Microsoft’s New Site Organizes All Your Social Activity (and initially, I’m impressed)

I don’t have time to explore fully right this moment, but initially it looks pretty refreshing. The main shift here is that is not conceived of as solely a hub for Microsoft services but as a harness for multiple services (of which the MS services form a piece). For example, you can Facebook chat in the sidebar, or tweet from it, as below.

This harness + MS services approach has been the recent direction of Xbox development, and is (from what I hear) the focus of Windows 8 as well. It’s also the sort of thing Microsoft has a history of doing well — the success of early Windows was, I think, partially due to the sort of intuitions on display here (people bought Windows, after all, not because they loved Windows, but because it worked with the software they wanted to use).

It’s the right direction for an email client looking to become a communications hub, and in line with Microsoft’s strengths as the original platform-focused company. More soon.

The Post-Content LMS (Caution: 20-Page Whitepaper)

This is an 20-page whitepaper I wrote this this Spring for our Academic Affairs leadership team, who had asked for a brief summary of current and projected trends in LMS use and an assessment of how Keene State might benefit from them. Presented it in May, but just realized I had never posted it publicly, and I’m rectifying that now.

While the term “content” does get thrown around far too much, the basic point of the report, as indicated by the title, is that the LMS is receding in importance as a publishing platform. As this function becomes less important, its importance as a center for the analysis, management, and use of learning process data and artifacts becomes more central to its value.

Here is the abstract:

Historically, Learning Management Systems (LMS) were developed to help professors and institutions to “publish courses on the web”. As the advances of Web 2.0 have made some of these features less critical, LMS’s are being re-envisioned as centers for the analysis, management, and use of learning process data and artifacts. This paper will explore five concerns such a data-centric LMS will need to address, and relate them to current concerns of Keene State. These concerns are:

  • Assessing Outside of the Walled Garden
  • Using Learning Analytics to Improve Student Success
  • Supporting Just-in-Time Teaching & Mobile Use
  • Improving Outcomes Alignment and Tracking
  • Maintaining a Record of Student Work (ePortfolios)

Parts of the report are Keene State-specific, and the report as a whole should not be taken to represent my own priorities as a teacher or designer, but is rather how an LMS can serve the larger initiatives and strategic goals that Keene State has identified in its planning documents.  One thing in particular that I skip over in the report is how the LMS will also have to become cross-institutional, allowing collaboration and reuse across institutions of all sorts. That’s been a core concern of mine for six or so years now, but it fit less neatly into current Academic Affairs projects, so it didn’t make the cut. (This issue is also historically complex, as I think any discussion of it must deal with the failure of the predicted “learning objects” market to emerge in the early aughts — I think there are some very good answers to why course production hasn’t been “unbundled” to date and how we might fix that, but that would take 20 pages in itself to talk about).

Final note: I tried to take care in the parts about Blackboard to be as accurate and fair as possible. I will welcome feedback if people feel I’ve got the facts wrong (interpretation is a bit stickier, and YMMV).

Post-Content LMS (Final)

The Bandcamp Model for Social Media

We’re going through another round of stressing over the mess we’ve got ourselves into with advertising supported social media, this time spurred by a twitter competitor that will charge you a yearly rate. I think readers of this blog know enough about networks to understand why that won’t work.

So it comes down again to the “advertise, buy, or run” decision, with each solution being suboptimal.

The one thing I don’t see much talk about in these discussions is the Bandcamp model. I’ve used Bandcamp for my Russian Apartments music project for a few years now, and it has been fantastic. It’s a little complex, but stick with me, i’s worth it.

Here’s the idea:

1. BandCamp streams all the albums I’ve produced for free on the site and allows album downloads. If I sell music there (e.g. make those downloads downloads someone has to pay me for), BandCamp gets a cut of that sale (15% for downloads, 10% for physical media), and that’s the end of the story — BandCamp and my interests are aligned, we’re both trying to get as many people to listen to, download and pay for my albums as possible.

