Archives for July 2012

A brief announcement from Captain Obvious


“Report finds for-profit colleges serve shareholders over students”:

“We uncovered two very big problems in for-profit higher education,” Harkin said in a statement. “One, billions of taxpayer dollars are being squandered. And two, many for-profit schools are doing real, lasting harm to the students they enroll.” ….

The colleges studied spent 23 percent of their revenue on marketing and recruiting, the report found, and 17 percent on instruction.

The publicly traded companies that operate for-profit colleges yielded an average profit margin of 20 percent in 2009 and paid an average $7.3 million to their chief executives, the report found.

The companies are successful largely because they charge high tuition. Associate-degree programs at for-profit colleges cost at least four times as much as comparable programs at public community colleges, $34,988 vs. $8,313, the report found. Internal company documents showed tuition hikes were enacted “to satisfy company profit goals,” rather than to cover increased costs of educating students, the report states.

Company documents reveal the recruitment effort at for-profit colleges as “essentially a sales process,” the report found; at many companies, everyone from the CEO to junior recruiters “was rated at least in part based on the number of students enrolled.”

As of 2010, the for-profit colleges studied employed 35,202 student recruiters, far more than the staff charged with supporting the students who had already enrolled.

Who the hell pays $34,988 for an associate’s degree?  And how do people who charge that much for an AA sleep at night?  Clearly, we need to add “critical thinking” to our K-12 education standards.

You can download the report from the Senate website.

There’s some language in this report, I’m guessing, that we’ll see used to describe MOOCs when they’re evaluated as a genre some years down the road.


Ends up ten years is both a very, very long time and hardly any time at all.

A decade ago, on July 20, I made Fang an honest man.

Apparently, I was barely beyond a zygote at the time.

In spite of ourselves, we’ve held it together, and I’m more in love with the man than ever.

Thanks, Pete, for everything you do for our family.  Here’s to the next ten!

Make students curators

This post is a contribution for Hack(ing) School(ing)


What would happen if we made students practice curation—actual curation?

I emphasize actual because “curation” has become a digital buzzword over the past couple years, but it’s been defined pretty consistently to mean not much more than finding, selecting, and sharing resources—mostly online content—with one’s readers. A common objective of this kind of curation, according to content marketing specialists, is to make yourself valuable to consumers who are too busy to find this material, synthesize it, and contextualize it in a way that is useful.

All too often, this kind of curation is driven more by marketing imperatives than intellectual engagement with one’s world and one’s audience. In this essay, then, I’m talking about another whole order of curation, what museum folk might consider “old school” curation. Really, though, I’m advocating bringing together old school curation with digital tools that allow for creation, contextualization, argument, and engagement.

Critical and creative thinking should be prioritized over remembering content


That students should learn to think for themselves may seem like a no-brainer to many readers, but if you look at the textbook packages put out by publishers, you’ll find that the texts and accompanying materials (for both teachers and students) assume students are expected to read and retain content—and then be tested on it.

Instead, between middle school (if not earlier) and college graduation, students should practice—if not master—how to question, critique, research, and construct an argument like an historian.

California’s history and social science content standards for public schools offer a list of “intellectual, reasoning, reflection, and research skills” high school students should develop in conjunction with their content knowledge (40-41). Here, paraphrased and consolidated, are several of those skills:

  • Students analyze how change happens, or fails to happen, over time, and understand that change affects technology, politics, values, and beliefs.
  • Students recognize the complexity, and sometimes indeterminacy, of historical cause and effect.
  • Students use maps and documents to interpret patterns of migration and immigration, environmental impacts, and the diffusion of ideas, technology, and goods.
  • Students connect events to physical and human characteristics of the landscape; analyze how people have altered landscapes; and consider the environmental policy implications of these characteristics and alterations.
  • Students evaluate historians’ arguments; identify bias and prejudice in historical interpretations; and evaluate major debates among historians, analyzing authors’ use of evidence.
  • Students collect, evaluate, and employ information from multiple sources; construct and test hypotheses; and make arguments in oral and written presentations.
  • Students understand past events and issues within the context of the past.

These standards emphasize critical and creative thinking.  They ask students to consider more than just documents, including maps and landscapes; draw on primary and secondary sources; investigate the validity of historians’ arguments; and even to question whether we can determine cause and effect. (Contrast these standards with the latest suggestion by Texas Republicans that the state ought to ban the teaching of critical thinking that “challenges [a] student’s fixed beliefs” in schools.)

