Thursday, November 18, 2010

Talk's Cheap? Columbia's $500 F2F Experiment

Did the Office of Student Life at Columbia University misfire Monday when it offered a $500 prize to the undergrad who can collect the most secret passwords from fellow students?  Will this game achieve their goal of engaging students in nonacademic f2f conversation?

[Image:  Ivygate]

Media have jumped all over this story:  FoxNY, HuffPo, NYT's CityRoom blog, the Harvard Crimson.

Says Eve Binder, Managing Editor at the Ivy League blog Ivygate, "Instead of having a citywide meltdown, maybe we should be commending Columbia undergrads for assimilating so well into the ethos of New York City. After all, the rulebook does indeed say that you’re not allowed to talk to anyone who smiles, wears colors, or is not from New York."

Sure, but according to an unsigned article at Insider Higher Ed, a dearth of walking-across-campus sociability is not limited to mawkish urbanites at Columbia:  "[E]ven rural campuses, including those that pride themselves on a culture of sociability, have had to contend in recent years with the threat posed by mobile devices."  The article cites examples of the Speaking Tradition at Washington and Lee in Lexington, VA, and at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the “Passing Hello” which has been "institutionalized as one of the university’s most cherished traditions."

For some faculty and admins age-35+ whose college years were mobile-phone-free, the sight of undergraduates mashing buttons or sliding fingers over screens as they walk to class suggests a loss.  Did they meet their future spouses as they strolled across the campus?  Maybe.  Did random campus conversations contribute meaningfully to their sense of the college experience?  Absolutely.  Steven Johnson offers one reason why.

"Liquid networks" generate innovation and creativity.  Cities, college campuses (or both, in the case of Columbia) permit random connections among people who are loosely joined together.  Innovation is more likely to happen when sparks from outside one's customary orbit blaze new neural pathways to the puzzles your brain is working to solve.  That IR major you recognize from a party last night and who you bumped into on the library steps today might remind you of a conversation you'd had at the party, but forgotten--until this random connection reactivated it, and shot it into the forefront of your consciousness.

We can agree that this f2f randomness is potentially meaningful. A good result of proximity.

But do you actually have to be f2f to get that same thrilling brush against difference?

Nope.  Twitter has yielded for me more surprising, diverse information than I found bumping into others on the quad.  But the conversations I have in the halls with my colleagues are deep, sustained and continuous.  The mix of both makes for the most creative thinking.  

Why do Columbia's well-meaning admins assume that students' screen socializing is inferior to the exclusively f2f socializing they did when they were in college?  

"We are appalled at the absurdity of this game,"declare Columbia undergraduates Tom Miner and Liz Lund in an Op-Ed for the Colubmbia Spectator.  "It is certainly a noble goal to get students to better interact with one another, but when you attach a $500 prize to a game whose winner must inherently be a systematic, blunt, and tactless maniac, the purpose becomes lost."

They concede:  "The administration is right, though: Columbia students—perhaps more than most college students—have issues socializing."

Wouldn't it be smarter to create f2f experiences that screens can't replicate?

And to involve students in the creation of such experiences?

At the University of Washington, the Seattle Times reports, about 900 people play Humans vs. Zombies Tag, or HvZT.  "It's a complex game that sweeps through the UW campus every quarter. 'The best part of it is you meet a ton of people,' says student Malcolm Badewitz-Brown, one of four overseers, or game organizers."  HvZT is a trend across universities and around the world.

At the University of Southern California, more than 1,500 students participate annually in the Visions and Voices program, which treats students to a huge range of arts performances and lectures both on- and off-campus.  It facilitates guided discussion after each event.

The brouhaha burbling out of Columbia's Social Experiment underscores the technology divide between students and the people in charge of educating them.

