The Sieve Manufacture Continues at Udacity

From Udacity last week, regarding the phasing out of free certificates:

“We owe it to you, our hard working students, that we do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”


We have now heard from many students and employers alike that they would like to see more rigor in certifying actual accomplishments.

Jonathan Rees has more on this odd phrasing about what is essentially a decision to charge students for what used to be a free education:

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here, but I think this announcement raises profound questions about what education actually is, or perhaps simply what it’s supposed to accomplish. Is higher education a good thing because of the skills it represents or is it a good thing because you have it and others don’t?

To which I’d answer, no, you’re not reading too much into it. As I said back in November about Thrun’s sudden pivot:

There’ll likely be lots of analysis on this article and change in direction. He’s my little contribution. Thrun can’t build a bucket that doesn’t leak, so he’s going to sell sieves…Udacity dithered for a bit on whether it would be accountable for student outcomes. Failures at San Jose State put an end to that. The move now is to return to the original idea: high failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers. Thrun is moving to an area where he is unaccountable, because accountability is hard.

If thinning pools through creating high-failure courses is good, then thinning pools through creating high-failure courses and costly identity verification is even better. It’s MOOCs as Meritocracies, and it’s just as dumb (and culturally illiterate) an idea as it was in 2012, when the Chronicle was drooling over it.

Meritocracy is not a system, but rather a myth power tells itself. It’s openness as a privilege multiplier. It’s the antithesis of open education, which must measure its success in outputs, not inputs. You can’t claim you’ve granted people access to the top shelf of goods if you don’t provide them a stepladder.

I would disagree with one small point in Jonathan’s post, however. He indicts all MOOCs for this view. There are, I think, significant differences in the approach of both edX and Coursera to these issues. Most notably, edX has Justin Reich on board, and Justin Reich’s research is in exactly this area — how do we make sure that openness closes gaps rather than widen them. But I’ve also seen Coursera publicly grapple with this question in a way Udacity has walked away from. It’s clear to me that Coursera at the very least is *committed* to gap-closing as a principle, even if they have not yet acheived that in practice.

And that’s a difference worth noting and encouraging. There will be fundamental changes coming to Coursera’s model soon, and the question is which way will they lean. Let’s hope it’s not towards the sieve market Udacity continues to pioneer.

Connexions News: New Editor, Big Announcement on March 31

I’ve become interesting in how forking content could help OER. The two big experiments in OER forking I know of come from WikiEducator and Connexions. (There may be others I’m forgetting; you can correct me in the comments). Connexions, in particular, has been looking at this issue for a very long time.

In an effort not to be Sebastian Thrun I’m trying to understand the difficulties these efforts have encountered in the past before building new solutions. It turns out Connexions may still have a trick or two up its sleeve — passing the information onto you. There appears to be an announcement coming up next week, and there is a new editor coming out as well:


One note about OER — this editing thing has always been a bear of a problem. You want editing to be easy for people, which means WYSIWYG. At the same time, since content has to be ported into multiple contexts you want markup to be semantic. Semantic and WYSIWYG have traditionally been oil and water, and so you end up either with a low bar to entry and documents that are a pain to repurpose or portable documents that no one can really edit without a mini-course. There’s multiple ways to deal with this (including just giving up on module level reuse entirely), but I’m interested to see the new editor. We have invested far too little money in the tools to do this right.

Is OCW a “shovel-ready infrastructure project”?

More on this later, but I wanted to throw this out to see if anyone had any thoughts on it.

You’ve probably heard that to stave off the next Great Depression, the government will intervene in the form of a massive stimulus package, focused on infrastructure.

What gets interesting is not that the government may need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to get us out of this, but that there don’t seem to be enough places to spend it. Here’s Krugman on that point, several days ago:

Infrastructure spending will take time to get going — a new Goldman Sachs report suggests that projects that are “shovel-ready” are probably only a few tens of billions worth, and that a larger effort would take much of a year to get going. Meanwhile, it’s very questionable how much effect tax rebates will have on consumer demand. So it may be hard for stimulus to get much traction until late 2009 — and that’s even if Congress goes along, which may be a problem given all the bad analysis and disinformation out there.

