Lectures, Credentials, and the Disruption of College

There has been so much written lately about the imminent “disruption” of higher education as we know it. By disruption, pundits seem to mean something akin to the disruption experienced by most media companies over the past 5 years. Technology is the supposed driving force for the inevitable disruption, just as it was in the case of media publishers. As evidence for the disruption, thinkers point to the advent of online resources like Khan Academy, TED-Ed, the YouTube EDU portal, and several recent online courses offered by elite universities. For example, a recent article in Wired put it this way:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

As far as I can see, the disruption argument rests on the availability of two new(ish) resources. The first is a readily available source for high quality lecture materials. Many universities have been capturing lecture audio and video and posting them online as podcasts for years. The OpenCourseWare movement has also been working toward this objective for years. We’re now at a point where nearly every core subject has outstanding lecture materials available online for free.

The second pillar of the disruption argument is that a new system of credentials is emerging that circumvents the “college degree” certification and all it signifies to a potential employer. Here is Kevin Carey writing in The New Republic (linked above):

[…] the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.

And again later in the same piece:

But just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.

The argument here (I think) is that independent students will earn certificates symbolizing their completion of a course through an independent educational entity. These credentials will eventually gain recognition by employers as bona fide indicators of that individual’s competency in a field of study and warrant their consideration for a particular job position. Please excuse my taking liberty with connecting the dots in this way, as I have never actually seen anybody else spell it out.

Is access to information the problem?

First let me state that I do think there is plenty of change coming to higher education, much of it as a consequence of technological disruption. For a variety of reasons, I think the changes will serve to enhance already-existing institutions and not hasten their demise. As for the first argument, free access to educational materials online, I think this is wonderful, but it mostly serves the existing institutional structure far better than it serves the independent learner. I don’t think there is anything magical that will happen with access to recorded lectures because I don’t think this is the limiting step in the educational process. Motivated people have had access to such information as long as we’ve had books and libraries. In my opinion, the limiting step in education is for the individual to know where to focus amidst a sea of information. In this sense, the more information becomes available online, the harder it becomes for the learner to make progress without personal input.

To illustrate this, think of the process of advancing through the current education system. As you progress through the various levels of schooling, you become a more and more self-directed learner. Eventually, if you stick with it long enough, you complete the ultimate in self-directed learning, the Ph.D. This degree does not signify a person’s intellectual capacity, rather it signifies a person’s having become a master over a body of knowledge, fully self-directing and capable of adding to and extending the limits of that knowledge.

As some see impending doom on the horizon for higher ed, the idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ has also received renewed attention. This teaching method eschews the use of class time for traditional lecture, opting instead to discuss and assimilate knowledge. It relies on students coming to class already familiar with the information, ready to think and engage their minds (and not act like a room full of court recorders). This is not a new idea and is based on many years of studies of learning outcomes that support a more active classroom environment. If this discursive, personal, interactive process (and not listening to lectures) is indeed the best way for students to learn, how exactly does the availability of online lectures disrupt existing “delivery methods” in higher education? I argue that such resources serve as a pool of excellent materials for helping students to become familiar with a topic, but their real learning and intellectual formation occurs when they come and interact around those ideas with their peers and an expert in the field (i.e. they come to class).

This is not to say that some small percentage of talented students couldn’t make progress toward competency on their own using only online lectures. But for the vast majority of students, becoming educated requires much more than being exposed to information, it requires struggle and community and questions and other things I’m not qualified to even identify. Maybe someday an online system will exist that allows for those kinds of things, but I’m nearly certain it doesn’t exist now. I also think that one of the main ingredients in effective education is other people. Call me old-fashioned, but when you think about your learning experiences, don’t most of them involve other people? Peers? A favorite teacher? Yeah, mine too.

Is an education all about credentialing?

As for the second argument, that the college diploma will be replaced with some collection of credentials, I think this misconstrues both the meaning and the purpose of education in general, and a college degree in particular. To think of the role of universities as dealing in the “production and sale of higher education credentials” (see quote above) is, in my opinion, a deeply cynical and flawed perspective along the lines of thinking of the role of a family vacation as producing a set of photographs. A credential is the formal recognition of a process of intellectual development and transformation. It is not, in and of itself, the point.

A deep problem with the talk about credentials, badges, and the rise of competency as a measure of qualification lies with the selection of courses: who chooses what to take? I would speculate that most students would choose only those courses they see as important. This is a terrible idea, because the student has no idea what they will need to know. As an academic advisor to mostly science students, I can reveal the stunning news that these students do not relish the opportunity to take courses in the humanities. I know, shocker, right? But they benefit in so many ways from doing so, it’s hard to overstate the importance of these courses in their academic development. They grow in broadened perspective, vocabulary, writing skill, logic, argument, rhetoric, friendship, tolerance, compassion. And once again, these are skills and virtues best acquired in a community.

