Actors, Videos, Robots, and More MOOC Reading Round-up

It’s been a pretty busy and productive time in MOOC-land. I’m simultaneously working on three different “parts” of the MOOCs In Context project with the hopes of having enough to seriously start seeing if there’s a publisher interested in whatever this will end up being. I’ve got a chapter coming out sometime in the near future (yet this year?) in a collection edited by Liz Losh about MOOCs, and I’ve got some other MOOC scholarship news on my mind I’m not quite ready to announce to the whole world yet. And my garden is completely in. So it’s been a good sabbatical, one that will end sooner than I had originally planned– but that’s another post. Anyway, more of this post after the jump.

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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).

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An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)

I’ve read about half of Kevin Carey’s The End of College and I’ve seen lots of the critiques of it in the education media, particularly in Inside Higher Ed.  There’s this, this (which has a pretty decent bullet-point summary of the book), this (which is probably too polite), and this piece by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  That Watters/Goldrick-Rab piece is probably my favorite because it is so biting and so extensively cited, though Kim thought it a little too “biting.” I commented on that article already. In any event, while my own reading of Carey is a “work in progress,” I thought I’d share two thoughts for now.

First, I am both bothered and puzzled by the attention Carey’s book is getting. I’m bothered because this book seems to be getting way WAY too much attention, and I’m puzzled by this because it seems to me the point he is making about “The University of Everywhere” is basically the same that the “Year of the MOOCs” bandwagon was making in 2012. If all this were new, I guess it might make sense; that it’s not new at all and it’s still getting great PR confuses me.

I referenced Carey’s book (well, indirectly because I ran out of time during the presentation)  at the CCCCs, and I suspect I’ll be quoting from him if I ever get this MOOC book/sabbatical project together (knocking on wooden things). I see him figuring into the last chapter where I am imagining the future of MOOCs and whatever comes next, and the seemingly never-ending quest to make education cheaper by making it more “efficient” and by further distancing teachers from students and/or bypassing the teachers altogether. Here’s a long quote from my CCCCs talk that I didn’t get to read that gives you an idea about where I’m coming from about why I’m confused by the attention:

I think Carey is wrong in lots of different ways. I think he’s right that higher education spends too much money on football and fancy campuses, and there is no doubt that higher education costs too much money. But his assumption about the research/teaching balance being out of whack and the inability of professors to teach is at best an exaggeration. Carey talks about runaway costs, but as far as I can tell, he says little about how expenses have been driven up by rising administrator salaries and increased bureaucratic demands on everyone from outside stakeholders (assessment!). Further, he seems to think that the content that would be delivered electronically in the University of Everywhere is free as in “free beer,” that that work just magically happens.

But the reason why Carey’s argument matters is the same reason why the MOOC business got traction a few years ago: Carey is playing off the popular (and largely uninformed) view of college, that it’s far too expensive because professors don’t do anything to teach and they are getting paid too much to do something that appears to most people outside of academia to not actually be a job. Write a book about how higher ed needs to be reformed by improving government funding, eliminating administrative bloat,  and by streamlining extracurriculars gets zero discussion and it sells 200 copies [and as an aside: I am afraid this is the book I am writing]. Write a book about how higher ed ought be run like Google and it gets covered by the New York Times and Fresh Air and lots of other places and it sells thousands. So even though the future of Carey’s “University of Everywhere” seems like an even more “risky business,” it’s similar to MOOCs in that we need to engage in the conversation.

The second (and more important and counter-intuitive) thing is about the “college costs too much” argument. Much of Carey’s book argues college as we know it needs to be completely retooled because it costs too much money, which is of course the conventional wisdom from most about higher education (including me). This is a rational observation. But here’s the thing: it seems to me most would be students and their parents don’t actually care that much about the costs.  It certainly isn’t driving most decisions students make about where to go to college.

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“Jay Speaks” to “The Intercept:” A few miscellaneous thoughts

If you were a fan of the recent podcast Serial, you really need to read the three part series “Jay Speaks,” a three part interview with the Jay in the Serial show, Jay Wilds, conducted by Natasha Vargas-Cooper in The Intercept. The link I have there is actually to part 3 of the interview, but if you scroll to the bottom, you can get links to parts on and two.

