Thursday, April 27, 2006

Half Full Or Half Empty

Yesterday at our brownbag, we had a very nice talk from Gary Cziko, who though a Professor of Educational Psychology in the College of Education is an enthusiast for using online technology to support language learning. This was the topic of his presentation and he showed us an array of interesting and readily available tools to use, both freeware and inexpensive hardware, as well as pushing the idea that we may learn from others online who are similarly interested in learning language by exploiting the obvious comparative advantage that we are all experts in our primary language and hence if you are a native Spanish speaker and I a native English speaker and we want to learn the other language that is the basis for a partnership. I was struck during the presentation of how Gary’s approach has been driven by his own needs as a learner of languages and his preferences for using the technology --- for example he does not want to be tethered to his computer, so portability was a big deal for him --- and how unlike the approach that would be taken if the query had been driven by somebody teaching language acquisition by others. There were several of those faculty in the audience but for whatever reason they didn’t engage in discussion about Gary’s findings during the talk. This dichotomy between how you would learn if driving that learning by yourself and how learning is structured in courses that provide academic credit seems a topic worth discussing further. Right now I’ll leave it with the observation that the two are certainly not the same.

I had a little follow up thread with Gary afterwards on some technology issues. We’ve both been playing with Google Page Creator. He really likes it for quick Web publishing. I thought it was excellent as a starter tool for undergraduates who otherwise don’t have Web publishing experience and further that could be used by students who have to make Web pages for course projects or assignments. The template approach that Page Creator uses is probably easier for the novice than using a WYSIWYG editor for the same purpose. And to the extent that the students are already using Gmail as an alternative to campus provided email, this would seem to be a natural extension for them. But for faculty use, the lack of branding with the campus would seem to be an issue.

Given how nice Page Creator is, I’m kind of surprised that Google has not yet “wrappered” all the services that are accessed with the same Gmail login and password (Google Calendar and Google Talk, for example) and that other services like Blogger and Groups have different login and password strategies at the moment. So they aren’t yet offering a “unified online space” approach to their services. Apple seems to have to have done this, and merged it with their desktop tools, but Apple doesn’t have big enough market share on campus at present, especially among the undergraduates. So we’re still in the mix and match world and in that sense the glass is half empty.

Let me turn to Blackboard and what they’ve been up to since the merger has been announced. I’m somewhat upbeat about the merger because in the prior world of the separate Blackboard and WebCT I believe they were dissipating resources that can now be redirected to product development and innovation. But for obvious reasons it is prudent to take a wait and see attitude and I believe early signs can be read either up or down.

As a WebCT Vista customer, today I received the April Newsletter and following links in that I came to the Blackboard Blog. On the one hand, it is good to see them with an open space like this that is distinct from the corporate site, where individual posts can be attributed to specific people and hence so the views expressed are more personal. I do not know, at present, the four bloggers listed on the left of the page. But I was happy to see the post from Karen Gage, someone whom I do know from WebCT, and it suggests that the space may be used in the future for other folks within Blackboard to express their individual views openly. I would certainly welcome that, especially if the commenting was a little bit less like the glossy brochure type of communication that comes in the newsletter itself. This is all on the glass is half full side.

On the other hand, I was put off by the copyright notice on the blog. I don’t recall seeing a copyright notice on any of the blogs I follow including such corporate blogs as the New York Times blog or the ESPN blog and it seems to me that one doesn’t embrace the open sharing of information that blogs are supposedly about via a copyright notice of this sort. Further, the location of the notice on the page just didn’t seem right to me. (The Creative Commons notice that I use is at the bottom of the page.) I could be overreacting. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done that. Sometimes I incorrectly go off the deep end. But for the time being I don’t believe that is the case and believe instead that I’m correctly interpreting that copyright notice as evidence of the presence of the Dark Side of the Force within Blackboard. (On a different but related front, I was curious about what software powers this blog. Is that Blackboard software? If so, it is certainly more open than I had been lead to believe by reading some other commentators about the Blackboard Blog tool. If it is by somebody else, where is the attribution?)

