Instead of banning laptops, what if we mandated them?

Oy. Laptops are evil. Again.

This time, it comes from “Leave It in the Bag,” an article in Inside Higher Ed, reporting on a study done by Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker, all economists at West Point (PDF). This has shown up on the WPA-L mailing list and in my various social medias as yet another example of why technology in the classrooms is bad, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Mind you, I only skimmed this and all of the economics math is literally a foreign language to me. But there are a couple of passages here that I find interesting and not exactly convincing to me that me and my students should indeed “leave it in the bag.”

For example:

Permitting laptops or computers appears to reduce multiple choice and short answer scores, but has no effect on essay scores, as seen in Panel D. Our finding of a zero effect for essay questions, which are conceptual in nature, stands in contrast to previous research by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), who demonstrate that laptop note-taking negatively affects performance on both factual and conceptual questions. One potential explanation for this effect could be the predominant use of graphical and analytical explanations in economics courses, which might dissuade the verbatim note-taking practices that harmed students in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study. However, considering the substantial impact professors have on essay scores, as discussed above, the results in panel D should be interpreted with considerable caution. (page 17)

The way I’m reading this is for classes where students are expected to take multiple choice tests as a result of listening to a lecture from a sage on the stage, laptops might be bad. But in classes where students are supposed to write essays (or at least more conceptual essay questions), laptops do no harm. So if it’s a course where students are supposed to do more than take multiple choice tests….

After describing the overall effects of students performing worse when computing technology is available, Carter, Greenberg, and Walker write:

It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point. In a learning environment with lower incentives for performance, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distracting behavior, and larger class sizes, the effects of Internet-enabled technology on achievement may be larger due to professors’ decreased ability to monitor and correct irrelevant usage.” (page 26)

Hmmm…. nothing self-congratulatory about that passage, is there?

Besides the fact that there is no decent evidence that the students at West Point (or any other elite institution for that matter) are on the whole such special snowflakes that they are more immune from the “harm” of technology/distraction compared to the rest of us simpletons, I think one could just as easily make the exact opposite argument. It seems to me that is is “quite possible” that the harmful effects are more magnified in a setting like West Point because of the strict adherence to “THE RULES” and authority for all involved. I mean, it is the Army after all. Perhaps in settings where students have more freedom and are used to the more “real life” world of distractions, large class sizes, the need to self-regulate, etc., maybe those students are actually better able to control themselves.

And am I the only one who is noticing the extent to which laptop/tablet/technology use really seems to be about a professor’s “ability to monitor and correct” in a classroom? Is that actually “teaching?”

And then there’s this last paragraph in the text of the study:

We want to be clear that we cannot relate our results to a class where the laptop or tablet is used deliberately in classroom instruction, as these exercises may boost a student’s ability to retain the material. Rather, our results relate only to classes where students have the option to use computer devices to take notes.   We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, facebook, twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades, or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers. Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis of using technology in the classroom, additional research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted.(page 28)

First, laptops might or might not be useful for taking notes. This is at odds with a lot of these “laptops are bad” studies. And as a slight tangent, I really don’t know how easy it is to generalize about note taking and knowledge across large groups. Speaking only for myself: I’ve been experimenting lately with taking notes (sometimes) with paper and pen, and I’m not sure it makes much difference. I also have noticed that my ability to take notes on what someone else is saying — that is, as opposed to taking notes on something I want to say in a short speech or something– is now pretty poor. I suppose that’s the difference between being a student and being a teacher, and maybe I need to relearn how to do this from my students.

This paragraph also hints at another issue with all of these “laptops are bad” pieces, of “whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers.” Well, maybe that is the problem, isn’t it? Maybe it isn’t so much that students are spending all of this time being distracted by laptops, tablets, and cell-phones– that is, students are NOT giving professor the UNDIVIDED ATTENTION they believe (nay, KNOWS) they deserve. Maybe the problem is professors haven’t figured out that the presence of computers in classrooms means we have to indeed “teach differently.”

