Monday, March 27, 2006


I will get back to the Faculty development pieces, but I wanted to comment on all the recent discussion on No Child Left Behind.

Yesterday the Times ran this article about how schools that are performing poorly on the standardized tests are narrowing the curriculum. While there is some concern about this potentially damaging these kids because of a less rounded education, how can one be worried about not learning history if the kids can't read? So I was less bothered by that. I did wonder with all the emphasis on reading in the schools, whether the kids were doing any reading outside school. When I was in elementary school, in the mid 1960s, we did two things for reading. One was SRA which was color coded modules that forced certain type of reading for comprehension and combined with a testing/assessment mechanism. The student proceeded through the colors at their own pace, and progressed to the next level when proficiency was attained. I'm guessing that SRA is something like the current focus with testing for reading.

The other things we did was called Individualized reading. We read outside of class and kept a list in a notebook of what we read and then perhaps a sentence on the book. During the reading time in class the teacher would have one on one consults with the students about their individualized reading. I'm not seeing anything like that discussed in the papers. Everything is about the testing. But are the kids reading outside of class?

I did a quick Google search and found a piece from NPR on the issue.
The commentary by David Dunn, who is a spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed my fears. Lots of emphasis on looking at scores, no discussion about whether the kids are reading on their own.

From that I found this other piece about a new Delaware Middle School run by the clergy that is having success with high risk students
But the regime they have in place is draconian. In essence, school becomes the total life for these kids, because their home lives are so debilitating. With such intensity of commitment the kids do learn --- and they read, real books according to the piece.

So the question seems to be whether absent a middle class home life that gives the kid the support to develop the reading habit on their own, if this type of commitment at the Delaware school become a necessary condition for real learning. It seems to me the answer is it likely is.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source 2: Building the Primer and Keeping Book

One of the unanticipated benefits of blogging for me is the looking to others for their views and perspective to see if it coincides with mine and also to see if I’ve thought about what they have to say. This may seem like a dumb remark – of course blogging is about community and certainly learning from one’s peers is what happens in a community. This is true enough. But, truthfully, over the years I’ve developed a certain arrogance or insularity of process in how I learn – there has to be some experience on which to reflect and then there has to be a substantial time and effort in reflection. At this point in my life what appears to me as instinctive behavior is to search inward for answers or ways to frame an issue. I’m trusting of that inward looking process and skeptical of outside generated alternatives. This is the way I was trained to think, probably starting as early as eighth grade on the math team, and certainly reinforced by more math and formal economics training thereafter as well as a whole lot more informal educaiton. Finding answers by looking inward or through my own self-explorations seems natural. Learning from outsiders whom I know only via their online persona seems anathema.

I mention this because I want to argue that blogging in itself is insufficient in some sense and that blogging is other than open source development, though it is certainly open and done in communities. Indeed, I’ve come to think about faculty development in the way the post title suggests in large part because my blog, which has gotten significant attention from learning technologists and others with a professional interest in learning technology (librarians, software developers, etc.) has nevertheless been a total failure as a mechanism for faculty development in the sense that it has not enabled conversations with individual instructors who want to engage in the subject of how they are using the technology in their own teaching. I had hopes that the blog would do otherwise and I maintain the belief that many instructors want to have such conversations, but my blog has not proven to be such a gateway. My best guess as to why is quite simple – these instructors have never read my blog or, if they’ve looked at a post or two, they did not have that resonate with their own situation and thus didn’t see the point of making the connection. I believe that in being skeptical of the opinion of unknown outsiders, I typify the faculty view, and so I have no trouble understanding this. The mystery is why I thought when I first started the blog that it would be otherwise – live and learn.

Thus, by my title, Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source, I definitely do not mean a global based effort of interested faculty who come together via online discussion. That can’t work here and certainly I’m interested in an approach that can be implemented on my own campus. I’m also skeptical that it can work elsewhere. Rather, I mean a centrally coordinated effort where the faculty development happens primarily in situ, while the instructor is teaching and where via indirect but explicit means one instructor addresses the teaching problems posed by another instructor via an approach that they implement in their own course. This contrasts both with the complete decentralization practiced by the edu blog community, where there is no central coordination at all, and with self-directed approaches to understand learning and teaching method as characterized by work on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). With SOTL, the researcher typically both poses the research question and then does a study based on that question. There is then no obvious role to be played by the support provider in that study. SOTL certainly has a national following but it may very well place too high a bar on instructors in terms of doing inquiry about their own teaching and hence may only engage a sliver of the faculty in this type of research.

Traditionally, faculty development activities happen at interludes where the instructor is taken outside the teaching environment. This may happen in a two-hour workshop or a week long seminar aimed at giving the faculty member the appropriate training and hands on experience with new teaching tools and approaches. It is then the faculty member’s job, thereafter, to incorporate what was learned in the workshop into the actual teaching. While this is the common practice at an intellectual level it is rather odd as an approach, especially for those who believe in learning by doing, because it means the true learning will happen when the faculty member is off on her own. At best, then, this type of seminar or workshop can be viewed as preparation for the real learning that will happen during the process of implementation, perhaps providing a framework for that or getting the faculty member into the right mindset.

