And so the world history MOOC madness begins…

8 09 2012

While the class itself doesn’t start for a week or so yet, I just got my introductory e-mail for the Coursera world history course I’m taking. Therefore, I thought I’d begin down a path that’s already been done better elsewhere, and try to blog the experience.

The first thing I need to say before I start any of this is that there’s a copyright warning at the bottom of the course homepage. I think it’s intended for the tests and lectures, but that still seems odd, don’t you think? Wouldn’t that be covered in the honor code? Either way, I’m going to play it safe and not quote any course or course-related materials at all here on the blog.*

That’s kind of a shame because the first issue I want to touch on has to do with language. When I signed up for this MOOC, practically the first thing I did was not that the textbook is only recommended. Then I pilloried the course for not being as rigorous as it would be at Princeton, where our super-professor, Jeremy Adelman, is based.

On the one hand, the welcome message from Professor Adelman is much stronger about the need to read the textbook. On the other hand, it’s still not required.

But here’s the really interesting thing that I didn’t realize until I decided to actually buy the book: Adelman is one of the co-authors. I have no special knowledge of the man’s contract, but it stands to reason that if even a small percentage of the approximately 70,000 students who’ve signed up for this course actually buy the textbook (particularly if they pay the $85 that Amazon wants for a hard copy), he and his co-authors are going to make a pretty penny from this thing. Personally, I’m going to deliberately annoy myself by purchasing the e-textbook so that I can enjoy the entire 21st century student experience.

Sarcasm aside, I do want to note two features of this MOOC that I do wholeheartedly support. First, the course has supplementary global dialogues in which Princeton students and MOOC participants can ask questions and hear answers from special guests who appear to be mostly other Princeton professors. [Not being my field, the only name I recognize is Anthony Grafton.] Second, the guide to writing is already available and it emphasizes the importance of both evidence and argument.

So we’ll see what happens when the rubber meets the road. The actual instruction begins September 16.

* If you want to see what I’m talking about, why not sign up for the course yourself? After all, what’s the worse that can happen? It’s not as if you’ll have to pay back your tuition if you don’t finish it.

Radio Ga Ga.

31 07 2012

So yesterday morning, I was just sitting around enjoying the vacation part of my vacation, avoiding the weeds out back by reading a biography of Margaret Sanger. When I reflexively checked e-mail on my phone around 9:30, there was a note from a producer at NPR’s Talk of the Nation. They had read the last blog post I had done for the Historical Society and wanted to have me on to talk about it. At 12:30PM, I was driving up to Colorado Springs chanting the words of my lovely and wise wife like a mantra, “Don’t laugh and talk at the same time.” I was on the air at 1:40PM.

You can read about the interview and hear all seventeen minutes of it (which includes the calls) by clicking here.

PS This is all history with no edtech at all. Besides the post, it also covers another favorite cause of mine: ditching your survey textbook.

A wond’rous new machine.

10 03 2012

“[F]or the purposes of helping somebody learn a complex concept or personalizing the learning experience – a book is a terrible device. It is, by definition, one-size-fits-all. It can’t be updated, it can’t be interactive, and it’s not terribly engaging.”

– Matt MacInnis of Inkling, quoted in the Financial Post, February 27, 2012.

Has Mr. MacInnis ever heard of this wonderful invention called a teacher? Seriously, there are people who are actually paid to be in classrooms and help students master difficult reading assignments! Sometimes they can even make dull books entertaining!

Here is a fictional simulation of a teacher in action doing precisely this:

And because teachers are of the species homo sapiens, they can actually walk to their own classrooms!:


I’d like to see an e-book do that!

In the end, all you need to do is feed teachers and off they’ll go, helping to educate young people everywhere.

Alas, maybe that’s the problem.

Why do administrators want to cut some college costs and not others?

5 03 2012

Through some remarkable administrative foresight by our (sadly) ex-interim Provost, my department is filling two tenure-track positions this year. No, this is not the academic equivalent of turning water into wine or lead into gold. Nevertheless, it did take a small miracle for two new colleagues to come out of it.

This situation arose from two retirements. One of these retirements is of a senior associate professor. The other is a lecturer. Add those two salaries and benefits packages up, cut them in half and you get two tenure-track assistant professors. While this may seem like a simple equation, it’s not. Usually the salary savings from a retirement go into a giant administrative black hole, diverted to some other purpose besides faculty pay, never to be seen by the department in question again. Our ex-interim Provost (who, by the way, was not demoted but moved on to much greener pastures) actually thought departments should be able to reallocate their own cost savings within their own budgets.

Unfortunately, this attitude is extremely uncommon in public higher education. Consider this statement, which ought to be screamingly obvious to all, but alas isn’t:

Some of the rising cost has to do with other services schools have been adding over the last few decades, like mental health counselors and emergency alert systems. And certainly there are other inefficiencies that have crept into the system as higher education has become more things to more people.

But at least at public colleges and universities — which enroll three out of every four American college students — the main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts.

In other words, tuition increases backfill revenue that used to come from the state.

