Critiquing the MetaMovement

So when I heard the Occupy Everything movement referred to as a “MetaMovement” I thought — at last, someone has nailed my ambivalence.

It turned out I was wrong about what the coiner of that phrase meant. But here is what the MetaMovement should mean —

There is a core of the movement that is a critique of movements, a reaction against traditional forms of collective action in favor of what the organizers imagine to be the quintessential post-millennial movement.

But we’ve been through this before, haven’t we? Wasn’t Obama’s campaign, to many, a campaign about campaigns? A MetaCampaign? 

Haven’t we seen this in the House, and especially the Senate, where an unwillingness to remove filibuster has resulted in an endless series of votes about votes? A MetaLegislature?

Isn’t the problem with our media that it’s a Meta-Media, endlessly talking about whether the way people are talking on TV about policies is rude, or leftist, or out of touch and how media viewers will react to that — while never analyzing the fundamental claims of the policies themselves?

In all these cases we’ve been disempowered, replacing crusade and vocation with empty ritual and navel-gazing. The means becomes the end.

I think movement politics should always be looking to evolve to more effective forms. And to some extent, that means tapping into networked approaches. But my worry is the core of the movement, just the core, mind you, is so infatuated with the supposed uniqueness of their movement and the intricacies of their anarchic procedures that as it scales it will break down.

Don’t get me wrong — I support OWS (and more particularly, all the non-OWS people who are giving up their time to do this). I support them wholeheartedly, just as I support Obama, the meta-candidate, and the Dems in our meta-legislature.

But if this succeeds — if it actually achieves important aims — it will be because at some point a critical mass of new participants overwrite its anarchic DNA with something a little more goal-focused and less process-oriented. Meta is the disease, not the cure. And the most revolutionary act in this slog of a time is to get a little less meta, and a lot more real.

World’s Simplest Stimulus Plan: Student Loan Holiday?

I’ve become cynical enough in this space that I thought nothing could surprise me. I was wrong. This is shocking:

Of the nearly $1.5 trillion in loans that US students have ever taken out on record, about $900 billion of it hasn’t been repaid. Yes, there are, according to the best estimate available, around some 60 million Americans walking around with student-loan balances. No, the numbers aren’t really so staggering because grads are slackers who never pay their debts; a third of all student loan debt was incurred in the last four years. So the national outstanding-loan debt is growing fast. Too bad for all us suckers who took out all that aid that the same cannot be said of the job market.

Is it possible that there is some sort of error of definition here, due to changes in how loans are managed in the last three years? 

If there is not, here is the world’s simplest stimulus plan — student loan holiday. 

Update: BTW, I am reading this as a third of all student loan debt ever taken on was issued in the last four years — the other interpretation, that one third of extant student loan debt was incurred in last four years would not be surprising, since student debt accumulates for the the first four to five years without payment, and then is paid off over a ten year period (usually). 

Ed Roulette Project Is Off and Running

Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and I have started talking about how to make Ed Roulette a reality. 

Please take 5 minutes of your time and check out the short wireframe walkthrough of how the application would work and let us know if you can help us build it, test it, popularize it. It’s a killer project that combines 20 years of research on Peer Instruction with a MOOC-style eye towards massive scalability. It also will answer the question of whether a massive online course can teach entering freshmen basic skills — this approach can not only do that, it can do it better than we currently are in 20 seat face to face classrooms. 

If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out the walkthrough. If you are interested in the literally hundreds of research articles that indicate this will work, leave a comment or shoot me a note, I’ll send you the links. 

Jobs / Joggers

I never really was a big Steve Jobs fan. 

Back in I think 1999 I bought what i think was possibly hardware MP3 player ever manufactured, the Rio 300. It could fit less than an hour’s worth of music at 128 kbps. 

Here’s the thing most people don’t remember about the Rio — at the time it was marketed to joggers. That was the market. All the ads were about the fact that you could finally jog without your music skipping. 

That wasn’t why I bought it of course. But the prevailing wisdom of the time was that only people that had no other choice (like joggers in a world where the Sony Walkman was dying) would buy a hardware device that was such a thin shadow of what a CD player would offer you. Who the heck was going to listen to compressed music through earbuds off a device that got music not from your shelf, but from a computer. 

I kind of resented Jobs when he popularized the MP3 player a couple years later — he was a latecomer — it was like being an indie music guy in 1991 and then suddenly every idiot is listening to Nirvana. I had to listen to how Apple had invented the MP3 player, etc. 

But what Jobs got was what us MP3 Player lovers already knew — the advances in how this changed how we listened to music made this not a secondary device, but a primary one.The MP3 Player had moved from a niche device for joggers to something that would soon become the primary mode of music consumption for most people. 

That’s where we are right now with places like Full Sail, UoPhx, Kaplan, others. Those are the Rio 300s of the world right now. And they are marketed to people for whom the main system doesn’t work — the “joggers” of the student population.