But the other thing this paragraph got me to thinking about the role of technology in the courses I teach, where laptops/tablets are “used deliberately in classroom instruction.” This paragraph suggests that the opposite of banning laptops might also be as true: in other words, what if, instead of banning laptops from a classroom, the professor mandated that students each have a laptop open at all times in order to take notes, to respond to on-the-fly quizzes from the professor, and look stuff up that comes up in the discussions?

It’s the kind of interesting mini-teaching experiment I might be able to pull off this summer. Of course, if we extend this kind of experiment to the realm of online teaching– and one of my upcoming courses will indeed be online– then we can see that in one sense, this isn’t an experiment at all. We’ve been offering courses where the only way students communicate with the instructor and with other students has been through a computer for a long time now. But the other course I’ll be teaching is a face to face section of first year writing, and thus ripe for this kind of experiment. Complicating things more (or perhaps making this experiment more justifiable?) is the likelihood that a significant percentage of the students I will have in this section are in some fashion “not typical” of first year writing at EMU– that is, almost all of them are transfer students and/or juniors or seniors. Maybe making them have those laptops open all the time could help– and bonus points if they’re able multitask with both their laptop and their cell phones!

Hmm, I see a course developing….

A “Modest Proposal” Revisited: Adjuncts, First Year Composition, and MOOCs

I’m posting this at 37,000 or so feet, on my way back from Italy from an international conference on MOOCs sponsored by the University of Naples (more accurately, Federica WebLearning). Normally, I wouldn’t pay as much as I’m paying for wifi on a plane, but I wanted to stay awake as much as possible to get back on USA time by Tuesday morning and because I had some school/teaching work to do. Plus there’s a weird extra seat next to me because my row with three chairs has a row of four chairs right in front of it.

Anyway, I’ll be blogging about that in the next few days once I go through my notes and collect my thoughts about the conference and about Italy. In the meantime though, I wanted to post this. I was trying to place this as a “thought piece” in something like Inside Higher Ed and/or The Atlantic, which is why there is more “apparatus” explaining the field and the state of adjunct labor in fycomp than is typical of things I write about that here. But nobody else wanted it/wanted to pay me to publish it, so it will find a home here.

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“Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson

I’ve blogged about “the Digital Humanities” several times before. Back in 2012, I took some offense at the MLA’s “discovery” of “digital scholarship” because they essentially ignored the work of anyone other than literature scholars– in other words, comp/rhet folks who do things with technology need not apply. Cheryl Ball had an editorial comment in Kairos back then I thought was pretty accurate– though it’s also worth noting in the very same issue of Kairos, Ball also praised the MLA conference for its many “digital humanities” presentations.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had a post here called “If you can’t beat ’em and/or embracing my DH overlords and colleagues,” in which I was responding to a critique by Adam Kirsch that Marc Bousquet had written about. Here’s a long quote from myself that I think is all the more relevant now:

I’ve had my issues with the DH movement in the past, especially as it’s been discussed by folks in the MLA– see here and especially here.  I have often thought that a lot of the scholars in digital humanities are really literary period folks trying to make themselves somehow “marketable,” and I’ve seen a lot of DH projects that don’t seem to be a whole lot more complicated than putting stuff up on the web. And I guess I resent and/or am annoyed with the rise of digital humanities in the same way I have to assume the folks who first thought up MOOCs (I’m thinking of the Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the world) way before Coursera and Udacity and EdX came along are annoyed with the rise of MOOCs now. All the stuff that DH-ers talk about as new has been going on in the “computers and writing”/”computers and composition” world for decades and for these folks to come along now and to coin these new terms for old practices– well, it feels like a whole bunch of work of others has been ignored and/or ripped off in this move.

But like I said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The “computers and writing” world– especially vis a vis its conference and lack of any sort of unifying “organization”– seems to me to be fragmenting and/or drifting into nothingness at the same time that DH is strengthening to the point of eliciting backlash pieces in a middle-brow publication like the New Republic. Plenty of comp/rhet folk have already made the transition, at least in part. Cheryl Ball has been doing DH stuff at MLA lately and had an NEH startup grant on multimedia publication editing; Alex Reid has had a foot in this for a few years now; Collin Brooke taught what was probably a fantastic course this past spring/winter, “Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities;” and Bill Hart-Davidson and Jim Ridolfo are editing a book of essays that will come out in the fall (I think) called Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities. There’s an obvious trend here.

