3/26/2006

Digital Gallery

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:55 pm

looking at learningAfter a lot of work (how long? about a year? a year and a half? probably more), my colleague Rachel Theilheimer and I agree that our Digital Gallery, Looking at Learning, Looking Together (I call it “3LT”) is ready for public unveiling. We had plenty of help in the web design and HTML/Flash coding, as well as the thinking and structuring, from our friends at CNDLS and VKP, and we’re very happy with the way the site turned out. The challenge was to represent student work, and our collaborative inquiry into student work. I think the site does that very well, and it makes a good demonstration of how the web can be a medium for publishing scholarship of teaching and learning projects…a better medium than plain old print. One of the key considerations was to display the process, as well as the conclusions, and to keep the student work at the center.

Hoping it gets a lot of attention…and people contact us to talk about it further.

3/18/2006

The OBD for Degree Completers

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:52 am

OBDThe CUNY Online Baccalaureate Degree is a program for degree completers, specifically and explicitly. Our research tells us that there are approximately 60,000 people in the New York area who left college without a degree, but with good academic standing, and between 60 and 90 credits successfully earned. For most of these students, their reasons for leaving school were not lack of interest or desire or motivation, and not academic problems (they were successful academically, up to the time they stopped). So why did they stop? The answer is pretty predictable, and CUNY’s research (focus groups, surveys) confirms that prediction. The majority of these students became ex-students for logistical, practical, reasons. They needed to work more hours at their jobs, to support their families. Or they had children whose needs had to come first. Or older relatives who needed care. Their schedules changed, or they moved to a new apartment with a more lengthy commute to school or work. Another group of students (of undertermined size at this point) had physical disabilities which interfered with their ability to attend class. In all these cases (and others), these were people who wanted to finish their degrees, who would welcome the opportunity, but who were not able to attend regular, scheduled, face-to-face classroom sessions.

So the purpose of the OBD was to offer this specific audience, this specific group of students, the opportunity they wanted and needed to complete a degree they had already started. With that purpose, we decided early on that the program should be (to use my colleague’s phrase) “flexible on the front end and tight on the back end.” We wanted to take in students with the widest possible range of prior academic experiences–being as flexible as possible in accepting transfer credits from all kinds of programs. That would widen our pool of applicants, and help to prevent frustration for students who might feel like the credits they had already earned were “wasted” if they weren’t accepted by the program.

But that wouldn’t be enough to make a program we could feel proud of, or one that would really make a difference for our students. We didn’t want to just hand out degrees as degrees, or just allow completion. We wanted to have a program with real academic rigor and intellectual quality, and more importantly, a program that could use the qualities and innovations of online education–not just for convenience, but also for their value and place in the emerging structures of education and knowledge and information in this culture.

That’s the “tight on the back end” part, and that’s what will give these degree completers a real degree, a new degree, not just a filling-in-the-blanks of their previous degrees. We decided (at least at the beginning) to offer only one “major,” one concentration, and to move all students from their entrance with partial degrees in a variety of subjects and majors, to a complete degree in that concentration…Communication and Culture.

Students, in so many cases, see the bachelor’s degree as a credential, a requirement for promotion or progress in a career. And that may be especially true for degree completers. The lack of a BA constructs a ceiling to their aspirations, and completing the BA is valuable to them because it will allow them to rise above that ceiling. That’s quite understandable, and we certainly want to acknowledge that fact (and will even use it in the “marketing” of the program). But we’re all educators, and all want something more than that for our students. They need the credential. They need the ticket to a better job. And they need the broader, deeper, value of education–not just for job training or professional advancement, but for all the value that a liberal education brings to a whole, growing, complete educated citizen. And that’s what makes this a degree for completers, and makes that completion so desirable for the students, teachers, and society.

3/7/2006

Itzkoff Agreement

Filed under: — Joe @ 9:09 pm

It seems I was not at all alone in my condemnation of Dave Itzkoff’s debut at the NY Times. There’s not just Ruru’s comment below, but plenty of others in the online SF world are in total agreement (and with more length, detail, and vitriol than I provided, too).

I wonder how many letters the Times is getting. His “favorites” list is particularly revealing, in the worst way. A list of ten books–from the whole genre. What does he choose? Five books from the 60′s, one from ’59. No women writers at all. Thomas Pynchon. Jonathan Lethem. The Twilight Zone Companion (!!!).

3/5/2006

OBD Resistance

Filed under: — Joe @ 5:09 pm

I mentioned in an earlier post that the CUNY OBD had been facing some resistance. The source of that resistance has been the CUNY University Faculty Senate–especially a few of the very loudest voices in the UFS leadership. The way I see it, there are at least two lines of reasoning for this resistance, and it’s when both of these lines overlap that the resistance is the strongest.