But really the situation is worse than that. At the same time schools like UC-Berkeley have been taking the phones out of professors offices, they’ve been launching expensive new initiatives like online arms and campuses in China. Therefore, they have to do more than backfill those cuts. They have to pay for a spending spree designed to make such campuses less dependent upon state funds in the first place. That’s why the adjunctification of the professoriate has done little or nothing for the situation faced by the lucky ones among us who remain on the tenure track. Those labor savings are almost always spoken for even before they’ve been generated.

Yet administrators and reformers alike have all gotten behind the idea of cutting textbook costs. This is from USA Today about two weeks ago:

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to keep higher education affordable, and doing it in a way that does not impact income to the university,” says David Ernst, who is spearheading a University of Minnesota project that encourages faculty to adopt cheaper books.

[Emphasis added]

Silly me, I thought the goal of higher ed reform was to lower the cost of higher education. Period. End of story. It certainly should be. Instead, technology and tuition increases are being used to revive a revenue stream that administrators have come to depend upon for their various pet projects.

Our glorious all-online higher ed future is central to a lot of those pet projects. As a result, what some people think is the future is starving what everyone knows is the present. Someone who I’m almost certain is my friend Kate, wrote the other day here that:

I just think we’re beyond the point that we can say “X is always a fish, and Y is inevitably a chair.”

Just for a moment, let’s stipulate that online courses are not a fish, but the coolest educational invention since the pencil. If the goal of educational technology is to improve education and reduce costs, why hasn’t anyone passed any of those lower costs on to students? In other words, why not charge less for online courses rather than the same or more (like they do at for-profit schools)? After all, the problem with access to higher education in America has a lot more to do with cost than it does with convenience.

It all goes back to that quote from McPaper: they don’t want to impact the income of the university. Disrupting publishers, on the other hand, doesn’t line the university’s coffers, but it does free up more money for students to pay in tuition. I happen to think that students should benefit the same way from technology that my department has benefitted from those two retirements: Let the people most affected by the cost savings decide where to spend the additional revenue themselves.

Until that happens, it doesn’t matter to me whether online classes are inevitably a fish or not. What matters to me is that technology isn’t serving the interests of universal higher education, whether it is a fish, a chair or just the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me…?”

26 02 2012

As a matter of fact, I do take requests. This one‘s for you, Phil:

The Hewlett Foundation is sponsoring a competition: the goal is for somebody on the Kaggle platform to get as close as possible to predicting the already marked grade of 23,000 high school student essays.

Perhaps this should worry me, but taken by itself it doesn’t because this will never work. Grading essays, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, is highly subjective (but by no means arbitrary) work. Give a lot of “A”s in a row, and you’ll be harder on the next batch. Give a lot of “F”s and you’ll look for “A”s. My friend Brett used to say that he knew it was time to stop grading for a while when he started growling at the papers. While some people might call this a bad thing, I’d call it “dealing with human beings.” Strangely enough, most people write for human beings in the real world rather than for algorithms.

I find this much more common story of teaching on autopilot a lot more scary:

I was assigned a textbook course in American history. Composition was not a prerequisite, and the course was steered by two multiple-choice exams provided by the textbook’s publisher. Area Tech had adopted state-approved standards for the subject, and these were guaranteed to be met by the text, which was written by a well-affiliated professor, published by a major New York house, and retailed to my students at 60 federally subsidized dollars each. It contained some decent maps, but it was scattered, bland, and thoroughly tiresome. It was designed so that any literate adult could be slotted in to teach it. By our second class of going over its chapters, the students, a healthy mix of ages, races, and cultural backgrounds, enjoyed it no more than I did.

Plug any literate adult into the role of designated grader and professors with my qualifications become completely unnecessary. How can this situation ever exist (the naive might ask themselves)? Because the powers that be no longer care what the quality of higher education is like for most people anymore. That, of course, is the scariest story of all.

Think I’m exaggerating? You may have seen this one yesterday. Here’s Rick Santorum, on college and college professors:

“There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor… That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,” Santorum said. “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

An algorithm would be Rick Santorum’s dream college professor, at least at non-Christian schools. No taxpayer dollars for high-priced, elitist labor. No brainwashing. In fact, no thinking whatsoever. No wonder Rick Santorum loves those for-profit colleges.

Where does that leave all of us liberal college professors? Foraging for food when we’re 64. You think the job market is bad now? Wait until we’re all replaced by an adjunct or a machine. I don’t know about you, but I have to scrimp and save as it is already.

An open letter to the college textbook publishing industry.

24 02 2012

Dear Textbook Publishers:

I’m not surprised to read (via Neil Schlager) that students are increasingly uninterested in paying the high prices that you charge for your products. According to the Book Industry Study Group (or BISG),

students are rebelling against the rising costs of textbooks in a variety of ways. Some students are settling for older editions of assigned textbooks. In fact, less than 60% of surveyed students purchased current print editions – new or used. The frequency of illicit behavior such as photocopying (measured for the first time in this survey) is less than expected. Still, it remains an issue with 4.1% of students saying they engage in these practices frequently and almost 25% saying they do this occasionally. Among the legal, low-cost alternatives students are exploring are textbook rentals, which 11% of respondents report using, a significant increase over the past year.