And this year, I’m going to HASTAC instead of the C&W conference (though this mostly has to do with the geographic reality that HASTAC is being hosted just up the road from me at Michigan State University) and I’ll be serving as the moderator/host of a roundtable session about what the computers and writing crowd can contribute to the DH movement.

In other words, I went into reading Jim and Bill’s edited collection Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities with a realization/understanding that “Digital Humanities” has more or less become the accepted term of art for everyone outside of computers and writing, and if the C&W crowd wants to have any interdisciplinary connection/relevance to the rest of academia, then we’re going to have to make connections with these DH people. In the nutshell, that’s what I think Jim and Bill’s book is about. (BTW and “full disclosure,” as they say: Jim and Bill are both friends of mine, particularly Bill, who I’ve known from courses taken together, conferences, project collaborations, dinners, golf outings, etc., etc., etc. for about 23 or so years).

Continue reading ““Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities,” Edited by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson”

My iPad and “killer apps” for academics, almost four years later

I was checking out some of the statistics on hits and such to this site a week or so ago, and one thing that surprised me is that the most popular “all time” post I have on the site (at least since the WordPress plugin Jetpack started keeping track of things) is not about MOOCs, academic life, teaching, cooking, etc. Rather, the most popular single post on this site is “iPad “killer apps” for Academics (maybe),” which I posted on April 10, 2010.

Of course, it’s also important to point out out that no post on this site is really all that popular. I average about 50 or so views a day, sometimes up to 100 when I post something that people find interesting. The most views this site ever received in a single day was 737, and even this most popular of posts on iPads has only received (as of this writing) “all time” 4,794 views. Sure, that’s more people than have ever attended all of the conference presentations I’ve ever given and it’s probably more “views” than any print piece of scholarship I’ve published. But these are still not exactly the kind of traffic numbers that are going to allow me to quit the day job and just blog full-time.

(Oh, and as another thought/tangent: the archives for this site goes back eleven years now. I’ve slowed down quite a bit, but damn, that’s a lot of blogging. Another sabbatical project might involve going back to read through all that and/or “mine” it a bit for text/writing I can repurpose.)

Anyway, a few years later and after I bought my first iPad, what do I think now of what I said then?

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The Comcast Strikes Back

Complaining about Comcast is sort of like complaining about death or taxes and about as common.  I know that. But because of a Twitter exchange I had, I thought I’d add to the genre generally and specifically to my latest Twitter follower, @ComcastLisa. This is more for her than anything else, so if you have had your fill of internet posts complaining about Comcast, feel free to move along. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read on.

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Enough with the “no laptops in classrooms” already

There has been a rash of “turn off the laptop” articles in various places in the educational media, but I think what has pushed me over the edge and motivated this post is Clay Shirky’s “Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away” on Medium. In the nutshell, Shirky went to the no laptop camp because (he says) students can’t multitask and students are too easily distracted by the technology, particularly with the constant alerts from things like Facebook.

Enough already.

First off, while I am no expert regarding multitasking, it seems to me that there are a lot of different layers to multitasking (or perhaps it would make more sense to say attention on task) and most of us perform some level of multitasking all the time.  Consider driving. I think it’s always a bad idea to be texting while actually moving in traffic because, yes, that’s too much multitasking for most people. But how about texting or checking email or social media while at a long light? I do it all the time. Or how about talking on the phone? For me, it’s easy to talk on the phone while driving if I am using headphones or if I’m driving a familiar route in normal conditions. When I’m driving an unfamiliar route in bad weather or in heavy traffic, not so much.

Second, distraction and not paying a lot of attention in class isn’t exactly new. When I was in high school, I sat in the back of the room in that chemistry class I was required to take and I read paperbacks “hidden” under the table. Students used to pass these things called “notes” on paper. Students did and still do whisper at each other in distracting ways. As both a college student and as a college teacher (certainly as a GA way back when), I’ve been with/had students who were distracted by and multitasking with magazines, newspapers, other people, with napping, etc., etc.

