Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Flying is for the birds. Actually, the trip from the Sea-Tac airport to O’Hare on Alaska Airlines was comparatively benign. We had the Jet Stream working for us in that direction so the trip took under 4 hours. And the plane was a fairly new Boeing 737-900, with reasonably comfortable seats and adequate leg room between rows. They even served Macadamia nuts along with the usual soft drinks. So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, how about a two hour layover in O’Hare? I had my le Carre novel, Absolute Friends, which I was enjoying and my iPod Shuffle to block out the outside noise and get into my own personal space. And I tried to break up the time a bit with a Starbucks. But even with the creature comforts, hanging out at airports is disorienting. I was baffled by why American Airlines has no flight to Champaign near when I arrived but then two flights 20 minutes apart around 7 PM. (Select ORD for From and CMI for To and then choose early evening.) I was on the earlier one of these and it was on time, no small blessing. Yet for those of you who have not experienced the delights of an ERJ 145 jet with 3 across seating, insufficient headroom to stand in the aisle, and a shoehorn-you-into-your-seat approach especially unappealing for a big guy like me, take my word that it’s those commuter flights that do you in. I was a zombie most of the weekend.

I’m not here to gripe, however, at least not about travel inconvenience. I’m very glad I went to the Educause Conference. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s opening lecture was incredibly good, worth the trip in itself. And I was in a variety of invited sessions where the conversation was stimulating and productive, though a particular talk by Terry Hartle of ACE Tuesday evening that was part of a dinner/discussion session hosted by D2L got me into a dither because he was so thoughtful and well informed but his subject – how the political climate in DC and elsewhere around the country is so into this notion of accountability – got me depressed because on the one had we need to wake up and address the problem while on the other it sure seems we’ll do more harm than good. Hartle used data about fatality rates at hospitals, data that does not reference other information about patient well being and hence data that can create quite a misleading picture, to emphasize the point. Of course in Higher Ed we’ve been reporting on graduation rates for years without, for example, indexing them by median SAT score at the institution, so we are likely confounding student capabilities with institutional commitment to learning. Hartle indicated that both in DC and in state capitols, the hyperinflation in tuition has created a fatigue with legislators about us in Higher Ed saying “we’ll study the problem.” They want action. Later during the same session when we were having discussions at each individual table, I asked Hartle whether FERPA puts a damper on us collecting data to show how the institution is performing. Hartle immediately brought up the Gonzaga Case, something I was unaware of, to make the point that FERPA doesn’t do much if anything to block efforts at institutional accountability. Too bad.

I’m part of several different overlapping groups where a good part of the Educause conference is to seek out group members and rekindle a spark with them. One of those is the CIC Learning Technology Group, where my role now is past chair (John Campbell is the current chair) and general contrarian. There were many folks from the group at that Tuesday Dinner. I’m on very friendly terms with many of them, a combination of shared experience and a sense that we have a lot to learn from each other. And it’s fun too because we know we can be open with each other on just about any topic and benchmark ourselves, not just the programs we support, in a way that’s not threatening. It is so much easier to talk with someone if there is a sense of an ongoing conversation. We have that in the LT Group. We don’t need to build the bond. It is already there.

A different group is the folks from my campus who have essentially the same title as I’ve got but who are in different colleges plus a few folks in the Campus Academic Technology unit (CITES). It seems ridiculous to travel 2,000 miles to meet up with folks from your own campus and have conversations with them there. But some of it is not so silly. I happened to be on the same flight out as Ken Spelke, so we chatted both at Willard and O’Hare and ended up having dinner together that first night. Later, on Wednesday I believe, I bumped into Deanna Raineri, my very good friend and my counterpart in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We did a bit of a walk around the Exhibit Hall (I’m not crazy about the practice of having the box lunches all the way in the back so one must walk through at least some of the vendor displays to get to the food, but c’est la vie) and by accident while heading to the exit bumped into Xythos CEO Kevin Wiggen, who happens to be an Illinois Alum, and mostly by happenstance I have a kind of collegial relationship with him that mirrors the better relationships I have with my academic counterparts. Kevin gave Deanna and me an annotated tour of their latest release – quite nice.

Somehow later that day I ended up with both Deanna and Ken at the Starbucks in the Hyatt chatting about IT on our campus and how much we don’t know about what is going on. We’re in a brave new world with a new Campus CIO and much speculation about where we are heading IT-wise. I meet with each of them individually here in Urbana on a regular basis, but we rarely get together as a threesome. So what was meant as a restbit to gather energy (i.e., caffeine) for the evening festivities ends up as an extended and sometimes heated conversation about the campus direction. We had planned to have a College CIOs group meet monthly this year, but the group hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. If this conversation is any indication we’ll have no problem keeping up the conversation when we do meet. The sense of trust is the same as with the LT Group, perhaps even stronger. But in this case we care a lot about information flows – or lack thereof. Ours is a complex and decentralized campus. Also, we need to get each other’s perspective on recent events to see if our own take really makes sense.

Another group where there is a strong bond is my Frye class. I was in the 2003 cohort. Ten of us made it to dinner Wednesday night and I found it both charming and delightful that others want to get together as much as I do. Here the sense of common shared experience is most intense. The talk goes from work to paying for the our kids’ college to viewing IT as political economy to favorite TV programs all in a fluid, we-can-go-anywhere-we-want type of conversation. We don’t really talk much about nostalgia regarding our experience at Frye, maybe a bit but mostly not. But we do feel close to one another. That is unmistakable.

* * * * *

There was a different set of emotions on display at the conference because Brian Hawkins is stepping down as President and CEO of Educause and the conference was his swan song, with many people expressing their gratitude for Brian’s contribution and Polly McClure, in particular, talking of him as a model for her and the rest of us to emulate. It seemed as if everyone was taken up with Brian’s leaving.

I don’t know Brian well but some of the places where I interacted with him show up even better in retrospect. Brian, along with Pat Battin and Susan Perry were the “elders” who sat in the back of the room and assisted the “Deans,” Deanna Marcum and Rick Detweiler, during most of the time we were in plenary session at Frye, an institute that covers two weeks. Having more recently been a faculty member at the Learning Technology Leadership Institute, less than half the length of Frye and knowing how intense that was even as a kibitzer in the back of the room during sessions when I wasn’t a presenter, a big take away for me about Brian was the strength of his commitment. Much of that was exhibited just by his being there. Brian did give us a talk near the end of Frye – we need to expect to put in the time, a lot of time; we need to read the Chronicle and understand the job market and not just in our own area; we need to make some personal sacrifice to move up and likely if we want to advance we need to change institution (this is a toughie with a spouse who is also employed by the university and with kids who have friends at school that were long in the making ). So commitment and straight talk, that’s what I think of when considering Brian.

The conference itself is such a production and this time around some of the Educause staff seemed apologetic because the venue was sold out and in some ways too small for the size of the conference. I can only imagine what type of performance pressure the annual conference and all the other events put on Brian. He seemed to take it all in stride. I was a Nervous Nellie when I was hosting FSI – with only about 100 participants. Brian was always graceful in whatever context I saw him. That is a tribute to the Educause staff and their capabilities and Brian’s trust in them. Polly McClure was right. Brian is a great role model.

* * * * *

I could go on. I’ve been part of other Educause and also vendor-created groups and there is good camaraderie with some of those people, a few of whom I saw at the conference. But I want to change perspective here because I want to comment on some of the larger issues that were the talk of the conference.

With my friends I’m completely at ease, open and garrulous. Some may get the impression that I’m always that way, but they’d be quite wrong. Friends are insiders and there is a particular norm of behavior for them. It just isn’t the same with outsiders. Then one doesn’t know quite how to take their comments. There is little or no context. That goes likewise for how remarks I make might be understood. I want to illustrate with a personal anecdote first to show the problem. Then I’ll bring the discussion back to the conference.