2. If, like me, you give away albums for free, there’s a de minimus provision — over 200 copies of my albums can be downloaded per month from BandCamp for free. Once those 200 copies are exhausted, the price automatically switches to paid and we start revenue sharing, or I pony up about 3 cents a download for additional download credits

3. Streaming music from the site is always free (assuming you want that).

What this means for me is that I get a site that is free from ads that I can make as stark as I like, a service where I am unambiguously the customer, but which doesn’t force me to bet $50 a year or month on whether I will need it. In my years on Bandcamp, I think there were only four months where I had over 200 of my albums downloaded in a month, and these cases were quickly rectified — $30 in credits gets you another 100 downloads for your fans. (Please don’t make me groan by computing the bandwidth costs of delivering those downloads myself, the point of BandCamp is the superior experience around the discovery and downloading process…downloads are a proxy, in essence, of how much the site is worth to you).

I’d like to see more exploration of these models. Simple de minimus schemes like Google Drive and Dropbox have been around forever and are a start, but small tweaks to this model can make a big impact. While I distribute my own stuff free, Bandcamp’s solution is notable in that it has really made it possible for many artists to make enough money to pay for equipment and time off needed to pursue their craft, and with 85% of album proceeds going straight to the artist, it makes me feel good about buying music again. In other words, it aligns all the incentives up in a way that can build a vibrant community that encourages experimentation, but scales gracefully into a living for those who succeed. I could see this model being applied to everything from self-publishing, to video distribution, to learning management systems. Yes — it involves talking about money. But it certainly would beat much of the misalignment we see currently in everything from tumblr to YouTube to Twitter.

George Washington’s Vision for a National University

Until this week I had not known that George Washington (the President, not the institution) had considered the foundation of a national university to be of the utmost importance. In fact, he had meant to give it a starring role in his Farewell Address, and complained at length when Hamilton excised it from the work. Here’s Washington to Hamilton on why the university merited mention in the address:

Since then, revolving on the paper that was inclosed therein, on the various matters it contained, and on the first expression of the advice or recommendation which was given in it, I have regretted that another subject (which in my estimation is of interesting concern to the well-being of this country) was not touched upon also;—I mean education generally, as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens, but particularly the establishment of a university; where the youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of erudition in the arts, sciences, and belles-lettres; and where those who were disposed to run a political course might not only be instructed in the theory and principles, but (this seminary being at the seat of the general government) where the legislature would be in session half the year, and the interests and politics of the nation of course would be discussed, they would lay the surest foundation for the practical part also.

But that which would render it of the highest importance, in my opinion, is, that the juvenal period of life, when friendships are formed, and habits established, that will stick by one; the youth or young men from different parts of the United States would be assembled together, and would by degrees discover that there was not that cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against another part:—of course, sentiments of more liberality in the general policy of the country would result from it. What but the mixing of people from different parts of the United States during the war rubbed off these impressions? A century, in the ordinary intercourse, would not have accomplished what the seven years’ association in arms did; but that ceasing, prejudices are beginning to revive again, and never will be eradicated so effectually by any other means as the intimate intercourse of characters in early life,—who, in all probability, will be at the head of the counsels of this country in a more advanced stage of it.

Lots to think about in this, which may form the basis of a future post. But just wanted to get it out there. If nothing else, it gives the lie to those conservatives who talk as though the expansion of the federal government into higher education is a modern trend not in line with the Founders’ conception of federal power. But more than that I think there is a insight here about what education means to a society that deserves comment. Hint: it’s more than a set of skills and accreditations.

More on this later, perhaps.

What People Mean When they Complain About Khan Academy

Came across this neat little tool in an article about the teaching of variability in a statistical literacy course. It’s a sample item to help a teacher think through the multiple ways that students might conceive of variability, and to what extent those conceptions either aid or block student comprehension of more complex issues:

Take a moment if you can, and just read the beginning of the exercise. The problem with teaching most difficult things is that simple questions are a lot more complex than they look. In the context of a face-to-face classroom the professor is exposed (via student responses) to the variety of conceptual frameworks that students might bring to bear on a problem. Part of their skill as a teacher over the years is building a familiarity with those multiple perspectives and adjusting the instruction to deal with them.

When online resources are created in the context of a traditional instructional design process, a lot of of the teasing out of these things is done up front. You spend time talking to teachers and looking at resources that identify the multiple angles that students can come at these problems from. What counts as “variability” in the context of this question may be clear to you (and to many of your students first time around). It may seem self-evident. But for a number of students it is not, and identifying the key understandings that make it self-evident for one student and obscure for another is one of the major tasks of educational design. You have to teach to the misunderstandings and nascent frameworks that are in play, not to the problem you *think* you remember yourself having once upon a time. Even beyond that, you have to dig deep into your own understandings of these topics and uncover the hidden complexities there.

