Music for Deckchairs

"In shadowy, silent distance grew the iceberg too": an Australian blog about changes in higher education


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Own goal

It’s been a dramatic and painful week around the world, and a week for scepticism about the value of “breaking news”. Here’s Australia’s contribution to the world of redundant announcements, from our busy Minister for Everything*, Craig Emerson:

No one’s surprised at the news that if elected Tony Abbott will hang on to the cuts made to higher education without passing them on to schools. We’re a risk averse sector with a sharp eye for the unforeseen. And this risk was exceptionally easy to see: it’s the elephant that’s been sitting in our kitchen all week, helping itself to cake. When the Labor government announced cuts to Australian universities in order to save Australian schools without securing the support of the mostly conservative State governments, with all the polls and pundits predicting Tony Abbott as the PM of a new government, our lunch money was gone.

And although the government has spent the week downplaying the Efficiency Dividend as a modest speed bump of 2% followed by 1.25%, the detail written in small print is that this is cumulative: 2014 at 2% followed by 2015 at 3.25%; and its impact will extend beyond the two years in which it’s applied by pegging the indexation of our operating grants after that to the lowered rate. In other words, we’ll continue to feel the Efficiency Dividend like shadow limb pain for quite some time.

It’s hard not to see this as an own goal by the current government, a parting gift for their successors. We’re a really small and efficient sector. We’re on track to meet the targets we were given for increased participation overall. We’re a star exporter of services. We’re already floating on a cushion of volunteered time and work. There’s not that much more to cut without suffering pushback from students and industry partners, not to mention our actual partners and families, and Australia’s full-time university workers and managers have been fairly vocal about this. (Do read Tseen Khoo’s post, which is packed with helpful links.)

We’ve said a bit less about the likely impact of the reforms to the ways in which Australian university students are funded. There are two small but significant shifts to the current income-contingent loan system, and although one will hit middle class families harder, both have had to be managed by pretending that student debt is a virtuous and low-risk investment in a very sparkly future. Firstly, there will no longer be a discount rate for those who pay their fees upfront; and secondly, the existing scholarships that help some students meet the set-up costs of participation (especially in terms of textbooks) will now be added to their loans.

Expanding investment in student debt isn’t such a gift to the next government; really, it’s more like the prawn heads left in the curtain rods.  Not only does Australia already have a hefty unpaid bill from Australian graduates who have either left the country or died with their debt intact, but this week we also have compelling evidence from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that young Americans with a history of student debt reacted very negatively to recession after 2008. They retreated from the sectors of the economy they had traditionally been expected to prop up, particularly home ownership. They became slightly less likely to buy cars that required loans. And the overall impact on the consumer economy of their inconfident spending and debt exhaustion is bluntly put:

Despite unprecedented growth in the student loan market, student borrowers appear to have participated fully in the recent consumer deleveraging. This was possible only through a collective retreat from other standard debt markets.

Student debt isn’t just bad for the economy, it’s also bad for students. It’s sold to the electorate with the image of doctors and lawyers who surely owe their fair share; less is said about the fact that those who owe most are those who are slower to reach the income threshholds at which they’re required to repay — those graduates who become parents and then spend a long time in the part-time workforce, for example, or those in remote and regional areas who remain underemployed relative to their qualifications. It’s also one of the only major debts that can be taken on in Australia without the obligation of the lender to counsel the borrower about their fitness to repay. Quite the opposite: universities market the benefit of participation on the promise of a graduate earnings premium, and keep the image of the lender and the future debt nicely vague.

Awkwardly for all concerned, the Grattan Institute has just pointed out that the graduate premium in Australia isn’t as high as it is elsewhere (p.40); and is off-trend in relation to other OECD countries. This is partly because the real growth in jobs and increases in wages has been in unskilled and construction work in the minerals and mining boom, and it might level out. But as the Grattan Institute also point out, it’s precisely by increasing the supply of graduates overall that we are playing our part in keeping the graduate premium low (p.39).

School-leaver students are unlikely to be experienced in risk calculation. This is the first big debt for many, especially those who have never had an car loan or a credit card. Meanwhile academics, who do know about the impact of personal and household debt, are so testy about the suggestion that students are consumers that we turn a blind eye to the fact that they’re actually borrowers. It’s something we rarely discuss, and we certainly don’t encourage them to let debt shape their decisions, just in case this results in attrition.

