The (edtech) hippie revolt.

23 04 2014

One of the strangest rabbit holes I’ve gone down as a result of all this edtech blogging is the association between early developments in computing and the counterculture of the 1960s. While I’m not going to try to explain it here, you can read a really good summary of those links in John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said from 2006. I actually assigned that book this semester and am currently pursuing those links with students in my 1945-Present class for the first time.

My students final paper assignment asks them to compare Markoff’s book to Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing and look for continuities between the 1960s and the 1990s. Much to my amazement, we found at least nine or ten of them while exploring possible paper theses the other day. I think it helps that Lewis’ book is now just as dated as the history that Markoff covers (which actually makes it better for use in history classes than when I first started assigning it!).

If you’re wondering whether I might have brought this paper topic up to the present, the answer is “no.” Every last inkling of the Hippie Revolt has dissipated from Silicon Valley. How do I know? Check out this note which my friend Historiann got from her administration up in Fort Collins the other day:

This seminar will provide information about the university’s involvement in a national consortium that promises to enhance learning and teaching. The consortium, which includes several leading research universities, is exploring new directions in the use of instructional technologies. The intent is to facilitate and accelerate digital learning using the best integrated digital systems available that make it easy for faculty and enhance learning. The ecosystem consists of three components: a digital content repository/reflector, a service delivery platform, and a learning analytics service. The digital content repository/reflector will allow us to regain control over our digital learning objectives, allow faculty to choose to share/reuse digital content easily and seamlessly while preserving their digital rights. The service delivery platform is Canvas by Instructure, and has the characteristics of easier use by faculty and faster development of courses in it. The best learning analytics will be deployed and evolve apace as this area develops.

Historiann was rightfully flustered by this terrific example of edtech gobbledy gook. [My favorite word in it is "ecosystem." What's yours?] I’d try to translate for her, but what’s the point? That would be playing the game on their home field in a struggle that we faculty are bound to lose.

Instead, let me suggest an alternative strategy: Think outside the box. If administrators and for-profit edtech concerns want to colonize our educational turf, then move the playing field. The easiest way to do that is what I’m pretty sure Historiann’s response is going to be: Don’t use their commercial learning management system and don’t teach online.

But even people interested in using more online tools than Historiann don’t have to surrender control of their classrooms to “The Man.” As I wrote in the Chronicle Vitae piece linked to above, Jim Groom, who blogs at Bava Tuesdays and who remains my hero, is working on a project to facilitate and teach faculty members to control their own domains, Reclaim Hosting. I, for one, want to learn how to use technology to teach history better, but I HAVE TO BE THE ONE WHO DECIDES WHAT CONSTITUTES “BETTER.” After all, I’m the one with all that teaching experience, not our administrators and not the techies who work for our LMS provider.

Does this position make me a hippie? Good. [Insert obligatory legal weed in Colorado joke here.] I think educational technology could use a lot more hippie and a lot less revolt – at least revolts of the unnecessarily disruptive kind. Don’t you?





“We owe it to you, our hardworking students…”

21 04 2014

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

- Sebastian Thrun, “Phasing out certificates of free courseware completion,” Udacity Blog, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

So explained Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun a few days ago, in a development that surprised absolutely nobody. Coursera has found its only reliable source of revenue charging for its Signature Track courses. It seems only natural that Udacity would eventually do the same.

Yet the way that Thrun phrased this development strikes me as incredibly interesting. “We owe it to you, our hardworking students…” – …to stop giving away our services for free… …to make you fill out more paperwork than before… …to subject you to the modern Internet-based security apparatus… No, actually…”[to] do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”

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? As you might imagine, I’m in the former category. MOOC providers seem to be in the latter, which is kind of ironic when you consider the fact that their goal is to educate anyone and everyone.

How do I know? Here’s Thrun’s explanation for the change in that post:

Since its inception, Udacity has issued many tens of thousands of certificates. To get such a certificate, a student had to sign up and make it through the online courseware. Identity checking was never part of our certification. Neither were mentor-supervised projects, which we now offer for an increasing number of courses.

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

More rigor means fewer people. If more rigor meant the same number of people, then employers wouldn’t care. If so, they’d be able to play one Udacity “graduate” off against another and pay lower wages. Using Sebastian Thrun’s reasoning, the more people who opt for these verified credentials, the less valuable they’ll become.

Pin the average MOOC enthusiast up against the wall, and they’ll tell you that they support the idea of thinking creatively and outside the box. John Warner does this (metaphorically) to Tom Friedman here and much hilarity ensues:

“So, according to [Google's Laszlo] Bock and Friedman, the best way to succeed in the current economy is to challenge oneself intellectually and creatively and show differentiation from the herd.

This is why Thomas Friedman is a consistent critic of educational movements such as MOOCs or the Common Core State Standards, because the standardization of education threatens the ability of students to meet these goals, and indeed, they threaten the very soul of what makes our country great, American individualism.

Wait, what’s that? You’re saying that Thomas Friedman is a cheerleader for MOOCs and the CCSS? You’re telling me that he thinks that MOOCs are a “revolution” where the best and brightest super-professors can remotely teach us all?