I agree with Shirky and some of the articles he cites that what’s interesting and different about contemporary electronic devices generally and social media in particular is that these are designed to distract us, to break our concentration. I routinely experience the sort of instant and satisfying gratification suggested in the abstract of this article. But to suggest that teachers/professors can solve this attention problem by asking students to temporarily turn off their laptops and pay attention to the sage on the stage strikes me as both naive and egotistical.

So here are three tips for Clay and other would-be haters for how to mentally adjust to the inevitability of laptops in their classrooms.

Number one, stop lecturing so much. When professors take the “stand and deliver” approach to “teaching,” the laptops come out. And why shouldn’t they? In an era where anyone can easily record a video and/or audio of a lecture that can be “consumed” by students on their own time, why should they sit and pay attention to you droning on?

I realize this is easy for me to say since I teach small classes with 25 of fewer students, but there are lots of ways to break up the talking head in a large lecture hall class too. Break students into groups to ask them to discuss the reading. Ask students to take a moment to write about a question or a reading and then ask them to respond.  Require your students to discuss and respond. Use the time in class to actually do work with the laptops (individually and collaboratively) to do things. Just stop thinking that teaching means standing there and talking at them.

Number two, be more interesting. If as a teacher (or really, just a speaker) you are noticing a large percentage of students not paying attention and turning to laptops or cell phones or magazines or napping, there’s a pretty good chance you’re being boring. I notice this in my own teaching all the time: when my students and I are interested in a conversation or an activity, the laptops stay closed. When I start to drone on or it otherwise starts getting boring, I see the checks on Facebook or Twitter or ESPN Sports or whatever. I use that as a cue to change up the discussion, to get more interesting.

Number three, “Let it Go.” Because here’s the thing: there’s really nothing professors can do (at least in the settings where I teach) to completely eliminate these kinds of distractions and multitasking and generally dumb stuff that students sometimes do. Students are humans and humans are easily distracted. So instead of spending so much time demanding perfect attention, just acknowledge that most of us can get a lot done with a laptop open. If you as the teacher are not the center of the universe, it’ll be okay.

A Comcast Customer Service Experience: Screwing Up in Reverse

We had been having problems with our Comcast/Xfinity/Whatever it’s called internet access for a while, and my calls to Comcast to check on the service were pretty futile (“Is your modem plugged in? Is your computer on? You should unplug your modem and then plug it back in. Okay, is your modem plugged in?” and repeat).

I finally got around to doing some “research” with the Google and, according to some web site I found (so obviously it must be true), our modem was no longer supported. And actually, that did have a ring of truth to it because that modem had to be at least six years old, maybe a lot older. So off to Best Buy and then back home with a new modem.

I knew that there was a reactivation process with the modem, so I was prepared for being on the phone with Comcast again. I made it through the electronic screening gauntlet and started talking to a nice human. “I need to set up a new modem,” I said. “I can help you with that,” she said. We were off to the races.

Things started turning bad almost immediately when the “tech” person asked me for the number on the back of the modem. “Which one? There are three of them”– that is, a couple of different device serial numbers of some sort and (just to skip ahead a bit, the one that Comcast actually needed) the Media Access Control ID. She asked for all of them, which took a while because a) it was a crappy phone connection and b) I’m pretty sure this person was not in the U.S. So there was a lot of me saying “D! I said D!” and her saying “Did you say B? or G?” But fine, eventually we worked it out and she had all the numbers she could ever need.

Then after about twenty minutes of numbers and waiting for something, my increasingly unfriendly and less competent customer service person said something like “oh, no!” in a low voice. “What?” I asked. “The system went down, I… I… I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she said. We were about 40 minutes in at this point. I’d had it.

“You know, this is really stupid. I don’t think you know what you’re doing here,” I said in my testy angry voice. She sighed, and then– click– hung up.

oh no she didn’t….

So I called right back, ran through the Comcast phone tree, got to a human. “How can I help you?” she asked. “I just got hung up on by another customer service person. That’s completely unacceptable and I would like to speak with a supervisor,” I said.

“Oh, I’m so sorry that happened sir, but I’m sure I can help you with–”

“I JUST GOT HUNG UP ON BY ANOTHER CUSTOMER SERVICE PERSON. THAT IS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE AND I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK WITH A SUPERVISOR!”  I said a bit more forcefully.