The bottom line for me is that we’re in the midst of an explosion in the creation of information. The need for a broad education has never been greater. I think this increases the need for guidance, and I think the best guides are other people. I do believe our current colleges and universities need to change and adapt to incorporate new methods for educating people. And maybe we will see the rise of a new kind of educational enterprise that fills a need not met by a four-year college. I do think there are plenty of students enrolled in a four-year degree program with no business being there, but they have no other option. But I don’t think these new enterprises will replace our current colleges, not by a long shot.

The Open Web and the LMS

Before the start of almost every semester, I find myself taking inventory of the various tools I use to do my job and asking whether there’s something better. I feel a bit like a contractor preparing his truck for a job — I want to make sure I have everything I need, because I don’t want to waste time focusing on the wrong things once I get to the job site. How should I provide updates and information to my students? Where should I post notes, outlines, slides, assignments? Should these things be on the open web, or tucked safely behind a learning management system (LMS)? Do students want to take quizzes and submit assignments online? Should I have them email those to me, should I do that within a LMS, or should I use something offered by the textbook publisher?

For most of these questions, one answer is to use Blackboard. It does most, if not all, of the tasks listed above, integrates with our campus registration system (unless you happen to teach cross-listed courses, but I digress), works reasonably well, is familiar to the students, and the university is already paying for it. Why wouldn’t I use it? When colleagues ask that question, my reply usually includes something about how difficult I find it to do the various tasks I want to do, how many clicks it takes to do something. For instance, how do I decide where to put the stuff so that students will find it? Is this an assignment, or content, or a file, or an announcement, or what? But it’s beginning to dawn on me that my hesitation to use a LMS goes deeper than usability — my own or that of my students.

Building with borrowed tools

To return to the contractor analogy, using an LMS feels a lot like building with someone else’s tools. Sure, it’s probably going to do the job, but things just don’t quite feel the same as using your own. In addition to the issue of feel, there is a sense when I’m using a LMS that everything I post has to fit in one of the categories defined by the system. The answer to this problem in particular seems to be for the software designers to create a whole lot of nooks and crannies to file things in hopes that at least something will seem like the right place for the instructor to add that content. This always leaves the users (both instructor and student) in want, though, because it feels like the order is backward: the information shouldn’t be organized in service of a system, but rather the system should support the information by getting out of the way. I always feel like I’m fighting against the system when I add information and try to make it discoverable and linked where appropriate. I suppose the other approach, which many professors apparently follow, is to dump absolutely everything into a single bucket and let the students hash out the germs of value from the chaff. (This happens all the time, from what I hear.)

Building on someone else’s land

If my problem were just a matter of borrowing tools, I might be able to get over it, but it’s not. In January, as I prepared for another semester and spent several hours setting up my courses in a LMS, it became clear to me that I’m not just borrowing tools, I’m also building my course on land that is not my own. In fact, if I’m really using the capabilities of the system, I’m spending hours and hours loading information into this system that is a shadow of the web, a sandboxed web, walled off from the real thing. If and when I stop using it, that information (and the time it took to produce it) is most likely lost. Maybe the system provides a way to download my course if I want to, but what useful thing could I do with it then? I’d have to write my own software to parse that file and make any sense of it, let alone to make use of it in some other system.

Redeeming Qualities

My feelings toward the LMS are not all negative, though. One of the best things about a closed LMS is just that — it is closed to the outside, allowing instructors to keep certain material off the public web. If I were to post all of my slides online for my students, I’d have to remove all the copyrighted figures I use from the textbook, which would be a big bummer. I don’t make the posting of slides a habit, but an LMS with authentication sidesteps this issue. Ideally, I would design my own figures and could share them as freely as I chose, but I haven’t done that yet. Another important use of a system with authentication is for posting grades, which students seem to expect. I know of no way around this other than to use some kind of closed system to keep this information confidential. A third feature of an LMS is handling work submitted by students. I have tried to collect student writing by email, and it sucks. A good LMS at least has the potential to make this suck less, and could actually save me time if designed well. For example, I just graded a short assignment in Instructure Canvas using their SpeedGrader feature, and I have to confess, it was slick. I’m looking forward to using it again later in the semester, and might even use the peer review feature rather than managing all that on my own.


