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Aug 6, 2020

Tool fetishism in online teaching

Anxiety about one’s online teaching skills often finds an interesting outlet. Instructors find many different digital tools, platforms, and services, and use them in their classes. For example, Padlet, Flipgrid, Word Wall, Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Projeqt, Thinglink, eduClipper, Animoto. There are literally hundreds of them out there, each with its own fan club. Instructors also use blogs, website building platforms, Google and Office tools, smartphone aps, YouTube and Vimeo, etc. The way fetishism works is fairly simple: discovering a new tool gives you a sense of agency, a sense of accomplishment. It becomes your thing, gives you a feeling of being an expert, awakens your teacherly creativity. It is all good fun, until you consider the cost of using every new tool. The cost is significant. 

Canvas or any other modern LMS has features that allow you to do almost everything that these tools offer. You don’t need Kahoot to put together a quiz. Video discussion is available in Canvas; no need for Flipgrid. For 99.9% of functionality you need in an online course, Canvas and Zoom are just fine. The external tools may look a little flashier, or work marginally better for specific purposes. But students hate additional platforms. An undergrad may have five classes, and each professor requires them to learn one or two new platform, create a new account, remember one more password, and learn a set of new menus.

Some instructors like the excuse that this is a part of digital literacy training. Yet digital literacy is not in learning dozens of different tools and platforms. It is in the ability to find the right tool for a specific need you may have. I would argue that digital literacy is the ability to be critical to all the claims various vendors are making, the ability to resist the shiny objects, and see the essence of the task at hand, and the many tools that can be used to accomplish it. Real pros have an equidistant and skeptical attitude toward any tool out there. They assume that none is irreplaceable, and each is coming with its own set of advantages and problems. Most will survive for just a few years. Excessive enthusiasm for a specific tool is a telltale sign of a novice.

Every minute spent on playing with a new toy is a minute taken away from thinking about pedagogy. What makes or breaks an online course is the instructor’s though about how to present content, and how to help students master knowledge and acquire skills. Course design in planning what I will be doing, and what students will be doing; how I will help them learn, and how will I know if they have learned anything. Similarly, every minute your student spends learning another tool is a minute taken away from learning what your syllabus actually says they are supposed to learn. The bar for bringing another digital tool into the class should be very high: it has to be absolutely unique, directly bearing on the class objectives, and unavailable through the standard platform, e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, or whatever LMS your institution uses. If the tool meets these criteria, fine, by all means, use it. There is nothing wrong with a good tool. But it becomes a fetish when takes on undue importance.

The fundamental principles of online course design are these: simplicity, predictability, variety, and explicit step-by-step progression. The first principle implies that the course objectives have to be met with the simplest technology and with the fewest tools possible. I can write more about other principles, if there is interest. For now, let’s get back to basics, and don’t get seduced by every new toy out there. 


Jul 27, 2020

Wait and see

Imagination is normally an administrator’s friend. What we do is anticipate problems, plan, and prepare; all of these rely on the ability to imagine future. If the future were completely known and predictable, you would not need us at all. However, there are times when imagination can become a hindrance rather than an asset.

Here is an example: our K-12 partners schools and districts were thrown into a major uncertainty this summer. They were а frantically working on plans to partially and safely reopen schools in the Fall, only to be told recently to stay online, while being ready to reopen at any time later. And we of course, want to send our student teachers to schools for various field experiences. Our partners do not know what is going to happen at their schools, and we do not know how the field experiences will work for our students. And because there are so many unknowns, our collective imagination starts firing like crazy: what if this happens, what if that happens? What if they go back to f2f in a month or two, and cooperating teachers want their student teachers back with them to help? What if a student teacher has serious health concerns? What if a cooperating teacher does not want an extra body in their classroom? How do we provide virtual participation? Which equipment do we need, who is going to set up and operate it? Can we provide alternative experience or change placements? How many of those can we handle? I can literally continue this list of questions for another full page and then some.

The problem is, if you let your imagination run wild, you spend a lot of resources preparing for low-probability events, and still miss the mark when things actually happen. It is like securing supplies for an advancing army. If you secure too much random supplies, they clog your supplies lines, and burden your transportation, not to mention waste. With us, we’d prepare procedures, equipment, train people, negotiate agreements, only to find out most of it is not needed, and confuses everyone involved.

Sometimes it pays to wait and see. Waiting for more information may limit your window of time to react and prepare, but will allow you to focus on higher probability likely scenarios. It also pays to wait and see which problems actually materialize, and which will remain in the realm of a theoretical possibility.

And I have to say, the “wait and see” strategy is one of the hardest to follow. It runs against every instinct we have. Try shutting down your imagination and stop worrying about things you cannot predict at the time. It is hard, for our imagination keeps going. The trick is to know the moment when the fog of uncertainty clears enough to see the most likely future and the most common problems in it. But right now, it feels like one of those tedious dreams, where you are trying to walk through the mud, or figure out a solution, only to realize you are not making any progress. I am just so happy CSU made the call about staying online for the bulk of our classes so early. At least that part of our world is fairly predictable.

Jul 11, 2020

All public sculptures should go

I never understood public sculpture of leaders, never liked them. In any city I visited, they are an eye sore: all these marshals, generals, kings and presidents. They are never about art, but are always about dominance. They are an attempt to force a particular idea of the past on collective memory. None of the guys (they are mostly men) have been blameless. Someone's hero is always someone else's villain. With passing time, it is very natural for some names to be forgotten, and for other names to be remembered. Those names are remembered differently by different people, and that is just fine. Individual, or group memories do not clash, they can coexist peacefully. Yet, if we cast them in bronze and stone, they become a political act, a visible sign of a certain group’s dominance.

There is an imposing sculpture of Marshall Zhukov (on a horse, of course) by the Red Square in Moscow. For some, he is a hero of World War II, the savior of the motherland. For others, he is a mass murderer of his own soldiers slaughtered because of his dismal military talent and indifference to human cost of war. Give me another public sculpture of a political leader – any leader – and I will find a group of people who see its presence as violence against them. If you think Native Americans will look at one of the many Washington sculptures, and be so impressed as to forget his Indian policy? This is just never going to happen. The message to the Native Americans is different: “Yep, he was a great man, and you have to live with it; we do not care what you think.”


One of the major intellectual gifts Jews made the world is their injunction against idolatry. It is perhaps they had a chance to contemplate the excess of Egyptian monumental delusion. People rarely think about why the commandment against idolatry exists in the first place. What did they have against images of God? Well, because any kind of an ideal can unify people if it stays vague. If it is too specific, it always divides, and by dividing, dominates. I have noticed, Russians get along just fine as they silently remember the WWI, or share a song or a picture of fallen family members. Once they start talking about it, a shitstorm usually follows. They all have different narrative of what happened, who are the heroes and who are the villains. Songs, tears, and pictures are fleeting, monuments make a claim for the eternity. Nothing can claim eternity, nothing at all.

I like the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. I like the “Bad, bad boy” in Helsinki. I even like the little Lenin in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, because it is meant as a joke. These are about art, and do not intend to force themselves onto the future. I find statues of politicians and other “great people” in Canterbury Cathedral utterly gaudy, and so un-English. I dislike the Lincoln Memorial, have never been to Mount Rushmore, and not planning to go. Never liked Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and actively hate the ridiculous one in Moscow that has a body of Columbus, and then got a Peter’s head. I have no idea what people find in the two Gogols (the sad one and the merry one) or the Dostoevsky in Moscow. Somehow, stone or bronze figures of human beings are creepy; they make a city look like a cemetery. If you want to learn something about one of the complexes, tragic, and brilliant people of the past, visiting their sculpture is the last thing you want to do. Read a book, watch a movie instead.

I do not think is t is a good idea to destroy sculptures. But I hope one day they will all be quietly moved to museum yards, away from public spaces. The difference is – you have a choice to see them in museums; you are forced to see them in public spaces. A democratic public space has to be open, free of dominance, and looking into the future, not the past. Like Jews keep saying for three+ thousand years, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” They definitely knew something.

Jul 5, 2020

Is teacher preparation in California racist?

OK, let’s get serious, even if we have to get a little controversial. We know that any artificial barrier will disproportionately affect people of color. Consider the process of applying to a teaching credential program at our College. And I have to warn you, my colleagues spent hundreds of hours trying to make it clear and simple to understand. Even after all the work, it is still six pages long. I will give you SOME examples of barriers; this is by no means a complete set. We have NINE admission requirements, and many more to actually apply for teacher credential.

You need to meet the Basic Skills requirement. CTC provides 15-pages long instructions on how you can meet that one out of nine requirement. How many potential minority and first generation candidates will be intimidated at the sheer volume of this and other documents, full of abbreviations, new vocabulary, and unfamiliar references? How many will feel inadequate and not invited? To be fair, the last ten pages is a list of out of state exam options. However, all these options are high stakes exams like SAT, AP, CSET, etc. We know that is very difficult to create a test like that without an inherent bias. And, if you simply have a BA degree, this does not mean you have basic skills, although every campus in the country has some GE requirements. I am not sure why that is the case. Does accreditation of universities have any meaning, if we do not believe they provide basic skills? Is the requirement in effect racist? The collapse of SAT regime in California university admissions only makes these questions more urgent.

