Applying critical instructional design

This is the final assignment for Critical Instructional Design. The prompt:

How do you design an exercise, create content, open a discussion, or build an assessment that is truly critically pedagogical in its design?

What you create as your final project is up to you. But some guidelines include:

  • Create something practical, something that can actually be used in an online or hybrid course;
  • Build into the work a space for reflection, or a space for learning to happen, whatever that looks like to you;
  • Make the work reflective somehow of your thoughts about critical instructional design.

The assignment

In this course, we have broadened our definition of what “counts” as public history, emphasizing collaboration with the public rather than more traditional forms of public history in which professionals “do history” for a public audience. You need to keep this distinction in mind for your final digital project, which calls for you to engage with stakeholders.

This final digital project has three parts:

  1. A wireframe, mock-up, minimum viable product, or other proof of concept of a digital public history project (explained in detail below).
  2. A mock NEH grant application (or other proposal of similar scope) to support the project.
  3. A reflection on the project and mock grant.

The digital project (submitted as a group)

In a group of no more than four people, you will plan, and then begin to build, a digital public history project that serves an underrepresented or underserved audience.

The topic is up to you, but I recommend selecting a topic:

  • that is underexplored;
  • that is of interest to a large number of people;
  • has existing, readily available primary-source images or texts or has informants you can interview easily; and
  • about which you have some background knowledge, or about which you can acquire knowledge quickly.

If you’re casting about for Idaho topics, I encourage you to explore the finding aids for collections in Albertsons Library Special Collections, the Idaho State Archives, or the archives of local corporations.

In the past, for assignments similar to this one, students have proposed or created:

  • a retrofitted bus that visits neighborhoods to help residents collect oral histories, scan photos, and begin a neighborhood history site;
  • an app template for local historical sites to promote their programs and services to tourists;
  • an on-site, augmented reality tour of the Morris Hill Cemetery, with “pop-up” names over graves, biographies of Boise’s notable dead—some in video form that incorporated audio from oral history projects;
  • an educational app for Idaho fourth and fifth graders that dives into the history of Idaho’s diverse native peoples;
  • self-guided walking tours of Boise’s disappeared Chinatown and the African-American River Street neighborhood, complete with QR codes posted on today’s buildings that allow tourists to see what sites looked like in the past.

You will undoubtedly wonder what project scope will allow you to succeed in this assignment. I don’t have a single answer, as my response will vary with group size, topic, audience, and proposed tools; your group should come to me to determine a reasonable project scope.

You will turn in all work and/or documentation of work to the instructor, and you will present your project to the class.

A few things to consider


We have spent a good deal of time in this class considering public reaction to public history projects and programs and to thinking about who the stakeholders of a particular project are and how best to work with them. (Recall in particular Tom King’s Our Unprotected Heritage and its case studies illustrating how stakeholders too often are underconsulted.) In the early stages of your project, you need to figure out who its stakeholders are; these likely will include the audience for the project as well as people connected to its subject (or their descendants), but may comprise other groups as well. How do you plan to identify stakeholders, approach them, recruit them, process their contributions, and maintain their enthusiasm for the project?


You need to be sure you have access to the materials you need and will have permission to share them via your digital project. Figure out the rules for things such as archives’ digital permissions, reproduction fees, and contracts (for archives or oral histories, for example) early in your project planning.


Consider your digital toolbox, or proposed digital toolbox, carefully. Some questions to consider:

  • Will the platform you are using or proposing to use be around in another year or two, or is it the product of a brand new startup? (Funders want to see stability.)
  • Is the tool electronically accessible to people with disabilities? What steps will you take to ensure your project is accessible?
  • Does accessing the project require broadband access?
  • If you are proposing building a digital tool that requires programming or other development skills beyond your expertise, what kind of developers will you propose hiring? How will you find them and vet them, and what will their services cost?

The grant (submitted as a group)

You will write a grant application in response to a call for proposals for a program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Unless I tell your group otherwise, you will need to complete all parts of the proposal, with two exceptions: You need to merely tell me from whom you would secure letters of reference rather than having them actually written, and you can use a simple spreadsheet for your budget rather than using the forms the NEH provides.

We will discuss in class how to identify grant opportunities and craft a proposal narrative.

The reflection (submitted individually)

Your reflection should be at least 750 words. (Some of you will barely break 750 words, while others will write 3,000. I will read whatever your submit.) It should address at least some of these questions:

  • Why did you choose your subject?
  • Why is this project needed at this time, and why did you choose to serve your particular audience?
  • Are there audiences who will find your project controversial, offensive, or otherwise challenging? Explain. Did you intentionally exclude anyone from your audience, or design “against the grain” to provoke a particular audience or type of viewer/user? If so, why and how?
  • How did you go about selecting your particular methods and tools?
  • What challenges did your subject or sources present?
  • What challenges did your research and content creation present?
  • What challenges did your collaboration (in your group or with stakeholders) present?
  • What would you do differently next time?


  • Sketchy project proposal and work plan: TBD
  • Polished project/project proposal: TBD
  • Group presentation: TBD
  • Mock grant proposal: TBD
  • Individual reflections: TBD

My reflection on the assignment

This assignment is designed for my graduate seminar in applied historical research, which I teach as a public history seminar with an emphasis on what it means to “do history” in a digital age. The assignment, however, could be adapted for an an upper-division undergraduate course.

In this course and in all my courses, I aim to increase students’ digital savvy by an order of magnitude. For some, this means collaborating via Google Drive or simple video editors for the first time. For others, it means learning some PHP as they tweak a WordPress site the class is building. While it may appear this project tosses them into the deep end, so to speak, the course assignments scaffold students’ digital skills—though there still is for many students a considerable gap between where they are and where they want the project to end up. The group nature of the project helps to quell anxiety over technology, as students work together to solve technical challenges before coming to me for help; only very rarely do students come to me for technical support.

Idaho’s past has been underexamined by professional and public historians, at least in ways that challenge the traditional narrative that begins with Lewis and Clark and white contact with Native Americans, then continues through fur traders, mining, logging, pioneers, and farmers. There are plenty of opportunities for students to interpret the state’s past, as there are two easily accessed, large public troves of primary sources here in Boise. Despite such archives, I did not require students to focus on Idaho history exclusively, for two reasons: First and most obviously, students may have their own interests outside Idaho history. Second, I’m hoping some students will opt to serve underrepresented audiences that are not well represented in the local historical record; many of my students have not considered race in any substantive way, yet I’ve found some are eager to tackle the subject. (In the past, students have begun to address the historical Chinese and African American presence in Boise, but the primary sources for these communities are largely inaccessible to our graduate students, either because they are not well-catalogued in local collections or because they are in Chinese, and many of the secondary sources are of questionable value.)

As I scan the field of local and regional public history, I’m frustrated by the very traditional nature of many projects and programs. The social web makes it easy to make friendly first contact with strangers and even recruit participants without even leaving one’s desk. I teach my students that consultation with stakeholders is an essential part of any project. Designing an app for fourth grade history? Talk to fourth-grade teachers. Talk to fourth graders. Is the app about historic Native peoples? Consult their descendants.

My insistence on consultation with public stakeholders isn’t just to promote ethical standards or inclusive excellence, though those would be sufficient reasons in themselves. In addition to helping my students to be thoughtful and inclusive, this requirement may increase the quality of historical practice among amateurs and laypeople. The public is already trying to make sense of the past on sites like Ancestry, Wikipedia, countless blogs, and HistoryPin. A well-developed digital public history project that solicits public participation may help the public better understand both the past and what historians do.

At the same time as I try to build my students’ digital skills, I also caution them to keep in mind the relative lack of broadband internet in Idaho and other remote rural regions of the U.S. Idaho has the slowest internet in the 50 states, and even some of my faculty colleagues don’t have broadband or wifi in their homes here in Boise. If they are assuming an Idahoan or rural audience for their project, students need to balance any newfound enthusiasm for a new technology with its accessibility to rural users or users with disabilities.

This class assignment is not an entirely new one, though I have made more explicit here my own commitment to inclusive design. I believe all public history is pedagogical, and I’ve designed the assignment itself to be a critical pedagogical project.  In On Critical Pedagogy, Henry Giroux writes,

Critical pedagogy is not about an a priori method that simply can be applied regardless of context. It is the outcome of particular struggles and is always related to the specificity of particular contexts, students, communities, and available resources. It draws attention to the ways in which knowledge, power, desire, and experience are produced under specific basic conditions of learning and illuminates the role that pedagogy plays as part of a struggle over assigned meanings, modes of expression, and directions of desire, particularly as these bear on the formation of the multiple and ever-contradictory versions of the self and its relationship to the larger society. (4)

Giroux might as well be talking about the kinds of projects my students will be asked to create and manage during their careers. It makes sense, then, to infuse this final class project with principles of critical instructional design.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

This post is another response to an assignment in Critical Instructional Design. This week’s prompt:

This week your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to dismantle and re-mantle one common assumption about instructional design. We encourage you to tackle one of those assumptions that you hold most closely—because discomfort can often be terrifically productive.

I’m tackling Bloom’s taxonomy.

Why? I find I refer to it often, but I realize I’m frequently using it as shorthand for something else.

Bloom’s taxonomy emerged from a series of educational conferences in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but ended up being named after Benjamin Bloom, who served as chair of the committee of educators that formulated the taxonomy. Those of you who are teachers or professors very likely will have seen this diagram or one like it:

This is actually one of three taxonomies and represents what the committee termed “the cognitive domain.” It’s the part of the taxonomy that remains most popular in higher education. The way I’ve seen Bloom’s taxonomy described—and honestly, how I usually explain it—is that these cognitive skills build on one another as they grow increasingly complex. The common implication, then, is that these skills need to be scaffolded—though I confess in my classes I’m not particularly good about careful scaffolding. In my courses I try to get students into application, analysis, and synthesis almost immediately.

In the 1990s, some of Bloom’s students revised the taxonomy so that it looks more like this:

Lorin Anderson, one of the authors of the revised taxonomy, described the process and previewed the changes in a 1999 paper; Anderson explained that the next taxonomy emphasized the contexts in which cognitive processes take place and acknowledged more than the academic context—the authors added two additional knowledge categories or dimensions: the “strategic/motivational” and “social/cultural.” Anderson writes,

The first, strategic/motivational, recognizes the importance of knowing as a legitimate educational goal. This category contains what has been termed metacognition and includes the learning strategies students employ, the links they make between their efforts and their accomplishments, and their perceptions of themselves as people and as learners. The addition of the second category, social/cultural, reflects our appreciation of the cultural-specificity of knowledge. It also recognizes the role of social learning theory in explaining how students learn.