That’s hard stuff, but it’s important stuff. The fact that Salman Khan states that he spends about two minutes researching each topic he explains should give people pause. Taken as a part of a larger solution (one of many resources), it’s no doubt useful, but it’s an anti-pattern as far as instructional design goes. No one begrudges him the work he has done — heck, I’ll use it myself. But as the “future of education” it’s potentially a step backwards, and certainly antithetical to the deliberate practice we are being told (quite rightly) to value elsewhere.

Why Google Doesn’t Render Memory Obsolete

I’ve heard many people over the past couple years, people that I admire, say something along the lines that if you can Google it, it is not worth committing to memory. In our world of just-in-time learning, it’s a fashionable thing to say.

But just-in-time learning doesn’t release us from the need to remember. Rather, it forces us to reconsider what is worth remembering. This is why I’ve been pushing this idea of “touchstone values” in my statistical literacy course.

Here’s an example from this morning, something that was tweeted around:

Are there 6 billion mobile phone subscribers? Are they 87% of the population?

Now let me ask — are you going to Google this before you retweet it? (Do you spend your entire day researching tweets?).

Here’s the problem — in a networked world the benefits of just-in-time learning are offset by the fact that, as Clay Shirky puts it, your filter is broken. I’d say the one biggest change for the modern information consumer is that they have to learn to ignore more things (and ignore them more quickly) than any previous generation. You can’t do that by Google searching every single thing that comes your way. You have to build the quick intuition that only comes from having some broad statistical touchstones.

This stat looks wrong to me for two reasons. The first reason is this “bottom billion” thing. I remember hearing somewhere that the poorest billion people in the world survive on less than $1 a day. Something like that. That may have changed, or be a little off, but even accounting for a range of possible values around that (less than $2 a day? 800,000 people at $1.50 a day?)  there’s probably a billion people that are not buying cell phone subscriptions because they barely can afford to eat.

If that is true, and that bottom billion does not have cell phones, then every other person in the world needs to have a cell phone subscription to get you to your six billion subscribers, and that’s demonstrably not the case.

The second warning flag is not so much a stat as a general fact — the world’s population can be seen as a pyramid, with a large number of young people on the bottom, less middle age people, and a few centenarians up at the peak. Because these ages run roughly from 1 to 100, and because worldwide we are undergoing population growth, in general the amount of people under a certain age will be larger than that age as a percent. So, for example, we can say the number of people under the age of 13 will likely exceed 13% of the entire world population.

But wait a second — it’s the same problem as before. We’ve found a portion of the population that has ridiculously low cell phone subscription use (maybe your 13 year old has a phone, but does your 8 year old? Does a 13 year-old in Pakistan?). And we’re back to the problem of needing 100% saturation in the remainder again.

In reality, of course, what is probably going on here is that “subscribers” are being confused with “subscriptions”.  I don’t know how they are counting, but I’m guessing that if I get two Tracphones in a year because I lost one then that’s two subscriptions, that if I have a work and a home cell, that’s two subscriptions. If I have my iPad 3G on one cell company because of provider limitations and my cell on another, that’s two subscriptions. It may even be that my Google Voice number is a subscription. And so on. (We deal extensively with this issue of paying strict attention to what is be counted in our Making Fair Comparisons chapter on Defining Terms.)

But here’s the thing — that entire process above where I decided the number was not credible? It took seconds. Those two facts that made my mind reject the validity of the number — the percentage of youth and the bottom billion? They came to me automatically, since memory is highly contextual.

When you internalize facts, you begin to internalize a conception of the world. You begin to try to fit new facts into a network of old facts. You begin to operate in a liminal space that taps both conscious processing and broad intuitions. You start to accrue the benefits of Kahneman and Tversky’s System 1, and you make it much more likely you will engage System 2, since there’s less start-up cost — the appropriate numbers are triggered by the context, and you’re ready to go.

You can’t get that if you need to search Google every time. What’s more, you won’t get that, because it will never occur to you the number is improbable in the first place. Your mind won’t rebel against the number, because it will not be attempting to weave it into a previous conception of the universe.

