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Category: Education

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Are in-person academic communities luxury goods?

Since I began posting as a guest on Concurring Opinions at the beginning of March, “MOOCs” – massively open online courses – have been repeated topic. The blog search engine reports that the term did not appear on the blog until 25 Feb 2013; in the six weeks since, MOOCs have been a topic herehereherehereherehere, and, in Deven Desai’s interesting post two days ago, here. Deven says, and I agree, that the aggregation of students together inside an immersive academic, learning community is a real good, and one that cannot be duplicated by a set of MOOCs. But the question MOOCs make pressing is how to value that good, once it can be unbundled from training in the classroom. Nannerl Keohane, in a recent review in Perspectives on Politics (11:1, March 2013, p.318), says that “online education … is the easiest and cheapest way to learn a variety of subjects, especially useful ones,” and describes it is the contemporary analogue of “mutual-aid societies and lyceums.” This seems apt.

University insiders like to say that even unbundled academic community is indispensable, and should be subsidized by both state and university. I suspect that the marketplace will put a much lower value on it. State legislators, ever strapped for cash, will likely do so as well. There will still be a market for 24/7, bricks-and-mortar academic communities; but the online availability of downmarket, imperfect, but genuine partial substitutes will mark such communities more clearly as luxury goods. Once such luxuries are no longer inexorably bundled with direct instruction, the argument that they still deserve state or even philanthropic subsidy is not, it seems to me, a slam-dunk.

Deven posted that the key question is how to “leverage MOOCs and other technology to improve the way education is delivered while not offering only the virtual world” but also social context to those not in the luxury-goods market. Another way of phrasing that question is to ask whether there is a mid-market good, somewhere between the aggregation of naked MOOCs and the bricks-and-mortar private college, that could command interest in the marketplace and justify third-party subsidies. What features of the “code” of online courses – the way that they are presented, taught, bundled together, and converted into credentials – might be adjusted to create a closer approximation of an immersive community, without sacrificing the advantages virtual teaching offers in terms of access over distance, asynchronicity, economies of scale, and cost?

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MOOCs, costs, and Dan Ariely

MOOCs will solve our education problems. No one wants to pay for education. Everyone wants education to be free. MOOCs will at least bring down the costs and bring the best lecturers to all the world. I own some land in Florida, the Glengary project. Perhaps you’d like to buy a tract? I am fascinated by MOOCs but reject the claims being made about them as demonstrating some sort of magical new education system.

Yet, when I think about taking a great class with a master teacher, I get excited. Heck, I already listen to lectures from iTunes U and MIT’s Open Course Ware when I work out. MOOCs seem like a step up. And the reality of the cost problem means that they will likely play a role. Then I saw that Dan Ariely is offering a MOOC. And he wrote about the experience. His thoughts track much of what I think. On costs he says, “I have learned that some students feel that it is their basic human right to get free education (they call it free but of course free in this case is a shorthand for “someone else should pay for it,”) while the majority feels privileged to live in a time when such adventures are possible.” But more important are his ideas about where MOOCs may fit and why live learning has a place. I think he is correct, but he may miss a deeper problem.

On MOOCs’ place in the future, Ariely offers:

I don’t think that the future of the university is doomed for a few reasons. First, having a scheduled class with obligations, deadlines, exams, real consequences and real rewards is incredibly important for human motivation and getting people to spend the necessary time and effort to really understand the material. The second reason is that the model of many universities, in which students study and live together, is a particularly helpful model for creating the environment that people need to take their education seriously. It is not just about the particular classes, but about being immersed in an academic environment for a substantial period of time.

The latent problems of MOOCs flow from the benefits of physical place-based teaching; they are expensive and will be for the few; not the many. Assume Ariely is correct. The advantages of the scheduled classes etc. matters. That can be mimicked online. That kills the claim that schedules will require the university. Studying and living together is important. Think of The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Drawing on Xerox PARC, (and the California “Virtual University”) they show that social context is vital for technology and information to help society going forward. But again that physical structure costs money. My concern then is how do we leverage MOOCs and other technology to improve the way education is delivered while not offering only the virtual world, one that may lack social context, to the poorer parts of society.

