Amazon.com, Interlibrary Loan, and MACCs

An addendum to the last post.

First off, since no one is going to move off the term MOOC for MANIC, here’s a replacement term: MACCs: MAssively Connected Courses.  The point here is to indicate the people that have co-opted the term MOOC have botched it. The openness is a means, not an end. The end is connection. A course that does not use openness to foster interconnection misses the whole point.

So there you go, the rest of you can do what you like, but since you can’t call a term back once it goes feral I’ll be using MOOC as the over-arching term that covers everything from Udacity to Change11, but the term MACC to refer to that subset of courses that see the openness as secondary to the connectivity (e.g. Change, ds106).

Here’s the second thing. In trying to explain the difference between something like ds106 and edX I’ve come up with this analogy. EdX is like Amazon.com. Ds106 is like Interlibrary Loan.

You are all smart people, so I will let you tease the meaning of that one out.


Interlibrary Loan is the Prototypical Red Balloon Project

Hoisted from the defunct Tran|Script blog. Originally published August 11, 2011.

New projects need prototypes. When twitter first came out, people often asked me what it was. And to the extent I told them it was an entirely new thing they would tune out. I realized very quickly however that there were two ways to describe it that got people to sign up — to bloggers, I described it as microblogging. To others, I described it as a “mailing list for text messages.”

Jon Udell has talked about this phenomenon. I can’t find the post at the moment, but most successful explanations of new ideas run along the “It’s like X, but Y” line:

  • Email is like mail, but it’s on your computer
  • Web Search is like searching your computer, except it’s the web
  • Blogging is a journal you publish to everybody (c.2003 explanation)
  • Twitter is like a group mailing list, but for text messages
  • or, Twitter is like a blog, but for all the things too small for blogging
  • YouTube is Public Access Cable for the Internet (c.2005 explanation)
  • Scribd is like YouTube for documents
  • Google Wave is like …. um … well, you see what happens when you don’t have an analogue….We’ll miss you Google Wave

Anyway, I’ve been looking for prototypes for AASCU’s Red Balloon Project that are accessible to people, and take the geekiness out of the idea of applying networked approaches to higher educations pressing problems. Things that are common experiences, but show networked approaches in action.

Here’s my first prototype. It begins with this guy, Joseph Rowell:

We’ll come to Rowell’s place in history and how it relates to ILL in a minute. But first, let me say this, you can’t read the history of this guy without crushing on him a bit. Here’s a bit from his bio over at the UC Berkeley site:

In July of 1874, Rowell graduated with 22 others—the second graduating class in the history of the University and the first to have received instruction on the Berkeley campus. At graduation Rowell was appointed Recorder of the Faculties, Secretary to President Gilman, and Lecturer in English. But the following year, he received the entirely unsolicited and unexpected appointment of University Librarian.

New to librarianship, Rowell toured other libraries seeking advice. He described his experience with characteristic enthusiasm and aplomb.

“An ignorant young man from western wilds, armed with not a single letter of introduction, but only a card bearing his own name and title, barged into the sanctums of librarians of high and low degree, was welcomed with cordiality everywhere, and was given every possible facility and help in his investigations. How proud I am to be admitted to the ranks of a profession officered by such scholars and—gentlemen! Freely have I received; freely must I give.”– Joseph C. Rowell, The Beginnings of a Great Library: Reminiscences

It’s sometimes funny to me how networked learning and open education people are treated as blue-sky techno-utopians. My sense is that if you put a nineteenth century guy like Joe in a room of university administrators today, he’d most likely end up drinking with Brian Lamb and Jim Groom. [What the heck happened to us in the 20th century? How’d we sink to such a state of learned helplessness?]

In any case,  young Joe Rowell, looking at the lack of books on his new library’s shelves, came up with a neat idea:

In the absence of sufficient funds, Rowell turned beggar and borrower, and many were the additions, permanent or temporary, which resulted from his tireless activity… In 1886, Rowell advocated (and practised without official sanction) interlibrary book loans. The benefits were so evident that the Regents finally, in 1894 and again in 1898, gave their approval to this device, now so well known. Thus, the first officially approved interlibrary loaning of books in the United States was initiated by Rowell. Today any citizen of the State, through his local city or county library, may borrow books from the University Library.

It’s probably unnecessary giving all this history, but I want to really drive home how old an idea this is. Or maybe not so much that this idea is old, but that it was thought of by somebody, on a particular day. And given that it was not initially officially sanctioned, the idea was not obvious until people saw it work.

