Sunday, March 10, 2013


League for Innovation, Day 1

Greetings from Dallas, where the theme of the first day of the League for Innovation conference seemed to be “how to deal with actual human behavior.”

This was the first time I actually did a presentation myself at the League.  I had one of the death slots -- 8:30 on the Sunday morning after the “leap ahead” for daylight savings -- but it was well attended anyway, with about thirty people showing up.  The structure of my presentation was “you make the call,” with scenarios that actual deans actually face.  The group was game, and it was gratifying and fun to meet some longtime wise and worldly readers at the end.

The second presentation, by President Susan Karr and academic vice president Lee Ann Nutt of Lone Star College in Houston, addressed “initiative fatigue.”  Anyone who has worked in administration for very long knows the drill: every year or two a new project with a new acronym comes along, and most of the usual suspects address the same questions they addressed last year.  Over time, the various projects overlap, deadlines start to crash into each other, people start to forget what got said where, and after a few years, people start to adopt a “been there, done that” attitude.

They took a crack at breaking initiative fatigue by setting up a coordinating committee with a master chart of outcomes.  The idea was to map who was doing what, so redundancies could be identified and undue duplication avoided.  (Presumably, it could also help identify the areas of minimal coverage, where future projects would be welcome, and areas of ample coverage, where the horse is well and truly dead.)  Yes, it’s almost a parody of administration to suggest a “committee on committees,” but in practice it can make a lot of sense.

Nancy Millichamp, from the NGLC of Educause, gave one of those “I want to learn more” talks about some projects that Educause is sponsoring.  I was struck, again, that Southern New Hampshire University is light years ahead of most of us.  They seem to have a way of doing that.  Its “College for America” program takes the focus on competencies, rather than credits, to its logical conclusion.  At some point I’m going to have to do a field trip to Manchester and check that place out.

Happily, another theme of the day was “okay, folks, cost is a real issue.”  Richard Sebastian, of the Virginia Community College system, presented a “no textbook cost degree” that’s being piloted at Tidewater Community College.  (They need a catchier name, but it’s hard to shorten it without changing the meaning.)  They’ve chosen the Business Administration degree, and through a series of grants and stipends, they’ve convinced enough full-time faculty in the program to use nothing but “Open Educational Resources” that students will be able to get through the entire degree without spending anything on books or other course materials.  (Presumably, the hardware on which they read the resources, and the internet access for the hardware, are the responsibility of the student.)  I asked about how they’d include adjuncts, but at this point, they aren’t; they’re trying to prove the concept before tackling the logistics of acclimating last-minute hires to OER.

The whole OER movement gives me hope.  Yes, tuition and fees have been climbing at a disheartening rate, but what really matters to students is total cost.  If textbook costs are suddenly eliminated or drastically reduced, then this year’s tuition increase would still result in lower overall costs.  If the quality is there -- and the jury is out on that -- then this could be a winner.  (Given the rapid drop in tablet prices, and the easier adaptability of online resources for students with disabilities as opposed to the printed page, the improvement in overall access could be substantial.)

As a side effect of the book and dropping the pseudonym, the hallway and exhibit hall conversations this year were much more fun.  Tom Bailey, of the CCRC, mentioned that he has my book on his desk, thereby making my day.  (In my world, that’s huge.)  A few fans dropped by to wish me well, and I even made some connections for future projects.  

Finally, Diana Oblinger, the President and CEO of Educause, gave a plenary that picked up largely where Sebastian left off.  She went through a host of examples of colleges that are using analytics and other software in fascinating ways, of which my favorite was Austin Peay State University’s program that gives students “top ten” course recommendations for the following semester, complete with projected grades.  The idea is to keep students on track by “nudging” them towards the “right” choices.

As Oblinger went through her examples, I was struck by the heavy (acknowledged) borrowing from behavioral economics.  Behavioral economics uses observed behavior to change the ways that people make decisions.  For example, people are easily overwhelmed by too many options; sometimes they’ll just walk away rather than make a choice.  (Note the parallel to “initiative fatigue.”)  If we don’t have the stomach to mandate decisions, but we don’t want students to just throw up their hands at seemingly infinite options, then we can use “nudging” to push students towards the choices we want them to make.  Top ten lists are a way to do that.  Students are still free to go off the top ten list, but most don’t.  