When I was a teen I had battles with my mother, some of it standard “generation gap” problems – clean up your room. This particular incident is of a different sort. In considering High School, my mom wanted me to attend Bayside High, which was not then our community school. She wanted me to take Latin and for that there was a zoning variance so I could go to Bayside. The local school was brand new, Benjamin Cardozo HS, and as such was unproven. My sister, five years my senior, had attended Bayside in a similar fashion instead of attending the then new school, Francis Lewis. My sister liked going to Bayside and did well there. Language helped my sister’s GPA.

But I’m different from my sister in many respects and the circumstances had changed. Both Bayside and Francis Lewis required a bus ride; Cardozo was within walking distance. I was a math guy where my sister was not. As it turned out my Junior High School was in the process of converting to an Intermediate school and indeed I graduated after eighth grade. I believe the entire system was making that conversion but was doing so unevenly. Bayside High had a ninth grade but not one with much richness – my impression is it mostly had kids who went to parochial school but then didn’t continue to a Catholic High School and most of those kids weren’t good students. So the math and science I was getting there was too elementary for me and more to the point I felt isolated with little prospect of finding peers whom I could befriend. Ultimately I got very emotional and with my mom’s help arranged a transfer to Cardozo. (This was the same term, fall 1968, of the big New York City Teacher’s strike and while I was at Bayside for only a few weeks, it was several months before I started at Cardozo. In the interim I had my (impacted) wisdom teeth removed and attended a scab school… at Francis Lewis.)

I held a grudge against my mom for a very long time. She applied rules based on my sister’s experience without being sensitive to the particulars of my situation. She didn’t see my needs at all. I was a very good student and didn’t need language to boost my grades. I needed honors math and science for intellectual growth more than I needed Latin. And I took a great deal of comfort from being with my friends from Junior High. Cardozo was definitely better for me (and I believe it later proved to be a better High School overall). I thought parents were supposed to show that kind of sensitivity to their kids needs. It wasn’t until well into my twenties when my mother’s health began to deteriorate, and much later in my forties when I started to see some of her personality in my own kids that I began to see her perspective, though I still think the choice of Bayside High was wrong.

Accountability in Higher Education appears to be the “taking Latin” equivalent of today. There is nothing wrong with it ceteris paribus. Unfortunately, all else is never equal. Accountability as an issue is there to appease outsiders. This was made evident throughout the conference. In addition to Terry Hartle talk I heard Tuesday, there was a featured panel session with several member s of Spellings Commission Thursday morning. Among the panelists were David Ward of ACE, Terry Hartle’s boss and the sole member of the Commission who didn’t sign off on the final report. David Ward made several subtle points, and I applaud his intellectual integrity in sticking with nuance, but I thought his rhetorical style lost in the battle with the other panelists. Both Charlene Nunley and especially Robert Mendenhall were more effective in making argument, precisely because they had a simple model on which to base all that they talked about. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for example in this post, a rhetorical style based on a simple analytic framework is usually best for winning a debate, because it solves the framing problem for the listener. Capture the frame and all else follows.

But winning a debate doesn’t mean the argument is correct; it just means it is more persuasive. (Recall Lincoln on fooling the people and do note that subtlety is lost on those who have yet to think hard on an issue.) At the Tuesday evening dinner D2L did a good job of in the main staying out of the way. But at the beginning and at the end they made a pitch to get those in the audience to participate with them in writing White Papers on assessment with data. I for one will not take part in such activities BECAUSE I’D END UP SCREAMING. I will note here, however, that there is a need to articulate clearly the mechanism for quality assurance that is currently in play under the trust model.

We in Higher Ed say “trust us” but we don’t explain why it is that we should be deemed trustworthy. People have heard about publish or perish but they don’t know how it relates. They don’t know about faculty recruiting and the effort involved with that. They also don’t know about performance review.

They hear about what seems to be too few hours spent by faculty in the classroom and they implicitly get the idea that teaching is at odds with research. For undergraduate education, I think that perception is accurate, at least insofar as we continue to teach courses where the content is static, meaning it is essentially the same course as was taught twenty or thirty years ago. I’ve taught Economic Principles recently and was able to bring a freshness to the course by entirely abandoning a textbook approach, bringing in my own online content made with Excel, getting the students to read from journal articles in the American Economic Review Proceedings or the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and from such books as Freakonomics. But I did this as part of an experiment on how to teach, not as an extension of my current economics research.

There is a large issue, one that not too many people seem to be discussing now, about how to do the appropriate “translation” to make current research of interest and palpable for undergraduate instruction, particularly in a field like economics that attracts large numbers of students and that has a rich tradition, dating back at least to Adam Smith. That type of translation requires thought and effort, the results of which are largely not rewarded in the current model. (Those who argue for SOTL miss the point because SOTL work counts for naught by the faculty within a discipline who evaluate each other.) So all is not rosy for teaching and learning under the current model. But don’t think the accountability issue will help in this regard. That’s all about whether junior is learning what is being taught. It’s not about whether what is being taught is the right stuff for junior to know.

While normally outspoken on larger issues that engage the profession, I fear that there will be a garbling of the core questions if brought out in open debate, and so speak up here with mixed feelings. People “out there” want answers and they are impatient, to the point where they expect answers before they have the appropriate background to consider the alternatives. But I fear even more for my friends and colleagues within the profession, people whom I care about deeply. We’re being drawn into this argument whether we want to or not. We’re likely not of one mind on the answers to these questions. That could very well create distance between us, possibly even contempt for each other’s point of view. Our collegiality and affection for one another is our greatest asset. It would be a shame to tarnish it. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction where we’re headed.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Edu Pause

I’m headed to Seattle tomorrow. I’ve got a pre-conference workshop Tuesday morning on Learning Spaces and the conference starts for real that evening. Since I missed the conference last year because of my leg injury, I really look forward to seeing folks. That will be great. But I continue to feel a sense of unease about where the profession is headed and how IT is perceived, both from within the profession and from those outside the profession in Higher Ed looking who are looking in.

Last week we had our Online Learning Symposium on campus. The opening keynote was given by Mark Milliron and at lunch there was a presentation by Sally Jackson, our CIO. Both talks were provocative though their emphasis was quite different. It was almost as if they were opposed to each other. In his presentation Milliron focused on forces from academia pushing us in Higher Ed, for example due to change in the technology itself or to the increased demand for accountability based on performance data, as has recently been the scourge of the health care. Sally, for her part, critiqued our past in Higher Ed with learning technology. Too many of our attempts at innovation didn’t stick. They were done with incentive that didn’t produce long coattails and when the incentive went away… She argued that our focus should be on those technologies that are embraced because they offer value in and of themselves and especially those where the adoption by one enhances the value for another. Examples of those technologies include eBay and Wikipedia, but of course the marketplace supports that type of technology. Within Higher Ed we need to support the long tail of research needs specific to disciplines, presumably with applications that are of interest to us all. But on whether this means mostly to keep doing what we’re doing or if it is a call to invest in new applications that have not hit the mainstream on most campuses is unclear to me.

Here are a few of the other dichotomies we are facing, or so it seems to me.

Openness versus Privacy

One of the second year MBA students, somebody who was on my advisory committee last year, bumped into me last week and he told me the students weren’t happy with Illinois Compass, the Campus Course Management system (it is powered by WebCT Vista). While he admitted that some of this might be transition issues, he also said the main complaint is that students don’t have enough control configuring the spaces to their liking and making discussion areas just for them – they had that in FirstClass, an application we’re trying to stop supporting in my College. Recently I’ve been playing with iGoogle and Google Docs in combination, along with other Web 2.0 tools that can be brought into an iGoogle page. Functionally, it would work quite nicely for the students. But the content would sit outside the university. I like the solution very much in terms of functionality and convenience. I don’t like it that the students would have to bear the risk, rather than the campus. In my own work, I’m ok absorbing that risk. But imposing that on others? I’m still trying to figure out where I come down on this. The powers that be on my campus don’t seem to think outsourcing these services are a good idea. But what we have to offer that is campus supported is much less convenient.

Respect versus Defiance of Authority (Copyright, Plagiarism, Accountability, and what else?)