I do want to know from the company how they are going to embrace Web 2.0 apps in the future, and while I don’t expect a dissertation on the subject now, it would be comforting to have the feeling that they “get it” and, frankly, I’m not sure they do. From where I sit, and my prior comments about the Google tools were intended to indicate that, we are in a multiple environments world from here on out. That is the reality. We need to adjust to it. We need the LMS, absolutely. But it won’t do everything for us and we shouldn’t ask that it does. It would be really good if it were friendly with these other environments. However Blackboard (and other LMS vendors) may fear these other environments because not all clients may make the conclusion that the LMS is absolutely necessary (especially when Google is giving the software away instead of charging for it directly) and instead view these alternatives as substitutes rather than as complements. So I believe I understand the issue from a business perspective. From my perch, I’d like to see a sufficient expression of confidence in Blackboard that it feels comfortable with its offerings having substantial comparative advantage that the Web 2.0 apps won’t erode its business and that consequently it can accommodate the openness of Web 2.0. As I said, right now there are signs that can be read both ways on this.

Let me turn one more time and now focus on my own campus, where we have a brand new Provost and where we are immersed in a strategic planning effort. This suggests opportunities, especially for those who make the good argument and can gain support for that from others. There are possibilities for a blended learning initiative here, an IT minor, and a more broad sweep of IT within the overall curriculum that would justify a larger investment in learning technologies across the board. On the other hand, there are possibilities that the new research initiatives will squeeze out other activities that compete for the same scarce funds and that we will limp along with learning technology as with other campus infrastructure.

I suppose it all depends on how one looks at things.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Throwing Stones In A Glass House

Fortunately for me the Draft due to the Viet Nam War ended just as I turned 18 in January 1973 (and I lucked out with getting a very high lottery number as well). So, thankfully, I did not have to serve in the military. And as I reported earlier, I missed out on the Peace Corps and VISTA, opting instead to go directly to grad school at Northwestern after finishing up at Cornell. So while I’m going to talk the talk in this post, I haven’t walked the walk, and I know it. I’ve been an academic and spent most of my life on campus at the U of I. It’s been comfortable. It makes for an ideal environment to do serious reflection and in that sense it has been well suited for me. But it has not forced me to confront reality, particularly the issues of living in a large urban environment, since I lived in Chicago while attending grad school.

This above is my mea culpa. Now I’ll make the case as if that doesn’t matter.

In going through the track back on an earlier post, I came across Barack Obama’s Web site and in particular this speech on 21st century schools. Unlike me, Obama does have the personal history of activism and community service. His speech is moving and sensible on several levels. It shares several ideas with the Louis Gerstner led Teaching Commission report that I’ve referred to earlier. Yet Obama’s speech departs from the motivation of the Gerstner,, document by leading off with mention of Jonathan Kozol and his new book Shame of a Nation, rather than by focusing on potential future decline in GDP growth (because we will be out competed by India and China and others) that is at the heart of the Teaching Commission report. I have not yet read Kozol’s latest, but some years back I did read Savage Inequalities and based on recollection of that Kozol has no need to appeal to macroeconomic issues to make his points. For his arguments, he need only appeal to basic notions of fairness and justice and a sense of human decency. I think it is wise of Obama to cast the education issues in these terms.

But to me either Obama doesn’t have the argument quite right or he is playing his cards too close to the vest now and is still holding back on some critical aspects. He mentions efforts like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project and several others as well, though he does not try to pick winners from this list and while he tells us these efforts will have to scale up eventually he doesn’t tell us how that will happen.

To the extent that the argument depends critically on young people just out of college taking up the call to teach, basic economic reality is likely to get in the way of this vision. Many of these young adults will be carrying a debt burden with them and will need to find work to service that dept, if not to pay it off immediately. Those who are financially unencumbered might choose the path that Obama implicitly suggests for them, but for those carrying a lot of dept, isn’t this asking more than can be expected? And with the rising cost of a college education, one should expect this problem to become more acute.

So, behind the Obama argument there is another that has not yet been articulated --- taxes need to be raised to fund debt relief for those college grads who opt to spend some years teaching in the schools, before pursuing some other career. This is what will be needed to make the approach scale. Recognizing that, the question is whether one can make a compelling appeal to increase taxes for this purpose.

Here Obama’s rhetoric casting the issue in moral terms may serve him well – but the case still has to be made. Now, if a young adult serves in the military, a totally voluntary act, the individual receives funding for college in return. (And similarly, if one enrolls in ROTC the college education is funded by the promise of future military service.) So with respect to the military, the case has already been made that service justifies a subsidy for enlisted people to get their higher education and that quid pro quo is part of the deal and readily funded by taxpayers.