I’ve taken a long time coming to my point, but here we are. There is not a single professor or administrator in your University that has not used Interlibrary Loan. And if we look at what Interlibrary Loan has done, it has made every institution stronger. It has resulted in research being done that could not otherwise have been done, and as a result, probably resulted in lives being saved, and human knowledge being greatly enlarged. It has guaranteed that students from small state schools have had access to the best education. It has reduced cost and increased quality. It has advanced democracy. It has benefitted students and professors alike.

But Interlibrary Loan wasn’t given to us by the Gods. We didn’t arrive as a species to find it in place.  My guess is it wasn’t just invented by Rowell either, but that like most of these things it was invented a lot of places all at once.

But it was invented. There was a certain point in history where people started to realize that the infrastructure they had — whether it was the mail system, or the newly cataloged collections, or what have you — this infrastructure combined with an eye for common gains could result in a better life for everybody.

That’s what Red Balloon is for me. It’s the search for ideas as powerful as Interlibrary Loan, ideas where we find out that if we work together, and get out of our narrow institutional frameworks, we can change the world.

My favorite quote in Rowell’s story is when he is first given the job as librarian. He asks if the position is permanent. Professor Sill (history omits his first name, unfortunately) reflects on the fate of the struggling fledgling institution, which is only in its seventh year.  ”As permanent as that of any of us,” he replies.

For different reasons, in this world of furloughs, layoffs, downsizing, and the like, that reply feels about right today. Like Rowell, we are looking at an uncertain future, scarce resources, and seemingly insurmountable challenges.

We can think small, and engage in the narrow thinking that says what we have is ours alone, and that the boundaries of our institutions are absolute. We can see the world as a zero-sum problem and get back to solving the issues of our individual institutions.

Or we can look at the vast opportunities made available by an infrastructure Rowell would have died for — the Internet, teleconferencing, next-day mail, online social networks, social micropayments, collaborative software, regional travel, print-on-demand, cheap digital video, screencasting, crowdsourcing, mobile phones — and say what’s the opportunity here? And more especially — what is the opportunity if we use this technology and infrastructure not as discrete institutional assets, but as an architecture for us all to collectively advance the common good?

Joe had a mail system, a card catalog, and a good attitude, and he invented an InterLibrary Loan system out of that. We have technology undreamed of back then.

Surely we can think of something to do with it, right?


Screw MOOCs, Let’s Do MANICs.

Martin Snyder of the AAUP said something about Coursera-style MOOCs I agree with recently:

 “If this kind of a system takes off, you might have a situation where the very wealthy students go to a campus to interact with real professors, while the rest of the world takes online courses…what appears to be a democratization process might be more aristocratic than democratic.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) at its best is a MAssively Networked Internet Course (MANIC).

In other words, there are two futures we can move towards.One is the massively central brand-name future Snyder describes. The other is to supercharge our existing classes not by destroying them, but by breaking down the walls around them, allowing them to reap the benefits of Massive Networking. In this world, the relationship of the students to the local face-to-face class stays, but it is supplemented and enlarged by the shared multi-institutional network it engages with.

[For those long-time friends in this space, I’m having an ISA/HASA/LMS moment here — what if instead of the class containing the student, the student contained part of the class]

Why is this so hard to do? Why has the other version of MOOCdom lapped the MANIC so fast? Surely a lot of it is that there is money to be made in Coursera and Udacity style experiments. And moneyed interest brings press people, press releases and press.

But even in my sphere of influence I notice we’ve made little progress on this at my institution, despite an innovative and experiment-friendly administration. I am working on a multi-institutional Psych 101 class with a faculty member, but it has been slow-going. Elsewhere, Ds106 and the Change MOOCs are great examples of massively networked courses and (via the Downes/Cormier/Siemens parnership) multi-institutional endeavors, but it is telling that these giant leaps have come about by edtech people getting into the classroom, not from traditional faculty.

And I think that’s the rub — this stuff takes a ton of commitment, a ton of time, and many of the benefits are difficult to quantify. MANICs solve problems faculty don’t know they have yet. For the edtech people that see this as a battle for the future we want to have vs. the future we are being sold it is well worth the effort. For most faculty members it’s an inconceivable amount of chaos to introduce into a semester. But ultimately, without the faculty on board, this goes nowhere.