On to day two.  Reality ahoy!

Iniative fatigue!!!! ha, i think the Psychiatrist association should make the diagnose official, together with an "Iniative compulsive disorder" which causes academes to start projects which will never come to end.

Since both of my bosses and two of my coworkers at at League and then AACC this week, it's good to hear what's going on. I'm heartened to know that the top 10 classes idea that Austin Peay does proves the worth of my own activities. At least now I shouldn't have to fight my bosses over the worth of know since they heard about it at a conference.
First, thanks for coming to my session. It is my first time at the Innovations conference and I wasn't sure what to expect. Presenting at a conference called Innovations is pretty daunting.

I wanted to get your take on Dr. Oblinger's opening keynote. I'll admit was pretty disappointed. While I liked her idea of the Connected College at first, the solutions she imagined through were almost exclusively "use Tech Tool X to solve Educational Problem Y." What ails post-secondary, according to her premise, is we don't use "the best technology has to offer." Again, like so many of the thinkers in educational technology, she mistakes the symptom for the disease. Except for the collaborative gene-splicing tool--don't remember what this was called--the tools she presented, both third-party and college-developed, were administrative: data analytics, college and career pathway tools, etc. Don't get me wrong, without a doubt using these tools effectively would be of great benefit to community college students. But what Dr. Oblinger's Connected College didn't address, at least in much detail, was what happens in the classroom. How do we use technology to reinvigorate and re-imagine teaching and learning? Not even using "the best technology has to offer," but implementing mundane, unsexy, and dusty innovations like blogs. Or Google Apps.

I think the commercialization of higher education may be complete and, perhaps, irreversible. Perhaps we do now have to "partner" with vendors to help our students achieve their goals (I usually don't pay my partners exorbitant sums). Afterall, we have decided to gut funding for education and there is only so much 'more' you can do with so much 'less'. Maybe I will need to learn to accept this and figure out a way to put the best face on it. But even if this is the case, I feel like we should at least have a period of mourning, instead of chirpy keynotes about how great it is that companies like Straighterline (now working with Northern Virginia Community College, btw) and Pearson are now for all intents and purposes educational instituions. Especially at a conference titles "Innovations." When he heard Alan Kay suggest that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" is this the future we meant to invent?

Anyway, I'd appreciate your take, especially if it can serve to cheer me up.

* This post sponsored by Widgets for Ed, Inc.®
"If we don’t have the stomach to mandate decisions, but we don’t want students to just throw up their hands at seemingly infinite options, then we can use “nudging” to push students towards the choices we want them to make."

This is very interesting to me. Seems that it could be a way to manage enrollment bottlenecks for divisional requirements (although the projected grades part is a bit disturbing--to me, it smacks of guarantees).

It strikes me also that "suggesting" other courses or education-enhancing activities is also possible (enrolling career development courses, going to the writing/quantitative reasoning center, etc.).

Two questions:

1) Maybe "Initiative Fatigue" is a response to observed facts on the ground? Maybe we observe that every fall there's some hullabaloo over some Next Big Thing that administrators are all excited about, and we're supposed to pay lip service to it on top of all of our teaching and research and mentoring and advising (you know, the actual core functions of what an institution of higher learning is all about) and then next fall it's a different Next Big Thing. Instead of figuring out how to get us excited, perhaps you could consider the possibility that the real problem is the Big Initiatives?

2) As far as technology: If we accept (for the sake of argument) that some ideas and questions are timeless, and if some professor is able to lead an exciting, thought-provoking, and participatory class discussion of one of those ideas (maybe an ancient Greek text, maybe a question visited by countless writers from the Greeks up to today), what is the problem? If this instructor has people discussing and writing about something important and interesting, is there a problem if it happens in the form of a discussion without tie-ins to five different social media platforms and whatnot?
Dr. Sebastian's comment about commercialization being complete reminded me of something I've wondered about "technology in the classroom". It used to be that tools like a SmartBoard were limited to colleges, but now they are all over the place in K-12 (at least in our area). Does that make them less effective, when students have repeatedly seen a canned commercial package presented that way before arriving in a classroom where the use might (or might not) be more creative?