We could have students develop many of these skills using pedagogy-as-usual: listening to lectures and reading textbooks, looking at a few primary sources, and writing essays. A few students will indeed develop the skills delineated in the California standards through this method. Many more will, if they go on to college, come to me as undergraduates to confess they have always hated history class because it is so boring.

Alternatively, we could have students engage with artifacts, historic sites, landscapes, photographs, memorials, paintings, political cartoons, and actual people, as well as with more traditional documents. We could have them select a topic or theme to research as a class, and then create an online exhibition featuring these objects, places, documents, and more.

It’s time to do away with content standards in favor of thinking standards


The California historical thinking standards I praised above are only a small part of the history and social science content standards. The state—like many—expects students to graduate from high school with a particular body of knowledge.  California’s standards document, which encompasses social studies and history from grades K through 12, weighs in at 61 pages, most of which outline specific events, legislation, political figures, and political or economy theories students must “describe,” “enumerate” (list!), “understand,” “analyze,” and “evaluate”—though in the standards the meaning of “analyze” and “evaluate” isn’t clear, as they’re used to describe a broad spectrum of tasks.  Here’s a single eighth-grade standard from California:

8.2  Students analyze the political principles underlying the U.S. Constitution and compare the enumerated and implied powers of the federal government.

1.  Discuss the significance of the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the Mayflower Compact.

2.  Analyze the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and the success of each in implementing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

3.  Evaluate the major debates that occurred during the development of the Constitution and their ultimate resolutions in such areas as shared power among institutions, divided state-federal power, slavery, the rights of individuals and states (later addressed by the addition of the Bill of Rights), and the status of American Indian nations under the commerce clause.

4.  Describe the political philosophy underpinning the Constitution as specified in the Federalist Papers (authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) and the role of such leaders as Madison, George Washington, Roger Sherman, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson in the writing and ratification of the Constitution.

5.  Understand the significance of Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom as a forerunner of the First Amendment and the origins, purpose, and differing views of the founding fathers on the issue of the separation of church and state.

6.  Enumerate the powers of government set forth in the Constitution and the fundamental liberties ensured by the Bill of Rights.

7.  Describe the principles of federalism, dual sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances, the nature and purpose of majority rule, and the ways in which the American idea of constitutionalism preserves individual rights. (33-34)

As we learned (again) in 2010 when Texas revised its content standards, the construction of state standards can be, and often is, a highly politicized process informed less by sound pedagogy and expert testimony than by parents’ and community leaders’ desires to have their students learn and share their views.  (Though once again I’m singling out Texas, both ends of the political spectrum are guilty of this practice throughout the country.) Note, for example, that California’s State Board of Education nominates as founding fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Sherman, Morris, and Wilson. Texas’s state board enumerates as founders “Benjamin Rush, John Hancock, John Jay, John Witherspoon, John Peter Muhlenberg, Charles Carroll, and Jonathan Trumbull Sr.,” and asks students to “explain their contributions” (§113.41.c.1.C).

I suspect most readers of this essay could make their own list of favored founders whose political theories should be on any student’s must-know list—and could make a reasonable argument for their inclusion. Yet even if we could agree on which founders students should know about, we wouldn’t come to any consensus on how they should be represented.  (Sally Hemings and Oney Judge, anyone?)  Furthermore, the depth and breadth of content knowledge called for by some states is astounding; as A Report on the State of History Education points out, state standards documents range from 3 to 580 pages (12).  (I’m rolling my eyes at you, Virginia.)

For grown-ups, the kerfuffle over founders is yet another object lesson in how history—and particularly history as it’s taught to K-12 students—is constructed by humans motivated by all kinds of passions and agendas. Yes, in the case of teaching about the early Republic, Americans might agree that students should study the debates surrounding the nation’s founding documents. Beyond that, we’re not going to get much consensus, and it makes sense not just to “study the controversy” over standards, but also to have students craft their own understanding of the past through engagement with a wide range of primary sources and with each other.

State boards of education need to acknowledge both the advantages and liabilities of establishing or subscribing to a canonical narrative of U.S. history or, worse, a pantheon of historical figures. Standards should call on students to develop skills more than to master specific content.