The revision, therefore, infused the original taxonomy with additional complexity and nuance. Whereas the original taxonomy suggested students should be climbing ever upward on the chart, another of the creators of the revised taxonomy, David Krathwohl, made clear that students may more freely move up and down the chart:

Like the original taxonomy, the revision is a hierarchy in the sense that the six major categories of the Cognitive Process dimension are believed to differ in their complexity, with remember being less complex than understand, which is less complex than apply, and so on. However, because the revision gives much greater weight to teacher usage, the requirement of a strict hierarchy has been relaxed to allow the categories to overlap one another.

Krathwohl implies, then, that the skills don’t necessarily need to be scaffolded. This freedom from moving systematically up the taxonomy frees up faculty to take risks as they pose greater challenges to their students, asking them to take cognitive leaps rather than plodding steps.

Krathwohl added an additional layer to the revised taxonomy by suggesting the cognitive skills be used as column heads across the top of a table, with different varieties of knowledge—factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive—forming the row headers. Instructors could place their individual learning objectives in the table’s cells, mapping in one visual what kinds of cognitive skills and knowledge a course aimed to develop in students. While filling out this taxonomic table may feel a bit mechanical to some instructors (myself included), the completed table makes transparent what kinds of knowledge and skills will be cultivated in a course. Should all of these skills and knowledge be grouped into a single area of the table—say, the upper-left quadrant, which focuses on remembering, understanding, and applying factual and conceptual knowledge—the instructor may want to reconsider the course objectives. Some instructors may be comfortable conducting a 100-level course in this quadrant of the table, but uncomfortable if their upper-division courses also fell there.


Bloom’s taxonomy in both its forms has been both popular and influential, but it has not been free of criticism. As Robert Marzano and John Kendall note in The New Taxonomy of Educational ObjectivesBloom’s original taxonomy has proven especially useful in evaluation, though less influential in curriculum design. In particular, Marzano and Kendall write, developers of the standardized state tests that arose in the 1970s leaned on Bloom’s, sometimes heavily, to define skill levels. In the past few decades, such tests have come increasingly under attack from parents and teachers alike. Anderson acknowledges Bloom’s utility in and application to such evaluation, but defends the new taxonomy from critics who might say the original taxonomy lends itself to oversimplified assessments: “We believe that the diversity of cognitive processes represented in the taxonomy requires a comparable diversity of assessment strategies and techniques.”

That’s an important acknowledgement and correction, as one of the biggest criticisms of the original Bloom’s taxonomy is that it’s unscientific and out of step with current theories of learning. In particular, the levels, which Bloom et. al. claimed were hierarchical, are actually quite muzzy. Drawing on others’ criticisms of Bloom’s, Marzano and Kendall point out that higher-order skills can be prerequisite to allegedly lower-level ones. For example, they write, analysis of a subject can be central to comprehending it.

Syntheses of Bloom’s

Those who criticize the original taxonomy’s embrace of hierarchical levels of cognitive skills can indeed hold the original taxonomy responsible, but the synthesis of Bloom’s with other learning theories strengthened this hierarchy. Take, for example, the three theorists perhaps best known for their uses of various kinds of scaffolding: Vygotsky, Bruner, and Rogoff. Each scaffolding theory holds that learners need assistance, usually from other people, in moving to higher orders of thinking and understanding.

These theories emphasized the social aspects of learning: people learn in community, whether it be in a formal classroom or in an informal setting. And once we introduce the social component, the multitudinous learning scenarios become impossible to track. As our networked, digital age has increasingly made clear, knowledge lives and thrives in networks, and it’s situated in bodies (h/t Donna Haraway). Depending on which nodes (people, learning artifacts, contexts) are connected and activated at any given time, different kinds of learning take place and different knowledges are created. As John Spencer suggests in a blog post, the original taxonomy’s clean modernism does not stand up in a postmodern age. That said, the modernist tendencies of Bloom’s are written right into the model’s name: it is a taxonomy; it names, classifies, and orders.

Even in the midst of this analytical chaos, however, Bloom’s remains useful as a shorthand in introducing learning theory to faculty who have never considered the subject. I frequently refer to “pushing students up the pyramid.” On the one hand, the metaphor is a bit coercive. On the other hand, it suggests we have students’ backs and are trying to support them in their journey. I’ve used the expression with students as well as faculty, and it seems to help students understand what’s going on in my (to them) unconventional online course. I even used Bloom’s to explain my course’s activities in a recent wrap-up post in the online course I taught in the spring.

Bloom’s, scaffolding, and employability

I want to take a look at that same closing post from my online course, as it captures a moment when I was trying to make sense of the first course I’d taught fully online, and it references Bloom’s, then immediately swoops into a discussion of career outcomes.

That course, HIST 100: Themes in World History — Engineering the Past, is meant to serve primarily as a general education course for non-majors and secondarily as a place where we might recruit majors. It was my first time teaching online and my first time teaching world history (which I last took in eighth grade), and I complicated the semester by using WordPress as an institutionally unsupported LMS and by trying to use as much free course material as possible. It was messy and not too far beyond what Silicon Valley types might call a Minimum Viable Product. When I teach it again, it will look very, very different.

I’m fortunate to be at an institution where we aren’t mandated to use the supported LMS, Blackboard, though I did use Blackboard’s gradebook because students like to have a place to track their grades, and I didn’t trust any gradebook I could set up in WordPress would be compliant with FERPA.

There are many benefits to working outside the institution’s LMS—benefits I’ll try to remember to elaborate in another post—but one disadvantage in teaching a 100-level online course on a platform that’s new to students is that it requires a good deal of technological scaffolding and hand-holding. I’ve used WordPress in my face-to-face courses, where students can easily help one another with technical questions before, during, or after each class meeting. In an entirely online general education course, however, there doesn’t tend to be the same sense of community because, at least at my institution, many of the students sign up for online courses hoping they’re a smaller time commitment than face-to-face courses. Students enter the semester, then, already reticent to invest time, let alone emotional energy, into such a course.

Accordingly, I found I needed to show students how to do simple technological tasks, such as logging into WordPress, writing and publishing a post, adding visual or audio media to a post, collaborating via Google docs, or finding a journal article in the library’s databases. As the semester progressed, I expected students to remember what I had already showed them how to do, then apply those patterns to other technological challenges in the course—e.g., finding other library resources or collaborating digitally on a much less structured group project.

It was clear to me some students felt more than a little lost during the course, and for every student who gave polite voice to their frustrations or confusion, I suspect two or three remained silent. At the end of the course, then, I felt the need to tie everything up with a neat bow, explaining that what may have seemed like a scattershot approach to world history was actually (somewhat) carefully planned to provide students with a lower-division course experience that expected more of them than a typical 100-level course.

Furthermore, although I had not done so intentionally, I realized many of the course activities and outcomes aligned with an entirely different but relevant taxonomy: my university’s “Make College Count” initiative, which encourages students to find opportunities to practice the skills employers most seek:

  • analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting information;
  • thinking critically;
  • solving problems;
  • taking initiative;
  • contributing to a team;
  • managing time and priorities;
  • performing with integrity;
  • effectively communicating orally;
  • building and sustaining working professional relationships.

I don’t like to think of higher education as vocational training, but when I view many of my courses from my students’ perspective, I understand students see college as key to developing the knowledge and skills that will let them earn a better living in a state that ranks first in the nation for minimum-wage jobs per capita. Student can develop these skills in any number of disciplines, but as an advocate for the humanities, I try to ensure students practice such skills while coming to appreciate the value and utility of the humanities in everyday life.

And so, yes, I practice scaffolding in some of my courses, and I found it to be especially valuable in my online course. I scaffold skills—from collaborating with others in a digital environment to analyzing material culture to better understand the habits, beliefs, and values of artifacts’ users—more than I do content. Content is just a way for students to get to the skills. And so I tend to skip very quickly over remembering and understanding in favor of emphasizing application and analysis through the act of creating a digital project that synthesizes text and multimedia elements.

Looking forward

So. . . What will I change in my courses and my instructional design practice now that I’ve taken a closer look at Bloom’s taxonomy and its critics?

Honestly, not much. Bloom’s remains a useful tool for me in my current context. Were I teaching at a selective small liberal arts college or an R1 university, both of which often have more middle-class and wealthy students than my institution does, I might not have to think as explicitly about how the skills we use in class affect students’ immediate career prospects. Like the educators who reformulated Bloom’s Taxonomy in the 1990s, I’m compelled to take the learning context into account.

Still, I appreciate the opportunity to reconsider, and then defend, one of my core ways of thinking about skills and outcomes in my courses.

Is instructional design activism?

I wrote a long post for a discussion forum for the online course I’m taking in Critical Instructional Design, and I thought I’d share/archive it here as well. The prompt asked:

  • Is instructional design a form of activism?
  • How does what we think about what we do can influence how learning happens across our institutions?
  • What do Audre Lorde’s words (master’s tools, master’s house) mean for you—personally, professionally, pedagogically? How do you think they might influence your use of digital tools? Do they spur you to consider a different dialogue with tools and toolmakers than the one you participate in now (and what does that dialogue look like now? what might it look like)?
  • Why or why not is a discussion about Audre Lorde’s statement relevant to our contemplation of critical instructional design?

I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts, of course, in the comments or elsewhere.


I hadn’t thought of instructional design as a form of activism in itself, even though it’s an integral part of teaching, which definitely can be (and often should be) a form of activism. I had been thinking of instructional design as planning for the real activism; thank you for tweaking my thinking.

As for Lorde’s comments on the master’s tools and the master’s house, we may need to pull back a bit to consider context. In the essay, she is asking why white women were sequestering black women into a single panel, and uses that event to question why heterosexuality is privileged over homosexuality, why middle-class is privileged over poor, why the developed world is privileged over the developing world, and more. When white, straight, middle-class women protest they are unaware of the dialogues taking place in spaces they themselves don’t occupy, Lorde tells them it’s their job to listen for those voices.