Hence it seems to me that Obama must make the case the teaching in the schools after college is an expression of patriotism worthy of general taxpayer support, the moral equivalent of serving in the military, with rhetoric to match the argument, such as better to fight the inward battle to what Kozol calls “Third World America” to support values we all believe in than to fight the outward battle in Iraq, to support we’re not sure what. But one doesn’t see ratcheting up of the rhetoric this way in Obama’s speech. Perhaps he feels we’re not ready to scale up these efforts. To me, however, it seems an appropriate time to push these points.

Let me leave that and turn to a related point. Economic incentives can only go so far in bringing new graduates to the call of teaching. Other motivations must also be in play and one has to wonder whether the college experience itself should be neutral on this point or if instead it should prepare the students for a period of service after they graduate. In other words, the ethical tone while in college might have as much or more to do with addressing the labor supply issue for new teachers than any debt relief program that might be instituted.

In some posts from last August (from 8/9 to 8/21) on “Inward Looking Service Learning” I argued that the needed reform at public research institutions such as mine, which attract relatively strong students but that seem to be breaking from the dual pressures of promoting student engagement and containing costs, is to have those students themselves provide service to the institution by teaching and mentoring other students and with the advice and counsel of the faculty develop online environments that aid in instruction. One of the key parts of the argument is to make this the regular business of the university, put it front and center, and make it a point of pride that students are part of the productive environment at the university, rather than an object of scorn and derision that instruction must be of low quality because much of it is done by undergraduates. In other words, this was meant as a self-help approach to addressing the needs that like institutions have and putting all the members of the community: faculty, staff, students, and administration into an ethical environment where self-help and support of the community become a habitual response to serious issues.

Whether this can work is, of course, an open question. But if it were implemented and did work, it would then stand to reason that it would impact the labor supply of teachers from newly minted graduate students who now saw service to the community as a part of their essence. Right now, we do see courses that bring undergraduate students in contact with K-12 students in the community, perhaps a step in the right direction, but this too is not done at scale and though there is some rhetoric to the contrary, there is no real impetus to have this occur at scale in the current environment. I don’t think that will change until the service-based approach is perceived as addressing our own internal issues rather than simply as filling some good citizen requirement for the University’s image.

But I think it is possible, by making this potential tie explicit, that leaders such as Obama might look to Higher Education and encourage reform there so as to make it more likely that the improvement in the schools has a real chance. Why start by making an appeal to young graduates to turn to public service when a fuller and more sustained recruitment can happen by having the students engage in serious service during their college years? It’s the logic behind this question that encourages me to be somewhat optimistic about the possibility.

This is a long haul issue. There is no quick fix. But that is not a reason to delay in getting started.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dual careering and getting K-12 students to do schoolwork during the evening

Its not often that I find the commentary of Stanley Fish striking a chord with me, but his point that some of the best instruction occurs outside of regular courses seems dead on. And while he is particularly concerned here with adult education via TV and radio talk shows, I believe the lesson applies as well or all the more so to youngsters, who get much of their education through play and their interactions with peers outside the classroom. So it is worth a moment or two of pause to scratch one’s head and ask whether we really help students out by piling on the homework or forcing them into “educational” extra curricular activities when that isn’t of their own selection. I make the point up front because I’m going to argue that in many cases we should be doing that and certainly when the home or neighborhood is not itself nurturing, then there is an added obvious reason to encourage the school to make up for that.

Let me make a big aside first. I’m confronted with the my kids school in two ways. First, since I drive them in, I’m occasionally involved with getting the backpacks ready and loaded into the car. These backpacks are behemoths. Both kids have two loose leaf binders (I have no clue why), a textbook or two, some folder for transmitting papers to be turned in that don’t have key holes punched and miscellaneous other materials. Then during the evening when I arrive home, much of the backpack contents are littered on our counter where we have our informal meals. (The younger kid likes to do his work on that counter.) The unmistakable message that I take from these observations is that the kids middle school is a world of paper – the computer and the Internet intrude at the outer reaches of this world but have made nary a dent in terms of the core processes involving student homework.

