Tag Archives: open source

The All Digital Semester

Now that I’m back in my old department (after four years in administration) I’m back up to a full teaching load and I’m happy that this semester is an all digital, all the time semester. That does not mean that I’m teaching online. Far from it. Instead, it means that both of my regularly constituted undergraduate courses and the readings uncourse I’m conducting with four of our PhD students all have heavy digital components. In fact, all three are organized around digital history.

The first of my undergrad courses is my version of our historical methods seminar. I call the class “Dead in Virginia” because we’re using local family cemeteries as the starting point for our learning about historical methods. The digital component of the course is built around an Omeka installation in which the students will deposit the results of their research and through which they will build their final presentations. As the syllabus makes clear, the focus of the course is learning historical methods through actual historical research. This is the second time I’ve taught the course and I’m looking forward to it very much.

The second undergrad course this semester is our newish course designed to meet the university’s general education IT literacy requirement. Long-time readers of this blog will remember that several years ago I was engaged in a long running stand off with our general education committee over the approval of this course. Well, the course was approved at last and has been taught twice by Dan Cohen, and once by Amanda French. I’m teaching it for the first time and have a few tricks up my sleeve, none of which is reflected in the syllabus, which is heavily derived from Dan’s and Amanda’s…at least this first time through. Sharon Leon is also teaching the class this semester and her version is different from mine, which will give us a chance to compare notes throughout the term.

Finally, I’m teaching a small group of our PhD students in a modified version of my grad course Teaching History in the Digital Age…modified because we’re meeting in as a small group around a table at CHNM rather than in a formal course setting. Our work this semester will be built around the Zotero group of the same name that students in my grad course have been building over the past few years. You can follow along if you like by signing on to the group. For now, it’s not open to outside editing, but my plan is to open it to the world after the semester to try to build a much larger and more comprehensive annotated bibliography of sources on teaching history in these digital times.

I’m very glad that my reconnection to full time teaching is so heavily digital. While I was making the final edits to my forthcoming book, I had a lot of time to think about teaching digital history, but because of my administrative duties, not much time to implement those ideas. This semester I’ll finally get to try out some of those new ideas.



Future of Higher Education Conference (6)

The fourth panel at #masonfuture included Bryan Alexander of NITLE, Robert Beichner of NC State, Anne Moore and Terri Bourdon of Virginia Tech, and Kevin Clark and Mark Sample of Mason. Their topic is “Beyond the Lecture Hall: Technology and Student Learning.”

Beichner showed us a model of the “scale up” classroom that they use at NC State that is drawn from the design first pioneered at MIT. Mason has just about finished one of those rooms for our engineering program. Because it seats 80 students, and is largely dedicated to the engineers, and was extraordinarily expensive to install (and will be equally expensive to maintain), we won’t see many of these rooms on our campus in the near future, nor with the folks in humanities and social sciences have much access to it. But I plan to do an observation in the room one day soon when it comes on line so I can see how well it is living up to its potential.

This sort of innovative design of space around learning outcomes is something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about and working on this semester. I’m on two committees — one explicitly devoted to this topic, and another devoted to the design of a brand new building — that are grappling with the intersection between space and learning.

One point I’m been making in those committees is that as our students get more and more connected to the global market for higher education, we need to design new learning spaces that facilitate rather than hinder these connections. So, for instance, I can imagine a future where small groups of students (3-5 let’s say) are clustered around larger monitors in a residence hall or an academic building taking a course in Moscow or Shanghai. We do not have such learning spaces on our campus right now, but are going to need them soon. Very soon.

Clark described his work with gaming and at risk students — using games to help these students prepare for the challenges of higher education. Our game design program is one of the fastest growing at Mason and Clark’s work is bringing an important educational dimension to the work of that program. One of the things I love about this program is that, as I argued yesterday in my remarks, the Internet is now a space of creation for students and this program teaches students to create media rather than consume it.

Moore and Bourdon previewed the “Math Emporium” at Virginia Tech.  Moore ended her brief introduction to the Emporium with a great bit of data — how much money Tech is saving on a per student basis by using the Math Emporium to help deliver mathematics education to very large numbers of students.

Bourdon called the Emporium a “comprehensive learning space,” by which she meant a mixture of traditional space (tutoring lab, etc.), but also online spaces. Tech did this all the hard way — wrote all their own course materials, etc. — which isn’t necessary today given the number of open source tools out there.

