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.

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.


In my last post, I quoted Frederick Buechner’s thoughts on calling—that it’s “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And then I asked, “At what point do we acknowledge that the world’s deep hunger has met our deep gladness in a way that is unsustainable, that exhausts us?”

As I said, I’ve been thinking about this exhaustion in the context of teaching, advising, and mentoring. I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that I have a very low teaching load—a 2/1 (meaning I teach two courses in the fall, one in the spring), and that’s technically an overload because of various pilot programs in which I’ve participated, and because I coordinate the department’s internship program. There have been many times when I haven’t taken course releases, or I could technically have been on a 0/-1. I didn’t think it would look good to have such a low teaching load pre-tenure, so I taught extra courses.

I also had been cautioned by my mentoring committee that I needed to cut back on my service responsibilities. I was, we all acknowledged, headed toward burnout with too much service and overload teaching–and not enough time for research and writing. My calendar was full. Plus, my take-home pay hasn’t been enough to make ends meet. It’s been very stressful. Because I’m an exceptionally high-functioning depressive with a perhaps overdeveloped sense of commitment to others, it’s likely very few of my colleagues or friends noticed I spent much of 2014 in a depressive fog.

Fang knows otherwise.

As longtime readers know, I’ve gone through several rounds of interviews for excellent opportunities in California—program coordinator and director jobs—but none of them worked out. So when a similar position opened up here at Boise State back in September, I applied for it.

Today I signed the offer letter.

On February 2, I’ll be the director of the university’s Instructional Design and Educational Assessment (IDEA) Shop and associate director of its Center for Teaching and Learning. According to the job ad, my primary responsibilities include:

  • Providing strategic direction and management for the IDEA Shop, inclusive of both instructional design support and the campus online testing center.
  • Coordinating and supporting the professional development of instructors to increase digital fluency and further the pedagogically valuable uses of educational technology
  • Advocating for and contributing to a campus vision for excellence in teaching and learning (with a special focus on the integration of technological tools and strategies), moving institutional educational technology projects and initiatives forward.
  • Building and sustaining relationships with faculty, department chairs, and deans to facilitate curricular innovation and advocate for research-based practices.
  • Partnering with other campus units (for example, Office of Information Technology and e-Campus Center) to explore and support new technologies for educational applications and to provide faculty development for a variety of technology-enabled pedagogies.

I’ll manage a terrific team of instructional designers who help faculty teach more thoughtfully, often with technology. I’m looking forward to being part of a regular team again.

The job pays more than an assistant professorship does, and it’s a 12-month position, so I’ll finally be bringing in a salary on which we can live. And if my tenure application goes through—it’s with the provost now, having passed departmental and college-level reviews—I get to keep tenure and can exercise retreat rights into the History department or into a comparable professional position, depending on circumstances at the time.

I’m excited to get started.

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.

RBOC, guppies and tech support scams edition


  • Here, I’ll admit it: The guppies were a bad idea.  But because the boy likes them, I will continue to distribute them for free through Craigslist, perpetuating the 2012-13 Boise Guppy Pyramid Scheme.  Once the two big mama guppies die, we’re going all-male, guppy stewardship wisdom be damned.  (None of our males fight with each other, even when we remove the females from the tank.)
  • Despite my distance from them, I remain my parents’ go-to tech support. Why they didn’t call me, then, when their printer malfunctioned, I don’t know, but they ended up looking for a solution online, calling some fly-by-night operation that claimed to work for Epson, and allowing this company’s tech “support” representative to install remote software.  Once the guy had control of their computer, he tried to extort them out of $299.  My parents hung up, and he called back, offering to remove the remote software for $99. My parents unplugged their computer immediately, hung up again, and tried to log back in, but their password had been changed.  So. . . they reinstalled some of the system software (I’m surprised they got this far!), changed their passwords again. . .and that’s when I happened to call.  In case anyone else finds themselves or loved ones in such straits, as a public service announcement, I’d like to point you to these directions on how to remove LogMeInRescue from a Mac.  (And no, I’m not available to talk your parents through the removal process.  You’re on your own there!)
  • The kicker to the above?  Although the original error messages from their printer indicated the problem was with the print cartridges, it ends up they really were just using paper their printer didn’t like.  Anyone need a ream of crappy Staples copy stock?
  • I’m expecting the next month to be pretty much awesome, though I’m not happy that the day I return from an extended tech support session trip to see my parents, I need to go back to work.
  • All of a sudden, a bunch of people I know want feedback on drafts of all kinds of stuff.  It’s fun to see what other people are working on, and it’s nice to have my comments appreciated.
  • I’m so excited to meet everyone participating in the internship I begin next week.  We have a back channel established already, and these are some super smart, creative, initiative-taking people.  (Though I admit I’m feeling a bit old. I hope I don’t come across as a curmudgeon: “You kids and your technology!”)
  • My fall courses are going to kick my butt. I had 12 students in the spring, and I’ll have 90 in the fall.  I know some of you have far more than that every semester, but it’s a lot for me right now with all the other projects I have going on.  Plus, I’m completely revising one of the courses, and the other one is new to me, which means I’ll have to do a ton of reading during the semester.  In addition, there will be a lot of writing in each course, which means lots of commenting on student work.  Maybe, as just happened in a MOOC I’m following, I can just tell students to self-assess their work!
  • Suddenly my skin looks like it did at 16!  Those who knew me then know this is not a good development.  Things that make my skin break out these days: touching my face, spray sunblock, sugar, air conditioning, sweat, chlorinated pool water, thinking about guppies, moisturizing lotion, over-the-counter acne treatments, air.
  • I just learned that the auto body shop needs to order additional parts to fix our rear-ended Toyota Avalon.  The other driver’s insurance company rep tells me this means the car will likely be totaled.  Blue book value of the car: $2200.  Actual cost to replace the car with a similar one, based on local Craigslist ads: $5,000-$6,000.  Grrrrrrrrrrr.
  • Lucas read 350 pages yesterday.  This morning he couldn’t figure out how to zip up his backpack.  Finally my genes are showing up!