I’m confused. What are people supposed to do? Should we be herding students into homogenized online courses and preparing our students to do well on a battery of standardized tests, or should we be developing independent thinkers and problem solvers?”

I would respectfully suggest that we owe it to our hardworking students to actually give them the best education possible, one that trains them to think creatively and differently because nobody can take that away from them and nobody will think creatively exactly same way. I would also suggest that whether you pay for a certificate or not at the end of your extremely rigorous MOOC (with no required reading) has no bearing on whether you learned anything from it or not. It does, however, have an extraordinary bearing on whether or not MOOC providers will eventually sink into an abyss of red ink from which they will never emerge again.

Perhaps what this suggests most of all then is why for-profit education is a contradiction in terms.





No really, I am a labor historian. Honest!

20 04 2014

I’m one of two panelists discussing the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre (which is today, 4/20) here at the Real News Network:





“[A]nd the number of the counting shall be three.”

16 04 2014

While I was making my way home from Atlanta on Sunday, a whole bunch of my virtual and actual friends were still at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting discussing whether blogging is scholarship. While I’m sorely tempted to weigh in on this question myself, I think I’d rather follow Mike O’Malley’s example and consider exactly what scholarship is. Or to put it a slightly different way, what and who is scholarship for? Or maybe just why scholarship?

What’s sent me down this path before I even saw O’Malley’s post is this rather amazing article from Smithsonian (which I found via Rebecca Schuman, who’s probably still laughing her ass off about this days after she first read it):

“There are a lot of scientific papers out there. One estimate puts the count at 1.8 million articles published each year, in about 28,000 journals. Who actually reads those papers? According to one 2007 study, not many people: half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors, the study’s authors write.

But not all academics accept that they have an audience of three. There’s a heated dispute around academic readership and citation—enough that there have been studies about reading studies going back for more than two decades.

In the 2007 study, the authors introduce their topic by noting that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” They also claim that 90 percent of papers published are never cited.”

Of course, the flies in the ointment of this discussion are tenure and promotion standards. Early-career scholars with blogs want blogging to be scholarship because that will make tenure easier to attain. I know that sounds bad, but really what’s the use of running the normal academic peer review gauntlet if it’s likely that only three people will read the result?

Coincidentally, this discussion and this article happened at the same time that I have to worry about precisely this sort of thing once again. Yes, I’m a tenured full professor, but as anybody among the somewhat more than three people who read this blog regularly know our administration here at CSU-Pueblo is trying very hard to move the vast majority of professors at this institution from a 3-3 (or 9 credit) to a 4-4 (or 12 credit) teaching load. While I was once optimistic that there would be enough exceptions to that standard that most active scholars on campus would be able to avoid it and continue their research apace, I am not anymore.

Here’s why: A few weeks ago, our Provost published his new research standards at the back of a grant application form for a single semester of release time. To my knowledge, he did not consult our faculty senate or any faculty members whatsoever before doing so. Here is a selection from that document (no link because it was e-mail only, e-mail attachment only to be exact):

“At CSU-Pueblo, faculty are expected to teach 12 credit hours per semester (and engage in research/scholarly/creative activity, and perform service). I emphasize that regular scholarly activity is expected of faculty who teach a 12 cr hr teaching load per semester. Awarding equivalency time to conduct research/scholarly/creative activity, above and beyond the usual expectations that we have of faculty, requires careful justification – even moreso at a public institution, in an environment with significantly constrained resources.”

Here’s what it says about release time for scholarly activity in our faculty handbook:

“After consultation with the faculty and Chair of a department, the Dean shall recommend to the Provost all requests for release from teaching. Faculty members released from teaching assignments shall devote a minimum of three (3) clock hours per week for each semester hour of released time to tasks associated with such release….Release from teaching to engage in sponsored research, University supported scholarly or creative activity, University service or other approved activities may be authorized by the Provost dependent upon the availability of funds and program needs.”

In other words, we’re going from an environment in which the vast majority of faculty members received that one course release to an environment in which we all have to prove that we’re not ripping off the taxpayers of Colorado and we still might not get that course release anyway. Furthermore, there’s been no hint that the standards on our annual performance reviews will be amended at all to reflect this rather significant change in policy.

While I’m fortunate enough to have no need to submit this blog as proof of scholarship, other faculty members on campus might not be quite as productive as I’ve been lately. Here’s the gauntlet that we all have to run to get one of 20 or so release time “fellowships” to pay for our adjunct replacements (as described in that policy statement I referenced above):

“The Provost will not approve equivalency time for research/scholarly/creative activity for Fall 2014-Spring 2015 if there is not a demonstrable peer-reviewed work product within the previous 2 or 3 years, depending upon the amount of equivalency time requested.”

It so happens that I approve of the peer review process. In most cases it has significantly improved the work that I’ve published, but as anybody with actual experience in peer review knows this slows things down to an unimaginable degree. For example, I wrote on article to mark the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre for Labor during my sabbatical a year and a half ago in order to make the anniversary itself, which is this very week. It’s accepted, but won’t be published until the fall, months after the anniversary is over.