There’s a lot being said at the moment about how we should innovate and what we should do to achieve efficiency. I agree completely with Richard Hall that these calculations are framed within a far bigger crisis, and that the enclosure of academic labour and hedging of student debt are complexly linked with the deeply scarring patterns of social exclusion upon which capitalism increasingly depends. But while we’re here and making decisions, I think that whatever curriculum we draw up, whatever resourcing or delivery decisions we make, whatever cost savings we attempt and whatever justification we give ourselves, we need to keep in mind throughout it all that university students’ debt is also our debt to them for showing up.

Because with both sides of government now treating us all with equal contempt, we’re really in this together.

* The longer version: Minister for Trade & Competitiveness, Minister Assisting PM on Asian Century Policy, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science & Research.

(Thanks to Andrew Vann for much explaining of the sums.)


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Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.


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In the grupetto

No-one sat on and everyone drove as hard as they could.

Matt Stephens, Life in the Grupetto

Here’s the thing about professional cycling. It’s not the lycra, it’s not the drugs, and it’s not the spectacle of Lance talking about himself in the third person as that flawed guy who did the bad things.

It’s the grupetto: the paradoxical collaboration that breaks out among rivals who are struggling at the back of the race, once the whole thing starts climbing uphill. The riders who end up in the grupetto are mostly specialist sprinters. Sprinters are the ones who burst from the pack and ride crazily fast for about ten seconds at the end, but to do this they have to hang on over the whole day with everyone else. Once the bloated caravan of the Tour starts to climb a mountain, the formidably weird biomechanics of the specialist climbers kick in, the peleton swings after them—and the sprinters fall off the back. Watch these super athletes closely and they look as though they’re riding backwards.

The loneliness and stress of their predicament is extraordinary. If each tries to get over the mountain on their own, they’ll struggle to avoid time-based elimination, because the physics of road racing decisively favours a pack riding together over an individual struggling alone into a headwind. But it’s as individuals that they stand to lose.

Why don’t professional cyclists panic when they fall behind on these savage gradients? Why don’t they quit? It’s because they have a plan. They’re waiting. They know that in the tradition of their discipline, a grupetto will form and pick them up, and an experienced leader will emerge and take charge of the group. The grupetto will form afresh every time, taking in those who show up on the day, and sharing out the work of riding as they have to, so that they can all stay in touch with the action at the front. They have to trust each other, and work together.

Here’s a bit more from Matt Stephens’ reflection on the meaning of the grupetto:

In the Grupetto team tactics and rivalries are put to one side and a unique camaraderie flourishes with the theme of one common aim; to arrive at the finish safely and inside the time limit.

This cameraderie is a model of contingent solidarity, also called “l’autobus” for obvious reasons: when you can’t keep up by yourself, you ride the bus. All you have in common is a willingness to respect the skills and struggles of the person you find beside you, and to recognise that if they’re not having the best day, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there at all. The essence of the grupetto is that it’s a form of hospitality, a relief from the nagging squabble in your head between where you are and where you’d like to be. The grupetto works because it creates a logic in which you can recognise yourself in the other person’s situation, and you can accept that their strength and stamina is your own.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve been advising students who’ve fallen behind in an online class. Why do students panic or quit when they fall behind in online classes? Why do I? I think it happens like this: learners working online rule themselves out of succeeding because they’re staring at a syllabus crafted around milestones and deadlines, in which we have written the time-based elimination rules in bold as though these are the most important framing conditions for their learning: it’s all got to be done in time.

This has been my experience in every MOOC so far: before I’ve got my feet in the stirrups, a deadline has hit me like a headwind, and I’m down. I’ve missed the quiz, or the catch-up quiz, or the discussion of the poem, or the live chat. All I’ve got left to me is that last refuge of the time-challenged: the forums. And with thousands enrolled, these are the Grand Pacific Garbage Patch of messages in bottles, so there’s nothing to do there except add to the problem, while waiting not to get my certificate because I’ve failed to keep up.