Today, fortunately, it’s not difficult to eavesdrop on conversations from communities to which we don’t belong. Just last night I finally joined Periscope, zoomed in on my parents’ neighborhood in Long Beach, California, and watched a gay black man talk about how he’s struggling to write his book because it brings up past trauma, and it drives him to drink (he was broadcasting while holding a large glass of white wine), and his partner thinks he’s drinking too much. On the surface, he and I share nothing in common, except that I once lived in the same zip code, but I quickly empathized with his plight as a blocked writer. I can listen in on Black Twitter and its hashtags. I can watch and learn from friends of all ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, religions, socioeconomic classes, political commitments, etc. on Facebook. And then of course there are a ton of books I could (and have) read that allow me to better understand inequality and inequity at various cultural, political, and economic intersections.

Just because it’s easy for instructional designers to glean some tiny understanding from social media and publications, however, doesn’t mean it’s simple to translate this learning into course design—particularly if the instructional designer isn’t the instructor for the course. If you don’t have security of employment, it can be awkward and a bit intimidating to point out to a senior professor (or, say, a vice provost who happens to be teaching a course) that there isn’t a single author of color on his syllabus and that’s problematic. It’s a brave instructional designer indeed who would point out to a senior prof the importance of Lorde’s exhortation in “The Master’s Tools”:

Advocating the mere tolerance of difference. . .is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. For difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively ‘be’ in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.

At the same time, gently pointing out the narrowness of perspective represented in course readings can be a productive starting point. Finding the language to express that narrowness without introducing a good deal of discomfort into the interaction is, however, difficult. (And yes, I know discomfort is a useful tool in teaching and learning. In this case, the power structure–tenured faculty over staff–could escalate to the point where the instructional designer’s employment is at risk.)

At our next staff meeting, I’m going to have a conversation with my instructional designers about how they navigate such minefields. I confess to strategically (and explicitly) deploying an instructional designer to a straight white male professor’s course when I saw its syllabus would benefit from her perspective as a woman of color and immigrant from the developing world.

As for tools: I’m fortunate to direct a unit that’s charged with looking at and supporting emerging technologies, though sometimes things are handed to us (e.g., a clunky e-portfolio platform chosen by the people running our core courses program) that we have to support for a while. I tend to lean toward open source tools because we can tinker with them more, but I’m certainly not against someone making a profit when they develop a really great, useful tool that advances learning. I recently saw a post decrying Lumen making a modest profit by helping to bring OER to universities, for example; if Lumen can bring high-quality, free or exceptionally low-cost materials to students and help faculty construct active learning around that content, I’m fine with that. (I’ve been in a Lumen workshop and thought it was based on sound pedagogical principles.)

I also realize that while I’m not a super early adopter, I’m a bit farther ahead of the curve than most faculty, and I’m willing to take more technological risks in front of and with students than are many of my colleagues. Some of my colleagues believe they need to be masters of a technology before using it with students, whereas I tend to shrug and tell the students they need to puzzle their way through the challenges the technology poses—and embrace that process as a core piece of the learning in the course. I’m wondering if more faculty would be willing to experiment with unsupported (at least by the university) tools if we framed them as part of an insurgent, progressive agenda.

Finding and Using Open Educational Resources

[With some of my staff in the IDEA Shop, I’ve organized a one-day institute on using Open Educational Resources in higher ed. I compiled this resource for the institute, and I thought it would be of use to some of this blog’s readers. You can also view it in Google Drive, download it, and revise it for your own use.]


Compiled by the IDEA Shop in the Center for Teaching and Learning at Boise State University.

Getting started

Backward design

It’s best not to start with a search for open educational content. Instead, use with the backward design process:

  1. Determine what you expect students to be able to do at the end of the lesson, module/unit, or course. These are your learning outcomes.
  2. Articulate how students will demonstrate they have achieved these learning outcomes. These are your assessments.
  3. Plan how students will engage with learning materials to prepare for the assessments.

When you’re ready to look for content and other learning materials

There are three primary ways to use existing OER:

  • Find a piece of OER and use it as-is.
  • Take a piece of OER and trim or revise it to meet your needs.
  • Take several pieces of OER and aggregate or synthesize them (“remix” them) into a new compilation, using them either as they are or with revisions.

You can also, of course, create your own materials and release them under an open license.

Be sure to keep your eye on licenses. Some resources, for example, permit you to share them, but not revise or remix them.


OER textbooks

Many authors and organizations have released open textbooks. Some of these you need to share with students as-is; with others, you can select chapters from multiple sources, remixing them into a new textbook.

You can search for open textbooks at the following places:

Open textbook library

Supported by the Center for Open Education and the Open Textbook Network, this collection includes books that have been reviewed by faculty from a variety of colleges and universities to assess their quality. These books can be downloaded for no cost, or printed at low cost. All textbooks are either used at multiple higher education institutions; or affiliated with an institution, scholarly society, or professional organization.


OpenStax makes it easy for faculty to review and adopt OER textbooks. OpenStax also offers additional free instructor-only resources like test banks and solution manuals to help plan a course. The textbooks have been peer-reviewed and are available in multiple formats, including low-cost print versions.

OpenStax CNX

OpenStax CNX is a non-profit digital ecosystem containing tens of thousands of learning objects organized into thousands of textbook-style books in a host of disciplines, all easily accessible online and downloadable to almost any device, anywhere, anytime.

Textbook Revolution

Textbook Revolution is a student-run site dedicated to increasing the use of free educational materials by teachers and professors. On this site you’ll find links and reviews of textbooks and select educational resources. Some of the books are PDF files, others are viewable online as ebooks, or some are simply web sites containing course or multimedia content. (Not all content is OER; check licenses carefully.)

The Teaching Commons

The Teaching Commons brings together high-quality open educational resources from leading colleges and universities. Curated by librarians and their institutions, the Teaching Commons includes open access textbooks, course materials, syllabi, lesson plans, multimedia, and more.

Open courses from Lumen Learning

Lumen offers online textbooks in several disciplines. The textbooks are free to use, and you can customize their textbooks for your classroom. If you would like to have Lumen package up one of their textbooks (edited by you or not) for integration with your Blackboard site, there is a small per-student fee (around $5).

The College Open Textbooks Collaborative

This collection of 29 educational non-profit and for-profit organizations affiliated with more than 200 colleges encourages the adoption of open textbooks, particularly at the community college level. This may be a good resource for your lower-division courses. Some of the textbooks are presented in the form of online courses, and some of these—such as this 12-hour-long Holocaust course from The Open University—can be downloaded as a Creative Commons-licensed ebook.

Community College Open Textbook Collaborative, on MERLOT II

A list of 180 textbooks from many disciplines, covering topics as diverse as linear algebra, epidemiology, African American studies, and marketing.

The OER Commons

A large collection of all kinds of educational resources, from audio to textbooks to full courses and case studies. Be sure to select the appropriate educational level (lower division, upper division, graduate/professional) from the drop-down menu at the left of the screen.

MIT Open Courseware

Teaching materials from MIT, licensed under a Creative Commons license (license details).

Open Course Library

The Open Course Library (OCL) is a collection of shareable course materials, including syllabi, course activities, readings, and assessments designed by teams of college faculty, instructional designers, librarians, and other experts. Some of our materials (also called open educational resources, or OER) are paired with low cost textbooks ($30 or less). Many of the courses can be taught at no cost to students. Unless otherwise noted, all materials are shared under a Creative Commons (CC BY) license. OCL courses and materials have undergone testing for accessibility and have been designed using the industry-standard Quality Matters (QM) rubric for assessing the quality of online courses.

The Open Learning Initiative (OLI)

OLI offers online courses faculty can use or adapt on the OLI platform or in Blackboard and other learning management systems. OLI is a grant-funded group at Carnegie Mellon University, offering innovative online courses to anyone who wants to learn or teach. Its aim is to create high-quality courses and contribute original research to improve learning and transform higher education.

Open SUNY Textbooks

Open SUNY Textbooks is an open access textbook publishing initiative established by State University of New York libraries and supported by SUNY Innovative Instruction Technology Grants. This pilot initiative publishes high-quality, cost-effective course resources by engaging faculty as authors and peer-reviewers, and libraries as publishing service and infrastructure.

College Open Textbooks

This repository contains a large number of textbooks across a wide swath of disciplines. The site includes content reviews and accessibility reviews of several textbooks.

BC Open Textbook Project

Open textbooks licensed using a Creative Commons license and offered in various ebook formats free of charge, or print on demand books available at cost.


Beyond textbooks: Sources of public domain and Creative Commons-licensed content

Find OER

Offers annotated links to various public domain and Creative Commons-licensed search engines. (OER = open educational resources)

Creative Commons search

Provides several places to search for Creative Commons-licensed material.

Searches across government websites for images and video. Select from “images” or “video” tabs above the search box to refine your search.

The Internet Archive

A non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, and more. Check licenses carefully.

Library of Congress digital collections

Some, but not all, of the Library of Congress’s digital collections are in the public domain.

Digital Public Library of America

Aggregates digitized resources from library collections. (Creative-Commons BY 3.0 license:

Flickr Commons

(note: this is different from Flickr Creative Commons)

In the Flickr Commons, museums and libraries around the world release images that anyone can use.

Harvard Law Library, “Finding Public Domain and Creative Commons Media”

An explanation of the public domain and Creative Commons, as well as a compilation of places to find public domain and Creative Commons-licensed materials.

Public Domain Review, “Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online”

A compilation of sources of public domain material, as well as an explanation of Creative Commons and the public domain.

The Getty’s Open Content Program

Nearly 100,000 images in the J. Paul Getty Collection are available for download and open use.

SoundBible, “Royalty Free Sounds”

A compilation of free sounds released under various licenses.

NASA audio collection in the Internet Archive

Sounds from NASA, in the public domain.

NASA on SoundCloud

Sounds from NASA, in the public domain.

The Public Domain Project

Thousands of historical media files for your creative projects.

Public Domain Sherpa

This site helps you determine whether something is in the public domain and thus available for your use.

Public Domain Sherpa, “Where can you find public domain recordings?”

A list of sites where you can find audio to remix or use as-is.


Volunteers record and share sounds.

Vimeo Music Store

Has free music tracks available through Creative Commons, as well as tracks you can purchase for use in film projects. You must have/create a Vimeo account to access this.

YouTube Audio Library

Free and ad-supported music you can download through YouTube. You must have a Google email account to access this.