We also require teacher candidates to pass the subject knowledge test, or to pass a specifically approved (usually huge) waiver program. Just having a BA in the discipline you want to teach is not enough. There is an argument to support these requirements. It goes like this: “We should not send underprepared teachers into the classrooms, where minority kids will receive inferior instruction.” I would have bought into this argument, if evidence were stronger. In fact, the evidence is weak. Subject-matter test scores of teacher candidates do not strongly predict test scores of their own students. The evidence is mixed at best. Actually, those who argued for more subject matter testing were more concerned about building all the trappings of the “teaching profession” than about how inclusive it is. The White middle-class struggle for status outweighed the need for minority candidates to enter the profession. I also question the assumption that a fraction of score on standardized achievement test is more important than having a teacher who in one’s life that can be a role model. You have to assume that the test scores are more important than students’ self-worth. But how do you weigh the two? On what scale? Who says that one is more important than the other? Have anyone actually asked parents and kids?

We also have a state assessment of teacher candidates’ performance in classroom. That is not a bad assessment, for it actually measures the ability to teach. And yet, despite shortages of teachers, the State does not seem it appropriate to pay $300 for the assessment, and future teachers have to pick up the tab, on top of tuition and fees. The candidates also have to do the TB test, the criminal background check, and a number of other hoops to jump through. One of the most bizarre is that that we require prerequisite courses to get into the program. A reasonable person would ask: if you require a course, why not make it a part of your program? Why ask students to take courses at their own expense before they even know if we are going to accept it or not?” Well, the answers I get are somewhat vague. Apparently, at some point in the past, the concern was about keeping the number of program units down, so some courses were pushed out of the program and became prerequisites. Again, this is an example of a bureaucratic logic that has nothing to do with the values of inclusion and diversity in our teaching force.

Here is the thing about structural racism. If you always think about something else – building the profession, maintaining appearances, curricular turf wars, or the pressure from outside interest groups – if you keep thinking about those things, a racist structure will come up on its own. All you have to do is look in another direction. I am just worried we drown the energy of antiracist protest in passionate, but inconsequential conversations. Yes, we should address unconscious bias, and  acts of microaggression. But structural issues seem to be more important and more difficult to tackle.

Jun 28, 2020

The quarantine and the relational self

Today I stumbled across a fascinating 2002 paper, The Relational Self: An Interpersonal Social–Cognitive Theory, by Andersen and Chen. The theory goes like this: we do not have a unified knowledge of our own self. Rather, relationships with various significant others create “possible relational selves.” We cannot activate all of them at the same time, because the body of self-knowledge is so huge. Something in the immediate situation triggers a recall of a particular version of the self. “For example, cues in one’s workplace are likely to elicit the set of cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioral responses associated with one’s “professional self,” whereas cues in a party setting elicit knowledge reflecting one’s “partying self.”” This explains a lot about our situation at the quarantine. We all are missing the cues of the workplace, which makes it difficult to “wake up” our professional selves, and all the associated abilities, attitudes, habits, and motivation. This is why it feels so awkward to teach, write, think, and communicate from home. In the absence of these cues, we are literally not quite ourselves. The home environment triggers a more domestic version of the self, one inclined to rest, be entertained, or do brainless domestic or yard work. Doing more complex work for work requires an extra effort. Even recalling the right information takes a little longer. Writing a simple memo takes twice as much time. I can only admire my colleagues who have to teach online. Good teaching requires mobilization of the very specific version of the self that can be dramatically different from all others.

I was working in my office for a couple of hours last week, and the two large screen on my desk just felt amazing. It was as if someone just cleaned my foggy glasses, and the big world became suddenly visible. That says something about the importance of these visual cues for finding the right frame for my mind. Seeing what I see around me actually tunes up my brain in a particular way. It is just nice to understand that our problems are not a sign of weakness or laziness, or lack of willpower. And I am pretty sure it is not just me. Signals I get from others are similar. People struggle with something undefinable and invisible and feel guilty that they cannot put their fingers on it. On the surface of it, the transition should be easy. And yet, weirdly, it is not. People try to hate Zoom, but it is just a lightning rod. Something larger is going on. The thousand details that went missing from our worlds together sucked the oxygen out of us. If you believe the Andersen and Chen, other people make the most powerful cues. We need them – not necessarily to communicate, but just to be there, in the same building, on the same campus. We can still call or zoom any time, but somehow it is not the same.

We may have underestimated the difficulty of the transition to the distant work. In the wake of the crisis, with all the adrenalin going, we all did really well. When the routine settles, one can usually expect that things get easier. But in this particular case, the routine brings new challenges. As we are planning for four more months of this new normal, I worry just a little. Of course, humans are creatures of adaptation, not just of habit. We always adapt, find ways around the obstacles, rewire our brains, and find different kinds of cues to call up our professional selves. I just want to convert my general optimism into a more specific help we can provide to each other. Maybe the first step is not to ignore or trivialize the problem. It is indeed difficult to work remotely in the industry like ours. And it is even more difficult to do it for extended periods of time. I usually at least pretend to have a solution, but in this particular case I have none. Tell me if my worry is misplaced. And if it is not, we need to figure out what to do.



Jun 22, 2020

Regulatory Paroxysms or How to Control the Uncontrollable

Universities have largely been successful in transitioning to the online environment, much more than almost any other industry. Victims of their own success, university leaders have been asked to stay online in the fall to reduce the overall rate of infections. The other industries had to bу allowed to reopen sooner, because they suffered relatively more. K-12 schools got the worst possible deal, where they were allowed to half-reopen. That is what I was afraid was going to happen to us. It did not, but it happened to schools, and let us all empathize. From the logistical point of view, it is the most complex and daunting task. Our K-12 partners deal with three sets of contradicting guidelines AND with enormous pressure from parents. As a colleague put it today, “Where will that kindergartner go twice a week, if both parents work?” This half-reopening for K-12 creates significant problems for teacher training programs, but does not affect the rest of the university.

OK, we got it relatively easy, with mostly online instruction. All we need to do is figure out how to deliver online instruction a little better, and create a health and safety plan for the campus while letting a small percentage of classes to be f2f. The latter part turned out to be more difficult than we all expected, and to be completely honest, is not working out that well. The paradox of the situation is that the campus requires some staff, students and faculty to be on campus, and at the same time forbids others to be here. How do you require and forbid something at the same time? Normally, a thing is either a good people want, or an obligation people don’t want, but must do. It is rare that the same thing could be a good and an obligation.

The only thing burecracies know how to do is regulate. We have developed an application process, that treats f2f presence as a scarce quasi-good, as something you can get only if you ask nicely. But if you create a barrier, a scarcity, you encourage people who really need to be here to do their job better to NOT apply, and stay home, while damaging the quality of their work. At the same time, people who need to get out of the house must now prove they are deserving this great privilege of coming to campus. For example, program faculty as a group have decided that a certain class will really be damaged if taught online, because it trains students to read body language and non-verbal cues. However, one of the faculty members has personal health concerns and still wants to teach it online. That’s creates a weird tension – we just begged for a permission to teach f2f, and argued it was impossible to teach online, but now we still want to offer one section f2f. Awkward! The bottom line is – people need different things, and making the application process equitable and fair is very hard. You may be concerned about getting infected. But I may have a home full of kids, and may go crazy if I have to teach another class from home. For me the quiet of the office is an equally compelling health need.

In general, do not regulate anything you don’t have to regulate. We saw over the course of the quarantine, that voluntary compliance along with strong messaging gives results comparable to strictly enforced rules. If there is enough trust and understanding of the dangers, people tend to make mostly reasonable choices. I think it will work with us as well. Give faculty and staff general guidelines, establish a set of norms, but trust people to figure out what is it they need to do and how to do it without endangering others. We have the most educated and reasonable workforce in the country. If anyone can do it, they can do it.

Th issue with over-regulation is that it is (a) very expensive, and (b) has a lot of side effects. It is expensive because of the transaction cost for all the applications, reviews at multiple levels, the cost of time for highly paid managers, etc. The side effects may include, paradoxically LOWER levels of compliance in comparison to voluntary regimes. Establishing a rigorous procedure remove the internal locus of control, and encourages cheating, hoarding, and other undesirable behaviors. Once you signal people that they cannot make good decisions, you undermine the power of conscience. We do not have police cameras to check who is and who is not in their offices. We have to rely on self-policing anyway, and that can only start with trust.

Jun 15, 2020

Racism, the Old Deluder

One can slice racism in several ways, but at a minimum, it has the overt and the covert parts. The former includes explicitly racist policies and practices, as well as openly discriminatory behaviors. That is what Martin Luther King called “social sin.” It is the most outrageous, but also most easily identifiable plane of existence for racism. Because it is so open, eliminating is is actually not difficult once the political will exists to change racist policies and laws. Despite an occasional flair up, most progressive communities in this country have been fairly successful in beating it down.