If you haven’t heard Serial, this is likely to not make a lot of sense. But of course, I did listen to Serial and I thought was incredibly compelling, probably the first of its kind of long form journalism in the form of a podcast and as a story that evolved as it was reported, largely as a result of particularly active listeners, for better and worse. And this piece is mostly the “for worse” angle of things: basically, Jay feels like he was demonized by Sarah Koenig, which is the main reason why he’s talking to Vargas-Cooper.

A few thoughts:

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When it comes to Education and Technology, “Efficiency” is not the point

One of my goals (one of many, far too many, goals) during the sabbatical is to post more here– probably still mostly about higher ed and MOOCs, but hopefully other stuff too. I think it would be a good idea to shift back away from Facebook and Twitter. Don’t ask me why I think that’s a good idea right now; it just seems like it is.

This seems a good place to start: from U.S. News and World Report (which I think is just a web site nowadays) comes “Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed,” with the subheadline “Some say bringing high technology to higher ed makes it less, not more, efficient.”  As a slight tangent: the author of this article is something called “The Hechinger Report,” which “is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at Teachers CollegeColumbia University” that apparently generates a lot of articles about education that get poured right into a lot of mainstream publications.

Anyway, a quote:

Universities and colleges are marketing themselves to tech-savvy teenagers while promising higher productivity and financial savings. They will pour $10.4 billion into education technology this year, according to the Center for Digital Education, from computers to in-class gadgets such as digital projectors and wireless “clickers” that let students answer questions electronically.

But professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.

The assumed purpose of technology (e.g., computer stuff, basically) in this article is efficiency, and some version of that word/theme appears at least a dozen times in this 1,000 or word so piece. And– surprise, surprise!– it turns out that computer stuff doesn’t make education more efficient.

First off, duh.

Second, (to expand a bit on that first point), one of the main problems I always have with these kinds of articles is the assumed definition of technology. Instead of defining technology as any sort of tool like pens or paper or chalkboards or even literacy itself (Ong), technology is “anything that doesn’t seem normal to us, particularly computers stuff:” that is, “clickers,” “gadgets,” “digital projectors,” etc. Things that were recently “technology” often become quickly naturalized so they no longer qualify as “gadget” or “new-fangled”– email and cell phones, for example. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect any definition of technology to be any more nuanced than that, but it’s still frustrating.

Third, (also expanding on my “duh”), efficiency is not the point. Modern computer technologies allow teachers and students to do things differently now than they did things five or ten or twenty or however many years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) make things more efficient. Take online courses in the broadest sense. Anyone who has taught or taken an online class knows that the advantage of the technology is it alters the time and space of a traditional “classroom:” you can be in class from wherever you can get a decent internet connection and you can engage in the class on your own schedule (more or less, and assuming the class is asynchronous). But online courses are a fairly inefficient way to convey information and to interact with each other. In a face to face class, we can all discuss a reading or an assignment in one time and place; in an online class, not so much. Often, this inefficiency shifts to the instructor– that is, it takes a lot more time to teach an online class than it does to teach a face to face one– and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of faculty have no interest in teaching online.

This ongoing quest for efficiency and cost savings (generally by employing fewer teachers and/or by having bigger classes) drives MOOCs and other online experiments, just as it was the motivation behind correspondence schools in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the first wave of online courses a decade or so ago. For students (and parents of students), seeking efficiency makes sense. Over Christmas at my parents in Iowa, the conversation with the brothers-in-laws turned to the cost of higher education (one of them is preparing to send a kid to college next year), and this desire for efficiency came up. It wasn’t the right place or time to explain what I see as the actual reasons for the costs of higher ed (administrative costs, assessment, athletics, student amenities, and a sharp decline in state subsidies), but I did try to point out that education is an inherently inefficient enterprise, sort of like a string quartet (e.g., Baumol’s cost disease).  Education generally– teaching in particular– doesn’t scale the same way that content does. Efficiency is not the point.