I’m turning into a curmudgeon. There is no doubt about it. I’m beginning to enjoy “giving it to the man” to quote the Jack Black character in The School of Rock. I’ve got several posts in the last year or so in this vein. But this is not being contrary for no reason. It is because the maintained position has problems with it. When the MPAA and the RIAA raise a ruckus about student file sharing, and within recent memory we have DMCA, an example of their lobbying power to subvert the public interest, it is entirely unclear that we in Higher Ed should bow to the proposition – respect of the law – and end up being policemen of our own students. Absent an ongoing stream of effective rhetoric and policy making on the other side of this proposition, what should respectable folks in IT do, especially those not old enough to become curmudgeons like me?

Leader versus Follower

The Pied Piper myth gives us belief in miracle cure to intractable problems. Technology offers such miracle cures, at least it does so in the minds of the believer. This is the argument for technology as the driver, to take us to the new world. But too many technology “solutions” seemingly don’t end up fitting the problems at hand and end up being critiqued for not living up to their promise. One might get a better fit by choosing a technology base on a scenario articulated entirely absent the technology. This is the argument that technology should be second fiddle to the other issues on campus that we confront. Sometimes we call this the alignment issue.

I’m not happy with technologists who seem oblivious to this question. I’m equally unhappy with others on campus who don’t even try to see technology as a possible solution. But I have been arguing for some time that we in IT shoot ourselves in the foot by ignoring the question entirely. As long as the rhetoric within IT (and within Educause) promotes this dichotomy rather than attempts to reconcile it, we’re apt to be ignored and not trusted.

Data versus Trust

I’m still in pain over the Yankees being outed in the playoffs and Joe Torre no longer managing the team. This Buster Olney column puts the trust-data tradeoff in a different light. My reading of the sports pages the last few days is that trust wins. Old fashion values don’t always die hard. Sometimes they live on. It’s the new fashioned ideas that go the wayside. Does the analog apply to Higher Ed as well? I really don’t know, but I posed the question in this post. I’m guessing that at the conference there will be a lot of unquestioning folks arguing for the data side of the equation. I’m happy to have a beer with any and all of them. I’ll be less happy if they brush me off and take it all as a given.

Cost Add versus Cost Saving

It’s odd being in a Business School which has a $62M instructional facility due to come online next summer. We’re spending a pretty penny on the AV in the classrooms – our tiered classrooms are supposed to have three lcd projectors, the two on each side will show the same image and since the room is horseshoe shaped are there to guarantee all have a decent line of sight to at least one of the screens. The other larger screen in the middle is there to show a different image. Some of our faculty have asked for the ability to display multiple images simultaneously. Our flat classrooms will have two projectors, each for a distinct image.

Since buildings are funded by donors, its not hard to build up a case of use that justifies their largesse; multiple projectors in a classroom is only one comparatively minor instance of that. But elsewhere, where tuition and state funding combined seem inadequate to support our activities, we think of instructional technology different, as a substitute for the TA we don’t have or for the reasonable student/faculty ratio that we also don’t have, particularly in the gateway courses. That there is one or the other, I could adapt myself to that fairly easily. That there are both simultaneously makes me wonder repeatedly which will win out. I really don’t know. Nor do I know whether the Business school is special in this regard or if it just like the rest of campus.

* * * * *

I’m not expecting the conference to resolve these dichotomies but I am hopeful that they come up now and then during the week. Even if one doesn’t find truth, it is comforting to know there are others looking to answer the same questions.

Monday, October 15, 2007

It’s a Small World and the Nobel Prize in Economics

This morning they announced the Nobel Prize winners in Economics. One of the winners, Roger Myerson, was a professor of mine at Northwestern (Winter quarter, 1977) for a course in non-linear programming. That was my first year in grad school and I believe Roger’s first quarter teaching. Before that, Roger was Ken Arrow’s student at Harvard. Arrow was another Nobel winner. During that first year we learned about all the giants of economic theory. Arrow and Gerard Debreu were at the very top for their formulation of the general equilibrium model. (Lionel McKenzie was also a pioneer in this area but didn’t get quite the same notice.) The third great theorist we became aware of at the time was Leo Hurwicz, for mechanism design. It’s remarkable that he didn’t win the prize until now. He was a giant even then. The funny thing is that Hurwicz was once a faculty member at Illinois, before I was born. So was Franco Modigliani, another Nobel winner. Back then we let some very big fish get away.

Let me get back to Roger. Reading the New York Times piece and this piece in the Chicago Tribune, which is a little more informative, it seems these papers don’t think they can educate their readers as to what “mechanism design” really means so they talk about it but don’t explain it. I’m going to try to provide some explanation with an example.

Before the Internet and Websites like Travelocity or Expedia, one had to book flights either through the airlines themselves or through a travel agent, who would do the lookup on your behalf to find the appropriate flights at the appropriate fares. In turn, the airlines set the fares in kind of an arcane way but with a particular goal in mind – they wanted to separate out the buyers by their willingness to pay, and get those willing to pay more to do that, in exchange for some perq that these buyers would value. Equivalently, they wanted to give discounts to those buyers who were looking for a bargain, but they needed to provide some inconvenience in addition or else all buyers would want to buy at the lower price.

One mechanism that they opted for, a mechanism that persisted for quite some time, was the Saturday stay over. “Business travelers”, who had their travel paid by their employer, wanted to get home once their business concluded. But “tourists”, looking for bargains, would be willing to accept the Saturday stay over to get the lower fairs and accommodate their vacations to that.

In 1979 Roger wrote a paper where he introduced an idea called the “Revelation Principle” (I believe the same idea was later invented independently by Robert Townsend) where Roger showed that for every mechanism (Saturday stay over is one such mechanism) there is an equivalent “direct mechanism” that leads to exactly the same outcomes. In this case in the direct mechanism the traveler announces either “I’m a business traveler” or “I’m a tourist” and then the mechanism allocates both the travel time and the payments in a way that makes them “incentive compatible,” meaning it is in the interest of each type to report their type truthfully given the incentives in place.

The value of this finding was huge for economics research. For an arbitrary mechanism it is sometimes quite hard to work through the full implications of the incentive scheme. But for a direct mechanism where it is known that each type will report truthfully, it is much easier to design an optimal mechanism. During the 1980s and early 1990s, many economics papers (including a few I wrote) looked for the optimal direct mechanism within a certain particular environment that was deemed worthy of study, as a way to explain behavior in that particular environment. The approach was adopted in Industrial Organization, Labor Economics, International Trade, and other fields as well. Roger’s work paved the way for all this other work.

I’m glad he won the award. It makes me feel proud of the graduate education I received and that the whole thing really is close to home.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Where does active learning happen?

I’ve been scratching my head about whether my blogging is active learning, using definitions that are in common parlance nowadays. On the pro side, I do produce some new or a fresh perspective on what others are talking about by making associations between disparate ideas that are out there. This part fits in with constructivist notions of learning. But the activity is almost pure introspection, especially in the pre-writing phase. Then the activity becomes a blend of introspection, research qua Web surfing via Google (and some other sources of search), dictation to myself and modest keyboarding of that dictation, one phrase at a time, as well as some immediate editing to see if it reads back as well as it sounded the first time through and to catch obvious typos, all part of the process in what I call the composition phase.

So on the con side, it is a solitary activity without social interaction. Once in a while I will write in response to a post elsewhere by a friend or colleague and then perhaps there will be a response back to that, but more often than not I’m initiating based on what I’d call “external stimuli,” for example a New York Times article or an interview on the Charlie Rose show; and clearly I don’t have a co-author with whom I negotiate the content of a post. The lack of social interaction might disqualify it as active learning in the minds of some. Indeed, when talking about learning these days we don’t seem to talk much about introspection, reflection especially as a means of metacognition about some other learning activity, yes, but introspection as a means to initiate an idea, no. For me, blogging is a lot of that. Is it active learning? I’ll let others be the judge.