So even if friendly constructivist MOOCs encourage me to hang around and chat anyway, the plain fact is that I’m missing their deadlines. (And in my most recent experience of this, I found that I was missing the daily deadline simply by sleeping through the North American working day. Go figure.)

When I look at the policy-crafted syllabus I gave the students in this class, I’m ashamed of how much of it is written in the same chastising language of failure and penalty. Failure to do this, that and the other thing, but especially failure to keep up, will result in … failure. Moreover, all sorts of collaboration and sharing except the group work we assign is treated as some kind of collusion among the work-shy, even a form of cheating, and this will result in failure.  All your own work, we chant, because the entire structure of our system is that grades are won—or lost—by individuals. Degrees are earned, and paid for, by individuals, not by teams.

How could students guess from this penalty-driven document that I will help them if they fall behind? More importantly, how do they know that I would recommend that they work together to rescue each other—that those who fall behind catch up by riding on the tailwind work that the leaders have done, and that the leaders have nothing to lose if this happens.

The cultural and institutional pressures against students working together in this way are really formidable. To overcome this, we need to review the assumptions embedded in our policies and documents about the individualist heroics of student success. Instead of focusing on training students how to succeed on their own, we need to introduce them to both the practice and the philosophy of the grupetto—how to feel no shame at all at needing help, and no embarrassment at being in a position to give it.

If we could get this right, we’d really be making an important contribution to their being able to flourish in their professional futures, perhaps as useful as anything else we ever teach.


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The time we give each other

In the second week of the new summer course, we spent the day together in class. Because summer in Australia is already snapped in two by Christmas, a whole lot of other weirdness can go on while no one’s looking, so we’re flipping the normal timetable and going with two all-day workshops supported by online reflections and activities.

Thanks to Steve Wheeler, I’ve also discovered that we’re also haphazardly and instinctively following a primer on the 10 characteristics of authentic learning. I’ve always been irritated by advocates of authentic learning, because there’s such a moralising inference in the label. Nevertheless, the principles listed here make sense to most educators, especially in their valuing of collaboration and reflection. So why don’t we follow them? Is it because we’re wilfully refusing to recognise the world that students will work in? No: we work in this world ourselves. Is it because we’re intent on reproducing ourselves as discipline acolytes? Again, no.

It’s because the structural habits of a university system, encoded in resource management practices (seriously, people with clipboards checking that we’re using all the rooms all the time), are stacked against us achieving the kind of flexible, purposeful practices that characterise quite a bit of professional life, where we do mostly try to deploy time in a way that will achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

But when considering how best to teach, universities typically do it the other way around, designing goals to fit the time that’s been allocated to the task. In a neat move, we’ve also decided that “quality outcomes” (which sound so much nicer than standardised goals for everyone) are best guaranteed by allocating the same seat time in the same way to everything we do. It’s at the core of our standard contract with students, both domestically and internationally: we’re systemically inauthentic.

And this is why we treat the weekly class as an institutional fetish without which we can’t function, along with the term paper, the exam, and the mandatory course readings that no one reads.

So in the spirit of Vin Jones’ Business Practices that Refuse to Die anti email manifesto, I’m declaring my opposition to weekly classes. The weekly lecture is a particularly tired habit we need to rethink, even as MOOCs are busy turning them into bad television. And we need to put a stop to the cheerleading idea that we should fix this individually by becoming more entertaining. Newsflash: I don’t think we’re the problem. The issue is that we’re structurally discouraged from asking when and why a lecture is the best fit for purpose, and penalised if we reserve them for special occasions, or choose not to use them at all.

There is no other practice that we take seriously in universities where we say that getting large groups together for one hour a week is the best way to make significant progress on complex material. But we do this with teaching, and in the standard lecture-tutorial model, we do it in two separate bits on different days, each bit requiring a 150% markup in travel time cost. This is bad for learning, and in commuter universities, it’s bad for the planet.

For every student who attends class on two separate days each week, travelling an hour each way, we have created about 50 hours of travel time over the semester. Multiply this individual cost burden by the number of students in a large class, and you start to see a tiny little carbon footprint appear. Now multiply this by an entire university system behaving thoughtlessly because it has never had to calculate the environmental impact of this wearisome habit.