Ironically, although some faculty and admins profoundly distrust how students socialize on screens, they rarely bother asking students whether they perceive a lack of sociability.  In fact, students just might be up to their ears in social experience.  Going to college doesn't mean leaving behind their K-12 network, as it did before social media.  When we think about how to create community on campus and in the classroom, we must keep that in mind.  Each learner at the seminar table is not just one person, but a web of many people that moves and breathes with that learner everywhere she goes.
Wouldn't $500 be an excellent prize for students who invent a cool new game that promotes f2f on campus?  Trust the students to describe their experience and figure out a new way to connect.  My guess:  the game would be a hybrid, something that would use screens to enable f2f in ways most of us over 20 couldn't imagine. Which is why we haven't.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do I Have Your Attention? Howard Rheingold's Balloon Experiment

[src: djsoundwav's YouTube Channel]

Are we afraid to ask students "Do I have your attention" because they'll say, as Zuckerberg does in the clip, "No"?

Of everyone I've been reading lately, Howard Rheingold is the most innovative thinker about attention in the f2f in networked classrooms.

Check out these two tweets (18 minutes ago) about a social experiment he ran in his class today:
2 show capabilities of social networks, my ingenious students placed balloons arnd campus, challenged others 2 ask friends 2 locate them
Students sent SMS, tweets, Facebook updates @ start of class. An hour later, one student had located 11 balloons through her social netowrk

What better to collapse the distances--physical, psychic--between our lives online and our lives on campus than the balloon experiment?

It literalizes the proximal nature of our networks: those folks chasing balloons across campus are both of us and their own selves, following their own desires. Those who get the call to chase balloons can opt to do it or ignore it. But if they see the status update about the balloons and choose not to pursue them, they still have more knowledge than they had before the update: if they see a balloon on campus, they'll *see* it. The social network has given them more knowledge and insight than they would have had without it. And that's just for being part of one: not the reward for opting in.

The social network, in other words, allowed something otherwise invisible or unremarkable to take on significance. To become meaningful.

Today in Howard's experiment, one student's network found 11 balloons. Wouldn't it be fun to figure out why her network found so many? Is her network more playful than most? Blessed with more disposable time? More spontaenous? How are networks inflected by the personalities that gather them, and are there folks studying this? At what point are networks so compendious as to exceed the parameters of personality, turn into a blob of electrons?

Howard's students (and all of us, thanks to his tweet) might think through a couple of ideas manifest in the balloon experiment.

1. In classroom settings, the virtual and the physical (f2f) work most productively in tandem. Neither group (the students in the classroom nor the ones hunting balloons) could find the balloons alone.

2. F2f classes must deliver something that students cannot find themselves online. Bahktin, in Dialogic Imagination calls this "eventness": the infusion of surprise and contingency into the prosaic. Now more than ever, classes need to be "eventful" in order to compel attention. The balloons surprised Howard's students into "seeing" an element of social networking that perhaps they'd taken for granted. That's the job of "eventness": to make visible underlying assumptions of how systems of power operate.

3. Compelling attention in an f2f writing class will necessitate rethinking what counts as a classroom activity, and what gets done in the network or alone in front of a screen. I'm proposing to teach my Advanced Writing class at USC 75% online/ 25% f2f. That ratio is my best guess of how student writers will most productively and eventfully use their time. But that ratio is being met with deep skepticism among decision makers because to acknowledge how much the writing classroom is changed by social media is to heap onto already full plates the challenge of redesign and the thrill of experimentation.

I offer these observations not to those who know social networks to be fundamental to one's self. I offer them to the many people I encounter in higher ed who think of SNs as virtual replications of f2f. If your SN is comprised entirely of people you know f2f, this might be you.

Howard has some f2f exercises for increasing students' awareness of how they spend their attention. This is from his recent EDUCAUSE article, "Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies":

The first thing I do in my class now is ask the students to turn off their cellphones, shut their laptops, and close their eyes.

I tell them that I will let them know when 60 seconds have gone by, and I ask them to just do nothing but notice what happens in their minds, to observe where their attention would go without any external distractions.

Of course, anybody who meditates knows that your mind is pretty much out of control. Your attention can go anywhere: to yesterday, to tomorrow.

After they open their eyes, I ask them to keep their laptops closed, and I add that I will upload my notes for that first lecture so they shouldn't have to worry about taking notes.

But because my intention is to probe, not control, and ultimately to instill in students an experience of some reflection about their media practices, I did not outright ban the use of laptops.

This move at the end is most interesting. It's tempting for teachers to abuse our power and prohibit screens by edict.