If we run to replace classrooms at state schools, only the rich will have the benefits I had. That is a mistake. I was lucky. I went to private schools, UC Berkeley, and Yale Law. I have gained social capital. I know some of the language, manners, styles, and more that are part of getting into the game and playing it. That aspect of life is possibly undercut unless everyone in the future works only on social networks and online culture. To date, it still matters to be in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, etc. so that one can have the day-to-day chance to leverage connections and be part of the so-called conversation. Put differently, back room deals are about who you know. Interviews, for now, may be on videochat, but they still reveal diction, ideas, and manners that influence hiring. Plus, I prefer to read, explore, and solve things on my own. Those who may not be so motivated are precisely those for whom a more disconnected teaching system will not work. So far the drop-out rate for online courses is high. Now, I think there are ways to address these issues. I have believed and continue to believe that technology coupled with social reality can be powerful and beneficial. I stand by that belief.

The danger is to think that because certain facets of universities cannot be duplicated, universities will survive and all is well. Only certain versions of the university will survive. Duke and other elite schools will survive. At those schools students will be part of all the benefits, on and offline, education can offer. For others, access to the benefits Ariely sets out will be even less than today.

Education is a public good with many dimensions beyond the obvious mastery of a subject. It is better thought of as liberal, as in freeing, one to address the myriad problems and changes one encounters in work and life. MOOCs and other advances in technology can and should help that process. Relying on them alone may increase the problems of an education system that delivers a meal, proves that person ate the meal, but the customer has no idea how to fish for herself when on her own.

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STEM education and some more on 3D printing as general purpose tech

3D printing and its related technology is general purpose technology that can train kids for the future. I saw an example of that yesterday when I was able to visit La Jolla Country Day School where sixth to eighth grade kids on spring break were learning basic 3D Modeling and Design. Last week they worked on How to Make Musical Electronics. In the 3D modeling program, Ann Worth, an MIT School of Architecture graduate, guided the youngsters as they manipulated files of their heads so that at the end of the program they could print them. I also watched a video of two girls who had been shown how to make an amplifier and oscillator for their iPhones. Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, UCSD was their instructor. The kids talked about trial and error, vectors and faces, and circuit boards with energy and joy. How often does that happen? If Katie Rast and her co-visionaries at FabLab San Diego have their way, much more often.

Despite some nerds are cool ideas, we still hear that kids are turned off by math and science and that there is a lack of good Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education. New programs may change all that. By taking an old idea like shop and updating it, a FabLab (short for Fabrication Lab) offers the chance to make learning about programing, engineering, geometry, and the jot of creation. Kids are willing to engage with formulas; start, fail, and restart projects; and work rather hard at their projects, because there is fun and an outcome for them. The spring break program I visited is called Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math, or STEAM. The University of California, San Diego and FabLab SD worked together to offer the classes (which to me is a tech transfer moment that is quite important).

In the 3D modeling program, the kids started with a series of photos, which were uploaded to 123D (a suite of 3D modeling apps by Autodesk). That service knits the images together into a file that the kids then download. In many cases there are holes in the images. As they made models of their heads, they laughed at the holes in their heads. They then used a program called Blender to learn about filling the gaps. That meant some kids were telling me about vectors, others about textures, and all showed off as they pulled, stretched, and edited files to create the proper rendering of their heads. After that, they grabbed files for the bodies. A range of animal bodies will be virtually sliced up to make the new creature upon which the heads will attach. When asked what they might do next, these folks talked about how metals, glass, and other materials would be awesome so they could make really functional items. Some talked about being able to have a home printer that could make solar cells to power other printers. When told that these ideas were already being pursued, eyes popped out of their heads, and then grins covered their faces at thoughts of what’s next (and I think a little pride at predicting where the technology could go).

The skills learned in these programs will persist even as the machines and software are superseded. Who knows? If I had access to this sort of tech training combined with math and science education, I might have stuck with that path. Even if I didn’t, I’d have a greater ability to play with and understand the technology that surrounds us. In short, congratulations to La Jolla Country Day School, UCSD, FabLab SD, Ann Worth, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, and Katie Rast for pursuing ways to make STEM fun and for kids. The ideas here remind me of Julie Cohen’s work about play and its importance in her book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice. As Rast said on a panel at SxSW, computer labs were often seen as saviors for education especially in low income areas, but they often gathered dust. The key is to have maker spaces that work for the group’s context. A lab need not have the latest technology. If the technology is connected to people in meaningful ways, then the magic can happen. I agree. The magic of playing with technology, understanding what you can do with it, and seeing new possibilities will fire the desire to learn and create. As Neil Gershenfeld (a leader in the Maker and Fab movement) put it, this is a liberal, as in liberating, art. But don’t take my word for it. As one kid told me at lunch, adults’ brains are not as good at learning as kids’ brains, and kids like showing what they can do. Now that is education.

