hearings were a series of poised, intelligent, and dedicated diplomats and career federal professionals explaining how Trump essentially tried to blackmail the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden. One of the key things that made these people so credible was their continued reference to taking detailed notes where they witnessed this impeachable behavior. In contrast, EU ambassador Gordon “The Problem” Sondland seemed oddly proud that he’s never been a note-taker. As a result, a lot of Sondland’s testimony included him saying stuff like “I don’t remember the details because I don’t take notes, but if it was in that person’s notes, I have no reason to doubt it.” I thought this detail (and other things about his testimony) made Sondland look simultaneously like an extremely credible witness to events and also like a complete boob.

Anyway, this made me wonder: exactly is the definition of “good note-taking?” How do we know someone takes good (or bad) notes, and what’s the protocol for teaching/training people to take good notes?

The taking notes by hand versus on a laptop claim is shaky and (IMO) quite effectively refuted by the Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” But while that study does poke at the concept of note-taking a bit (for example, they have one group of participants not take notes at all and just closely pay attention to the TED talk lecture), everything else I’ve read seems to just take note-taking as a given. There’s broad consensus in the psych/education scholarship that taking notes is an effective way to recall information later on, be it for a test or testimony before Congress, and there also seems to be consensus that trying to write everything down is a bad note-taking strategy. But I have yet to read anything about a method or criteria for evaluating the quality of notes, nor have I read anything about a pedagogy or a protocol for teaching people how to take good notes.

I find that odd. I mean, if the basic claim that Mueller and Oppenheimer (and similar studies) are trying to make is that students take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, and if the basic claim that Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson (and similar studies) are tying to make is students don’t take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, shouldn’t there be at least some minimal definition of “better notes?” Without that definition, can we really say that study participants who scored higher on the test measuring success did so because they took “better notes” rather than some other factor (e.g., they were smarter, they paid better attention, they had more knowledge about the subject of the lecture before the test, etc., etc.)?

I posted about this on Facebook and tagged a few friends I have who work for the federal government, asking if there was any particular official protocol or procedure for taking notes; the answers I got back were kind of vague. On the way back home at one point, Annette and I got to talking about how we were taught to take notes. I don’t remember any sort of instruction in school, though Annette said she remembered a teacher who actually collected and I guess graded student notes. There are of course some resources out there– here’s what looks like a helpful collection of links and ideas from the blog Cult of Pedagogy— but most of these strategies seem more geared for a tutoring or learning center setting. Plus a pedagogy for teaching note taking strategies is not the same thing as research, and it certainly is not the same thing as a method for measuring the effectiveness of notes.

But clearly, I digress.

So my plan for what’s next is to do even more reading (I’m working my way back through the works cited of a couple of the key articles I’ve been working with so far), some sifting through/writing about the results, and eventually some interviews, probably via email. And maybe I’ll take up as a related project more on this question of note-taking methods. But first, there’s Morocco and next semester.

It’s been an interesting research fellowship semester for me. I’ve been quite fortunate in that in the last five years I’ve had two research fellowships and a one semester sabbatical. Those previous releases from teaching involved the specific project of my book about MOOCs, More Than A Moment (on sale now!), and thus had very specific goals/outcomes. My sabbatical was mostly about conducting interviews and securing a book contract; my last FRF was all about finishing the book.

In contrast, this project/semester was much less guided, a lot more “wondering” (I think blog posts like this one demonstrate that). It’s been a surprisingly useful time for me as a scholar, especially at a time in my career and following the intensity of getting the MOOC book done where I was feeling pretty “done” with scholarship. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to EMU for the opportunity, and I hope these keep funding these fellowships, too.

 

A post about an admittedly not thought out idea: very low-bar access

The other day, I came across this post on Twitter from Derek Krissoff, who is the director of the West Virginia University Press:

I replied to Derek’s Tweet “Really good point and reminds me of a blog post I’ve been pondering for a long time on not ‘Open Access’ but something like ‘Very Low Bar Access,'” and he replied to my reply “Thanks, and I’d love to see a post along those lines. It’s always seemed to me access is best approached as a continuum instead of a binary.” (By the way, click on that embedded Twitter link and you’ll see there are lots of interesting replies to his post).

So, that’s why I’m writing this now.