It is during the implementation phase where instructors need to discuss what they are trying, bounce ideas off of somebody else, and get mentored through the inevitable pitfalls and failures until something that seemingly fits together is produced. So, some have proposed a formal mentoring program around instruction where senior faculty members from other departments mentor junior faculty about their teaching. The approach is strong on giving the junior faculty member an informed ear from an experienced colleague. But it is weak on both the incentives of the senior member in participating fully in the partnership, particularly at R1 institutions such as mine where there is the constant question of how valued is teaching really and shouldn’t the junior member merely learn to satisfice in that domain so as to spend the bulk of her time in building her research portfolio, and in transferring the lessons from that mentoring to others. A premium is placed on providing a little hermetic environment so as to encourage the partners to open up and discuss candidly what is going on in the teaching, but of course that closedness also provides a the senior member with a convenient cloak under which to shirk from the mentoring responsibilities and to encourage, in effect, very little to transpire.

Consider, as an alternative, a Linus Torvalds styled leader, whose full time job it is to promote faculty development and to make overt the lessons learned from the implementation process, when faculty who are new to a teaching approach put into practice what has been preached to them in those workshops and seminars. Suppose the leader does this by adopting an ethnographic approach and making regular entries, perhaps daily, in a publicly available Web space about what is going on in the implementation, both from the instructor’s end and from the students’ reaction to it. For this to happen the leader would have to engaged with the parties in conversation or via direct observation of what they are doing so as to have interesting and relevant things to record. But for the participants to be willing to participate in this conversation the dialog must be two-way. They leader must provide some mentoring on the implementation and must contribute to a sense that if things are broken then they will fixed and that there is process for resolving such issues. It is in this sense that faculty development process imitates open source development.

But in some other ways it will differ, of necessity. Open source development, of course, is driven to produce software code. That is its raison d’etre and that in itself provides a center of gravity for the participation by hackers. In contrast, I don’t believe faculty will actively participate in such a program unless there is some prior commissioning process. That, in turn, would most likely happen if some academic unit, a department or college, wanted to take a new direction, for example in embrace of blended learning for residential students, or to start a new online degree program for students at a distance, or to encourage some cross curriculum goals such as information literacy promoted via a new coordinated approach to instruction. This type of strategic reform would provide impetus for the faculty to participate and in turn the entire faculty development effort would be viewed in common as a means for achieving the goals of that reform. At least on my campus, I would think such an external motivator is a requirement for this type of faculty development process to work.

Nonetheless, I believe it helpful to consider that the faculty development activity produces a product, just as open source software development produces a product, and in the title of this post I called that the primer, short for Primer of Transferable Teaching Practice. While individual faculty members may be motivated to explore implementing new approaches in their own teaching for the benefit of the classes they teach, the leader will be motivated differently, to take novel and interesting approaches and commend those to others who might try them, so that not all wheels have to be recreated from scratch and so to get others who might be less willing to try the completely novel to nonetheless modify their approach where improvement seems likely.

So the leader will have a broader view of what is at stake and therefore will be in a position not just to mentor an instructor about things that might work in their own teaching, but also to encourage the instructor to try things that might be of interest to other instructors, who would imitate the practice. This, I believe, changes the social dynamic in SOTL, because there the individual faculty member drives the agenda. Of course that is still possible under my proposed alternative, but to the extent that the dialog with the leader is perceived as a welcome benefit by the instructor, there is now a negotiation between the two as to what things to try in the next round of implementation and which of the instructors self-generated ideas should be modified so they might be more palatable to others who would imitate.

The leader needs to establish credibility in this regard and the primer is a mechanism for that. So periodically the leader will attempt to distill from the daily ethnographic writing common themes, observations, and apparent lessons. Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which I mentioned in the previous post, provides a nice example of the sort of distillation I'm suggesting, which will itself be written up and published openly. These essays will be chapters and the essence of the primer. But where for his purpose Raymond focused on himself as the leader in the Cathedral and Bazaar, the primer must be written in such a way that there is prominent recognition of the efforts and accomplishments of the implementing instructors.

The leader has yet another job. There will be many instructors who prefer to try approaches tested previously by others rather than to implement something novel on their own. Thogh these instructors will be reluctant to experiment on their own they nonetheless will have questions and concerns about their teaching and based on their prior experience they will have a host of issues when it comes to instruction. These too must be recorded. And they must become part of the wisdom and the culture of the faculty development so that the approach taken is seen as addressing these. Where possible, they should be written about in the regular postings and where because of delicacy and respect for the faculty members sense of discomfort in making overt apparent weaknesses in the teaching, the leader must nonetheless keep a book of these issues so that they come up in discussion with the experimenting instructors in the group.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source

In December 2004 I attended the Sakai conference in New Orleans. There was a lot of energy at it and enthusiasm for the possible. This was still fairly early in the Sakai development and I remember thinking after sitting through a developer session that these guys were talking at a too high level (this was a discussion about the Sakai Content Management System) and they needed to make some concrete decisions just so they had something real to hang things on. I came to the conference partly as a good citizen because my campus had just joined SPP and I wanted to show the flag, along with Ken Spelke, Associate Dean for Information Technology in our Graduate School of Library and Information Science, who is the PI from our campus, and because I was and continue to be a bit of a Doubting Thomas vis-à-vis Sakai. So I wanted to find out for myself what was going on – to the extent I could understand that – while I know some developers and consider them to be friends, spending a couple of days listening to them talk about their work is not my definition of fun, especially since I’m not really able to follow a conversation “in geek.” Apparently I was not alone in that view and the organizers understood they would have some illiterates at the conference. So they had an Executive Session meant for the paper pushers in the crowd, led by Joseph Hardin of Michigan and Brad Wheeler of Indiana, two of the primary leaders of the Sakai Project. That session was more intelligible for me.