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The school of the future: request for input

This post is a nerd crowdsourcing request. As a guest blogger I don’t know my audience as well as I might, but I am heartened by the presence of “science fiction” among the options my hosts give me for categorizing my posts; and my teenager assures me that “nerd” is a compliment.

As several of my earlier posts suggest, I am interested in the impact of virtual technology upon K-12 schooling; and one thing I have been doing in my spare time is looking at literary accounts, highbrow and low, of what schooling in the future might look like. A colleague gave me Ernest Kline’s recent Ready Player One, which imagines school in a fully virtualized world that looks a lot like the school I went to, complete with hallways, bullies, and truant teachers – but the software allows the students to mute their fellows and censors student obscenity before it reaches the teachers’ interfaces. Another colleague reminded me of Asimov’s 1951 The Fun They Had, where the teacher is mechanical but the students still wiggly and apathetic. On the back of a public swapshelf, I found the Julian May 1987 Galactic Milieu series, which imagines brilliant children, all alone on  faraway planets, logging on with singleminded seriousness to do their schoolwork all by their lonesomes. And my daughter gave me Orson Scott Card’s famous Ender’s Game, where the bullying is more educative than the mathematics, and scripted by the adults much more carefully.

That seems like an extensive list but really it’s not, and I was never a serious sci-fi person. If anyone is willing to post in the comments any striking literary accounts of schooling in the future, I’d be grateful.

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Free speech rights and free speech pedagogy

I am working on a paper about student speech rights in public school that has me vacillating about whether the classic Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) is a brilliant exercise in linedrawing or an utter failure. Many readers will remember that Tinker held that students could wear black armbands to school in silent protest of American involvement in hostilities in Vietnam; school officials may interfere with or punish speech only if  they reasonably forecast that it will “materially or substantially interfer[e] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school or collide with the rights of others.”  The Tinker rule has the nice feature of explaining why a student cannot answer a teacher’s question “What were the results of Irish potato famine?” with “US Out of Vietnam!” while she can say the same thing in the hallway. More broadly, Tinker establishes a certain kind of pedagogical regime for the hours that students spend in-school-but-not-in-class, one where students can learn how to exercise constitutional rights by practicing them, up to the point of disruption.

Tinker’s flaws were made vivid once again this week by yet another case, this one from the Fourth Circuit, involving students being prohibited from and punished for wearing to school clothing that bears the likeness of Confederate flags. Such behavior seems initially very similar to wearing a black armband to protest Vietnam; but the courts of appeals have fairly consistently held that such speech can be barred under Tinker because histories of racial tension make it reasonable for school authorities to expect disruption to result from such displays. The new case, Hardwick v. Heyward, is quite emphatic on this score, emphasizing that the mere fact that the shirts did not lead to disruption is immaterial, because it was reasonable for school officials to predict disruption; moreover past racial disputes in the school were material, because they made the prediction more reasonable. The Hardwick rationale pretty clearly means that, had there once been fistfights in the Des Moines schools about the Vietnam War, or perhaps even World War II, then the armbands could have been banned in the present. Thus Tinker is deployed to create a particularly strong kind of hecklers’ veto.

My gut reaction to this case is — who is fooling whom? Read More

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The child, not the school

The Indiana vouchers program I posted about earlier, significant on its own, also partakes of a trend. The New York Times gets it:

A growing number of lawmakers across the country are taking steps to redefine public education, shifting the debate from the classroom to the pocketbook. Instead of simply financing a traditional system of neighborhood schools, legislators and some governors are headed toward funneling public money directly to families, who would be free to choose the kind of schooling they believe is best for their children, be it public, charter, private, religious, online or at home.