Guppy photo by PINKE, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Google Street View as time travel

I admit it–I’ve used Google Street View to revisit places I used to live, and it’s fun to see our cars still parked in the driveway or on the street.  The views will be updated eventually, of course, but I enjoy the feeling of being transported into the past when it’s presented by Google as if it’s the present.

Even more fun is when I happen onto a seam in the space-time fabric.  On Harrison Boulevard in Boise, for example, there’s a moment when the seasons suddenly change if you shift your view to the other side of the street:

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And at the corner of University and Capitol in Boise, taking one virtual step to the right jumps you back in time a few years, but it seems like a decade or more:

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Even better would be if Google made it possible to dive down through the different “layers” of its Street View drive-bys when they’re updated, instead of just overwriting the virtual landscape with the new images.  Google Earth already does have this capacity for some places, and third-party services like WhatWasThere and HistoryPin allow users to “pin” historical photos to specific locations on Google Maps.

What spatiotemporal quirks have you found in Street View?

“Big tent” technology

Let’s begin with a few U.S. maps published recently.

Here’s one, built at the National Day of Civic Hacking, of every public library branch (and a few bookmobiles) in the contiguous U.S.:

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And here’s a similar map of every museum in the lower 48:

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Note the dearth of such cultural institutions in large swaths of the western U.S.  Yes, some of that cultural hole can be attributed to less dense population patterns in the West, but it’s not as if there’s no one living in, working in, or visiting those areas.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that less dense, conservative states might not allocate sufficient funding to sustain cultural institutions. Indeed, even where museums do exist in the relatively sparsely populated Intermountain West and Great Basin, they are, with a few notable exceptions, not exactly distinguished institutions.

Even more significant is the giant western hole in the map of cities participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking:

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Now that I’ve spent three years in that region and have become familiar with its technological deficit—in terms of professional development but also of basic connectivity (in parts of Idaho, bears can take down the internet, and as recently as 2011, Idaho had the slowest internet speed in the nation)—I’m not surprised to see a complete lack of participation in the day of civic hacking.  Rather than advocating for public investment in educational and technological infrastructure—which might both make Idaho’s workforce more attractive to high tech companies and inspire individual Idahoans to launch start-ups and tech businesses—political “leaders” in Idaho are focusing on abolishing minimum wage laws and other government regulations that allegedly inhibit the growth of low-paying industries.

Let’s look beyond my current region, however. Imagine overlaying that civic hacking participation onto a map of the results of the last presidential election returns, especially one that represents results by county:

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It’s no wonder the Obama campaign was able to mobilize social media, big data, and related technologies so well in 2008 and 2012.  Republicans have taken notice, and cultural observers like Markos Moulitsas are pointing out that the Republican failure to take advantage of technology and data is less about “a lack of organization” than it is about “a lack of talent.”  Worse, as Moulitsas uses several examples to illustrate, when conservatives do engage with technology, they may be more likely to use it to close down access to information rather than open it up.

Big tent technology

As someone on the left side of the political spectrum, it would be easy for me to sit back, smirk, and enjoy watching conservatives’ lack of technological skill help to drive the Republican party into oblivion. Alas, this technological divide between red states and blue states has repercussions beyond who holds political office.  Of particular concern to me as a professor and a parent are career opportunities, particularly since my current state of residence appears to be putting more stock in attracting arms manufacturers and call centers than in cultivating a generation of civic-minded, technologically savvy workers.

I’ve said it here before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: being a progressive means “big tent” thinking.  It means seeking justice and fairness and uplift for all people—even those who have political views I find repugnant. And so I’m saying those of us who have any tech savvy at all who live in red states need to help conservatives (and others) get their technological house in order.

Over the past 30 years, conservatives have ridden a wave of fundamentalist Christian indignation over demographic shifts and changing social mores. Accordingly, conservative political operatives have—at least in the public eye—invested more time and energy in developing rhetorical flourishes that manipulate feeling than they have in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. I’m not the first progressive to observe that conservatives are not interested in reliable evidence or carefully interpreting data. Both conservatives and liberals participate in social and mainstream media echo chambers that amplify and reinforce our beliefs, but in my experience, liberals are more likely to read widely, learning from a broad spectrum of voices in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts.  That learning, I’ve observed, often includes a depth and breadth of knowledge about technology.