(American and European readers might be puzzled here, but the majority of Australian students continue to live at home, and even though they may attend a nominally local university, the reality of Australian geography is that a 60-90 minute commute each way is common. Astonishingly, we trundle on as though none of this matters environmentally, although we’re terrifically proud of our campus waste recycling initiatives. Go figure.)

So there are environmental reasons to jailbreak the weekly timetable, but there’s also a strong pedagogical case, to do with the time we’re asking students to give each other. What’s the message we send about the value of collaborative learning when we allocate it in these rushed servings of fast-food time? What part of professional life are we authentically preparing them for? Committee meetings?

Students are evidently unconvinced that showing up to listen to something they could read online, or pause and replay in recorded form, is worth the rising cost of petrol, or the missed shift at work. But the generation that have grown up online are starting to express reservations about more time in front of computer screens. These are the most experienced online users we have ever taught, and they’re telling us that sometimes it feels as though time lost online is a practice of addiction. They do value presence and time together, providing that time is well spent and that they can actively engage with one another, not just listen.

We need to hear this, even as we get excited about MOOCs and the rest, and we need to listen carefully to our own doubts, buried under heaps of composting email.

By coming together this week, for a long and intensive day of thinking and sharing, students in this class gave their irreplaceable time to each other, and to me. I learned a lot, and I hope they did too. They’ve also helped me think about the way our systems are set up to take this astonishing gift for granted. As ever, there are good business reasons why we do bad things, and traditional habits that we’re clinging to, and we have hardwired policy standards for degrees (and visa restrictions for international students) that we can’t just throw in the bin.

But if we want to achieve change in universities, let’s not just talk about catapulting stuff online in sparkly ways: let’s also figure out how to use well the time that we give to each other when we do make the effort to be together in the same room.

And I’m not sure the weekly class is it.


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With friends like these

Here’s a little grenade-with-the-pin-out that was rolled towards Australia’s university lecturers today by the Minister for Communications, Broadband, and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy.  Under the alarmist heading that Australian Universities Must Adapt, Senator Conroy popped this question:

“What is a lecture worth if the best lecturer in the world at MIT is online for free for all to access?”

Really—that’s it? After all we’ve heard about MOOCs revolutionising higher education, it comes down to this crude bit of cost-benefit analysis: why pay for the inferior local product when we can have the best in the world for nothing?  And why wouldn’t the best lecturer in the world be at MIT? Why would you think of slumming here in Australia, if you were the best lecturer in the world?

OK, call me a crank, but I have some questions. First of all, what’s the practical cost of a lecture to the consumer? Universities don’t just make this stuff up. Whether students pay up front or simply rack up loan debt, university teaching is funded and audited on measures that have installed seat time as the key unit in the value for money proposition. The credit value of a unit of study correlates directly and accountably to the amount of time we allocate to “contact”.

So the normal measure of a lecture’s worth isn’t the content or the teaching, but the simple tick of the clock. Typically a lecture is worth about an hour of contact, and it counts exactly the same for students who sit up the back on Facebook or listen to a lecture recording or are in the front row taking notes and asking questions at the end. It also costs the same whether the student earns an A or a C in the class: there are no cheap seats.

To this extent, lectures are like movies. Their ticket price is the same, but their production values vary in proportion to the budgets invested in them. Give your local lecturer an hour between meetings, grading, and administration to prepare a lecture, and you’re quite likely to get last year’s slides reheated. Give the same person time, resources and encouragement, and you’ll get a different outcome. (I really can’t believe we still have to explain this. I can’t think of any other industry that has such a magical sense of how stuff actually gets made, in real time, by real people.)

But give the MIT lecturer a serious production budget, lead-in time, a technical team, and even a specialist MOOC production designer, and you’ll get a high concept lecture that would make anyone look like the best in the world.

The thing is, though, that the “best lecturers in the world” don’t get that way by chance, talent or even personal charisma. They lecture well because they’re working in institutions that invest systematically in teaching. They’re using theatre technology that works, and they’re not running a simultaneous out-of-body conversation with themselves about the ninety two other things they have to get done that day. The work of preparing and giving lectures is treated as serious intellectual labour by their colleagues and their managers, and if they want to put aside time to read recent journal articles on the topic to make sure that their material is right up to date, this isn’t a practice that’s treated as a drain on their career progress.