That worked. I got on with a supervisor (or at least someone who said he was a supervisor) who got the modem running. But even better: the supervisor dude apologized and completely jacked up our service for all the trouble. So now, we’ve got (for the next year at least) HBO, Showtime, a bunch of channels I’m sure we’ll never watch, and some higher speed of internet access. There must be some kind of checkbox on a service screen at Comcast that he clicked to give us everything.

So the moral of the story:

  • If you get a new modem for your Comcast internet set-up, plan on spending the better part of an afternoon to get it done.
  • Ask for the supervisor, especially if they hang up on you.
  • And hey, Comcast supervisor dude: good job of turning this into a positive.

In defense of machine grading

In defense of machine grading?!?! Well, no, not really. But I thought I’d start a post with a title like that. You know, provocative.

There has been a bit of a ruckus on WPA-L for a while now in support of a petition against machine grading and for humans at the web site humanreaders.org and I of course agree with the general premise of what is being presented on that site.  Machine grading software can’t recognize things like a sense of humor or irony, it tends to favor text length over conciseness, it is fairly easy to circumvent with gibberish kinds of writing, it doesn’t work in real world settings, it fuels high stakes testing, etc., etc., etc. I get all that.

We should keep pushing back against machine grading for all of these reasons and more. Automated testing furthers the interests of Edu-business selling this software and does not help students nor teachers, at least not yet.  I’m against it, I really am.

However:

  • It seems to me that we’re not really talking about grading per se but about teaching,  and the problem is writing pedagogy probably doesn’t work when the assessment/ grading part of things is completely separated from the teaching part of things. This is one of the differences between assigning writing and teaching writing.
  • There’s a bit of a catch 22 going on here. Part of the problem was that writing teachers complained (rightly so, I might add) about big standardized tests of various sorts not having writing components. So writing was added to a lot of these tests. However, the only way to assess thousands of texts generated through this testing is with specifically trained readers (see my next point) or with computer programs. So we can skip the writing altogether with these tests or we can accept a far from perfect grading mechanism.
  • I’ve participated in various holistic/group grading sessions before (though it’s been a long time), which is how they used to do this sort of thing before the software solutions. The way I recall it working was dozens and dozens of us were trained to assign certain ratings for essays based on a very specific rubric.  We were, in effect, programmed, and there was no leeway to deviate from the guidelines.  So I guess what I’m getting at is in these large group assessment circumstances, what’s the difference if it’s a machine or a person?
  • This software doesn’t work that well yet, especially in uncontrolled circumstances: that is, grading software is about as accurate as humans with these standardized prompt responses written in specific testing situations, but it doesn’t work well at all as an off-the-shelf rating solution for just any chunk of writing that students write for classes or that writers write for some other reason.  But the key word in that last sentence is yetbecause this software has (and is) getting a lot better. So what happens when it gets as good as a human reader (or at least good enough?) Will we accept the role of this evaluation software much in the same way we now all accept spell checking in word processors? (And by the way, I am old enough to remember resistance among English teacher-types to that, too– not as strong as the resistance to machine grading, but still).
  • As a teacher, my least favorite part of teaching is grading. I do not think that I am alone in that sentiment. So while I would not want to outsource my grading to someone else or to a machine (because again, I teach writing, I don’t just assign writing), I would not be against a machine that helps make grading easier. So what if a computer program provided feedback on a chunk of student writing automatically, and then I as the teacher followed behind those machine comments, deleting ones I thought were wrong or unnecessary, expanding on others I thought were useful? What if a machine printed out a report that a student writer and I could discuss in a conference? And from a WPA point of view, what if this machine helped me provide professional development support to GAs and part-timers in their commenting on students’ work?

A few miscellaneous comments on online teaching, what I learned about eCollege (again), and MOOCs

I’ve been pretty crazy-busy this semester because I took on too much and because there were things I could not refuse. So the blog has been pretty neglected lately, mostly because I’ve been thinking and writing about online stuff and MOOCs. (And now I’m coming back to this blog to procrastinate a bit in getting it done with the crazy-busy semester).

