Sunday, August 20, 2017

The End of Subtlety


A Variant of the Tree Falling in the Forest Question

If a long form essay posted online gets no readers, is there an idea?

* * * * *

The Following Charts My Trajectory as a Reader and as a Writer During Adulthood

A lesson from graduate school I learned at the time is that academic papers by economists needed to be unpacked by the reader.  Their meaning wasn't immediate.  The equations, in particular, needed to be derived.  The reader, by working through these derivations, would then begin to understand the text that accompanied them.  This meant that to read an economics paper you needed a large flat surface, part for the paper itself and part for a notebook or pad of ruled paper to do the derivations.  And you needed a good chunk of time to work through the ideas because those derivations would be far from immediate.

Sometime later, as an Assistant Professor with faculty friends in the Econ Department who did empirical work (I did only theory) and who would try to to read through my papers, they struggled with that task and often couldn't do it.  What I came to understand was two things.  First, the lesson I had learned in graduate school really only applied to a small subset of the profession.  If I wanted a broader audience for my work, I as the writer would have to do some of the unpacking that I had assumed until then was the job of the reader.  Second, this applied not just to the equations themselves but to the text that describes what the model is saying.  The implications needed to be drawn out.

This need as an author changed the way I behaved as a reader.   In graduate school, particularly in the first and second year, the papers we read were assigned to us by the instructors of the courses we took.  We read papers that were emblematic of a larger literature, but we didn't read the larger literature in addition.  So we achieved some breadth in coverage of topic at the expense of more depth on those topics that we did cover. Readers who are not authors tend to read this way. Academic authors, however, have a different obligation.  The author must understand the literature of papers that precede the author's own contribution and the author must be able to explain where the value add is in the author's paper.  Nevertheless, the writing is done for fellow academics, who are assumed to be familiar with the literature.  That familiarity means the author still can assume quite a bit about what the reader knows.  The author doesn't have to replicate that knowledge much if at all.  So, to a struggling graduate student trying to make sense of the paper, it would be a slug to get through, no doubt.  But for those who worked in the area, the paper shouldn't have been unduly difficult to read.

It is worth noting the parallel pleasure reading done at the time.  I joined the Book of the Month Club pretty soon after becoming a faculty member.  If I recall their mechanism, you didn't have to accept their monthly offering, which I usually didn't, but you did have to say no in that case.  Sometimes I was absent minded and forgot so acquired some titles I otherwise wouldn't have bought.  Some of those I read, for example, Ordinary People, which I must have liked because I remember getting some friends to go see the movie with me and we didn't go to the movies too often then.   Of course, the Sunday New York Times was mandatory.  If you would go out to brunch with a friend, which I would often do then, you'd share the paper and the question was which section you'd want to read first.  In grad school, I believe, I'd go for the Sports Section, then The Week in Review.  As an Assistant Professor, my tastes changed.  My preference was to start with the Book Review, then go to the Magazine.

Eventually, based on liking to read book reviews, I started to subscribe to The New York Review of Books.  It had an impact on me that is much more evident in hindsight.  It taught what good generalist writing is like that is aimed at an educated audience, though one with no specific expertise in the subject matter.  In particular, I became a fan of Stephen Jay Gould.  My absolute favorite essay by him is The Streak of Streaks.  When I started to push my blogging a bit after I learned that I could generate that type of prose on a regular basis, I modeled the writing after Gould's writing in that essay.

The next dramatic change in both reading and writing for me began in summer 1995 via SCALE. Burks Oakley, who was leading SCALE then, had set up a folder within FirstClass so that SCALE-affiliated folks could discuss the issues they were grappling with. This was my first experience with an online discussion group.  Technologically, Usenet News Groups had been around for some time by then, but they were mainly accessed by Engineering types.  This FirstClass discussion group had people from all around campus, both those teaching online and those supporting the teaching efforts.  It was all very new and for me extremely engaging.  There was a lot of exploratory discussion about how to do online teaching effectively.  And the people who participated in the discussion were quite passionate about it.  (Plus, with young kids at home we had essentially no social life outside doing family activity.  So the online discussions provided some alternative.)

Pretty much at the same time Burks set up a listserv for Sloan grantees who were doing stuff similar to what we were doing in SCALE.  These people were at campuses all around the U.S.  I became a fairly active participant in this forum as well.  It was a little different in topic coverage, partly because one of the participants was Frank Mayadas, the grant officer at the Sloan Foundation in charge of this program.  He had a vision of how this would all work.