One other point, this one may be specific to my kid, but I believe it is more pervasive than that, is that the amount of homework seems minimal, at least for the sixth grader. The eighth grader does seem to have a fair amount of work, but the younger one often reports – I did it already at school, or – I don’t have homework tonight. My younger kid tends to zip through things, often without sufficient care, especially when he doesn’t see the derivative benefit from the activity, so the “did it all at school” line might reflect that rather than that adequate homework has been assigned, but my sense is that this is not the full explanation and that another part of this explanation is in this paper world in which this school exists homework provides a big burden on the teacher, not just in the reading and evaluating of the student work, but in the record keeping as well. This acts as a deterrent to assigning more homework.

So perhaps it makes sense for the schools to utilize learning management systems and have online homework, which in addition to addressing some of the issues I mention in the previous paragraph have the benefit that the homework can begin to become a teaching device in addition to an assessment mechanism where students can have multiple tries at a problem and get feedback on earlier attempts that help them understand the source of the mistake they are making.

There is only one sensible reason that I can see for not doing this, which is that there is not a good way to provide universal access to the technology and absent that, differences in class, income, and race that already tend to cleave the schools will be accentuated via digital divide issues. This is, of course, a serious concern and the public schools certainly have to embrace universal access. But I believe the trend is toward universal access at home (I’ve read some stuff on that front recently bud didn’t bookmark it and can’t find the reference now) and when some threshold that I’m not sure how to specify is crossed, I believe that with providing access at schools after hours and at libraries and other public places that we’ll get close enough to the universal ideal that we can assume using a learning management system for homework (or other online tools) will take a serious hold.

As that threshold is neared we can then start to think through the question I asked in my post on Second Careers and K-12. How does one bring bright and talented people who otherwise wouldn’t become teachers into instruction? An alternative to the answer I gave there (and I still favor that solution as a primary focus but do recognize that many approaches need to be tried) is to imitate the University of Phoenix and hire adjunct instructors who interact with the students online. These adjunct instructors would need to have other jobs, hence the expression “dual careering” in the title of my post, and that is what would make them affordable as employees in the K-12 environment. Unlike how the University of Phoenix works, however, these adjuncts need not be the sole teacher of a course teaching a prescribed curriculum, but rather might be partners for the on ground teachers who need assistance and they might bring in their real world experiences from their other jobs as they interact with the students.

I certainly don’t have a fully worked through model of this, but it seems clear to me that one could encourage more writing by the students in discussion boards, blogs, surveys, or what have you and get interesting critique of the work if there were additional adults to the in class teacher looking at this work. On the flip side, these adjunct instructors might enjoy very much interacting with the students online and expressing something of themselves in these interactions so that it would get away from the dreary type of grading and be more compelling as a form of human interaction from the point of view of these online instructors.

In other words, once the school has gone the route of online homework, this then becomes a potential mechanism for bringing in other instructional staff with minimal other logistics to manage. In contrast, to bring in dual career instructors without the technology the only way I can see that working is to start having classes at night so that either the students would have to return to school a few days a week for an evening session or the students would stay in school continuously from the daytime through the evening, so these adjunct instructors could teach them face to face. This might work at the senior high school level in some cases, but the transportation, safety, and other logistics issues make that seem a less likely solution, absent the idea that students will spend more hours in school overall across the school year, with some of those hours in the evening. While I would embrace that idea myself, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. The online approach, in contrast, could happen much more readily --- if an online homework system were already in place.

Dual careerists can’t pay as much attention to the second career and if they do that work primarily for love and not for money they will periodically be conflicted because the primary work will make demands on them that they can’t ignore. So there are limits to what can be expected from this sort of innovation. Nevertheless, it seems to me worth a try in those school districts that have already committed to online and solved the access issues.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Google Calendar and the CMS

This will be a quickie. I will get back to my personnel in K-12 posts soon.

Yesterday I was futzing with Google calendar, which requires a Gmail account to access, and I thought it was a nice app with potential broad use. On my campus we don't offer a calendaring tool to the students, so this would be useful for them and we relaly don't have a way for instructors to share their course calendars with class outsiders. It would be helpful in that vein as well.

