Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Who are the Tarriers?

As we stumble forward into the future, seemingly yanked in many directions all at once, we’re also inextricably circling backward in time. For the economy as a whole, it’s the 1930s again. The pundits are hoping Obama will be the reincarnation of FDR, as the parallel between Bush and Hoover seems all to clear, a perfect backdrop to set the stage, and Obama’s latest announcement of a massive infrastructure investment reminiscent of the New Deal programs.

But I wonder if we need a different sort of comfort, one more recent, within our own realm of experience. I’m reminded of this scene from one of my favorite episodes of West Wing. Josh is suffering badly from post traumatic stress disorder, giving back talk to the President (which is simply not done) because he is not in control of his own emotions, fearing for his job since it is full of work tensions and denying the situation since he has no outlet to vent his anger. After a long session with a psychologist who eventually gets Josh to make the connections between what happened after he was shot and how he has been acting for the previous few weeks leading up to the Christmas Holiday, Josh has a (not so) serendipitous encounter with Leo. As his boss and dear friend, Leo has also had to conquer his own demons, pills and especially alcohol, and indeed that his most recent prior abysmal performance as a high official in the Democratic party came when he did some heavy drinking right before the Bartlett nomination, and worse that political opponents knew that was the case. Leo had weathered the storm in good part because of Josh’s loyalty and quick judgment. His reassurances to Josh were real, just for that reason, and his support was total, because Josh had likewise been that sort of friend when Leo was mired in the muck.

To the extent that the economic morass is the consequence of each of us caving into our weaknesses, spending more than we can afford, emphasizing the material benefits in our existence, cravings rather than ideas and people, we can liken ourselves to Josh and hope to find our own Leos. The economic morass is more than that, of course, and some of the things that ail us require government intervention and macroeconomic cures. Personal salvation, however beneficial individually, simply won’t fully address the range of economic problems. But the converse is also true. This is a time when personal salvation is especially needed. If we’re to make substantial economic sacrifice to get through the present harshness, we won’t be able to cope without it. Will we as individuals get better this way or fall back to our own bad habits once the economy starts to rebound?

In this piece, however, I don’t want to linger in talking about the economy. Instead, I want to concentrate on learning technology, where I’m having my own personal circle back, to the 1990s when I ran SCALE, where we supported Mallard, which is still up and running, about ghosts from Plato, and about the specter and promise of online learning, as it seemed then and as it appears now. These memories where stirred up in me from a publisher advisory board meeting I attended last week in Salem Massachusetts, an interesting place to hold such a meeting given the history of the locale, and also that I know some of these Board members from prior episodes in learning technology: the CIC learning technology group (when it was group sponsored by the various Provosts and gave out grant funding for inter institutional projects), the Pew Program in Course Redesign, and the WebCT Vista Product Advisory Board (prior to the buyout by Blackboard).

On the way home from this meeting, partly inspired by the locale, I read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, instead of reading the Management Textbook I was supposed to read as I might use it in an upcoming course. (The Kindle has a bunch of downloads for $.99 of works that are now in the public domain and that have been converted to Kindle format. This was the first of these works I have read from beginning to end on the Kindle.) Thoreau’s essay, written at the time of the Mexican-American war, a military engagement that Thoreau viewed as unwise and unjust, is all about conscience, when to succumb to will the of the majority, and when to act against its strictures by not paying taxes that are government imposed or by deliberately breaking the law. Much of these historic issues with learning technology I now view as matters of conscience and I will write the rest of this piece in that tone, perhaps scolding too harshly; but really I don’t see a better alternative.

Let me start with pedagogy, a loaded term if there ever was one, a term where the rhetoric and jargon have limited our thinking, I’m afraid. Plato started a tradition of “computer assisted instruction” where the computer was a tutor for the student and the emphasis was on student-computer interaction. This notion survives but where when I started this was viewed as wondrous and the the wave of the future, Web delivery seemed to promise a Plato-like educational experience for any and all who were interested, now it seems dated and limited, relegated to the confines of training and the high enrollment introductory course. Real learning is student centric, driven by the student’s own inquiry, based on notions from Constructivism, and then extended to online learning and social networks. Computer assisted instruction has no place in that universe. It is too spoon-fed and prescriptive.

There is a tension that has been there since I started with learning technology. As Carol Twigg likes to point out:

Undergraduate enrollments in the United States are concentrated heavily in large-enrollment introductory courses. In fact, just 25 courses generate about half of all student enrollments in community colleges and about a third of enrollments in four-year institutions. The topics of these courses are not surprising and include introductory studies in such disciplines as English, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, accounting, biology, and chemistry. In addition to suffering from a high rate of academic failure, these courses affect literally every student who goes to college.