Hopefully the AAUP and others will see the fork in the road clearly. There is a very real possibility of Coursera-style MOOCs being the future. The alternative to that is the Massively Networked course, which builds on the infrastructure we already have, making it more effective, humane, and maybe a bit cheaper as well.

There’s not an option to stay where we are. So why not join up with us?


The NY Times is Ridiculously Sloppy in Talking About College Cost

I don’t know what it is about college cost reporting, but it either attracts shoddy reporters, or makes good reporters shoddy.

Take the recent piece by Andrew Martin and Andrew Lehren. Here’s a paragraph that actually appeared in it:

Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives.

For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. Average debt for bachelor degree graduates who took out loans ranges from under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.

I honestly don’t know where to start.

  • Ninety-four percent is an absurd number to assert for student borrowing if we take a standard measure of borrowing. Estimates vary, but about 1/3 of students do not graduate with outstanding loans. I’m sure there’s some convoluted reasoning behind the number (If my parents give me laundry money, is that “loans from relatives?”). But it’s not a number I’ve ever seen in 15 years of following this, and it is in direct contradiction with the sources they pull their other data from.
  • Here’s a question — when do you use the median instead of the mean? There’s a simple answer — when your data is skewed or outlier-prone. They give the mean debt here ($23,300), but not the median debt ($12,800). Anyone even marginally statistically literate can see from those figures that the student debt problem is significantly a problem with the 10 percent owing over $54,000 and the 3 percent owing over $100,000.
  • Who are those people with the massive debt? On average, they aren’t 23-year-olds. As the paper the article links to indicates, the highest debt is in the 30-39-year-old bracket, followed by the the 40-49 year old bracket.
  • Which brings us to another issue. The big borrowers tend to be medical and law students going for graduate degrees….

I could keep going — but why bother? No one gives a flying fig about the reality of the debt situation apart from furthering their own agenda, so most people will forward it if it supports their worldview and ignore it if it doesn’t.

They’ll be shocked that 94% graduate with loans, and when they find out it’s 66% or whatever,  they’ll not be shocked that it is lower than they thought. They’ll still be outraged.

When they find out the median student debt is half what they thought it was, they’ll be…. well, outraged! When they learn that 30-somethings have the highest debt, they’ll be — well, you get the picture.

All this is a shame, because if we’d stop the forwarding of these stories (and shame on you if you forwarded this article) we’d see that the problem of student debt is very different from what the NY Times would have us believe.

For instance, if we understand that student debt is not driven by 94% of students graduating with moderately large loans, but is partially driven  by 10% students graduating with insanely large loans, that piece seems a pretty easy one to fix. Figure out the reasonable maximum cost for an undergraduate education (say, $50,000 including housing), and don’t guarantee loans over that. Let loans over that be subject to bankruptcy, etc.

Take the student in the beginning of the article, who went to Ohio Northern. That’s near $50,000 a year list for that school (an outrageous school for the Times to pick for an anecdote, but there you go). But that price is not indicative of what college costs to anyone who is marginally price-conscious.  Ohio University has a list price, tuition and board,  of $20,000 (in-state) and $28,000 a year (out-of-state). Tuition at the University of Wyoming will cost you $11,000 or so (out-of-state), and the average aid package there is about $12,000.

While there may be some closing of these gap with tuition reductions, why in the world would we underwrite loans for Ohio Northern for no demonstrated additional benefit? Isn’t that (and not widespread loan in smaller amounts) really a bigger problem?

This is just one example. We could also talk about law school loans at a time when the lawyer surplus makes law school a path to poverty. We could look at what is actually going on with the high level of debt for people in their 30s — which could indicate both advanced degrees and long defaults accumulating interest.  These are the sort of questions you get to pretty quickly when you actually dig into the numbers. Unfortunately you’ll get to none of them through reading the New York Times.

 


Peter Thiel Looks to Hire College Grad with “High GPA” from a “Top-tier University”

This was first picked up (to my knowledge) by Matt Yglesias over at Moneybox. Peter Thiel’s company is looking to hire an Investment Analyst, and whoever writes up the job descriptions over there has specified that the ideal candidate will have a  “High GPA from [a] top tier university”:

Thiel, of course, is the guy who created the press orgy around the concept of the “Tuition Bubble” by arguing that college was a waste of students time — that the road forward was, well, it was never quite clear. But it started with him paying people to either drop out of or not go to college, to prevent college from limiting their potential. Here’s a quote:

You know, we’ve looked at the math on this, and I estimate that 70 to 80 percent of the colleges in the U.S. are not generating a positive return on investment. Even at the top universities, it may be positive in some sense — but the counterfactual question is, how well would their students have done had they not gone to college? Are they really just selecting for talented people who would have done well anyway? Or are you actually educating them? That’s the kind of question that isn’t analyzed very carefully. My suspicion is that they’re just good at identifying talented people rather than adding value. So there are a lot of things about it that are very strange.