In no super-specific order:

  • I have been working on (and I think it’s done) my contribution to a “symposium” on MOOCs that will be in College Composition and Communication, I think in January. It’s about my experiences specifically with the writing assignments in “Listening to World Music” and the ways that they failed in spectacular ways.  If you are someone who has read my entries about MOOCs as of late, you probably have a sense of what’s going to be in that relatively short piece.  In any event, I really appreciate the opportunity to participate and it just goes to show you that sometimes blogging about stuff can pay off.
  • I was in a meeting just the other day where the topic of online teaching came up, and some of the folks complaining about it– literature colleagues (I know that’s shocking!)– said online classes were obviously not as good as face to face classes.  “So, are you saying that the classes I teach online aren’t any good?” I asked. No-no-no, we don’t mean you, they quickly said, but yes, that is what they meant. What I find continually most annoying about this critique is that it inevitably comes from people who have had no experience with online teaching. I mean none, and it also usually comes from people who don’t have a whole lot of experience or connection to this whole new-fangled Internets thing.  So part of what I said in this meeting was “Look, before you argue that online teaching can’t be as good as face to face teaching, go out and take an online class. Before that, your pronouncements about what online classes are like is a little like me telling you what Antartica is like even though I’ve never been there. I mean, I know it’s cold, but so what?”
  • MOOCs are pretty much the same way, which is why I spent the time I did in “Listening to World Music.” I wanted to see first-hand what these things were like, and since I am unlikely to teach one anytime soon, I experienced one as a student and wrote lots and lots about it. A lot of what I’ve been reading lately about MOOCs though (frankly, including some of what I am linking to/talking about in this post) seem to be coming from folks making educated guesses or knee-jerk reactions.
  • MOOCs have had the advantage of raising the profile of online teaching as a “real” environment for learning. But even though the likes of Daphne Koller and Peter Norvig think they “invented” online education with their MOOCs, the fact of the matter is students have been taking classes online at real universities– particularly regional ones like EMU– for over a decade now. Something like a third of all college students in the U.S. have taken at least one online class. We know a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Which brings me to my next point….
  • I don’t think the discussion should be about online classes being as “good” as face-to-face classes or even whether or not online classes “work.” (See “Do Online Classes Suck?” by Alex Halavais on this point). We’ve all seen bad teaching in the best of cozy face-to-face classroom settings, so the idea that that format for teaching is inherently “better” than online teaching seems a little dubious to me. Rather, I think the issue is of what are the trade-offs of these different formats, how do teachers adjust their pedagogy to best fit the situation, and what do we know about the best fit for the subject being taught. One of the trade-offs for teaching classes in a large lecture format is there is not a lot of opportunity for discussion or for student assessment in a format other than an easily graded test. One of the trade-offs for teaching first year writing in small discussion sections is it is prohibitively expensive to staff all of those sections with equally great and experienced professors (let alone great and experienced non-tenure-track faculty), so there can be pretty significant differences between different sections of the same course– thus the point of writing program administration.
  • One of the differences between how my writing colleagues think about online teaching and how my literature colleagues think about it is at what level it is most appropriate. Folks in literature have been somewhat okay with online versions of gen-ed classes but not for classes in the major or at the graduate level. We have the opposite take: we have come to believe that online (and hybrid) format classes need to be a part of the mix for our undergraduate and graduate programs, but we want our students in first year writing to take the class in person and on campus. That might change– I can especially imagine a scenario where we offer sections of first year writing in a hybrid format– but it isn’t going to be changing soon, largely because of the nature of those classes.  Students in first year writing typically need to learn some of the habits that will help them succeed in college: showing up, meeting schedules, learning how to become more self-disciplined, etc. Which leads me to my next rambling point:
  • Who thinks that MOOCs will work in “remedial” college courses? I personally find the term “remedial” both problematic and offensive, not unlike a well-intentioned and ill-informed person referring to someone of Chinese descent as “Oriental,” but I don’t want to go into that for now. The Gates foundation has given out a bunch of grants for creating “developmental” MOOCs– including courses in first year writing being developed by folks at Duke, Georgia Tech, Mt. San Jacinto College, and Ohio State. Each of these are using Coursera as a delivery platform. I’ll be very curious to see how this works out, but based on what I know about online teaching, MOOCs, and first year writing, I think this is doomed.