People from all over the political spectrum ought to be interested in hearing all voices, in having more conversations, in increasing the quality and quantity of civic discourse.  In the 21st century, that discourse involves a good deal of digital, networked technology.  We connect and communicate with it, and we wade into its ever-flowing streams of data, news, and information.  Again, in my experience (and as suggested by the maps above), those who identify with the political left are more likely to swim boldly into and try to make sense of—or even shape—these currents.

(It was at this point in my discussing this idea with her that a good friend pointed out I’m setting up a positivist narrative, one in which technological enlightenment leads to intellectual and political enlightenment of a group of people who can cling stubbornly to outdated ideals and dangerous cultural and economic practices. I don’t believe in technology as redemptive in and of itself, but I think in the case of Idaho and other conservative regions, a good dose of training in technological tools and languages–in the digital humanities–couldn’t hurt.)

In local practice

Let’s look at an example of this thinking in action.  Already my minor infusion of digital humanities practice into my classroom has revolutionized many students’ relationships with technology.  They write in their end-of-course reflections about how they had seen themselves as technophobic or technologically inept, and now they’re curious about digital tools and willing to experiment.  Of course, learning to use most apps doesn’t involve manipulating and visualizing data or writing code that can change the functionality of an app or website.  But my students’ growing confidence in their technical savvy has led them to  imagine developing apps–and in one assignment I had them write grant proposals to do so.  For some students, this app development plan took the form of investigating software development firms, but other students researched the ways they might build apps themselves.

And yes, at least half of my students from this past year consider themselves to be conservative, many of them profoundly.

How can we grow this kind of energy and curiosity, and teach these kind of tech skills more broadly?  Digital storytelling is a natural fit.  But I think we need to take the next step, too, and engage people who inhabit the vast unhacked spaces on the map in civic hacking, in the languages—rhetorical and computational—of the digital era.

If you have ideas on how to make this happen, especially face-to-face, and how to fund it, leave them in the comments.

(This post was inspired by a session I attended at AdaCamp San Francisco on resources for women new to coding.)

Quick updates

I’m sick again, and on antibiotics again, and once again they don’t seem to be making a dent. (I had so much to accomplish between submitting grades and Lucas getting out of school for the summer. sigh.)

But I do have a couple things to share:

My Blue Review post on universities innovating with technology from within was picked up by the London School of Economics.  Fun!  Ever better–Jim Groom wrote a nice follow-up to/elaboration of that piece.

I also have another post at The Blue Review: Rethinking Digital Badges.

A troubling constellation

Anyone who has read The Clutter Museum for a while knows I’m not a Luddite.  I like to play with technology, and I encourage my students to be curious about digital media, and particularly about how they might use it to build thoughtful public history projects and programs.

However, there’s a constellation of higher ed “innovations” that has me worried. A couple of these innovations, taken alone, might not be cause for concern, but because they’re emerging at the same moment, they’re troubling.

First, there’s the university’s adoption of minimum viable product development strategies, and all the tech-marketing rhetoric and thinking such strategies seem to require.

Second, there are MOOCs, the massively open online courses being peddled by universities and start-ups alike. (If you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Jonathan Rees consistently writes the hardest-hitting posts about both the academic labor implications of MOOCs and their (utter lack of) impact on student learning.)

Third, there are badges, alternative forms of assessment that circumvent traditional academic accreditation.

Fourth, we have the New University of California, where there are no classes—only high-stakes exams.

Fifth, we have companies that students can hire to take tests, write assignments, or even complete entire classes on their behalf.  Students don’t have to take the courses for which they’re “earning” credit.

Finally, we have automated essay-grading software from EdX.  Faculty no longer need to grade the “work” of the “students” “enrolled” in their “classes.”

Anyone want to call the tech-induced time of death on faculty governance and authentic student learning?


[Update: Jonathan Rees has already called it, and he points out faculty autonomy and student learning aren’t the only casualties.]

The University as Minimum Viable Product

I have a couple new pieces up at The Blue Review blog.  The first is on impostor syndrome in academia.  The second, meatier piece draws on my observation that universities are drawing on software development principles–and not necessarily the best ones–in creating and refining programs.  Here’s the beginning of it:

In this age of slashed higher ed budgets that demand new efficiencies, it’s not surprising that universities seek technological solutions to their challenges. However, university leaders aren’t looking to tech entrepreneurs solely for course management systems or MOOC platforms; they’re also adopting the rhetoric and thinking of Silicon Valley.

In keeping with this tech fetishism, universities are developing new offerings in ways that mirror software launches more than they do traditional higher ed marketing. One popular approach to software development calls on programmers to create a “minimum viable product,” or MVP, which Eric Ries defines as:

That product which has just those features (and no more) that allows you to ship a product that resonates with early adopters, some of whom will pay you money or give you feedback.

What, then, constitutes a university’s minimum viable product?

It depends, I suppose, on whom the university sees as its customer.

I’d love to see a discussion about this in the comments of that post (and elsewhere, of course). Read more at The Blue Review blog.