I don’t disagree with some of this – I think an awful lot of what we see as a result of choice of college is really just inputs into college acceptance, viewed four years later. Yet most critiques of college like Thiel’s miss that it’s pretty trivial to set up an alternative to college that just does what the Harvard admissions staff does to student transcripts, volunteer experience, and admission essays. If there really was a way to get early dibs on talent by hiring them out of high school, we’d be doing it already. We aren’t.

So why aren’t we? So why isn’t Thiel? What is it that we think that college degree gives us beyond a sort of native talent filtering?

I have some thoughts, which I’ll detail some other post. For now it’s probably worth it to note that Thiel’s own company doesn’t believe its own rhetoric. And if they don’t buy the whole “tuition bubble” premise, why the heck are we listening to Thiel?


Statistical Reasoning BEFORE Statistical Methods

“Recent research suggests that before delving into educating students about statistical methods, statistical literacy, thinking, and reasoning training is needed. In fact, studies have shown that a knowledge base in statistical literacy, reasoning, and thinking is needed for understanding published research (delMas, Garfield, Ooms, & Chance, 2007).”

Full article here.

The cited article actually talks more about a test developed to test conceptual understanding rather than methods (and the very small gains seen on it). It’s worth reading though — people who are otherwise scholarly walk around shaking their heads that our students do so poorly, but few people look in the research to benchmark our progress against others. Our progress is actually fairly typical.

And an interesting note in the article, given the focus of our Fall class:

Students appear to have good informal intuitions or understanding of how to compare groups. However, the belief that groups must be of equal size to make valid comparisons is a persistent misunderstanding for some students.

I love me a well-documented misconception. We’ll keep an eye out for it.


We Built the Pineapple, Not Pearson.

This article makes some excellent points about “Pineapplegate”. On the whole the incident reflects more poorly on our media and public debate than it does on Pearson.  There’s so much wrong with the way that we test students in American education, but smirking at a trippy test question fixes none of it, and denies some of the very real problems testing was set up to solve.

But let’s put that aside, because I think the author of this response nails the real thing that bothered people:

“The Hare and the Pineapple” is an absurd and almost trippy story, and it is emblematic of the sort of sanitized material that makes it onto tests and into too many classrooms because, as described in Diane Ravitch’s 2003 book The Language Police, interest groups have collectively created a culture in education that makes rich and provocative content out of bounds and leaves fun but nonsensical passages like “The Hare and the Pineapple” to fill the void. It’s an enormous problem and this episode highlighted it, but that lesson was lost in the din.

Honestly, this is what people reacted to when reading that story. If you really couldn’t guess why the pineapple was eaten, you are a poor reader, period. What sucks about saying “The animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed” is, well, who really cares? This is a made up story, a one-off, that has no relation to culture or real life or people.

Why has it been sanitized? Why can’t kids have a bike race? Real kids? Or why can’t we use an Aesop’s fable?

Well, it can’t be kids, because a female or a male will have to win. It can’t be an Aesop’s fable, because there are issues of gender and role stereotypes. It’s not just the Left either that takes a chunk out what’s possible.  The Times Literary Supplement does a nice job of summarizing what Diane Ravitch found as she tried to construct a national test. I’m going to quote it at length because I think it’s really important to understand the level of restriction in these materials.

Ravitch admits that much of the censorship imposed on educational materials today was spurred by the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements of the 1960s and 70s. The original goals were laudable: to rid textbooks and test questions of prejudicial language and to open history and literature to neglected voices and points of view. Anyone who was educated in the American public schools in the 1950s and 60s (as I was) can recall the white-bread “Fun with Dick and Jane” imagery and the uninflected view of American power and moral virtue in the textbooks of that time. But Ravitch demonstrates that the effort to provide students with a more varied and just perspective has been taken to an extreme. Now, only the most blandly inclusive, morally simplistic material can gain entry. Stylistic eloquence and the free play of ideas have no place.