Th covert racism is much more difficult to pinpoint. It includes laws and policies that may look neutral, but in fact affect minorities disproportionately. For example, in NYC, only 9-10% of those subjected to the “stop and frisk” were White (and let’s not forget, almost 90% of those stopped were innocent). In 2011, NYPD stopped a whopping 686 thousand people; in one year, Carl! But those who invented and implemented the policy had never admitted the policy was racist, and most of them are probably still convinced it was not. If you look at policy’s consequences rather than stated intent, it is no doubt racist. It is very difficult to read the minds of those who design and implement these kids of policies and practices. None of them will admit the intent was racist, but the effects speak for themselves. The wide spread practice of de facto immunity from prosecution bargained by police unions is one of those weird racist-by-effect outcomes. Designed to protect Black and White police officers equally, it disproportionally and intolerably affects the Black communities. Yet if there is a specific policy, it is possible to track down its effects, and change it. He diddle stratum of racism is like that – still very visible if you look the right way.

And now we get to the lowest stratum of racism that operates on the periphery o human awareness. Those include implicit biases and acts of micro-aggression. Sometimes perpetrators are aware of them, sometimes they are not, and very often it is somewhere in between. This stuff is still all over the place, even in progressive places like Sac State, in the most progressive state like California. The only real way to control these is a kind of self-discipline, a habit of checking one’s own words and deeds for bias. Like music or martial arts, it takes daily practice for years, and trained awareness. I know many White people who have mastered it, and even more of those who did not. I am definitely still an apprentice.

The unconscious or semi-conscious covert racism is very difficult to eradicate through the instrument of explicit policies. People quickly learn to comply formally, check all the boxes, and go on with their unaware lives. Moreover, formal compliance breeds complacency and resentment. Solutions must match problems, or else some hasty solutions may unintentionally make problems worse.

The covert racism is difficult to deal with, because its roots go deep, all the way into the fundamental human nature. It is an old, old disease. Those who expect a quick fix do not know much about the human kind. Christians call it the original sin, Freudians call it Id, and evolutionary biologists may call it innate xenophobia. Our civilization already took thousands of years to overcome it. One kind of resolve is to go to battle right away. Another kind is to plan and execute a long siege. Depending on what we are dealing with, we need both.

Jun 1, 2020

Manufacturing racism

28 years ago, I was watching the Rodney King riots in LA, in a living room of a Notre Dame dorm. I was in this country for about 8 months, and had only the vaguest idea about what is going on. Few of us, international students, could comprehend the events. We all tried to apply the various frameworks we learned in our own countries. 28 years later, I see similar pictures on TV. It is a bad kind of déjà vu. The US have made a lot of progress confronting its homophobia and gender bias. However, the country seems to be completely incapable of addressing the police violence against its African-American community. The very lack of progress makes the crises we are witnessing now almost inevitable.

The Black-White race conflict is very difficult to explain to people who do not know the US context. I tried many times, with very mixed results. The closest analogy I could find is this: Imagine a foreign occupation. The occupation can be brutal or gentle, and you can have a better or worse trained army. Yet every occupation will result in abuse and violence towards the occupied population. There were literally no exceptions in history that I know of. Why? – because the occupied population does not accept legitimacy of the occupation, which is why the occupying army will always operate in a hostile environment. The soldiers’ attitudes will inevitably harden. A soldier must have a way to dehumanize the occupied in order to justify his presence there, and explain away the hostility. Of course, some do and others do not, but the pressure is in the wrong direction. Any number of biases including racism will be reinforced among the occupation soldiers. Yes, we must hold individual soldiers accountable for any atrocities. Yet deep down you know, that if you put regular flawed human beings in a chronically stressful situation among hostile locals, many of your soldiers will become callous and some will become abusive. The ultimate responsibility lies with those who commanded the army to occupy.

The attitude of African-American urban communities is not exactly like that, but somewhat similar. They do not fully acknowledge the legitimacy of the predominantly White police forces for a number of historical and practical reasons. They rightly suspect that there is a larger effort to suppress their community through invasive policing that other neighborhoods do not experience. The stop-and-frisk practices evoke the images of foreign occupation. I am not sure if it is effective, but it is certainly humiliating. A White man, I have never been stopped and frisked, never been pulled over for little or no reason. I have a luxury to presume the police will be generally on my side if anything happens. None of these assumptions are shared by African-Americans. The mistrust is definitely justifiable. By the way, there are a number of other communities, including some White ones that deny police its legitimacy (watch, for example the Murder Mountain series). And of course, the longer the “occupation” lasts, the more it is reinforced. Hence, we are caught in a vicious circle: the population’s distrust will push police to be more racist, and the racist police will make their acceptance more difficult. Under the situation of a structural conflict, appeals like “support the police” and “don’t be racist” are only of limited utility.

Many progressive police departments understand the dilemma, and apply major efforts to build strong connections between the police force and African-American communities. The Flint police chief recently has shown what can be done. The smart chiefs figure, if you reduce distrust, you remove the major cause of racism among your officers. It does work to some degree. However, I will betray my structuralist bias: look deeper. Perceptions are not all local; they also shaped by the national agenda. Those people in Minneapolis wear uniforms similar to those your local cops do, so the trust is fragile and never universal. Similarly, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan tried to build stronger ties to local communities, but in the end, the local people wanted them out. Ultimately, unless the major gaps in wealth, housing, health and educational opportunities are closed, the gentle police will be perceived as a gentle occupation force. It is better than the brutal police, but it is still a force that protects a perceived unjust world order.

This is why we are stuck. This is why we are watching the rerun of 1992 LA, which was a rerun of 1980 Miami, which was in turn a rerun of 1968. The society at large does not want to make difficult political decisions that includes significant equalization of income and opportunities. We failed to deal with the economy that no longer creates good jobs in sufficient quantities. We the public have sent our police to defend the indefensible, and then are eager to blame everything on individual racist cops. Every politician has condemned the bad apples; because it is so easy to do. But the individual racism, as inexcusable as it is, is only a symptom. Urban police departments do not recruit racists. Let us acknowledge, at least some of them become more racist in the course of their work. And we the voters and our political representatives are responsible for that. Either we invest in the disadvantaged communities, or keep cleaning up the broken glass every few years.

May 26, 2020

Wisdom of the crowd, and the expert bias

Scientists working on several vaccines against the virus do not really need wisdom of the crowd. The public at large knows nothing about viruses and vaccines, and should really listen to those who do. Yet when someone develops a policy, for example on how to re-open universities after the pandemic, it is a different kind of knowledge. It should rely wisdom of crowd. Those two situations require different kind of expertise and of leadership.

Imagine a group of very bright people sitting around a virtual table, and trying to lay out the rules. They quickly agree that there should not be more than 10-20% of students physically present on campus. That’s the objective. But because they are so bright, and so experienced, they are tempted to actually provide more advice on how to get to that objective. They brainstorm a very reasonable procedure for both the virtual courses and the on-campus courses. However, it is a smaller group, so no one remembers there are courses that are neither virtual, nor on campus, such as field experiences. Being the brightest does not guarantee you know every little detail of every unit you oversee. In fact, it guarantees the opposite.

Those who have to implement, realize that half of the policy requirements do not apply to these weird courses. Do we report them as on-campus or virtual? They are neither. Do we work on safety procedures? Well, the host sites will have their own, and we cannot impose ours on them. This makes it awkward for all. What do we do? Go back to the authors, and ask to rewrite? This does not sound appealing; who wants to delay the process even further and get an even longer memo? It is already 12 pages.

The funny thing, there is a certain expected length to a memo. One cannot just write: “Reduce physical presence on campus to 10-20% of your normal capacity, have good reasons for exceptions, while following the guidelines of your local county health officials.” No one writes short memos, guidelines, and executive orders like that; it would be ridiculous. People at the top really want to help, to provide some advice. After all, they have so much to give. So, they wrote a longer memo. The paradox is that the longer is your memo, the more you forget to include. Every detail included increases the likelihood that there may be a special case you are not considering.

I am guilty of the expert bias as much as anyone else, even though I run a small organization. We cannot make all the decisions with 250 people. Thus, we work through most problems in a group of 9. Yet we still do not know everything, and someone else in the organization knows something none of us do. Oops. The choice is either to delegate more, or keep revising your solutions. Each of the two options has costs. What’s the solution? Remember wisdom of crowds, and learn to write ridiculously short memos. Make a distinction between goal-oriented regulations and simple advice.

May 17, 2020

Is there an administrative bloat in higher ed? A history of one glitch

In theory, the glitch could have been preventable, but the probability of something like that happening is very high, because it is a one-time occurrence. We have a special credentials data module that was built to assist with teaching credentials compliance. Our main teacher prep programs were revised, and therefore student had to be coded in a new way in the campus system. As a result, the module could not “see” them anymore. I just pulled up about 35 emails in three different threads that I was involved in, and I am pretty sure there were a few before I got involved. Probably about a dozen people from three different units within the university were involved, including two deans and a senior IRT administrator.