The single biggest take away for me from that conference was a reference to a book that Hardin and others raved about called The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber. Sakai was riding high on the popularity and the mystery of open source software development. Weber’s book unlocks that mystery. It is a serious read and well worthwhile. I thought about assigning it as one of the readings for my Honors Econ 101 class this semester. Topic-wise it is perfect, because it provides a thorough analysis of an alternative to a market mechanism that seemingly overcomes the Free Rider Problem in production of a Public Good. But I decided it was too hard and perhaps impenetrable by my students, bright as they are, maybe next time.

None of this would have occurred to me had it not been for the fact that a week or so ago I got a phone call from a reporter for our Faculty-Staff news weekly, Inside Illinois. She was writing a story about the new Web technologies and how they were being utilized around campus. She had found my blog and asked me a few questions about it, notably when I got started with it and why. Normally when I get interviewed by a reporter from the student newspaper, the Daily Illini, I have some clue beforehand because my secretary alerts me to the fact that they called and what they are interested in. So I can do a modest amount of preparation mentally, just to frame the issues for myself. This time there was no preparation and I felt that my responses, though truthful, were a bit inadequate and that I could have given something other than my stock response had I been more reflective. Perhaps the Sakai conference and reading Weber’s book created a spirit in me for being more open and the blogging was my attempt at satisfying that spirit. I don’t know. I believe I had a complex set of motives and this could very well have been a part.

This is all connected to something else that has been fermenting in me for the last month or two. A very long time ago, when I was leading the SCALE project, I had an interview with Chip Bruce who was then a faculty member in our College of Education; I believe this was at his request. (Chip has since moved to the College of Library and Information Science.) He had just come back from China and in the haze of my memory fragments of the time, we were meeting about online learning as it related to that trip. Somewhere during the discussion we started to talk about evaluation of online learning and Chip said something that has stuck with me since. (I should note here that I had an intimate acquaintance with the SCALE evaluation but I got involved a little late on that and so mostly was concerned with the faculty interviews and the presentation of the results, but never really had a chance to engage in the framing of how the evaluation was done until we started the SCALE Efficiency Projects.) Chip said that we’re too concerned with summative evaluation, thumbs up or thumbs down, and asking whether the technology is beneficial for learning. He said that instead we should be asking what might seem to be simpler questions – what is the behavior as a consequence of the technology implementation? What do people do, both students and instructors? Don’t ask whether what they do is good or bad, just record what they do, if you can observe it, or if you can’t but can learn from the participants through their reflections of what they do, then record that.

I’ve treated Chip’s advice as truth all these years but not really had a chance to incorporate much of it into my own job. Then recently, doing my regular patrol of Edu blog posts, I ran across Glenda Morgan’s post on Ethnography of Academic Technology, and it triggered a connection in me. Because I was already thinking along these lines I was delighted to see that particular post. It was encouragement that the time is ripe to consider the type of approach I want sketch out in my next few posts – that we do ethnography not as outsiders but as participants in faculty development, which in turn is schemed along the lines of an open source software project. In the remainder of this post, I want to mention a few other sources of connection that are important in tying the ideas together.

At the time of reading Weber’s book, I became aware of The Cathedral and The Bazaar, by Eric Raymond. As I knew it is an ethnographic treatment of open source, my first instinct after reading Glenda’s post was to read this, though by now it is perhaps eight or nine years old, with the latest copyright dating to 2000. Though there is technical gobbledygook in it, there is much that is really worth reading and it is a fairly short Web essay, so unlike Weber’s book, it is accessible to everyone. I am going to rely on it in much of what I have to say. It seems to me it has a lot of excellent points and a good part of what I’d like to know is whether those ideas can translate to other environments that are in some ways similar in that they too are about solving novel problems but are dissimilar in that they are not about software development. Raymond seems to be a smart guy and he makes a very good argument and so much of what he says seems like it would transfer.

But on one key issue he seems totally blind and I’m not getting why, so I want to make that explicit here in case I’m missing something. The Bazaar is Raymond’s metaphor for open source and the essay is about why it is a superior way to develop complex software. (Linux is the quintessential example. Raymond’s essay proves that the methodology behind Linux is replicable because he employs essentially the same approach in leading his own software development for something called Fetchmail. Indeed, his ethnography is based on his own experiences with the Fetchmail development.) The Cathedral, on the other hand, represents proprietary software development as done inside a large corporation such as Sun, IBM, and Microsoft. (Note that these companies have to some extent embraced the open source approach and invested in it.) One of Raymond’s key points is that by assembling hackers who choose to work on some particular code at their own volition, and have them interact with a community of other hackers via bug detection and code fixes, as mediated by a central manager of the sources code (Linus Torvalds in the case of Linux, Raymond himself in the case of Fetchmail), where there are rapid releases of new versions of the code so the hackers have a dynamic environment in which to play and apply their skills, makes for the right type of environment motivation-wise and can nonetheless scale in a decentralized way so also makes for the right type of environment coordination-wise. This seems correct and is the genius of open source.