You can see the problem — you want to spend on infrastructure, because infrastructure builds future economic success while employing people in the near term. People get employed building a light rail system, for instance, and when it’s finished it attracts business, cuts down on fuel consumption, lowers road maintenance costs, and allows employers to draw from a broader employee pool.  But there’s only so many light rail plans (and other construction plans out there) that are “shovel-ready” – designs have to be approved, things priced out, etc.

While I know construction is the gold standard of infrastructure — and a particularly effective tool for broad stabilization of the economy — I wonder if just a sliver of money could be made available for a shovel-ready educational project: opencourseware.

As Wiley and others have pointed out, OCW fits the infrastructure description. The production of OCW is a capital expense, and the American public would be left at the end of the investment with a tangible good (or set of tangible goods), regardless of whether the project continued (and this part is the key to successful stimulus — hiring 6,000 teachers only to lay them off at the end of the year does long term harm as a stimulus, whereas hiring 6,000 people to produce educational materials does not). And the same way that new roads and new cables opened up broad productivity gains in previous eras, open educational resources are likely to create benefits for some time to come.

Is it shovel-ready? I think so. The stimulus could fund a broadly horizontal project. For every school that can get 10 professors to agree to release their materials, have the federal government fund one OCW staff member. And since we’re looking to invest as much money as fast as possible, twenty professors gets you two staff members, and so on.

At that level of staffing, the demands placed on central IT should be minimal. The type of work is lightly technical, and happens to be a useful experience for any light technical worker who has been laid off and looking to broaden their skill set. There’s a strong OCW community already in place to provide newbies guidance — which should reduce the strain on central IT (or Academic Affairs, if that’s where it is run from).

I doubt this would be a huge stimulus, but it could be one small place where the stimulus might go. My back of the envelope calculation on it says it could put anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 people to work who would in the space of a year produce anything from 20,000 to 200,000 courses or other educational materials.

Definitely worth thinking about — a stimulus project that in one year catalogs the content of almost any course one could imagine, all across the U.S., while keeping the newly unemployed insured and off the unemployment rolls.

What’s not to like?

(as always, everything I say here is my own opinion, and does not represent the views of my employer, the OpenCourseWare Consortium…)

OCW, Pandora Radio, and the Myth of Web 4.0

Just as people I know have finally come round to using Pandora Radio I’ve grown sick of it.

I can’t remember when I started using Pandora, and as you will see in a minute, that’s part of my problem with it. The first song I bookmarked was in March of 2006, but I think I may have started even before that.

Kicking the Tires on Pandora...

I can remember how excited I was about Pandora at first. I had been crawling the MP3 blogs, sampling bands, burning CDs for local friends, and listening to web radio station KEXP for the next band to fall in love with. I ran a mailing list called culture whore, where friends and I traded recs.

It was a lot of work, frankly.

Then I turned on Pandora, and it did it all for me. No more of the inevitable Mars Volta song in my KEXP stream — I didn’t like it, bam! it was gone. It was a radio station built exactly around my tastes, always expanding, and requiring no effort from me. A dream come true.

And so I stopped trolling the blogs, stopped listening to normal Web radio, stopped making mix CDs for friends. I would just come in in the morning and turn on Pandora.

And about 2 years later (in March of this year) I quit using it, finding that the two years I had used it had been a bit of a musical wasteland for me, despite all the great bands I had discovered. And the only explanation I could give was that it had “Muzak-ed my music”.