In particular, the Times is right that what is sought here is redefinition. Once states established and supported institutions – public schools – that parents could take or leave, so long as they educated their children somehow. The new paradigm has states instead provide a quantum of funding earmarked for each child, that parents can deploy at any educational institution of their choosing. The fact that the aid attaches to the child and follows her to her family’s chosen school is much more important than the various labels ascribed to the funding and/or the institutional provider – public, private, charter, voucher.

As people learn to function within, and get used to, this new paradigm, they will stop thinking of educational politics as the way to create good public schools, and start thinking of it in terms of how big the aid pie is and how it gets divided up. Whether a school is public or private, online or bricks-and-mortar, religious or not – these stop being political questions and start being questions that markets will resolve through supply and demand. Read More

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Vouchers ascendant?

The heartening (and unanimous) decision by the Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday to uphold that state’s school-voucher program further undermines a dominant but false narrative in the academy, to the effect that school vouchers are a distraction with little serious political support. The opinion is notable for several reasons, and I expect to post again about some of them. Here I note only two. First, the Indiana program makes enormous numbers of children voucher-eligible. Second, the Indiana court’s analysis makes some interesting and important moves with respect to both its constitution’s religion and education clauses.

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The Coursera Model of Central Planning for Education

An interesting conflict is developing in California over the spread of “MOOCs.” First, a bit on the business model of a leading MOOC firm, Coursera:

When and if money does come in, the universities will get 6 to 15 percent of the revenue, depending on how long they offer the course (and thus how long Coursera has to profit from it). The institutions will also get 20 percent of the gross profits, after accounting for costs and previous revenue paid. That means the company gets the vast majority of the cash flow.

It now looks as if Coursera’s model of siphoning education dollars may be challenged in California. In its race to put more courses online, the UC administration has apparently asked for the following in a provision of a proposed faculty contract with Coursera:

“I hereby irrevocably grant the University the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness (whether still, photograph or video) in connection therewith, and to edit, modify, translate or adapt any such Content.”

I wonder—could Coursera repurpose a course for use in, say, Singapore, by promising to cut out any critical commentary on the Singaporean government? Read More

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Gulliver, CEOs, and University Presidents

University presidents are starting to feel some of the constituency pressure visited since the 1980s on their CEO counterparts in corporate America. Until then, CEOs reigned supreme over their corporate bastions, many ruling with an iron fist. Directors were supportive and shareholders deferential.  There would be occasional upheaval but this was rare.  CEO tenures were long.  Those days have been long gone for some time.

Until the past few years, university presidents ruled their roosts as well, with helpful trustees and deferential faculty.  Not anymore.

As John Sexton of NYU found out in a “no-confidence” vote of his largest faculty group last week, the constituencies are restless.  NYU’s trustees pledge their continued support, but other NYU faculties and some of the school’s unionized employees promise further pressure. Last summer, Teresa Sullivan, president of U. Va., felt such pressure from the university’s trustees, who ousted her temporarily until the faculty came to her rescue. Similar upheaval occurred at Harvard a few years ago and more recently at Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin (and at several other places if academic leaders below the rank of president are counted).

Interestingly, presidents in quite a few of these episodes have been charged with the complaint of operating the university too much like a corporation.  That’s one of the central assertions of the NYU faculty voters, who say Sexton is too focused on growth. They cite his “Global Network University” with lucrative campus footprints worldwide and his tendency to pay high salaries to selected scholars rather than offer across-the-board increases.  Many are upset at plans to expand the Greenwich Village campus in a radical way. They despise his top-down management style. 

So presidents who run their universities like corporations now face the fate of corporate chiefs for doing so. The power of shareholders and directors increased exponentially in the past 20 years, making the all-powerful CEO a relic.  With the rising power of faculties and trustees in the university, academic presidents may soon turn into short-term caretakers as well.  

There is a good case that the pendulum swung too far in corporate America in favor of shareholder democracy and outside power. It will be a shame if a similar thing happens to America’s universities.  Maybe that’s the NYU faculty’s point. Sexton should probably not run NYU as if it were a modern corporation, given its educational mission and unique fiduciary duties to attend to student needs rather than to maximize profits for shareholders.  Running NYU that way not only subverts those goals, but will ultimately and ironically weaken the president’s position.

Photo: Gulliver’s Travels, an apt analogy for what happened to corporate CEOs from 1980 to 2000 and what may be happening to university presidents.

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MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

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