Ravitch’s discovery of textbook censorship began when she was appointed by the Clinton administration to the National Assessment Governing Board, a non-partisan federal agency charged to develop a voluntary national proficiency test. The Board began gathering material from literature and history for a fourth-grade national test. But no sooner had they compiled this material than it was handed over for review to a “sensitivity committee”, a group with backgrounds in counselling, diversity training, guidance, bilingual education, and so forth. The committee flagged many seemingly innocuous passages gathered by the Board as potentially offensive or biased: an essay on peanuts because some children are allergic to peanuts; a biography of the designer of the Mount Rushmore monument because the site is considered sacred by some Native Americans; a legend about dolphins because it reflects a regional bias against children who don’t live near the sea; an inspirational story about a blind mountain climber because it suggests that a blind person might find it harder to climb a mountain than a sighted one. The examples go on. Even Aesop’s fable, “The Fox and the Crow”, was flagged as sexist because a male fox flatters a female crow; to gain approval, the gender of the animals had to be changed. The review committee also gave the Board a list of topics to be avoided. These included abortion, evolution, expensive consumer goods, magic, personal appearance, politics, religion, unemployment, unsafe situations, weapons and violence — among others.

The attempt to create a national test was eventually abandoned, but Ravitch found her curiosity piqued. She did some research and discovered that most tests and textbooks used in American public schools were governed by sensitivity and bias guidelines, many of them more detailed and absurd than those she had encountered on the National Assessment Governing Board. Anything that could be categorized as disability bias, regional bias, or ethnic bias was immediately flagged. Any word using the term “man” (man-made, manpower, mankind, salesman), and any images of men, women or minorities engaged in allegedly stereotypical activities (women sewing, white men practising medicine, African Americans doing athletics, Asian Americans studying) were judged to be stereotypical and therefore unacceptable. Any passages that were situated in particularized locales (rustic environments or urban ones, for example) were said to be discriminatory against those who had no experience with these environments. By the same token, references to religion, to parental discord, to disrespectful children, and to evolution were also judged to be out of bounds. Conservative interest groups had learned from liberal ones to exert their influence. In short, the textbook and testing guidelines were wary of anything that might raise an eyebrow — whether it was the brow of a maiden aunt or of a committed anarchist. The goal was to satisfy everyone. This meant not only censoring and bowdlerizing what might be offensive but also cramming in as much innocuous material as possible so as to give every interest group its due. Ravitch quotes one textbook writer who finally broke under the strain:

“They sent 10 pages of single-spaced specifications. The hero was a Hispanic boy. There were black twins, one boy, one girl; an overweight Oriental boy; and an American Indian girl. That leaves the Caucasian. Since we mustn’t forget the physically handicapped, she was born with a congenital malformation and only had three fingers on one hand. One child had to have an Irish setter, and the setter was to be female . . . . They also had a senior citizen, and I had to show her jogging. I can’t do it anymore.”

The drive to please everyone explains why textbooks have increased in size and why the weight of children’s school backpacks are causing health problems. As Ravitch notes, the textbooks are not only big, they are visually spectacular. They use glossy paper and are crammed with photographs and colourful graphics. But the content is stultifying. There is no overarching narrative to inspire students with a love of literature or history. Everything is presented as equally important, since any use of emphasis would suggest that certain ideas, cultures or individuals are worthier of interest than others. Ravitch further notes that these textbooks are, in their own way, discriminatory. By mandating that students only be exposed to material that conforms to their presumed experience, the books engage in the very stereotyping they take pains to avoid on the level of language and imagery.

The point here is that what people are really laughing about is that we used to test our children on materials that meant something, things that had real storylines, connections with history, deeply motivated characters, and rich settings. But we’ve swept all of that away — in the service of good, absolutely — but apparently without much thought for how much this undermines and erodes the connection between learning and real life.

I’m writing a textbook right now on fair comparisons, and even here, at the college level, I’m working very hard to give it “balance”, putting eviscerations of “No Nukes” jingo-ism next to dissections of America’s health care  inefficiency.  I don’t mind doing that, because I know if the students feel there is any bias to the book they will tune out immediately, and see the stats instruction as just more propaganda.

But here’s the thing — wasn’t it us that trained them to do that? To demand as consumers of education that nothing jar their sensibilities, that they never be asked to look past a bias, or an unflattering potrayal of someone in their demographic? That if an issue couldn’t be presented as having two equally right sides that it not be presented at all?

It’s us, not Pearson, that built The Pineapple. Maybe it’s time to own up to that.


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