But hackers need to make some money to live on. Most hackers do their open source coding on the side. They have another job. Some companies, such as IBM, hire programmers to devote toward open source development and obviously that is an important part of sustaining software such as Linux. But there is still much of the coding being done by hackers who have other work. In this sense, the other work subsidizes the hacking, because those folks have to eat and have a roof over their head, and computers to work on, etc. For Raymond’s argument to carry through, the day job of the hacker has to be orthogonal to the hacking work. It pays the rent but is otherwise unrelated to the open source coding. Because if it were related, then the employer at the day job would likely be building a Cathedral and then the awkward conclusion that Raymond would have to make is that the Bazaar is built with the Cathedral (or many Cathedrals) as the base. For whatever reason, Raymond seems to ignore this point. When I translate the argument to faculty development and want to consider faculty members in an analogous role to hackers, I will be very cognizant of their day jobs as researchers and teachers.

Here is one other distinct reference worth mentioning. In David Brooks’ most recent column in the New York Times, All Politics is Thymotic, (you must subscribe to Times Select for the link to work) he identifies the core source of motivation for political behavior and it happens to be the identical source of motivation for Raymond’s hackers. We crave recognition. Finding a mechanism to allow us to express this craving and to thereby earn recognition is perhaps a way of getting human behavior to act in service of the public good. Both Raymond and Brooks make this point. Brooks adds, however, that the thirst for recognition can very well act in selfish manner against the public good, and can be the source for all sorts of hubris, as evidenced by the Bush administration. I think we in the blogosphere understand this lesson well. So in making our translation of open source to faculty development, and in trying to tie Thymotic motivation into faculty exploration of teaching approaches, we should be aware of the risks in that. It might backfire.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

One day before the Ides of March

Q: What is 11.00101?
A: It is the binary expansion of Pi to 5 places.

Which is my way of introducing that today is Pi Day (3.14). And with that it is a way to note that there are certainly many ways to view an idea (in this case there are many ways to represent the number Pi) but often particular representations (in this case the decimal expansion of Pi) take root in the collective consciousness as a way to identify an idea and perhaps as the way to view it.

With that, I want to take a fresh look at the 3 R’s and in particular at their interplay. There is a common notion that these are learned separately or if there is a tie between them, then it is between Reading and Writing. Surely those are related, but I want to focus on how knowing the third R (Arithmetic) can benefit the execution of the second R (Writing). And, of course, I don’t really mean Arithmetic; I mean Math, more broadly considered. I’ve long held that knowing math well can help make one a good writer and indeed that it is a good gateway area of knowledge into becoming a good writer. At the least, that has been the case for me. So here I’d like to explain what I mean.

When I was in eleventh grade I was fortunate enough to take a class on Number Theory. We used this book, but I think a lot of what we did we just derived in class. I learned about Perfect Numbers, Factorials, Euclid’s Prime Postulate, and a bunch of other stuff that was fun, if useless. Indeed, the really great part of the class was in the lesson that ideas in themselves are something to delight in. Ideas can provide much amusement and questions about those ideas can lead to interesting paths of investigation. Sometimes the University is critiqued as having too much “theory for theory’s sake” and not enough relevance for what is going on in the real world. And I’m sympathetic with that critique. But on the other side of the coin, ideas are important for themselves, not simply as representations of reality. Learning Math is a great way to reach that understanding. And to me, it was the fundamental way to get that lesson. Everything else had an air of contingency to it, of being situated in the specifics. Only math had that purity of idea where that preceded the application.

Studying math is also an excellent way to learn about making good argument. A significant part of that comes from learning how to do proofs. What needs to shown? What steps along the way are sufficient for that? This is not a mechanical thing and I believe some people might get turned off from math too early because they think it is mechanical (and boring). Part of learning to do proofs is learning how to make your own “Aha moments” by finding the interconnection between one part of the argument and the other. And it creates a strong sense of where to look when search for the source of an idea. This is a critical skill in maturing as a thinker.

Math also is a great way of communicating a sense of taste. Arguments can be made in an elegant way. Or they can be done sloppily. Why is elegance to be preferred? That is not an arbitrary thing. Elegance in the argument creates joy in the one who hears the argument and that in turn creates joy in the other one who creates the argument.
Learning taste is a key, if overlooked, aspect of an education, any education. And in this sense by learning it in Math, the lesson can transfer to other areas.

Now let me change directions. I didn’t stumble onto this topic. My honor students are working on their projects that are due this week. In the process of coaching them I’ve gotten a good sense of their writing. While a couple of them have a mature style, which shows up even in their initial drafts, too many of them write in a fuzzy, imprecise way that conveys a sense of being unsure about the topic. Of course they are unsure; they are beginners on the economics. But when one sentence contradicts its predecessor, or there is excessive repetition of an idea, or the sentences appear disjoint it shows they are unsure about how to present argument itself.

I’ve made the claim (following many others) that students don’t write enough and certainly to the extent that practice makes perfect, that is one explanation of what I’m seeing right there. But I also wonder whether these kids got as good a math education while in high school as I did 30 years earlier. Remember that these are kids in the Campus Honors program, meaning they are among the best and the brightest here, and the vast majority are engineering students. So they more than likely had a “rigorous” program in math. But I fear they didn’t learn math as a form of argument and so didn’t develop a taste for argument. And I believe I'm seeing that in the writing. Their first instinct is to find "what I as the teacher am looking for" rather than to make a coherent argument based on their own current understanding of the topic. And, indeed, I believe that learning math would positively dispose the students to making arguments on their own.