I’m not sure I was very persuasive, and as a parent who is also looking down the barrel of paying tuition for our son next year, I share a lot of my brother-my-law’s feelings on this.

“MOOCs” by Jonathan Haber: a review and more sabbatical anxiety

The main anxiety I have about my sabbatical project on MOOCs is the quickly approaching irrelevance of this work thanks to the passing of time and already published/in the pipeline books. I could see this working against me in two different and competing ways.

The first is that the quick rise and fall of MOOCs might mean that the “window of opportunity” to get a book-length manuscript published is closing quickly. I’m glad Charlie Lowe and I were able to strike when we were able to strike with Invasion of the MOOCsbut now I worry that it’s simply too late for another MOOC book.

At the same time, I’m worried that too many others have leapt out in front of me in the rush to publish on MOOCs. There are already about a dozen legitimate, academic or quasi-academic books out there on MOOCs (though a lot of what I’ve read has been pretty superficial and more in the vein of “how to succeed in MOOCs” rather than anything approaching critique or analysis.) I know at least one (maybe two or three?) other people in my field who are on sabbaticals now or soon and who said they were going to be working on MOOC projects of their own, amazon.com is already listing just shy of a half-dozen academic-ish books with “MOOC” in the titles that will be published in 2015, and I know of at least one other edited collection on the horizon about MOOCs. So by the time I have something to share with a publisher in August 2015 or so, the publisher is liable to say “that’s so 2014.”

(But I have to acknowledge that I am over-dramatizing this anxiety right now; the fact of the matter is I won’t get my sabbatical revoked if this project doesn’t pan out, I might end up shifting direction with my sabbatical anyway, etc., etc.).

So this is what has been on my mind as I was reading MOOCs by Jonathan Haber.

 

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What and why do students and faculty (and anyone else) want to and not want to write?

I read two different education media articles the other day that both spoke to me in oddly similar ways about the reasons for (or for not) writing. First there was from IHE, “What Students Write,” which is a sort of review/essay about Dan Melzer’s book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing. The article is good and the book sounds great. The very short version (based on just the article) is that Melzer studied over 2100 different writing assignments across the curriculum at about 100 different institutions. Not surprisingly, most of the writing assignments teachers give are shitty, mostly an exercise for students to prove to the teacher that they can repeat back in a written text (an essay, an exam, etc.) what was in the lecture and/or reading.

Melzer calls this largest category of writing assignments “student to examiner;” I would more cheekily call it “parroting,” or “Polly wants a cracker” writing. Oh, and students better repeat what the teacher said correctly. Here’s a quote:

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

In the other corner comes this from CHE, “Anatomy of a Serial-Plagiarism Charge” about Mustapha Marrouchi, who is a postcolonial lit professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. There’s more about the case in an article behind CHE’s firewall, but the gist is that Marrouchi has apparently been plagiarising to different degrees for decades, this despite the fact that he was enough of a “big shot” in the field to get hired away from a previously high-paid spot at Louisiana State to an even sweeter gig at UNLV. What the non-firewalled piece I’m linking to here does do is highlight a number of incidents that do look kind of fishy.

So, what do these two articles/incidents say about what it is that students and teachers write and read, what they want to write and read? A few thoughts:

I like to write and always have. Writing is one of the few things I am actually good at and I can recall being rewarded for my talent as far back as grade school. I like to read too, though like a lot of my students (especially the creative writing types), I like to write more.

I write and read every day, but I still have a hard time with “assigned” writing, meaning for me not assignments from a teacher (I’m not taking any classes) but writing I am supposed to be doing for some other reason. There are at least three projects I’m procrastinating on right now to write this post instead. The same goes with reading. There are a stack of academic books and novels I am supposed to be reading right now so I can be a better person and a good intellectual, not to mention to be prepared to teach in a couple of weeks. But I am more likely to be reading the links to things on Twitter or the listicles on Facebook about which Hollywood stars began their careers as strippers.