Will more than three people read that article? Labor is a very good journal so I think so. However, even before I read that Smithsonian article I had become increasingly convinced that most academic journals are utterly useless. The value of blogging (or God forbid practicing actual journalism) is that you’re almost instantly guaranteed a much wider audience than publication in even the most respected academic journals will ever give you. Shouldn’t the point of scholarship be to influence the way the world works? If so, how can anybody justify a narrow fixation on peer review if almost nobody reads the results?

What troubles me most, however, is my administration’s demand for a “demonstrable peer-reviewed work product” within a two to three year window. My last book took me (on and off) thirteen years. Nevertheless, I still want to write more books. Not only that, I want to write more books that people will actually read. I’m currently close to being under contract to write two more comparatively quick refrigeration related books using my surplus research. Both will be peer-reviewed (or at least extensively peer-edited). After that, however, my Harvey Wiley biography is going to take a huge amount of time for me to finish because his papers are all back East and that extra class I’ll be teaching starting this fall isn’t going to speed that process up any.

As you might imagine, this whole situation makes me incredibly sad. If the only solution to this problem is to write short, crappy, purely academic work that reads like the instructions for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and only three people ever read it, I don’t know if I want to play this game anymore.





Surprise refrigeration post!!!

10 04 2014

I’m here in Atlanta for the Organization of American Historians convention. Instead of attending panels, I spent about three hours in the library of the American Society of Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Engineers taking pictures of old refrigerator ads. Honestly, I’m not sure it was worth the pressure of driving in Atlanta (and that’s only because driving in Atlanta really is THAT bad), but as this was the first time I ever walked into a library or an archive with a camera and a tripod, I thought I’d share.

First, you’ll notice that most of these pictures aren’t that good. When you need them for text rather than pictures I guess this doesn’t matter, but since I wanted these for a potential refrigeration roadshow I was hoping for better. After a little while I ditched the tripod entirely just so that they all wouldn’t look like I was photographing them from the side (which I had to do while the camera was on the tripod). Second, the content of all these ads really is wonderful. I think there is something about refrigerators that leads their manufacturers to project society’s anxieties upon them. This is particularly true of gender.

As advertisements aren’t protected by copyright, let me do at least a little show and tell here, with pictures that are hopefully big enough for you to read the wonderful fine print. None of these were dated unless the magazine’s date was on the reverse:

My Time Is My Own

This is one of what I’ve come to call “Refrigerator as Liberation” ads. Yes, it’s for a whole kitchen, but the refrigerator is the biggest part. I think it’s interesting that the appliance is marketed directly at women. In earlier days when these things were more expensive, that wasn’t always the case.

DSC00801

This one reminds me of those old Listerine ads: “Suspect yourself first.” Selling refrigerators through anxiety is possible only because the controls on the appliances were so bad that they needed constant maintenance. Kelvinator may have been “fully automatic” but it still needed defrosting and cleaning. This is also, of course, another ad aimed at women. [Men, of course, don't get anxious about their kitchens in this era of American History.]

DSC00797

Here’s one of my earlier bad shots with the tripod. It’s for refrigerators in general rather than one brand in particular, but it beautifully illustrates the gender marketing of refrigerators in the early Thirties (which is when it came out). I also like it because the talking baby kind of creeps me out, like in those E-Trade commercials.

Sorry if you can’t read all the fine print in these, but thank goodness I can in iPhoto. Maybe I’ll have to pull out quotes for the slides in my traveling refrigerator roadshow. It will even include iceboxes!





Random bullet points (more personal than usual).

8 04 2014

* I spent much of last week in New York City at the Roger Smith Food and Technology Conference. I shared my panel with a food scientist and the last artisan salami maker left in NYC. I can’t tell you how cool that experience was.

* I’ll be spending much of the rest of this week at the Organization of American Historians convention in Atlanta. I would never do two conferences in two weeks if it weren’t for 1) My willingness to spend my own resources on professional development and 2) My ability to offer online assignments via class blog posts in my absence. And you thought I was a Luddite.

* My next Chronicle Vitae piece is scheduled to appear about the time I get on my plane Wednesday. It’s called, “What the Heck Am I Supposed To Do With My LinkedIn Account?” Be sure to look for it on 4/9/14. [When I have the chance once it's out I'll link to it from here.]

* After I get back next week is when we here in Southern Colorado begin to mark the 100th anniversary of the infamous Ludlow Massacre. I’m actually Vice President of Governor Hickenlooper’s Ludlow Massacre Commission. If you’d like to learn more about the Ludlow Massacre, read some of the books mentioned here or buy a book offered here (which includes mine) or listen to this hourlong interview of me and Bob Butero of the United Mine Workers from a small Boulder radio station. Believe it or not, I’m actually the conservative in that discussion.

* As you might imagine, all of this has left me very busy. [And I'm only teaching three classes this semester! Imagine what happens when they make me teach four!] Therefore, posting here will likely be rather spotty for quite some time. So please Masters of the MOOC Universe, no important MOOC news when I’m otherwise engaged!





“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.








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