A lot of what I do in my job working on relationships with others around campus and developing new initiatives I would term active learning. The principal tools are email for asynchronous communication and then face to face conversation, either in one of our offices or more likely at a coffee place. It has the feel of an ongoing conversation rather than a one shot thing and it may very well be that we have multiple distinct but interrelated threads that we deal with in any single meeting. There are some smaller workgroups that also function this way. Larger committees don’t. In large committees, if I were doing the “whip” function I would treat members as a group of individuals and then have one-on-one interactions with each individual, which is where the active learning would happen. It is very hard to do brainstorming in the larger group absent those one-on-one interactions and the discussion will go nowhere in a hurry unless it has some direction based on prior interactions with individual members.

People do have busy schedules so sometimes a conversation doesn’t conclude within a given session. But the conversation doesn’t stop because somebody has to be somewhere else. We’ll pick it up again face to face in the not too distant future and in between there will be email aimed at furthering the ideas. With people I know reasonably well, we schedule generously to not feel rushed when we do meet and because we like these conversations. So for me, active learning occurs at the coffee place, somebody’s office, while at my computer, and if the introspection part counts too then any place I do that, which is basically anywhere and everywhere when I’m by myself.

With that as background I want to consider active learning by students in the courses they take. I have never been comfortable with that notion because it is something unlike what I described above. Often, it refers to quick hitter interactions that are a break from lecture or that are used to jump start an ensemble discussion. Often the active learning ends when the bell goes off signaling the end of class. And in many of the cases of which I’m aware these active learning activities are done as a one off. In the next class the students are paired differently. I know that most of those in the profession advocate for active learning of this type, but I think there are some pernicious consequences to the approach, mainly that a student can readily come to believe that good ideas are there for the having in short order, which in turn creates a sense of impatience in the students that learning should happen quickly (and that they need not put in a lot of time to learn a lot). Indeed, once an instructor has developed that perception in the students further accommodation of the perception requires the instructor to steer away from hard problems. The pressure to meet the perception helps to make the perception self-fulfilling.

If we want our students to engage in deep learning, it seems inescapable to me that most of the active learning has to happen outside the regularly scheduled class time, in small groups that persist for a while and which interact in a manner similar to the way in which I interact in my work, and if we agree that introspection can be a part of the process then also when the students are by themselves but focusing on the issues at hand. We are now many years into supporting our approach to active learning, both on my campus and in the profession at large, but on this basic point we still haven’t reached agreement that active learning should happen this way, at least when considering active learning in the setting of regularly scheduled courses.

And it seems to me that the reasons why we have no such agreement is that the instructor can readily observe what happens during the scheduled class session but can at best only infer what happens outside of class and then make only very coarse inferences, which are based on the work that students produce and often that work itself is only measured by how students do on exams.

Much current criticism of the lecture is based on considering that in isolation, instead of viewing the lecture in conjunction with the work that students do in study groups, which is where the active learning is apt to occur. It certainly seems at least possible, and I believe my first year in graduate school functioned much this way, that the in-classroom lecture during the day serve as fodder for the introspection and the study group interaction that happens mostly in the evening. When I was in grad school the study groups formed as a grass roots thing because many of the students needed it as a survival mechanism in the classes and the rest of us who could have done ok with just the introspection wanted to hang around with our classmates for social reasons.

Let us all agree that lectures that don’t engender active learning outside of class (and while I’ve not looked at the recent results, the NSSE from a few years back indicated that at many public universities we have quite a few classes of this sort) are quite likely ineffective. But what of those that do? In other words, what if lecture is accompanied by rather serious work for the students to complete out of class, with the lecture at least in part an instrument to help the students complete the work? Does that mechanism provide for effective learning or not? If not, does the study group approach fail because group activities are structured by the students themselves rather than by the instructor and hence the students apply themselves in a manner that is not efficient to promote their own learning?

I’ve not actually seen anyone argue on this point. Rather it seems the gospel that lectures are bad pure and simple and that active learning should happen in the classroom and only in the classroom. So I find myself at odds with much of the profession, because as I said that doesn’t make sense to me.

I could readily believe an argument that said some active learning in the class is necessary because students need to learn to scaffold their arguments and discussions in a way the produces results, not gridlock. But surely we shouldn’t be under the impression that the in class work is sufficient in itself. Look at Chickering and Ehrmann’s Seven Principles. They do make sense to me. But I believe it is possible to implement them all while still having some substantial amount of lecture face to face.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Addendum to Previous Post

I did test everything I wrote about in the previous message, but Norma tried the Calendar and it worked like the Gmail and Google Docs, not how I reported. I'm not sure what's up with that. In any event, there is a post in the Announcements area on how to get the group Calendar into your Google Calendars and then use it as advertised.

What’s in a name? And what’s with Google?

Here are a few things about Google stuff, some good and some not so. Let’s start with the good and if you have a Gmail account you can try this first one yourself. Log into Google and then follow this link, to add Prof Econ’s Group (Professor.Economist is a particular account in Google that I have for this demo) as a tab to your iGoogle page. Even if you don’t want to try that, you can get much of the idea by going to your own iGoogle page, clicking on the down arrow next to the active tab, and then following the Share this tab link.

When you do that, you get a window to invite people to share with. In that window there is a checkbox for each gadget on the tab and then there is another checkbox, initially unchecked, that says Share pre-configured gadget settings. I checked that box, then sent the invite message to another of my Gmail accounts. Here is a screenshot of the added tab for those who opt not to actually add that tab to their own iGoogle page. You can follow along with the rest by looking at the screen shot.

There are 6 gadgets on this tab. Prof Econ’s Place is my name for what others might call “Announcements.” It is created by a feed from this blog, which is from where it takes its name. If you’ve installed the tab, you can actually click through to the blog from the gadget. Likewise, the del.icio.us content is what others might call “Bookmarks” and obviously comes from a del.icio.us feed. Do note that the feeds sometimes take a while to update. Let me skip the next three gadgets and return to them. The Google Video gadget also comes from feeds. In this case you do a search to identify the video content so the content you want must be uniquely identified by the search. I did two different searches, each associated with its own tag.

The above three gadgets work pretty much as in any other feed aggregator, such as Netvibes (though I’d be curious as to whether the Google Video gadget works in Netvibes). The next three work differently and in my view inconsistently apply the checkbox for pre-configured gadgets. The calendar one works as advertised. It appears to show the particular Calendar from Prof Econ’s group, whether the user is subscribed or not. The other two gadgets show the most recent items from the user’s Gmail and Google docs, not the most recent items for these tools from Prof Econ’s Gmail and Google docs. That’s ok if it is understood how it works.

The Google docs gadget is really the most interesting one. For Prof Econ to get a document he has uploaded to appear in that gadget for a user, Prof Econ must share the document with the user. Sharing is managed via Gmail contacts. In the process of sharing the document, Prof Econ sends an email message to the user to which says that the document is being shared. The user doesn’t have to do anything with that email. It serves as a receipt only. One reason to show the Gmail gadget on the page is that for each document that Prof Econ shares there should be a corresponding email receipt.

In order to get this to function smoothly, Prof Econ needs to amass the Gmail addresses of all the users. At present, that is the single biggest headache to get this approach to work – how to amass those accounts. In a group with a few dozen people, this is a manageable problem and I’d encourage the approach. In a class with several hundred students, that problem may make the approach unwieldy. From my play with this, I suggest that if the group gets much larger than 5 or 10, that the person playing the role of Prof Econ actually set up a separate Gmail account just for this purpose, so that the contact list coincides with membership in the group. Then the distribution is fairly easy. If the contact list in your regular Gmail account has many names already, deciding who is in the group or not will be time consuming. Perhaps soon in the future Google docs will allow subfolders of Contacts and you can set up the group that way. But right now a separate account seems to be the easiest approach.

