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Apr 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

The movie reminds us how much of Rome is still with us. Not a great film by any means, the anti-utopia it shows is oddly plausible. Why? – Because we recognize all of those elements in our own society: clever technology that fails to feed all, the entertainment industry edging on gladiatorial games, the warehousing of the poor. Romans have shown how cultural sophistication can live along with barbarism and how the rule of law can exist alongside cruelty. The only thing that prevents us sliding into the world of the hunger games is the thin layer of ideas: liberalism, democracy, human dignity. There is nothing hard, or objective, or economic about them; all fragile, all living in our imagination only. This is how anti-utopias work: they show us where we do not want to go, and force us think how to avoid getting there.

As I watch the great American political theater playing its presidential show, I wonder why it does not include more conversation about the big ideas and ideals. After all, if a Hollywood blockbuster can make us think about the future, why not people running for the highest office? All arguments and counterarguments are fairly predictable, and none are terribly complex. The only element of drama is in unexpected twists of human behavior – a scandal, an error, a gaffe. It is a pity, for people involved in it certainly have original thoughts. I remember how Clinton was forced to dumb down his speeches in his first election. All of the presidents sound more intelligent once they leave the office, even George Bush, Jr. Obama and Romney both play it safe, sticking to proven rhetorical cliché’s, and taking shots at each other whenever the opponent deviates from the script. Thus the mutually enforced discipline of blandness rules. Aren’t we all afraid to say something stupid a little too much?

I wonder if we could have them watch a movie, for example the Hunger Games, and comment on it. Or should they have a debate on the Federalist Papers? How about a discussion on the constitutionality of the health care law? Basically, I want to know what they think about the future past November 2012.

Apr 20, 2012

Playing an expert

We used to administer the technology test to our students. It was a good test, especially when it was designed some 15 years ago. Our students still do need to know how to create new files, save files, format in Word, calculate simple formulas in Excel, etc. Most come to us with this knowledge, but some do not. How do we catch them and help to gain these basic skills? That was the logic behind the test. Unfortunately, it is expensive to administer, because we needed a full time faculty member to oversee and update it, a graduate assistant to run the tests. It was also very hard to keep track of compliance, and it was very inconvenient for students. You can inconvenience students all you want, but only when they see the benefit, and learn something. In this case, as I said, most did not learn much. So, with heavy heart, I had to push for suspending it.

However, there is a different solution now. Just this morning I took an online test on Excel proficiency with a startup company called smarterer. It took me only about 20 minutes, and I have to say most questions were very good. According to them I am an Expert (not yet a Master) in Excel. And I can prove it to you, which is definitely better than a line in one’s resume– “I am proficient in Excel.” For our students, I believe the Familiar level would be enough, Proficient (below the Master) would be ideal. Note, the record can be linked to my Fb profile, put on a web site and is public. All I need to do is to put on my online resume Excel, Expert level, and send it to Feinstein School for admission. I can also pull a badge; anyone clicking on it will see the proof. The site also has tests on Word, basic math, PowerPoint English for Business, etc. I would argue we need to have all students take a test on Social Media, which tests one’s knowledge of Facebook, Twitter. It would cost us almost nothing, and monitoring compliance can be either fully automated or largely delegated to administrative assistants.

Then we could allocate resources in a more focused way, to those few students that actually need help, and cannot learn on their own. They would need to either get resources for self-study (tier-1 intervention), get tutoring help from OASIS or peers (tier-2 intervention), or take a class (tier-3 intervention). They should still pass the test in the end.

An interesting part of this site is crowd-sourcing. People who are proficient users get annoyed when the questions are just not right. Also, many people share an innate desire to share what they know with others. So once you become a master, you can comment on questions, edit questions, introduce your own questions, etc. You can build your own tests, and avoid the hassle of copying blackboard shelves. I must admit I wasted about 30 minutes playing with the Word test for that very reason. It is mildly addictive, which is how crowd sourcing works. It helps to solve a key issue: good assessments are very expensive to build, validate, and update.

Of course, this raises the question of cheating. We do not quite know who is taking the test – the student or a friend. However, if there are enough of these, red flags will come up with someone who cheats, and we can ask them to repeat the test in a proctored situation. Again, most students would not cheat, and suspecting everyone is a waste of resources. Cheating increases only when there is a single test with very high consequences.

This is how we can both improve the quality of preparation, and free up some time for more meaningful, more in-depth experiential learning. I am convinced every course can have some granular material that can be presented as a simple testing module, so we have more time for really in-depth discussion and collective inquiry.

Apr 13, 2012

The bronchitis diary

I was fighting bronchitis most of this and a part of the last week. With the right drugs, it is not a big deal. Like any other minor or major ailment, it does make you think about your own body. We all live so much through our minds that the illusion of independence from the body becomes strong. Until that it, something goes wrong and the mind runs back to the body like a little scared child to its parent, asking for help and protection, refusing to work, denouncing its own independence.