The Orange Grove

A broad range of OER materials for higher education, including recorded lectures, syllabi, and activities.

Project Gutenberg

Offers more than 50,000 free ebooks; some may not be openly licensed.


Learn more about OER or get involved in an OER project

Open Education Resource Foundation

The Open Education Resource (OER) Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that provides leadership, international networking and support for educators and educational institutions to achieve their objectives through Open Education.

Edutopia’s Open Educational Resources Roundup

Explore this educator’s guide to open educational resources for information about online repositories, fair use, curriculum-sharing websites, sources for lesson plans and activities, and open alternatives to textbooks.

Rubrics for evaluating OER resources

An evaluation system for objects found within Open Education Resources. (An object might include images, applets, lessons, units, assessments, and more.) For the purpose of this evaluation, any component that can exist as a stand-alone qualifies as an object. The rubrics in this digital packet may be applied across content areas and object types.

Kirkwood Community College OER Resources

This site is packed with resources on OER, including where to find and how to use OER, fair use guidelines, and OER projects at colleges and universities.

Active Learning and OER

Some examples of how to use active learning with OER materials in an online course.

Creative Commons License
Finding and Using Open Educational Resources by The IDEA Shop, Center for Teaching and Learning, Boise State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Little boxes

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

(Would it be heavy-handed to quote the next verse?)

I haven’t blogged for a while because the new job (director of instructional design and educational assessment), which I’ve been doing on top of being a history professor, has used up all my brain space. The position encompasses even more than I thought it would. (Anyone here ever been responsible for an online testing center before, or merged two testing centers into one? Me neither.) Toss in a mandate for electronic accessibility, a need to represent students’ achievement of university learning outcomes both quantitatively and qualitatively to accreditors, a small staff of bright people who are already pulled in too many directions, software the university adopted that may or may not work as advertised (but which I’m responsible for making sure gets used as it was marketed), an expectation we’ll find a way to lower course resource costs for students, a relationship to be (re)built with the campus’s rapidly expanding online learning unit, and much more. . . and I barely have time to think about anything else.

I really do enjoy the work because I get to think about big-picture things and have interesting conversations with all kinds of people, but it seems every day some issue emerges that causes me some cognitive dissonance or, at the very least, pedagogical discomfort.

Right now I’m stuck on the imperative to be “entrepreneurial” within the context of the university.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m all for finding new and interesting sources of funding—by which I mean grants and community partnerships—for scholarly and creative work that might otherwise be impossible. On the other hand, there’s a renewed attention to the bottom line that makes the humanist in me deeply uncomfortable. (I feel compelled to preemptively mention the History department is profitable; it brings in more money to the university than it costs, especially now that we are—to borrow terminology from those darling Silicon Valley start-ups—leaner and therefore more agile unit.)

But, it ends up, there’s profitable and then there’s profitable. In the new cult of entrepreneurialism, the History department’s metrics make our entire endeavor—our research, courses, and public service—appear, in the eyes of some administrators, barely sustainable. When the provost came to talk to the History department, he recommended we spawn some “self-supporting” degrees or programs that would help to fund our bread-and-butter bachelor’s degree programs.

So, what is a self-supporting program? In my local context, a self-supporting program does not receive any funds appropriated from the state. (This is important because state appropriations to Idaho’s universities fell when the recession began, and have yet to return to 2008 levels. In addition, the state board of education provides Boise State only 2/3 the amount per student as it does the University of Idaho.) In return for not costing the university much, each self-supporting program (I’m told) gets to keep upwards of 90 percent of its revenue, out of which it pays faculty salaries and all its other costs.

There is a tremendous incentive in self-supporting programs, then, to reduce costs incurred by the department and to have students bear as many of these costs as possible.

As any academic knows, one way to reduce costs to the department is to hire very few tenure-line faculty and to farm out teaching to lecturers or, better yet, adjuncts. And there is a widespread belief—which I’m guessing is a myth—that online programs save the university money because they don’t place a burden on the university’s physical plant. In this paradigm, the most economical courses are those offered online and taught by adjuncts. (Of course, it’s not really economical, as there’s a huge support infrastructure in place—from servers and the people who maintain them, to expensive enterprise software and the people who maintain it, to instructional designers, help desk staff, admissions recruiters, the registrar, and all kinds of other units that don’t get reimbursed in any meaningful way by these self-supporting programs.)

But who has time to ensure all those online adjuncts are adhering to best practices in instructional design? A university can moderate such concerns by having “subject-matter experts”—who may or may not be tenure-line faculty—provide the content for each course. Then, in concert with specialists in instructional design, the subject-matter expert develops a course, populating, for example, discussion boards with prompts and exams with questions and answers. This course is then cloned within the university’s learning management system (e.g., Blackboard) and handed off to adjuncts whose teaching experience and subject matter expertise fall all over the spectrum. For purposes of quality control and discipline-specific accreditation (for example, in engineering or the health sciences), the adjuncts typically lack opportunities to make their course their own. The course becomes, for all intents and purposes, a less-than-open xMOOC with better-staffed sections.

On my least cynical, most optimistic days, I can see how this process might work for, say, Boise State’s nursing program, which offers a bachelor’s degree completion program for RNs, for a relatively cookie-cutter MBA program, or for any number of programs that offer continuing education to professionals in fields that require formal accreditations beyond degrees.

It’s going to be a screaming failure in the humanities, however. In some cases, the one thing humanities adjuncts have going for them is a sense of autonomy in designing their courses and agency in teaching them. This paradigm takes away that autonomy, in the name of cost-cutting and quality control. If you think humanities adjuncts are agitated now, wait until universities ask them to teach courses out of a box.

In addition, the humanities typically don’t scale well. Done well, the humanities require significant time for research, reflection, discernment, and revision. When he met with the History department, our provost recommended, for example, we bring in 30 new grad students each year and graduate 11 of them. (As I understand it, we typically bring in 10 students in a good year, and offer support to fewer than half those students. Eleven students is a lot. Because history student projects necessitate many, many drafts and we require a high standard of student work, I had three grad students file to graduate this spring, but only one did.) We have 14 tenure-line faculty in the department, and most of them don’t serve on more than two graduate students’ committees at any one time, but if we’re to keep our graduate programs, our tenure-line faculty are expected to ramp those numbers up considerably while teaching a 3/3 load, plus doing enough research to keep us off a 4/4 load.

Yes, there are examples of individual instructors teaching humanities concepts well online for a large audience of enrolled or open students—I’m thinking in particular of DS 106 in its various permutations—but in every case I can think of, their success relies on connectivism rather than content delivery, and they teach outside of a traditional LMS. The scale derives from an instructor’s generosity with his or her time, and from students’ willingness to expand their personal learning networks, rather than from a widgetizing of course production.

In a climate that favors entrepreneurialism and self-supporting programs, the problem is that the humanities—and increasingly so, when we teach them well—are about building community, about collaboration and connection—not about sharing content in a way that can be measured by exams. The learning management platforms on which universities offer online courses are optimized for sharing content and quizzing students on their knowledge of that content, not for genuine connection and community-building.

But back to the provost’s recommendation that the History department develop some self-supporting programs: what kind of student is going to pay premium rates for a humanities degree? Humanities degrees do indeed provide a significant financial return on their investment by mid-career but our students don’t usually understand that, focused as they are on getting that first post-baccalaureate job. In the cold calculus of universities with dwindling state support, the humanities may slip from being the bread-and-butter liberal arts courses at the heart of a quality undergraduate education, becoming instead a luxury for those who can afford higher tuition for History courses one administration here dubbed “boutique.”

Meanwhile, of course, employers are asking for students who can think critically and creatively, synthesize complex information from multiple sources, and write well. I can’t wait to see how universities get remote nursing or business adjuncts to teach those skills online.

Humanities = employability

I found myself in a meeting on Friday with several science faculty, and I had the opportunity to share with them what I’m doing in my Digital History course this semester. When I mentioned in particular that my students were mapping the neighborhood’s irrigation ditches, an engineering professor asked me how they were doing that. I said I had a student minoring in GIS and she’d likely in the end use Google Maps or maybe even Illustrator just to indicate where the water flows through the neighborhood and where it disappears underground.

She clarified her question. “No. . . How do you get your students to do things you haven’t taught them to do? If we ask our students to do something new, they say they can’t do it because we haven’t yet taught them how to do it.”

I pointed out that history, and the humanities more generally, provided students with plenty of opportunities to take initiative in research and communication, and that we tried to cultivate independent thinking in our students. Plus, I try to model this spirit of inquiry in the classroom. I pointed out (once again) that I’m a history professor without any degrees in history, and I’m a technologist without any formal training in that field. I’ve decided to eschew impostor syndrome in favor of openly making up my projects and career as I go along.

The professors seemed a bit flabbergasted. Maybe they hadn’t ever considered the humanities as anything other than courses that taught students grammar and asked them to read a lot.

For me, job #1 is ensuring students are critical and creative thinkers who can use technology thoughtfully so they can both tackle big problems and make a living. I don’t understand how anyone could enjoy—or even think it was morally defensible—to teach a course that didn’t inspire students to stretch themselves, that required them merely to learn content or basic skills. If your students don’t get past “comprehension” in Bloom’s Taxonomy, you’re doing it wrong. Students need to get to synthesis, evaluation, and creation in as many class meetings as possible.

In light of this discovery that the university apparently is producing STEM students who lack initiative and intellectual curiosity, I’ve just suggested it fund an interdisciplinary project that would bring some of this humanities secret sauce to STEM students. Here’s a smidgeon from my response to a CFP aimed at gauging faculty interest in new, interdisciplinary projects:

a) Project description – provide a short description of your project idea

Students need more opportunities to practice solving problems across disciplines, and Idahoans often need low-cost solutions to the challenges they face. My years in the classroom have taught me that humanities students (and especially history students), if given the right tools, support, and encouragement, are both persistent and creative researchers and makers. They seek out new knowledge, teach themselves and each other skills, and work together collaboratively with little complaint or friction. I’d like to bring this “humanities secret sauce” to students across the disciplines, as I’ve heard from faculty that their students don’t always demonstrate this initiative and ability to learn new things—or synthesize their knowledge and skills—outside the classroom.