I'm intrigued by the idea of using analytics to forecast grades. What if a student saw that taking organic chemistry, physics, and calculus at the same time as humanities was likely to produce some D or F grades, but that changes when one of the lab sciences is dropped? Sure, we can tell them it is risky, but they are more likely to believe a computer than a professor.

Is there a way for them to see that their grade in their next required math class goes down if they put it off for a semester?
The session on the use “open source” textbooks in an attempt to beat the high costs of popular college textbooks was interesting. The costs of college textbooks are truly obscene, often a hundred dollars or more. In addition, the editions of the more popular textbooks seem to change on a yearly basis, with the newest edition often being nothing more than a cursory rearrangement of the previous material, the renumbering of the problems, the addition of a few more photos, the adding of some more extraneous material, etc. This is done primarily to beat the used-book market.

It would be nice to find a way around having to pay all this money to a few greedy and predatory textbook publishers, and the open-source textbook movement can be a helpful alternative, much as the open-source software movement can be a useful lower-cost alternative to monopolistic software companies such as Adobe or Microsoft.

But there is a real danger that the open-source textbook movement could get into some serious copyright trouble unless they are very careful. Inside Higher Ed had an article a few days ago about a company named Boundless which offered “reverse-engineered” versions of several popular textbooks. They did this by following the author’s table of contents and then by rewriting or rearranging key sections, often by lifting material verbatim from Wikipedia. These reverse-engineered books were made available to students at a fraction of the cost of the original book that they were designed to replace.

As one might expect, a couple of major textbook publishers sued Boundless, accusing them of copyright infringement and false advertising. In copyright law, there is something known as the idea-expression dichotomy—an idea is not copyrightable, but a specific expression of that ideas is. According to the lawsuit, Boundless had crossed that line in a major way when they reverse-engineered those popular textbooks, and offered them for a much lower cost, undercutting the market for these original textbooks. When Boundless did their rewriting and rearranging, their open-source books too closely mirrored the original books, so the lawsuit claims.

I guess that the lesson to be learned from all this is that you have to be very careful if you want to write an “open source” textbook, especially if it competes in the marketplace with an existing textbook. You have to make sure that what you put there is really your own work and is not borrowed from somewhere else. Even though basic facts can’t be copyrighted, you have to make sure that the manner in which you present these facts is truly original with you and is not even remotely similar to the presentation in the textbook you are trying to replace. But most introductory textbooks are quite similar to each other and are often interchangeable, and it will be difficult to create something that is truly original and was not derived from something written earlier.

Even so, if you turn out to be fairly successful in your project and you manage to attract lots of readers, you are also more likely to attract the negative attention of major publishers because you are cutting into their profits, and you could end up in court.

A valid point, ArtMathProf, but have you ever compared the table of contents for different first-year physics books? The examples? They are all variations on the same thing because it is the same thing. Are they going to sue each other also?
That's a good point, CCPhysicist. Most introductory physics texts look much the same. They all start with straight line motion, then they deal with projectile and circular motion, then move into Newton's laws, etc. Hard to distinguish them from each other. There seems to be an understanding that it is hard to produce a new physics text that is truly original, one that doesn't look a lot like all the previous ones. So all the major publishers agree to simply look the other way and they don' even think about suing each other over copyright infringment.

But if I tried, for example, to produce a open-access free version of a popular freshman physics text (one that might result in fewer sales for that popular book), I need to be careful that my new book doesn't look too similar to any previous book, lest I be sued into insolvency.

In my opinion, copyright has become excessively repressive in recent years.
To be an effective teacher, one must know his/her subject well, like and be passionate about passing on information about the subject, and make a positive emotional connection with the student.

In the classroom the teacher needs a whiteboard, markers, and his/her notes. The student needs a pencil, textbook or copied readings,etc, and paper.
I suggest that everything else is for show and as Alex said, The Next Big Thing, which makes some administrators and professors feel like their cc has "cutting edge" curriculum.

That is my two cents worth after being in education for 35 years and seeing the Big Things from 35 years ago (except for technology) being recycled as Next Big Things now.
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