The idea that online discussion would substitute entirely for face to face discussion encouraged the writing to be conversational.  Of course, email did that as well.  But with email at the time (quite different from now) you usually knew the other person ahead of time or would soon meet the person thereafter. The lags for meeting the people in these online discussion groups was much greater.  (Sloan had an annual conference, then at the World Trade Center.  Burks had workshops on campus where some of the people in the FirstClass discussion would show up.  Others I only met by happenstance.)  And the conversation was multilateral so participants might push the thread in all sorts of different directions.  I found I did well in this setting, often being able to contribute a novel idea to advance the conversation.  Indirectly, I believe my prior economics training was quite helpful with this, because I penetrated issues in a way that others did not.  So, to this day, I have a belief that the math and economics I learned has helped me as a writer, being able to better develop an argument that is layered and that needs to be developed fully.

Online communities of this sort have a certain half-life.  People leave the conversation for a variety of reasons.  The discussion group in FirstClass faded out in the spring 1996 semester.  The main factor, if I recall correctly, is that the guys in the group who were really teched-up had muzzled themselves somewhat the previous fall so as not to intimidate the other participants.  By the spring their posts were more geeky and the rest of us didn't want to read that stuff because we couldn't penetrate it.  The Sloan group continued for about 10 years, at least my own participation continued for that period.  (I remained subscribed to the listserv after that but was a lurker then.) There was one pretty obnoxious participant.  He irritated me but not enough to drive me away initially.  In 2004 there was a guest participant in the group who got quite upset because of what the obnoxious guy wrote.  After some time I wrote a post to try to reconcile things and to synthesize the discussion up till that point.  I got some private email telling me that was a really good post, but there was no further discussion about it on the list.  I stopped actively participating in the group soon after that.

I started to write a blog a few months later.  At the outset it was just something to try.  I had never kept a journal so had no sense of what it would be like to write mainly, if not totally, for yourself.  At the outside I told myself I'd do it for two weeks, one post each day, not tell a soul, and then see where I was after that.   I would be able to generate my piece in about an hour and did that the first thing in the morning, before work.  I found that the writing satisfied a need I had.  I had a lot of issues to deal with that found no other form of expression, more about the general direction we were taking with ed tech than with specific implementation issues.  The latter I could talk about with others and did quite regularly.  But on the general direction stuff, those conversations never happened, except perhaps with my colleagues on the CIC Learning Technology Group where we would meet quarterly.  The dinners the night before the meetings were what I really looked forward to.  I needed to have those sort of conversations at least once a week, not just four times a year.  But there weren't the right people on campus to have those discussions, for the most part.  The blogging was like having the conversation with myself.

One of the things I learned at the time is how different this sort of writing was from the academic writing I had been trained to do.  For the academic writing, all the thinking preceded the writing.  The job of the writing was to take your prior thinking and put it in a form where others could digest it.  With the blogging, in contrast, while there would be a skeleton of what the post would be about as I sat down at my desk, other related ideas would emerge as I was composing.  It was as if the entire post was like the paper cover of a plastic straw that has been removed and then folded up tightly.  At the beginning all you see is the first fold. Writing becomes like unfolding.  More of the paper cover becomes visible as you continue to write.  A different metaphor is that you make it up as you go along, but the inventions weren't random, they had to fit in some way.   This is why I like the folded straw cover image.  The connections are already there.  The writer's job then is to find them.  Writing becomes a process of discovery.  That's what it felt like.

About 5 weeks into the blog I wrote a post called Discordant Views, which crystallized this metaphor after reading some essays by Donald Murray, but then contrasted that with a quite different view of what learning is about.  Here are the first three paragraphs from that piece:

Because of my interest in getting students involved as mentors/instructors, I did a little searching on "Learning by Teaching" and found a book of articles by Donald M. Murray that date back to the 60's and 70's. They really are more on writing than on teaching - that is fine with me. I've now read a couple of these and there are two themes evident: (1) writing is discovery, the writer doesn't know what she will be writing as she begins to compose but learns through the construction of the sentences what is in her mind, and (2) writing is a solitary activity, the writer is fundamentally alone at the time of composition. The notion of writing as discovery is almost magical. Where do those ideas come from? Murray says its from inward search and that is a hard, perhaps awkward and uncomfortable process. Nevertheless, it has to be solitary, even if the core ideas have already been written about by a host of others. Those ideas are still novel for the writer and it is that invention that gives freshness to the writing.

Because I'm eclectic in what I read and do bounce from one area to the next, it is perhaps not surprising to find opposing viewpoints to Murray, but I confess that I'm troubled because each view resonates with me somewhat, yet I can't find a way to reconcile the differences.