Again, in theory, the staff person who discovered the problem should have filed a ticket with our IRT (that’s what we call IT here), and a technician would have resolved it. But that is a theory. In real life, the staff member did not have any idea about the origin of the problem, and neither would an IRT technician on the other end. So she went to the chair, who went to Graduate Studies admissions team who actually do the student coding. They relatively quickly figured out the problem, and told us to go to IRT. Because it was very time sensitive, the Chair asked me to figure out how to speed it up. I had to reach to another person to find out which structure within the IRT is responsible for the module. People like me in the middle management know the organizational structures, but we are often mistaken about the nature of the problems we are trying to solve. It turns out, I slightly misreported the problem, so it took a few emails to fix the miscommunication.

I don’t want to retell the entire saga here; it is like War and Peace, volumes 1 and 2. The thing is, flat solutions (staff-to-staff) very often do not work. The university operations are just too complex, and figuring out the organization itself is a job that administrators routinely do. The glitch could not be resolved without the full-time chair, the dean, an associate dean, an internal IT staff, staff at Grad Studies, and people at IRT. Each of us had a particular piece of the puzzle, and we had to communicate – slowly and less than efficiently, but still communicate – to find a solution. All of them except me are experienced and dedicated administrators and staff members.

Someone told me that in order to reduce the cost, universities must cut the administrative bloat. While it sounds good on its surface, I just fail to see who would figure out this and hundred other glitches we experience every year. A faculty committee? Faculty are overwhelmed with the finals’ week, and admissions. It would be unfair and inefficient to add this to their workload.

Universities are not getting simpler. The burden of various regulations and compliance has been growing. Teacher credentials is only a small part of it. Add accreditation, assessment, Title IX, various audits, financial aid regulations, etc., etc., etc. Someone has to do all this stuff. While administrative bloat is real and well documented, I am not sure if it is preventable and reversible.

Of course, you will think it is just another higher ed bureaucrat trying to justify his well-paid job. OK, fair point. Yet if we didn’t resolve the glitch, it would have a domino effect on student admissions, their Fall field placements, and maybe their financial situation. The domino effect would actually take significantly more staff and administrator hours to deal with.

Some savings perhaps are possible, if we narrow down our mission, and outsource some of the support function. Perhaps universities can stop doing some of the things they are doing. But I don’t want anyone to believe there are some major reserves in the administrative side of the house. And all cuts on the teaching side have already been made. The people of this and other states should just decide if they want accessible and affordable higher education for all children to provide social lift, or it is an unattainable dream.

May 10, 2020

How do you know your online or hybrid course is good-enough?

It looks like at least some of us will be teaching online or hybrid in the Fall. This semester was in the salvaging mode; not utterly failing was a victory. In the Fall, students will expect a little more from us, because we will have had more time to prepare. This is an attempt to offer a description of a minimal threshold for Fall 2020. What is a good-enough course for the next iteration? The list is highly subjective, so ignore it if you can. However, if you buy into the question, but not the answer, that would be a good thing.

1. If it is not interactive, it should not be synchronous. If you simply lecture, with some Q&A at the end, record your lecture and make Q&A live, or move them to Canvas. There is literally no point in every student listening to your lecture at the same time. ALL students understand it, even if they don’t dare to say it. Consider getting rid of lectures altogether, or only reserve them for critical moments you want to explain. But if it is just your PowerPoint, trust me, it does not need a narration. Don’t waste your time developing long lectures; instead invest it in creating assignments and assessments. However, if your typical lecture is packed with engagement moments, if every few minutes you ask for examples, offer mini-assignments, group discussions, demonstrations, etc. – go for it. There is nothing wrong with highly engaging synchronous class. I always thought it was too time consuming to prepare, but you may be a much better lecturer than me (which is not hard).

2. No busy work. Again, students immediately recognize busy work. It is something that you ask them to do to fill the learning time. Always tell students what is it they will be practicing, and give an example or a good description of a successful performance. I know this is hard; perhaps the hardest part of course design, especially for an online course. As you shrink class time, it feels like you have to keep them busy for about the same amount of time doing something. Unfortunately, SOMETHING does not cut it. Explain in simple terms the purpose of each assignment: “I just want to know if you all understood the X concept and can apply it correctly.” “You will be practicing the very important skill of Y.” “I need to make sure you can recall the basic facts of this unit.” Prioritize quality over quantity. Yes, we use the Carnegie unit to measure seat time; it is simply an administrative convenience. However, steady progress toward a specific skill and knowledge is really the point of teaching. There is no direct relationship between length of work and learning. Only intentional, well-designed work contributes to learning.

3. Provide feedback without working yourself to death. Because online and hybrid instruction involves more independent work, some instructors feel they have to grade it all, or least provide feedback to every sentence a student writes. This can quickly become an unsustainable burden. Students rarely understand this concern, unfortunately, and may expect the same. Do not over-promise feedback, do not overwork yourself. Instead of individual feedback on everything, use three life-saving shortcuts: self-assessment, peer-assessment, and spot-check feedback. The first two are self-explanatory; just make sure to give them some clear criteria, otherwise it will all be “I like your point,” and “Good job.” The spot-check feedback works like this: browse through student discussion, short texts, and identify a few common errors and strengths. Give students a whole group feedback, without naming names, but make it clear you are there, and read some of the stuff, but not every single word. That would eliminate the need for tedious, repetitive feedback that has fairly low effectiveness, but can devour your time.

4. Make relations work. You know the “I am not a robot” checkbox? Well, you have to prove to students you are not a robot. While they know that at the rational level, you have to somehow convince them on the emotional level that you are a real human being that cares about them. There are many ways of doing it, from welcome videos, to weekly messages to each class. Here is one of the best quotes about the role of relationships in learning motivation: "Students in a closed-circuit-TV class on campus felt no need to pay attention out of courtesy to the instructor." People are often oblivious to the critical importance of the "courtesy to the instructor" mechanism. It does not just automatically appear in online environment, and has to be created. It often does in the f2f world with its social norms evolving over thousands of years of personal interactions. Practice the intentional pedagogy of relations, and learning will follow.

I just re-read my short checklist, and of course, most of it applies to the f2f teaching just as much. Well, good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the medium. In education, medium is not the message. If you reasonably can check off all four benchmarks, you’re good to go.

May 2, 2020

Adjacent markets: How universities can get out of the financial death spiral

Michael Poliakoff of Forbes wants universities to cut “the fluff” like excessive gened offerings, “to stare down intransigent faculty and the empire builders in student services,” and to “cut massive athletic subsidies, halt the facilities arms race, close centers that are not directly related to the teaching and research mission of the academy, and take a chainsaw to bureaucratic bloat.” He may be right in the short run, although his own job as a VP for University of Colorado system was eliminated, and he does not have a track record of doing any of these things. However, Poliakoff and other corporate would-be reformers of higher ed do not seem to be aware of such a fundamental fact of the higher education economy as the Baumol effect. Baumol predicted the ever-rising costs in 1960s, and to my knowledge, no one since has seriously disputed his account. Universities cannot get significantly more efficient without diluting the value of what they actually sell: quality experience and human relationships. Kids flock to campuses not for information (there is plenty of it for free), but to experience college, to get to know peers and professors, to fall in love, to get interested in something, to build their life stories. The generic advice to become more efficient applies to higher ed only to a degree. In the longer run, universities have to diversify and increase their revenue streams. The way out of the crisis is not in shrinking, but in expanding, so that there is enough additional revenue to subsidize the core mission.

To compete with each other, colleges may work on providing more distinct experiences to students, alumni and parents. That depends on understanding of uniqueness of each campus. However, to survive as an industry, it needs to expand, which means either providing existing services to more people, or providing other services.

Among other things, universities are not very good at expanding into adjacent markets. The classic example of such an expansion is Netflix that moved from DVD rentals to streaming, and then to original content production. Universities do sell some merchandize, offer some entertainment through athletics (while only few actually make any money on it), rent event space, and do some consulting. They feed and house their own students at a modest profit, but rarely anyone else. In other words, they do very little.

One obvious adjacent industry to expand to is tourism. A college town vacation is already a thing, only universities capture very little of income from them. Why not sell packages with on-campus dining, student performance and visual art productions, engineering school demos а cool gadgets. If a campus happens to be located in a history or natural beauty-rich towns, these are also assets that could be added to the value of the package. Many people, including alums just want to visit campus, remember their college years, and are willing to pay. Parents may enjoy visiting their kid’s campus without being annoying, on their own vacation trip. Check on the kid, enjoy a lecture, go to restaurant, buy some swag.