In some respect this post is a sequel to an early one, iGoogle and the LMS. I should point out that the LMS my campus uses, WebCT Vista, doesn’t have a document folder of this sort where the instructor shares documents with students and I know from comments I’ve received from MBA students that they’d really like to have such a feature. Indeed, the entire approach with iGoogle has appeal over an LMS approach in that everything is right there at the top level. For example, with the use of AJAX the user can read the message announcements by clicking the little plus sign next to the subject heading and do that without ever leaving that page. Likewise, the videos can be viewed right in the page, with a click-through possible if the user wants to see the video in a larger size. However, the issue goes beyond LMS in the sense that working groups of all sorts probably want this type of functionality, and for many of these working groups it would not occur to them to use an LMS. Convenience-wise, what is shown here can serve as a reasonable benchmark for alternative solutions. It may be less secure than some other possible solutions, and the content sits on Google servers rather than on servers run by the Campus, but in many instances those concerns are peripheral to users while convenience is central. I think this does quite well on the convenience front.

Let me also point out that if Google docs is really embraced this way, then the flow can go both ways and, in particular, students can share docs such as assignment submissions with Prof Econ. (As with the contact list for users, Prof Econ might want a separate account just for the “drop box” function, so to separate out those documents he has uploaded from those that have been shared with him by his students. But if Prof Econ manages his folders well, this may not be necessary.) The big virtue of using Google docs in this way compared to the more traditional drop box – no download is necessary. This makes the workflow of reading and commenting on the documents much easier and might really encourage electronic communication where now we still have a lot of paper flow.

If I were currently teaching the Campus Honors course I taught last in spring ’06, I’d try this approach.

* * * * *

Now to a more frivolous matter, but something that Google is doing that does bother me and I wish they’d stop. If you do a Google search on a first name, on some of these searches images will appear at the top. On others no image appears. As there is a Google Image search and a Google Video search, I’m not sure why they are allowing images in regular searches. At a minimum, it would be good for the user to control what comes back, whether it should just be Web pages or if images (and later video) should be allowed to come back too.

I know this from searching on my own first name. I get some substantial traffic to my blog from people doing that type of search. It turns out there is a porn star with the same first name and (not surprisingly) her site is the #1 response to the Google query. I’m ok with that. It’s what happens with an open Web. But why does her picture have to appear at the top of the page when doing this search?

I have not done a statistically valid experiment of searching on various first names and seeing whether they return images of well known people with that first name or not. But I’d bet that most of those pages that do return images show pictures of women scantily clad. I’m sure whoever at Google thought including the images this way was trying to cut down on the number of searches that the user makes to find what they are looking for. In general, I’m all for efforts that reduce the time needed to find stuff. But some sensibility should be brought to the endeavor. Folks who are actually looking for my site shouldn’t have to be exposed to these photos if they don’t want to. And the reality is that people are sufficiently imprecise with their search terms, so they very well might do a first name only search since my first name is somewhat rare and it’s easier to remember just one name rather than two. Google should reconsider its approach given this unintended consequence.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Do we plagiarize inadvertently?

This morning I read a blog post from Inside Higher Ed’s University Diaries. This one is called Plagiarism: Yours, Mine, and Ayres’ and concerns the apparent double standard where students receive severe punishment for getting caught plagiarizing but where highly visible faculty and administrators who have been found plagiarizing seemingly get off scot-free. The tone of the post is righteous indignation. And for some reason that bothered me, not about the faculty and administrators named in the piece and the sins they have committed, but rather on the question of how far from the norm they have strayed. If you recall the film, Breaking Away, I feel a bit like Dave Stoller, before he rode in the race with the Italian team where one of them rammed his tire pump into the spokes on Dave’s bike, forcing him to fall hard and drop out of the race, only to proclaim to his dad later that evening something to the effect, “They all cheat. I just didn’t know.”

On this plagiarism question, I just don’t know too. I’m not even sure about my own behavior. So I don’t think it a trivial question to ask. Let me illustrate what the problem is and then make some guesses on how to find the slippery slope.

First, having written a modest number of Economics papers published in refereed Economics Journals, plagiarism and correct citation in this case is a comparatively easy matter. A standard part of the writing is a literature review section and one covers the pieces that preceded the current work there. The incentives are in line to get the citations right – citations are one measure of influence of the work and there is a quid pro quo of sorts in citation, but really one needs to cite broadly to show referees that the author understands the relevant literature and to place the contribution correctly within that work. The only possible issue here is with comparatively new work that may still itself be under review. In any event, I’m not thinking about traditional journal publishing or academic book writing in asking my question.

I’m thinking about blogging, such as this blog. With informal publication of this sort, the set of potential sources is huge, one doesn’t typically try to do anything like a literature review, and there is no referee to please or clear standards to meet regarding citation. But that is not the real problem. The issue is how we get information nowadays. We are bombarded with information from a variety of sources: email, Web sites, radio and TV, information that is pushed at us by friends, colleagues, and business relations; information that we actively seek out on our own; and then all the follow up information after we have learned something and want to learn some more. Further, much if not most of this information is gathered with no intent whatsoever to write about it. Instead, we get the information to “keep up” or perhaps so we can feel on par when we engage in conversation where some of the information may come up in passing. Most of us are in this boat.

When I start to write a blog post there is something that triggers that main idea and I’m aware of that something, so that I cite by linking to the source if at all possible. But then a related idea might occur to me. I say to myself, “where did I see that?” And if I’m lucky I can do a Google search or two and find the source that triggered the related idea. Then I link to it. But sometimes I’m not so lucky and now there is an ethical choice to be made – mention the idea but with some faint disclaimer like, “I know I read this somewhere” or something else to that effect just to show that I don’t mean to plagiarize but I also don’t want to put in the research time needed to find the source, mention the idea without any disclaimer whatsoever with the intent most likely simply to make it cleaner reading since the disclaimer is a sidebar and not the topic of discussion, or choose not to include the idea in the post because one should not make claims that can’t be substantiated.

I believe that I do each one of these on occasion. I don’t have a rule book to follow and simply make some judgment at the time (based on what I’m not sure) as to which is the most appropriate. I have no sense of how frequently this occurs. One doesn’t set out to write something with sources that can’t be identified. And it’s not something I fixate on. There are a variety of other small transgressions I make quite regularly – I jaywalk around campus, indeed I do it deliberately sometimes so I can retain my New York roots while at Illinois – at home I believe we violate a codicil to our community association’s bylaws in that the size of our satellite dish is too large – and a bunch more of this sort of thing that are in the mild if not totally benign category. Life is too short to worry about this stuff. But what stuff should it be that we do worry about?

And that gets us back to plagiarism. I have to conclude that I’ve done it on occasion in this blog, though I don’t know when. Certainly, I was not trying to cheat. Nobody is requiring me to write a blog post. And, at least directly, I make no profit from the activity. But do I always cite my sources? Probably not. Should anything be done about that? I hope not. I’m not sure what could be done that makes sense. My inkling is to put this in the mild category and not worry about it, but seeing stones thrown about plagiarism as in that Inside Higher Ed blog, I’m not entirely comfortable with that answer.

Yesterday in my support role for the course management system used by instructors in my college, I read the citation policy as stated in one particular course. There was very strong language used, akin to a Do Not Trespass notice. If I might get shot at by the owner of the private property, I’ll obey the no trespassing notice, no question about that. But if there are strong rules that are mostly self-policed my adherence to them will be adjusted to my personal sense of reasonable behavior and in my world view a modest level of violation is typically ok, especially if there is no apparent harm.

In general, we don’t educate students with the aim to achieve an acceptable norm. Instead we give them absolute norms and then fret when we witness egregious violations. In the case of plagiarism, in particular, we may not be aware of our own behavior, think only of our scholarly publishing and not at all of our informal communication. Those distinctions may mean less to our students. For them, the rules of citation may seem arbitrary. What larger lessons do they learn when we make them follow the rules this way? I don’t know but I do know how I’d react if I were in their shoes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Who will win the Nobel Prize in Economics?

It's that time of year. The Nobel Prizes in Medicine have been awarded. Time to guess who will win this years Economics award. A list of past winners can help in weeding out who won't get the award this time through.

Whether you teach economics or some other subject, I wonder whether getting students to predict the winner of some well known prize in the field, giving them some reward for a correct prediction, and thereby encouraging them to do some research on who are likely candidates, is a good way to drum up some interest in the subject. Call it the People Magazine approach to instruction.