In critiquing their work I use an approach based on my own personal modifications of what I learned in a Writing Across the Curriculum Seminar I attended many years ago. To me argument and dialog go hand in hand and so my critique as much as possible is written as response to what they say so that I'm pushing them to make argument even if they haven't viewed that as the initial purpose of the assignment. Of course, I critique the economics too and if they make an implausible conjecture I will try to point out why that is not right and how to consider something that is more appropriate. This is hard work for me but it is the part of the course where I feel the most that I'm teaching and where it is clear to me that they are receptive to the critique because they have a stake in the paper they are writing and because they have a chance to modify the document as a consequence of what I have suggested. All of this is part of the ABC's of the WAC approach and I must say that I've found WAC to be a good basis for considering how to teach the entire course, even the piece with no writing intensive component.

What does Internet technology do in this vein? The obvious key thing is to lessen the lags between submission, response, and revision. This promotes engagement and that is clearly good. It also makes teaching feel like running a sprint - it wears you out quickly. But I wonder if having a few quick bursts like this during the semester is better for the students than having a sustained but more reserved critique of the writing throughout.

Friday, March 10, 2006

March Madness

We’re about halfway through the spring term here, one week away from spring break. In my class, which is project oriented, the first project is due next week and the kids have begun writing in earnest (at least most of them have). But for a one or two this push before the holiday might be sending them off the deep end. I wonder what to do about it.

It’s a blessing being a bright and talented kid. There’s such an upside. So many things seem possible and these kids have openings in terms of whom to talk with – peers, faculty, firms who might offer an internship, administrators at the university, and others. And there is such a diversity of possible activity in which to engage – courses, naturally, but also sports, student organizations, stage performance, greek houses, etc. I’ve got kids in my class involved in each of these.

But it’s also a curse being a bright and talented kid. One develops a reputation for being a high achiever, but one can become defensive about it especially when is unprepared for things that are difficult or feel unnatural. And it’s easy to feel ashamed of not being good in these areas so it’s natural to clam up and no let on about the difficulties rather than to be open about it and seek help. Further, the shyness causes other difficulties, especially with teammates who are working on the project, because it will seem to them that this is just shirking. After all, everyone makes mistakes. What is the big deal?

What is an instructor to do in this case, when it becomes clear there are a handful of bright students who are struggling in this way? Be firm or be gentle? Grade the student according to his performance (and punish teammates in the process because there is a team component to the grading) or accommodate the performance with additional opportunities for improvement.

The irony is, this happened the last time I taught the class as well, but I didn’t make that big a deal of it. In that offering there was a student who hardly spoke up in class and for the team projects seemed to lean pretty heavily on her teammates. But in that case one of her teammates was the most gregarious kid in the class so it was more like different personalities creating a reasonable mix. This time around, more of the class as a whole in on the quiet side. So it’s harder because it is more noticeable.

Because we have so much time together in class for ensemble discussion (and there are only 12 students) I haven’t tried to have online discussion as an alternative. Perhaps I should have. It sure would be helpful for there to be a place where students can open up that is a sufficiently friendly and low-stakes environment and that the kids don’t feel put upon there. Really, I had thought the face-to-face discussion would do that. And I think it has for most of the rest of the class. But it hasn’t for a couple of my kids, so now I’m second guessing the approach.

Somehow we need to transition from such a solemn way of looking at things to something that is lighter and more fun. Making it fun seems to be the key. But I don’t think you can have fun if you’re worried about stinking up the joint.

I hope I’m making more out of this than is really there. I fear, however, that I’m accurate with my call.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


It is interesting to me to take note of what moves me emotionally. This past weekend my wife was chaperoning our older son who was participating in Science Olympiad. She talked about how he and his friends didn’t make adequate preparation for some of the events (so what else is new) by rehearsing beforehand and figuring out a strategy for approaching the tasks. One of those was to cut off a stick of some sort to attach to balloon filled with helium. The idea was to have the stick of the right size so the balloon would stay in the air the longest, but not have it tough the ceiling of the room. These kids cut off too big a piece – the balloon never got off the ground. So far whatever aptitude he is showing for science is as a theorist not as an empiricist. Sounds like dad.

They bombed out in some other event too but took a first in genetics, which was apparently done by administering some test. They were coached by a biology student from the U of I, rather than having to prepare for the event themselves. These kids are eighth graders. It is certainly not surprising that the coaching mattered. My son was quite proud of the prize he and his friends won. I could care less about that. But my wife said she talked with this U of I biology students for some time and the student said my son was one of the brightest kids she ever met. For some reason, that mattered to me a lot. I’m getting a little teary here, writing about it now. It’s kind of strange for someone like me who spends so much time thinking about how to encourage good practice to promote deep learning to nonetheless view innate smarts this way. But it clearly matters to me, a lot. Somehow, it is a reflection and vindication on what I’ve been talking about in the blog. And in that vein I’m happy to report that my son does have the reading habit.