The other adjacent industry to penetrate is video. There have been attempts to turn a real class into a reality TV show. The College Hill TV Series has been a hit on BET network. Those are perhaps more resource-intensive value products. However, think about it this way – every day in every class, some more or less interesting but always original original content is produced —and immediately forgotten. Lectures, questions and answers, exercises, demonstrations, games, exercises, etc. – all of it has both educational and entertainment value. It may not be very high value to the outsiders, but it is produced anyway and so cheap to capture. Only recently has it become feasible to capture classes without major expense, and distribute efficiently throughout the world. Iа you teach a class of 30, there may be another 30 students anywhere in the world who learn vicariously, either synchronously, or with a short delay (see on split classroom model). Of course, it takes a little more effort and content providers should be compensated and their privacy protected. However, the cloud cohorts can generate additional tuition dollars without major investments. Others can watch it for no credit, as entertainment. You would be surprised what people watch on YouTube. If your potential audience is 2 billion, there is a hundred people for almost anything.

Universities are trusted brands, but they stop selling anything to their alums right after graduation. One notable exception is college-branded credit cards (and I don’t believe they have been a hit). Universities are pretty good at soliciting donations, but are terrible at their student and alumni connections to offer products and services: mortgages, insurance, further education, professional development, networking, consulting services, etc. While academic records are off limits because of the FERPA, colleges enter into many other kinds of relationships with their students and alums, and have a lot of data.

There may be other adjacent industries to invade, and many have been happening, just not very vigorously: K-12 education, staffing, corporate training, hospitality, leisure, IT, media. Of course, it is very tempting to focus on our core mission, teach and do research, serve the public good, and hope that revenues will come. Well, if you have been in this game for a while, you must be tired of waiting. It is not happening. We must maintain our critical public mission, but also learn to subsidize it, because the public won’t. If you are a great film director, your money actually come mostly from overpriced popcorn and soda sales. (Well, not anymore, it is the streaming services, but you get the point, right?) Does popcorn cheapen the quality of your art? I don’t think so; it makes your art possible to practice.

Apr 23, 2020

The convertible course or How to prepare for the unknown

Like many universities, we cannot make a call yet about the modality of the Fall semester. New science findings come up every day, and most reasonable state governments have determined neither the exact day of reopening, nor the restrictions imposed on the reopening. It is tempting to just declare the fully online Fall, but we have no idea how it will affect the student experiences, and how many of them will just sit it out. However, the semester is going to end soon, and faculty want some certainty. It is not like they spend the entire summer preparing, but our minds crave settling on a version of predictable future. No one needs more anxiety.

The best strategy, in my view, is to start thinking of a convertible course that can be easily converted to the f2f mode, a hybrid mode (which may come in several variations, from split classroom to a double hybrid, or yet another option), or the fully online mode. Moreover, we should be prepared to switch from one mode to another mid-semester if needed. This may seem like an overwhelming task. Some have asked already if they have to prepare three different syllabi. However, like many new problems, if you really break it down into elements, it is not that hard.

As I have written before, think of a course as a combination of three basic elements:
  1. Content that includes your live or recorded lectures, or video/lectures created by other people, course readings, demonstrations, and other organized curricular materials.
  2. Activities or exercises where students apply learned concepts and practice skills.
  3. Assessments.
Content and assessments actually do not change that much from one modality to another. You can make content delivery more or less interactive, interrupting delivery with questions, short exercises, blitz-discussions, etc. But it is actually more important to make it active: give students a task to do while they listen, watch, or read. It is a good idea for f2f, hybrid, and online courses. For assessments, it is best to create some performance-based assessments such as projects, essays, products, etc. No proctored exams with multiple choice tests, please. They do not work well in any modality, while creating an illusion of objectivity. See more on online assessments.

The middle part of the set is a little more difficult. Start with making a list of practicing activities that you already have for f2f class. For example, in my undergraduate classes, I had 10 or 11 projects for most weeks of the semester: there were role games, experiments, discussions, debates, interpretations of data, individual exercises with group reflections, skits, and group presentations. 6 or 7 of them could be easily replicated on Canvas, in an online mode. The other 3-4 I had to redo from scratch, and design some sort of alternatives that would work online. How? - begin from the end: what do you want students to practice? What skills and understandings? And then go down from that, considering the limitations imposed by the online communication technologies. But it is a manageable task, and actually a creative exercise.

Here is the benefit: while you are thinking how to replace a project, you are forced to confront your own assumptions about what it actually does, and how do you know it does what you think it does. It is a humbling and eye-opening experience. For years, I failed to explain to my students what counts as a good written argument. Only after I failed one more time in an online class it became obvious to me. While some students definitely got it, I never explicitly explained what I want, because I did not know it myself. I could recognize it, and I could produce it, but I could not explain it.

F2F teaching is vulnerable to the narcissistic trap, a common problem for beginning teachers. You did and sounded good in class, and felt it was a good class. You performed well, like an actor after a successful show. But did they learn anything? - it is a very different question. A good instructor makes herself/himself invisible, while student learning comes up front. Just watch Debora Ball’s videos of her lessons – you don’t notice her the most of the class. All the drama, all the action is with students, and their struggle to figure something out.

Forcing your ego through the shredder of online teaching makes us better f2f teachers. Even if by some magic we pop up in the pre-COVID world before Fall, the exercise of thinking through convertible courses is not going to waste. And this is what we will do our best to help faculty to do.

Apr 19, 2020

The double hybrid

The great reopening has overnight become a political issue. It is sad in general, but for higher ed also adds more uncertainty. Like agriculture, our business is seasonal and needs advanced planning. If Fall goes online, it will not only present a huge logistical problem, but also may deal a serious blow to enrollments. Who wants to start one’s college career completely online? Why not take a year off, and then go to college like normal freshmen? The traditional young undergrads come to campus for experience as much as for a degree.

It looks like I am the only one who worries about the possibility of partial reopening. It would make me happy to be wrong on this. However, I believe a partial reopening would be much better than staying online for another semester. I wrote about the split classroom model last week. Here is another option; let’s call it the double hybrid model.

Let’s assume you teach a class of 30 students, in a room that has a capacity of 30 or so. To provide social distance, you cannot have more than 15 in your room. The simplest way to do it is to have them take turns. One half comes in on Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays. You teach the f2f portion of the hybrid class twice. However, they stay on the same schedule in the online portion of the class. The option does not need any fancy technology; just your regular good old Canvas shell.

The double hybrid is much simpler than the split classroom with respect to technology. However, it may be a little more labor-intensive. You would have to keep track of double the number of f2f sections. Those of us who taught multiple sections of the same course know that they never come out exactly the same. Groups have different tempo, different character. As an instructor, you forget where you already explained something, and where you ran out of time. You forget where you told a particular story or a joke, and where you have not. It is just not easy to teach the same thing two or more times.

On the plus side, converting a regular class into a hybrid is a much simpler task than going all the way online. This is why we normally advise instructors to try a hybrid first, to get the feel for online tools, and then eventually take the second step of a fully online course, if needed. Hybrid courses gain more popularity, because they offer a compromise between convenience and flexibility of online instruction on one side, and the ease of human connection on the other. For campuses with space shortage problems, hybrids offer a unique opportunity to increase classroom availability at little or no cost. Hybrid programs can extend the geographic range of evening programs for working populations. Students who are unwilling to drive to campus twice a week, may be OK to drive once a week.

In other words, experimenting with hybrids is useful regardless of the quarantine. It builds new competencies, and expands the range of options for any campus. When an institution confronts new challenges, the broader range of skills and options is a definite asset.

Apr 14, 2020

Phased reopening and the split classroom model

The two main governors have spoken, and both are talking about phased reopening. In other words, we are not going back to normal normal, we are likely to go back to a new normal. The pat of the new normal will be retaining social distancing, plus a certain number of people will always be on quarantine, because of their contact with infected. For the higher ed, especially for large campuses like ours, this presents a challenge. Our classrooms are normally full, and there is no way to be 6 feet apart without cutting down the numbers of students in EVERY class. Even if this does not happen, a small minority of students will be in isolation and we need to be able to include them into regular f2f classes.

Many of us know that f2f and online worlds are not easily blended. It is easier to teach all in f2f or all in online mode. Try to have half of your class f2f and the other remotely, and you will discover a whole can of worms. However, many pioneers tried to do that for years. There is a model that does not even have an established name in the literature. Let us call it the split classroom model. It is not hybrid or blended, where the same students have both online and f2f experience. No, it is when there is a smaller f2f classroom that generates much of content, and another set of students accessing it remotely. I know people doing it successfully. Our Child Development Cohort programs has run like for many years and is now in 9 remote locations, but they hire separate off-site seminar leaders. Mark Rodriguez tried that for the Ed Technology Masters Program. Anatoly Kasprzhak experimented with a similar format years ago in Moscow, where he had optional f2f sessions for his hybrid program. I am sure there are hundreds of other examples out there. To my knowledge, no one had described the split classroom model yet. If you know of a good research on it, please let me know.