What if we shifted the standards’ primary emphasis from content, and not to just the development of traditional skills—basic knowledge recall, document interpretation, research, and essay-writing—but to the cultivation of skills that challenge students to make unconventional connections, skills that are essential for thriving in the 21st century? Such skills, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Learn and collaborate in multicultural and multilingual contexts
  • Practice thoughtful and effective civic engagement
  • Understand humans’ complex relationship with the natural world
  • Create, refine, analyze, evaluate, and share new and worthwhile ideas—while understanding the real-world limits on their widespread adoption
  • Demonstrate originality and inventiveness in work
  • View failure as an opportunity to learn
  • Analyze and understand complex systems
  • Identify and ask significant questions that lead to better solutions
  • Exercise flexibility; compromise
  • Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work
  • Evaluate information critically and competently
  • Manage the flow of information from a wide variety of sources
  • Understand the ethical and legal issues surrounding the access and use of information and technology
  • Examine how and why values and points of view are included or excluded
  • Understand and utilize the most appropriate media creation tools, characteristics, and conventions
  • Use digital technologies (computers, PDAs, media players, GPS, etc.)
  • Work effectively in a climate of ambiguity and changing priorities
  • Expand one’s own learning and opportunities to gain expertise and demonstrate initiative to advance skills toward a professional level
  • Reflect critically on past experiences in order to inform future progress
  • Set and meet goals, even in the face of obstacles and competing pressures
  • Leverage strengths of others to accomplish a common goal
  • Act responsibly with the interests of the local and global community in mind

Curation—again, old school curation—allows for these skills to emerge.  Because of declining museum funding, small and mid-sized history museums seem to be hiring fewer curators, instead collapsing curation into the functions of two very different departments: collections management (registration and conservation) and education (programming and exhibition development).  By learning the processes that constitute contemporary curation, then, students will need to consider how and why artifacts and ephemera are valued and preserved as well as how best to interpret such objects for audiences ranging from kindergarteners through senior citizens.  They’ll learn how museums prioritize collections, conservation, exhibition, and educational programming in an age of extremely limited budgets.  They’ll have to consider the perpetual triage of artifact conservation in the worlds of underfunded nonprofits and state agencies charged with cultural resource management.  They’ll have to reflect on how to contextualize sometimes controversial objects for diverse stakeholders and communities.

Again, I want to emphasize that curation—despite its popularity as a term among internet marketers and the digerati—is so much more than selection and sharing.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the digital sphere doesn’t offer marvelous opportunities for research, collaborative writing and editing, publication, and engagement.  There isn’t space here to enumerate all the tools available to students—suffice it to say they are legion and ever-changing.  Some examples include digital audio and video recorders, smartphones, tablet computers, laptops, blog platforms, database management software, spreadsheets, image and video editing suites, word processing software, digitized document repositories like the and, document sharing solutions like Dropbox, social networks that students can use to find and contact experts in any topic, and project management sites.

What specifically might students learn from crafting an online exhibit?  Let’s say, for example—as did my students this past semester*—they draw on the collections of a local museum and build an online exhibition in WordPress.

  • organizing a large research project
  • figuring out what questions they should ask
  • finding, analyzing, and evaluating sources—primary and secondary—on a subject that perhaps has not yet been adequately addressed by scholars or curators (or anyone else)
  • photography, perhaps in the limited light of a collections storage facility, and photo editing
  • ownership of objects and images of them, and securing permission to use them
  • the basics of artifact handling, treatment, research, and care
  • interviewing historians or oral history informants
  • interpreting a large and complex subject for a general audience
  • website planning and deployment
  • collaboration—editing, divvying up work, compromising, and more
  • evaluating the utility of mobile devices for group work and public history applications (Each of my students was loaned an iPad 2 for personal and class use for the semester.)

Training teachers for this new paradigm means new priorities within the history major


Just as teachers-in-training need to learn the best methods to teach content, they need to be taught how to encourage critical and creative thinking in their students.  Of necessity, then, I’ve been approaching my own teaching of the survey courses—required for future history teachers—with a lesser emphasis on dates, events, and individuals (about whom I remember and know very little from my own limited history education) and a greater emphasis on larger trends and the skills used by historians. My students are learning some content—instead of a textbook, I use a primary-source reader in which the sources are accompanied by commentary by historians—but they’re learning it as they perform analysis and synthesis, not before.

