Thursday, August 29, 2013

 

Friday Fragments



This one is for the techies.  We use Moodle for our online courses, and our local server space is fairly limited.  Our online services people have developed several brief videos to help students who are new to online learning pick up some how-to’s.  

We’re trying to figure out if there’s a way to post those videos to YouTube (or something similar) in a way that only the students enrolled in relevant courses would have access to them.  I’m envisioning a link on our password-protected site that would take students to a special section of YouTube where they could see the videos.  

Has anyone found a reasonably elegant way to target videos at a certain group of students, without having to use local servers?

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The Onion has stepped in it a few times recently, but these two pieces are genius.  They’re a welcome reminder that sometimes humor can tell truths that straight journalism just can’t.

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If you’re on Twitter and you aren’t yet following Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd), you’re doing it wrong.  Her observations on the racial implications of Miley Cyrus’ VMA act went viral, and rightly so, but she made a wonderful observation yesterday that’s much more directly about higher education.

From the outside, it’s easy to wonder why students who don’t have much money often choose very expensive for-profits over much less expensive community colleges.  Cottom pointed out, correctly and succinctly, that there’s a difference between total cost and upfront, out-of-pocket cost.  The for-profits understand that at a level that community colleges generally don’t.  A student who won’t blink at tens of thousands of dollars in student loans will balk at a forty dollar application fee.  The loans don’t seem real, but the fee does.  It’s the same principle behind “no payments for ninety days!”

She’s right, obviously, and there’s much to learn from the observation.  

Time horizons can shrink pretty badly when you’re strapped.  If the very short term is prohibitive, the long term is irrelevant.   Little things like bus passes and emergency loans can make tremendous differences at the right moments.  

I know it’s out of fashion to suggest that we have anything to learn from the for-profits, but in this case, we do.  We can use those powers for good.

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The Boy is doing Fall baseball this year, to have something athletic to do until basketball season starts.  (Having tried it for a few years, we’re just not soccer people.)  The Girl’s gymnastics start up again next week.  Music lessons continue, and Lego League is just around the corner.

There’s the start of school, and there’s the start of after-school.  After-school is harder.  Summer, we hardly knew ye...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

 

Delicate Cutters



Last week, I was in a meeting with several colleagues, two of whom are Boomers, and one of whom is a fellow Gen X’er.  As the meeting wound down, the discussion shifted:

Boomer 1: Remember when all the local banks used to recruit here?  They’d hire all the liberal arts grads?

Boomer 2: Yes!  Or the big retailers like [name of dead chain] and [name of other dead chain].

B1: That’s right.  And then they’d put people in their management training programs.

(pause)

B1: When I graduated, I had four job offers before I finished.

(pause)

Me: What color is the sky on your planet?

X’er: (snarf)

B1: Blue.  That’s just the way it was.

Me: On behalf of generations X and Y, [colorful, if affectionate, expression of frustration]

X’er: When I graduated with my Master’s, I got a job at Subway.

I was reminded of that conversation yesterday in reading back-to-back articles in IHE about making aspects of college free.  One addressed the growing use of Open Educational Resources as a substitute for the buy-your-own-textbook model, and the other addressed an argument for making public higher education entirely free.

On the merits, I’m much more sympathetic to the former than to the latter.  Just this week a physics professor on my campus happily reported that he had found an OER substitute for the Intro to Physics text he had previously used; the students stand to save about 200 dollars for that class alone.  He reports that the new text is quite good, and he happily shared the news with colleagues around the college.  I was genuinely happy to hear it; for students who work part time jobs at or near the minimum wage, 200 bucks is real money.  To the extent that moving to OER means that students can afford to have the text on day one, and therefore won’t fall behind while they try to scrape up the money to buy the book, I’m all for it.  Since several OER providers cover their costs through foundation money, I’m not terribly worried about the economic underpinnings.  And to the extent that it starts to move folks away from the “single textbook” model, that’s probably a net gain anyway.  

Free higher education is another matter.  For now, suffice it to say that the operating expenses of running an entire college are far greater, and more complex, than the expenses in writing a book.  