So I guess there are some ways in which these reports of lazy writing assignments and serial plagiarism are not that surprising to me. Like everyone else in my field, I try to develop writing assignments with a clear purpose and audience beyond just writing to me as the teacher and beyond just having students prove to me they did the reading and/or were otherwise paying attention. I do think it makes a difference. I think students learn more from such assignments, I find this writing a lot more pleasant to read and grade, and I think it helps students to not plagiarize. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I also think it’s true that there’s a difference between assigning writing and teaching writing.  So when professors give the sort of stupid assignments that Melzer is writing about in his book and with no actual teaching involved, it’s no wonder that those professors are disappointed and even angry about their students’ writing.  Garbage in, garbage out.

But good assignments aren’t a cure-all. Not everyone likes to write just to write, and students frequently don’t like to write and thus resist new assignments. I gave a talk back at the CCCCs in Louisville in 2010 (a talk I should probably assign myself to revisit and rewrite into a longer essay) about using the movie RiP! A Remix Manifesto as a topic and a guiding principle for teaching first year writing.  Among many other things, I said that while it is certainly more pedagogically effective and ethical to give writing assignments that are not parroting, many of my students ultimately reverted to writing five paragraph essays. When students do this, I think it is because it is the path of least resistance (it’s always easier doing something you’ve done rather than doing something you haven’t done before), but also because students don’t trust me. Perhaps for good reason. They’ve had years of previous school writing assignments where teachers obsessed over their repeating what the book/the teacher said and where they were dinged on the grade for grammar stuff. And the whole situation is by definition not “authentic” since it is writing assigned and tied to a grade. Students are “made” to do this– at least in the sense that it’s tied to requirements for a class and a grade. Even assignments that ask students to “self-reflect” on something on their own are still assigned.

Then there’s my cynical connection of assigned writing (bad assignments in particular) to Mustapha Marrouchi. I don’t know anything about him or his scholarly work beyond what I read in The Chronicle. But based on that reading, here’s a guy who has had quite the successful academic career by publishing convoluted literary and cultural theory liberally sprinkled with plagiarised and otherwise paraphrased quotes. He’s been doing this for years, and while he has apparently sort of/kind of been called on this before, he’s only just getting into serious trouble for this now. How did this happen and how did he get away with it that long? Is it possible that so few readers– academic or otherwise– read  Marrouchi’s work that no one really noticed it as a serious problem for more than 20 years? Did no one care?

And why did Marrouchi do this anyway? As the examples in that CHE piece make clear, it wouldn’t have taken a whole lot for Marrouchi to cite his sources, to write “as Terry Eagleton put it” or whatever. Was he as a writer just too lazy to cite his sources? Was much of Marrouchi’s scholarship the equivalent of the five paragraph drudgery assigned to him by academia so that he could get another line on his CV? What’s going on here?

I guess this gets me back to the question about what and why does anyone write anything. But I don’t really know the answer to my questions, not even for myself as a writer.  All I can say is do the best that you can with writing assignments, hoping for the best but understanding the inherent limitations of the rhetorical situation that is Education generally. Make all writing as engaging and as new and as thoughtful as possible.  Don’t make students do dumb assignments just so they can do dumb assignments that get some grade. Don’t write dumb and/or plagiarized scholarship just so you can write scholarship.

“60,000 Times Question,” or the power of making shit up

I’m not sure where, but I can easily imagine this coming back into some teaching in the near future:  I came across this today via Stephen Downes’ web site, but the original question comes from this post from Alan Levine.  The brief version is that supposedly the 3M Corporation did research that concluded people process visual information 60,000 times faster than text.  But even though this is frequently cited on the internets in many different places, neither Levine or Downes can find any of the details behind this claim.

Levine posted an update on his search for an answer to the 60,000 times question that makes for interesting reading.  The short version is the search continues and the 60,000 times claim is more truthiness than true.

Boarding up Borders

IMG_0356It’s just a matter of time before there are no more Borders to visit, so while running a bunch of other errands on Saturday, I decided to take in the latest going out of business sale at one of the three stores that were in town.  I didn’t venture to Borders #1 downtown because of the Art Fair hoopla, though I am sure I will find a way to get down there before it’s closed up for good. Instead, I visited the one out by Ann Arbor-Saline Road.