So for now, I see a role for both the open web and a closed LMS occupying different parts of my toolkit for teaching. The trick for me is to keep as much as possible in my own web space, and use the LMS for things for which it is essential (copyrighted material, grades, student submissions). It’s schizophrenic, and some students don’t like having to look in more than one place. What I’m finding is that I tend to use the LMS for some classes, and the open web for other classes, and this minimizes student consternation over where to look for class materials. Making a goal of posting more on the open web has also motivated me to go back and create more of my own materials, too, which has been a great side-effect.

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Making interactive diagrams with Hype

I’ve been dabbling again with making my own animations to use as teaching aids. I say ‘again’ because I remember how excited I was to create a crude, two-dimensional animation of photosynthetic electron transport in my first year at OWU. I used Flash for that, when it was still produced by Macromedia (before Adobe bought them).

Instead of Flash or some other complicated authoring tool, I’ve been using Tumult Hype, which does its magic with only HTML5 and Javascript. The web has changed a lot since the early 2000’s, including the introduction of greater support for animation in the browser with HTML5, making it possible to bypass the plugins altogether. I’m still learning my way around the software, but I’ve managed to realize a couple of simple animations already — one demonstrating osmosis, one on meristem-driven growth, and one on cell expansion. They are, admittedly, not much to look at, but I think I spent all of 15 minutes on each. The design goal (if you could call it that) was to create the equivalent of a chalkboard sequence of drawings, and I think they accomplish that much.

In my opinion, even though Hype seems to be designed with web professionals in mind, it is perfect for this kind of activity. It has a mode in which you can ‘record’ an animation by simply dragging objects around and advancing the timeline. Alternatively, you can also control each object and animation sequence with manual controls, which I used for the cell division and growth example to obtain pixel-precise layout of each new cell. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the interaction capabilities thus far, only creating buttons on my examples for replaying or jumping to a new scene, but there is massive potential here for allowing students to explore the impact of changing different variables, for example.

One of the great benefits of the output format is that I can embed the animations on web pages and, using the same output, bundle them into a widget and insert them into iBooks Author projects, where they can become fully interactive diagrams. As I’ve written recently, I’m interested in exploring the creation of interactive books with iBooks Author, and having a simple tool for creating animations is an important complement to that process. I’m looking forward to tinkering with Hype more, and I’ve set my sights on remaking my old photosynthetic electron transport animation, which promises to be a bit more involved than growing squares.

Why iBooks Author is Interesting to Me

Today Apple announced a number of new initiatives relating to textbooks, including a new version of their iOS app iBooks, a new authoring tool to create iBooks, and a new iOS app for iTunes U. None of these announcements was an utter surprise, as rumors had been swirling for several weeks before announcements were even delivered to the press for the event. And while I think the new initiative to sell textbooks for iBooks is important, I want to focus on the authoring tool and its implications for higher ed in this post.

This semester I am teaching an upper-level course in my main area of specialty, plant physiology. Since I began teaching the class 10 years ago, and even when I took the class as an undergrad, I have used the standard-bearer text, Plant Physiology by Taiz and Zeiger. It is an excellent book with an encyclopedic coverage of the topic — it’s great. In fact, it is too great, going into detail at a level more appropriate for advanced courses. I have tended to assign readings from the text as a supplement and a reference for the students, and in almost no topic do we exhaust the coverage of the book. I provide the students with an outline for each topic so they know which details I want them to focus their attention on. For some time, I have felt like they aren’t getting their money’s worth out of the book using it in this way, but they are much more comfortable having an “official” textbook than going without (I’ve tried that experiment). The only alternative seemed to be to write my own, but the fact that the textbook in a field is too good did not seem like strong motivation to write something else. I have no interest in writing a real textbook and trying to get it published, as it seems to me like a monumental task, and I’d frankly rather be in the lab.

But if there were a way to “publish” a book only targeting my class, by converting those outlines I’ve made into short chapters on each topic, well… Why not? I have no intentions of any other students wanting or needing my vastly inferior collection of topic overviews, but it would be fine if they wanted them. The iBooks Author app seems like just the kind of tool to create such a book — I can take words I already have lying around (or write new ones), package them up, and push a button. I can export a PDF for students without iOS devices. I can publish them to the web for still others to find them. I can use something like pandoc to shape them into a file in ePub format.

And all this makes me wonder, how many other faculty members out there are like me, having a collection of notes and points of emphasis for a topic that they know something about, but had no interest in producing a textbook through a traditional publisher? Or perhaps they wrote their own “book” and published it through the campus copy shop? I think having an authoring tool and distribution system all wrapped up together has tremendous potential for these situations. Having the freedom and flexibility to put together a little book to accompany a specialty course is an attractive idea to me, one that I plan to experiment with.