But it’s telling that both ideas are getting traction now.  The latest recession has ground on long enough that it’s starting to feel like a new normal.  I’ve seen conflicting theories on whether this recession is a fundamental reset or just a really painful and extended hangover from a credit crunch, and I don’t pretend to know enough to take sides on that.  But the felt reality on the ground that my Boomer colleagues described hasn’t been true for quite a while.  

I’m fully on board with a host of reforms to make higher education more economically sustainable.  But at the end of the day, there’s just no substitute for a robust job market for new grads.  Take care of that, and we’ll have the breathing room to decide which reforms are actually helpful and which are just disguised suicide.  Fail to take care of that, and no amount of cost cutting will be enough, as sure as the sky is blue.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

 

Three Visions



The new academic year is about to start.  Every year, around this time, I reflect on how I’d like to see community colleges work.  

In my perfect world, a community college would be a collection of mad scientists experimenting with the best ways to help students learn.  They’d hail from all sorts of disciplines, and presumably some of them would have better grooming than the traditional mad scientist, but they’d share the excitement and focus on the task at hand.  The college would be a constant cauldron of experimentation and communication of results.  In this view, academic freedom exists to enable experimentation.  Over time, as results accumulated, the effects for the students would get progressively better.

I used to think that my vision was so obvious and universally shared that there wasn’t much point in spelling it out, any more than there would be in calling attention to the fact that people breathe.  But experience has taught me otherwise.

Plenty of other visions are in play, each with different assumptions.  When assumptions crash into each other, conflict ensues.

For example, the “college as church” vision still holds sway in some quarters.  In that vision, a privileged group with unique access to The Text sits in judgment of all others.  Adherents to this vision tend to be intensely status-conscious, and are often quick to take umbrage at any hint that things could be better than they already are.  

Some of the trappings (and history) of higher education enable this perspective to survive.  The academic freedom that I think should be used to try new things can be perverted and recast as an entitlement to be left alone.  A background condition that should enable constructive action is read, instead, as license for inaction.  And the various ranks and ceremonies that characterize academic life are consistent with both a churchly past and a churchly vision.

The ‘mad scientist’ vision and the ‘church’ vision don’t mesh terribly well.  Among other reasons, part of the appeal of the ‘mad scientist’ vision (substitute “jam session” if you like that better) is that it subordinates any one person’s ideas to actual results.  The job of the scientist is to follow the results where they lead (just as the job of the musician is to follow the groove where it goes).  There’s certainly room for creativity, but the creativity is in response to things that actually happen, or actually fail to happen.

In the ‘church’ vision, though, if an implementation of the One True Faith doesn’t work, the answer is to Try Harder.  A square peg can fit into a round hole, if you’re just willing to push hard enough.  Bad results don’t call The Truth into question; if anything, they suggest a character flaw in whomever got the results.  If students aren’t learning, it must be because kids today lack moral fiber, or they dress funny, or their music sucks.

These aren’t the only visions.  In our national politics, the “personnel office” vision has gained great traction lately.  In that vision, colleges are assembly lines designed to pump out graduates for various product lines (called “occupations”).  You judge a college by the efficiency with which it produces graduates; in this vision, the job of the people who work at the college is to reduce errors and otherwise fulfill orders.

In this vision, workers are basically interchangeable parts, and colleges differ only in their product lines and the efficiency with which they work.  We assume that the task at hand is obvious, and that the only questions are around leaner and more airtight implementation.

The personnel office vision is as authoritarian as the churchly vision, but it locates the source of authority differently.  Instead of inhering in text and tradition, in this view, authority derives from the external job marketplace.  The market says what it wants, and the task of the college is to provide it.  End of story.

Yes, these are all overdrawn, oversimplified, and extreme.  Granted.  But I see plenty of people falling into each of these camps, with varying degrees of purity or self-awareness, and their respective senses of the rules of the game follow.  Is academic freedom in the service of trying new things (the mad scientist), protecting the sacred from the profane (the church), or simply anachronistic (the personnel office)?  Are faculty creative workers (the mad scientist), the chosen people (the church), or widgets (the personnel office)?  Is teaching a creative profession (the mad scientist), a calling (the church), or a deliverable (the personnel office)?