So, for example, I don’t have them read them about Puritan conceptions of salvation and then give them photos of headstones and ask them to explain how the headstones reinforce Puritan ideas.  I have them undertake Prownian analysis (description, deduction, speculation, research, and interpretive analysis) of children’s headstones and furniture (e.g,. a walking stool); perform close readings of children’s literature and Puritan poetry, letters, and sermons; and build an argument concerning Puritans’ beliefs about children’s salvation.  As they craft this argument, they must evaluate the usefulness of, as well as synthesize their findings from, these sources, along with earlier ones from the course.  The whole exercise is done in small groups, followed by discussion among the entire class.

In short, if we’re talking about Bloom’s taxonomy, I’m dragging my lower-division students immediately to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, skipping over basic knowledge acquisition, comprehension, and application.  Furthermore, I’m modeling what I see as best practice in secondary teaching, even though I’m working with first- and second-year undergraduates.

To move beyond the era of content standards, we need to acknowledge—and convey to our teacher candidates—that one need not be an expert in a content area in order to teach it.  We already see this attitude in English classes, where the  literary canon has been in flux for some time. As an English teacher, I wouldn’t need to be an acknowledged expert on, or even a specialist in, Huckleberry Finn to teach it to junior high school students. Instead, I’d need to know how a novel works; I’d need to know how plot, characters, conflict, and other literary devices combine.  Knowing the history is necessary, too, but information about what was going on in the U.S. at the time Twain wrote his novel is only an internet search away.  I need not have learned it at some fixed point way back in tenth grade and filed it away until I required it in my own classroom teaching.

Similarly, as a history teacher, I don’t need to have committed to memory all the players in the nullification crisis of the late 1820s; instead, I need to have a basic grasp of the concept of states’ rights, access to primary sources, and the ability to ask thoughtful questions that connect the primary sources with states’ rights and related concepts. I hand the primary sources (including artifacts, of course) and questions to my students, and if I have taught the students well to examine primary sources, a lively conversation ensues. If students have questions I can’t answer, I ask them where they might research the answers to those questions themselves.

Training teacher candidates how to be curators of digital exhibits on any number of subjects reprioritizes investigation, close reading, analysis, interpretation, and engagement as key skills for a historian—and, I’d argue, for active twenty-first century citizenship.


We must proceed thoughtfully toward digital curation

We have digital tools at hand to effect these changes—and the tools are affordable and multitudinous. That doesn’t mean, however, I’m a cheerleader for the rapid deployment of ed tech-as-usual. As Audrey Watters has highlighted, educational technology is too often perceived by administrators and entrepreneurs as an efficient and low-cost means of content delivery. I’ve been profoundly disappointed in how digital learning has been conceptualized in both higher and K-12 education in my home state of Idaho and beyond, as I suspect it will contribute to declines in cultural literacy and critical thinking and deprofessionalize K-16 faculty in ways that will prove dangerous to civic life.

Teaching both teacher candidates and students the skills essential to curating an excellent digital exhibition—one that provokes as well as explains, and that invites feedback and interaction instead of being unidirectional—might help to reverse the trend toward McEdTech content delivery.

What are the next steps, then?

Teachers can consider whether they’ve put the content cart before the critical-thinking horse. Do their lessons go beyond knowledge acquisition and basic application, instead moving students quickly to higher-order thinking?  Are the lessons, assignments, and activities challenging?  Do they leave room for the teacher to learn something from the students, so that students can see the value of the knowledge they are creating?

Teachers also can work to overcome their own anxieties about not being an expert in whatever technology students will be using. Some teachers believe we need to be experts on any such technology; others of us believe we need to show students how to research their options, pick a software platform, and figure out how to complete their project using it.  I fall squarely into the latter camp.  While middle school students’ digital curation projects might need to be kickstarted with a list of appropriate technologies, high school students and undergraduates should be expected to research, evaluate, and deploy relevant technologies for their historical investigation and interpretation.

Museums can reach out to schools to let them know what artifact collections might be researched and photographed by students. Museum folks, this is a great way to get some of your artifacts interpreted for a much broader audience—particularly those objects that will likely never go on exhibit.