Sticking to the thought that we might surprise ourselves by what we react emotionally to, I have to say I was deeply saddened to learn that Stephen Downes has stopped writing his blog, at least for now. I don’t know Stephen well and can’t speak at all to what drove this choice, but certainly he has been a strong and thoughtful voice for open communication, and something of a hero figure for what he has done. I prefer my heroes to be unblemished. I get sad when I learn they are all too human.

I do know there is a certain malaise in the profession now and I’m going to take Stephen’s exit as an opportunity to reflect on that. Part of the problem is simply that those who burn the candle brightest are likely not leading full rounded lives but instead getting so absorbed in the moment and the possibilities that may exist that they are inadvertently putting themselves on an emotional roller coaster with little reserve left over for dealing with the tough but pragmatic issues that emerge from “day job” part of their lives. Periodically, I’m in that boat.

A second very big issue, is that after all the campuses have made these sizeable investments in Learning Management Systems to ask whether that was a sensible step and whether it has assisted on advancing learning on campus. This one has been doubly big and the cause of much strain, first because its not all that long ago where we felt we had a choice to make going down this path and so we feel responsible for that choice and second because it clearly is the most visible service we offer on campus. The criticism about LMS mostly come from faculty or learning technologists who have played with Web 2.0 apps and like them and want to teach with them in an open environment. These innovators have always been our champions and our friends. But now sometimes we are saying no to them. That is hard.

The third big issue is whether learning technology is really part of the rest of Academic IT, as it is on most of our campuses. At a meeting of the CIC Learning Technology group where mostly in attendance were my counterparts at these peer institutions, I asked whether any of them felt they were on a track to become a CIO. None said they were. I found this strange but not surprising. Personally, I don’t feel remotely qualified or interested in being a CIO. But before I posed this question I didn’t sense this feeling was ubiquitous. So we are outsiders and insiders at the same time, perhaps a healthy tension but also a source of strain.

Isn’t there some joy and satisfaction in the work? Certainly there is some. But there are also a variety of strains and tensions. If I can use a metaphor to the various strains and tensions that engineers worry about when they build things, these things do break on occasion, sometimes spectacularly so, but then we learn from that on how to build the things better.

So here is to Stephen Downes. I hope the hiatus is a source of such learning for him.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Hidden in Plain View

Following on with the theme of the last post, I’m going to continue to discuss ideas on which crucial points are a mystery to me.

In today’s NY Times there is a column by Paul Krugman and another column by Bob Herbert both of which mentions nukes, indeed the Herbert piece centers on them. But for whatever reason, to me they both seem to be missing the main point (and I think that is because they both have their own prior agenda to pursue). Krugman’s piece is about Bush being so clueless as to the well being of the average American that he can’t get it right even when he does get it right, as with promoting trade with India. Herbert’s piece is about nuclear proliferation, in other words using Nukes as weapons, and how the U.S.- India deal violates all sorts of treaties and sets a terrible precedent.

All this is true, but it seems to me that the deal with India is first and foremost about energy supply, not about weaponry, and in effect the deal says that for the emerging economies of the 21st century, India now and surely China to follow in the not too distant future, nukes are the answer, or at least a big part of the answer, and especially with the rising price of crude oil this seems like a no-brainer as far as describing what is happening. But the surprise to me, given the moratorium on construction of nuke plants in the U.S., and presumably the inability to provide reasonable assurance that Chernobyl or Three Mile Island won’t recur, as well as the inability to provide safe and effective ways of disposing of the spent fuel, is why nobody seems to be up in arms about this solution. We can’t create nuke plants at home, because the lobbying against is too great, but there’s nothing stopping us to give nuke plant technology to the emerging Asian giants, so there we go for it unabashed and certainly undeterred. Perhaps Bush’s plan all along was to make the American people so contemptuous of his management ability that they wouldn’t question him when he really is making policy, critically important policy, and naturally without any debate, in Congress, the press, or anywhere else.

* * * * * *

Apart from a few friendly tips offered up by Burks Oakley and Ray Schroeder when I was getting started with this blog, I’ve received no instruction from anyone else about how to write my posts. I’ve no doubt that I’m better at doing this than a year ago, I’ve found a certain rhythm and so have some sense of what I’m trying to achieve with the writing although content-wise I leave the writing itself as an exploration activity. In other words, there is no detailed plan in advance as to how the themes will be covered. That comes out in the doing. There is only a loose idea of what to touch upon. This may seem like a cookie cutter approach, but it is not, and I feel I’m still learning how to do it and do it better. One small piece of evidence on that score is that in the past month or so some of my sentences have gotten longer. I’ve been trying that out, tying together a chain of thought that is interconnected into a sentence structure that a year ago I would have made simpler, but now I’ve got the confidence to do otherwise. So there is change and learning.

The key thing from my point of view is keeping at it, finding a time to write and doing it regularly. My sense is that full time undergraduate students in the main don’t learn that because the requirements imposed on them make it difficult. Regular writing doesn’t match up with the course work in any obvious way so the classes don’t push the student into this sort of behavior. How might we get them there is a question we all should be asking, but nobody seems to be. Why not? (Sometimes short sentences work best.)