Mark Sample told us about his “social pedagogy” and used the example of writing about the word “alien” in one of his classes using Twitter and forcing students to write in just 140 characters. The best takeaway from this presentation in my view, is that we can actually think differently about such key concepts at “writing” and still accomplish our pedagogical goals.

Bryan Alexander then gave a brief overview of the landscape of MOOCs — a much bigger landscape than the over-hyped Coursera/U-da-City/EdX model we’re hearing so much about. One of the things Bryan pointed to is that all of these models are dependent on institutional subvention, but, as he said, it won’t be long before institutions figure out how to start offering credits (Antioch University already is) and new business models that won’t depend on subvention.

A question that keeps banging around in my head — yesterday and today — is how we might be able to un-silo our institution to develop new business models that remain focused on education while being attentive to our bottom line. I am convinced that as long as we live in our institutional silos, we have no chance to prosper in the coming two decades. But shattering those institutional silos, silos that have been in existence for decades (here, centuries elsewhere) is going to be extraordinarily difficult.

Maybe that’s our biggest challenge for the coming decade: how to make it possible for Mason to dance to the new tunes that the advent of a global market for education is performing?

In the Q&A, moderator Steve Pearlstein, pressed the panelists on the institutional political dimension of institutional change. It’s hard when your moderator is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, because he does tend to want people to answer his questions, not the questions they want to answer. The issue he kept pressing on was the speakers to take a position on how much leverage institutional leaders have when trying to get tenured faculty to change how they teach.

To try to get at an answer, he asked which level of administration was going to have the best change to bring about change: president, provost, department chair. Bourdon’s answer was department chair. Moore said department chair, but only if the dean stood behind them. Sample said “enthusiasm is not what gets [faculty to change].” Instead, it’s seeing other people being successful, which is why our teaching needs to be as open as possible. Given that I’ve been making this same argument since 1999-2000, I have to agree.

Apocalypse Soon?

Off and on over the last four years I’ve been speculating in this space about the future of the educational enterprise at colleges and universities like George Mason where I work. Mason is a so-called “mass market university” that has a large enrollment (over 30,000), an amazingly diverse student body, and offers most academic programs available in higher education today (with the big exception of health programs other than nursing). There are hundreds of state funded universities like ours around the U.S., and many more privately funded institutions that, while smaller, are quite similar to us.

All of the mass market institutions in the U.S. are in big trouble. The sky isn’t falling, but there are definitely cracks in the firmament.

Why are we in trouble? The answer is both simple and very complicated. The simple answer is that institutions with much better brands than ours have thrown themselves head first into the MOOC swamp and already we are seeing signs that in the coming year or two many, if not most (or even all) of these institutions will find ways to offer academic credit for what are now free courses. Once that happens, our students are going to vote with their feet (or fingers on keyboards) and will start taking increasing numbers of courses from these institutions–both because these courses are convenient, and because they are from institutions with better brands.

When that happens, we can expect that more and more of our students will be presenting us with transcripts from Stanford, Penn, Michigan, the University of Virginia, and other similarly better known competitors, and demanding that we accept these courses toward our degrees. Right now our rules make it all but impossible for our students to actually do this, but we can expect a groundswell of demands for change in our “study elsewhere” policy, the relevant passage of which reads:

Students who apply for admission to Mason usually do not seek simultaneous enrollment at another collegiate institution. In those unique situations when a student does seek concurrent enrollment, the student must obtain advance written approval from their academic dean. This process permits a student to enroll elsewhere in a suitable course unavailable at Mason. Catalog numbers and descriptions of courses to be taken elsewhere must be submitted with the request for approval. Students must submit an official transcript for all such course work to the Office of the University Registrar. Note that while credit may be approved for transfer and a minimum grade must be achieved, grades themselves do not compute into any Mason GPA. Students who enroll elsewhere without advance written permission while enrolled at Mason may not receive transfer credit for course work taken at other institutions.

Can you imagine that every time one of our students wants to take a MOOC course from a name brand competitor they have to submit a signed form to the dean’s office for review? Trust me, I was an Associate Dean, and I know that such a procedure is unsustainable.

Or, can you imagine that one of our students takes a course from, say, Stanford University, earns an “A” and presents that transcript for transfer of credit and is told, “Sorry, you can’t do that.” That too is unsustainable.

