Massifying Higher Learning

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few years, you know that there has been a massive change in education recently. Sure, some of the hyperbole has abated, but there are a lot of people who are still thinking about how a single person might teach more than a classroom. In some cases, they have extended their voice to such a degree that it reaches out to thousands or tens of thousands of people.

Of course, there are issues here. For one thing, this kind of education is mostly one-way. Yes, there are ways of feeding back. A lucky student might be able to grab a sliver of the teacher’s attention, but generally, it’s about the passing of knowledge from one-to-many. Also, students in many cases get together in groups and discuss the work–building on one another’s knowledge. But this isn’t the same as the circle around the sage, the guided conversation that has gone on as long as we have had schools.

Transforming teaching from the kind of conversational learning community that is–at least ideally–found in the university classroom to this sort of massive version is more than just switching media. It means that the teacher has to shift the structure and format of her work. In many cases, this means moving to text, but it also means framing the work more didactically, shaping ideas into units and subunits that can be consumed in little bites.

And this can be amazingly advantageous to many students; students who can’t necessarily get into a classroom each week because of the expense of tuition, because they have full-time jobs and maybe families. Yes, this could potentially be a less rich form of learning than a classroom, but it can reach people who might otherwise never get at that education. It can be provided relatively cheaply, and often for free.

Now some of these are absolute crap. No, check that, I would argue that most are absolute crap. And some have called for their elimination because of that–and a return to more traditional forms of face-to-face learning. The response is natural, and especially when presented with some of these weak examples, it’s clear why they might want to do away with them altogether.

But here’s the key. Many of those who engage in this massified version of learning find their way into the more traditional classroom, or maybe even new forms of learning communities we haven’t even thought of. In other words, although this new form may replace some of the traditional classroom learning, every indication is that there are opportunities for synergy between traditional forms of learning and leveraging new media. There have been calls to move away from massification of learning, and as a person who is interested in networked approaches, I find sympathies with this. But I think a much more reasonable approach is to ask how we can continue to combine these largely “broadcast” models to help enhance what we do in the traditional face-to-face classroom.

So, I say, let’s keep up with this book-writing thing. It might turn out to actually be worthwhile.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Open Access Sting

PhD Comics
There is article published in Science today that details a pentest of open access science journals, and finds that they admitted a ridiculous fake article. I was amused to see a range of results scroll by on Facebook today, but surprised a bit at their interpretation of the article. Without naming names…

Of Course Open Access Journals Suck

As a science journalist, the author should recognize that “suckage” is not an absolute: the measurement can only be evaluated in contrast to other measurements. From the write-up in Science, I gather that the acceptance rate shows that many open access journals have very poor (or non-existent) peer review mechanisms, despite advertising to the contrary. You can conclude from this that they are poor forms of scholarly communication, as the author rightfully does.

But this is a condemnation of open access journals only because he limited his submissions to open access journals. In the “coda” of the article, he places this criticism in the mouth of biologist David Roos, noting that there isn’t any reason to believe that a similar level of incompetence or fraud wouldn’t be found in subscription journals. But the author then defends this with a non-response: there are so many more open access journals!

This is true enough, and I do expect you find more fraud in open access journals. But why are we left to speculate, when the same test could have been done with “traditional” publishers just as easily?

It’s Because of the Money

I’ve seen the inference elsewhere in reporting on the study that the reason you find more fraud in open access (again, a conclusion that couldn’t be reached by this approach), is that they prey on authors and have no reason to defend the journal’s reputation, since it doesn’t actually have to sell.

This is a bit strange to me. I mean, I engage in lots of services (my doctor, my lawyer) that are, effectively “author pays.” Yes, especially in medicine, there are discussions about whether that is ideal, but it certainly doesn’t mean that there is less fraud than if they were selling their services as outcomes to, for example, employers. What this argument essentially says is that librarians, sometimes with fairly limited subject matter expertise, are better at assessing journals than researchers are. While I might actually agree with that, I can certainly see arguments on either side.

I haven’t published in a “gold” (author pays) journal, though I have published and prefer open access journals. Would I pay for publication? Absolutely. If, for example, Science accepted a paper from me and told me I would need to pay a grand to have it published, I’d pony that up very quickly. For a journal I’d never heard of? Very unlikely. In other words, author-pays makes me a more careful consumer of the journal I seek for publication.

Some of this also falls at the feet of those doing reviews for tenure. If any old publication venue counts, then authors have no reason to seek out venues in which their work will be read, criticized, and cited. Frankly, if someone comes up for tenure with conference papers or journal articles in venues I don’t know, it requires more than a passing examination of these. While I don’t like “whitelists” for tenure (in part because they often artificially constrain the range of publishing venues–that is, they are not long enough), it would address some of this.