Ed tech entrepreneurs can work with teachers and students to design platforms that allow for critical and creative thinking to emerge from investigations of a broad spectrum of primary sources: architecture, landscape, artifacts, ephemera, audio and video recordings, photos, maps, art, and more.  Such software is going to be much more widely appealing and broadly adopted than publishers’ packages keyed to content standards that remain inconsistent from state to state.

Tech journalists can ask harder questions of anyone responsible for designing or adopting ed tech software platforms.  How is the software allowing for the development of twenty-first-century skills?  How is it inspiring lifelong learning?  In what ways does it allow investigation to proceed from a student’s personal interests, and to what extent does it allow students to reach dynamic conclusions based on a synthesis of new material and a student’s existing knowledge?

When, for their book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen interviewed 1,500 Americans about their connections to the past and their uses of history, they found that Americans were not particularly interested in consuming traditional historical narratives.  Instead, Rosenzweig and Thelen write,

They preferred to make their own histories.  When they confronted historical accounts constructed by others, they sought to examine them critically and connect them to their own experiences or those of people close to them.  At the same time, they pointed out, historical presentations that did not give them credit for their critical abilities—commercialized histories on television or textbook-driven high school classes—failed to engage or influence them.  (179)

And, in the end, isn’t that what Americans at all points on the political spectrum ought to want—citizens who are curious and willing to engage with each other over the meaning of the past and its interpretation in the present, rather than those who can list the accomplishments of Benjamin Rush, John Peter Muhlenberg, and Jonathan Trumbull Sr.?  Curatorial skills allow for critical thinking, creative thought, and civic discourse to emerge.


* At the time of posting this essay on my blog, the exhibition site my students built is still under construction because I continue to work with students on additional content.  I expect it to be complete by the end of summer 2012.

Playground slides? Scary.

A precipice on a windy day? No sweat.

(at the Oregon Trail Reserve, just outside Boise)

A Classic Case of Misplaced Belief in Market-Driven Educational “Solutions”

(Source; h/t Audrey Watters)

Last time I checked, Boise State’s 4-year graduation rate was 8 percent.*

No, that’s not a typo.  And its 6-year graduation rate hovers at 26 percent, with an overall graduation rate of 27 percent.  One could quibble and point out that transfer students aren’t traditionally included in the university’s graduation rate calculations, but even if we’re only counting students who begin their college careers at Boise State, 8 and 26 percent graduation rates are pretty damn astounding, and not in a good way.

Not surprisingly, the university is feeling a good deal of pressure from the State Board of Education and the legislature to improve these graduation rates.  In fact, the State Board has set an ambitious goal: 60 percent of Idahoans should have a college degree or some kind of post-secondary certificate by 2020.  (Note the language of the bullet points on the State Board’s College Completion Idaho page–it’s very much about improving efficiency and quantity of post-secondary completion rates, not about quality of education.)

I’m told** by folks allegedly in the know about such things that the completion rate for online courses at Boise State is lower than the completion rate for face-to-face courses.

I’m no mathematician, but it seems to me that’s a pretty simple equation:

already low graduation rates + low completion rates for online courses ≠
improved graduation rates.

(Yes, I have written about this before.)

A digression that is not, you shall see, truly a digression

The University of Virginia, globalized

Image by Shane Lin, and used under a Creative Commons license

I haven’t commented here on the Teresa Sullivan resignation-and-reappointment scandal at UVA, and I wasn’t planning on it.  But plans change, yes?

In case you didn’t watch the whole ugly mess unfold, that link to the Washington Post provides a play-by-play of what the newspaper terms “18 days of leadership crisis.”  In brief, it appears the UVA president was pressured to resign because the university’s Board of Visitors believed she wasn’t leading the university down the right path to online education.  Specifically, their e-mail exchanges show they referred to an article in the Wall Street Journal about the coming changes in higher ed.  That op-ed enthusiastically states:

Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

While that may seem like a utopian future to the WSJ contributors–and I think they and I have very different definitions of “productive”–it sounds more dirge-like to those of us who work in actual classrooms with non-hypothetical students.

