Month: October 2013

NaNoWriMo is upon us

2013-Participant-Facebook-ProfileNovember 1 begins National Novel Writing Month. If you’ve never heard of it, it is an annual worldwide challenge to produce a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. As of the time of this post, 181,648 aspiring novelists have signed up for the event. A surprising number of people “win” the event by producing their books within 31 days. What I can’t vouch for is the quality of the work produced, although I know that many of them do go on to publish. The idea of NaNoWriMo is, in my opinion, more of a draft-stage effort. If you waste time editing and rewriting at this point, you’ll never get done. Just go with it and write. Worry about making it pretty later.

I am once again participating. I did several years ago, but was unable to finish during the month because of other commitments. I completed the book some months later and published it via Create Space, an excellent self-publishing platform owned by Amazon. If you are interested, you can get the book here.

This year I’m gearing up to participate again with a new novel. The working title is “Return of the Red Mask.” I’ll be talking about it on this site (see the link in the menu bar above) as it progresses, introducing characters, plots lines and other things.

Halloween classic

newspaper - CopyToday marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ classic radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Legend has it that the broadcast launched widespread panic in the U.S., causing some to commit suicide rather than be defeated by supposed aliens. Given the era–the rise of Hitler in Germany and the beginnings of World War II, while still reeling from the effects of Great Depression–it’s not that surprising that people would fall for the idea that we were being invaded by Martians. How afraid they actually were, and how widespread the supposed panic was is a matter for debate.

The broadcast is, after all, pretty convincing, especially if you happened to tune in late–after the disclaimer that it was a dramatic production. PBS had an excellent program on last night (which you can watch online here) that explores the broadcast and its effects.

If you’ve never heard the original broadcast, you can hear it online in many places, including YouTube and The Internet Archive. It’s a great program and one that you should really listen to without distraction if possible, for the full effect.

There is a nice in-depth analysis of the program and its effect here, including mention of  a BBC Radio 4 program that cast some suspicion on the claims of widespread panic.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Archive on 4’ series, which last week examined the broadcast’s legacy in ‘Myth or Legend: Orson Welles and The War of The Worlds’ and questioned the extent of the panic, noted that out of an estimated 6 million listeners, around 1.7 million believed the play to be true. Only 1.2 million were said to be “frightened”, according to a study, and just 20 people – a tiny fraction of those who actually heard the show – had to be treated for shock.

Could something like this ever happen again? I have no doubt it could. We have a sizable portion of the population that already believes in aliens, ghosts, vampires, the occult, and, of course, zombies. Our is a nation that seems to be proudly and stubbornly anti-science. We’ll fall for anything.

A former online learning skeptic tells why he’s changed his thinking

William G. BowenWilliam G. Bowen is a name familiar to anyone who works in higher education today. Bowen was president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, and president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he served for nearly 20 years. These days, not one to rest on his laurels, Bowen is the founding chairman of ITHAKA, a nonprofit organization that helps the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways. In the fall of 2012, Bowen participated in the acclaimed Tanner Lectures series, delivered at Stanford University. His presentation, and several responses to it, formed the basis of his latest book Higher Education in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2013), in which he explores the two most pressing trends in higher education today: spiraling costs and the rise of online learning.

In your Tanner presentation and in your book, you talk about the “cost disease” of higher education. Explain that concept.
The basic idea is that in labor intensive industries such as education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor. Yet markets dictate that, over time, wages for comparably qualified individuals have to increase at roughly the same rate in all industries. As a result, unit labor costs must be expected to rise faster in education than in the economy overall.

Higher ed leaders, in general, don’t do a very good job explaining the cost of higher education to the public. Rather, the conversation seems to be controlled by the media.
Yes, that’s true. Among the many problems is the failure to distinguish the cost of education as borne by institutions from charges for education that are borne by individuals and families. That crucial distinction is generally lost. That is one mistake.

