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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.