Accordingly, I propose creating the Curiosity Shop, a place where the Boise State community, as well as everyday Idahoans, can bring persistent issues or problems, and students can—working alongside these individuals—address these challenges using research, experimentation, and communication. The atmosphere of the Curiosity Shop will be permeated with curiosity, deep inquiry, empathy, creativity, improvisation, and perseverance. Working in multidisciplinary teams, students will learn to prioritize challenges, research possible interventions, and then propose, fund, implement, iterate, and evaluate their solutions.

b) What are the broad research questions?

  • Are there differences in how students in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences tackle problem-solving? If so, what are these differences, whence do they emerge, and do students’ problem-solving styles change during collaboration on interdisciplinary teams?
  • What kinds of technologies, digital or otherwise, do students employ while solving diverse problems? What patterns emerge in this use, and what does their use say about students’ habits, beliefs, and values?
  • How do these students’ problem-solving styles and choices of technology jibe with or deviate from employers’ expectations of entry-level employees’ knowledge, skills, and abilities in various fields?

Here’s hoping the appropriate committee bites. Our students can change the world if we let them.

On instructional design

On Wednesday morning, I’m interviewing for a director-level position that bridges academic technology, instructional design, and faculty development. As a result, I’ve been even more reflective than usual about the choices I’ve made regarding teaching and technology.


This semester, in addition to continuing to build or maintain a slate of existing projects, I’ve tackled two additional experiments. First, I’m part of a pilot cohort of faculty experimenting with building e-books for our courses; as I build an interactive book using iBooks Author for my graduate public history course, I’m drawing on Creative Commons-licensed and public domain material, as well as my own commentary. (More on that in another post.)

Second, I completely blew up my digital history course a few weeks into the semester. I began the course with a traditional syllabus packed with readings and marked by some practice, but on student request, I changed the course so that 85% of the work—and thus of students’ grades—is connected to a single large project. You can check out the new syllabus, but you’ll find most of the course now consists of in-class work days for the 11 undergraduate and 5 graduate students in the course.

In the summer, a resident of Boise’s Central Rim neighborhood approached me about helping her and her neighbors better understand the history of their irrigation system, the Lindsey Lateral. The neighbors believed some residents hadn’t been getting all the water to which they are entitled, while other yards in the neighborhood were completely waterlogged and some basements flooded. The neighbors wanted an historian to trace the history of their water rights so they could make a case for various agencies or individuals to fund repairs to the ditches and canals that run through and under the subdivisions that constitute the Central Rim.

I admitted I’m no legal expert and instead offered to use the neighborhood as a subject in my Digital History course.

That course introduces students to the digital humanities and asks them to consider the various issues and potential opportunities at the intersection of digital technologies and our understanding of the past. In a previous iteration of the course, I had students interview digital humanists, explore exactly how far they could get with their research if they used only digital primary sources, build augmented reality tours, and write grants.

This semester, students have elected to focus almost entirely on the Central Rim Neighborhood project. That meant exchanging a lot of great course content and additional topics for hands-on skill-building, but I’m fine with that. Now students are working in teams to interview neighbors (with some of these captured on video as mini oral histories), document the history of irrigation, trace the development of the neighborhood from the first irrigated orchards to suburban subdivisions, and explore the evolution of the neighborhood into a particularly close-knit community where neighbors not only know each others’ names, but also know a lot about one another.

I’ve largely left the design and development of the website up to the students, providing them with suggestions and advice when they ask for it and inviting guest speakers to help them understand both the neighborhood and project management. I’m uncertain what form the project website will take on December 15 when we unveil it to the neighbors, but I know it will include roughly three roughly 1,500-word essays on irrigation and what it has allowed to flourish, the neighborhood’s suburban development and architecture, and the Central Rim’s sense of community. There likely will be several interview videos edited down from an hour to ten minutes or so. I hope there will be maps, historical images collected from neighbors, “then and now” photos and maps that can be revealed and compared with sliders, and more.

While building this website, students are, depending on which teams they choose to join or assist, learning

  • how to find primary-source documents in municipal, county, state, university, and public library archives, as well as how to access information in digital databases;

  • how to navigate the U.S.’s complex system of copyright and permissions for images and documents;

  • how to craft good interview questions and keep interviewees focused;

  • all kinds of video production skills;

  • web design and development;

  • how to read and interpret a variety of maps;

  • some basic GIS skills;

  • photography;

  • project management;

  • collaboration across media;

  • how to interpret local history for a public audience;

  • how to read historic photographs;

  • how to make sense of secondary sources that frequently disagree with one another;

  • how to design an efficient and effective editorial workflow;

  • how to identify, research the potential of, and employ or implement various multimedia platforms, software, plugins, etc.;

  • and more.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to implement the skills I myself have learned since first standing in front of a college classroom in 1999. I feel all my pedagogical work—in literature, composition, American studies, museum studies, education, and finally history classrooms, and through my professional work as academic technology and faculty development staff—has led me to this pedagogical moment when I turn over the class to my students, when I become the ultimate guide on the side—not the instructor who directs activities minute-to-minute during the hour and fifteen minutes of class, but the consultant to whom students often turn (though increasingly less frequently as the project develops) when they want advice.

The course complements and builds on the research and writing skills students learn in their lower-division history courses. Through teaching courses at all levels, I have developed a very clear sense of what students can and will do, as well as learned how to write an assignment that allows for students to successfully meet a challenge. Because I can design assignments that match—and increase—students’ motivation and ability to learn, I can trust my students in fairly radical ways.

It’s completely liberating. I set course-level learning objectives and ensure the assignment allows for students to achieve them. Students keep me informed of their progress by reporting on their work to date, but also through the questions they ask. Students get a learning experience—I’m loath to call it “authentic,” as I know there are countless forms of authentic learning, and I don’t want to claim this experience as more so than others—that stretches both their knowledge of the past and their skill sets (“competencies,” if we’re going to use trendy terminology), and I have far fewer individual student assignments to grade—though I do give students feedback whenever they request it.


In addition to reflecting on my own teaching, I’ve been reading up on instructional design, as I realized that while I develop learning experiences all the time, I likely did not know the terminology of the field.

What I discovered was a bit astonishing.

Freely available and easily found resources online—the kind of resources I’m guessing most entry-level instructional designers access to learn the discipline—are often horrifying. There’s far too much information online about how to turn a PowerPoint into “computer-based training” or “web-based training,” or how to create “instructor-led training.” Terminology is revealing, and talking about learning as “training,” or about a learning experience as “computer-based,” “web-based,” or “instructor-led” completely erases the student-centered nature of the best learning experiences. Much of the “training” instructional designers receive apparently centers on delivering content or creating “performance-based training” in which students learn, for example, how to complete small tasks such as entering metadata into a database or creating an invoice.

I gleaned a lot about what employers—primarily corporate employers—might expect from instructional designers by looking at this list of interview questions, which is excerpted or adapted in multiple places and held up as a good, representative list. Many of the questions can be answered with a quick Google search; far fewer get at an instructional designer’s philosophy, engagement with “subject-matter experts,” or reflective practice.

And yet in working with some talented instructional designers here at Boise State, it’s clear instructional designers, at least in an academic setting, do so much more. When they are given the time and space to undertake research on what’s going on in the field, allocated funds to attend conferences and workshops for professional development and cross-pollination, and encouraged to have genuine conversations with faculty about teaching and learning, instructional designers can help faculty advance student learning in really interesting ways.

In recent years, I’ve identified three species of instructional designers in higher education. The first of these emerges from, or adheres to, a corporate ethos: content should be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively, and learning must be measurable. You might have encountered this species of instructional designer in your campus’s extension or dedicated online learning office. Their job is to help faculty move face-to-face courses online in such a way that a course might be taught using the exact same materials, activities, and tests for several semesters (because it’s expensive to redesign activities) and by any number of relatively interchangeable instructors. In this species’s ethos, learning experiences should be standardized and replicable. Changing a syllabus, activities, assignments, and assessments mid-semester, as I have done with my Digital History course, is nigh impossible and certainly frowned upon. (I know because I asked one of these instructional designers about this very contingency.)

The second species of instructional designer is more likely to be affiliated with a university’s “Center for Excellence in Teaching,” a language lab, or similar department where good pedagogy, rather than efficiency and low cost, is (in theory or practice) the primary concern. They read academic journals and higher ed publications. These instructional designers run programs in which small cohorts of faculty pilot emerging technologies in the classroom—mobile learning or ebooks, for example. While the first species of designers works on an assembly line, building widgets and assembling them into courses, this second species observes how faculty think, synthesizes these observations with deep knowledge of how students learn, and makes recommendations about how the entire higher ed factory might retool to increase student learning, graduation rates, and employability.

The third species of instructional designer—though individuals of this species might not even identify themselves as such (they may, for example, be programmers, faculty, or “technologists”)—questions the factory as a model for learning, throws spanners in the works, and argues that a public playground, with its sandbox and free-form play structures, is a better environment for learning and collaboration. These designers coax faculty into this space, wait for their eyes to adjust to all the sunlight, and encourage them to get their hands dirty in the sandbox or rebuilding the jungle gyms. From these people emerge such well-regarded initiatives as A Domain of One’s Own, Reclaim Hosting, Connected Courses, and the cMOOC.

The first species of instructional designer is likely to turn faculty away from teaching with technology, or at the very least leave a bad taste in the instructor’s mouth because this kind of work decreases faculty autonomy and flexibility and promotes a corporate ethos in higher education.

The second species may get faculty interested in one or two technologies, but the technology an instructor pilots may either quickly fade from the instructor’s courses (e.g., mobile learning) or become the instructor’s one go-to use of technology (e.g., clickers). These faculty may still see technology as a way of delivering content and checking for student comprehension, rather than as a transformative teaching tool.

The third species doesn’t necessarily make it easy for faculty to adopt new technologies, but these designers appeal to professors’ natural curiosity, desire for intellectual challenge, and propensity for problem-solving. These designers introduce faculty to an entirely new way of seeing technology as a teaching and learning tool.

I admire, and I’m most comfortable working with, the second and third species. I enjoy interacting with both of them tremendously.


But the third species? They’re my people.

They’re student-centered, faculty-understanding, institution-transforming. Administrators often see them, at least at first, as guerrillas or unnecessarily radical. But as their successes pile up, and as people from other colleges and universities take notice of their work, a grudging admiration builds, as does trust.