So, before long, we are going to have to accommodate ourselves to the notion that we may lose 15, 30, or more credits per student to online competitors. We already give up close to half our tuition revenue each year to the local community colleges, because half of our undergraduates transfer to us after completing their AA degree elsewhere. And our “native” students (those enrolling as freshmen) are coming in with credits in hand from AP, IB, and other college equivalent programs. If we end up giving up another 15 or 30 credits to online competitors, there will be such a large hole in our budget that we can’t continue to operate as we do.

How big would such a hole be? Around $10.5 million per year if our first time freshmen end up taking 15 credits from online competitors in their first two years.

To arrive at that figure, I consulted our official enrollment census for Fall 2012, which says that our first time freshmen took 40,087 credits, or essentially 15 credits (14.88) per student. About 20% of our total enrollment is paying out of state tuition, so if we assume that the freshmen class is also 20% out of state, then those freshmen are generating $21,775,258 in tuition this fall for their 15 credits. If those same freshmen end up taking 15 credits online elsewhere during their first two years, that’s a $21 million dollar hole blown in our budget, or $10.5 million a year. For an institution with an endowment worth less than $60 million, that’s a loss we can’t live with.

Why not dive into the MOOC swamp with our competitors you might ask? The simple answer is that we don’t have the brand to compete there and, with our tiny endowment, we can’t afford to give up all but a tiny sliver of our tuition revenue to the platform providers (as Coursera’s contract with its participating universities stipulates). That door is closed to us.

The news is no better elsewhere. A recent report by the accounting/consulting firm Ernst & Young on Australian higher education argues that not one of Australia’s universities can survive to 2025 with their current business models. The report’s authors argue that, among other things, all of Australia’s universities have to make substantial cuts in non-instructional/research staff to refocus their overall staffing on income producers (faculty). I don’t know, but suspect, that the same could be said of many American institutions of higher education. Certainly at Mason we’ve seen a substantial increase in the size of our administrative staff over the decade that I’ve been here.

The Ernst & Young report argues that there are three models that universities might follow to survive to and beyond 2025:

  1. Stay with the status quo, but significantly streamline their operations;
  2. Become a “niche dominator,” i.e., stop trying to be all things to all students and focus on one or a few niches where they have a chance of winning greater market share;
  3. Become “transformers” in which they redefine what it means to be who they are, create new markets for their products, and outsource much of their operations.

As much as I dislike the business-speak of these proposals, one cannot deny that we have to take seriously the fact that we can’t stand pat as disintermediation rolls over our industry.

Mason is hosting a conference called The Future of Higher Education this Friday and Saturday (largely restricted to an internal audience). I’ll be interested to see just how much time we spend on the hard realities of the situation we are facing. I’ll be live blogging the conference, so stay tuned to see what we do and don’t discuss.

Recognizing excellence in transforming learning?

Not long ago a friend asked me, in the context of the current debate about MOOCs and other forms of supposedly transformational educational innovations, who was awarding prizes to recognize excellence in the transformation of learning, especially in the large class environment?

My response was, “Well…hm…uh…there’s…no. I guess I can’t really think of anyone.”

I did manage to come up with the CASE-Carnegie US Professor of the year awards [I am an off and on judge for these], but these awards are not specifically targeted at innovation in large courses. Some of the past winners, such as Dennis Jacobs (2002) or Michael Wesch (2008), have done some very amazing things in their large classes, but that’s not the specific purpose of these awards. Finding “excellence in undergraduate education” is the brief of the panels reading the final application dossiers.

Because I couldn’t think of anything else relevant, I started scanning around the web looking for that national award for excellence in the use of technology in teaching large courses (or even for using technology in teaching college level courses). I found nothing.

Normally, I’d put that down to my inability to find what I’m looking for online (despite having pretty reasonable skills in that area), but it seems I’m not the only person looking in vain. In a comment on an earlier post on MOOCs, Dominik Lukes wrote:

“I’ve been searching in vain for an educational reform aimed at content or pedagogy that made a transformation of the education system in accordance with its goals. And I could not find one.”

If you know of something that Dominik and I are missing, please let me know and I’ll publicize it here. Rather than seeing lots of time and money thrown at MOOCs, which are largely (but certainly not entirely) using existing technology to push content at students in an efficient manner, I’d love to see some sort of X-Prize competition for academics who want to create new learning opportunities for students that take full advantage of the creative potential of digital media.