There is then the related issue of how important instructor critique is to making the writing better. On the whole, I’m guessing its mostly a constipator – students can’t get their (formative and perhaps ill conceived) ideas out because of fear of that critique and hence the instructor gets in the way even if the instructor is trying to be friendly and encouraging. Of course, there is the Ken Bain point I mentioned a few weeks ago that the students may very well be comfortable in their uneducated views and freely flowing writing may nonetheless be bad because it expresses ignorance and no interest in self-expansion by bringing in new ideas and challenging their own prior assumption. So a students demand for security and comfort cuts against their ability to learn, especially through their own writing. This means there has to be some joy in intellectual risk taking for writing on a regular basis to be a source of deep learning. Again, how we get there is a question we should be asking.

I’ve talked about needing a regular pattern of writing, but a common mistake is that the pattern is only the time spent at the keyboard. There needs to be the prior time for incubation of ideas and groping as to what to try out, with a possible mental rehearsal of the argument and how that plays. This is certainly necessary. I watch my younger kid – he’ll be 12 at the end of the month – acting out scenes from Age of Empires or a Simpsons episode – and I know he has inborn in him this need to for story telling. It’s in the essence of his make up. And he seemingly does it in his play time now, but I’m guessing this will ready him for doing it in his serious school time when he is in college. But do other kids learn this? Do they try out ideas and rehearse them on their own? Should the school be responsible for teaching this sort of thing? And can it be taught independent of some writing activity or delivery of a performance? Hmmm.

* * * * * *

Glenda Morgan, in her Accidental Pedagogy blog made an interesting observation about gender bias in edu blogging. Her guess is that we’re about 50 – 50 on gender lines among learning technology professionals. That seems a reasonable guess to me, in the absence of harder data to give us a more precise picture. But she observes that the bloggers within this group are overwhelmingly male. So why the discrepancy?

I don’t know but I can suggest some hypotheses based on the following observation – most learning technology blogs are on the periphery of work, not the center of it. The boss may be fine that we’re doing it, but hasn’t sanctioned it. So it is part work related but also partly a way for us to devoted some of our “leisure time” to work related activities. (If that seems like a strain in interpretation please not that I am an economist and I’m trying to apply standard economic methodology to consider this issue.)

If blogging is partly leisure then the way leisure (here this should be interpreted as all time that is not market compensated work, so doing the dishes is leisure if you’re not a professional dishwasher) is perceived may vary systematically across gender, with women probably viewing the time constraint as tighter than men (quite likely because of child care responsibilities). If blogging is mostly work presumably it offsets time spent on other work projects and hence there may the issue of how much time is devoted to pursuits that given individual recognition versus pursuits that give organizational recognition and that split differs along gender lines.

I wonder if publications in Educause Review or Educause Quarterly also map this way and if not why? Something for us to be thinking about.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Things I Don’t Understand

In today’s Chronicle there is a rather depressing piece about an ACT study on student preparedness for college, measured by student literacy. Only 51% of the students are ready for college by this metric. This constitutes a 12-year low in this performance standard as stated in the Executive Summary of the ACT report. (The full report is available for download at the ACT Web site I don’t doubt the findings. I do doubt the prescribed remedies and I’ll say why in a bit. But this post is about what I don’t understand and on this matter it is whether I should care. I can see the argument on both sides and I just don’t know how to reconcile the two.

First, however, let me clarify what I mean about caring since, to state it in a callous and overplaying-the-hand way, if I were a bleeding heart liberal, then of course I would care. Society is doing poorly by some of its citizenry. These kids can’t read and literacy is a prized skill. There is no doubt about it. But that’s not what I mean about caring. I care about my own children. And I care about the students I teach at Illinois and those students likely to attend Illinois in the future. Does this result matter for my own kids or the kids I teach? That’s a better way to put it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to answer the question. So, generalizing to others like me who do care about both Higher Ed and hence indirectly about K-12, I can’t tell whether this is a call to action type of item or just more of the same old same-old.

I do know how to frame the possible answers and here it is very helpful to look at a couple of columns from the New York Times Op-Ed pages the last couple of weeks, because both sides of the arguments are represented in these columns. The first is this piece by Paul Krugman, Graduates versus Oligarchs, from a few days ago. (You need to subscribe to Times Select for the link to work.) Krugman, based on a study by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon (somewhat ironically, I had Gordon as a prof for grad macroeconomics in Jan 1977, when he was again wondering about the productivity slowdown in that case because of the “stagflation” during the Carter years) argues that the economy is becoming more of an Oligarchy as wealth is getting increasingly concentrated among the very rich. He argues further that this is bad for the rest of us, since the oligarchy encourages cronyism and corruption, while the lack of income growth for the rest of us suggests market forces are becoming less important in terms of allocating the pie. Whether you buy the argument or not, it is clear to see the analog in educational case. Those lower 49% who are not reading well are going to suck resources and instructor initiative away from those higher 51%. Indeed, I’ve heard many discussions that the primary effect of No Child Left Behind is the dumbing down of the curriculum, eliminating enrichment for the higher achieving students in favor of more preparation for standardized tests that perhaps serve as reasonable meters of student learning (???) but otherwise doesn’t prepare our students for the future.

The other argument has been made recently by David Brooks, both in his slot with Mark Shields on the News Hour (I still call it Macneil-Lehrer), and in this compelling column, where he argues that political forces are quite limited in achieving social ends (he obviously is focusing on Iraq, but if the point is true there…) and that the real power to move people toward action comes from religious and cultural means. So the kids with the families that have the requisite cultural patterns will develop the reading habit, increasing their maturity as thinkers in their own way and in their own time frame, driven by their own curiosity and perhaps by the reading selections offered by others, and thereby thrive intellectually if not materially or socially. My kids, who live in a town dominated by the University and where both parents have at one time been faculty members, have that cultural advantage. So why worry about the schools and the possible pernicious influence of the No Child Left Behind or the lower 49%. But of course the town itself is infused with this culture and so the schools themselves reflect that. What about living elsewhere in the state in medium sized towns that are not dominated by a major research university? Should one worry then? I don’t know.