Finally, one could argue that Science, as a subscription-paid journal, has a vested interest in reducing the move to open access, and this might color their objectivity on this topic. I don’t argue that: I just think this was a case where the evidence doesn’t clearly imply the conclusion.

Paging Sokal

Finally, a few people saw this as come-uppance for Alan Sokal, who famously published a paper in Social Text that was likewise nonsense. Without getting into the details of what often riles people on both sides, I actually think there is a problem with calling what happens in science journals and philosophical journals “peer review” and not recognizing some of the significant epistemological differences. But even beyond this, it’s apples and oranges. Had Science published something in a top science journal, we would be looking at something else.

The problem is that this article and Sokal’s attempt both take fairly modest findings and blow them out of proportion. If anything, both show that peer review is a flawed process, easily tricked. Is this a surprising outcome? I can think of very few academics who hold peer review to be anything other than “better than nothing”–and quite a few who think it doesn’t even rise to that faint level of praise. So, this tells us what we already knew: substandard work gets published all the time.

To Conclude

I don’t want to completely discount work like this. I think what it shows, though, is that we are in desperate need of transparency. When an editorial board lists editors, there should be an easy way to find out if they really are on board (a clearinghouse of editorial boards?). We should have something akin to RealName certifications of editors as non-fake people. And we should train our students to more carefully evaluate journals.

Posted in Research | 2 Comments

Garage Universities

I am wary of playing too much into the Silicon Valley myth, and nothing can be more central to that myth than the garage start-up. Nonetheless, the idea of a “university start-up” seems almost unfathomable, outside the less-than-interesting world of for-profit universities. I may want to buy a Tesla (automobile start-ups probably pre-date the Silicon Valley garage), but do I really want to invest in a four-year degree as the first cohort?

Reputation matters for a Tesla, but I do end up with a decent chunk of steel (and plastic aluminum). And yes, I’m buying some kind of caché: I have a Tesla and must therefore be cool by extension. With the university degree, that’s all I get. I get to say “I am a college graduate” or “I am an ASU graduate” or “I am a Stanford graduate” or “I went to school in Boston.” In other words, I give up a good chunk of cash, and four years of my life, and get certified. People know that I was good enough to get into Harvard, so I must be good enough to work for them.

Yes, I hear you saying university is more than that. It’s about social networks. It’s about socializing people into a particular class. It’s about organizing your time and behaving at some minimally professional level. And maybe it’s even about learning a little along the way. But that’s not how people choose their universities, even if they could. Yes, many do come to ASU because of its reputation as a party school, but usually they also want it to provide at least some indication of future ability to pay school loans. (And ASU happens to do pretty well in that regard.)

Because of this, you are unlikely to buy into a degree from Hyundai university. It might be cheaper than the Princeton sheepskin, it might even be a much better bang for the buck, but when you are buying brand, you can’t afford to take chances. And that means it is much harder for Hyundai U to even compete with Mercedes U–it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The barriers to entry for “real” schools are incredibly high. And a lot of that has to do with the size of required investment. (I think you could make similar arguments about the difficulty of making progress on residential building for the same reason.)

Unbundling and Garage Universities

One way to address this is to unbundle the things that the university does. I’ve written about this before on several occasions. A few years ago I gave an Ignite talk at DML on the topic of Garage Universities–but few people were interested. (Ironically, they preferred the talk I didn’t plan.) The basic argument was that the linchpin that held together the university bundle was the credential: the certification of the 4-year degree. Pull that out and things fall apart.

The university structure falling apart is a scary thing to many people, but I remain convinced that many of the best parts of the university will not only survive, but thrive. I also think, at least in the US case, that what really needs innovation is schooling in K-12, but in many ways that’s harder to crack. In that realm, though, you have seen new opportunities for start-up schools, and starting a private school–because they tend to be relatively local and limited in scale–is pretty easy.

What happens when you have a new system that allows for the agglomeration of smaller learning “chunks”–a kind of rolling up of degrees through the earning of smaller certificates. Among other things, it means starting a “small school” of higher education becomes much easier. I don’t have the time, money, or risk-taking behavior to start a new university, but I could start a program, and I could definitely start a course or series of courses.

Small courses and series already exist, of course. I can go to the Learning Annex and improve my understanding of Tarot, for example. But these courses exist on the fringes and are not in any way interoperable with university credits. Of course, there are very real economic reasons for universities not to accept credit not earned at the university. At one level at least, it means that tuition dollars are going to someone else. But it also costs money to evaluate outside credit and decide what “counts.” Articulation agreements make that a little easier, but they are time consuming and difficult to manage.

Coin of the Realm

A unified set of standards around certifying learning would not change this immediately, but it would cut down in the overhead of accepting, verifying, and sharing credentials. A good set of badging structures constitutes an innovation infrastructure.