The mad scientist vision strikes the churchly as irreverent, which, in a sense, it is.  And it strikes the personnel office folk as error-prone and kind of loose, which, again, it is.  You can’t have trial and error without error.  But to my mind, it’s both the most humble and the most future-oriented approach.  Job markets change quickly, and reducing the future to the size of the present is a crime against progress.  I don’t know what the hot occupation will be ten years from now, but I’m willing to guess that the abilities to communicate, to synthesize difficult and disparate information, and to adapt will still be relevant.  What better way to learn those things than to stew in them, in a place that does exactly that?

Monday, August 26, 2013

 

Fruits of Twitter



Among its other virtues, Twitter makes a nifty self-updating annotated bibliography.  People tweet links with comments; if you follow the right people, you can wind up with some great suggestions.

This week, the tweets runneth over.  Below, some links well worth checking out:

- Sherman Dorn’s response to the Obama plan, and a series of suggestions that he thinks would work better.  Dorn vacillates between “crack cocaine” and “pixie dust” metaphors, but the piece is well worth reading anyway.  It shows a healthy awareness of the ways that various actors can “game” systems, and suggests that putting too much faith in any one algorithm will lead, inevitably, to abuses.  Nicely done.


- “America’s Worst Community Colleges,” from the Washington Monthly.  Spoiler alert: they’re all in California, and largely clustered in the Bay area.  The piece gets a bit confused on causality; it cites several statewide mandates, then argues that too much local control is the real problem.  One could make a much more compelling argument that the issue isn’t so much local vs. state control as institutionalized conflicts of interest and a system that delegates power but not authority.  Still, it explains much of why CCSF is so difficult to get on track, and why so many California community colleges are struggling.  Simply put, the governance model (and, I’d add, the financing model) makes no sense.  


- “America’s Best Community Colleges,” also from the Washington Monthly.  There’s plenty to argue with here, but just going down the chart and looking at states is suggestive.  New England only has one college in the top 50 nationally, a smallish college in Maine.  Washington state seems to do much better than an outsider would suspect.  I know that Washington has had considerable success with the IBest program, but that can’t be the only factor.  

Following up on yesterday’s point about comparative work, I’d love to see a serious comparative study of state systems of community colleges.  Why does Washington state seem to be such fertile territory for community college success?  Why does the Northeast seem to lag?  If we take states as the units of analysis, rather than individual campuses, then some of the structural variables that tend to drop out of most descriptions might become more obvious.


- “Advice for New Community College Presidents” and “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” benefit by being read together.  The former is mostly a catalog of variations on “l’etat c’est moi,” with the usual cautions against overweening egos.  The latter, though, suggests that part of the reason that persons with overweening egos -- frequently, though not exclusively, men -- land presidencies in the first place: people who make selections often mistake confidence for competence, so overconfidence gets rewarded.

That isn’t an entirely new finding -- anyone who has read Jim Collins’ work knows about humility in leadership -- but it’s worth revisiting.  The best presidents have some humility, but that same humility makes it less likely that they’ll get chosen for the role.  The HBR piece used gender as a lens, and that’s valid, but issues of hubris and humility transcend gender (cough Sarah Palin cough).  

The challenge the HBR piece poses to Jenkins’ piece is entirely fair.  If so many leaders fall victim to egotism, why do people keep choosing egotists as leaders?  Solve the latter, and the former will mostly take care of itself.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

 

What If We Studied Success?



The more I’ve reflected on President Obama’s plans, as described last week, the less I like them.  Rating community colleges assumes that students choose among many; in practice, community colleges are usually defined by geography, and few students have more than two from which to choose, for all practical purposes.  Rather than pitting them against each other, it would make more sense to lift all boats.

Having said that, though, I’m quite taken with the chart in this piece from Brookings.  Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos did a basic regression analysis using the fifteen largest public universities in America.  The chart shows the amount by which each university either overperformed or underperformed its demographics, using six-year graduation rates as the base measure.

It’s an admittedly partial picture, but it gets at the “sabermetrics” I invoked last week.  Given the socioeconomic profile of your students, what should your grad rate be?  By that measure, the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor and the University of Central Florida have some work to do, but Michigan State and Rutgers are punching above their weight.  