But a campus like mine has a huge number of undergraduate courses, in excess of 1500. The vast majority of the faculty are teaching these other courses; the student/faculty ratio is much higher in those 25 and in that sense they subsidize the rest of the operation. In a nutshell, the tension is about whether innovation with learning technology should happen where the students are, in those 25 large courses, or if it should happen in the other classes, where most of the faculty are. With Plato, and then later with Mallard and CyberProf, we were getting one sort of answer. With Web 2.0 and student centric approaches to learning we’re getting a different sort of answer. And never the twain shall meet.

This is unfortunate. While there are some other efforts in the spirit of supporting those large classes such as LON CAPA, which dates back to the CyberProf and Mallard days, and the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, a more recent development in the same spirit, it remains true that the there is far too little creative effort going into these sort of environments than there should be and the constructivists in the crowd look askance at those efforts that do manifest – clearly they must be misguided since they don’t start off with the right view of the learner. To which my response is: look closer; you’re wrong in lumping all this into one box. There can be excellence in computer assisted instruction and it is informative to understand what this sort of excellence looks like.

Further, there is a rather serious problem in that excellence in this area is the exception. The rule is a perpetuation of a very traditional approach, moved online. The rule needs a critique, but a critique from within so it can be replaced with something better that is still do-able. Instead we’re getting a critique from without, a critique that says “abandon ship” but a critique that likely will have little impact because students do need foundational knowledge. This sort of knowledge likely won’t be produced by individuals in pursuit of their own inquiry, at least not purely in that manner. (And in the large class setting nobody knows how to guide such pursuit.) Let me illustrate.

The traditional textbook, I’ll use my own discipline Economics to exemplify the issues, has each chapter organized by presentatios of theory first, then worked through examples to illustrate the theory, then end of chapter problems to test students understanding and to see if they can transfer what they know to specific contexts. This is the paradigm for much of what we do in teaching at the College level – presentation of theory first, illustration second, and then assessment to follow up. In electronic format, we now have eTextbooks to handle the first two and electronic and automatically graded homework to handle the third. The paradigm hasn’t changed much if at all, but now the delivery is online. Publishers are struggling selling eTextbooks as stand-alone products. The students aren’t buying. The electronic homework they buy (and then work on) because their grade depends on it. The publishers understand that their future lies in development of good electronic homework environments.

But the paradigm itself is faulty. If we consider, as an alternative to the textbook, an extended conversation between a student and an instructor and that the conversation might occur both orally and in writing over a period of time, then it is evident that the conversation has presentation, illustration, and assessment throughout with little bits of each going back and forth. The conversation is not nearly as linear as the traditional textbook paradigm would suggest. And the conversation ends up being much richer because the student contributes and the instructor can tailor the conversation based on the student responses. There is learning throughout and a conversation that is engaging is so precisely because the learning is ongoing. In contrast, when students are given assessments in the traditional textbook paradigm, the assessments are designed to test what the students already know. Assessment in this case is about performance only, not about learning. The learning happens sometime prior to assessment (if it happens at all).

The question emerges then why, in moving to electronic delivery, don’t we abandon the traditional textbook model and try to embrace the conversational approach done online? (The traditional model itself was never quite as simple as I’ve presented it above. What’s missing is the study group time where the end of chapter problems are discussed as well as the student preparation time in getting ready for the study group meeting. There may very well be a gateway function into the subject that is via the textbook or the lecture, but there is a conversation aspect in the middle that makes the entire thing work.) The thought, in particular is that in the preparation time students can use help in the form of conversation and that electronic delivery should be able to provide this.

Several years ago when my friend Steve Acker was an editor for a column in Campus Technology Magazine, he asked me to write a piece and ultimately the outcome was this column on Dialogic Learning Objects. At around the same time, I produced some of the sort of things I had in mind. These are updated versions of two lessons (a Plato term) constructed in Excel and covering the core theory of microeconomics. The first is on the Elements of Supply and Demand. The second explains Opportunity Cost, the demand side equivalent which is called Reservation Price, and how these change as a result of exogenous changes, which in turn causes Shifts in Demand and Supply. They are working examples of dialogic learning objects. They are unlike textbook presentations, as I’ll explain briefly below, and though I’m clearly biased in coming to this determination, I believe they are better than the textbook in providing an understanding of what is going on for the student, because they are at once simple and thus easy to approach but also deep in the concepts they address.