Certainly, this doesn’t save anyone from the hard part: designing exciting and effective learning environments. Or even for the slightly less difficult task of figuring out how to pay for it. Just as a number of technologies made selling online easier–eBay, Paypal, Etsy, Square–a microcredential infrastructure makes it easier to experiment. At present, it seems like MOOCs are the experiment du jour, but there are other forms of experimentation possible, both within institutions and outside institutions.


The question everyone seems to be asking is what the tipping point might be for such an infrastructure. I am a fan of the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure, in part because, unlike the examples in ecommerce I mention above, it is not controlled by a single entity. There is no guarantee that it will happen, but if it does, it needs to happen at a large scale, and it needs to happen where people already are.

That means places like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, at least as a start. Ideally–and this is where it gets tricky–it means that it happens the same way across these platforms, and no one tries to own it. There is a promising mention of the Mozilla OBI in Reid Hoffman’s “Disrupting the Diploma” post. But on the other hand, there seems to be an effort to try to bottle badges up, keep them at home, all the better to monetize them. I suspect strongly that–like for blogging–the future of badges rests on understanding the sharing process.

We need to understand better the mechanisms of why people might post a badge and what they get out of it when they do. And that means more than private sharing or putting it on a personal portfolio, it means understanding how badges pass into the open, participatory worlds of social media.

It also means understanding how microcertifications relate to other forms of marking achievement and experience, both quantified and more informal. A number of systems exist for marking “karma” or check-ins. A better feeling for the range of ways in which experience is shared, appreciated, and recorded.

Posted in Policy & Politics, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Twentieth Anniversary

Twenty years ago today, Jamie and I were married. This picture, taken some time after we were married, probably deserves some explanation. A group of us had discovered that “Sometime’s Funky Street Cafe” (a place down the street from the 500 Rakan Gyokuhoji Temple that seemed to be run by teenagers) carried Red Stripe Beer, and made a night of drinking a lot of it. Having closed down the place, our mötley crüe had three options: go to John Festa’s, the depressing expat hangout downtown; move the celebration to one of our flats, whispering to avoid scandalizing the neighbors; or climb Mount Fuji. The answer seemed obvious enough, so we dropped by a liquor store to buy a giant bottle of sake to open at the peak (the owner was kind enough to sell us a six pack of tiny bottles instead) and hopped the last train and bus to Fuji-san. This photo is probably by 8th station, by which time we were all pretty sober, now determined to reach the summit by dawn. And no, I wasn’t a Tri-Delt; my debonair wife had lent me a sweatshirt since I at some point in the evening decided to do this in a T-shirt.

I think it would have been impossible for us to even begin to guess how our lives would play out over the next twenty years. We are both very different people today than when this photo was taken and I mean much more than the fact that I would be physically unrecognizable to my 21-year-old self. We have become ourselves in ways that I think we are both more happy about than not. Of course, everybody changes, and sometimes that means they grow apart, and that is fine. But that has not been the case for us. At this point in our lives, we’ve been married longer than we haven’t. So much of who I am is indistinguishable from my relationship with my spouse that I cannot imagine being myself without her.

When we got married, our promise was that we would challenge each other to become better people. I don’t know how well I’ve kept that promise to Jamie, but all of those things I am most proud of in myself I owe to her influence. Most people questioned my decision to ask Jamie to marry me when we were both so young. (And many thanks to those of you who either didn’t question it, or didn’t voice those questions.) I will now tell a story that I have never told anyone, including Jamie.

Several months before I asked her to marry me, I had a nightmare. I was 40, but that wasn’t the nightmare. I was back in Southern California, having lived a daring life of intrigue, on leave as a young ambassador to a far off land. I hopped off my motorcycle at a stylish restaurant. When I was seated, I caught the eye of someone who looked familiar: Jamie. After a brief career on the stage, she had opened a series of popular restaurants. We were both successful in our careers, dashingly good looking, and had found our paths through life. And the moment our eyes met, we knew what we had lost. Twenty years we could have been together, and we had at some point thrown that away for what was behind the curtain. I woke up with a rock in the pit of my stomach. The easy thing is to not realize what is right there, right now. To believe that it can’t last.

A few nights ago, we watched O, Brother Where Art Thou, since both boys like that old-timey sound and we had conveniently forgotten about a couple of scenes (Klan rally, frog murder) that would need a bit of explanation. At the beginning of the movie, the analog of Tiresias tells the Soggy Bottom Boys that they will find a treasure, but not the one they seek. The blind seer rides through town at the conclusion, just as the protagonist passes with his newly reunited family. I was explaining to Jasper the meaning that the (not always subtle) Coen Brothers were imparting, and found myself in tears. Here was my treasure, Jamie and our two sons, and I am the luckiest man in the world. All because I asked, and she said yes.

Posted in General | 1 Comment
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