But there are several innovators in my department at USC who are already using screens in fantastically exciting ways: Geoff Middlebrook's Blogfolios, Mark Marino's crowdsourced anti-bullying resource, Stephanie Bowers & John Murray's "Writing for the Common Good," docu/writing in the neighborhood course, Matt Manson's tweet stream, Ron Scheer's students' YouTube advocacy vids, and Norah Ashe-McNalley & Nathalie Joseph's student online writing journal, AngeLingo. There may be others flying new stuff: I'm on sabbatical this year, and removed from the day-to-day chez JEF.

I think Howard's fusion of the f2f with the networked is a micrograph of how classrooms will begin to look: shuttling between f2f and screen, lively, kinetic, expansive.

In networked classrooms we're going to be using our bodies more, not less, than we do in the f2f classroom. Rather than passively regard the folks sitting around the seminar table, our bodies will activate new kinds of learning when the networked writing class gathers f2f: as we crowdsource knowledge, extend our selves far beyond the classroom, and jump into the cities that house our universities. Those cities are living texts to explore and annotate. Ulysses.

My wish is that someday soon, we'll all have the chance to hunt after Howard's balloons.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Kaplan U. Investigated by GAO for Predatory Practices; Some Public Univs in CA cost $50K/yr

Just a short post about predatory practices among for-profit online learning vendors, and the high cost of brick-and-mortar public universities.

The NYT placed a story today in my content aggregator, which means it was one of the 3 top stories it blasted out: "Scrutiny Takes a Toll on For-Profit College Company."

Kaplan higher education revenues eclipse not only the test-prep operations, but all the rest of the Washington Post Company’s operations. And Kaplan’s revenue grew 9 percent during the last quarter to $743.3 million — with higher education revenues more than four times greater than those from test-prep — helping its parent company more than triple its profits.

For-profit education companies will protect the interests of shareholders, not learners. A series of lawsuits pending against Kaplan suggest that it aggressively recruits students who it thinks will be unlikely to finish the program. Even when students complete coursework, Kaplan may withhold access to the last degree requirement (such as a practicum), so students are left in limbo. Non-white single moms are Kaplan's ideal recruit.

NYT's Tamar Lewin explains how Kaplan became enormously profitable: "All these schools get most of their revenue from federal student aid. Kaplan Higher Education, for example, gets 91.5 percent of its revenue from the federal government, through Pell grants, Stafford loans, military and veterans benefits and other aid."

The government pays Kaplan. But only 28% of Kaplan's students repay the government, a rate significantly lower than the 48% of brick-and-mortar repays and 45% University of Phoenix repays.

Kaplan's significantly lower repay rate might reflect its predatory practice of allegedly admitting students that are unlikely to 1) complete the program; or, 2) earn more money as a result of obtaining the Kaplan degree. According to the NYT, most Kaplan students did not see a boost in earning power as a result of their Kaplan degrees, despite Kaplan recruiting promises to the contrary.

It's no wonder that students are scrambling to find affordable alternatives to community colleges and public universities. NPR reported Nov. 1st that:

A year of college at a public university now costs more than $50,000 — if you enroll at the University of Berkeley and don't have in-state status. Berkeley is the first public school to join the 50K club, according to College Board data analyzed by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Still, Berkeley isn't likely to have the distinction to itself for long. Back in the 2008-2009 school year, only three schools in the nation charged more than $50,000. For 2010-2011, there are 100.

With perils at either end of the prestige & costs spectra, I think more students will take matters into their own hands and crowdsource knowledge. Not all learners are motivated enough to do this, and a college degree is still the Golden Ticket to white collar jobs.

That may change if more and more students opt not to incur tremendous debt but can find equivalent knowledge on their own.

Monday, November 08, 2010

In Your Face: the New York Times & Online Learning

Last week's two NYT articles,"Learning in Dorm, Because Class is Online" and "Live vs. Distance Learning: Measuring the Differences", both by Trip Gabriel, attribute a number of maladies to online course delivery: hyper-crowded classes (1500+!), lack of faculty/student interaction, student malaise and boredom, and learning inequities among Hispanic and non-Hispanic learners exacerbated in online settings.