That’s not an easy chasm to cross, however—it takes a patient and perceptive administrator to see someone whose work looks potentially institution-undermining as someone who deeply loves seeing students succeed and who puts their needs first, often in unconventional ways. Instead of asking students to use the enterprise LMS and e-portfolio, the third species gives them free hosting and a makerspace. At first it’s not clear the students can—or even will try to—build anything with server space, a 3D printer, a Raspberry Pi, or access to the full Adobe Creative Suite.

But then suddenly your campus becomes an internet of things, a playground hacked by students to meet their own needs and those of their peers. Your students’ amazing work, instead of being a series of documents and images awkwardly stuffed into the class-by-class structure of that expensive e-portfolio system, shines on an amazing, responsive multimedia site they built themselves. Even if they don’t program themselves, your faculty learn to speak the language of the web developers they hire with small grants or borrow from an academic technology department.

The transformation is there, waiting to happen, if we hire the right instructional designers and give them free rein.

And, of course, if we hire leaders who will both help them and get out of their way.


Today, a friend and colleague asked me if I was energized for the fall semester.

“Nope!” I texted to her.

I meant for it to be funny, but in the context of the conversation we were having, my response came across as angry and sad.

Why was I sad? I enjoy teaching. I like students. It’s always nice to catch up with my colleagues when they return to their History department offices. The week before school—that’s next week—involves a lot of prep, yes, but also a lot of good conversation and über-pleasant collegiality.

I paused a moment to probe the source of my sadness and anger. Was I experiencing the first twinge of a depressive turn, a chemical low combined with feelings of overwhelm?


. . .

Since the beginning of last academic year, I have interviewed for four different staff jobs at three different colleges and universities, making it through several rounds at each campus. Two of those campuses still have not hired anyone for the positions for which I’ve interviewed; I’m uncertain about whether someone was hired for the third; and the final job was offered to me last Friday. Each of the positions was in different fields–research and social media; proposal writing; directing an events center/intellectual hub at one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges; and an academic specialist within a student affairs department.

I couldn’t accept the student affairs job because it didn’t pay enough to live on–it was questionable it would cover the rent in its California town–and the university hadn’t provided the department with any leeway in negotiating the salary.

I would have loved to live in that town. I know lots of people in and around the place.

Undoubtedly this missed opportunity is making me less enthusiastic to return to the classroom. But that regret is not the biggest factor.


. . .

I realized my lack of enthusiasm can be chalked up to the prospect of guns in the college classroom. Earlier this year, the Idaho legislature passed a law allowing anyone with certain permits or law enforcement experience to carry concealed weapons pretty much anywhere on campus. (Excluded: venues of 1,000 or more people.)

Have there been concealed weapons in my classroom before this semester? I can’t know for certain, but in 15 years of teaching, four of those in Idaho, I’m guessing that yes, a student brought a weapon to one of my classes.

But never have I taught in a context where the state openly welcomed guns in the classroom, where legislators encouraged students to arm themselves.

. . .

If I were a better historian and less emotionally exhausted, I might provide a brief history of how guns have been used again and again to subjugate already marginalized individuals and communities. I need not remind my readers of this: Gun violence and the threat of gun violence are all over the news this week, here and abroad, in Iraq, Syria, and Gaza. Gun rights activists in the U.S. like to speak of tyrants who are coming for their guns, but let’s be clear–the ones talking about bringing guns into the context of everyday life are the most dangerous. Those who suggest guns have a place in the college classroom are tyrannical, for the presence of gun—or the suggestion or possibility of its presence—renders exceptionally difficult the free and open exchange of ideas.

Last spring, when my colleagues and I stood on Boise State’s central campus raising students’ awareness about the guns-on-campus bill, I spoke with several students who couldn’t wait to bring guns into the classroom and in fact admitted they had already concealed weapons in Boise State’s classrooms. These young white men envisioned themselves as potential vigilante heroes in an “active shooter” situation they believe is inevitable in any “gun-free zone.”

. . .

The reality is this: there are going to be guns in my classroom, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  This reality will change my relationship with students. It will diminish teaching and learning.

And by standing up in front of the class and not saying anything about it (because I can only imagine the hellfire that would rain down on me if a student complained to the campus lawyers or the media); by drawing a paycheck from the state; by submitting my tenure binders in the next month; by continuing to show up and pretend (as a historian!) that guns, and especially guns owned and carried by conservative white men, haven’t been an instrument of oppression and torture in this country; as if Idaho doesn’t have one of the highest rates of homicide by gun in domestic violence cases and one of the highest rates of suicide by gun; as if our very few black students aren’t placed at a dangerous, life-threatening disadvantage under this policy—I am complicit.

Am I submitting a letter of resignation?


To be blunt, I can’t afford to do so. We’ve exhausted our savings, and non-minimum-wage jobs are few and far between here. I have to keep my job until I find another one.

. . .

Still, I am complicit. And it’s profoundly troubling.

I went looking for a wisdom in the Quaker nonviolence testimonies, hoping one would capture what I’m feeling and provide me with some comfort or inspiration.  I came across this passage by John Lampen, published in Catherine Whitmire’s collection Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity.

When we are confronted with hurt to ourselves or others, and the rational ways of mending it are not effective, we are forced to choose between complicity in the universal wrong and an act of sacrifice. Then the divine voice inside us insists that this is the most important choice of all. . . .

The journey, the renunciation, the heroism, may be called for within our own hearts, a private matter between us and God. It happens when we accept the hurt, and do not let it enslave or degrade us, but endure it, and refuse to pass it on. When we choose this path, we cannot foresee its end; we can’t say it if will do any good. It is a starting point, not a solution. We don’t know what will be asked of us next. But by this sacrifice we have identified ourselves with whatever power there is in the universe to redeem and recreate.

. . .

I can’t make the big sacrifice that needs to be made in this situation. I can’t walk away until I have a job offer sufficient to support my family.

My options thus are reduced to small resistances, to letting my life speak rather than my lectures.

What forms might such resistance take for this assistant professor? Leave your ideas in the comments.

Concealed carry culture is antithetical to higher education’s mission

(written in response to Idaho Senate Bill 1254, which would allow concealed weapons on campus)

Idaho has long nurtured what some have termed “a gun culture.”  Hunters and ranchers reasonably see rifles as necessary tools. Families pass treasured rifles from grandparent to parent to child and educate the youngest members of the family about gun safety. Such responsible gun ownership is to be admired.

However, recent discussions about guns make clear this traditional gun culture is being co-opted by a newer, disturbing one marked by the language of distrust and threat. This new culture, one of whose primary features is the concealed carrying of handguns, uses a different rhetoric and logic—and this way of thinking and speaking is at odds not only with the entire mission of the university, but also with a just, democratic civic life.

In the culture of concealed carry, enthusiasts speak of “good guys with guns” and “bad guys with guns,” as if the language of preschoolers could adequately capture the complexity of negotiating our increasingly diverse society. Worse, these same people speak of “gun-free zones” as if such spaces are and should be an aberration.  In the perspective of concealed carry culture, “gun-free zones” are described as an inviting target for “bad guys.” Such talk reveals not only a surface-level paranoia, but also deeper, more malevolent meditations on the mass murder, with an implication that mass shootings are inevitable, particularly at schools. Even worse, in concealed carry culture, the solution for such mass-shooting scenarios is more guns and more bullets flying, not fewer.

It’s not surprising, then, that this culture also embraces “stand your ground,” the legal right to shoot and kill someone if one feels threatened.  As we have seen in the national news recently—most visibly in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases, but certainly not limited to these incidents—many gun-carrying white men feel threatened by aspects of cultures that are not their own. These aspects include, but again are not limited to, clothing, music, and darker skin, and, taken collectively, might in the case of African-American men be viewed as “thug culture” or, in the case of Muslim attire or practice, a harbinger of terrorism. The perception is that other cultures are intruding into the space rightfully occupied by WASPs, and the solution to this “problem” or “threat” is violence.

The “stand your ground” ethos is antithetical to that of the university. Higher education is about intellectual growth and nuance; it’s about negotiation rather than standing one’s ground.  It’s about considering new ideas and learning about new ways of being in an ever-changing world.  Higher education embraces civility in the face of unfamiliar or uncomfortable ideas—it’s about civic discourse.

This insistence on civic discourse and global engagement is one factor driving Boise State’s recruitment of both out-of-state and international students, as well as its desire to draw the best faculty in the nation and world. Many of these students and faculty grew up in cultural contexts very different from those of students from Idaho. I, for example, grew up in a gay neighborhood and attended a high school that was only 20 percent white.  For me, then, teaching at Boise State involves a good deal of listening to Idaho students’ experiences—many of which are foreign to me—and understanding their perspectives while simultaneously challenging them to broaden their views on any number of politically-tinged historical issues.  Of course, they rightfully challenge my beliefs, too.

I worry the knowledge that there may be students concealing weapons in the classroom will quash this civic discourse, and that students and faculty will be hesitant to take the intellectual risks that allow all of us to connect and grow as human beings.  Frankly, I am especially worried about students of color and international students, as those perceived to be of a different culture from the “norm” WASP culture are often the victims of misunderstanding and gun violence.

I encourage our legislators to vote no on S 1254, and I exhort everyone to elevate the dialogue about guns on campus and in our society. In particular, in a state whose residents cherish their history and heritage, we need to carefully differentiate what is part of the traditional gun culture, and what is part of the concealed carry culture that breeds paranoia and glorifies violence in the name of self-defense.

DIY College Metrics

The headline at the NPR site says it all: “Idaho Universities Must Decide Which Programs Matter Most.”  Not surprisingly, then, at this year’s welcome address, Boise State President Bob Kustra emphasized the role of analytics in the process of program prioritization. My college’s dean also emphasized metrics and analytics in the college-wide meeting that week.

My head began to hurt.  I’m a humanist.  I’m not terribly comfortable with numbers, and I don’t like it when things that should be evaluated qualitatively are transformed into numbers.

Still, I felt I needed to educate myself about university metrics, and particularly about my university’s metrics.  I went digging.  I found, once again, that numbers are slippery, particularly when we’re talking about “costs” (what counts toward the cost? what doesn’t?), and not at all easy to interpret. Despite these liabilities, numbers are persuasive, and they can be marshaled to tell stories, factual or not, true or not.  Often they are, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, truthy, in that they “cherry pick” numbers that seem to back up our gut feelings.