For what it is worth, I'm predicting William Baumol, using the improbable criterion that among all economists (other than myself) I believe he is the one most frequently mentioned on this blog. (And Paul Krugman seems still too young to be a candidate.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Online Presentation Ideas

As there are plans to teach a new course offering, Business 101, in blended format and because we are doing a pilot with Adobe Connect, the eLearning Team in the College has been playing with Adobe Presenter, a complementary application. Here are some observations about online presentations based on that experience.

Self-Tests within the Presentation

My office mate, Norma, liked the look and feel of a Presentation done with Adobe Presenter – it does have a clean look where one can readily see the slide titles and timings fore each slide, along with a search capability as another way to get random access to the content. But I was intrigued to learn that you can intersperse quizzes that are “graded” within the presentation – the viewer gets immediate feedback.

The use of this seems manifold. The WebCT Vista course management system that my campus supports does not have a self-test feature within a quiz that is for credit. It only has a stand along self-test. So to deliver the requisite functionality within a quiz for credit, one could put in “hint links” to self-tests in Adobe Presenter. That should work fine.

A different use would be for mini-lectures delivered online. As a way to chunk the content there could be short quizzes that are really there to let the viewer ask the question: “Am I getting this stuff?” Also, the quiz allows some planned pause time for reflection before going on with the presentation. This post from the Tomorrow’s Professor blog makes it clear that breaking up presentation in this way is quite effective.

Do note that the quiz questions must be text-based, no multimedia, and there is a limited range of question types. But one might go reasonably far with what is there.

Examples: Audio Only or Talking Head Video?

Here are two different versions of a similar presentation. The audio only version has the dual virtues that it is very easy to make – the audio can be recorded directly in Adobe Presenter – and it launches quite quickly even though in this case this is on a regular Web server, not a Flash streaming server. The talking head video version takes longer to make, because the video must be recorded outside of Adobe Presenter and then brought in, slide by slide. For viewing it takes some time to buffer the video content, even with a good network connection. And relative to how the videos looked before they were inserted into Adobe Presenter, which resized them to fit into the presenter box, they are kind of grainy here. But might the viewers prefer this mode anyway because it seems more personal? Perhaps the answer depends on the context. Both versions are available so you can make your own judgment.

Moving away from the PowerPoint Style?

Folks who are used to presenting with PowerPoint likely will be comfortable with Adobe Presenter. But do note there are other ways to go and once you start to think about that, other possibilities will suggest themselves. Here is an archive of all the videos that were made for the previous presentation along with two some additional clips, one by me on hyperinflation of college tuition, the other joint with Norma. I think the joint stuff is much more compelling to the viewer. In any event, the video can be delivered on its own via the archive, or a clip can readily be embedded in a Web page such as a blog. One loses the interactive quiz function this way, but there might be other activities which would be more meaningful for the students than quizzes while still achieving the desired chunking of the presentation. For example, perhaps they should do some quick writing in private reflection, or instead make a post to a discussion board with questions they have. Moreover, if there is interest in getting the content out to others, it is an interesting thought that the above mentioned archive is on Google Video, it is readily discoverable by a search there. (Such a search also searches for video content in YouTube, but not vice versa.)

Screen Capture Video

Talking head video has its place, and the interview style makes for interesting viewing, but in many cases it will just be the instructor doing the presentation. Consequently, the instructor will want to look for other ways to spice things up. Several people on campus are already using Jing. This quick demo looks indistinct from a capture done with Jing’s cousin, Camtasia, but it is made much more quickly, and Jing is free. (One suspects there might be a charge in the future. If not a direct charge, TechSmith, the company that makes Jing, will need to find some other way to generate revenue for the service.) Short captures can add spice and they really are easy to make. Further, file size is typically small so Jing movies can be sent out via email if that is preferred to putting them on a Web site.

One thing Jing can’t do is to make a second pass at the recording. I’ve found making my own screen captures that if I talk and capture at the same time then I tend to ramble and the entire thing becomes too long. One needs to be merciful to viewer of these things – get in, say your piece, and get out, quickly. So I do better by doing the screen capture on first pass and then doing voice over onto the previously recorded screen capture. This makes the process more elaborate but gets a better end result. If you’re making movies of 5 minutes or more, I’d recommend being more elaborate in this way. If your entire movie is under a minute, Jing is fantastic.

Modeling for Student Presentations

Instructors will first think of this as a lecture alternative for themselves, but one of the nice things about all of these approaches is that students can use them too. So an instructor might want to embrace an approach that is not just suitable for herself but which also make sense for her students and then try to envision her own presentations as giving her students tips on how to do their presentations.

Getting Students IntoYour Presentations

If your presentation is mainly response to questions that students pose, it will be more compelling to watch. You might elicit questions from the students in advance so you base your presentation around those questions. Or, better still, you might invite the students to participate in Q&A that you record. Podcasting (audio only recording) is quite easy to do this way. Talking head video is only a little bit harder. Also, you can add slides or screen movies to the recorded audio content afterwards if you think it will benefit the students.

Writing versus Presentation

Once the presentation moves online another consideration is what to deliver as written text, for example in a blog post, and what to deliver as presentation. My own view is to mix and match. Highly technical content probably can be delivered more effectively in presentation style (I’m thinking about economics with a lot of graphs and equations) so the students get both the visual information and the audio explanation. But otherwise, I’m guessing that what is best is what is most comfortable for the instructor – if the instructor likes to write…

Do Some Assessment

Given multiple possibilities in method of delivery, it doesn’t hurt to try a few different approaches and then ask the students which they prefer (and why).


Online presentations can be used again. Realistically their half-life can’t be too long because the technology changes and they begin to look dated and the content itself may also lose its freshness. But certainly some re-use is likely. This should encourage the instructors to think of what they want to do up front not being determined solely by the time it takes to produce the stuff. There will be some time savings down the road.

Monday, October 01, 2007

In the Heat of Mocking a Killing Bird

Used to be things were black and white: ice cream sodas, ideas, and race relations. Last night I caught the tail end of David and Lisa. The TCM channel was doing a Keir Dullea retrospective – 2001: A Space Odyssey came on next. This morning I read some brief reviews about the film online and I was surprised. The reviews characterize the movie as a love story and a study in mental illness. Perhaps I’m jaded, thinking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the same genre. But to me, David and Lisa is plainly an allegory. David didn’t want to be touched – he thought he could remain safe if everyone kept their distance. This is a perfect metaphor for the upwardly mobile middle class distancing themselves from the rest of the world. David blamed his parents for his predicament. This happened earlier in the film, before I turned it on. It serves as a strong indictment that we don’t prepare ourselves or our children for living in the real world when we take a gated community approach to life. Lisa lived in a sing-song universe (I’ve been known to do likewise). She constructed her own reality, a more pleasant place. The movie ends with both of them leaving their comfort zones – Lisa, having spoken a regular sentence, takes David’s extended hand. The message is that we can confront reality, hard as it may be, if we do it together.

Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin are both beautiful to watch in this film. Dullea displays elegance and tension in a single look. At the end of the film he puts the tension aside. He becomes human, caring, outward looking, with genuine concern for Lisa’s well being. Margolin has wonderful eyes, an empathy in her look, her running away a sign she has been hurt badly. The film is so good because it takes on such tough issues and yet does so with delicacy and touch.

I led off with it, on a banal level because it was shot in black and white, on a more serious plane because it reminds that we need to break through our shells and confront the serious issues of the day. This is a post about one of those serious issues – race and what, if anything, does learning technology have to say about it. It’s not an issue I talk about nor do I write about it, even occasionally. I’m more than a bit out of my comfort zone in this post. So I need a way to warm to the subject. Leading off with the film and book references is my mechanism for doing that.

Race is not an issue that should be depicted with delicacy. The resulting violence certainly conjures up a different set of emotions, a sense of assault, a feeling of horror, and fear, lots of fear. The first movie I recall that gave us all of that was In the Heat of the Night. Where David and Lisa is delicate, In the Heat of the Night is raw. Both speak to a possibility that we might work together. But they come at that possibility so differently, one to heal the hurt they brought on themselves, the other to ward off the demons of Southern White racism.