If I end up doing the work to turn those outlines into book chapters and distribute them to my class, I will likely do so without cost to the students (despite the objections of my wife!). I have felt for a long time that textbooks are far too expensive, especially those that are used only as a secondary reference like I described above. I would love to save my students the cost of the textbook yet still provide them with something that serves as a reference for them as they study. I haven’t even begun investigating the new iTunes U app as a distribution means, but I understand it could work in conjunction with iBooks to provide all manner of resources to our students. Makes me wonder which will be more disrupted, textbook publishers or LMS vendors?

A textbook need for disruption

Nicholas Carr has an insightful piece on WSJ.com today, in which he points out that, with electronic books, the option to revise and update continues past the initial publication. One observation in particular struck me:

Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover.

This is something I suggested back when I was reviewing electronic textbook platforms, which could benefit immensely from this kind of feedback. I had in mind that publishers could use the data for marketing to faculty who adopt books:

This pays off for the textbook companies in another way, I’m sure, which is that they can track how thoroughly I’ve reviewed one of their titles. I don’t know for sure whether CourseSmart is providing tracking data back to the publisher, but I’m sure they will soon. It just makes sense to collect this information and use it to improve your sales approach and/or to improve the textbook.

But I could imagine the publisher using these data to refine or improve the text to improve learning outcomes, especially if they were also providing a course management platform that provided assessment. Ideally, the book would learn how to communicate better by taking into account its own performance.

How likely is this scenario? It’s almost unimagineable. Textbook publishers make their money by selling new editions. What would be their incentive to improve a “book” after its publication but before they could charge for a new copy? In my experience, almost nothing changes between editions of the books I adopt, yet I cannot officially adopt a previous edition through the campus bookstore because they can’t source the copies needed.

The efforts of the publishers to make electronic textbooks all seem crafted to maintain a business model anchored in the past and centered around physical books. The “electronic” versions they have released are more or less a facsimilie of the paper book — unchanging, rooted in the concept of the edition so important for the profits of a paper world.

Finland’s Educational Excellence

In an eye-opening piece in The Atlantic, Anu Partanen describes the emphasis on equity in the Finnish education system, one of the best in the world:

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

To accomplish this, teachers are compensated well, their training is rigorous, and they are held in high regard. Cooperation, rather than competition, is emphasized. Next to no standardized testing is done, rather teachers design and implement their own assessments. Amazingly, each of these emphases stands in direct opposition to U.S. educational policy over the last 20+ years. When will it be time to try something new?

Poll Everywhere revisited

I’ve just finished my first semester experimenting with a classroom response system and thought this would be a good time to collect a few observations. You may recall that I opted not to implement a clicker system but rather adopted Poll Everywhere as the means to collect student responses. Using Poll Everywhere allowed students to respond via text message or the web, with most of my students choosing text messages most of the time. Because I had the students register on the site, I could attribute their responses with their names and have a record of their participation.

I found myself mainly using the response system to quiz students on a topic we had just covered, usually from the previous class meeting. As with all such teaching approaches, the system is only as good as the quality of the questions, and I found it challenging to write consistently useful questions. I can imagine that the longer I use this approach, the better question bank I will accumulate across all the topics we discuss. On a related note, I must confess that I found the question bank supplied by the textbook publisher mostly worthless. In preparation for a class I would typically scan over their file of questions, but almost never used anything from it, which was surprising. I also found certain topics to be difficult to approach with the response polling system and ended up just having students use more of the think-pair-share approach for some subjects because it seemed less constricting.

Although I had the students register, I found that I didn’t actually use the information from their registration all that much. I could probably get by without that step in the future, but I think the students took it more seriously knowing that I would be reviewing their activity. I did use the data in a broad way when assigning participation points, just not as much as I thought I would.

Throughout the semester, I kept being surprised at the teachable moments created by using this kind of approach. Time and again I stumbled upon misconceptions and misunderstandings that were exposed by the polling system. Although we would circle back on the topic as a class, when I challenged the students on a similar topic on the midterm, I often found students remained unclear, which was disappointing. I need to become better informed about how to remedy such misunderstandings in the moment.

All in all, using the Poll Everywhere system was well worth it in the classroom. It was easy to get going, easy to create new questions, and easy to implement during class time. In an exit survey, nearly every student agreed that the in-class polls were very helpful for understanding class material.