Let me talk about the technical elements first. Unlike most Web assessment tools, but like Plato, feedback is given in the same screen as where the students do their work. Feedback is instantaneous. And students are free to go back and make changes. In both lessons there are places where the students perform experiments. They can try things and evaluate, get feedback and try again. Experimentation is part of the process. The feedback itself is done via conditional response and conditional formatting. So the hard part, since there is no template for the authoring, is designing for that. With some experience doing it, it becomes faster. But it is still not easy. Authoring this way is hard because the writing is itself a set of iterations on what to ask, how to respond, and how to represent the economics.

The economics is different than what is typically taught because discrete choice behavior (buy one unit or not, sell one unit or not) is presented at the outset to motivate supply and demand and in that discrete choice framework a simplifying assumption is made that there is a single continuous good (money) with utility linear in that. This reduces the generality of the presentation but it remarkably sharpens the results and really helps aid the student intuition. Further, the math is embedded in the formulas in the cells of the spreadsheet. Students can get to those if they want to hack the spreadsheets, but what they see at first pass are numbers – easy to manipulate and non-threatening. This simply can’t be done in a text presentation. It is a snap with Excel. The technology is doing something here beyond simply moving the text content online. It is helping the students visualize.

The question is why can’t we get content like this as the norm? The Economics Principles market has about 1 million students per year. That would seem to be a big enough market to generate the type of high quality content I’d like to see, and ditto for the other large courses on Carol Twigg’s list. If this type of content were to emerge, it would defeat the eTextbooks and other online approaches that merely recycle the traditional paradigm. But largely we’re not getting that yet. I don’t blame the publishers for this. The publishers are producing back to us what they’ve heard from us we want. So the real question is: why don’t we articulate a demand for this type of dialogic content, written from scratch to be delivered online?

We know from other sources that students want this sort of thing. In a provocative presentation at the 2007 ELI conference, Julie Evans talked about what she and her group are learning about K-12 students. They undeniably feel alienated from their current form of education and want to see technology integrated in – particularly in math. It is a mystery to me why those wishes are not being addressed. Most schools now offer online grade books so parents can track the grades their children are receiving, but the technology is not used at all for the teaching and learning. And in K-12 the argument, especially in math, that there is foundational knowledge to learn, where teachers don’t have enough time in the day to provide meaningful assessment of student work, would seem to provide the grounding for the computer assisted instruction approach. But so far, there’s not much to show in this arena.

We’re caught in a vicious cycle. Nobody seems to have time to develop the right sort of content, so we work with what we have. We take assessments originally designed for paper testing and now use them for online homework. Although, as a colleague pointed out at the publisher meeting, the students go for the assessment content immediately and then only approach the presentation content on an as needed basis to learn how to complete the assessments, the students do learn to succeed on the assessment but don’t get a a deeper understanding of the material because they don’t have a far ranging discussion about it. And the process is alienating because the students are well aware that they are performing and being judged on that while many are not learning deeply.

That’s actually the good scenario. The bad scenario is that the technology is used to enforce rote learning. It’s drill and then more drill. That’s the critique of the constructivists and why they don’t want to have anything to do with computer assisted instruction. Drill is fine for spelling, the multiplication tables, maybe even some hard vocabulary words, particularly in a second language. But that’s elementary school or middle school stuff. Is it right for college level work? What happens to College students when there courses are repeated drill and the assessments they go through require performance but without learning?

Who are the Tarriers? They’re the students.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Deflationary Spiral and Higher Ed

I use iGoogle as my homepage and I’ve got so much junk on it that I often don’t look at the stuff I’ve got to scroll down for.  One of those things is a Stock Market gadget, with the up-to-date (15 minute lag) listings of various leading indices. Today’s another one where at the close all the indices are red; the Dow was off more than 200 points.  I didn’t look till day’s end but keeping that gadget out of view is not enough.  Sure as shooting, the news is going to be bad. 

“You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.”
Bob Dylan,
Subterranean Homesick Blues

As the house of cards that is the global economy continues to tumble down, I can take some solace in wearing my professional hat – the Dismal Science is living up to its name.  Just look at this story from Friday about massive layoffs in the IT industry because sales have declined precipitously, or this piece today about another round of layoffs at Citigroup, or even this attempt at humor by Michael Kinsley, the usually pointed and witty writer who seems to have his spirits down because that’s what lack of consumer confidence does to people.  Personally, I’ve got the feeling of walking on a sponge, one that may or may not have a floor under it.  We seem to be reading about massive layoffs at one company after another, as if there is no end in sight. 