Harper Lee’s novel, reading de rigueur when I was a young teen, bridges both worlds. Ironically, mental illness has a role to play in her story, not as a window into the craziness of the real world, but rather in the character of Boo Radley, who could love the Finch children from afar, creating the mysterious presence of an adoring stranger, and ultimately serving as their protector against the vengeful violence of Bob Ewell, who was fueled both by racial hatred and a strong sense of inferiority that comes from being “poor white trash.” The film version has iconic status in the minds of many. For years, I wanted to wear tortoise shell eyeglasses, to imitate Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the film.

Indeed, the film embedded perhaps the most important message of ‘60s with regard to race – with understanding and respect for our fellow humans we could put race issues behind us, a critical example of the more general lesson, time heals all wounds. A few year later, in college, I “was taught” the mechanism by which the healing takes place. The racists die off. Their children take on the understanding of Atticus Finch rather than the hatred of their own forebears. This is the hopeful approach to both multiculturalism and pluralism, should it only be true. Part of the lie in the lesson is in ourselves, not just in the progeny of the Bob Ewell’s of the world. We don’t have the Atticus Finch commitment to right the wrong. We’re back in the David and Lisa world, trying to keep reality from touching us. I’m ready now to address my subject and I’ll begin with my own experience.

* * * * *

As a learning technologist, I had one episode where race was explicitly an issue. I’m not sure of the exact date. It must have been 2000 or 2001. There was a graduate student with whom I interacted who had been doing a study on digital divide among our students, with the Whites in the have category and the Black and Latino/a students in the have not category. The issue was about whether a student was under a serious disadvantage if he didn’t have a computer in his dorm room or place of residence, but had to rely on a computer lab instead for access. And the related set of issues is whether this created more cultural distance between the students as there are a host of related literacies that develop as a consequence of always on computer access.

So it occurred to me on my own (and there was one African American University administrator pushing this theme) that perhaps we should do a like study among the faculty, to see if there was a digital divide among that population. I consulted with one Black faculty member who had some prior experience as a Campus administrator and whom I knew via a summer workshop I had headed up. He thought it was a reasonable idea to investigate. I can’t recall whether he suggested this or if the idea cam from elsewhere, but soon thereafter I had a meeting with the heads of the African American Studies program, Latina/Latino Studies program, and Asian American Studies program, to talk about doing a study on digital divide among the faculty.

Coincidentally, but ironically, we were all interim in our positions at the time. (I was a little irked by my own status as I got my job via a faculty committee that had recommended we have a Center for Educational Technologies and that I should be the director, but there hadn’t been a formal search pursuant to that recommendation.) I recall our interim status serving as a mild bond among this group. They were all interested in doing the study. So we developed an email survey about use of instructional technology and barriers to usage, sent out by each director to their own constituencies, with the option that the recipients could reply to me directly if they so wanted.

I learned a few things from this exercise. Some of the faculty who were surveyed became irked at me for not understanding that as faculty they were treated quite well and had good technical support – race didn’t matter in this regard at all. One faculty member in the History department was unaware of the support offerings that my Center provided and so she received some consultation as a consequence. I also learned that in some cases where instructional technology was not being used in the classroom the underlying explanation was scheduling, not preference. The instructors actually wanted to teach in a smart classroom but because the mechanism that allocated those classrooms favored other criteria – the prior history of space utilization and class size of the department doing the scheduling – it was difficult to get these courses into a smart classroom. I believe we made some efforts to counteract that effect at the time, though it being several years ago I’m now ignorant of the current circumstance on this issue. And a fact I already knew from other contexts, that Black faculty get a large number of requests to participate in events around Black issues on Campus, even if those issues lie entirely outside the domain of the faculty member’s research, meant that these faculty had even more than the usual time pressure so lack of uptake of instructional technology could be explained entirely by that, rather than by inadequate technology support. But only some had done little with learning technology. Other faculty of color had accomplished much with technology. Overall, there was no digital divide among the faculty that I could discern.

Several years earlier, I was engaged in a different sort of issue about race. The Econ department was recruiting a minority faculty member under a campus program called TOPPS. The candidate was Sandy Darity and his recruitment was something of a big deal. I recall going to a lunch with him at the Union, where many of my colleagues in the department attended. I went to a cocktail party (I can’t recall where) that had faculty from around campus who were interested in this particular hire. I attended Darity’s seminar. And the evening after the talk I went to dinner with him, the department head, and one other faculty member. I had no special role in the recruitment other than being a faculty member. This happened before I gone too far down the path with learning technology. With junior recruitment I sometimes had gotten involved fairly heavily because I felt responsibility as a potential colleague. But in this case Darity would be coming in as a full professor, so my involvement was due to this being a big deal.

Econ has been a divided department and this particular case was controversial. Darity could be classified as a Sociologist by some; I don’t mean that as a derogatory term but I do mean it to contrast with the Chicago School heavy theory emphasis (in the tradition of Lucas and Prescott) in the Econ department here. There was awkwardness around this disparity and, unfortunately, you could not parse it in a straightforward way from awkwardness about race. I found his talk strange – not the subject, which was about North-South trade and how the evidence put the lie to the rising tide theory – but rather the style, which was pure anecdote with no model and little data. Also, it ended abruptly after 50 minutes. Our usual for seminars is an hour and a half. One of my colleagues whom I respected and still do respect a great deal characterized the talk as a polemic rather than a paper. Another colleague, whom I’m more suspicious about, said a few days later that if it were Yaw Nyarko, then fine, no problem with such an offer. (I don’t believe that the Econ department later tried to recruit Nyarko, but I’ve been involved with learning technology matters since and have not tracked all the hiring activities in the department.)

At the dinner, I felt a need to be a human being to Darity; he’d been under a lot of scrutiny during the earlier part of his visit. So I gave him some grief for ordering White Zinfandel – real men drink red wine. It’s funny, you joke about the things that don’t matter because you can’t talk about the other things that do. I also recall engaging him in a semi-serious conversation about something Thomas Sowell had written in the New York Review of Books. (I was still a subscriber at the time.) Unlike the rest of his visit where he was entering our space, in this conversation I was treading on his territory. My recollection is that it was a reasonably pleasant dinner and that we ended with the standard parent question on a recruiting visit – how good are the schools? But overall the visit was quite awkward.

It brought back to mind a different experience I had in graduate school. Glenn Loury was an Assistant Professor at Northwestern while I was a grad student. There was a nighttime seminar series then held at 626 Noyes street, one of the houses where the Econ department had offices before it moved into Anderson Hall. It must have been 1977 or 1978 and I was probably a second year student at the time. Loury gave a theory paper on the dynamics of black-white income inequality and what would be the optimal time path under which the inequality would be eliminated. The underlying question was whether it made sense to give an immediate push to reduce inequality or if laissez-faire was better. This was supposed to be a theoretical way to get at the question of whether affirmative action was good or bad.

The tradition after the seminar was to go out for some beers and talk about the paper some more afterwards. After the talk one of the other students asked me to ask Loury to join us at one of the bars in Chicago. (Evanston was dry at the time.) It was an awkward moment. On the one hand, by then I had a well deserved reputation for drinking beer and engaging in conversation over beer. On that dimension, I was the logical one to ask Loury. But there were several other graduate students at the seminar who were senior to me and on academic grounds one of them should have asked. They obviously felt uncomfortable doing so. I did ask Loury. He turned us down. He had some other obligation, or so he said. The rest were relieved. I don’t think Loury held this incident against me. On several subsequent occasions I had a beer with him. That night never again came up in conversation. But I don’t think those type of situations are easily forgotten.

Each of the previous incidents lie in that gray zone of discomfort where civil discourse remained but where there was a sense of unease. I’ve had one experience outside of the gray zone, squarely in the world of hate speech. This had to with my teaching. When I was teaching intermediate microeconomics in the large section with 180 students, I managed it all via undergrad TAs who graded the homework in addition to providing office hours, face to face in the afternoons and online in the evenings. I recruited those TAs from students who did reasonably well in previous offerings of the course. A couple of those undergrad TAs were African-American students.