The e-mails sent among the Board of Visitors folks make for enlightening and disheartening reading.  UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan captures their essence when he writes, “In the 21st century, robber barons try to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will via comical management jargon and massive application of ego and hubris.”  You should click through to read his entire post at Slate, but this passage bears highlighting:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

In a follow-up post, Vaidhyanathan writes, “Dragas demanded top-down control and a rapid transition to a consumer model of diploma generation and online content distribution. She wished to pare down the subjects of inquiry to those that demonstrate clear undergraduate demand and yield marketable skills.”

As many faculty at UVA and elsewhere have pointed out, UVA is actually a leader in integrating digital tools and techniques into teaching and research.  Elijah Meeks, a digital humanities specialist at Stanford, praises UVA’s at once measured and innovative approach to the deployment of digital technologies in the humanities, and Vaidhyanathan details some of the successes.  UVA professor Daniel Willingham wonders if Dragas et. al. are even slightly familiar with UVA’s leadership in this area.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch. . .

Because I recently had a conversation with my university’s president that suggested he’s committed to getting this whole online education thing right at Boise State, I was surprised to see him publish a post on the UVA debacle titled “A Classic Case of Public Higher Education up against the Changing Educational Marketplace.” I’m taking the liberty of quoting the entire post:

Here’s the latest example of a public university’s governing board struggling with how to offer educational programming that meets the needs of students in our 21st century cyber world.  Historically, the faculty have control of the curriculum, but it is becoming increasingly clear that new mechanisms of shared governance must be invented to assure that decisions are made in a timely fashion that respond to changing student demands and needs.  Apparently, the University of Virginia President spent too much time justifying the status quo decision-making apparatus of the University and the Board sought new leadership with an urgency about how the University responds to its environment.  Makes sense to me.

That sound you heard? My jaw unhinging.

I had also somehow missed President Kustra’s post on a similar theme from earlier in June.  An excerpt:

Here we have a veteran faculty member in the UT College of Education going over to the “dark side” with the usual and predictable mention of the inability of UT to respond to moves like this given the cutbacks in higher education budgets in Texas.  Could it be that the “dark side” is the “enlightened side”, unencumbered by traditions of faculty and department control of curriculum that has been known to slow things up when universities are responding to rapid changes in the marketplace and community of ideas?

I know it’s hard to recover when the wind is knocked out of you so thoroughly.  Fellow faculty, I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.

Educators go all Hans Christian Andersen on the ed tech marketplace

We’re fortunate, I think, to have faculty like Vaidhyanathan and Willingham willing to speak out about these issues, as well as folks like Jim Groom, Martha Burtis, Alan Levine, Audrey Watters, Bryan Alexander, George Siemens, Laura Blankenship, Barbara Ganley, Barbara Sawhill, D’Arcy Norman, Mills Kelly, Amanda French, Dave Cormier, Patrick Murray-John, and Gardner Campbell,*** all of whom have, over the past several years, written thoughtfully and passionately about the truly necessary revolutions in digital learning. Another champion for logic in online education is Colorado State University professor Jonathan Rees of More or Less Bunk, who has for many months been pointing out that the Emperor of Online Education has no clothes. Here’s an excerpt from a recent jeremiad:

How much experience in the classroom does Bill Gates have? How much experience in the classroom does Helen Dragas have? Come to think of it, how much experience in the classroom do most edtech entrepreneurs have? While I know a few computer science professors have gotten involved in these startups, what boggles my mind is the number of people basically fresh off the street who seem to think they’re education experts.

(Be sure to also check out Rees’s recent posts “Frankenstein’s Monster,”  “Why Stay in College?,” and “Are College Professors Working Class?”)

There are so many naked emperors in education technology–and far too many college presidents, trustees, and politicians willing to compliment ed tech marketplace “leaders” on their fine new robes.

Why I won’t be teaching online courses at Boise State anytime soon

Although I rarely act on it these days because I’m too busy pursuing tenure****, I have a deep entrepreneurial streak–something that President Kustra and others seem to celebrate in faculty–and an abiding curiosity in how we can best use digital tools to help students develop as learners and citizens. Yet I’m loath to develop any kind of online course for Boise State in part because its intellectual property policy offers a major disincentive to doing so.  The policy, published on the eCampus website, states that faculty don’t retain IP rights to their own courses:

A course (as a designed collection of assembled and authored material) produced under University sponsorship, where the University provides the specific authorization or supervision for the preparation of the course, is a work made for hire (as defined by law and Boise State policy). A course specially ordered or commissioned by the University and for which the University has agreed to specially compensate or provide other support (such as release time) to the creator(s) is a commissioned work, (as defined by Boise State policy). In either case, the copyright to the course will be held and exercised by the university.