So now they can make the world’s lectures, and we’ll download them and get our students to watch them because they’re at MIT, and we’re … not.

This isn’t the future at all, it’s absolutely business as usual in Australia. We accept at face value the proposition that the best is likely to be from somewhere else, and we adopt our typical strategy of content import and remixing. Visiting American students are often shocked to discover that Australians aren’t just adept at media piracy, but we’re pretty blithe about it. And it makes sense when you look at it: Australians downloading TV and movies from global torrents really are just creatively reworking the cultural logic of our entire television and cinema market, and now apparently our education system.

(In case anyone wonders how the story turns out, the next step is that we come to believe that we can’t produce anything as good as the imported material, ever, and so we stop funding it properly because we can’t fund it competitively, and after a while when Australians do insist on trying to make their own, we sidle away from them awkwardly.)

But wait, there’s more.  Stephen Conroy thinks giving away lecturing to MIT will free us up to do much more engaging things like “facilitating collaborative learning and discussion amongst students”. That does sound like tremendous fun, and I’m so glad someone’s thought to suggest it again, but before we all start chanting “Flip it! Flip it!”, let’s not forget that there’s a second brute calculation holding us back. We can’t easily convert the lecturing effort into tutorial time, which is where collaborative learning and discussion actually happens, because most of our tutorials are taught by casual academics, who are paid by the hour.  Freeing up a salaried lecturer who would otherwise be lecturing to 300 students for an hour typically creates the capacity to run a single tutorial, at best, for 20-30 of them. What happens to the rest?

So it’s not that we don’t want to facilitate collaborative learning and discussion, it’s just that we’re continually banging up against constraints imposed by the architecture of lecture theatres, the iron limits of casual teaching budgets, and workload management policies that will immediately and directly penalise anyone who develops content to be used by students as preparation for their collaborative learning opportunity (which doesn’t count as seat time), rather than given as a lecture (which does).

And yet Australian universities have plenty of the best lecturers in the world, who achieve miracles of lecturing grace every day. Because there are times that the best lecturer in the world is the one standing in front of you, who knows your name and asks how you’re doing, who listened to the same radio news as you on the way to work, who also got rained on walking in from the car park, who stays back to talk with you afterwards, and whose lecture helps you to see a bit more clearly how the world’s ideas and questions make sense in the context of where you are.

I’m not yet sure that MOOCs can do this for us.


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Learning from failure

The problem with edtech evangelism is that it assumes the most valuable lessons are learned from other people’s success. This is why our lives fill up with stories of exciting tools that have transformed this that or the other thing. Exhausting, really.

Given the importance of failure to innovation, it’s interestingly rare to find blogs, lists, journals, or conferences focused on failure, in any field. The Ten Most Awful Mistakes in Online Course Design.  Ten Tools I’ll Never Try Again.  Seriously, I’d find those useful. But we don’t do it this way.  We don’t fly keynote speakers around the world to tell us what they did wrong, from the cartwheeling Prezi that nauseated the audience to the webinars doomed by lag, and the drop box assignments that were impossible to return—or the MOOC in which experienced and highly engaged learners left class early and set up an alternate public discussion of the misalignment of course purpose to course environment, for all to see.

But perhaps we should promote these experiences, because failure is how most of us learn. The only way to test whether or not a new tool does what it promises to do, for example, is to try it in a populated course. This doesn’t always produce splendid results, as Curt Bonk and his Blackboard partners are currently finding out.  Lisa M. Lane’s original blog on her decision to quit their experiment is worth reading, but it’s the appreciative discussion in the comments between the MOOC’s course leaders and the unconvinced that’s really gripping.

Could this awkward experience have been predicted?  Should either Blackboard or Bonk have given some thought to the possibility that an all night party with an open bar might attract a bigger crowd than would comfortably fit the venue?  Was the suck-it-and-see communication strategy really the way to go, given the sensitivity and confusion around openness (and Blackboard’s investment in open) right at the moment? Were expectations driven too high by the opportunity to interact directly with such a well-known eLearning pioneer?