But the economist in me takes this misery as an intellectual playpen, and with that I want to bring up a bit of a puzzle that to my knowledge hasn’t been raised by other commentators and pundits.  We don’t seem to be reading about how retained employees are getting wage cuts.  Those getting the pink slips are losers, clearly.  But why not share the pain more broadly by also dinging the people who get to keep their jobs?  That doesn’t seem to be happening.  Why not?

Standard economic theory suggests that reductions in demand for final products and services (the prime cause of the deflation) will cause a reduction in the derived demand for labor.  In turn, that reduced labor demand will lessen employment and lower the wage, as the new equilibrium is found by moving down the labor supply curve.  We’re getting the first effect, but so far not the second.    (More sophisticated models of labor supply that suggest much of the wage is a rent for incentive purposes or a gift to encourage in kind gifts to be offered back by the employees, would also not predict wages to stay steady in this instance, because clearly there is now a possibility of further layoffs in the future so the same size incentive or gift can be had at a lower wage.)

In this piece I want to argue that we in Higher Ed should act differently from the commercial sector of the economy, and try to manage at least some of the labor demand reduction via lower wages to faculty and staff (the rest being accommodated by not filling job vacancies when they are created or through layoffs if absolutely necessary).  This likely will be an unpopular position with friends and colleagues, who are apt to feel that they are among the more productive parts of the their Campus and before the Campus goes about trimming away some serious muscle and cutting into bone, it should make sure it trims all the fat first.  I’ll argue why I think that is the wrong way to go about doing this. 

But first I want to note the following – obvious to an economist but perhaps not to everyone else.  All this would be much easier to do if the weakening economy were accompanied by a moderate to high rate of inflation.  Labor demand is said to depend on the real wage, which goes down under inflation if the nominal wage remains unchanged.  So a manager can get the necessary accommodation to the demand reduction in inflationary times by keeping nominal wages entirely flat or having nominal wages rise but at a slower rate than the rate of inflation.  But look what is happening to the price of gas, where prices are less than than 50% of their peak achieved early in the summer.   Focusing on gasoline prices may overstate the extent of the deflation broadly conceived, but here I care less about measuring the rate precisely than simply about making the point that as long as the there is some deflation, real wages rise as long as nominal wages remain unchanged.  So labor supply should be that much more, which makes it strange and punitive to only utilize layoffs as the way to bring costs in line with (shrunken) revenues.

Nominal wage reductions are not a trivial matter and it may be that the situation is somewhat different for faculty than for staff.  I’ve heard some argue (we discussed this sort of thing on Campus during the recession under Reagan in the early 1980’s) that an implication of tenure is downward nominal wage rigidity – meaning the university can’t cut the salary for a tenured faculty member.  And on an individual basis, I believe that is correct.  But across the board, I don’t see how it could be considered an assault on tenure, especially inasmuch as the aim of doing so would be to preserve employment, not the reverse.  Unionized employees (at my campus there is no faculty union but there are unions that represent a sizeable number of employees) would obviously need to have their representatives negotiate wage reductions on their behalf, but they might very well be willing to do so as a fair way to address the underlying problem. 

The other point, institutionally, is that faculty and academic professional staff operate under a Notification of Appointment that is a yearly contract stipulating terms and salary.  The Academic year goes from mid August to mid August.  It is probably not possible contractually to change salary within the Academic year.  So if salary reductions were to occur by contract, there would be some time lag of necessity, until the new Academic year begins. 

Armed with those caveats, let me make the argument for wage reduction and then follow that with some discussion of steps to take to achieve the outcome.  My main assumption for supporting my point of view is that the slump will be both deep and long.  If, in contrast, it is of relatively brief duration, a year to 18 months at max, then it would be right for any individual to resist salary cuts, to preserve his/her personal standard of living.   But if the recession is long and hard – 3 years or more of a significantly worse economy with high unemployment rates and economic pessimism the norm – then the process of adjusting to this new environment will be ongoing.  We’ll get there in stages taking one step at a time.  In this case it will be much easier to take additional steps past the first one if people cooperate with one another.   If they’re kicking and screaming we’ll simply be out of place and never attain a suitable adjustment.   Across the board wage reductions early on is a way to secure that cooperative attitude, because it’ll show we’re in it together. 

Such wage reductions obviously come at a cost, especially if peer institutions don’t do likewise.  Some faculty and staff will find better opportunities elsewhere.  The wage reductions will encourage turnover, both among those who find employment elsewhere and among those who opt to retire.  There is certainly that.  My argument is that if one does the full cost benefit analysis, at least under my assumptions, this is still the better alternative to having more layoffs because nominal wages haven’t been reduced.  The latter fails on the fairness dimension. 