Let me say three things at the outset: first, while I think I have some expertise and experience in this area, I’m not a scholar studying copyright or Open Educational Resources” (OER) or similar things. Second, this should in no way be interpreted as me saying bad things about Parlor Press or Utah State University Press. Both publishers have been delightful to work with and I’d recommend them to any academic looking for a home for a manuscript– albeit different kinds of homes. And third, my basic idea here is so simple it perhaps already exists in academic publishing and I just don’t know better, and I know this exists outside of academia with the many different self-publishing options out there.

Here’s my simple idea: instead of making OER/open-sourced publications completely free and open to anyone (or any ‘bot) with an internet connection, why not publish materials for a low cost, say somewhere between $3 and $5?

The goal is not to come up with a way for writers and publishers to “make money” exactly, though I am not against people being paid for their work nor am I against publishers and other entities being compensated for the costs of distributing “free” books. Rather, the idea is to make access easy for likely interested readers while maintaining a modest amount of control as to how a text travels and is repurposed on the internet.

I’ve been kicking this idea around ever since the book I co-edited Invasion of the MOOCs was published in 2014.  My co-editor (Charlie Lowe) and I wanted to simultaneously publish the collection in traditional print and as a free PDF, both because we believed (still do, I think) in the principles of open access academic publishing and because we frankly thought it would sell books. We also knew the force behind Parlor Press, David Blakesley (this Amazon author page has the most extensive bio, so that’s why I’m linking to that), was committed to the concept of OER and alternatives to “traditional” publishing– which is one of the reasons he started Parlor Press in the first place.

It’s also important to recognize that Invasion of the MOOCs was a quasi-DYI project. Among other things, I (along with the co-authors) managed most of the editing work of the book, and Charlie managed most of the production aspects of the book, paying a modest price for the cover art and doing the typesetting and indexing himself thanks to his knowledge of Adobe’s InDesign. In other words, the up-front costs of producing this book from Parlor Press’ point of view were small, so there was little to lose in making it available for free.

Besides being about a timely topic when it came out, I think distributing it free electronically helped sell the print version of the book. I don’t know exactly how many copies it has sold, but I know it has ended up in libraries all over the world. I’m pretty sure a lot (if not most) of the people/libraries who went ahead and bought the print book did so after checking out the free PDF. So giving away the book did help, well, sell books.

But in hindsight, I think there were two problems with the “completely free” download approach. First, when a publisher/writer puts something like a PDF up on the web for any person or any web crawling ‘bot to download, they get a skewed perspective on readership. Like I said, Invasion of the MOOCs has been downloaded thousands of times– which is great, since I can now say I edited a book that’s been downloaded thousands of times (aren’t you impressed?) But the vast majority of those downloads just sat on a user’s hard drive and then ended up in the (electronic) trash after never being read at all. (Full disclosure: I have done this many times). I don’t know if this is irony or what, but it’s worth pointing out this is exactly what happened with MOOCs: tens of thousands of would-be students signed up and then never once returned to the course.

Second and more important, putting the PDF up there as a free download means the publisher/writer loses control over how the text is redistributed. I still have a “Google alert” that sends me an email whenever it comes across a new reference to Invasion of the MOOCs on the web, and most of the alerts I have gotten over the years are harmless enough. The book gets redistributed by other OER sites, linked to on bookmarking sites like Pinterest, and embedded into SlideShare slide shows.

But sometimes the re-publishing/redistribution goes beyond the harmless and odd. I’ve gotten Google alerts to the book linked to/embedded in web sites like this page from Ebook Unlimited, which (as far as I can tell) is a very sketchy site where you can sigh up for a “free trial” to their book service.  In the last couple years, most of the Google alert notices I’ve received are links to broken links,  paper mill sites, “congratulations you won” pop-up/virus sites,  and similarly weirdo sites decidedly not about the book I edited or anything about MOOCs (despite what the Google alert says).

In contrast, the book I have coming out very soon called More Than A Moment, is being published by Utah State University Press and will not be available for a free download– at least not for a while.  On the positive side of things, working with USUP (which is an imprint of University Press of Colorado) means this book has had a more thorough (and traditional) editorial review, and the copyediting, indexing, and typesetting/jacket design have all been done by professionals. On the downside, a lack of a free to download version will mean this book will probably end up having fewer readers (thus less reach and fewer sales), and, as is the case with most academic books, I’ve had to pay for some of the production costs with grant money from EMU and/or out of my own pocket.