While most people are flocking to it now, I expect that most music-lovers will follow a similar trajectory. In fact, I’ve talked in the past six months to quite a number of early adopters who are off Pandora now, and it’s interesting to compile some of the reasons they cite, with one or two issues of mine thrown in:

  • They don’t like the lack of authorship: A web radio show of the KEXP or WFMU type is put together by a person. And to listen to it is in some sense to engage in a dialogue with that person.  When John in the Morning — a DJ I have listened to since I lived in Seattle — when he plays a track off the new Pedro the Lion CD he’s making an assertion about that track, and when he follows one song with another song, moving from Sense to early Portishead, that’s something we can mentally give a thumbs up or thumbs down to — in a way that is just impossible with Pandora (sorry).
  • They don’t like the lack of an object: A radio show that occurs on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. is an object for discussion. So is a mix CD, or an album. People can listen to the exact same thing and discuss their different reactions to it. A canonical object is a shared cultural experience in a way that a randomly mixed personal playlist is not.  And while I can share my “station” in Pandora, it merely replicates my preferences — no person is hearing the same songs I am in the same order, never mind the same time.
  • The singles culture deadens you: The chunks of experience in Pandora are 3 to 4 minutes long, and delivered to you without effort. I remember the periods of my life before Pandora being marked by the albums I was listening to. I hear Superchunk’s Here’s to Shutting Up and I can remember the particular e-learning projects I was working on at the time. When Belle and Sebastian’s Boy wIth the Arab Strap plays, I’m transported to early days with my oldest daughter, a tiny peanut we rocked to sleep to the tones of “Sleep the Clock Around”. And so on. But honestly, around two years ago that association stops. My life has no soundtrack. I think that’s a combination of the things above — that resulted, as I said, in Pandora “Muzaking my Music.”

I’m back to albums and radio stations now, and it feels good. My daughter and I have been listening to the new Submarines album, and I have no doubt that she is creating memories too. I’ve re-engaged with my mailing list, and put the music blogs back into the RSS.

And it feels human. It feels like waking up after a long slumber.

That’s the problem with the Web 4.0 vision of intelligent agents — without intent and authorship and humanness — at least as part of the equation — having better music is somewhat meaningless. I’d rather have John in the Morning play stuff I don’t like 20% of the time and have that be a connection with authorship than Pandora play what I like a 100% of the time.

What does that have to do with OCW? I suppose this. There’s some talk about OERs fitting into some kind of humanless delivery system — the dynamically assembled dream of Web 3.0 or 4.0 or whatever it is. That’s good for some things.

But there is always going to be a hunger to connect with those larger authored enitities, big chunks of shareable cultural experience ordered sequentially and representing someone’s vision with which you’ll interact. Albums, Radio shows, Mix tapes, and yes, courses. If there’s a reason OCW matters in a world that wants to dynamically assemble OER it’s because the idea of authorship and voice is core to to our sense of humanness. OCW is like the album format — it’s not the only way to do authorship and voice, to humanize our efforts and allow us to share intentional experiences, but it’s one way. And that, ultimately, makes courseware worth doing, no matter what future technology may make possible.

[Or shorter version, I guess: OCW is album rock.]


I’ve been working on the college AT Vision, trying to hone it down. It’s an attempt to get beyond the technology and the hype.

But even with all the buzz removed, I still occassionally feel like the question of the AT plan is formulated in such a way that the answer can never be what we need it to be. Looking over some old posts of Artichoke (no stranger to writing policy herself) I found something that really resonated:

Beck made me realise how we have allowed ourselves to be compromised by the lure of edu_protectionism, how we we determinedly ignore the “integrated present” when we think about education.

All that froth over new communication structures and technologies in education, (and the “oh so casual” flinging of terms like 21st Century learners, digital immigrants/ digital natives, Web 2.0, social software, systemic and sustainable change into the conversation in staffrooms across New Zealand), means nothing if we continue with closed shop practice when it comes to future thinking about education.

There’s two things here. First, it’s to recognize that that if you situate the whole buzzword convention in the concentric fences of {student > teacher > class > course > discipline > school > college > world} you’ve done nothing of use, and probably done something quite harmful.

We know that already. That’s the reason the term edupunk spread through the web so quickly.

But it’s the second part of her formulation that impresses me today — the “protectionism” and the “closed shop” analogy. These fences are not accidental. They are tied into broader mechanisms of power, mechanisms which, among other things, provide me with paycheck every two weeks.

So what we want to talk about in a plan is how technology and a new orientation is providing people with the opportunity to critique, modify, fork, or ultimately discard social infrastructure. But of course the infrastructure is us.