It seems that for some, the problems were embedded in the environment itself—the unchanging assumptions behind the design of online forum tools (“very 1999″, as Lisa Lane puts it). This is the tiny, familiar failure that’s difficult to avoid. Most LMS discussion tools pass the test of course planning simply by being there.  Blog? Wiki? Forum? Yup, we’re good.  It’s only when you try to use them with 50, 100, 1000 students or more, that you start to see how awful they are.

And this isn’t a trivial limitation.  Just as in the face to face classroom, presence is the hinge on which the online gate swings: it’s the simple, human claim that learners make on one another’s time, that enables us all to feel that we’re exchanging ideas with people, not just testing ourselves against prescribed content. If this is important with a small class, imagine how much more vital it is once enrolment cranks up to the thousands. Without it, really, what differentiates a massive online class from a difficult day at the mall?

The comments on Lisa Lane’s blog will ring bell after bell with anyone who has tried to use the communication tools of a standard LMS to engage students in discussion. Somehow, the leading vendors have managed to miss the fact that users want to tailor their online presence, just as they choose how to present their physical appearance. The capacity to craft a personality that works for you is really critical to anyone’s sense of composure in a community of strangers. Users expect to control how their name appears, to use a thumbnail of their choice as their visual avatar, to share images, videos, feeds and links, and to be given some kind of personal site in which they customise, organise and publish what’s meaningful to them, in order to show not only what they think, but to share information about the public online networks through which they move.

This dominos into the second critical issue. Anyone trying to engage with an online class needs to keep up with a snowballing volume of input from others.  Messages need to bundle intuitively, to thread and scroll and quote properly. Users expect to be able to flag, sort and prioritise, to use powerful search tools, and to send quick notes of appreciation with likes, favourites and reposts. Some will save and print, because that’s the way they like to work; and others will need it all to be readable on a mobile screen half the size of a postcard. Everyone will need to skim for new messages, and some will want push notification.  The singular, standout value of learning through online discussion is that it’s a self-transcribing conversation that fosters review and reflection—but none of this works if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

When we undertook an institutional RFP for a new LMS last year, we expected that big companies whose R&D focus must be on the ways in which people use technology and networks to communicate, learn and manage their lives would develop social learning tools that would synchronise with these trends. Any campus LMS has to sit open on a student laptop where the next tab is Facebook (or Tumblr, Twitter and so on).  Students multitask their online learning against a background of rapid, pervasive interaction with friends they genuinely care about; if we’re going to ask them to concentrate instead on staying in the class space, couldn’t LMS designers at least help us out with a social design that’s halfway engaging?

They could—of course they could—so the fact that they don’t is revealing.  My guess is that LMS designers who don’t develop their social tools have made a rational calculation that it’s better for them if we handle this bit. The institutional shift to learning platforms, described so well by Phil Hill in a recent post for e-Literate has really been driven by desperate teachers looking for ways to compensate for awful LMS design. So platforming is a strategy of accommodation that works reasonably well for institutions and exceptionally well for LMS vendors; it’s the admission that L is rapidly uncoupling from M. The inclusion of a few engaging social options like WordPress or Google Apps doesn’t expose the big vendors to much risk providing everything’s bolted to the platform: in fact, it perpetuates dependency on whoever provides the core tools for managing the platform itself.

But as more institutions embrace the platform model, there’s going to be much more churn in social features, tools and options, because this is a wide open space for edupreneurs. Academics will come under increasing pressure to try new things, pushed by articulate, informed student demand. Negative feedback won’t wait for teacher evaluations—it’ll be on Facebook.  This is why it’s so helpful that Lisa Lane, Curtis Bonk and their colleagues are modelling their failure-to-communicate debate in the open, in the truer sense.

Because there’s a whole world of learning through failure up ahead, and we’re going to appreciate these pointers from our peers that show us both how to give feedback constructively, and how to respond to it openly.

Update:

Michael Feldstein’s fresh post that touches on the distinction between edupreneurs and teacherpreneurs (besides a number of other excellent points) really helped me think through some ways forward.  As ever, Instructure  come off well — but will they be able to sustain their personal approach as they grow? Time will tell.