These two choices put writers/publishers in academia in a no-win situation. Open access publishing is a great idea, but besides the fact that nothing is “free” in the sense of having no financial costs associated with it (even maintaining a web site for distributing open access texts costs some money), it becomes problematic when a free text is repurposed by a bad actor to sell a bad service or to get users to click on a bad link. Traditional print publishing costs money and necessarily means fewer potential readers. At the same time, the money spent on publishing these more traditional print publications does show up in a “better” product, and it does offer a bit more reasonable control of the book. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I do not expect to see a Google alert for the More than a Moment MOOC book lead me to a web site where clicking on the link will sign me up for some service I don’t want or download a virus.

So this is where I think “very low-bar access” publishing could split the difference between the “completely free and online” and the “completely not free and in print” options in academic publishing. Let’s say publishers charged as small of a fee as possible for downloading a PDF of the book. I don’t know exactly how much, but to pay the costs for running a web site capable of selling PDFs in the first place and for the publisher/writer to make at least a little bit of money for their labor, I’d guess around $3 to $5.

The disadvantage of this is (obviously) any amount of money charged is going to be more than “free,” and it is also going to require a would-be reader to pass through an additional step to pay before downloading the text. That’s going to cut down on downloads A LOT. On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that if someone bothers to fill out the necessary online form and plunks down $5, there’s a pretty good chance that person is going to at least take a look at it. And honestly, 25-100 readers/book skimmers is worth more to me than 5,000 people who just download the PDF. It’s especially worth it if this low-bar access proves to be too much for the dubious redirect sites, virus makers, and paper mill sites.

I suppose another disadvantage of this model is if someone can download a PDF version of an academic book for $5 to avoid spending $20-30 (or, in some cases, a lot more than that) for the paper version, then that means the publisher will sell less paper books. That is entirely possible. The opposite is also possible though: the reader spends $5 on the PDF, finds the book useful/interesting, and then that reader opts to buy the print book. I do this often enough, especially with texts I want/need for teaching and scholarship.

So, there you have it, very low-bar access. It’s an idea– maybe not a particularly original one, maybe even not a viable one. But it’s an idea.

I predicted the demise of ASU’s Global Freshman Academy MOOC four years ago

From Inside Higher Ed comes “Arizona State Moves On From Global Freshman Academy.”  ASU and edX are “pivoting” away from the GFA and they give a variety of dubious reasons as to why. The real reason– which I first predicted back in April 2015 and which I unpack here a bit– is because nobody wanted it.  (To be fair, I was far from the only person who predicted this outcome).

But just to back up: the GFA rolled out in 2015 as a novel approach to MOOCs. Students could register for and complete a MOOC for free, and if they completed the work and paid a $45 processing/identity verification fee, they could then could have their work evaluated and/or sit for a test. Then, assuming the student passed, they could pay $200 per credit to ASU for transferrable academic credit. The goal was to roll this program out so that by 2016, students (they were expecting several thousand) could take their entire freshman year through this program and enroll at ASU as a sophomore– or transfer those credits someplace else.

Long story short, it didn’t work. Not at all. Here’s a quote from this most recent article:

Of 373,000 people who enrolled, only 8,090 completed a course with a grade of C or better, just over 2 percent of all students enrolled. Around 1,750 students (0.47 percent) paid to receive college credit for completing a course, and fewer than 150 students (0.028 percent) went on to pursue a full degree at ASU.

Anyone paying attention saw this coming. In December 2015, IHE ran “Less than 1%,” which was about how less than one percent of those eligible paid the identity/processing fee, and even less than that actually paid for credit. In 2016 at the Conference for College Composition and Communication in Houston, I went to a panel about the GFA and first year writing, and when I asked about enrollments back then, the presenters (all folks who were teaching in the MOOC and enthusiastic about it) kind of dodged the question. For my book, More than a Moment, I tried to contact someone at GFA in 2017 to find out if the enrollment numbers had changed; they never got back to me, which I took as meaning “no, the enrollments were still extremely low.”