Does this mean we should be teaching facts? Doing memory drills? That’s a different sort of question. But we should at the very least understand that the need for memory is not going away because we have the network. If anything, the filtering demands of the network require a larger number of working models of the world through which to view the firehose of data we drink from every day. And it’s the kids who master those models who will succeed.

The Residential Online Consensus Builds

A couple good posts from others today that support the future I’ve been calling “Residential Online” — a future where students take a mix of face-to-face and online classes, but do it within the relatively traditional frame of being a residential or commuter student.

First, here’s Tyler Cowen:

You will find two critiques of my views on on-line education here, and here, but neither represents my views correctly.  They all take on-line education to be an all-or-nothing prospect.

At the end of his post Bryan writes:

” When I talk about “online education,” I don’t just mean students at existing brick-and-mortar colleges taking some classes from their dorm rooms.  I mean students enrolling in virtual colleges instead of physical colleges.”

I would say he is defining away the most likely model, namely a hybrid model which has a significant on-line component.

Yglesias cites Cowen and adds:

This seems correct. An awful lot of people who have a kind of ideological dislike of the higher education establishment seem to me to blind themselves to some obviously relevant parallel trends like the kudzu-like spread of yoga studios and 44 percent increase in the number of personal trainers over the past ten years. Obviously it’s not the case that a person needs face-to-face exercise instruction in order to get in shape. On the contrary, the fittest people I see in the gym are clearly highly-motivated folks who are passionate about exercise and probably look at the whole training industry as a laughable waste of time and money. But if you look at the overall shape of American lifestyle it’s clear that those people are a minority. Most of us benefit from the motivational and precommitment aspects of having someone there in the room with you.

That’s not to say there aren’t certain major aspects of the way brick-and-mortar colleges work that are rendered obsolete by digital technology. But the typical person who’d benefit from more exercise is very different from the typical fitness nut, and the typical American in need of more education is very different from the typical supergeek policy writer type.

“But!” people will say — what about Borders? What about the music recording industry? What about newspapers?

Again, these content industry models  are not great predictors for residential education, which makes its living off of interaction and assessment, not content. In fact,  other elements of these industries are more instructive. A good century into sound recordings we still have concerts, and the ability to discuss books online hasn’t killed the face-to-face book club. As Yglesias points out, most people prefer a face-to-face commitment for a subset of stuff that matters to them. You can probably get a Jazzercise DVD for 20 bucks, yet people still want a certified instructor and a set time to do it with others. Prices for summer camps have undergone extreme inflation as a result of Baumol’s Cost Disease —  but people still pay (and pay more than ever) because attention is valuable, and parents are willing to pay for a face-to-face experience for their kids.

The future can be one of purely online education. It’s possible. But, apart from Wall Street and a few auto-didacts, that’s a future that no one actually wants. Or, more precisely, it’s one of those futures that people want for other people’s kids.

The more likely (and far more attractive) future involves four-year colleges constructing coherent, meaningful experiences out of a variety of face-to-face and online options for residential or local students. And to do that we need to stop thinking of online less as a separate, distinct market, and more as a feature that is woven into our core offerings.


Touchstone Values, Population

Been playing around with this idea of “touchstone values” in statistical literacy — values that would enable you to quickly sanity check a statistic handed to you.

Here’s a list of touchstone values for population. The numbers are brutally rounded. There’s redundancy and weirdness in the choices. The idea is not necessarily that you’ll remember that North America has 500 million people, but that you’ll remember that North America, Europe, and South America are all towards the middle 100 millions. And it’s not that it is stupendously important that you know the number of chickens in the world — but understanding how many more chickens there are than humans helps give you insight into our outsize impact on the planet, as well as understand issues of disease spread and resource contention. Knowing the number of people at Woodstock can help you judge claims there were 5 million people at an event. And so on. Anyway, very rough, but here it is. Lists on money, size, and risk will follow.

Touchstone figures: Population (BEWARE! BRUTALLY ROUNDED)

20 billion: Number of chickens in world
7 billion: Population of World (humans)

  • over 50% are under 30 years old,
  • over 50% live in CIA — China, India, or Africa

4 billion: Population of Asia (2010)
3 billion: Population of the World, 1960
1 billion: Population of China, Population of India, Population of Africa, Population of the Western Hemisphere, Population of the world in 1800,  number of cattle in world (2010)

600 million: Population of Europe
500 million: Population of North America
400 million: Population of South America
300 million: Population of United States
200 million: Americans between ages of 16-65
100 million: Number of Americans 16 or older *not* working (2011)

50 million: Population of England, South Korea; Number of deaths, worldwide, per year, 2010; Population of Roman Empire at height
40 million: Population of California
30 million: Number of people without insurance currently, who will be insured under “Obamacare”
20 million: Number of Americans who work in the food industry, Reported population of Beijing, Number of American college students (part and full time)
10 million: Number of undocumented immigrants in U.S., Number of restaurant workers in U.S.