A first step, to signify the importance of the approach, would be for higher ups in the Campus Administration (Chancellor, Provost, Deans, Director of the Athletic Association, Football and Basketball coaches, etc.) to voluntarily reduce their own salaries.  I don’t know if there is a formal way to take less than one’s fully salary, but one could give unrestricted gifts back to the Campus or the Campus could create a special fund for such give backs the proceeds from which would be used to address operational shortfalls.   Indeed, maybe an across the board voluntary give back of this sort might suffice.  But I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t work, people would give if they thought it fair and that, in turn, would depend on what other people are giving.  Making the give backs mandatory is a way to solve this chicken and egg problem. 

Immediately after a voluntary give back program among highly visible campus leaders has been instituted, the body where faculty governance occurs (on my Campus that is Academic Senate) would have to take up the issue of whether faculty salary reductions are possible and, if so, under what circumstance.  I really couldn’t predict how such a debate would go, but it seems to me that in the current climate resisting a salary give back plan would be politically unpopular with people outside the University.  Further, it is quite conceivable that there will be arguments for tuition reduction for new students on the grounds that our mission is to provide access and we’re closer to our mission in reducing tuition than we’d be in keeping tuition where it is but lowering admission standards as the way to keep enrollments up.  (This piece delineates the issues well.)   If tuition reductions are in the cards, then doesn’t it seem that faculty and staff salary give backs would become part of the equation?

Such a debate might rage for some time; faculty governance is a deliberative process.  If during that time the economy starts to rebound, then we may have voluntary give backs and nothing more.  If the economy remains in a slump, the mandatory form of give back is more likely. 

We need to see in all this pain a path to a better tomorrow.  The age structure of faculty on campus is out of wack, heavily skewed toward the more senior end.  It’s both that the older faculty are holding on rather than retiring and that when they do retire they’re teaching load is apt to be filled by adjuncts rather than by tenure track faculty.   We’ve not addressed this problem well at all.  A good alternative model (tenure track teaching faculty instead of adjuncts???) needs to be thought through.  There is the related issue of the hyperinflation in college tuition (increases at a greater rate than the general rate of inflation) over the last 30 or 40 years.  The adjustments I’m suggesting would give at least a temporary respite on both of these fronts.  The rat race might continue anew thereafter.  But maybe, particularly if a sense of shared sacrifice really does emerge, that better path will be found.  In the mean time, while we’re worrying about just how bad the economy will get, let’s close on the hopeful note that if we try seriously to address the current problems, they won’t seem so bad and we’ll have the satisfaction of noting we’re doing something to help ourselves.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Das Urteil*

*The Judgment

Last night, still weary from being on the road, I watched Judgment at Nuremberg, one of those classic movies that I somehow missed when I was in College. I was surfing through the things we had Tivo'd and it was there. Sometimes I record films on TMC and then forget about them. This must have been one of those because I was surprised to find it there. I didn't know whether I could sit through it; my attention span is limited now. But it was enthralling, because of the cast - Spencer Tracy as the Judge, Maximilian Schell as the attorney for the Defense (he won an academy award for this role, Burt Lancaster as the German jurist Dr. Enrst Janning, the most interesting character ethically because of his seeming impeccable credentials, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, both in roles that were compelling but for me out of character, Werner Klemperer and Howard Caine from Hogan's Heroes, and many other familiar faces - but also because of the story line. Are judges who followed the law - the law the Nazis put into force in 1933 - guilty because the law itself was cruel and inhuman or are they innocent because they couldn't really anticipate the cruelty that would ensue under the Nazi regime? The film came out in 1961 and it holds up still, a powerful film, something well worth watching.

For about 3/4 of the movie I was thinking in the back of my head about the current financial crisis and that those responsible are somewhat in the same position as those judges (who were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment only to be released a few years later because the U.S. needed the German people to side with them and against the U.S.S.R. lest all of Europe fall to the Communists.) And that it would be good to try these people, to get at the truth, and hold them to account, though I don't know whether Laws have been broken in a way making such parallel hearings feasible. (This Wikipedia entry suggests there is at least a Common Law breach that these people have committed.) In my limited metaphor way of thinking, Obama's election is like VE Day. The Nuremberg Trials came later, an idea generated by Colonel Murray Bernays for Secretary of War Henry Stimson in response to FDR, in response to a plan advocated by Henry Morgenthau, that called for hanging the War Criminals and having a weak Germany emerge from the ashes. I think we need an analogous set of hearings for the Financial markets, something akin to the Watergate Hearings.