The second mistake is that too much attention is given, by far, to the small number of elite, high-profile, privileged places like Princeton, Stanford, and so forth, that charge high sticker prices but that also provide a lot of aid. They are, obviously, not the norm. What is really important is not those places but the vast public sector for higher education. The media, of course, don’t really get that either.

What can be done to reclaim the conversation?
People just need to do a better job of speaking clearly and to the point—not defensively. There are some able people of course. I think the ablest of the public university people is Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. He understands all of this and speaks very clearly and cogently to these issues.

I think that there are others in the private sector. John Hennessy at Stanford is also very good and has been very outspoken and very clear.

You’ve said online learning is not a fix to the cost disease but it can be part of the solution. That’s a reversal of your earlier position. What led to the change?
Yes, I’ve changed my position. There were several reasons. One is the obvious advancements in technology that are all around us. The greater access to the internet, the speed of communication, the reduced cost of storage—you will tick off the advances as readily as I will—but these advances just make all kinds of modes of communication and exchange of ideas much easier than they used to be. The days when individual students had to deal one-by-one via email with their instructor are over.

There is no question that online teaching can—can underscored—be more expensive than traditional instruction, but there is no reason that it need be. Another reason is that there is more and more pressure to control cost, as you know. That is going to force institutions and individuals to think about options that they didn’t want to think about before. Much confusion can result from failing to recognize that “online learning” is far from just one thing, and that it is anything but static.

Despite its growth, there has been some resistance to online teaching and MOOCs, especially among faculty.
That’s easy to understand. Faculty don’t want to be told—or urged—to do things differently. That’s not their nature. They fear loss of jobs, loss of status, loss of authority, and so on. All this is perfectly reasonable. We have to find ways to overcome these fears and concerns.

That’s one of the themes of my book, the need to find new ways to achieve genuinely collaborative thinking, not “either/or-we/they” thinking about these issues. We’ll have to find new ways of making decisions, talking about issues, and working together.

You note in the book that there is a lack of hard evidence of learning outcomes and cost savings in online learning.
I think it borders on intolerable—embarrassing—that there is so little hard evidence about such an important question as to what the real learning outcomes are that are associated with these various forms of teaching.

Now, to be sure, that’s very hard research to do, in part because of the selection effect. That is, if you allow people to choose on their own one form of teaching or another, you’ll get all kinds of biases in studies of differences. You have to find some way of controlling for selection effects.

Is that possible?
We’re doing it in an important study that we’re conducting of the Carnegie Mellon stats course on public university campuses. We were able to randomly assign students to one mode of teaching or another. That’s the ideal way to do this research.

Another problem is the lack of shared, customizable teaching and learning platforms.
That’s right. I think there is a natural tendency on the part of the people who design these big platforms to want to make a one-size-fits-all solution and not have a lot other people monkeying around with their platform.

But, of course, local teachers and institutions want to be able to do some degree of customization and they should be able to. I think that is increasingly understood by the leaders in the MOOC world—Coursera, edX, and so forth. The trick is to find ways for that to happen easily and cost-effectively.

Do you have any suggestions?
First there has to be a determined effort to do that. Right now, we at ITHAKA are involved in an important series of studies with the University System of Maryland where we are trying to see if various ways of adapting MOOCs to the campus scene at Maryland can work, and what’s involved in doing that. I think learning by doing is the right approach. We are in the early stages of this work, but I believe this study is going to be very important.

You tell a story in your book about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who said, “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy. Choices can be hard.” What does that mean to you?
What I’m saying, writ large, is that college and university education ought both to impart knowledge and understanding of concepts. I use the example of statistics. Bezos, as a child, once calculated how much time, at two minutes per puff, his grandmother was shortening her life by smoking. His grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather scolded him by saying, “One day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Students should obviously learn those things, but they should do much more than that in college. They should think—and think hard—about choices, about values, and about choices versus gifts, as Bezos puts it.

I think the traditional, face-to-face teaching residential college experiences are very good ways of doing that for places that can manage to do it. There are no magic bullets here, there is no syllabus for choosing the right things, but you can get people to recognize that there are choices to be made.