So I started to ask myself how might the CMS accommodate groups of students to use a service like google calendar. We've had discussions internally about having a registry for student's "other email" address, but my sense is that this is a bit of a loser unless that other email is primary, because students maintain multiple personas online and change those with fluidity. We want the persona they'd like to use now, for this purpose, and that might not coincide with what is in the registry.

So I think we want a decentralized way to do mini-registries that are relevant only for the near term. The obvious tool in the CMS for this is the survey tool. It's fine for data collection of the sort needed for the group to share their calendars. But, as far as I know, the instructor would manually have to intervene to distribute the survey results to the students. That is a loser. We need for the instructor to decentralize the data collection and sharing, otherwise it won't happen.

One other point, this regarding the evolution of CMS functionality. We need the CMS, as I've argued earlier, but the rapid development of tools such as Google Calendar that operate outside the University enironment entirely and are seemingly more functional that tools within the CMS, suggests a need to carefully consider comparative advantage and where the focus should be in CMS development. I do think it is correct for CMS developers to cede functionality to the broader marketplace rather than to try to do replicate that functionality within. Then it needs to figure out how to make the two environments couple and I believe the guilding principle on that is to encourage this via decentralization, such as in the example above --- give the students the ability to use the CMS environment to build their own bridges.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Second Careers and K-12

Because I tend to think of issues in a theoretical way, I occasionally stumble into interconnections of ideas, each interesting in its own right, that speak to one another in a way to make a novel synthesis. I’m hopeful that I achieve such a synthesis in this post. However, I’m the first one to admit that in the process of abstraction critical institutional detail is omitted and so there may be numerous reasons for the ideas to fail that I don’t envision here, were one to seriously attempt to implement them. While this risk is there every time I generate something, when I stray to the K-12 arena where my knowledge is limited and stems mostly from my role as parent and chauffeur of my kids to school and the assorted memory fragments of my own experience in K-12, hardly a way to come up with a full picture of the situation. For the record, I’m a product of the New York City Public schools, first P.S. 203, then I.H.S 74, and finally Benjamin Cardozo H.S., all in Queens. Sometimes, reading about K-12 issues, such as the reforms in the NYC schools under Joel Klein, I hearken back to those experiences.

The general issue I want to consider is how to attract talented people, who otherwise would do something else, into serving as teachers in K-12. In today’s post I will focus on the “second career” solution – these talented people are in their mid 50’s or older and have retired from their first career job, they have a pension from that and quite possibly good health benefits as well, and while their intellectual and physical capacities may be on the decline (relative to how these people performed when they were in their mid 30’s) they nonetheless are able and productive and want to do something socially useful with their lives, rather than idle away their retirement playing golf and bridge and what not in an enjoyable but essentially purposeless existence. In subsequent posts, I’ll consider alternative paths in attracting bright people into becoming K-12 teachers.

I came to think of this by wondering whether I could teach in K-12 (probably closer to the 12 than to the K). I’m 51 now and by the time I’m 60 I’ll have 35 years of experience at Illinois, if I don’t leave the University before then. I started at a fairly young age right out of grad school and was studying economic theory when I could have been doing Peace Corps or Vista or teaching grade school. But anyone who knew me at the time would say that grad school was the right path for me – I had all the academic tendencies, I really didn’t know how to do much else than be a full time student, and if one is to engage in serious study like pursuing a doctorate in economics at a high profile program such as the one at Northwestern, there are big advantages in doing it straight away after getting the bachelors degree.

But none of those reasons will apply in a few years when I’m eligible to retire from Illinois. Might I teach in K-12 then? Would I have the wherewithal to make the job switch? What inducements would I need to make that change rather than continue on here? (I have tenure, so I’m thinking about all of this as a voluntary move, not a coerced one.) And would I be any good at it? I think I have something to offer, but I’m not sure I could deal with the institutional rigidity. I’ve had many years to do it, “my way.”

Let me leave the personal issues for now, I don’t really need to address them at present, and turn to some other sources of thinking on this subject. One is this really interesting post by Gary Becker on the Japanese Retirement system from the Becker-Posner blog. It’s this post that got me thinking about second careers more generally. I highly recommend this read (and indeed, the entire archive for June is filled with posts and comments by both Becker and Posner on retirement) and in general I agree with the view put forward that the problem with retirement in America and most West European nations is that retirement happens too early in life. (Both Becker and Posner are well over 65 and still are faculty members at the University of Chicago.) The irony here is that while the “official” retirement age is 65 (there is no mandatory retirement, so instead of using the word “official” it is more appropriate to say “according to conventional thinking”) many people take early retirement and the average age at retirement is somewhere between 59 and 60, the situation is reversed in Japan. There the official retirement age is 60 but most continue on in the labor market after that via the second career mechanism, with full retirement happening closer to 70.