8 million: Population of New York City
4 million: Number of Americans born per year, Number of Americans in first census (1790), Number of K-12 teachers (U.S).
3 million: Population of Chicago
2 million: Number of Americans that die per year, Number of college professors (U.S.)
1 million: Population of New Hampshire

500,000: Number of people attending Woodstock Music Festival
100,000: Population of Manchester, NH
20,000: Population of Keene, NH

Residential Online, a Reintroduction

I jumped the other day into a fairly specific discussion of some problems that residential online could solve, and was reminded by some that these were not universal problems.

So I want to back up, and talk bigger picture.

I believe there are multiple possible futures for education, and that many of these futures will in fact exist at once. There’s no single future for education.

What I worry about, however, is the decline of residential education. I worry that a residential education will become the privilege of a few, and the rest of society will be handed the warmed-over leftovers of whatever the Ivy Leaguers get, to be eaten in the microwave at home, with one’s helicopter parents checking over one’s shoulder to make sure the plate is clean.

Here’s the thing — I came to college myself as a really smart but profoundly incomplete person. I was not balanced. I was too sheltered, overly binary in my world view. Some of what happened in the ensuing five years (yes, five years — I had a gap in there where I played folk guitar and lived in Athens, GA) — some of what happened can be laid at the feet of normal late adolescent cognitive development, but an awful lot of it was the environment a residential liberal arts campus afforded me.

I’d like to say it was the teachers, and certainly there were a few that had profound impact on me. But it was my classmates who changed me the most. I still remember a night one of my friends threw our Critical Theory text full force in frustration down the hall at two a.m.  Tired beyond belief, up studying at the radio station, we watched it hit the tile, splay, then slide down the hall like a deconstructionist bowling ball. And then my friend went and retrieved it and we started again.

It’s not a stunning moment, but it’s a memory that has been reinforced for me over my life, because it captures the sort of atmosphere that made a difference in college. The massive four hour group study that led up to that moment, the frustration and the exhilaration, but most of all the camaraderie. For the first time I existed in a world where my intellectual circle and my social circle were one thing. The people I drank with were the people thought with. Not to idealize it too much, because there was a lot of messing about with Old Milwaukee, funnels, and occasional hallucinogenics, but in scattered moments it approached an unapologetic life of the mind.

When it comes to online education boosterism, I’m pretty hardcore. You can do a ton with online as well as (or better) than you can face-to-face. But I can’t imagine anything like my undergrad experience online, anything as powerful as it without the residential element. The big face-to-face experience that online has trouble replacing isn’t the absence of the physical teacher, it’s the  face-to-face experience of students meeting other students and re-envisioning who they are in the process.

Now back to those possible futures.

We can let online evolve outside the residential college experience. And my sense is that if that happens the residential experience will erode as outside options pull away the more profitable bits and leave us our loss leaders to run, further accelerating the rate of tuition increases. Over time two tracks will develop. The elite with get the traditional college education, and those on aid and government-backed loans will get the online version. What’s more, the residential experience itself might be whittled down, with most students coming in only after a two year battery of online courses to take a year or so of capstones and advanced labs.

And maybe that’s fine. But to me, it seems a huge cultural loss.

The other vision is that residential colleges aggressively pursue building online capacity and integrate online seamlessly into the residential experience. We prevent the erosion of credits away from us, brace for the “Gray Wave” that will radically defund higher education, and meet our future with both hands firmly on the steering wheel.

For each campus the implementation might be different. But the key is to build the capacity to do this now so that we have the flexibility to respond as the situation evolves. What problems will that capacity allow us to solve — and what values will it allow us to protect? I’ll talk more about that in the coming weeks. But I do believe if we leave online to the community colleges and for-profits, it is the beginning of the end of so much of what college was about for all of us, and what it could still be for so many students yet to come.