Not long ago, President Obama announced a plan to institute a national rating system of colleges and universities in an effort to better understand cost. What is your take on that?
I understand what he’s trying to do, which is to hold places more accountable than they are now. That makes sense, but I confess that I’m somewhat skeptical about how easy it is going to be to create a sensible rating system. There is a great risk of getting things wrong, and creating perverse incentives.

For example, the current ratings that the U.S. News & World Report publishes each year put a lot weight on SAT scores. What that does is encourage colleges and universities to try to get those scores up one way or another. That’s not necessarily a good thing. You can do a lot of harm that way. There is a danger of perverse incentives, as I think the president and Secretary Duncan recognize. Whether those dangers can be avoided is up in the air right now.

The current ratings also put a lot of weight on teacher-student ratios. The argument is that higher teacher-student ratios are good things. Well, not necessarily if you are concerned about controlling costs and teaching effectiveness. If you can teach better with lower teacher-student ratios, that’s good.

What’s next for you?
I’m working right now with [former Macalester College (Minn.) President] Mike McPherson, and [former Tufts University (Mass.) President] Larry Bacow on further studies like the kind suggested in the book. One of these is the study of evolving principles of governance, as I was talking about earlier, and the fact that new notions of shared governance will need to be designed.

Changing education from the ground up

Diane RavitchDiane Ravitch is outspoken in her criticisms of education in this country. Her latest book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (Knopf, 2013), pulls no punches in its arguments against testing, the charter school movement, and federally driven mandates. But Ravitch knows of what she speaks because she’s been on both sides of the fence. From 1991 to 1993, she was assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. She was in charge of the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and led the federal push for voluntary state and national academic standards.
From 1997 to 2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. Ravitch’s work has been recognized by numerous organization, including the National Education Association, the American Association of School Administrators; and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She continues to draw enthusiastic crowds wherever she speaks, not just of educators, but of parents and students as well who recognize the need for change.

I want to start by having you tell the story about your own personal conversion, as it were. You were not always against test-based accountability and choice.
Yes, I went along with the zeitgeist that said, “We need testing. We need accountability. We need choice. We need competition.” These are ideas that appeal to very basic American values about choice and competition and holding people accountable for results.
But about five years into No Child Left Behind, I went to a conference at a conservative think tank. And there were a dozen papers from scholars across the country saying that No Child Left Behind wasn’t working here, it wasn’t working there. The choice provisions weren’t working because the kids were not choosing to leave their neighborhood school. The tutoring provisions were not working because all these fly-by-night businesses were popping up. There wasn’t a single paper that said it’s working.
At the end of the day, I, who had been a believer, had become a nonbeliever. And from that point forward I began listening and realized that this was not going to work ever. It simply was not going to get better five years later. The things I had been advocating for sounded good in theory, but I could no longer support what the evidence showed didn’t work.

You argue that public education is not broken, but it has been undercut by a “big lie.”
The big lie was that we are failing and there’s a rising tide of mediocrity. We’ve now heard it so many times over the last 30 years, beginning with “A Nation At Risk,” that people believe it because it never gets countered. But when you look at the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, people say, “Oh, American education is in terrible shape.” And then you ask, “Well, how’s your local school?” They say, “Oh, my local school is great. Love my local school. Love my teachers. They’re all terrific. But American education is failing.”
So the big lie has worked, but it hasn’t reached what people know from their own personal reality.
The other point is that there is an assault on American public education today coming from federal government, coming from the foundations, coming from so many right-wing public policy think tanks that it is immensely destabilizing. The schools are being hit with a tsunami of demands for change that would make a sane person crazy. When you think about all the conflicting and, in some cases, absolutely wrongheaded pressure that’s being put on schools, they can’t handle it.
Teachers are leaving the profession. I hear from them all the time. They say, “I am a national board certified teacher. I won teacher of the year.” They list all their awards. And they say, “I can’t teach anymore. These are impossible conditions.”