Coincidentally in today's paper there was a long story about the irresponsible practices at Merrill Lynch. Reading this, I got infuriated, this paragraph especially:

Merrill’s board also ousted Mr. O’Neal. On top of the $70 million in compensation he was awarded during his four-year tenure as chief executive, Mr. O’Neal departed with an exit package worth $161 million.
This is not justice. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to watch Alan Greenspan's recent testimony in front of the Waxman committee. Greenspan did not seem repentant to me. He did not peddle the bad securities, but he chose to ignore warnings that something serious was amiss. We need a process that will get the folks who are responsible to show they have made a serious harm.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Apologies on the previous post

The previous post was published with the links not working right and erroneous characters inserted. I apologize to anyone who tried to read it in that format. I took it offline to edit and it's up again. I hope it is more readable now.

Competing Visions

I'm at Educause in Orlando now. It's the first full day of the conference, but it's my third full day down here having attended a full day Frye Returnees event on Monday and a pre-conference workshop on the Virtual Computing Lab on Tuesday. I normally don't spend even one full day in a conference sessions before needing a change in the scenery. And this is a particularly unusual trip for me since the Sloan-C conference is next week, also in Orlando, so it didn't make sense to fly back home in between. Instead, I'm going to stay down here and see family in South Florida once Educause concludes, then return to Orlando for Sloan-C. That's a long time to be on the road and I'm consciously trying to pace myself so as to be feel refreshed at the start of each day. I did go to the opening plenary session by V.S. Ramachandran that I thought quite good and from which I took some solace about what he said near the end of the talk regarding higher brain function being about making metaphor and abstract connections between different ideas. I believe I embrace that both in my teaching and in educating my children (I prize having them make puns). But afterwards I played hookie from the remaining Wednesday sessions, bumping into friends and former colleagues and spending much of the time in conversation with them.

Our President-Elect-to-be has a reputation for being able to entertain disparate and often contradictory points of view on issues, being able to make the case for each in a way that sounds credible to its adherents, and hence demonstrating in a contentious situation that he is listening to all sides of the argument. It's this ability that belies his claim of being able to move the nation beyond politics as usual and towards a different politics of consent and universal participation. This, in turn, fundamentally is the reason for hope in spite of the terrifying economic crisis and social malaise. I have no illusions of being as capable as Barack Obama in this regard, but in this post I will try, because as I reflect so far about what I've heard at Educause, overall there have been several issues where alternative views have been articulated and I want to try to work through some of those.

* * * * *

It's now about a week later. I've been with my mom for a few days. She's in her own private world. She doesn't know me and she hardly speaks, and then only to ask for a cold drink or to complain about pain. Now I'm back in Orlando for Sloan-C. Obama won the election a couple of nights ago. I hope it is a turning point for us. In any event, I've been holding this post in abeyance the last several days. I'm returning to it now
* * * * *

One of these fundamental issues is whether we should teach to the students where they are, as defined by their technology use. Tuesday night at Educause I attended a dinner where the theme was mobile computing. Students have a preferred device and it's not the computer, not even a laptop. It's the cell phone, but it's not voice communication we're talking about. Texting rules. The kids are all thumbs. If Colleges want to stay connected to their students, they have to find a way to insert themselves into these conversations. A first step is getting their messages in a format so they can be received on a mobile device of the student's choosing.

Thursday morning I attended a presentation by Intellagirl (Sarah Robins-Bell) that was even stronger on these themes by framing the argument as a warning – Higher Ed must either get with the program and embrace Web 2.0 or risk losing the students altogether as they pursue their own self-directed alternatives on their own. Apparently student-centric and technology-centric approaches are tied at the hip. And the technologies we're talking about here are not the ones the institutions have already adopted, but the next wave, Web x.y (I learned from Intellagirl's presentation that we have to put numbers after things to signal their importance) that the students are already playing with on their own.

The operative word here is "play" and learning that comes out of play, people networks that emerge from play in groups, and then the technology that enables that. Play teaches us many things, some of which we fail to remark on. Because play encourages persistence, play breeds a sense of competence. Reasonably intelligent people (the vast majority of us and our students) will get good at doing things if we practice. With play the practice is part of it – embedded practice if you will. Group play also exerts motivation, subtle and otherwise. There are intensely strong feedback loops from personal success at play to raising one's own level and with the success of others also stimulating the desire for additional practice. The conversations the kids have revolve around their play experiences. Those conversations are an additional prod.
The play itself is technology mediated - video games, computer games, games on portable devices, etc. So that some of the communication should also be technology mediated seems natural. There is an entire world created, a world outside of school, a world that is full of learning, and in essence this is a world of play. This is the world where the students are. The argument is that College must enter this world, in order to reach its students.