Presumably, similar analyses could be run for institutions in different sectors.  Which community colleges are doing better than their demographics would lead us to expect?  Which four-year public colleges?  For that matter -- and this would be very interesting -- which for-profits?

The real issue is what to do with the information once we have it.  Certainly I’d want to see multiple measures, since any single number is subject to all sorts of distortion.  For example, a graduation rate by itself could reflect excellent teaching or grade inflation or an unusual program mix or an exogenous shock.  Ideally we’d have some sort of measure of actual learning.  In the absence of that, though, it would help to have a more nuanced blend of metrics that would lessen the impact of any given anomaly.

Then, once we have that, I’d love to see the Feds pony up some money for serious comparative studies.  What is, say, Rutgers doing that the U of Michigan isn’t?  In my perfect world, the point of that kind of study would be to extract useful lessons.  What are the consistently high-performing colleges in each sector doing that their peers could learn from?  (Admittedly, the for-profits might not want to participate in that, since they compete with each other.  But it’s worth asking.)  What are the most impressive community colleges doing that other community colleges could adapt?

That kind of study rarely happens now.  The Community College Research Center does heroic and wonderful work, but it’s one place.  Papers at the League for Innovation or the AACC tend to be autobiographical success stories; it’s rare to see or hear systematic examination of underperformance.  Titles III and V fund some wonderful projects, and some cross-conversation occurs among them, but the comparisons are not systematic, and nobody particularly wants to admit struggling.  Gates and Lumina don’t fund comparative work, as far as I’ve seen.

The beauty of an approach like this is twofold.  It’s cheap, and it’s egalitarian.  It would use documented difference in performance to lift all boats, rather than to decide more efficiently who to starve.  In that sense, it’s much truer to the mission of public higher education than a sort of Hobbesian war of each against all.  Deploying a squadron of sociologists to improve public higher education in America strikes me as public money well spent.  Far better to do that than to set colleges at each other’s throats, gaming statistics to make next year’s payroll.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

 

President’s Pell Plan Probably Problematic



From yesterday’s reports, President Obama’s plan for changing how higher education is paid for is very much a mixed bag.  It sounds mostly well-intended, and parts of it are quite good: I was heartened to hear an embrace of competency-based education, for example, and it’s hard to argue with the idea of allowing students with bachelor’s degrees to get aid for vocational training if they need it.  A little well-timed brushing up on, say, software skills can go a long way.

But with money, the devil is in the details.  And I’ve already spotted one slippery devil.  

The plan is based mostly on “ratings” of colleges, based on their performance on a set of measures to be determined.  Students who choose “better” colleges, as defined by the rating system, will be eligible for larger Pell grants and subsidized loans.

Let’s think about that for a minute.  Larger Pell grants for students at “better” schools?

For community colleges, that falls somewhere between “irrelevant” and “catastrophic.”

I understand the surface-level appeal.  Pay for performance sounds a lot like fairness.  It recognizes the power of incentives, and it combines carrot and stick.  I get that.

And done right, it can do exactly that.  But I don’t see larger Pell grants accomplishing that.

That’s because Pell grants go to students, rather than to colleges.  For expensive schools, that may be a distinction without a difference; their tuition is high enough that it consumes the entirety of even a maximum grant..  But in the community college world, the distinction matters.  Here, Pell money above and beyond tuition and fees goes directly to the student.  (The idea is to help offset the costs of books, transportation, and the like.)  That means that the higher Pell grant would help more expensive colleges directly, and community colleges not at all.   

In other words, for most community colleges, a higher Pell ceiling wouldn’t mean a single dollar more for the colleges themselves.  But it might well mean a larger influx of low-income students, who would presumably be rewarded for forsaking more expensive options.  If you buy the argument about “undermatching” -- I’m not a fan, but some people are -- this policy should make it worse.