When a motivated student complains, at the end of "Learning in a Dorm," that online learning is "all the same . . . . No comments. No feedback. And the grades are always late," Mr. Gabriel takes the student's observation at face value. In this the same article we learn that one professor is teaching 1500 students in a blended (online & f2f) intro microeconomics class. What kind of TA support is that teacher getting? Or training in interactive technologies (like Hotseat, a Twitter-and-text app created at Purdue) to augment student participation in large lecture classes? Wittingly or unwittingly, Mr. Gabriel has created dramatic irony: we who are watching this tragedy of learning know more than the players themselves.

Gabriel's narrative choices got traction. The article dug into the ten "most-emailed" NYT articles for three days after initial publication, until the Sunday edition rolled out and the popular columnists swept it away. One imagines parents frantically emailing this article to each other and worrying whether their kids are getting the instruction they deserve, and for which they are richly paying.

The article makes trenches of the lines drawn in the sand: those who see social media as shallow, trivial and ephemeral, a root cause of young people's disengagement from "real" social contexts; and those who see social media as participatory, liberating, and fundamentally enabling of identities. danah boyd is my favorite author writing about teens, social media and identity-formation. Her Oct. 29 address to the 32nd International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners cannily explained teens' attitudes toward privacy even as they pervasively build identities via social networking platforms like texting, Facebook and Twitter. She observes:

People may not like having their privacy violated or being in situations where they're being surveilled, but they will always choose social status and community over privacy. They would rather be vulnerable to more people and deal with institutions than to feel disconnected from their peers and loved ones.

Students are already online all the time. Online instruction, far from alienating them, ought to hit them where they live. If it's not, the fault is not with the online mechanism, but human error: either burdening faculty with new technical requirements they are ill-prepared to meet in addition to their other responsibilities; or cramming classes so full of people that they resemble small cities or raves: full of random possible connections, but not designed to inculcate individual learning and satisfaction.

Readers of this blog know that I advocate f2f learning. I love it. But I want to teach 75% of my class online--all the while mentoring students, continuing to give them the "high touch" insight and access they expect from a f2f setting. I advocate HYBRID writing classes), as do others in the field. See Scott Warnock's post at Online Writing Teacher to learn more about this trend.

Whose interests are being served, I wonder, by the NYT's choice to villify online learning?

The U.S. Department of Education, in its 94-page study "Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning" (September 2010) notes with alarm that there are no sustained, meta-critical studies of online v. f2f learning outcomes dating from 1996-2008. It's a strange elision, this aporia of data. It suggests that we did not *see* f2f as a form of information delivery until online delivery attained sufficient critical mass to be an option for a huge volume of learners.

And sucked such learners away from f2f settings: witness the huge jump in homeschooling among K-12 families, and the rise of the for-profit online learning vendors.

Those developments alone might make the NYT and other ancien regime media institutions board up the brick-and-ivied chateaux against the hoards of collegiate learners rushing online--at a fraction of the cost of residential universities. Online learning, in the NYT and other top-down media outlets, is frequently portrayed as a financial last resort: a bargain-basement knock-off of authentic, holistic learning, which, we are left to conclude, happens face-to-face.

[Shout out, btw, to John Hagel, who coined "ancien regime" to describe old-media film critics' passionate embrace of The Social Network. See his terrific post about SN's "grand narrative" here.]

Mr. Gabriel's most glaring elision in that online learners have unprecedented access to information, academic research and actual university classes. Never before have the vistas for non-privileged learners been so expansive. This seems worth mentioning as we worry over whether freshman will elect to blow off lecture, and maybe never get around to watching the vid stream. Did you know anybody who blew off class and failed to borrow the lecture notes? Online delivery changes how we can participate in class, but it hasn't changed human nature.

Mr. Gabriel's allegorical tale about online learning (sloth! avarice! despair!) might actually be sensitive to the tectonic rumblings of the ground beneath our feet. The big story isn't the one about lazy or disenfranchised learners.

Rather, it's the hint that brick-and-mortar universities are St. George battling the dragon: the valiant human brandishing his sword against a fierce, vast opponent who has no honor (for-profit learning? Onscreen? Bah! Begone, dragon!).

Trick is to watch for the a huge reach and sharp claws.

Villifying online learning delivery won't slay the dragon. Learning how to tame it, integrate it, bring it home to the chateau, will.