Now, this latest article says ASU is trying to pivot toward a program called “Earned Admission” which “allows students to earn credit toward their freshman year at low cost.” ASU says the shift toward this “Earned Admission” program is working.  A quote:

The Earned Admission pathway allows any person over 22 years old to gain admission to ASU if they complete four courses and earn a 2.75 GPA.

“At this point, the combined number of students who’ve earned admission to the university, including employees from Starbucks and other corporate partners, is around 400 students,” said [Philip Regier, university dean for educational initiatives at ASU and CEO of the university’s central enterprise unit EdPlus].

So far the students who have taken courses through Earned Admission have demonstrated much greater motivation than those who studied through Global Freshman Academy, said Regier.

“We’ve learned that students need to have some skin in the game,” he said.

I guess this is good, but it’s probably not surprising that older “adult” students who want a traditional degree from ASU who are then told “take this program, and you can get in” indeed have some motivational “skin in the game.”  But honestly, this seems like a lame explanation as to why the GFA failed, and it also seems to me this program is addressing problems with the admissions process which have nothing to do with MOOCs or any other delivery method.

I can also say there was nothing special or particularly good about these GFA courses. I write about this in some detail in the book, but I attempted their “College Algebra and Problem Solving” MOOC and failed at it miserably.

In any event,  this latest news about the demise of the GFA proves is that a lot of the points I’m trying to make in More than a Moment are still basically true (which again, maybe this means this book is still relevant):

  • MOOCs are not at all new but are following in the tradition of innovation in distanced ed, from correspondence to TV/radio courses to “traditional” online courses. Had MOOC providers studied this history a bit, they would have realized that the primary audience for these kinds of alternative delivery opportunities has always been non-traditional students (older people with some or no previous college who now wanted to take a class or two) and people who already had an undergraduate degree and who are either seeking another educational experience (a “certificate,” a “nanodegree,” whatever) that might help them advance in a job, or they are seeking “edutainment.”
  • The big for-profit MOOC providers had little prior experience in distance education and all came out of super-elite institutions. They thought they had “invented” online teaching and seemed completely unaware that there are hundreds of “opportunity-granting” universities (like EMU) and community colleges and the like who had lots of experience in online pedagogy and who had been doing this work successfully for a long time. This is extremely true with this GFA initiative because (as Matt Reed pointed out when this program was first announced), $200 per credit for an ASU gen ed class isn’t worth it, especially when a student can take a similarly transferrable gen ed course– and with an actual human instructor!– at a community college for half the price.
  • MOOC providers were trying to sell traditional college students (late teens/early 20-somethings, along with their families) an experience that they didn’t want. We’ve known for a long time now that traditional students are not trying deciding on a higher education experience based on picking the cheapest option available. Rather, traditional college students pick their colleges based on a combination of “the best” school they could get into (in terms of academics, overall reputation, and the track record of graduates getting good jobs), the social life of the university, and then costs. The analogy I give in the book is MOOC providers were trying to sell super-cheap fast food when most of the customers in this market want the best full service meal they can afford.
  • While content scales, education does not– at least it doesn’t scale well enough and in most classes, particularly classes where there is a lot of interaction between participants (first year writing immediately comes to mind) or where the students need extra help. I can tell you from personal experience (and I describe this in some detail in my book) that the GFA MOOC in remedial algebra wasn’t a whole lot more than an interesting textbook. And again, if all it took to learn something was content– like a textbook– then organized education at all levels would have disappeared hundreds of years ago with the rise of print.
  • MOOC providers (and most pro-MOOC pundits) severely underestimated the established breadth and depth of higher education. Education entrepreneurs are constantly telling us  higher education is ripe for the same kind of “disruption” that has happened in other content-heavy “industries” like journalism. But given the long history of most universities in the US and the world, a better comparison would be with institutions like the Catholic church. Further, the minimum “certification” that’s long been necessary for entry into most middle-class/upper-middle-class careers in the U.S. has been a bachelors degree from a recognized university– and the “better” the university, the more valuable the degree. So no amount of free courses or nano-degrees or certificates or whatever else MOOC providers could offer were going to convince students it was a worthwhile option to the bachelors degree, regardless of the price (even free!)

But like I said, I go into a whole lot more detail on all this in More than a Moment.