So I want to talk about modifying the Japanese approach to the situation here and making K-12 teaching the locus of second career employment. There are many plusses that can be assigned to this solution and I’ll get to those. But now let me consider a different source. Thomas L. Friedman had a column in the Times a couple of weeks ago, which focused on the quality of the schools and the relationship between school quality and our national wealth. The argument, one that makes sense to me, is that our prosperity will start to decline if our school system remains second rate. I do want to qualify that a bit, because there is such economic inequality in this country and there is inequality, as well, in wealth generation. So I believe one has to be careful making conclusions of this sort and there is some trouble reasoning too much by looking only at statistical means in school performance data. But that said, there does seem to be general deterioration in the schools that both blocks the human capital development of the children of the highly productive folks in our society and, perhaps more importantly, impedes the upward mobility of the over achieving segment of low-income people, whether immigrants or native born.

Friedman’s article cited a report from The Teaching Commission, which is a bunch of luminaries gathered to make recommendations on how to reform the schools, aiming at an audience of state and federal government. The Commission was led by Louis Gerstner, former Chairman of the Board at IBM and the report is entitled, Teaching at Risk: Progress and Potholes. I’ve read only the Intro and the section, “Revitalizing the Profession.” If I can dig out from under, I’ll read the rest of the report in the near future. I believe that I’ve read enough for what I’ve got to say here.

The report is based on the premise that to improve the schools the single most important factor is to improve the quality of the teachers. I agree with that one, though if there is another variable to consider it is class size, but my recollection of that literature (which I looked at maybe eight or nine years ago) is that the effects are pronounced but tap out when a class reaches twenty students or so and, realistically speaking, the capital infrastructure supports that size and larger, so I think focusing on teacher quality is sensible. Further, the report provides some evidence that teacher quality matters in terms of student achievement (though as above, I’m a bit suspicious of how much the statistical evidence reveals and how teacher quality is defined and the direction of the causality).

Then the report goes into a litany of problems with teacher quality – the majority of college grads who go into K-12 nowadays were poor students in college, ranking in the lowest decile of their graduating class, there is huge turnover in the system and many teachers don’t last five years, the system is heavily biased towards seniority and obtaining continuing ed credentials that, unfortunately, are orthogonal to ensuring that the teachers are up to date and engaged in their own teaching. Moreover, there is a substantial confidence problem in that the public doesn’t trust the teachers and so the report recommends a vigorous testing program for teachers in their field of expertise so they can periodically verify their competence.

The report is likely correct in this diagnosis, but I believe the cures that they are suggesting likely won’t work or won’t be sufficient even if they work part way. Consider the issue of poorly performing college students going into teaching. On my campus the best students (measured by ACT scores) go into Engineering, Bio Technology, and on down the line. Are we talking about diverting some of the Engineering students into teaching? The irony here, of course, is that Friedman in The World is Flat argues that we need more engineers. I think we can agree is that there is shortage of very good students, but we really don’t want to divert them from other growth areas of the economy, even as we want to bolster K-12.

Then, too, there is the (perhaps controversial) issue of the MRS degree. (In economics MRS refers to marginal rate of substitution, the ratio of the marginal utilities, so I innocently enough learned about the MRS degree from my students as I was cutting teeth learning to teach intermediate microeconomics.) As I mentioned in a post from January, Linda Hirshman argues that many women who have attended elite academic institution and who did remarkably well as students there, nonetheless end up as stay home moms or part time employees to accommodate their family life, whether by choice or implicit coercion. Taking that as truth, doesn’t it make sense that women who are less good students in college and not all that career oriented major in a field where it is easy to exit, to accommodate those family responsibilities once they kick in. For better or worse, K-12 teaching fits that bill. If it is to get out of that bind, either some other field will take its place or the MRS degree will have to disappears entirely. I don’t see another field stepping to the fore and while in principle I’m fine with the MRS degree going the way of the dinosaur, if I were betting that is not where I’d put my money. And given that, certainly it is a contributing factor to why the schools attract comparatively weak college students. It is too bad that the commission report doesn’t touch this issue.