The first, which I expected, but which I did not expect to have as much credibility, popularity and power as I’ve seen it have in this case, is the objection to online learning generally, and fully-online degrees in particular. CUNY offers several hundred online classes, including offerings on just about every campus, and in just about every academic discipline. For almost a decade, all the serious research and literature on the subject of online learning has been clear–a good class online is at least the equal of, and sometimes superior to, a good class face-to-face. I would think that any responsible, well-informed teacher, especially in higher education, would be aware of this. But that’s apparently not the case. I’ve seen colleagues, people whose judgment I should be able to respect, trot out the same uninformed, superstitious prejudices about the subject that have already been thoroughly discredited for years. “No effective education can take place online!” “Without being in the same room, looking into the eyes, nobody can learn anything!” “There can be no humor, no personal contact, no emotion online!” “This is a cheapening of education!” I’ve been truly surprised, and truly disappointed, to read these statements. It’s been especially ironic because my primary exposure to these sentiments from UFS members, the primary means they’ve had of communicating these emotional and personal protests, has been email to a listserv. In other words, they’ve been using online communication, almost exclusively, to proclaim the ineffectiveness of online education.

Now, protests of this sort, as disappointing and surprising as they may be to me, are really not a threat–they’re so easy to disprove, so easy to discredit. They all come (obviously) from people with zero experience of teaching and learning online, and it seems that even people who agree with their conclusion (that the CUNY OBD shold not go forward), are somewhat embarassed by this kind of rhetoric. But what about those other people, the ones who claim that they do approve of online education, that an online degree can be a good thing, but that this online degree is not a good thing? Their reasoning is somewhat better informed, and much more reasonable, although it is, nonetheless, still mistaken.

This second camp, the camp that claims to support online education at the same time as they oppose the OBD, base their arguments on the origin of the plan for this degree, and the structural and University governance issues that it implies. Specifically, they object to the fact that this degree is being based in, and run through, CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. Apparently, when the SPS was founded, there was a great deal of resistance to that from the UFS (this was before my time–at least before I was really aware of these issues). They did not want a school that was separate from the campuses, that could run under the auspices of the CUNY central administration. The story is (and this is a matter of a great deal of controversy) that the UFS agreed to allow the SPS to go forward (could they have stopped it?) only with the assurance (which is not written down anywhere, but which the UFS maintains was given, and is binding) that the SPS would never grant undergraduate degrees.

But it goes beyond that. The idea for this degree, and most of the structural details (note–not the curricular or educational details–just the structural) came from the CUNY administration, specifically the (relatively new) Executive Vice Chancellor. This seems to bother the UFS most extremely–it’s a political issue, or a power issue–because their stance is that any program of this kind should be conceived and invented only by faculty, and that if the original impetus came from administration, it must be a bad thing. Connected to this are some objections to the speed at which the program is proceeding and being implemented.

I’m just as committed to faculty sovereignty as anyone else, but these arguments are actually hollow and unsupportable, because even though it was the EVC’s original idea to have this program, and she has been in charge of sheperding the process along, it’s not at all true that this is a program in which faculty members have had no say, and which faculty members would never have thought of themselves. Quite the opposite. It’s been a committee of faculty (including several UFS executive committee members) who gave the degree program its initial study and design, and it’s been faculty only, not administration, who are designing the curriculum and educational policies (I’m one of those faculty!). It’s true that the official curriculum committee (on which I serve) for the OBD does not include UFS representation…but that’s not a matter of exclusion, but of the UFS’ choice. When the curriculum committee was in formation, the UFS was asked to nominate three representatives to that committee. They declined to nominate anyone, and refused to have any involvement in the process, except to oppose it.

And that opposition has taken some very ugly and dishonest turns. There have been personal attacks on the people who are involved. There have been claims that the curriculum (which I’ll describe in another post) is educationally unsound. There have been (seemingly intentional) mischaracterizations of the field of study, and then critiques that the degree does not do what it never set out to do or promised to do.

So those are two lines–one, that an online degree is just no good, and two, that an online degree in the SPS is just no good.

In fact, I said above that the resistance is virulent when these two lines overlap–and I think that that overlap is much more frequent than is usually admitted. That is, even when people claim “I have nothing against online degrees in general, it’s just this online degree,” they’re not being fully honest (maybe not even with themselves). It does seem like for most of them, the fact that the degree is online is an issue–beyond the fact that it’s located in the SPS, or separate from the UFS, or moving ahead very quickly. It’s not that all of those objections aren’t real, it’s just that all of them are enhanced by the fact that this degree is online–and thus an innovation, a break from tradition, with all of the anxiety that that entails.