I suppose like most people in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area, I have mixed feelings about the end of Borders.

When Annette and I were in our PhD programs at Bowling Green State, we came up to Ann Arbor a couple times a year to go to the U of M library, see the sights, get lost, and spend way too much money on books.  We always hit Shaman Drum, the many great used stores, and the flagship store of the then relatively small chain book store (according to this timeline piece, Borders was 21 stores in 1992).   Though if we could buy a book at either Shaman Drum or a used store instead of Borders, we would.

It’s odd that the only book stores open in downtown Ann Arbor nowadays are used ones, comic stores, or mystery shops.

Anyway, I don’t like to see anyone lose their jobs nor do I like to see book stores close, even big box ones, especially ones with such important local ties.  Borders used to support a lot of Ann Arbor/Ypsi causes.  They will be missed. That said, I am sure that there are many owners and patrons of small and local book stores experiencing more than a little Schadenfreude at all this given that it was Borders’ big box stores and rapid expansion that drove a lot of those places out of business a few years ago.

I freely admit that I’m a good example of a consumer that help push Borders over the cliff.  As I blogged about here back in 2009, shopping for books online at amazon.com et al is just too convenient and cheap, and, as I wrote about in that post, the store had become kind of a pain in the ass.  You couldn’t get any help, they didn’t have a huge stock (especially of things that are more academic and/or not pop writing), and their prices were terrible.  I guess I would be willing to put up with some of those problems to shop local, but not for the would be Starbucks of book stores, even if it was based in Ann Arbor.

Anyway, back to the going out of business sale visit on Saturday:

The store I visited was one of the “concept” stores Borders opened in 2008, which I blogged about back here then.  The short version of that post: it was clear then that they didn’t know what they hell they were doing when it came to the whole “eReader” and “internets” thing, and in hindsight, that store was as dumb as a bag of rocks.  On Saturday, there were more people there than I had pretty much ever seen at a Borders or any other book store, certainly there to make good on the “up to 40%” discount on books.  The only problem was very few books were actually discounted much at all.  The place can’t even go out of business right.  I’ll wait until the end is near and/or the prices really do drop below amazon.

I’m no business person or retail expert, but it seems to me that it is possible to run a book store and make a modest amount of money at it– not a big giant chain (though Barnes and Noble seem to be doing okay) and not a tremendous amount of money, but some.  I buy books mostly online and increasingly electronic books ala kindle, but I still hold out hope that there is a place for book stores– or at least places that sell books, music, coffee and food, have events, etc.  It’s not possible to replicate the value of the place of book stores.  So my hope is that maybe clearing out one of the big box retailers will allow some smaller book entrepreneur to come in?

But I’m still a happy academic, mostly

I have many other things I need to do (in the midst of teaching in the short spring term, minutes and notes from a meeting last week need to be written up and sent out, I have some writing about assessment I want to post here soon, etc.), but I thought I’d post briefly something I started this morning about a bummer of an article in Inside Higher Ed, “In for Nasty Weather.” It’s a long piece, but what it boils down to is the “academic life” is becoming a thing of the past as tenure disappears and as universities hire more and more adjuncts.

There is a similarly downbeat article in The Chronicle, by the way, this one titled “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges.”

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I largely agree with most of the article’s claims, and while I am generally not one of those “oh, the good old days” kind of people, I can say with some personal authority that things were “better” for me when I first came to EMU in the late 1990s, mostly because the institution still had some money to work with.  Hiring of tenure-track faculty in our department does seem to be trickier, and there’s lots of “administrative creep.”  The current political environment is obviously not that friendly to higher ed (tenure being generally under attack and so forth), there are lots of predictions of things like standardized testing in college, there are fewer tenure-track jobs, the value of “knowledge” and “education” in a wired/socially networked world is up for grabs, etc., etc.  These things are all very true and it is why I have been telling most students who ask about pursuing a PhD and an academic career that they shouldn’t.

But there are many other hands. Continue reading “But I’m still a happy academic, mostly”