Then consider pay. The report argues that teacher salaries must keep up with the market generally, if the field is to attract talented people. That is correct. But the report focuses on public education and there, of course, the teacher salaries are financed via taxes, not tuition. The report gives some high marks to governors of a few states who have started to spend more on K-12 and bully for them. But more spent on K-12 means either less spent on other government services (higher ed is obviously one of those) or it means more tax revenue collected. And both of these set up an intergenerational politics that simply doesn’t favor the continued increase of teacher salaries. I’ve got no problem voting for a governor who wants to raise taxes to fund the schools now, when my own kids are in K-12, but when I’m retired and my kids have kids, they quite likely will live in a different state from me, at which point even though I’m sure I’ll love my grandkids, voting my pocketbook means I won’t want to put money into the schools. Because society will continue to age, the intergenerational politics is going to make it extremely difficult to sustain funding teacher salaries this way, especially with the bulk of K-12 funded at the state level. As with the MRS degree issue, the report doesn’t consider the intergenerational politics of funding teacher salaries.

Now let’s return to my proposal. The fact that people are living longer and that more people who are early into their retirement are in good physical and mental health suggests that following the Japanese, a move to a second career approach for the entire economy is a sensible thing to be doing. But, clearly, we are not yet there. So there is an opportunity to use the need to attract talented people to teach K-12 as a way to cherry pick from the population who want a second career outside the industry in which they currently work. (Note that The Commission embraces the idea of streamlining red tape so that talented people from all backgrounds can find their way more readily into the teaching profession, see page 19 of the PDF in the paragraph starting “Three.” But they don’t provide further arguments for why these other background people would go into teaching.)

The potential for cherry picking means that quality-wise these people might be much better than the schools otherswise should be able to expect. Further, the income requirements of these second career people are likely to be modest. And to the extent that second-careerism becomes fashionable among some seniors, the inter-generational politics would be entirely different. Then, too, larger companies might use this as a vehicle to enhance and round out their own retirement programs and thus they might have a reason to invest in the schools as a public service, complementing the second-careerism. These are the plusses.

There remains the dual issues of first, whether it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks and second, of whether second-career teachers have enough energy to keep up with the students. My sense of this is that to make this work the role of these second-career folks needs to be thought through carefully. Perhaps in some cases they would be there to substitute for regular teachers who’ve come through the more traditional way, but mostly I’d imagine they’d complement these teachers, by mentoring smaller groups of students and by mentoring the teachers themselves about how learning and communication occurs in the industry from which they from. They would be treated differently from how student-teachers are treated now, but there would need to be an analogous systematic adjustment to this potential labor pool.

So there are certainly risks to implementing this suggestion, but the upside seems sufficiently high to me that it is worth exploring.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source 3: Instructors as Hackers

Two of my core assumptions in working through the approach are: (1) if you drill down enough everyone is a hacker and (2) instructors have an intrinsic need to talk about their teaching. I want to talk about the implications of these assumptions, but first I want to offer some justification for making them and also to clear up what I mean.

I will do this via example. On our campus we have a highly dedicated and super knowledgeable (about the technology) leader on Web accessibility. His name is Jon Gunderson and he has a good and dedicated staff working under him. Over the years, Jon has taught me a lot about accessible design, though I still have much to learn. (For example, I don’t know how to use CSS and position elements on a Web page without using a table.) Occasionally in the past, I’ve taught Jon a thing or two about how instructors “think” about design. We’ve made some progress on bringing those two distinct ideas into alignment. But convergence is not yet on the horizon. While that is clearly the goal, there is some benefit in not yet achieving that goal from the point of view of understanding how content creators actually use the tools that are provided to them.

I’ve now seen Jon make the point a few times so it resonates with me that almost nobody learns how to use the Microsoft Office tools (think of Word, primarily, and also PowerPoint and for now ignore anything more exotic) via formal training and hence rather than learn “the correct” way to do things, many people “hack” solutions to formatting issues that work visually for them and so seemingly solve the problem they are trying to address when they design the document. (And I might add that some secretaries are as bad as the faculty in this regard and don’t have a clue about the appropriate use of Tabs, Indents, Tables, etc. as distinct formatting elements.) As a reader of such documents one is typically oblivious to this type of hacking, but if one is editing a document done this way, God help you. One small change seemingly destabilizes the entire piece.