I do know I can’t endorse the ACT view that the schools can impose critical thinking through the reading of serious texts that are a part of the required curriculum when the reading habit is not otherwise present. (And they do seem to acknowledge that frequently it is not present at all.) I would much rather see a campaign for the earlier years of student development where TV and Video Games are limited and possibly even sports so that the pleasure of reading is encouraged for its own right and try to see whether it is possible to make a dent into how kids today spend their own leisure time and whether reading can become a part of it, especially where those cultural forces wouldn’t otherwise predict this would happen. To do what the ACT suggests in the absence of such a campaign is to make reading serious content a repeated experience in confronting ones own personal failures. How can that work?

* * * * *

Because of my own emotional difficulties when I was a teen in spite or perhaps because of some obvious success in the classroom, I’ve really worried less about my kids’ successes with literacy and more about whether they can establish their own identities and learn to live within them and not have to feel that they must do things just to please the parents, who after all are prone to get some vicarious thrills from their achievements and to (unfortunately) compete with colleagues who have similarly aged children and who likewise live somewhat vicariously through their offspring. After all, this is a college town and such are the foibles from growing up in this type of community.

Truthfully, I’ve played only a background role in their education to date – a source to consult when the math problems are harder than usual or when some unusual complexity arises elsewhere that doesn’t suggest an immediate resolution. And I’m quite content to play that role on purely academic matters. But I wonder if on an emotional level I can be of more use to my kids and help them short circuit some of the developmental problems that I experienced and that are at root a matter of nerve, not intellect.

We Arvan’s have many talents but not on the list are poise and stage presence. Everyone gets nervous, I know we are not unique in that regard, but I don’t believe everyone punishes themselves afterward for underperformance when they feel they can do better and fixates on that punishment rather than simply moving on to the next thing. In my own case, finding a way out of this so that every new social experience didn’t seem like an out of control rollercoaster required giving myself a break, getting joy out of my weaknesses as much or more than out of my strengths so I could get pleasure from things like singing off key, telling bad jokes, and more generally not having to perform up to some standard that unfortunately paralyzes the performance rather than encourages it. In my teens I bounced from being a high performer with even higher expectations and living in that universe to being a completely miserable and neurotic Nervous Nellie. I only started to find some personal balance on this front when in my twenties and I sure hope that my kids don’t have to go through such a long period before they find their own peace of mind. But can I actively affect that or do they have to learn this on their own and the best I can do is be there for them when they want to talk about it?

* * * * *

Returning to the literacy theme, but this time thinking about it at the College level and from the point of view of writing and creating, a friend at Purdue told me that at his school, which is seemingly not bound by general education requirements determined by the campus, but rather has all requirements dictated by the department or the major, the Engineering departments have become dissatisfied what the English/Writing department is producing in the required writing course; they want their students to be able to write tolerable to read engineering reports, and explorations with Blogs or Wikis, or other new approaches that are not instrumental in improving the writing of engineering reports is viewed as wasteful and pernicious. My friend said the Engineering departments are thinking about creating their own offering in writing. I joked, “How would they be able to find graduate students to teach it?” But really, this is no joking matter. Looking narrowly at Purdue, do the English/Writing faculty understand how the Engineering faculty perceive this course? And looking at this more emblematically across universities, do those who teach writing, surely armed with the belief that they have the student’s best interests at heart, concern themselves with what others on campus want to see in student writing and let themselves be influenced by that in the teaching? Or do they deliberately put blinders on in that dimension, with the justification that those others are outcome driven only and haven’t thought through at all what processes might successfully generate those outcomes? Hmmm.

On my own campus, the situation is somewhat different. We have a new course called Writing With Video that is rightly getting a lot of attention because it is has demonstrated that the student can communicate with power and insight through video and that they very well may show more aptitude in this dimension than communicating via written text. If we left it there, it would be fine and no source confusion on my part. The confounding factor is that we are now considering an “informatics” minor and the Writing With Video is being offered up as an exemplar course in such a minor. Further, the off the cuff justification for the minor is that students who as undergrads major in the humanities don’t have much of a job market upon graduation. But students who had the informatics minor would have technical skills so would be employable, I suppose by companies that also hire engineering students. Does this make sense?

* * * * *

This is already a long one so this section will be brief. It’s on iTunes University. At a CIC meeting I attended on Monday, everyone who spoke up on the issue said that Apple was into iTunes University to sell more iPods and more content distributed through their iTunes Store. Frankly, in the grand scheme, I don’t see it. We’re going to have academic content drive purchase of entertainment hardware? And that is going to happen after the students are on campus, after they’ve purchased their computer and received their financial aid and figured out how they are going to afford the college experience? Well then, I am Mr. Rourke. Welcome to Fantasy Island. I wonder what my colleagues have been smoking. But I could see it, sort of, if Apple is talking about iTunes High School and iTunes U represents a step toward that. Has anyone else been asking about that?