Over time, more expensive colleges would benefit doubly.  They’d get higher graduation rates from having a higher-income student body -- these things tend to correlate -- and as a result, the low-income they do attract would come with larger checks.  Meanwhile, the lower-cost colleges would absorb more high-risk students, without additional funding to pay for the supports that increase their chances of success.  The only way that community colleges would capture a gain from an increase in Pell grants would be to...wait for it...raise costs dramatically.  

If a low-cost school were to try to capture some of those gains in order to provide support, it would get dinged for a large percentage increase in cost.  Meanwhile, institutions that already cost much more could raise prices much more in absolute terms, since starting from a higher base means the percentages would be smaller.

Hmm.

In the world of the lowest-priced colleges, there’s a yawning gap between the money available to students and the money available to colleges.  That gap means that, say, increasing the maximum Pell grant does absolutely nothing to help a college improve.

I’d also be concerned about regional differences.  In New England, community college graduation rates tend to be lower than in, say, the Dakotas.  That’s not a reflection of institutional performance; if it were, then presumably we’d see exceptions.  It’s a reflection of the other local options available for high-achieving students.  States with more robust four-year sectors tend to have lower two-year graduation rates, and vice versa.  That’s because the Honors high school grad in rural North Dakota is far likelier to attend a community college -- for lack of other options -- than the Honors grad in Boston, where options are thick on the ground.  How that reflects any given college’s “performance” eludes me.

I’d like to think that we wouldn’t base measures of something as important as higher education on dumber statistics than we use for baseball.  The sabermetric movement in baseball -- featured in the book and movie “Moneyball” -- has devised such measures as “expected wins” that a given player generates, or performance above or below “replacement level.”  But we haven’t really done that in higher ed, where the societal stakes are much higher.

Given how important this is, I’d like to see us develop a sabermetrics of higher ed.  Start with an “expected” graduation rate, say, based on the demographic profile of the students.  Colleges that do better than their demographics would suggest must be doing something right; colleges that underperform their demographics presumably have some work to do.  That way, we aren’t just conflating institutional performance with the economic class of the student body.

Of course, that would require recognizing the integrity of institutions as institutions, rather than as simple collections of individuals.  (That’s why I’m so impressed by College for America: it captures the reduced transaction costs of an institution, but also gets around Baumol’s cost disease with competencies.  That’s a powerful one-two punch.)  But that’s a much longer post.

Much of what the president outlined may be moot, absent Congressional approval.  This year the House is too busy with ritualistic votes on repealing Obamacare to deal with much else, and I don’t see this platform being any kind of exception.  As an indication of elite thinking, though, I saw real cause for optimism.  I just hope they’re fluent enough in the details not to do great, if unintended, damage.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

 

The Meanings of Late August



As a kid, late August carried the dread and melancholy of knowing that summer vacation was nearly over.  I’m seeing some of that now with The Boy and The Girl.

As a teenager, late August carried a certain relief and excitement.  The dreary summer job was ending, and I could get back to school to see my friends.  The same held true in college.

In grad school, late August suggested that I could finally get away from the crummy summer jobs that I felt like I should have already aged out of, and get back to the business at hand.  

At DeVry, late August didn’t mean anything at all.  The “summer” trimester ran from July through October.  

For several years, late August meant gearing up for the faculty and students to return, which always generated a new wave of activity.  It still does.

But now, late August has another meaning.  TB and TG are at the ages at which most weeknights during the school year bring out-of-house commitments: Lego League, basketball, baseball, gymnastics, music lessons, band rehearsals, CCD, and the like.  The worst months, in terms of time commitments, are usually September/October and (especially) April/May.  Summer vacation brings blessed relief.

September, among its other blessings, brings the return of Chauffeur Season.  

I’ve come full circle.  The first version of late August melancholy was based on the imminent loss of freedom.  This version is based on the imminent loss of time.

In a few years, I’ll look back on this time fondly.  This piece by Michael Gerson -- of whom I’m not usually a fan -- actually choked me up a little; TB is getting closer to that age than any of us is willing to admit.  In just a few years, late August will mean the imminent departure of TB.  At that point, the chauffeuring may not seem so bad.