I believe we all do analogous things in our teaching, because there are a lot of issues that come up which have not been anticipated beforehand so of necessity have to be addressed on the fly. This might include when it is appropriate to grant exceptions to stated course policy about deadlines for assignments, how to adjust the course schedule if a topic takes longer than anticipated, or what to do if the server acts up right before an assignment is due. My guess is that this list is the tip of the iceberg. In this sense all instructors are hackers.

Eric Raymond in the Cathedral and the Bazaar means quite something else by use of the term “hacker.” To him hackers are very good programmer who work on trouble shooting some code. Indeed, the general “problem solving” use of the word hacker is either out of vogue or hasn’t made it to such august sources of reference a (being a bad golfer is one definition they provide) and, which has the Eric Raymond meaning and the evil alternative – folks who break into other computer systems for illicit reasons. I’m going to keep my alternative for a while in this post because part of what I’d like to discuss is how to modify the approach to be more like what Raymond means.

Let me turn to the other assumption, that instructors want to talk about their teaching. There is an important caveat. Many instructors have been scarred by teaching. The experience was unpleasant if not outright painful. And the students may very well have been hostile to the instructor’s efforts. Under that circumstance there may be very good reasons for the instructor to clam up, even if the instructor is desperately looking for ways to improve the teaching approach. So the conditions must be set to get past that initial shyness.

The second assumption really follows from the first and thus it follows from the more general idea that if one is engaged in problem solving, one typically wants feedback from others who might have a different perspective. And in reciprocation, the instructor who gets such feedback might very well be willing to provide such feedback for others, as long as on the receiving end the feedback is useful and timely.

So what I envision has faculty at various stages in their development as teachers initially interacting one-on-one with Linus Torvalds styled leader and discussions of both the teaching and possible technologies to advance the approach. This one-on-one interaction is in the style of a co-author relationship, because that most suits the cultural environment in which the faculty member operates.

In this milieu the leader offers tips and suggestions of possible things to try. At some point in the trajectory, the leader moves to suggestions that come from the problem solving/issues of other instructors. The leader needs to give a focus on common issues and then when solutions emerge try hard to transfer those among the group of instructors.

In this context, open content generated by the instructors (sharable learning objects) might be very useful as the embodiment of solutions and therefore as templates for transferring such practice. Consequently, any such approach to faculty development must include as part of the effort a repository for sharing these type of learning objects. Ultimately, instructors might go to the repository to learn about teach approaches in an unmediated way, but initially it will be the leader who recommends that the instructor look at specific learning object that might serve as a template. And conversely the leader serves in the role of encourager and provocateur in moving instructors in the community to create such objects. The leader also marshals the support resources so that the instructor doesn’t feel overwhelmed from this type of participation.

The leader also makes the ideas and findings of the members public, first in a very informal way such as via a blog, but then in a way that is more systematic and meant to be generalizable. This is what I referred to as the primer, in an earlier post. By making these things overt to the community, the leader is both encouraging the same type of social/intellectual interaction that Raymond identifies with open source software development and also aims squarely at improving the quality of instruction practice, as it is rooted firmly in the community development activity.

The key issue and what seemingly will make or break the approach is if “majority” faculty members (as distinct from early adopter faculty members) are made to feel first comfortable and then interested in seeing their questions and problem solving solutions being discussed openly by the leader. If they can be made to both approve and participate in the process then they should increasingly look like early adopter faculty, who likely will readily contribute their solutions from the start. And if that happens, these faculty members who are hackers in the original sense that I described will in the process of moving down their own learning curves transform into the type of hackers in the sense of Raymond, whose contributions have social value beyond what they use for their own purpose.

So what I’m proposing is that faculty development change from a process where pre-established knowledge from the outside is brought into the development process and where the faculty are viewed as the recipients of the development activity, to the alternative where the faculty members make new, situated knowledge in the process of their own teaching, and the assessment and diffusion of that knowledge becomes the basis of the development activity.

I wonder if this can work. I’d like to give it a try.