  • In the 24 or so years I’ve been teaching first year writing, I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of students I’ve had in that class did not want to take it, and some of my students really really didn’t want to take it. Students take first year writing because it is a universal requirement (insert arguments ala Crowley et al as to why that is a bad idea here if you feel so inclined), and this is quite a bit different than the “Edu-tainment” appeal of MOOCs so far. We have decades of evidence on how to best help students who are struggling with subjects like writing, and all of that evidence suggests that these students need a lot personal attention of the sort not afforded in a class of thousands powered by freeze-dried/pre-recorded videos presented in a “stand and deliver” lecture format. The drop-out rate for Coursera MOOCs is already 90%; how much worse will they be in these courses?
  • Frankly, I think the folks working on MOOCs might have it backwards. Maybe they shouldn’t be replacing introductory or developmental college courses, the kinds of classes populated by young, inexperienced, and not particularly motivated students. Maybe MOOCs should replace upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses, the kinds of classes populated by older, experienced, savvy, and highly motivated students.
  • And once again, I discovered this semester in my own teaching that the content/learning management system matters. I have a chapter called “Blogs as an Alternative to Course Management Systems:  Public, Interactive Teaching with a Round Peg in a Square Hole” that is in a book (that’s supposed to be coming out any day now) called Designing Web-Based Applications for 21st Century Writing ClassroomsThe basic point of my chapter is to explain the hows/whys/pros/cons of using WordPress as an alternative to institutional CMSs. Despite the fact that I wrote this piece and despite the fact that I’ve used my own installations of WordPress as my primary platform for teaching online for years, I decided for some reason to give EMU’s CMS (eCollege) another try to host the entire class. Not a great idea. The short version is that eCollege works fine to host the grade book and to host content in a series of units where content is delivered, discussed, and tested. It doesn’t work well when a course is an on-going discussion or when it is something that exists in relation with the rest of the world– e.g., not behind a firewall.  So what I found most frustrating was there was no narrative to the class, no place where it was easy to post an update to something I just came across that I thought would be useful to share with everyone. Long story short, I’m going back to some kind of blog space for English 516 this winter term, which is also going to be online.
  • Clay Shirky wrote an interesting blog entry, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” and  Jeff Rice had an interesting response (and he also pointed to this good Inside Higher Ed rebuttal). Of course, “unbundling” the college degree is not something that is new, though it might appear to be new to Shirky who went to Yale and who teaches (once in a while, at least) at places like NYU. I have lots and LOTS of students at EMU who credits from two or three different other institutions on their transcript, and there are lots of EMU students who are simultaneously enrolled at Washtenaw Community College or another school in the area.
  • One place where I agree with Shirky is that if the point of comparison for what works (or doesn’t) in higher ed should not be Harvard or Yale; that said, one of the major concerns I have about MOOCs (and actually online education in general) is that it simply rarifies the already existing (albeit largely unspoken) hierarchy.  I think this is basically what Nigel Thrift in The Chronicle of Higher Education and what Ian Bogost is saying here. The analogy in those last two pieces is to restaurants, but no need to make that analogy when we can make an actual comparison. There are thousands of colleges and universities on this continent that award bachelor degrees in some kind of humanities– English, let’s say. As an initial qualification for some kind of want ad– “bachelors degree required’– these thousands of different institutions are all the same. But we all know that a degree from Harvard is worth more in the marketplace than a degree from the University of Michigan, which is worth more than one from Michigan State, which is worth more than one from EMU, which is worth more than one from the University of Phoenix. It’s been that way for a long long time. What I think MOOCs will do is simply add another lower rung to that ladder.
  • In any event, I’m probably going to be signing up for “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” as are (apparently) a lot of people in tech-rhet and the wpa-l mailing list. I’m thinking about making my grad students in English 516: Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice take this course as part of my course. These people seem pretty sharp: I like this manifesto, and I like this article quite a bit. If nothing else, we’ll be reading/thinking a lot more about MOOCs and online teaching while in an online class, which ought to be meta-meta.

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?