And it probably goes both ways–even for the people who claim that no online education can be worthwhile, a large part of the argument might really come from the fact that they dislike and distrust the CUNY administration, and feel that opposition to anything proposed by the administration is a political or ideological necessity. So for these people, they just might be very glad to approve and accept online education, if it came from the UFS, rather than the CUNY administration.

It may sound like I’m accusing the opponents of the OBD of arguing without principle, in bad faith. That’s not true in every case, certainly. There are people who have sincere and principled objections to this degree, on either of the two lines of reasoning (or combinations of both). At least I think there are. But I have definitely seen dishonesty, and I have definitely seen personal attacks, and I have definitely seen uninformed or disingenuous arguments from the vast majority of those who oppose the OBD.

And all of this is just a real shame. Because this program is one that is going to happen, and it is going to do a lot of good for a lot of students. If the UFS (or anyone else) wanted to support the true goals we all share, they should try to be part of the process, try to improve the program (and we certainly could use help!), rather than just acting as obstacles or roadblocks because of doctrinaire opposition or uninformed prejudice.

3/4/2006

NY Times’ New SF critic

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:41 pm

Could the New York Times have possibly found a worse Science Fiction reviewer than Dave Itzkoff? He makes his debut in the role with a review and a list of favorites, and one is worse than the other. He’s got an incredibly limited knowledge of and exposure to the genre, and from that shaky foundation he feels entitled to make pronouncements about what the genre should, but doesn’t, do. Of course, none of these pronouncements are anything new, and all of them are suggestions that the best of the genre (which he seems never to have seen) have been doing for years.

His criticisms are based on the most uninformed of stereotypes, and his list of favorites makes clear that what he’d really rather be reading, for the most part, is not SF at all. His interests (and his history, and his own writing, and his experience as a reviewer, as demonstrated by a quick googling) are completely out of the SF genre, and it shows.

I don’t know what the Times was thinking. Why do we need yet another condescending, uninformed, “literary” poseur to review a genre which (contrary to Itzkoff’s silly claim that it’s “declining in popularity”) is in one of the most productive, exciting, and popular eras in its history.

Irritating! Bring back Gerald Jonas!

3/3/2006

The CUNY OBD

Filed under: — Joe @ 10:34 am

Last week we got CUNY Board of Trustees approval, and State Higher Ed approval is most likely forthcoming soon, for the CUNY Online Baccalaureate for Degree Completers. I’ve been involved in the planning of this new program from early on, and I’m very excited about it. I expect to do quite a few more posts about it, now that it’s approved and as it goes public.

The program has faced quite a bit of opposition, and some of that has surprised and disappointed me, but I’m convinced it’s going to be a huge success. I want to discuss some of that opposition, and some of what I think is innovative and exciting about the project.

But to begin, as a first post, I thought I’d post the statement I presented to the Board of Trustees hearing last week. The hearing was in a very beautiful and imposing courtroom in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. I was strangely nervous and intimidated by the setting (and by the antagonism of some of the opponents), but I still feel like it was a pretty good statement.

I am an associate professor of English, and director of teaching and learning with technology, at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. I have been at BMCC since 1985, and a member of the full time faculty since 1993.

I began teaching online at BMCC in 2001. Even before that time, I took online classes as a student, and since that time I have observed other faculty’s online courses, I have trained faculty to teach online, and I have been trained and certified to evaluate online degree programs as an Institutional Capability Reviewer by the State Board of Higher Education. I have researched and published on asynchronous online discussion, as well as the scholarship of teaching and learning with technology, social software, digital storytelling, and electronic teaching portfolios.

As a teacher, a scholar, and a student, I have seen the benefits of online education, including online degrees, and as a member of the SCORE committee and the OBD curriculum committee, I have been working to make those benefits available to our students at CUNY.

I want to briefly describe some of those benefits.