I know many of my fellow public university faculty are, like me, in an allegedly data-driven boat navigating the waters of a (real or fabricated) budget crisis. I’ve also discovered, locally and elsewhere, that despite a plethora of internal and external sources that provide university data, many faculty and even administrators remain unaware of the actual metrics of their universities; they’re believing spin and myth rather than looking at the data themselves.

I thought, then, I would highlight a few of the places where faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders can find university metrics.  Chances are your university has a data warehouse for employees, but even if you don’t have access to it, there are plenty of external places to find data.

As a model, I’ll share some metrics and findings from my own university that I think are important, but that may get overlooked in our discussions during program prioritization. I’m sharing these numbers because they emerge from a familiar context for me. While some of them may seem damning, I’m not highlighting them to reveal corruption or the failure of any one individual, office, or program.

That said, taken collectively, as you will see, these data can tell a story about priorities—if you’re open to hearing that kind of narrative.

I encourage you to follow along with my steps and discover some information about the colleges or universities of which you are an employee, student, parent or spouse of a student, donor, or community member.

But first, three caveats:

1. I’m a humanist, not a social scientist or mathematician, so I won’t be doing any fancy statistical analysis—rather, we’ll be relying on some basic arithmetic.

2. I know all institutions and organizations “cherry pick” data to tell a particular story, and I suspect that some universities go through the program prioritization process with an end goal in mind.  They collect only the data that matter to the story they want to tell, manipulate the data, and interpret it in ways that confirm their top administrators’ perspective. I, of course, have my biases and priorities, too.

3. In every case here, I’m working with the latest reported data rather than the raw data or queries from an internal data warehouse.  Some numbers may be slightly out of date, and of course a university’s self-reported data, as one reader reminds me, must be taken with a grain of salt, but I’m unaware of any major shifts locally in the numbers I’m discussing, though I have heard rumors our six-year graduation rate is on the rise.

Undergraduate education

Governing bodies in higher ed, as well as state funding agencies, are, of course, all about graduation rates, retention rates, and career outcomes.  The last of these is perhaps hardest to capture, though student loan default rates can give us a glimpse of success or failure in the workforce. Fortunately, the first two are relatively easy to track, especially if you adhere to a relatively narrow definition of “graduation rate.” Let’s take a look at them.

Graduation rates

One goldmine of student information is the IPEDS Data Center, which anyone can access at the National Center for Education Statistics website. IPEDS allows you to examine individual institutions’ metrics, as well as compare institutions. If you poke around the site for a while, you’ll also find some interesting projections, like this one estimating the numbers of U.S. high school graduates, by race/ethnicity, through 2021, and some useful tables and figures, including this list of tables about financial aid.  If you’re more stats-savvy than I am, you can download data sets and play with them in the software of your choice.  (Prospective students looking for the right college “fit” should access the data via the NCES College Navigator.)

I’m always surprised that more faculty at my institution are unaware of Boise State’s four-year graduation rate. Here’s Boise State’s graduation rate data from IPEDS:


That’s a screen capture I took when I first conceived of this post a few months ago.  Sadly, the most recent data available shows a 3% decline in the overall graduation rate, and a decline in the 4-year graduation rate:


Blink as much as you must—your eyes don’t deceive you. Boise State’s most recently-reported four-year graduation rate is 7 percent.  Now, administrators everywhere will tell you that graduation rates are calculated unfairly, in particular because transfer students aren’t included—only “full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduates.” That’s a fair criticism. However, it’s not fair to ignore entirely the 7 percent figure, as it indicates that for every 100 first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates that begin their college careers at Boise State, 93 won’t graduate from that university in four years–and 71 won’t graduate within six. That’s deeply troubling.  (The national 6-year graduation rate is 59 percent, and 57 percent at public institutions—considerably higher than Boise State’s 29 percent.)

Funding undergraduate education

Let’s move on to funding for undergraduate education. I’ve observed some of Boise State’s administrators like to use the term “lean” rather than “underfunded” to describe the university’s programs. “Lean” not only suggests an efficient use of muscle/resources, but it also evokes the “lean start-up” paradigm so beloved by many business schools at the moment. I’m using “underfunded” instead of “lean” because I want to emphasize not how programs are performing with few resources, but rather make clear how little the state and university are investing in our students.

Unfortunately, the only current Boise State budget I was able to find is broken down by major categories; we can’t learn much from it. (Worse, it collapses student loans into the category “Scholarships & Fellowships.” Gah!) Fortunately, we aren’t constrained by the university’s lack of budgetary transparency online.  (Update: a friendly Boise State librarian tells me paper copies of the budget can be checked out for two hours at a time, so check to see if your university’s library keeps a copy of the budget available.)

Thanks to the site College Measures, we can discover, to the dollar, how much the university declares it spends educating each undergraduate student per year: $9,571, which puts it in the 7th percentile overall among all colleges and the 11th percentile among public institutions.  I’m glad to see the university ranks in the 36th percentile in instructional spending per student among all colleges, and 38th in academic support—not great numbers, but far better than its overall ranking.

CM1click image to enlarge

A year’s in-state fees (charged in lieu of tuition) cost each undergraduate $6,292.  (A brochure released yesterday by the university includes an asterisk that explains students are also charged $2,088 in “health insurance fees” (see page 10), but we won’t include those in our analysis.)

Here’s where I’ll refer you to a post about colleges’ discount rates I wrote on my admissions blog.  To sum up: the discount rate is typically calculated as the difference between the full-fare cost of enrollment and what the average student and his or her family actually pay.  The New York Times recently reported that small colleges are trying to get out of the discounting game, but I don’t think any institution will ever escape it, as there will always be a difference between what the student pays and the true cost of educating a student.  I call this the “actual discount rate.” So, as I explain in my post at the admissions blog:

Just how generous is the actual tuition discounting at some colleges?  Here’s a slide from a 2011 presentation Grinnell College made to its alumni and other stakeholders:


 click to enlarge image

 The chart reveals the college’s actual per-student costs varied from $50,600 to more than $58,000 per year, while the comprehensive fee hovered under $40,000.  Even if all students paid the full fee, Grinnell was eating up to $20,000 per year per student!  Even more astonishing, very few students pay the full fare at Grinnell, so the college was “losing” even more revenue per student.  If you look at the blue portion of the bars, you’ll discover that revenue from students and their families covered on average only 36.5 to 38.5 percent of the college’s total cost. (Currently, about 85 percent of Grinnell’s students receive financial aid.)

Of course, $40,000 a year is still a lot of money for most families, but if you click through to that post, you’ll discover that the typical Grinnell student is expected to contribute $7,500 out of her own pocket and racks up only $12,350 in loans, meaning that, not counting student loan interest, she gets a college education worth at least $224,000 for less than $20,000. And that amount includes not only tuition and fees, but also room and board.

Now, you may think it unfair to compare an elite liberal arts college’s real discount rate with a practically open-admissions regional public university, but I’m going to do so anyway, as I’ve made the comparison for some of my students, and they find it enlightening. (They also often regret their choice of institution because they find themselves with a lot of debt.) If an in-state traditional student is one of the lucky ones who graduates from Boise State within six years, and she lives in the cheapest on-campus residence for two of those and uses her parents’ health insurance, according to Boise State’s own cost attendance calculator, her tuition, fees, room and board would look like this (if costs remain stable, which of course they won’t):

  • First year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $6064 room and board = $12,356
  • Second year, living on campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + 5000 room and board = $11,292
  • Third year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fourth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Fifth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908
  • Sixth year, living off campus: $6,292 tuition/fees + $7,616 room and board = $13,908

The total the student pays, then, is $79,280 for an education that costs the state $57,426.  That means Boise State students don’t actually get a discount rate if we count off-campus room and board.  We’ll no longer be comparing apples to apples, as Grinnell students tend to live on campus for four years, but let’s subtract the off-campus room and board from that figure because the university isn’t seeing any of that money.  Even then, the total the student pays to the university is $48,816, though the student of course still has to pay to live somewhere.  If we remove this amount, then the student does indeed get a discount—$48,816 for a $57,426 education. (Of course, this is a hypothetical ideal; I’ve met Boise State graduates with $100,000 in student loan debt.)

Of course, I’m using a mishmash of Boise State’s and Grinnell’s own data, along with data from College Measures, in these examples.  Let’s compare the cost of an undergraduate education at each institution using only College Measures data.

Here’s Grinnell’s:

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And Boise State’s:
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Click either image to enlarge it.

But wait–here the Boise State cost-per-degree is lower than I’ve estimated it to be–but that’s because the College Measures site assumes a five-year graduation rate, but as we’ve learned, the typical student, if she’s lucky, will graduate from Boise State in six years, whereas almost all Grinnell students graduate in four.  Yes, Grinnell’s students are significantly different from Boise State’s students, but the question remains: what would happen if the university invested more per year in each student; would the four-year graduation rate increase? Would the six-year? What about the attrition rate, and, post-graduation, the student loan default rate? It’s worth investigating.

And what of retention, attrition, and the cost to the university of losing students? Thanks also to College Measures, we discover that in 2011, 31 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates did not return to the university for their sophomore year.  The university spent $6.8 million educating students it did not retain.

Again, I want to emphasize that I know it’s not entirely fair to compare an elite private college with a regional public university; doing so, however, allows us to see the kind of choices universities make, or are forced to make, based on their funding models. Everyone, including state legislators who set higher ed budgets, should be aware of the repercussions of these choices.  And remember, once we have a sense the spectrum of choices, we can perhaps better begin to understand the choices being made at “peer institutions”—and we’ll look at those in the next section.

Faculty compensation

Maybe improving faculty morale might help retain faculty and therefore students? Many of my teaching readers have undoubtedly had the experience where a student (for me it’s usually a graduate student) admits she is returning the following year just because you’re there to support her. Few faculty are truly irreplaceable, but often students view individual faculty as essential to their success.

Of course, one great way to improve faculty morale (or at least retain some faculty) is to pay faculty fairly. We know about the adjunct crisis, and it needs to be addressed in a huge way, and quickly.  (Although, oddly, Boise State’s pay rate for full-time, non-tenure-line instructors is above average, though  I suspect there may be a few fantastically paid outliers who are messing up that particular curve.  The state salary database shows that one of our local celebrities, for example, gets paid $150,000 per year despite the title “adjunct faculty” and a highest degree of B.A.)  The size of the adjunct issue—76 percent of faculty nationwide are now contingent—can easily obscure the fact that tenure-line faculty income has been stagnating.