It is good for all of us to get sick once in a while. It makes us a little more compassionate to all those people who have much more serious conditions, sometimes life-threatening, sometimes painful and sometimes debilitating. It makes us remember that people’s minds are situated in their bodies, which may or may not be good hosts. We don’t see each other much anymore – a lot of business is conducted through email. What a great and efficient way of doing business! However, what we see less and less is when someone looks pale, or is limping, or is short of breath. We just don’t notice these things as much anymore, because you may become a message in my inbox. We communicate more, but see each other less.

Illness and getting older are key human conditions. We like to pretend to be forever young and immortal, but I dread the world where it actually becomes true. We are better off frail and sick, because the ability to feel pain, and be tired is what we all have in common. Once we lose that ability, we become something less. Love is inextricably related to pain and life - to death. Forgiveness is rooted in compassion, and compassion depends on the common biological limitations.

I guess codeine can also make one overly philosophical or pathetic. But I am over it now; thanks for asking. Now, how do you feel?

Apr 6, 2012

Badges, buckets, and bugles

The idea of the week is “badges.” This week, PASA has announced its "Pathways for Lifelong Learning" entry was named as a winner in the national competition Digital Media and Learning, sponsored by the MacArthur and Mozilla Foundations. (The other winners include Microsoft, NOAA, NASA, PBS, Department of Veteran Affairs, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Academy, The Walt Disney – not too shabby a company!) Their work builds on a Mozilla project to create an open infrastructure for awarding badges. PASA will develop a program where students will earn digital badges, which in some cases will be converted in high school credits. The difference between a badge and a college credit (or a continuing education credit) is that to earn the former, one needs to demonstrate some specific skill, or show an accomplishment. While credit is basically the seat time, a badge is like a mini-certificate. It is similar to Boy and Girl Scout badges – you show you can play bugle, you get a bugling badge. Only now this can be done electronically, and one click will drill down and show which authority awarded the badge, and what was involved in demonstrating the skill or knowledge.

This idea finely completes our TEIL session last week. OK, basically the dilemma is this. To compete with low-cost quality online degrees, we should emphasize what we do better than they do. Namely, we need to provide our students with quality experiences and the quality relations with faculty and peers. Imagine something like a residency with either an Arts and Sciences professor, or a teacher preparation experiential learning community. But to do that well, we need to free up time and resources, and therefore we must cut something out. To do that, we must embrace our enemy, and borrow its weapons. In other words, we should shift some learning to on-line or self-paced modular kind of experience. That’s the paradox – to distinguish ourselves from them, we have no choice but become partially like them. It took us a while to realize, actually’ about two months.

The next thing we did was try to brainstorm how student knowledge could be put into two buckets – one that requires longer, intense interactions, and carefully constructed meaningful experience (the Experience Bucket), and the second that includes knowledge and skills that can be learned in a relative isolation, independently, perhaps on-line, or tested out of (we called this the Sacrificial Bucket, although we realize it is as important as that in the first bucket). We also realized that our version of the buckets is heavily biased towards pedagogy, because no FAS faculty were amongst us. Oh, well, but the idea still stands – you need to compress something in order to expand something else.

The next problem is that there is no open market of these modules, and we have very little means of distinguishing which ones are good, and which are not. It would take many millions of dollars to invest in building rigorous content and quality assessments. RIC alone simply does not have these kinds of resources, and neither does any other single institution. So, of course, when I heard about the badges idea, I realized that they can be used to fill our sacrificial bucket, because presumably, they will create a global market of those relatively narrow, although very important skills, which could be learned for free or at low cost. Interestingly, this is perhaps third or fourth time I hear about badges. The first few times I was just skeptical or laughing, like you’re laughing right now. Funny how when you don’t need it, it is trash, and when you do, it becomes treasure.

What I am saying, basically, that we have figured out the salvation plan for higher education. Yep, no less and no more. Many details are still vague, but I can imagine how we can gradually turn some of our courses into badges – fully or partially, and how we can eventually build high quality, life-changing experiences for our students; the experiences they absolutely cannot get anywhere else but here. This would be a great opportunity to re-think our curriculum in view of two buckets, and how they interact. The badge infrastructure is promising to be flexible and simple; it will allow to keep track of student progress (it may be even better than PeopleSoft), and to both create our own badges and borrow/buy someone else’s. We can also use the same badge for both our students and for teachers’ professional development (which some people from Providence Public Schools already indicated). They can signify both online or face to face learning, as long as there is a rigorous assessment or a convincing demonstration of a skill. A lesson plan writing badge, anyone? We already have a number of badges under different names: writing requirement, service learning requirement, health education workshops, licensure tests.

The low-cost high quality online degrees are probably between 5 to 10 years away. The New Charter University or the Western Governors, or someone else with enough money and brains will figure it out. There is no intrinsic limit to the model, even though most of the existing online degrees are still pretty poor. And once this happens, change can be sudden and catastrophic, for students will vote with their purses. Some colleges will capitalize on their prestige; others will learn how to provide unique experiences and communities, while still others will close their doors. I am convinced RIC should be in the second group. There is no choice, really.