A counter argument was voiced, by Bob Herbert in a column talking about how our children avoid the tough subjects (science and math) and citing Bill Gates that China and India will clean our clock because they are doing a better job of educating their youth, especially in the STEM areas. (This notion that we're behind also is present with the first argument, particularly with respect to mobile technology, where South Korea is the acknowledged leader.) Henry Schaffer of North Carolina State raised essentially the same point in the Q&A part of Intellagirl's talk. He talked about his genetics course, how students have to slug through many quite arduous problems to gain an understanding of the subject, and more generally how learning of this material is work, not play. And the work is arduous, which means both that it is time consuming and that it is intellectually difficult.

During Educause I read and commented on a recent blog post by Barbara Ganley where she talked about "slow blogging," linking to a related post by Chris Lott who suggests slow blogging is making a comeback. My original reaction was that slow blogging is of the same cloth as the critique by Herbert and Schaffer, since it requires patience in the writing and aims at depth of understanding of the topic. But since I am a slow blogger (I prefer to call the act "weaving" or "layering" because that is my conscious thought in expressing my ideas in these posts) and I think of it neither as work nor as play but still something else, I now want to offer it up as a middle ground, perhaps a synthesis for making some progress since my sense at the end of Intellagirl's session is that we're talking at each other and don't yet have a path we can all agree on traversing.

I so believe in Maslow's notion of self-actualization and that learning, the deep kind we want for our students, is captured well by Maslow's ideal. The notion of work, in contrast, is fundamentally instrumental. We do work to achieve an end. With the end accomplished there is nothing more for the process to add. Writing these posts is not work in this sense. It is a way to explore the ideas. Much of the time is spent before sitting at the keyboard, trying to produce a coherent story in my head, making a narrative that makes sense and, I hope, makes progress beyond what others are saying, or gives them a different way to see what they are already engaged in. The process is for me. I'd be doing it even if there were no post. The actual writing does provide encouragement to push the ideas a little further. And the occasional acknowledgement by readers offers a greater push.

Barbara is very strong on having a sense of place, to kindle within us a feeling of community and a sense of obligation for others that emerges from that. Let me give a different vantage for why this is important. The argument that China and India will overtake the U.S. as the main economic power may put fear in my generation, but lead to quite a different reaction from current College students. In essence, the argument is that we're still in the rat race that my parents were in, theirs a rat race begat by the Great Depression. They had to run it to survive. Survival is not the prime imperative for our children; even now with the current economic malaise; they're sufficiently secure to be able to voice other concerns. Their world of play is a world not threatened by survival. Quality of life is the main concern. If competition with China and India is a rat race, it's a fair question to ask: why run it? Why not opt out, instead, if the opt out path offers a better quality of life.

Last night on CNN, some of the pundits talking about what an Obama Presidency would do, discussed the massive participation the Campaign encouraged and that this notion of service would carry over to when Obama takes office. This ethos is likely to spread. Community realization may serve as serious alternative to self-actualization as both motivation and as a way to shape what students should engage in. When caught up in the larger purpose the effort individuals put in seems less instrumental and more simply being part of the whole. A way toward fulfilling the JFK ideal.

Does this get us all the way home? Will students take the hard courses and put in the requisite intellectual energy if the courses themselves are part of the path toward community realization? I don't know. The students I talk with seem bi-modal, strongly career oriented and viewing their education as means toward that end, but also idealistic and looking for a larger sense of purpose. At this point school seems to separate these two and also to separate itself from the world of play. Perhaps that sense of separation should be diminished and the new technologies viewed as devices for encouraging that blurring.

* * * * *

I want to switch gears and talk about another arena entirely where I've heard about competing views. On Tuesday I attended a pre-conference workshop on the Virtual Computer Lab, a very interesting project that has been getting some good press lately. The VCL is an effort in "Cloud Computing" to deliver both high performance computing applications and applications typically delivered in student computer labs. The argument for VCL is to better leverage the existing Campus computing resources since the VCL enables multiple profiles and hence allows the users based on their needs to determine which profiles get employed via the VCL and when that should happen. In particular, while traditional labs typically close at night, the VCL can remain open online and students can access applications they need in the wee hours of the morning. Indeed, regular lab machines can add to the VCL capacity when they are not in use by students sitting at the computer.

During the early afternoon of the VCL session Sarah Stein, one of the presenters and a strong advocate for VCL, made the point that all of us on our respective campuses should embrace cloud computing and not cede the space to Google, for surely if we let them lock us in they will ultimately hold us up and we will end up paying much more for services in the future and that will far outstrip the savings we can get now by outsourcing the currently "free" service offerings from Google.