In a previous post, I compared my own salary, as well as my take-home pay, to the cost of living in Boise.  You can use the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator to determine the cost of living in your city or town.

This year, our dean announced the college would make one-time salary adjustments, so that full profs would earn 84.5 percent of the median CUPA salaries for their rank—so, they’re still 15.5% below median, but, hey, it’s an improvement.  Still, faculty in our History department make far less than those in, say, the business school.

If you’re not sure what your colleagues make, you can ask them if you’re comfortable doing so (yes, I know most people aren’t, and in higher ed we need to get over this etiquette roadblock for the sake of solidarity), or, if you’re at a public institution, chances are the salaries are already available online; simply search for the name of your state plus “state employee salaries.” Sometimes this information is made available by the state itself; other times, newspapers have made it available. Idaho’s state salary database, for example, is hosted by the Idaho Statesman, and California’s can be found at the Sacramento Bee.  You can, of course, look up the average salaries for your discipline at the CUPA site.

To find out the average faculty salaries from your institution, use the Chronicle’s faculty salary tool.  Here’s where Boise State stands:


The Chronicle tool also allows you to compare data across institutions.  It autofills the comparison fields with “several similar institutions.”


I suggest you take a look at that data, but then also look at your college’s peer institutions. Some colleges post this information on their own websites—here’s Boise State’s list—but if that’s not the case for your institution, you can find the colleges and universities your institution considers its peer using this slick peer institution tool at the Chronicle.  (It also lets you see which schools believe your institution to be their peer; in Boise State’s case, that list includes a variety of public universities around the U.S., as well as one DeVry and three University of Phoenix campuses.)



And here are Boise State’s “aspirational” peers:


The tl;dr version of those tables: Boise State pays its faculty less—in some cases significantly less—than its peer institutions, regardless of whether they’re current or aspirational peers.  Yesterday the governor’s state-of-the-state address for 2014 made clear there won’t be any pay raises for state employees this year, unless someone is being promoted. In my time at Boise State—this is my fourth year—faculty have received one raise of 2 percent.  If this pattern persists, I know many of us will be unable to afford to keep our jobs, as cost of living has already outpaced our salaries. Perhaps you have observed this to be the case at your institution as well.

As the Chronicle explains below the tables, these figures represent only “full-time staff whose primary role is instruction, regardless of whether they have formal ‘faculty status.’ That includes tenured, tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. Left out are any part-time instructional staff, which can include adjunct faculty.”

To see, then, how many teaching faculty are made invisible by this survey, return to the IPEDS Data Center, find your institution, and then click on “Financial and Human Resources.” Finally, click on the + next to the items “Number of staff by primary function” and “number of full-time instruction/research/public service staff.”  Here’s Boise State’s information:

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Even more information from IPEDS

Note that you can also look at data from previous years by searching for your institution, then clicking on “Reported Data”:

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There’s a lot of relatively fine-grained information in that archived data about various aspects of the university.  I find the student financial aid info particularly interesting.  You can also download any of this reported data as a PDF. For example, here is the PDF I downloaded about 2011-12 financial aid at Boise State. It’s not the easiest thing to decipher, especially because the formatting of the reported data has changed over the years, but if you’re an inquisitive or investigative type, you’ll probably find it’s worth poring over.

Administration and athletics

It’s common for columnists and other armchair accountants outside of higher ed to blame faculty salaries for the quickly rising costs of a college education. Chances are very good that the data you’ve found about your college or university shows faculty salaries aren’t driving increasing costs.

If we aren’t investing a ton of money into student and faculty retention, then where are we spending it?  All over, really. But two places where costs have been rising in the past decade or two are athletics and administration.  In fact, according to a brochure released this week, Boise State employs 260 more full-time “professional staff” than it does full-time faculty.  (That speaks volumes about faculty, or even shared, governance, doesn’t it?) The “professional staff” category, which typically includes salaried, non-academic staff exempt from overtime laws, does not include classified staff; there are an additional 529 full-time classified employees at Boise State.

The university pays its vice presidents between $206,000 and $220,000 per year, and its president roughly $400,000. For comparison, that’s in line with recent salaries for chancellors at the University of California—campuses I’m guessing most faculty would consider far more successful as research and teaching institutions. Some people might point out that university presidents make far less than CEOs of comparably-sized private-sector companies, so the salary is reasonable. I might point out that faculty—yea, even in the arts and humanities—also make less than they would as employees in the private sector.

But what of athletics? What kind of money is your institution spending there? Here you might have to do some digging in your local newspaper’s online archives.

The football coach who left Boise State at the end of this season made $1,898,000 per year and licensed his likeness to the university for a quarter million dollars per year.

Some of you will say I’m comparing apples to oranges with the next comparison, but it’s important to look at these two numbers together, as once again, the difference in the numbers throws institutional priorities into high relief.

The football coach made more than $2 million per year, plus myriad benefits. Discussion leaders for courses in the university’s new general ed/core Foundations program are paid only $1,000 per semester.

But let’s look beyond employees. What does the university say it spends on student athletes?

In 2010, Boise State spent $13,018 in operating expenses per football player.  This is lower than the NCAA Division I average, but it’s also just slightly less than half of my take-home salary each year. It’s also $3,500 higher than the university spends educating an undergraduate for a year. The university spends 27 percent more on outfitting and training its football players than it does supporting students’ education.

You can find a thumbnail of major college athletic teams’ financial information at USA Today.  Here’s what the site shares about Boise State; I encourage you to see if your institution is on this list and take a hard look at its figures as well.




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Be sure to check out the report authors’ methodology and category definitions.  Pay particular attention to the definition of “subsidy”—”the sum of students fees, direct and indirect institutional support and state money”—as in the main list of universities, you can see that Boise State athletics are subsidized by this kind of support—again, these are state appropriations and student fees—at 24.96 percent.

According to the Idaho Statesman, the Boise State athletics budget for this past year was $33.4 million, which represents a $1 million shortfall from its projected revenues.  According to NCAA figures, the university actually spent $43,172,225 on athletics, with $43,440,905  in revenue–nearly $11 million of which was subsidized by the state or student fees.  Despite what is suggested by the “total revenue” vs. “total expenses” numbers in the charts above, athletics are a long, long way from paying for themselves because they are subsidized.

 . . .which is funny, because we’re always hearing about how important it is for academic programs to be self-supporting.

(And even if they once were on a trajectory to increase revenue, football ticket sales are declining.)


One of the liabilities of having researchers and teachers as employees is that we undertake research, investigating the subjects and following the leads that most interest us, and then share our findings with students and the public. That’s what I’ve done in this post. And yes, I’m cherry-picking from the available data in choosing what to share here, but it’s the data that concerns what matters most to me: the undergraduate educational experience and its outcomes.

I’m sure some university officials are going to contest the data I have shared, suggesting I’ve crunched it wrong or used out-of-date information. Perhaps I have. Yet by highlighting this reported data, asking some questions, and encouraging my readers to mine the data themselves, I’m trying to start a broader and deeper conversation among faculty, students, staff, and other stakeholders.

State governments and universities talk a good deal about transparency, and this post is offered in that spirit.

That said, I try to include in all my teaching and public outreach a critical thinking activity, and this post will not be an exception.

Let’s think critically for a moment

To be honest, it’s very difficult for me to look at these figures and not editorialize extensively about campus and state priorities, and I worry more than a little bit that even highlighting the straight numbers for the public will make me unpopular on campus and elsewhere.  I’m going to let you, therefore, construct various narratives around the data I’ve presented.

I can’t, however, finish this post without asking a few pointed, leading questions.

1. Why is a purportedly academic, intellectual institution investing so much money in a sport that does this to its players’ brains? Beyond brand awareness for admissions—the benefit faculty and administrators alike cite to me as the major benefit of the football program—what does the university get from placing students in danger of lifelong brain injury? And, as a faculty member, to what extent am I complicit in the destruction of these students’ futures?


Guess which brain belonged to a football player, aged only 42?

2. What if we invested into student and faculty retention the $11 million of state appropriations and student fees currently going to athletic subsidies, plus some of the inflated salaries of the ever-proliferating associate vice presidents?  Our football players’ graduation rate over six years—67 or 91 percent, depending on how you calculate it (see info below from the NCAA graduation rate tool)—is far better than the overall university’s, so why not offer non-athletes the same kinds of academic support athletes receive?

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3. Why is there only one tenure-line faculty member on the program prioritization committee that will be making important decisions about how the university invests its resources?

We often hear that universities should be run “like businesses,” and indeed, faculty have noted the business-speak (strategic dynamism!) and capitalist imperatives (disguised as an embrace of entrepreneurial thinking and institutional efficiency, e.g., MOOCs) that have seeped into the rhetoric and decision-making at the university in recent decades. I’d argue that universities have been trying for some time to become more like businesses—behavior driven not just by trends, but by declining state revenues—and they’re failing pretty miserably. Perhaps they’re not running the right cost-benefit scenarios or SWOT analyses, so I encourage you to undertake your own for those institutions that matter to you.

Still, let’s play along for a minute, and consider students as the university’s “customers” or its “products”:

4. How might we shift our investment of limited resources so that we can increase both retention and graduation rates for our student “customers”? Should we be investing in instruction, academic support, student life, academic technology, or upper administration to produce better “products” for our communities and economy?

5. How will these metrics be translated into analytics for the purposes of program prioritization, at Boise State or elsewhere? That process has not been as transparent as it might be here. (In case this is all mumbo-jumbo to you, as it was to me, here are metrics vs. analytics, explained.)

These questions have no easy answers, and probably not comfortable or comforting ones, either. The data itself is complicated, and determining cause-and-effect even more so.

Please use this information

My challenge to you: Using the resources to which I’ve linked here, as well as others available to you locally, go through the exercise of finding the data that matters to you, share it publicly, and, if you’re comfortable with it, offer your interpretation of it—or ask questions about how we might use it, as I’ve done.  If you’re a faculty member, this kind of research, driven by you or by students, also might form the base of an activity or assignment  in some undergraduate or graduate courses.

If readers are interested, I’d be happy to create and share a downloadable list of data sources and other resources for this kind of research.  Let me know if you’d find that useful.