The advantage of the model is that as an instructor, you do not need to generate additional interactive content. Your f2f small group generates it: the interaction, the live lectures, the small group discussion, and all the countless ways in which a good f2f classroom helps digest knowledge. However, there are also serious technical challenges for which we should start preparing now. The problem is, you need to capture all that rich content and beam it to your online group. You also need to allow the online students to interact back, for learning cannot be all vicarious. There are some adjustments to pedagogy, but they are not overwhelming. Zoom can handle the communication between the f2f and online portion of the class.

The technical challenges are these. If you don’t sit in front of a computer, but move around, you need a wearable microphone or a much better stationary one. Your laptop or tablet mics are useless. You also need a tracking camera or multiple cameras capturing the entire room. We have only a handful of teaching studio rooms in the AIRC, and perhaps in some other buildings. They don’t come cheap, and will run tens of thousands of dollars.

The next best thing is a Zoom-ready room with a wide-angle camera and a good microphone. We probably have another dozen or so throughout the campus, including three in Eureka that Binod set up in the last year. Most of them actually are conference rooms, not classrooms. Binod found several solutions on the market: there are wall-mounted or stationary consoles that are able to pick up audio, and have digitally tracking and/or wide-angle cameras. These will stay within a few hundred dollars. However, with hundreds of classrooms on campus, and uncertain budget, I don’t know if we can invest much.

However, to hedge our bets, we should probably identify a portable solution that can be carted from classroom to classroom, test it, and be ready to scale up for a possible split classroom expansion. If we don’t need to expand, great. It is not a bad capacity to have anyway. The split classrooms may be useful for all kinds of accommodations for sick or quarantined students. The split classroom may even mainstream, especially for smaller programs struggling with enrollment. Why not have a few online students in addition to the normal f2f class? In the future, the split classroom model may also go international for a cheaper alternative to going abroad. We just don’t have years to work on it.

Apr 11, 2020

Teaching online: Week four tips

If this is your first time, by now you did the heavy lift. Congratulations. Next week, all the frustrating limitations and inefficiencies of online teaching will become painfully obvious. You may be doing either too much zoom time, and it is difficult to engage students. Or you assign them too much independent work, which makes it difficult to engage. Or else, you spent all your waking time providing individual feedback to students, which maintains their level of engagement, but is killing you. Welcome to the joggling world of the online teaching circus!

If you are still zooming the entire time, feel entitled to reduce the zoom time. Use it for weekly check-in, emotional support for students, and Q&A time. Use the break-out rooms in Zoom to add variety. Ask small groups to do a specific assignment, let them select their reporter who will present the highlights of the discussion back in the common room.

If you must lecture, pre-record several 5-8 minute segments rather than an hour-long lecture. It is much easier for students to watch, for they can skip, take breaks, and re-watch. It is actually easier for you to produce in chunks. But also, try searching YouTube or open lecture databases of other universities – there is a chance someone has done the same lecture better than you, or at least acceptable. It is all fair game: your job is not necessarily to produce content. It is to curate content, to select it, and include it in your class’ structure. You know how a school teacher will never let kids loose in a museum without a worksheet? It is the same with any kind of content: give students something to do beyond “take notes.” For example, “Draw a mind map of today’s lecture,” or “Build a list of key concepts.”

You manage a face-to-face discussion with your tone of voice, facial expression, and comments on comments. These allow students to learn what kind of thinking is good and appropriate in your discipline, and what kind is not. None of this subconscious communication machinery works in a Canvas discussion thread. You worry about student comments being shallow, and factually wrong. Adapt by building a very structured discussion. For example:
  • Write an example where the concept A is applicable. Google and link the best illustration of the concept B.
  • Comment on at least two of your classmate’s entries, using one of the two patterns: (1) I agree, and can further develop your point, or (2) I disagree, because.
  • Find an error in this statement, explain why do you think it is an error (You would have to prove the statement)
  • Self-assess your skill doing… What do you need to do to grow?
  • Define С in your own words, differently than your textbook does it.
  • Develop a test to assess your classmates’ knowledge of today’s reading (thanks, Aaminah).
In threaded discussion, do NOT read and give feedback to every single entry; that would make you miserable. And you will find yourself repeating the same point over and over again. The frustrating limitation of online environment is that students do not automatically “hear” what you said. Rather, glance through quickly, spot most common errors and good examples. Point out to the rest of the class, whose response was especially brilliant, encourage them to re-read those. Comment on common errors without naming those who made them, of course. Make it clear students have t read ALL of your comments. Your voice has to be on loudspeaker.

While high stakes standardized tests are almost always problematic, short low-stake quizzes are fun, and can be highly engaging. Both Zoom and Canvas have polls/quizzes. There is a number of external quiz-making platforms, but stick to Canvas if you can, because it will automatically add them to your gradebook. Putting the quizzes together will save you time on grading, and will make your course more interesting. Besides multiple choice, consider fill-in the blank; those are not automatically graded, but still very easy to grade, and help spot misconceptions.

If you use final essays in your assessment, make them shorter; it will save you time on grading. Also consider progressive assignments: an idea one week, an outline the second week, a draft third week, and the paper at the end. This kind of process discourages plagiarism, and lets you do the last grading more cursory. Most students won’t read your feedback on the final paper, sorry. Recycle your comments. If you wrote an especially good feedback, same it in the comment file. There is a very good chance another student will need exactly the same comment.

In general, online teaching is about relentlessly prioritizing, simplifying, defining what is the bottom line, what essential skill or set of facts you need students to learn. And it is about making explicit what you used to convey implicitly. It is a lot about reflecting on your own assumptions and expectations.

Apr 6, 2020

The COVID denial land and failures of imagination

In retrospect, American reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic looks excruciatingly slow. WHO declared the public health emergency on January 30, Wuhan was on quarantine for a week, and a first US case was already ten days old. No one has really done anything, other than some travel restrictions. Everyone saw the huge hospital build in China in a few days, but no country rushed to build their own. It is easy to blame Trump’s administration, and the blame is probably well deserved. Many other world leaders were in denial, including the Chinese. But let us not ignore the collective failure of imagination. We all have visited the denial land. Some were there only briefly, some longer, and some are still there. But we all were there at some point.

There is a very completing argument that the denial is partially explained by the West’s cultural superiority. Indeed, the Italian lock-down on March 8 had actually prompted some action in the US, but it was too late for New York. However, let us look at ourselves. I went into our weekly updates. The first time I carefully suggested we may go online was not until March 9. Yet by that time, millions of school children and university students in Asia and Southern Europe were already out of school. We could have had 2-3 weeks of planned preparation rather than rush and transition in one week. It did not take a gigantic mental effort to imagine we will close campus soon.

Both the human mind and human cultures have elaborated mechanisms of denial. No one wants to panic, and then look silly if it turns out to be a false alarm. The society places heavy sanctions on the one who panics too soon. I guess it makes sense; you don’t want to go to overdrive every time a small chance of a disaster appears on the horizon. There is, of course, the Monday morning quarterback phenomenon: in retrospect, things look a lot more certain that at the time, because we know what happened. Yet fear of shame is what prevents us from letting our imagination work.

We have a hard time dealing with an invisible threat. It is just hard to generate the right amount of adrenalin without some visual representation of the danger. The graphs CDC and others put together do not do the trick. More paranoid people who have hard time trusting anyone, go immediately into one or another conspiracy theory, imagining a man-made panic. I have seen a lot of them, in both English and Russian social media. Russians, are unfortunately, are much worse. Their minds have been massively infected by paranoia after years of distrust and state-sponsored fake news. However, the general trend is this: I can see people talking about the danger, but not the danger itself. The fear misplaces its object: instead of fearing the danger, one begins fearing people talking about the danger. It is basic projection, both primitive and powerful. Shooting the messenger is the universal human sin.

Imagination originates with memory; it is the ability to remember extended on things that have not happen yet. This is why it works so well when the future is familiar. It does not work very well when the future is unprecedented. Because no one has been in the lock-down situation before, we failed to accept its reality. We perceived as a safe fantasy of science fiction, and just could not imagine it as a reality.

If there is any lesson in all this, it is that we have to be aware of the limits of our own collective and personal imagination. Humans are not that smart after all.

Mar 30, 2020

Walking the dog in the dark

Pandora, Jem Radio, not NPR tonight: I had enough of talk, enough already. And Stitcher doesn't stitch. И врут календари. Let’s change the soundtrack of self-isolation. The tunes and throaty female voices shatter hard plates of thought into colored shapeless glass pieces, like in kaleidoscope’s guts, without its mirrors. No pattern to think of, none, just these random pieces. What a relief it is, not to be thinking.

Trees and bushes mark their territories with small fragrances; only one or two occasional show-offs give off heavy gorgeous perfume of their bloom. Mostly, these are fine smells of bark, mulch, grass, and leaves, subtly shifting every few steps. The dog is interested in something else, perhaps earth worms or moles. He seems to be is lost in his fantasy, chasing imaginary critters through the night. He attends to soundscape of his own, manages to get excited about what I hear as total silence. Dog walkers cross the street to avoid each other. No one says anything; what is there to say? Even a nod would not be visible.