But we’re not there yet.  So I’ll try to enjoy these last couple of weeks before the calendar becomes the stern taskmaster that it always does.  Chauffeur Season is as unforgiving as I once imagined the fourth grade would be.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

 

Advising and Naming Names



Some things that strike me as obvious apparently don’t strike others the same way, so I’m doing an ethical compass check here. Should academic advisors steer students towards, or away from, individual professors?

I’ll set some context.  Let’s take a program that’s big enough to have multiple professors teaching sections of the same course.  And let’s assume that the placement of students into the course -- as opposed to any particular section -- is uncontroversial.

Should advisors steer students towards Professor Smith and away from Professor Jones?  For the sake of argument, let’s say there aren’t any issues of predatory or otherwise inappropriate behavior; it’s just about styles.

I’ve heard arguments on both sides.  On the “yes” side, it’s hard to un-know things you think you know about teaching and grading styles.  If you’re relatively plugged into the local grapevine, you may think you have a pretty good sense of the truth about each professor. Withholding information that seems relevant, especially if the student seems vulnerable, may not feel right.  Besides, a grapevine exists, whether we admit it or not.  Denying it on an official level simply increases the advantage of those with connections.  (Many of us made course selections in our student days based on who taught, rather than subject matter.  This isn’t a new issue.)

On the “no” side, it’s easy for prophecies to become self-fulfilling.  A professor who gets a bum rap on the grapevine may be severely disadvantaged precisely because of the grapevine.  What looks from one angle like saving students, looks from another like a whispering campaign.  And the practice of airing dirty laundry in front of students is unseemly, whether or not the laundry is actually dirty.  If nothing else, it puts the students in the position of being pawns in somebody else’s battle.

I know my own view -- I’m pretty firmly in the “no” camp -- but I’m interested in hearing from my wise and worldly readers on this one.  Is there a more persuasive argument on the “yes” side?  

Monday, August 19, 2013

 

The Ballad of the Red Pen



How do you use the red pen?

As a student, especially in K-12, the red pen was the authority indicating error.  There, I learned that you measured the quality of writing by the number of errors it contained.  The upside of that method was that it forced me to learn my grammar.  The downside was that it tended to reward a certain predictability.  (Five paragraphs, topic sentences...)

In college, the red pen came very late, when it came at all.  It tended to be more cryptic than in high school, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.  But I had grown to fear it less.  In grad school, the red pen was mostly used to indicate ideological objections, as opposed to “errors” in the sense that most people use the term.  (Some actually used the term “ideological errors,” but I tried to avoid those people.)  

I didn’t encounter a thoughtful conversation about the use of the red pen until I had to t.a. some English composition classes.  Rutgers put social science doctoral students through a year or two of English comp t.a.’ing back then -- I don’t know if it still does -- and in that context, that meant being the instructors of record for our own sections.  To its credit, the English department there understood that, say, political scientists have not been taught how to teach writing, so it established a three day boot camp in writing instruction that we had to attend before we were loosed on unsuspecting freshmen.

That boot camp was one of the most valuable professional development experiences I’ve ever had.  And it was all about the red pen.

People who had studied the ways that students learn how to write -- which is not necessarily the same group as “people who study literature” -- had found “patterns of error” that students fell into when they were trying to stretch as writers.  The point of the boot camp was to help us distinguish between errors of laziness or ignorance, and errors of attempted growth.  The goal was to use the red pen in traditional ways on the former, but to be much more thoughtful about the latter.

Among other things, I was told that the number of “surface errors” -- the kind of mistakes that summoned the red pen reliably in high school -- would actually increase as students moved from simple autobiographical writing to more difficult subjects about which they were less sure.  But the attempt to move from simple to complex engagement should be encouraged.  Too aggressive a job of error-catching could actually arrest students in a developmental stage.  

The concept struck me as both liberatory and wise.  It was liberatory in the sense that I could take off the green eyeshade while grading.  And it was wise in that it replaced mere error-catching with an attempt to recognize the student as capable of more.  I can’t say I always got it right in the implementation, but the concept stuck with me.