Furthermore, faculty members must get permission to re-use their course material at other institutions:

The faculty author/developer retains the right to request permission from the university to use parts of the course or the course in its entirety at another institution or setting. Granting of permission will be at the exclusive and sole prerogative of the university.

It’s funny–I didn’t realize faculty duties added up to “work for hire” (neither does the AAUP) or “commissioned work.”

Still, it’s a bit simple to boil down my objections to online-education-as-usual to intellectual property concerns.  In fact, I’m frustrated that faculty control of e-course IP has been the most-vocalized theme among my Boise State colleagues.  Even if I found myself in a different institutional context, my primary objections to online courses would be more in line with Rees’s than with those whose misgivings about online ed are primarily related to copyright and remuneration.

See, the tools the university and ed tech entrepreneurs expect me to use—course management systems, lecture capture, and publishers’ digital “textbook” packages–are so ridiculously sub-par that I don’t know whether to laugh or scream. I’ve had several conversations with publishers’ reps where they insist on walking me through their online environments and showing me their extensive quiz interfaces even though I tell them that I don’t quiz students or expect them to know any of the “content” that’s covered in the publishers’ sample quizzes.

They just don’t get it.

One bright spot: The Academic Technologies folks at my institution do get it, as evidenced by the terrific mobile learning summer institute they hosted at the end of May.  Still, mobile learning here is in limited release, and too many of the participants were more curious about the BlackBoard app than they were about what they could have their students create or discover with the slick new iPads we all were issued.

I haven’t been present

I’ve been fairly AWOL on this blog of late, and I certainly haven’t been writing as much about educational technology as I did in the old space, circa 2006 to 2010, when the bulk of my job description involved the intersection of pedagogy and technology and when I was presenting at conferences with the Fear 2.0 posse.  Mostly I’ve been too disgusted to write about the “reforms” to Idaho education.  I know I am sick of hearing “reformers” claim that we should fire teachers so we can provide students with more technology–as Audrey Watters points out happened at the Davos-esque Education Innovation Summit.

That said, it’s past time for me to heed Watters’s call for educators to call the bluff of entrepreneurs and uninformed, wealthy folks who want to reform the educational sandbox by melting it down for silicon.  Writing of her absence from that summit, Watters says it most eloquently:

What I learned from the Education Innovation Summit is mostly something that I learned about myself (partly because I’ve learned already about a lot of this corporate ed-tech nastiness, sadly). I learned I have to maintain my presence at these events, even when the attendees make me angry or uncomfortable. I have to continue to “speak truth to power” when it comes to education and its future. I have to be a witness. I have to provide a record. I have to speak up and speak out. I can’t let my fury stop me from writing. I can’t worry about compromising myself by being at the places where the rich and powerful are at play with our collective future, because the greater compromise is to walk away and be silent. I think that’s probably what they want, after all.

As I’ve mentioned here a couple of times, I’ve been experimenting in my history classes with mobile technologies in particular, and I plan to write more about those experiments soon. I’m just now making sense of all the data I collected from my spring-semester students on their experiences with educational technology in my class and outside of it, and I will be applying to the IRB to expand this study to my other classes.  I’m looking at how we can get students using these devices to “do history”–to investigate primary sources, compile data, document people and places, create platforms to disseminate their work, and engage with the public.

Yes, of course I believe technology can be used thoughtfully with undergraduates.  I continue to approach new technologies with curiosity and a good deal of eagerness.

But ed tech entrepreneurs (and others) without classroom experience who are trying to reshape my students’ learning environments in ways that make absolutely no sense? I’m ready to go all Hans Christian Andersen on their asses.



* And oh look, this site suggests it’s 6 percent.

** I’d love to have some more specific figures for you, but apparently my “supervisor” (whomever that may be) needs to submit a request for me to have access to reports in the university’s data warehouse. Unfortunately, since all my computers are Macs and I don’t use Internet Explorer or run a virtual PC, I can’t access that data anyway.

*** Major oversight on my part: I’m not reading enough on this subject written by people of color.  Who do you recommend I read?

**** Which you’d never know from the tenor and content of this blog post, eh?