So you’re suggesting that assault on public education is systematic and deliberate.
It is deliberate. This is a national effort to destabilize and to undermine public confidence in public education and to make people feel that things are so desperate that anything is worth trying, anything at all. So you get people opening charter schools who are totally unqualified to run a school—basketball players, tennis players, football players. They should be running sports camps. They are qualified for that. They are not qualified to run schools. But no one even blinks when you say, “We’re opening an Andre Agassi charter school.” What does Andre Agassi know about education?

What does it take to change? You list a number of solutions in your book. Can you highlight some?
One thing that could be done that would really make a difference would be to have less standardized testing; to have teachers make their own tests instead of relying on testing companies, which is what other countries in the world do. And, certainly, it’s what the high performing nations in the world do. We are the most over-tested country in the world. No other country in the world tests every student every year. That is ridiculous. It does not benefit the students. It just benefits the testing industry.
Fewer tests would open up more time for things like the arts. Kids have to have a reason to come to school in many places, particularly in the inner cities where the schools are struggling the most. They should have fabulous arts programs. And instead, they’re cut to the bone—if they exist at all.
I was in Pittsburgh for my first round of book tour talks. It was like a pep rally. There were 1,000 people at Mt. Sinai Synagogue. After I spoke, a group of teenagers came high-stepping down the aisle. These were all black kids in spiffy uniforms and they came high-stepping down the aisle. One of the kids came up and said, “We are the Westinghouse High School Marching Band.” And everyone applauded. Then she said, “We have no instruments. The budget was cut. All the instruments are gone. We don’t even have enough money to have drumsticks. We’ve had a succession of band directors because they keep getting laid off. The uniforms that you see are 12 years old.”
The people who live in the suburbs would never tolerate for their children what’s being done to the kids in the inner city, and then the politicians who have not funded the schools turn around and call them failing schools.

But how do you counter this?
I believe there has to be a grassroots movement of parents and educators so powerful that the politicians can’t do this anymore. Politicians don’t lead; they follow. I’ve talked to many elected officials in Washington. Most of them have no idea what the consequences are in the schools. They care, but they have a lot of other things to worry about—foreign affairs, the economy, health care. There are many more issues that are more salient to them because education is, theoretically at least, not a federal responsibility.
Instead, they just say, “Well, you know, we’re measuring the kids and we’re finding out that we have achievement gaps.” But we knew there was an achievement gap before NCLB. This is not new. The question is what are you going to do about it? And we’re doing nothing about it other than to continue to say that it exists.
So what we’re building now, between teachers, parents and students, is a grassroots movement. That’s the only thing that’s going to change this. It’s not going to come from Washington.
Recently, NBC had one of its Education Nation programs, a student town hall, featuring four student activists from Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Providence. It was four kids who were actively involved in trying to bring change. One kid was from Chicago. He was a white kid. The host said, “I know Chicago. You go to Jones. Jones is a great school. They didn’t close it. Why are you in this movement?” And he said, “Because if it affects one of us, it affects all of us. They closed 49 elementary schools and that’s an insult to every student in Chicago. We need to be in solidarity.”
The kids make a lot more sense than the adults.

What is your hope for the future?
A growing movement that will cause the politicians to say, “We really have to have change.”
I would urge people to get together and create study groups. We all need to understand that what has been happening is not just an idea that some politician had in this state or that state. This is a national effort to undermine public education, to make people think that it stinks and anything is better than having community public schools. The best way to spread the message is for lots of people to share it, talk about it, and see how they can mobilize to strengthen their public schools, not to defend the status quo. The status quo are the people who call themselves reformers. They reform nothing.

Ball of confusion

This is a photo of an immense gas cloud above the Earth’s atmosphere, as photographed from the ISS. The origin of the cloud is up for debate, with the chief explanations being:
1. Ozone depletion from excessive photodissociation of man-made halocarbon refrigerants (CFCs, freons, halons) on Earth
2. The physical manifestation of Ted Cruz’s asinine mock-filibuster a couple weeks ago
3. Friday night’s chili and bean space station dinner