“Or,” as Neil writes, “they’re doing their best to pass the course without getting any version of the assigned text whatsoever.” How is that even possible?

This situation is so bad that it makes me wonder whether you folks see this as a problem or a business opportunity. The BISG quotes Kelly Gallagher, Bowker Vice President of Publishing Workflow Solutions, as saying:

This is a critical time for publishers to explore research and use it to identify the creative new business models that will power their businesses tomorrow, next year and into the next decade.

Too bad the BISG is doing the wrong kind of research. You folks should worry about what professors think about textbooks, not what students think about them. Here’s why: Professors are the ones who actually assign your textbooks to students. In fact, students are highly unlikely to buy any textbooks whatsoever unless their professors assign them. Therefore, you might ask the BISG to try surveying people like me rather than our students as professors actually matter a lot more than they do when it comes to your eventual sales.

One of the things you might ask the BISG to ask professors about is how exactly they use their textbooks. The only way that students can actually pass a class without buying the current version of the textbook is if the current version of the textbook (or any textbook at all) is unnecessary for learning the required material. And if the current version of the textbook (or any textbook at all) is unnecessary, then why should any student bother to buy it? Make better textbooks and professors will make better use of them. How do you make better, more useful textbooks? Work with professors, not against them.

I guess I shouldn’t have expected you all to figure this out as the educational technology industry hasn’t figured this out either, but a guy can dream, can’t he?


Jonathan Rees
Professor of History
Colorado State University – Pueblo

Blowing up the history textbook and putting it back together again.

17 02 2012

I hate history textbooks. They’re too long. They’re usually about as bland as possible because they’re written by committee. They give the illusion that they cover everything worth knowing, then leave many important things out. They come out in new editions about the same time most professors just get used to teaching the old one. They’re expensive. They’re heavy. They don’t contain the same kind of overarching arguments that good historical scholarship does. Most professors I know assign them, yet don’t even bother to use them when actually teaching.

I also hate e-books. They’re often full of distracting links. They’re hard to read over an extended period of time. They can be revised endlessly. They can’t be resold. Even your Kindle is going to run out of space at some point if your library is as big as mine.

But what if two wrongs make a right (or at least a substantially less wrong)? I wouldn’t have considered this possible until I read this piece by Audrey Watters:

When I first talked to CEO and founder Matt McInnis in early 2011, it seemed clear to me that he recognized that textbooks are a compilation of resources, and when we talk about digitizing textbooks, we’re really missing the boat if we simply take the static content of the textbook and repackage it in an electronic format — a PDF with a few bells and whistles and maybe some video embeds. When McInnis explained the company’s vision to me, he said Inkling’s plans were to “gently disassemble the textbook, describing the process as an engineering problem not a publishing one.

Now McInnis’s company, Inkling, are the people who want to put a social network in your textbook. The last thing in the world a history textbook needs is a social network. However, the idea of disassembling the history textbook and putting it back together again might be a really excellent suggestion since the existing models are so uniformly awful.

Think about it. The physical history textbook is far too long. An electronic one offered à la carte could be only as long as you need it to be. There’s no overarching argument in the physical book, so breaking it into pieces wouldn’t destroy cohesion that didn’t exist in the first place. If the textbook had no beginning or end, there would be no pressure to make believe that it was comprehensive. Publishers want you to read in a walled garden so keeping the distracting links out shouldn’t be too hard.

I’ve actually seen really cool stuff coming from giant publishers that I would use in class. I remember one focus groups where the publisher showed us this amazing 3-D thing with historic artifacts. I told the publisher I’d use that in class, but they said I had to use their grade book, their textbook, their quizzes…the whole ball of wax. A good electronic textbook would have to be à la carte, and I don’t think our giant publishing “friends” are willing to do that. They want to sell us (and by extension to our students) everything we need to make our job easier, not better.

In fact, as I’ve explained before, the conventional textbook is primarily designed to help people who don’t know all that much about what they’re teaching, rather than those of us who do. We in the later category need tools, not services. Tools validate our work as educators. Services mean our work is being outsourced to giant corporations whether we recognize it or not.

There was this goofy thing in the Guardian the other day about whether books and the Internet had begun to merge. Here’s a piece of it:

For hundreds of years we’ve been slowly expanding the reach of human knowledge, both in terms of what we know and how many of us know it. Today we take a resource like Wikipedia for granted – but compare it with the situation of only a few decades ago, when the majority of the population had lacked easy access to such knowledge. The benefits of expanding access to knowledge, both social and economic, are incalculable.

If the history textbook moves into electronic form with the aim of out Wiki-ing Wikipedia, it’s going to lose badly because there will always be something better on the Internet available for free. However, history (as any real historian will tell you) is more than just facts. If a new kind of textbook could foster analysis rather than regurgitation, then maybe a controlled explosion might be a good thing for our field.

The rosy scenario I paint here will never stay rosy unless professors are in control of the detonator. Sure, that’s a difficult condition for most companies to meet, but isn’t there at least one ed tech entrepreneur out there who’s willing to admit that having a college degree does not make them an expert in history education?

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