In administration, I’ve fallen back on the idea of “errors of growth” quite a bit.  When people step outside of their usual routines and try to do more, there’s an initial phase in which they often make some pretty basic mistakes.  There’s a reason that software experts advise never buying a version that ends in point-zero.  But if you never roll out version 1.0, you’ll never get to the subsequent versions.  The key is in distinguishing between the errors you need to jump on, and the ones that are actually positive signs.

Not everybody has figured this out.  Some wield the red pen in the old k-12 style, attacking every mistake with equal relish.  When the two styles coexist in the same organization, the messages can get pretty confusing. The styles each make sense on their own terms, but they don’t mesh well.  When multiple red pens are in the picture, each with its own set of rules, it’s easy for the author of the paper to get flustered.  That’s true on dissertation committees, and it’s true in organizations.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of making things work when people are using different approaches to their red pens?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

 

Anything to Declare?



Textbook costs have been a major issue for decades.  I remember being shocked at the cost of books when I was a student, back when they were printed on papyrus and delivered by dinosaurs.  Students then sometimes had the option of trying to find used books, but that was pretty much it.  

In the age of electronic resources, I’ve become a booster of Open Educational Resources.  I think we’re at or near the inflection point where it becomes possible for students to get through a majority of classes without actually buying books, assuming the faculty are on board.  Free options have become markedly better over the last few years, and I know many professors are concerned about book costs for their students, so I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.  From a student perspective, money saved on books is the equivalent of a tuition cut.  

But we’re not entirely there yet, so book rentals have sprung up as a sort of transitional option.  They’re still physical books, in most cases, but students can pay to use them just for a single semester and then return them.  As a student, I might not have done that with the courses I cared about most, but would have been happy to do it for the courses I only took to fulfill distribution requirements.  I suspect I wasn’t unique in that.

The appeal is obvious.  Rather than paying full price and then taking their chances on selling it later -- which doesn’t work if the publisher changes editions in the meantime -- you can take the savings upfront.  When students are living week to week, an upfront savings is a very real thing.  

Some college bookstores, including my own, have textbook rental programs.  But they aren’t the only places that do.  Amazon does, too, but with a catch.

I did not see this one coming.

Apparently, depending on the original source from which Amazon sends the book to the student, some rentals are invalidated if the book is moved from the original state to which it was rented.  

Here in New England, where most of the states are small and people cross state lines every day, this could be a real problem.  Even for students who live in-state, which most do, it’s not unusual to have family or other obligations in neighboring states.  Can you imagine getting a bill from Amazon for a few hundred bucks because some tracker in your Bio book alerted Amazon that you had left it in your car when you visited your friend in Connecticut?  

Very weird.  

Apparently, the issue for Amazon is dodging state sales taxes.  I won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of that as it applies to rentals, but I’ve never heard of travel restrictions on physical books.  The surveillance aspect alone is creepy enough, without even getting into the victimization of low-income students.  (Though it does offer opportunities for enterprising sorts in trenchcoats: “hey...could I interest you in some hot Intro to Econ?”)

It reminds me of the old DRM debates in the oughts.  DRM, or digital rights management, was a set of self-destruct mechanisms built into various software in an effort to prevent people from using it in unauthorized ways.  In the early days of iTunes, for example, you didn’t get raw mp3’s.  You got digital music in a more specific and trackable form, for which you had to get permission for each new device on which you played it.  The goal was to prevent piracy, which digital copying made easy.

But DRM was clunky, intrusive, and insulting, and the market rejected it.  Instead, the market moved away from “ownership” of music altogether.  The companies that clamped down on piracy succeeded mostly in destroying their own business model.  Now even Apple has had to move in the direction of a streaming service.

My guess is that the “no books across state lines” rule will have a similar effect on rentals.  It’s clunky, intrusive, and insulting, and it will simply hasten the move to OER.  Would you rather pay a hundred bucks to rent an Intro to Bio textbook that threatens to nail you for a three-figure fine if you leave it in your car when you go visit your aunt, or pay nothing at all for something that you can access anytime, from anywhere?

It’s a bit of a no-brainer.

I’m disappointed in Amazon for doing this, but I suspect it won’t last long.  Instead, it will merely hasten the transition to something we really should prefer anyway.  How Amazon will make money off OER isn’t clear to me, but it’s really not my problem.

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