Building a new table: a response to John Fritz’s response

From "How To Build A Table." Click on the image to see the original website.

Hi John–thanks for stopping by and leaving such a long and thoughtful comment. Yes indeed, you should be blogging, man!  I’d read it, and I’d link to it, too. The blogosphere’s magical that way. Just saying. So here’s my response. Next time, I hope there’s a blog on your end so I can do some pingbackin’. Srsly.

First, thanks for the kind words about my leadership. One clarification: I’m currently Chair of the Board of Directors of the NMC. To say I’m “Chair of the NMC” makes my role sound bigger than it really is. Also, while I do hope I’m making some valuable contributions to the conversation about higher education, I take greatest pride and satisfaction in the students I’ve worked with over the years. I estimate, conservatively, that I’ve had over 3500 students come through my classes since I began teaching full-time back in 1990. I’ve tried to pay attention to what worked and what didn’t in the courses I led. I hope one of my own “instructor effects” was to encourage my students to take responsibility for their own learning, just as you say. But even there, I find, there’s an art to this endeavor, mostly in the manner and contexts in which I as a teacher try to encourage my students. I’m constantly thinking about the effect my best instructors had on me, and constantly trying to weave that into the tapestry of my own teacherly imagination. I had some utterly magnificent teachers. They were all different, except for the clear dedication they all showed to helping me find and nurture my best self. In my own journey, I keep trying to make myself worthy of the love (sometimes tough love) and commitment they gave to me.

I’m thrilled, of course, to hear of the successes of problem- and challenge-based learning in the introductory CHEM courses. This is great news in an area that sorely needs it. Of course it’s a great thing when a problem is noticed, the extent of the problem is demonstrated, and a solution is found. I’m not anti-research or anti-numbers by any means (and neither was Carl Brigham). In the talk I gave at the Fashion Institute of Technology last January, I had fairly sharp words for some of my Miltonist colleagues regarding their unhelpful sneers at quantitative data in the humanities. I so wish I were a neuroscientist–at least, one like Hillary Blakeley. 🙂 My own “APGAR for Class Meetings” is a quantitative metric, and every day I used it I would calculate mean, median, and mode in front of the students–because it was fun, and because it offered three different portraits of how well the class had prepared. Is that analytics? If so, fine. But I understood “analytics” to mean something more specific, something along the lines of “business intelligence for academia”–a kind of data-mining of narrowly defined and measured behaviors in students, behaviors that as you note are only proxies for what we’re trying to investigate (and in my view, dangerously misleading proxies). *That* kind of analytics I have serious concerns about, as I’ve already explained in my blog posts. Are those data entirely useless? No. Do they carry the great risk of making mistaken assumptions about learning seem to be “facts”? Yes. When Chris Dede says our assumptions about learning are fundamentally flawed, what light does that shed on these questions? Yes, we know that time on task correlates well with better grades in most circumstances. But what tasks? And to what end? No offense to David Wiley, who’s done fine work in open education,  but I confess I was not delighted with that waterfall. I was, however, greatly nourished by Randy Bass’s presentation on “the problem of learning in the post-course era,” which analyzed the complexities of cognition much more successfully, in my view, especially in the light of our current cultural moment.

You say that my critique is widening. I don’t think so. I think the species of what I object to are proliferating, but they belong to the same genus.  What I object to, as I’ve explained, is a move away from cognitive and social approaches to learning and assessment, and a move toward more behaviorist models. I don’t object to course web sites. I object to the idea of “learning management,” just as I object to the widespread adoption of get-em-through Computer Aided Instruction, for all the reasons Ted Nelson outlines in “Computer Lib / Dream Machines.” I think people adopt behaviorist and “learning management” models because they yield more easily quantified results (the research is more focused, less messy, and thus more “convincing”) and can drive institutional decision-making more readily. These are not good reasons. These are reasons not connected with learning, at least as I understand the process. People may adopt them with the best of intentions, and genuinely care about student welfare. But in my view they’re also risking premature standardization and a kind of self-validating meaninglessness. In the midst of the “largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race” (Shirky), Blackboard demonstrated that what too many folks in higher education really wanted was a closed, neat, easily monitored environment that would preserve the worst of the transactional elements of education. These systems used to be called “course management systems,” but that wasn’t grand enough for Blackboard, so they became a “learning system” and then tried to assert (as I understand it) that they owned the patent on assigning different roles and permissions to various participants in a website.  EDUCAUSE itself protested when Blackboard sued Desire2Learn, a courageous stance given all the parties that Blackboard has helped to fund over the years.

I think a password-protected course website that helps to manage documents within a course has its uses, though I’d never say that such a site “manages” learning. I don’t think learning can be “managed”–as I’ve explained in my posts, it’s the wrong metaphor, and it does matter what we call things. What I see, though, is that such websites *become* the online presence for every aspect of the course, and thus furnish data on “student involvement” that form the basis for “analytics” that measure with fantastic precision an activity that occurs within, and perpetuates, a brutally reductive paradigm of learning. Some of my faculty colleagues resist working online because they’re Luddites or mulish or whatever, sure. (And faculty mulishness has its good side, too, though that rarely gets discussed.) But I also have colleagues who resist working online because “working online” means “using a ‘learning management system.'” Once they understand the other possibilities open to them, they get interested. Cole Camplese and the folks at PSU are exploring those other possibilities in ways I too admire. A large part of what I admire comes from their willingness to build within non-management paradigms of learning and expression. Obviously UMW Blogs is also leading in this area (and has also been an inspiration for PSU, as Cole will tell you himself).

Student cynicism about school breaks my heart, because that cynicism (except for the strongest, most rebellious of them) becomes cynicism about their own lives. Yet what I hear when I talk to students these days is a tremendous amount of cynicism. They know the game. They know the drill. Their “attention” is focused, all right; it’s focused on “getting through.” Stockholm syndrome comes next.