What the theory of disruptive innovation tells us is that is likely to change very, very shortly. There are some very limited, very solvable problems in online ed. They will be solved soon. Online education is quickly becoming about more than just joggers, and soon it is F2F that will be the niche market. 

That said, I think those that find the right hybrid of F2F and online will do very well. You don’t stop seeing bands live because you got an MP3 player, etc, etc. We will continue to have residential students, face-to-face class sessions, co-curricular activity. These will hopefully be blended into a rich online experience.

But our days of thinking of F2F as the “go-to” option will soon be over. We are going to have to start treating online as a first-class option, and making decisions based on that. 

Personally, I think it’s exciting. So if you want to honor Steve Jobs today and you are in education, think about how we are going to make that stuff happen, with elegance, style, and humanity.

Federal Judge: Streaming video online to students is same as classroom screening

For those following it, it’s the UCLA case. Story here.

“The type of access that students and/or faculty may have, whether overseas or at a coffee shop, does not take the viewing of the DVD out of the educational context,” Marshall wrote in her decision. Because the only rights-holding plaintiff in the case, Ambrose Video Publishing, had licensed UCLA to “publicly perform” its videos in the classroom, streaming it on a secure site was also permissible, the judge said.

It’s hard to say if that language can be construed as a precedent though, because the actual reason the case was thrown out was this:

Instead, Judge Marshall threw out the case because UCLA, as a state institution, benefits from a doctrine called “sovereign immunity”—which means the school can’t be sued in federal court without its consent. 

Using Screensavers to Test Engagement

Engagement is one of those words that’s become pretty mushy. Everyone uses it, few seem to know what it means. I tend to talk less about engagement and more about Engaged Time in the classroom, because that definition is clearer: it’s the amount of time that students spend attending to the learning task at hand. In this smaller definition, engagement is the time they spend attending to the task, and the level at which they attend to it.

Assuming a well-designed learning experience, the more time and energy the students spend attending to the experience, the more they will learn. 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to test engaged learning. Observation (with minute by minute polling of student activity) is one way, but it’s pretty subject to bias, and such observations are hard to quantify. Additionally we can measure whether a student is looking at an instructor, but it’s hard to figure out, in any systematic way, whether the student is zoning out or parsing every word.

So I thought this study was an interesting approach to the question. In brief, students were asked to attend to a series of mini-lectures while pressing a key on computer to dismiss a screensaver whenever it popped up. Conditions were straight lecture, lecture and interspersed instructor questioning, and lecture with a interspersed clicker question segments. 

The clicker piece was horribly hobbled — no peer instruction, no bonus point set up, no individual registration of clickers, no focus on pre-reading. None of the things that would generally provide those large learning gains we see with PI. Just PowerPoints with periodic clicker questions. 

But putting that aside, it was a classic dual task experiment, really. And the hypothesis was that students using clickers, knowing they had to apply their knowledge shortly, would be more engaged in the lecture and hence take slightly longer to notice that the screensaver had popped up than students without clickers. 

The results are pretty striking:

Compared to an average of 10 seconds in the control and question groups, the clicker condition took 46 seconds to respond. Keep in mind that the screensaver was set to pop up only when the clicker students were listening to the lecture portion, not when they were using the clickers, so this is just about being attentive enough to the lecture that they don’t notice the screensaver. In fact, so many students in the clicker condition forgot about the screensaver completely that they had to cap the delay at two minutes for those that didn’t respond. 

OK, OK — anticipating reactions to this, we don’t know whether the attention given to the lecturer was the right kind of attention, there’s some weirdness around the setup, other mechanics of the clickers could be at work here, and who lectures like this anyway…

Well screw you all, I think this is pretty neat, and a nice way to confirm some of the stuff that we see on self-reports. 

Institutions Matter

I think #occupywallstreet is an interesting experiment that we may learn from — and it may even make a difference. But if it does, let’s remember this:

But it was the appearance of the hundred-or-so odd members of the TWU 100, carrying placards and bullhorns, and clad in their blue and red shirts inscribed with the words “Workers Rights Are Human Rights,” that finally lent the protesters an air of solid organization.

TWU 100 members, who, unlike many of the young core group of 200 to 300 protesters, have actually participated in demonstrations before, arrived at around 4:30 p.m during a General Assembly meeting and took to the center of the park to express their support verbally.

This was around the same time that Radiohead had been rumored to play a concert, but those reports turned out to be a hoax. “The people of TWU are here and we have your back,” a TWU spokesman shouted to crowd, “We have a right to occupy our streets!”

Without strong institutions (and frankly, funded institutions) and defined collective agendas social change spins its wheels. Why do you think so much effort is directed at union-busting, defunding colleges and schools, killing ACORN? 

I’m a very firm believer in the power of social media to both start and fuel change. It’s a powerful force that gets around the traditional media and reaches out to people that would otherwise be left out. It reinvigorates movements.

But if you want that change to be meaningful it takes organizations. Without organizations and institutions these things don’t last. 

I’ll let people deduce how this applies to the current “Let’s replace institutions of higher education with social media” debate.