The chill of night on my cheeks, why do I need you so much? Who knew, a child of the harsh land would crave the cold air on his face. It reminds him of something unnameable, like being alive and alert, and alone, cheek to cheek with unsympathetic darkness. I walk the dog, and life dog walks me yet again.

Mar 22, 2020

The probabilistic ethics of solidarity

My colleagues demonstrated an incredible outpour of solidarity during the last week. I do not know most of things, but do know for sure that several tech-savvy faculty went to their colleagues in need, helped set up Canvas shells, Zoom sessions, and everything else. Our staff figured out a myriad of small and large work processes, so both students and faculty get uninterrupted help. Out of 6000+ students that take our classes not one panicked of complained. And on top of that, we were working on a new initiative I cannot quite disclose publicly yet. The giant organized shift into the new reality was remarkable to watch. It was like a large Roman legion silently took down its thousands of tents, kitchens, armories, marched into a completely unknown territory, and rebuilt it again in a matter of hours. You cannot manage this process; it is guided by people’s own competence and driven by the sense of solidarity. You can only help it a little if you can, but mainly stay out of the way. Ethics is the strongest force of a human society.

The probabilistic ethics of social distancing is a whole different beast. It is counter-intuitive and takes an effort to practice. For example, one’s instinct is to take personal risk and to come to work. However, it does not turn out to be the best thing to do. You want to support people during the difficult times, which has always meant socializing, hugging, talking. None of these normal behaviors are available. And the reason we are doing it is quite bizarre: it is not to prevent the disease; that fight has been lost already. No, the goal is to slow down the disease so we have enough healthcare resources to cope with the pick of the epidemic. The countries plunged themselves into a deepest economic recession because of the possible shortage of lung ventilators.

Many observers pointed out that our societies have not been that compassionate before. For example, almost 200,000 people die prematurely each year in the US from air pollution. 37,000 people die in car crashes per year. In comparison, 5476 people died of the coronavirus in Italy so far. No one was suggesting we through massive resources to fight air pollution. No one suggested we stop driving to save all those lives. Of course, ethics is not about logic; ethical thinking looks like a calculation only to some analytic philosophers, and to no one else. Ethics is about imagination, about pictures we see and remember. Military trucks in Italy carrying dozens of coffins is a powerful image, and the power comes through novelty as much as anything else.

Yet there is some hope that people will learn to apply the ethics of probabilistic solidarity. The very economy we have created does have massive unintended consequences. The question that we are forced to face is simple: is it worth it? Is our consumption, our entertainment worth the deaths they literally cause? We have learned to see that you do not need to be directly putting someone in danger by your action or inaction. No, we just realized that shaking hands may spread the disease, and kill someone many handshakes away from us. OK, apply the same logic: my buying many cheap clothes will kill someone because of the environmental damage the textile industry causes.

Is it ethical to grow the economy? Why should it grow, and perhaps it can shrink and stay shrunk?

Mar 18, 2020

Final exams in an online course

Many instructors use performance-based summative assessments: essays, papers, projects, etc. For them transitioning their assessments online is not an issue. For those who are used to more traditional proctored exams, the new situation presents a dilemma. Proctoring online is technically possible, but none of the services will cope with the high demand. There are ways of locking the browser, but they are glitchy and won’t prevent from browsing on a phone, while taking exam on a computer. Here is an incomplete list of options for you, the exam-lover:

1. Think of a performance-based assessment. Whatever the essential skill you want your students to learn, think of an artifact they can produce that would demonstrate it. Final papers are very difficult to fake and plagiarize, and cheaters are easy to catch. I am aware that some courses have substantial portion of declarative knowledge to be learned and assessed. After all, if you have to learn educational law, or history, you need to memorize something. There is a minimal basic set of facts that creates a cognitive map of a discipline. However, there is probably a more profound skill – like the ability to exercise the specifically legal way of thinking that is actually more important than the knowledge of statutes. Apply some effort, and you will find a good performance-based assessment that will assess both the fundamental skill, and the student’s ability to call on important facts. Just give it a good rubric – and voila!

2. High stakes multiple choice tests are great, because they are objective, and easy to grade. However, they are almost always biased and have validity problems: you end up assessing memory, not thinking. Here is a plug for low-stake open books multiple choice (or short answer) quizzes. Make many of them – every week or so, give them low point value, and it will remove all incentives and opportunities to cheat. The number of points for each is just too low to bother. Also, if you time them, say, give 20 minutes for a 5-question quiz – there is enough time to look it up in the book when you read it once; you know where the answer is. But it is not enough time to start reading the book anew. So, you are making sure they read the text, and isn’t it the whole point?

3. Remember oral exams! It is an ancient form of assessment, highly biased. However, if you ask students to solve some problem, or create a project, a 5-minutes online conversation will quickly reveal if they have done it, or a friend helped. I would not assign them too much weight, because prettier, more assertive kids with no accent will inevitably score higher. But as an additional check, it works fine.

4. And finally, consider getting rid of one final assessment altogether. Just ask yourself: do I know enough about my students’ learning to make sure they got the main thing I want them to learn? If the answer is yes, you may not need the final exam at all. Education is not about assigning a fair grade; grades are the means, learning is the end.

Mar 15, 2020

How to run a university during a crisis

It is amazing how things that looked very important just a few days ago, are now deemed non-essential. And things we were taking for granted, are now issues to be solved. Actually, the ability to shed the non-essential is the key to success, not just during a crisis. The trick is now to understand the shifting border between the important and unimportant. The game has definitely changed, and so did the job of running a university. However, different people adapt with different speed. Here are a couple of tips on adapting faster.

You need to delegate a lot more than before. Do not try to find solutions for people; give a broad set of goals and helpful tips, and let those close to the ground to figure out most problems. The mind of the crowd is stronger than anything you can do centrally. The farther away from the ground is the administrator, the more it is true. For example, our huge CSU System has been known to be micromanaging in the normal times. Now they need to understand that the best thing they can do is remove themselves from decision making to the largest extend possible, and work on relaxing requirements they have imposed in the past. To the System's credit, it is doing some of it. 

Some units are so used to be the controlling, rule-enforcing offices that they continue to produce regulations, forms, and requirements to deal with the crisis. They believe more or less sincerely, that they are helpful. It is very hard for them to recast themselves into support units, providing resources, ideas, technical assistance, etc. But that is exactly what is needed. I you ask people to do something extraordinary, don’t follow with “And by the way, here are the requirements I am going to enforce while you’re doing your extraordinary thing.” There are still rules, you just have to follow the changing practice (which you cannot anticipate anyway), and them gently channel it into the existing regulatory environment, if and when it gets off track.

We all must learn to think fast, to find pragmatic, simple solutions, but it is important not to play defense the entire time. Remember the old truism that no crisis should be wasted? It is true; each unusual, crisis-like situation opens up possibilities that were not there before. If we do not build anything and do not learn anything from this particular crisis, we have not done our jobs well. At a minimum, we should revisit all those things that were found out to be not that important, and see, which ones we can stop doing altogether. We have to figure out how to use our newly found massive expertise in online teaching. And I believe we should push all the administrative units in the university to stay closer to the support function, and shift away from command-and-control mentality forever.

Mar 10, 2020

Transitioning your course online

Let’s assume some weird virus hits, and you were asked to transition your courses online really fast, like right now. What do you do? First, on most campuses, a course shell (that is a little private website for you and your students) is automatically created. You just need to find it. At Sac State, we use Canvas, but all the Blackboards and Moodles of the world are not that different from each other.

Once you get in, get rid of most of the stuff there. The LMS (learning management systems) are designed to make an impression of something complex and sophisticated. After all, they all want to sell their products. However, they all are very simple platforms. Remember, just because the stuff is there does not mean you should use it. The opposite is true: on your first try, keep it basic, keep it simple, keep it repetitive. You, the instructor, with your knowledge and experience make or break a course, not the medium through which you teach. Even your very first, simplistic online course can be great. In any case, it beats cancelling classes, and robbing students of a chance to graduate on time.

Ignore modules; they are for the next time. Ignore course calendar; it is not essential. A simple list of deadlines in your syllabus will do the same. Ignore analytics, chats, announcements; ignore EVERYTHING, other than the syllabus, where you can post stuff, and the discussion. Literally go to Settings, and make all the items you do not need or do not understand invisible to students. If you could get down to 2-3 buttons, great. And do not ever feel bad – all those whistles and blows add very little value to your course. If you need a special feature, ask, and LMS gurus will find it for you.

At the very rudimentary level, an online course is three things: (1) content, which is your lectures, or readings, or videos; (2) student work with content, like reflections, answering questions, quizzes, tests, short essays; and (3) assignments/assessments where you make sure they have learned whatever skills and knowledge you want them to have. So, as long as you know how to post content, engage students in working with it, and collect assignments, you’re good to go. When exploring your LMS shells, focus on three things: how to post stuff, how to engage students (most likely, through threaded discussion), and how to collect their work and give feedback.