So we talk instead about how this will empower them to be better employees, because that’s safe. We talk about productivity. And I hate to say it, but we talk about the Cognitive Surplus. But none of that gets us there, because we’re standing on the rug that needs to be switched out.

What’s the answer? I’m not sure it’s in the AT plan, but it’s related to it. I think we have to stop running away from these social dimensions, and tease out Artichoke’s insight. It’s true that the University is a famously cloistered place, but it’s also true that the majority of people that ended up here ended up here because they are committed to a concept of social good. And they believe what they share in their classes can change people’s lives for the better.

I think our conversations have to start with that, and Artichoke has provided a good root metaphor to begin thinking with here.

A short explanation from a terminal smasher (or, Blackboard as an access control company)

YAAY! I am also going to smash all my corporate-made computers and hand-build my own. It’s NOT about the vehicle – it’s how you use it…

— Lee (no last name provided) dismissing EDUPUNK in a comment on the Chronicle article

As a person who has been involved in quite a bit of social activism, and done way too many interviews where I felt the resulting article was to the side of the real point, I have to say the fact the Chronicle has now covered EDUPUNK is incredibly significant, no matter what the slant. This term is literally less than a week old, and it is already disturbing people. That’s very very, good. And the fact the article links to our little blogring here means that the article can say whatever it wants (and kudos to the Chronicle reporter for being linky here). People interested in the concept can wander over into our conversation and get a level of analysis deeper than the “let’s smash Blackboard” dismissal.

And since they may be wandering over here, let’s clarify that.

First — on why this ends up being about Blackboard, even though we all just want to move on… well, is there another LMS of the size and influence? Of course not. Any discussion of LMS use in America is going to focus primarily on Blackboard, and if people don’t like that, they have only Blackboard and their government to blame. EDUPUNK didn’t grant them the patent, and EDUPUNK didn’t crush competing options through lawsuits and buyouts.

But let’s get to the main point, the thing that becomes clear once we get past EDUPUNK as terminal smashers rhetoric.

The movement is primarly creative, not destructive. It just looks like destruction to those who haven’t seen creativity in a while.

They didn’t get that about punk either, as Iggy himself tried to explain in a CBC interview:

Look, the movement is not anti-corporation. Google makes a profit, as does WordPress, as does pbwiki, as does Twitter (well, ok, not technically *profit* there, but still).

What the movement is about is this — while Blackboard was busy trying to leverage their foothold in the University to get into the business of dining hall management, video surveillance, and door access control, this little thing called Web 2.0 happened. And suddenly the technology Blackboard had for learning began to look — well, old. Junky. Very 1999.

So while Bb spent their efforts trying to become the single sign-on point for your instiitution, professors, frustrated with the kludginess of the actual *learning* part of Bb’s suite, started looking elsewhere for solutions.

Their first discovery was that they could do everything they were doing in Blackboard for free, and much more easily.

But the second discovery was the kicker. These Web 2.0 tools they adopted encouraged them to share their stuff with the world, instead of locking it away in a password protected course. And suddenly, they got a taste of open education. And it didn’t stop there. The tools they adopted had a true web DNA, and played well with other tools in a loosely coupled mode. So suddenly, they got a taste of what it was like to build your own custom learning environment.

And so on. They started to experience the creativity that the web can unleash, and experienced for the first time that connectivist thrill people had been going on about.

And it was then, with their courses out on the net for all to see, having developed WordPress pages that mashed together video with slideshares with twitter updates and feeds, having witnessed students commenting on posts right next to people from across the world, having seen authors of books responding to their student’s reader response essays, directly —

It was then that it hit these people. Blackboard was never a learning tool.

It was an access control system.

That detour into running your dining hall cards and your security cameras? It wasn’t a detour. It was the core business, extended into other realms. To Blackboard, it’s the same business. You pay your money, you get to get in and get the food.