To cite Papert again: “Before the computer changed school, school changed the computer.” If you want to know why we haven’t gotten to the honeymoon (or even first base), that’s why. The promise of teaching and learning technologies, for me, involves changes in how we think about school. I’ve documented my thoughts in this area pretty widely over the last few years, so I won’t repeat them here. I’m not sure how to answer your question about my D or F students. I have had a few of those students, sure, and I try my best to reach them. I want all my students to succeed, to grow as learners and to attain the cognitive fluency that comes from hard work with intellection (which includes memory), experimentation, and articulation. The richness you kindly describe in my presentations comes from that desire, and the students’ answering commitment. I’m not sure what the control group would be for my “R&D,” or that it’d be ethical for me to design a class that deliberately impoverished the learning experience so I could get harder evidence of the effectiveness of my methods and the work we do together. (To be fair, I don’t think you’re asking me to do that–but the “control group” is a perennial problem in experimental design in education.)  I do know that I am regularly astonished by the quality and intensity of work students can do when they stop trying to “figure out what the teacher wants” and learn that the teacher wants them to be their best selves in a particular learning context. If you want more specifics on how to teach a huge intro-level course with those goals in mind, Mike Wesch would be the one to talk to. I’ve learned a huge amount from him, and I am particularly grateful for the example he sets of stubbornly insisting that the right kind of “instructor effect” can make a huge difference.

"Noise Professor" Zachary Dowell's cover for a book I keep trying to write....

When I starting talking about “love analytics” during an interview at ELI 2011, I was thinking of Mike’s beautiful story of his wife’s telling him to love his students and they would love him back. I am also inspired by what Mike has been saying about Erich Fromm’s book on the art of loving as a teaching/learning paradigm. Mike’s a social scientist who’s not skittish at all about data of any kind. But like James Fernandez and Grant McCracken, Mike foregrounds creativity as a mode of knowing, and has no truck with what Fernandez memorably calls “administered intellectuality.” Mike is also demonstrating how we as educators might come to grips with the principle of plenitude that Plato described long ago, a principle at the heart of transformative learning. Here’s how McCracken memorably imagines what might happen if Plato were alive today:

Plato, let’s say, returns to walk among us.   He becomes, inevitably, a figure of  controversy.  The talk show circuit demands his presence.  (“Today on Geraldo:  Plato—architect of Western culture or dead white male?  You decide!”)  There are doubts, of course.  Production assistants do not warm to elderly men who must be talked out of the wonder-struck examination of a parking meter.  (“You’re telling me any citizen may make a claim against this space by inserting a coin?  That there’s an implicit contract between the ‘motorist’ and other members of the polis?”)

But Plato is not entirely astonished by the contemporary world.  He has seen some aspects of our world before.  He would have no difficulty, for instance, with the blooming, buzzing quality of contemporary life.  He wouldn’t blink at poetry too diverse for a common theme or fashion dizzy with pluralism

Plato accepted the world as a place that bloomed and buzzed….

(Grant McCracken, Plenitude 2.0, Book One of Culture By Commotion. Available as a free “drafty book” download here. Don’t miss what McCracken says about “drafty books” at the end, as it’s the sort of thing Kathleen Fitzpatrick, HASTAC, NMC, and others have been working on in other emerging forms of scholarly communication. Also, God save me from such “production assistants” as McCracken describes above–and also from ever becoming one myself.)

If  “analytics” means trying to assess whether something has worked or not, of course I’m fine with that–as long as we keep the questions of “what is that ‘something’?” and “what do we mean by ‘worked’?” and “are our measures really adequate to what we want to know?” as rich and complex as they need to be. From what I see and hear, that’s not happening. A disturbing amount of the talk I’ve heard about “analytics” simply ignores those rich and complex necessities. You write, “Higher ed needs to get more students through successfully.” Through what? And what constitutes success? The getting through? That seems to me like a tautology. You write, “we need evidence, not anecdotes of instructional technology’s effectiveness to get a seat at the resource allocation table.” I love the word “anecdote.” It’s such a polite cuss word. 🙂 What about a learner’s self-report? An auto-ethnography? A work like Papert’s that tells the story of his own journey as a learner–this, mind you, a mathematician’s journey, a mathematician of the highest caliber who spent most of his career working on computers and education at MIT? Are these “anecdotes”?

Really, if the stories of transformative learning are not admissible evidence at the “resource allocation table,” then maybe we need to get our tools together and build a new table.

8 thoughts on “Building a new table: a response to John Fritz’s response

  1. Evolution anyone? Higher education, public school education, and the polis stand not in a crossroad now, but a kaleidoscopic landscape of swirling directions. On the white space chip in the nexus is evolution; the universe is unfolding as it should. Maybe some analytics will endure, but the polis is probably gonna need more than grades, “What do you get from all that learnin’?” Performance for the polis will become the ultimate analytic coupled with the most direct route to performance. Less learning is more cause now we have too much and where does it stop? Learning in the future will become more on a need to know basis, spurred by competition, technology, and creativity. What do you do when you’re not trying to please the teacher?

  2. Hi Gardner and folks
    Relating both to a previous post on technicians and their separate stairs, and to this post on course software you might like Manuel Castells’ Theory of Power in Networks which imho helps to identify the where of power so that it might be possible to understand how the invention and the philosophy or expression interrelate and what kinds of ideas, hands and minds are making what kinds of constructs to frame illustrate or scope? learning online =). j

  3. Pingback: Reading: The World is Open Chap. 3 – To Search and Scan » MITI

  4. Pingback: Reading: The World is Open Chap. 2 – To Search and Scan » MITI

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