Finalists for the Open Lab Anthology announced

The finalists for the Open Lab Anthology 2011 have been announced. According Scientific American, these are some of the best science blog posts of the year and will be printed in an anthology some time in 2012. I’ve started working through the list, and the essays I’ve read thus far have been excellent. I’ve collected the links into a stack on delicious, in case that’s useful to anyone out there. Maybe I’ll post links and highlights of a few in the next few weeks.

Grading with a rubric in Numbers for iOS

One of the best ways I’ve found to keep my sanity with grading is to use a rubric whenever possible. This means that, for each student, I would print a rubric and fill it in with comments and notes, and that is not in keeping with my desire to move away from paper as much as possible. Besides, this information is so ephemeral that it hardly rises to the importance of archiving on paper. No, this is definitely a job for electrons, and that puts it in the realm of the iPad.

I started by looking for grading rubric apps in the App Store, but didn’t find anything that struck me as useful for my particular purposes. I thought about making a PDF of the rubric and annotating it for each student on the iPad, but I would end up with a file to manage on the iPad for each student and would still have to enter scores into my grade sheet. So I decided to use Numbers to create a simple rubric. I made each column a different criterion, and entered student names in rows by copy/paste from my grade sheet.

Magic Stepper

After I entered a few scores this way, I didn’t like how I had to enter a number for each criterion — I just wanted to select a number that fit the student’s performance on that criterion. That’s when I noticed the cell format called ‘Stepper’:

The stepper format allows you to define a minimum and maximum value and an increment. Once set up, you can just tap an ‘up’ or ‘down’ arrow next to the cell to assign points, and you don’t fill half the screen with the on-screen keyboard. Nice.

After I scored all the lab reports, I needed a way to distribute them electronically to the students. I decided to merge the students’ scores onto a copy of the rubric, so I set up a Pages document on my Mac with the Numbers spreadsheet linked as the merge source and ran the Mail Merge. Then I sent each student a PDF of their scoresheet.


This has become my primary system for scoring papers with a rubric. I really like the ease with which I can enter a score for each category with a few taps, it allows me to keep focus on the paper. For a large rubric, it’s essential to freeze the header row and column so I can continue to see the criteria and student name, but this introduced a gotcha when I tried to configure merge fields, because a header column cannot be a data source. I got around this easily by copying the names into a non-header column, but it was one more step than I expected. While grading one student’s work, I recognized I had been recording the scores in another student’s row, but a couple taps on the ‘Undo’ button recovered the lost values. The last comment is that it was a real pain to send each student a PDF attachment, manually, by email. For now though, the alternative of using our LMS is an even worse prospect!

Losing science majors

Plenty of students come to college planning to major in a science, but not many finish that major. This is a particular problem when national leaders have been championing the need for more science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) training in recent years, including during this year’s State of the Union Address. Where do we stand now as compared to recent years in terms of numbers of majors with this training? What will it take to increase the numbers?

As for where we stand now, there was an interesting post by Alex Tabarrok over on Marginal Revolution comparing numbers of majors in various disciplines over the past 25 years. He shows that while the total number of college students has increased 50% over that time, the STEM fields are still graduating the same number of students as 1984. No growth. All of these additional students have gone into non-STEM fields. As a faculty member at a liberal arts college, I do not agree with the conclusions of his article overall, but the data he presents is important to consider.

How can we improve the situation, though? Christopher Drew, writing for the NY Times, highlights a few potential solutions in an article last week.

Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.

The article points to one obvious reason for this: these subjects are hard and require a lot of work, usually resulting in a significantly lower GPA than non-STEM friends. While this may seem like a cop-out, we shouldn’t downplay the work. Consider a student majoring in chemistry or genetics, whose roommates are not. Our major probably spends twice the hours in classes and labs every week, and that’s not taking into account the out-of-class study time. It’s hard to see your friends making memories without you. I’m not advocating any change here, just that we become aware of this social pressure. This may support the idea, though, that providing things like science student living situations may be worth considering.

Where the article really strikes me, though, is the suggestion that students have to slog away at mastering the basics before they get to do the “fun stuff”, by which they mean something involving an application. At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be any way around this, because of course students need to walk before they run, right? I’m starting to wonder if that’s necessarily true, or whether we as faculty members are sticking to the familiar paths and failing to imagine ways to incorporate the “fun stuff” even at the earliest levels. That’s one reason I’m excited about some of our initiatives here at OWU to grab students and lead them to some interesting questions that intersect with that introductory material. Could a program like Course Connections be part of the solution? Maybe, we’ll have to see where that goes.

I also want to suggest that there is a major problem at work behind the scenes, though, having to do with students’ expectations for their careers and their perceptions about what their options are. But that will have to wait for another post.