And I think a lot of people realized at that point that Blackboard did not have (and never did have) the slightest idea what the web was about. Once you see how access control, and not learning, is at the heart of what they do, reading their promotional material becomes amusing. Even the better advocates for Web 2.0 over at Bb can’t escape the pull of the force. Here’s their promotion of their new Web 2.0 collaboration tool, Scholar:

That’s really what Scholar is all about. The whole idea is to enable academic resource storing and sharing among people with the common focus of education…a “validated network”, if you will. All Scholar users are instructors, students or staff from educational institutions and therefore you can consider most of the resources on Scholar “vetted”. It certainly saves me time and effort in a lot of the research I do everyday.

You see, it’s Web 2.0 — with access control! And this is from one of the more astute people over there. But she can’t fight it. It’s in the DNA of the company.

Look here’s the deal in a nutshell. If you believe there’s not much difference between the business model and mission of your Dining Commons, and the business model and mission of your university or college, by all means, give your vendor the keys. Let their feature set determine what you do in your classroom. Get excited about all the people you can keep out of your academic endeavor. Tie your roster and your building access into the same central database.

Seriously, go ahead. From a student service perspective, it may be exactly what you want. Go with God.

Just don’t confuse that with education. Keep your education EDUPUNK.

We’ve seen the future. And we’re not going to put it back in the box.

Citizen Keene

After a very confusing vote on a local school bond, I’ve stepped down from my old project Blue Hampshire, to start a local information site, called Citizen Keene.

There were an number of other reasons for stepping down — as a newly promoted Director at a public college, I wanted to move away from being a prominent figure in partisan politics. Additionally, the workload of running Blue Hampshire was significant, and did not fit into my new job.

But those are more reasons for stepping down from Blue Hampshire.

The reason I started Citizen Keene is I felt the flow of local information was broken. Talking to people after the school bond failure, I found time and time again that the people who hadn’t voted, or had voted in a way that they later regretted once they learned the facts — these people were often good friends with people who had the facts.

But for whatever reason this information just was not transmitted.

And it was significant information. Almost no one understood what the rejection of the bond meant. The rejection of the bond didn’t save money — because a stay against enforcing certain code violations at the current middle school was predicated on the new school being built.

The upshot? The town will now spend $7 million dollars on band-aid fixes in the next two years, the school auditorium and industrial arts wing will close for at least three years, and current 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders will likely spend their middle school years in portable trailer.

The turnout was 16%. The bond failed by 24 votes. Now that the vote is over, there’s no end of people that didn’t vote or voted it down who believe they weren’t provided the information they needed to make the decision. No one would have voted this way had they had the facts.

It’s easy to look at that and say, well, you should have just done your homework.

But I’ve never seen that response solve anything. On the whole the amount of time that people are willing to put toward these things is constant. If you can get that information to them more efficiently you can change things. But you’re not going to shame them into spending more time to become informed. It just doesn’t work that way.

So Citizen Keene isn’t about technology, or Facebook coolness, or IPOs. It’s about the fact my 3rd grade daughter is likely to spend her middle school years in a trailer while they fix fire code issues in a school the town had been trying to move out of since 1968. And that’s going to happen because information flow is broken, and I want to fix that.

In coming days, I hope to explain why I chose the technoogy I did to build the site, and what the relation of this experiment is to academic technology and online communications. So please stay tuned, even is this doesn’t seem like it ties into the traditional subjects of this blog. It all ties in I promise, and will be useful to everybody from professors to college web editors.

But it does start with my daughter’s future, and it has a deep meaning to me. That’s step one.

SPACEWAR Is Still My Metaphor

It’s important sometimes to realize that while we are blazing new trails in mainstream education, we are really dealing with the dam of industrial culture finally breaking.

We’ve been paying attention enough to know why it’s breaking. We deserve credit for that.

In fact, we’ve been waiting for it to break.

But the ideas that fuel me (and I think possibly you) aren’t as new as most of my colleagues think. What we are looking at is the transference of a hacking culture to a mainstream population. That’s the revolution in a nutshell.

Educational institutions need to turn out more hackers. Because it’s the hackers, not the planners, that will save this planet.