The lock-in argument is certainly not new to us in Higher Ed, but to date I'm aware of the argument applying mostly to license, service contract, and custom development supported software. I have not heard the argument being made for ad-supported software, such as the Google offerings.

Indeed much of the talk at Educause was centered around the general economic malaise, how travel budgets have already been cut and how IT budgets are going to follow in that. In this climate, especially, the outsourcing of IT services, especially "free" IT services, seems attractive, with email services leading the way.

The view that IT services should be shed follows logically from the prior argument by Nicholas Carr that IT services are no longer strategic definers. If the services are commodity like, let the market provide them. The market is good for commodity-like services. But there are network externalities. They are the source of natural monopoly. It's better for users that all the Office applications can talk with each other. The natural monopoly begats market power and it's the market power that gets exploited in the holdup of locked in users. So perhaps Sarah Stein's point of view is the more sophisticated, the one we should embrace if we're thinking long term.

But let me keep pushing the metaphor because I'm not sure the argument holds. Higher Ed is just one vertical that consumes cloud computing services. The corporate world is a different vertical, one that's much larger, one that will be a larger consumer of cloud computing. They understand market power in the corporate world. If some in the corporate world were to underwrite a cloud competitor to Google so to avoid lock in of their own, would they do so by investing in cloud computing efforts on the campuses? The VCL effort is being undertaken with the help of IBM. Is that a sufficient counterforce? Will it begat other like efforts? How will the network externalities be exploted in this case?

There is the further issue – the free rider problem. If there is a suitable counterforce to Google, those of us who want to capture current cost savings with outsource can do so feeling less guilty about it. Let the good citizens fight the good fight and worry about the long term. The rest of us are just trying to keep our heads above water – now. How can we invest in cloud computing when we have to shed IT costs? And so the debate rages.

* * * * *

The next issue is about the relationship between the IT organization and the Library and how they might interact better. The argument goes that increasingly the domains of the two organizations overlap and hence it would be better for them collaborate and perhaps integrate rather than to pursue their own separate agendas.

In a session at Frye@Educause 2008 a panel of attendees, each of whom had overseen a merger of the two organizations on their respective campuses, discussed the benefits and issues from an after the fact perspective. In general, the merger concept got a thumbs up from the panelists.

My friend Lisa Hinchliffe, who attended Frye with me back in 2003 when she represented the Library and I the Academic Computing organization at Illinois, questions whether a merger could work on our campus, because of scaling issues. It would be difficult, no doubt. But Lisa also wondered whether even on the smaller campuses if these mergers engendered an embrace of a common culture for the new merged organization or if the consequence was more like two separate divisions within a larger corporate hierarchy, in which case the merger perhaps economizes on upper level management staff but otherwise does very little to change from the path prior to the merger. This was Lisa's first Educause and I believe the cultural issues were pressing on her as she understands well the Library view but the IT perspective on issues she cares about is still somewhat alien to her. (Lisa has a new blog that is interesting because there she is trying to work through these issues.)

I come at these questions of organization structure now from a somewhat different perspective given my job in the College of Business where I negotiate with Campus IT, the Library, the Center for Teaching Excellence, elsewhere on Campus, as well as local provision of services within my own College. There is a set of ongoing issues where each has some unique aspect but all are similar in the sense that there is a collective "underlap" of service. The questions then are: how should the issue be addressed, where does responsibility lie, and what credit is received for filling in the gaps? There is the further issue whether older services should be cannibalized and if so what are the criteria for determining which services should get the axe? The "customers" can point fingers at existing services that they view are underutilized. But they typically don't monitor the entire use and may observe only the valleys and not see the peaks.

Since from my perspective, the org structure question gets filtered through the managing underlap/defending turf lens, I'm not sure of the better answer to it. But I do know from having served on Library committees that I approach things unlike Librarians. The culture question is a big one and I'm less sure it can be overcome so readily.

* * * * *

I like to hear competing views. I'm happier watching the tension play out and seeing the competing arguments sharpen than to see one side win out quickly, before the weaknesses in that perspective have come out. The profession needs to be big enough to welcome the diversity of perspective. There were sessions at the conference designed for attendees to witness competing perspectives, but those sessions were pitched as helping us to make the case, where we need to be aware of counter arguments to make a convincing presentation ourselves. We have to go even further than that. We need to debate these issues among ourselves. We need to understand the weaknesses in the positions we advocate. It's a big part of our profession maturing. We should welcome it.