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Flip this

Here’s an innocent little grenade-with-the-pin-out question rolled into the conversation about whether TED-ED has provided us with a whole new way of engaging students by moving content out of class time: on the same day, Plashing Vole is asking whether we shouldn’t be making attendance at conventional university lectures compulsory?

It looks like exactly the kind of retro thinking that academics get accused of, given how much we hear about flipping, collaborative learning, students as producers etc.  It could be dismissed as a product of the British higher education system, some kind of wistful cultural preference for discipline and proper behaviour. But as it happens I’ve recently been a bystander to the same deliberation, so it’s global.  If we put so much effort into preparing lectures, if we pay a higher rate for their delivery, and if we still structure quite a bit of the discussion and assessment in our teaching around the lecture as marquee event, the logic goes, then why don’t we back ourselves up by making students attend them?

There are some messy vanities bundled up in this question.  What does it say about my lecturing style or content if students vote with their feet and don’t show up?  (Worse, what if they do, but spend the whole time quietly sledging on social media?)  On the other hand, what happens to the students who do continue to attend, and start to feel like the last parishioners in a declining Anglican congregation?  Surely they have a right to feel aggrieved?

But pride isn’t the real issue.  My colleagues are genuinely worried that students who bypass lectures miss out on key content that would help them perform effectively in assessment. None are sure how far to go in providing compensatory alternatives, including lectures slides, lecture recordings, and even potted versions of key points in person afterwards.  We’ll do our best, but there’s a point at which the email that says “I wasn’t at your lecture this week, if I missed anything important can you send me the notes?” does touch a tiny nerve.

So cheer up everyone: the case for the correlation between lecture attendance and grades is on our side, apparently.  The data is presented very effectively in the presentation embedded in this post by Jon Tulloch. Jon is responding to Plashing Vole, and the detailed evidence he’s gathered is worth working through (it’ll take two minutes, you won’t even need a cup of tea.)

There’s just the small problem—and Jon himself raises it in the final slide—that the clear correlation between attendance and grades doesn’t prove that attendance results in good grades; things could just as easily swing the other way.

So is there a good reason to make students attend lectures? Should we try to manipulate attendance like a kind of loyalty program or radio competition, with prizes for showing up? Or are we looking at it like welfare reporting and parole, with penalties for missing an appointment? And how are we going to know who shows up, as class sizes increase? If you’re going to make something compulsory, you do need a standard of evidence on which you can make a case for either incentives or penalties stick.

Obviously, Blackboard have a future vision for student end-to-end-lifecyle swipe cards at every corner of the campus, and will no doubt eventually microchip students for us, but until then we’re left with the pen and paper methods that already make the seminar roll call one of the most anachronistic and school-like of university practices. Is this really the tone we want to set, as we also try to explain the complexities of self-managed professionalism that university graduates will need in a churning employment market?

Perhaps a better question is this: if we were going to invent higher education right now, using all the tools available, and knowing what we know about how people learn, what would we include?

Dean Dad is asking if we’d include the standard length term or semester, for example; or whether we’d trial teaching broken into smaller chunks of time, given that completion rates weaken the longer it takes to complete a standard course.  In the same vein, I think we can ask whether if we were starting the whole show this week, we’d think “I know! In order to deliver the most important concepts and ideas, that I’ll want students to be able to retain accurately and review extensively over time, I’ll use spoken word.  Brilliant.”

Of course we wouldn’t. In one of today’s articles about TED-ED and the capacity it offers for teachers to customise high quality content that can be used as preparation for time spent together, high school teacher Aaron Sams puts it like this:

“I asked myself, ‘What’s the most valuable thing to do with the face time I have with my students?'” he says. “And the answer was not, ‘Stand up and lecture them.'”

So that’s one thing: lecturing isn’t the best way to use people’s time together.  It just isn’t.

But the big thing for me is that university education itself is post-compulsory. This is both simple legal practicality, and a principle that we should be careful not to mess with.  Our governments might want more students to enrol, and they might want to hold us reponsible for their retention.  But we have the privilege of working with adults who have chosen to enrol in a university degree in the context of each of their lives, and it’s this hard and entirely personal choice—rather than any sparkly edtech solution or educational philosophy that we rustle up—that is the foundation of their agency as learners.  That’s worth defending.

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