So while the idea of the “hacker next door” might be novel to our co-workers, the culture is warmly familiar to us. It’s decentralized, it values recursion, iteration, intervention. It sees consumer/producer divisions as quaint. It sees five-year-plans as authoritarian and unproductive. It sees the Machine as an extension of Self.

In a way, it was all so predictable.

But I went back and reread Stewart Brand today and, well, if you haven’t read his early stuff recently, treat yourself to it. It will take your breath away. The wisdom of crowds, planner vs. hackers, machines as community builders, it’s all there.

From Stewart Brand’s brilliant 1972 article in Rolling Stone on the playing and creation of SPACEWAR:

Where a few brilliantly stupid computers can wreak havoc, a host of modest computers (and some brilliant ones) serving innumerable individual purposes can be healthful, can repair havoc, feed life. (Likewise, 20 crummy speakers at once will give better sound fidelity than one excellent speaker – try it.)

Spacewar serves Earthpeace. So does any funky playing with computers or any computer-pursuit of your own peculiar goals, and especially any use of computers to offset other computers. It won’t be so hard. The price of hardware is coming down fast, and with the new CMOS chips (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor integrated circuits) the energy-drain of major computing drops to Flashlight-battery level.

Part of the grotesqueness of American life in these latter days is a subservience to Plan that amounts to panic. What we don’t intend shouldn’t happen. What happens anyway is either blamed on our enemies or baldly ignored. In our arrogance we close our ears to voices not our rational own, we routinely reject the princely gifts of spontaneous generation.

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive (“You killed me, Tovar!”). It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

Yet Spacewar, if anyone cared to notice, was a flawless crystal ball of things to come in computer science and computer use:

  1. It was intensely interactive in real time with the computer.
  2. It encouraged new programming by the user.
  3. It bonded human and machine through a responsive broadband interface of live graphics display.
  4. It served primarily as a communication device between humans.
  5. It was a game.
  6. It functioned best on, stand-alone equipment (and diarupted multiple-user equipment).
  7. It served human interest, not machine. (Spacewar is trivial to a computer.)
  8. It was delightful.

In those days of batch processing and passive consumerism (data was something you sent to the manufacturer, like color film), Spaccwar was heresy, uninvited and unwelcome. The hackers made Spacewar, not the planners. When computers become available to everybody, the hackers take over. We are all Computer Bums, all more empowered as individuals and as co-operators. That might enhance things … like the richness and rigor of spontaneous creation and of human interaction … of sentient interaction.

Treat yourself, and go read the whole article now. It should be required reading for anybody going into learning technology.

Curatorial Teaching

Finally got around to listening to this. It’s good. It’s nascent, but maybe that’s why I love it so much:

It’s not a total solution to the sage-on-the-stage v. guide-on-the-side but it’s a great rethinking, and it’s very practical to implement.

It’s also refreshing that Siemens approach is not kick-against-the-pricks* (an approach I’m often guilty of) — his approach respects that there is not here a complete historical break with previous teaching, but an accenting of things that were always a part of good instruction, and now need to be accentuated because of the realities of a highly networked world.

*Note on the phrase “kick against the pricks”: Since it seems this phrase is less known than I thought….”Kick against the pricks” is a Biblical phrase meaning roughly “rebel against authority despite immense pain”. It comes from a metaphor involving oxen and sharp pointy sticks. Kicking against the pricks represents an ideological yet futile rebellion against authority for the sake of doing the right thing, rather than out of hope of possible success.

It comes to me not through the Bible, but through the awesomeness of Nick Cave.

This is your Italian course. This is your Italian course on WordPress.

Some day I’ll get tired of admitting how far ahead of the pack UMW is.

Today is not that day.

So to paraphrase that guy with the egg…

This is your Italian course:


And this is your Italian course on WordPress:

Italian Course

Click the above image to check out a module a UMW Italian professor put together on the Vespa scooter. In the module you watch some vintage Vespa commercials (in Italian, via YouTube), and answer a series of questions about the Vespa based on the commercials.

How can you not want to take that class?

Jim Groom has more details.