The course routine should be simple and repetitive. DO NOT overload students with complicated assignments. Pick something simple: every week, read a chapter (watch a video lecture), respond to a prompt on threaded discussion, and turn something in. The routine reduces anxiety, makes students look in familiar places. I would discourage any kind of group work in your first try. It is a lot to manage and not that important. The same for any kind of synchronous chats: OK to hold online office hours, very hard to hold a good chatroom. However, if you can simply broadcast yourself lecturing via Zoom or something like that, it is a great and simple option.

The most difficult for many online rookies is to figure out what students can DO in an online course. Here is a list of tips:
  1. Focused, prompted comment on reading. Don’t just say “Comment.” Say something like “Can you give another example, illustrating X?” Or, “Find an example of X in the news or in journals.”
  2. Ask students to find online resource or story or evidence, describe it, and share a link
  3. Upload their own videos of projects and performances (like teaching). Students critique each other.
  4. Create short PPT of Prezi, digital storytelling.
  5. Practice individually something (like walk-through, observation, etc.), then produce a report on it.
  6. Reflecting on own learning, self-assessment of skills.
It is very important to not overburden yourself with feedback and grading. If you end up reading 45 reflections every week for one class, it is going to kill you. Instead, tell students you will read selectively, and respond in general to all. One of the most common assessment tasks is to see if they understood a concept. Ask to write 2-3 sentences blurbs, where they apply the concept to a new context, not the one you gave them. Reading them takes no time, and you will see immediately how many still struggle.

Online teaching focuses on what is important to learn. It forces instructors to be much more explicit about which specific skills and knowledge that you want students to learn, and how would you know if they did or did not. Focus, keep it simple, but rigorous, and you can do it!

Mar 9, 2020

The virus and communications

Humans are intelligent, restless beings. They have a hard time dealing with uncertainty. Their minds keep working to anticipate and solve a problem. Those who work for a large organization like a university expect a plenty of information from their leadership. People want to make sure someone is working on some plans, AND being intelligent, they want to help.

However, if you are in the leadership, being completely transparent is actually much harder than you think. With the COVID-19, we are dealing with literally a dozen scenarios, each with a different implications. For example, campus closure for up to two weeks is dramatically different than closure for the rest of the semester. Add to that various scenarios of partial closures, the unknown recommendations from various health and government bodies, and the System. Let’s assume you plan for more likely scenarios. Once you made your plan public, your people will think that this is a done deal, and only a matter of time before it is implemented. Detailed plans takes on the power of self-fulfilling prophecies.

In organizations, planning creates reality; it does not just anticipates it. Detailed plans will add panicky reactions to the mix, for people will act as if the plan is going to be fulfilled. For example, a student may stop coming to class, figuring the campus is going to close soon anyway. In reality, no one knows if it will. We cannot even estimate the probability. One can provoke a whole scale panic by over-communicating contingency plans. It is VERY difficult to communicate that a contingency plan is not a plan of actions. Consequences of a panic tend to outweigh the consequences of the epidemic.

Here is another limitation: the contingency plan will be always different than the actual implementation plan, because assumptions will change. So, if you release a contingency plan too early and then, maybe just a couple of days later, publish another, slightly different one, it will confuse the hell out of people. Which one to follow?

Imagine you tell students in class, yes, the campus may close and we may go online. OK, how are we going to do this assignment? That assignments? What will there be the attendance policy? Where do I go if I have slow internet at home? See, your students will take the scenario as a reality. But do you want to spend a lot of time planning for something that may or may not happen? Probably not, you will tell them: will let you know when and if we get there. It is the same with the University and its faculty and staff. There is the Cabinet, they consult daily with the Senate Executive Committee, and others as needed. I am not anxious to know what they will come up with if we get to the point of higher incident epidemic. It may or may not be perfect, but it will be better than whatever I can come up from my more limited vintage point within the organization. Instead of worrying, I should spend more time thinking of possible school and other agency closures, should they continue. That is a potential problem for our College mostly.

Some confidentiality in planning is absolutely necessary, however most people don’t like it. They start suspecting the leadership is not doing its job. So they make their own decisions about their own classes and units, according to the information available to them. Yet as I just described, the planning information cannot always be shared widely. Acceptance of benevolent ignorance is a sign of wisdom. However, broad areas of preparedness, can be and are shared. For example, thinking of transitioning a course online may not be a bad idea, for it may fit many other emergency situations. Most universities have robust infrastructure in place for online teaching, and it is the most reasonable way of addressing longer kinds of closures or similar disruptions. Thinking about the alternative universe of fully online teaching in broad strokes would be a time well spent.

Feb 29, 2020

Speaking to the Deaf

We have several Deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues. To be included in a meeting, they need similar accommodations: state your name, do not talk too fast, ad do not talk over each other, do not have side conversations. It is done to allow interpreters or captioners to make a better sense of the conversation.

To be clear, yes, it does have some cost to the rest of us. For some interruptions and bantering is a culturally acceptable and enjoyable part of any conversation; it is a symbol of informality, an invitation to engage. If you have to wait to crack a joke, the timing may be off and the moment gone. And the very intrusion on the other person’s speech may be a part of the joke. I would argue that it is a very small price to pay for including our colleagues, and we should do it on ethical grounds just a matter of course. We are not there yet, but slowly learning.

However, I noticed that the meetings with interpreters or captioners are actually better in more ways than one would expect. Despite going slower, those meetings actually run faster and accomplish more. Why? - because people tend to formulate their thoughts better before they speak. There is less repetition, and fewer asides and digressions. People think a little more before speaking, and sometimes it is not a bad thing. They speak in more complete sentences, do not go in circles as much, and tend to summarize their points. Instinctively, people strive for more clarity, and it benefits everyone, including the speaker. Participants also understand that they may need to articulate their emotions through words, not through tone of voice. That removes a lot of ambiguity in messaging, because the tone is not a very straightforward communicative tool. The tone can be deceiving, and some people come across as angry while they are simply excited. In some subcultures speaking with more emotion is a signifier of authenticity, while in others it shows you are unstable. The Deaf use more energetic facial expressions for the same purpose, and their way of doing it is a lot less ambiguous. Facial expressions are much more culturally neutral, for they have deeper evolutionary roots. If you are looking at a Deaf person signing, you would never be mistaken on how they feel about the subject. To find a common venue between tone and expressions, we all have to explicitly state our positions. There is very little room for concealing your disapproval while remaining superficially polite, or vice versa. You have to say how you feel, and it cuts down on a lot of dancing around.

I have to say, it does take some effort to get used to this form of a conversation. But don’t feel sorry for yourself – it is immeasurably more difficult for both Deaf and hard-of-hearing people to navigate our communicational landscape. I also keep reminding myself that the situation is asymmetrical. All of us who hear can learn ASL if we really wanted to. But Deaf people cannot learn to hear. Hard-of-hearing people cannot learn to hear better. At the very least we should shift our mode of speaking and enjoy the unexpected benefits it provides. Yes, we meet more like Norwegians than like Italians or Russians. So, what? Isn’t learning something new fun?

Speaking of cultures, I think the kind of conversations we are mastering is quite typical in multilingual communities, where almost everyone speaks as a non-native speaker. People learn to accommodate each other by being clear, speaking in full sentences, and avoiding obscure cultural references and excessive word play. When a Finn and a Spaniard speak to each other, they use the Pan-European English in a similar way. And it takes a special skill that a native speaker may or may not possess. American domestic English if full of cultural references, baseball-related idioms and slang that very few people who do not live here can fully comprehend. However, many Americans with international experience easily switch into a friendlier mode when needed, and use it masterfully. African English dialects tend to use similar communication mode, with complete sentences and pauses to allow for fuller comprehension. It is actually not that hard. It is not a poorer, less expressive form of communication. Rather, it is different, but just as rich and perhaps significantly more efficient. You just need better jokes.

Feb 22, 2020

February in the Central Valley

To truly know the seasons, you need to be here for a few years. Each season has a place, between what came and went, and what is yet to come. Your body learns the rhythm, and shapes the experience.

Now is the closest to paradise we will get around here. The sun’s warmth is still a blessing and relief from the night’s cold; it is not yet the punishment of the “too much of a good thing” kind. My skin wants to prolong the in-between-ness.

The quality of light is odd. It is not the yellowish harsh light of the summer, nor is it a weak, low angled light of December. Rather, it is a milky white, hazy light set so soft against the still naked tree branches. Some more flamboyant trees bloom without care or shame. Others wait, collecting moisture inside their trunks and branches. The crazy orange trees bear fruit, on their own time, ignoring everything. The light loves all equally, for now.

It smells unlike spring smells elsewhere in the world. The local bartender concocts a rather subtle cocktail, with earthy, grassy, flowery and dusty base, and hits of smoke so faint it may be only a memory of the past. Every gulp will clear your mind, tell you a vague, unfinished story, and make you thankful – not sure to whom, not clear for what, but it will.