The first was kind of strange because I knew this guy from afar before he took my class. In the winter time when it was icky outside, I used to jog on the track at IMPE which was in the main gym above the basketball court, 11 laps to the mile. While I was doing my 9:30 – 10:00 minute miles, this guy would lap me a couple of times. I saw him there quite frequently. Later, when he became my student and them my TA, he reminded me of a different student I had known when I was a TA at Northwestern. That guy’s name was Phil – no clue about his last name. He was always in the Library and every time I saw him he was by himself. There’s nothing wrong being in the Library and by yourself, and he was quite a good student, but I got the sense that it was a coping strategy, that there were no peers who could lift him up only friends who might drag him down. I don’t really know this. It’s only a guess. But I’d bet that was the case. The same was true this for my TA, Harold. He was quite serious and kept to himself. As far as I know he TA’d without incident.

That’s the way I’d like things to be. My own philosophy to collegial interaction; I’m OK, You’re OK; works fine if race is a non-issue. Then we can interact as colleagues should, critiquing each other’s work, trying to lend support and improvement to the ideas we’re floating. It’s a world I’m comfortable in and one I’d like to encourage. For example, after Nyarko visited here (some time before Darity’s visit) I did have some follow up email with him and made suggestions about this paper. But it begs the question, what does one do when I’m OK, You’re OK is not appropriate or simply doesn’t work?

The other Black TA I had was a girl. She endeared herself to me fairly early on. We did nighttime training sessions in a computer lab at the beginning of the semester to get the students in the class up to speed using the software. That year I was mentoring a junior faculty member who was teaching another section of the same course and using my method. This was an apprenticeship for him before he adopted the approach to teach economic statistics on his own. He had a wheelchair bound paraplegic student attend one of my training sessions. Previously I had welcomed him to send any of his students to one of my training sessions – I had many more training session than he did because I had more students. But I was unprepared to meet the needs of this particular student and if I recall correctly she arrived a little late, spoke loudly, and appeared to be disrupting the session.

Because I hadn’t gotten prior warning I was not in a position to immediately accommodate her needs, especially since these training sessions were outside the regular class meeting time and asking my students to attend them meant I had made an implicit promise to focus on them during the session. The Black TA figured out the predicament, spent the rest of the session giving one-on-one support to the handicapped student, and it went ok. Regarding intelligence on human relations, this TA gets high marks.

But her math background was a little weak and to do economics at this level you need the math. My mechanism was that each TA graded one problem from the problem set and for which I had written up the *correct* answer that they could use to help them in grading. Until then I didn’t assign the problems to particular TAs. I let the TAs choose the problems in a first come first serve manner. As luck would have it, the Black TA got the hardest problem to grade on the first problem set. She was slow in evaluating the submissions and slow sending them back to the student teams; my mechanism relied on fairly quick turnover so the teams could resubmit problems based on the feedback they had received. The slow grading was gumming up the works. After that first problem set, I believe I assigned the problems to the TAs for the remainder of the semester.

On the second or third problem set one of the students in the class, a white male, sent an overtly racist message along with the submission of his homework problem, in addition to which he accused the TA of being incompetent on the grading. I didn’t know what to do about this. I may have mumbled something to my TA but otherwise ignored the problem. Sometimes I let students work things out on their own because I think it is best for them to do so, though when they are getting the fundamental economics wrong I’m more apt to interfere. In this case I should have interfered based on the merits but I didn’t know how to handle it. So I mumbled and kept my nose out of it. I’m not proud of that at all.

* * * * *

Finally, let me bring learning technology into the discussion. And for that, let me start off with the final lecture of Randy Pausch. In the introductory remarks by Steve Seabolt, he refers to Randy as “the White-ist guy I know.” The remark gets a laugh from the audience and is probably completely benign; Seabolt is referring to Pausch’s taste for mayo on white bread (in turkey sandwiches) and presumably other like un-hip behavior. I thought it a strange thing to say nonetheless. But I don’t want to linger on that. Instead, I’d like to focus on something Paush himself describes near the tail end of his quite moving presentation, how misdirection, something he learned about on the football field, is one of the essentials of good teaching. You teach students something that is both hard and important by getting them to work on something else that captures their immediate attention. You, the teacher, overly focus on that something else to get the students to buy in. But underneath you understand that you’re mainly after the something else and in the end you judge your own success by whether that something else has been well learned.

We have a problem on campus talking about race and interacting on race issues. It’s not surprising that we’re in this boat. The campus problem reflects the same problem in society at large. We’ve had multiple incidents of hate speech recently. We have a new program on campus- Inclusive Illinois, one campus many voices. This program is aimed as a counterforce. As far as I can tell the approach with this program is straightforward, no misdirection.

There are multiple projects on campus involving Second Life as a teaching tool. One of those has been led by Professor Sharon Tettegah in the College of Education. I got to know Sharon soon after she joined the faculty here and over the years we’ve become friends. I’ve seen her give multiple presentations on Second Life. In the first talk she gave she emphasized the role for students as designers in of virtual worlds and the type of learning we might encourage by giving students such a designer capability. In subsequent presentations she talked about a different type of empowerment that Second Life affords, taking on different personalities via the avatars the person uses navigating within Second Life. It is a great environment for role playing and via the interaction with others a good way to learn how others react to a persona that one takes on in role play.

I have written previously about my not getting it regarding the profession’s fascination with online games. And, truthfully, I didn’t really get it about role playing either. I always put suggestions of this sort through my own set of internal filters with one of the primary questions, would it work for me? Role playing didn’t seem to make it through. After all, I already had a strong voice. I’ve been told that shows up in my blogging. Why would I need role playing?

But sometime over the weekend I came to a different conclusion and in this post I belabored my own experiences with race to show why. I don’t have a strong voice when it comes to race relations. Instead, I feel uncomfortable. I’d like to hide till the discussion turns to something else. And then, in something I read in the last week or two, perhaps something on the espn.com site about race relations fueled by the Michael Vick and O.J. Simpson stories, there was the story how even nowadays Blacks receive almost constant reminders that they are second class citizens who shouldn’t be able to succeed in society. I’m oblivious to the vast majority of those reminders; either my realm of experience avoids them altogether or I’ve been wearing the blinders for so long that I just don’t see what isn’t immediately in front of me. I really don’t know which is the better explanation, but it seems clear to me that both fit in fairly nicely with being uncomfortable actively engaging on race issues.

And now I make a leap, but one I do quite regularly in thinking about learning technology issues, that I can generalize from my own experience and thinking. The generalization is that role playing would be quite good for many of us as a way to heighten our sensitivity on race issues, that technology like Second Life might be quite good for such role playing, indeed something like Second Life might be necessary to pull it off and then, bringing Pausch back in, that the only way to do this and overcome the sense of discomfort is by taking a misdirection approach. We have to be overtly about some other use of role playing with technology or some other use of the technology itself – maybe that’s the design of online environments, maybe it’s to use the technology for virtual tours; on what the misdirection should be I’m not sure.

Let me close with one other point. My Campus at the level of Purchasing and Campus Legal has been extremely conservative about Second Life and giving University sanction to faculty or departments in purchasing “islands” in Second Life. Second Life mimics the real world in many respects and it can be a rough and tumble place. The University, on the other hand, we think of as a cloister, a safe haven. We go to efforts to preserve that. Narrowly speaking, I can understand the Purchasing point of view.

But putting two and two together, and understanding how on this Campus there is a tendency for silos to develop on issues, following the maxim that to keep things tractable make them smaller, I think it is a mistake to deal with race issues over here via the Inclusive Illinois campaign and deal with Second Life issues over there via the approach advocated by Purchasing and Campus Legal, never for the twain to meet. We’re in a position to put learning technology into service in support of a huge social issue on campus, in a way where it could make a real difference. We’ve got the previous 45 years of experience to make us realize that these problems don’t go away by themselves. Shouldn’t we be designing learning experiences for our community so that we’re not in the same boat 45 years hence?