  • Meaningful personal contact with instructors and fellow students—students in online classes, almost universally, report that they have more contact and more meaningful educational contact with their professors than in face-to-face classes. Even more important, the opportunities for collaborative learning and student-centered education are much greater in the online class than in face-to-face classes.
  • Depth of intellectual exploration—in the online class, because discussion is asynchronous, students have the opportunity to explore subjects and ideas, even when tangentially connected, motivated by their interest and desire, and not constrained by the limits of a synchronous face-to-face class session. Students and instructors alike can make connections and links to material outside the classroom, as the entire range of information resources provided by the internet are within easy reach.
  • Opportunities for reflection—discussion in online classes leaves a persistent trace, rather than being ephemeral—students not only have time to think deeply about statements and responses, they can go back and review what they and other students have said in discussion, when reviewing material, thinking further, or preparing for exams or writing papers.
  • Strengthening of essential skills (reading/writing/critical thinking across the curriculum)–because the work in online classes is conducted by reading and writing, along with associated other media (audio and video), reading and writing become part of the medium of every course, not just specialized composition or literature classes.
  • Access—Online courses allow students to have the full academic rigor and intellectual stimulation of a college education, on their own schedules, with flexibility and adjustment to meet the demands of work, family, and other personal obligations.
  • Participation/Equity—in online classes, students can participate without apprehension about their accents, physical appearance, or discomfort with interrupting others. In the face-to-face classroom, no matter how equitable and student-centered it may be, it is impossible for every student voice to be heard. A few voices, more forceful or more confident or more eloquent than the rest will always be dominant. In the online classroom, every voice not only can be heard, but can be responded to, valued, and encouraged.

There are more advantages, too, but because time is limited let me emphasize that my experience has shown that online education, like any educational experience, is not appropriate for every student, not for every subject, and not for every faculty member.

But in working on the proposal for the CUNY OBD, my fellow committee members and myself, all experienced, dedicated, CUNY faculty, have been conscious throughout of CUNY’s mission of access and excellence, and I am certain that the CUNY OBD will support and enhance that mission.

When I presented this orally, I started to run over time (there was a strictly enforced three minute maximum time limit), and I added some remarks about our experience with the Sloan Semester for Katrina victims, so I had to cut some of this. I also had a bad asthma moment, unfortunately, so I had to do some gasping for breath! But that might have added a little pathetic appeal–so maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

3/2/2006

Local Learning Objects–the BMCC-GLO

Filed under: — Joe @ 4:55 pm

As so many others have pointed out, there’s something so broad and so inclusive about the term “Learning Object,” that it becomes shallow and almost meaningless. The standard or accepted definition is something like “a reusable, interoperable, educational activity, digital or non-digital, with meta-data attached for classification.” That’s my paraphrase of many different definitions, but the basic idea is that you build up a large collection (usually called a repository) of these things–usually a website, or set of instructions for an activity–make that collection public and searchable, and then sit back and wait for teachers to come and check it out. Then they’re so ecstatic about the range of items they find that they use them in their classes, and everybody benefits from the collective wisdom of the whole community.

There are plenty of repositories already–with MERLOT (I’ve had some involvement with them) being probably the biggest. But for the most part, these repositories in particular, and the idea of learning objects in general, seem to miss an important point about education…and that’s the importance of context.

Reusability is good, and interoperability is good, but so much about education is specific and local and contextual. Generic solutions can be foundations, but what seems to be often the case is that they’re best seen as inspirations for local, focused, directed solutions. An explanation or activity or tutorial which is essential, and monumentally productive for a student at Bard or Sarah Lawrence might not have any good use at all for students at West Point (or make your own extremes of your own continua)…even if they’re taking, at least nominally, the same course at the same level and working on the same skills or content.

FireflySo thinking about this led me to the idea of the BMCC Gallery of Learning Objects (BMCC-GLO…hence the firefly. I like the idea that it glows!). My thinking was that we could assemble (gradually, over time) a collection or gallery of locally-built, locally-useful, locally-focused objects. I know that objects is a problematic term–but I’m just bracketing those problems. Objects, activities, tutorials, whatever–I’m thinking that these are small, self-contained, and specific. And that they’re designed by BMCC faculty, for BMCC students in BMCC courses, with the idea that we here at BMCC know best what’s most helpful, and what’s most needed, for these students in these courses. We’ll pay faculty for their time and work in developing these, we’ll give them technical support in accomplishing the instructional design and whatever (minimal) programming or multimedia or coding they need to do. And the concept and the realization will be driven by the local, contextual, experience of our students and our classes.

And I’m going to take this localization to yet another step, too. I want to involve students, not just faculty, in the selection and design of these objects. I haven’t worked out all the details of that yet, but my basic idea is that a faculty member will be paired with a student designer/tester…who will confirm that the object is understandable and productive for students, and that the learning goal it addresses is one where students really do need help, and really can benefit from this particular type of help.

If I can get a few built each year (semester?), bringing in more faculty and more students from different academic areas, I think there’s a chance we could have something (the Gallery, the collection), which could be a truly relevant, useful, local and contextualized resource for our students.

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