In the current issue of Educause Quarterly, there is a brief article by Diana Oblinger on planning for learning spaces. In that piece she states a "Learning Principle" - learning is social, the consequence of which is that learning spaces be designed to accommodate group work. Of course I agree with the conclusion. I'm just not sure about the principle. I would rather it said "some learning is social" specifically the type of learning we campuses are trying to engender in the spaces we design for learning. This would accommodate the Murray view - some (other) learning is individualistic; we recognize that but don't design space for it because individuals will do such work in their own private spaces. Oblinger could have stated it this way, but didn't. I'm not sure why, but I've got this feeling that 5 years from now we in ed tech will be asking why we stopped advocating for introspection and deep individual thinking. We need that and group learning, in my opinion. But we don't seem able to articulate that. Instead we seem to take sides.

In fact, this tension between introspection and deep individual thinking, on the one hand, and learning in a social setting, on the other is the core issue that motivated the current post.  It seems that social interaction is winning, in a big way now, and introspection is playing at best a secondary role, maybe a tertiary role.  I would like to consider some of the causes for that outcome, but want to conclude charting my trajectory first.

Early on with the blog there was really very little difference between writing my posts as I was doing versus hand writing a journal entry into a notebook.  I prefer to compose at the keyboard, partly because my handwriting is terrible, and partly because edits can be made more readily that way, but that the posts were online was of no consequence at first.  Then I told some friends about the blog and asked them to take a look for their reaction.  Burks was probably the first person I told and I got positive feedback from him, which was encouraging.  That some friends were looking at what I write was really nothing new.  For example, Burks had been part of both of the discussion groups I talked about above.  I was used to his seeing my writing.

Things started to take off a couple of months later.  This post, How Many CMS Are Enough?, is the first post where I had significant comments from people I didn't know previously.  Less than a month later Scott Leslie made this post about my blog.  (Note that url for my blog he posted is old and no longer works.)  Scott was pretty well known in the Higher Ed edublog community and I gathered that his blog attracted the eyeballs of quite a few people.  Pretty soon after that post I started to have a stream of readers.  Equally important, for both my reading and writing, is that I became aware of the edublog community as something to pay attention to.  I learned how to use a blog reader, at the time that was Bloglines, and subscribed to many blogs that I read quite regularly.  I no longer have an archive of my subscriptions then, but this post from a few years later gives the author's then list.  (Or take a look at the blogroll here, which is much more extensive.)  My subscriptions overlapped with that list and there were several others not on the list that I read as well.

I was in a different situation than the other bloggers that folks would read because I had a senior management position in ed tech.  Most people at other campuses with parallel positions to the one I had didn't blog.  They preferred to keep their cards close to the vest.  So, in particular, the vendors started to read my blog as they were pretty desperate to understand what management on the campuses was thinking on a host of issues.  But I also had quite a few readers who were faculty and others who were learning technologists, probably some administrators among them.  There were also a large number of people who would find a particular post via a Web search.  It was a happy accident for me that Google had purchased Blogger a couple of years before I started blogging.  I believe that then Blogger posts would get a privileged ranking in their search algorithm.  Further the posts that I made specifically about some technology, for example this one called Futzing with Elgg, would get many more hits than my usual fare, which was not directly on the technology but rather on the social implications from use of the technology.

Writing for the therapy and the learning it provides is one thing.  Both of those might be had by journal writing that nobody else reads.  That there are external readers has two different effects, one salutary, the other pernicious.  The good effect is that some of those readers communicate their interests and their questions.  That helps to better focus the writing, to be able to address the audience and make the writing useful to them.  Further, when those readers are themselves writers of their own blog, a sense of community begins to develop.  Then, as a writer you start to feel like you're one part of a much larger whole.  The bad consequence results from hearing praise from readers and developing a narcissistic desire to replicate that, so that you start looking for it.  Having a hit counter, for example, can become an object of obsession. Tracking who finds your stuff is a reason to be always online, even as there is a lot of other work to do that is not online.

This came to a head after Stephen Downes, the prolific blogger, he runs the site OLD Daily, announced he was taking a hiatus of unspecified length, presumably because he was burned out from doing his regular work. After that, I wrote a post about burnout.  D'Arcy Norman picked up on that and wrote his own post.  There was then a little comment thread that followed with several people, about the benefits and pitfalls of being online, but some consensus among the participants that we were all doing it, quite a lot actually.   It's worth noting that D'Arcy's post is dated March 7, 2006, more than a decade ago.  Then, mobile computing meant laptops, not smartphones.  And for many of us, this being online was done from our desks, at work or at home.  Being online meant we weren't getting out and about.  That was part of the problem.

A couple of years later Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody.  Web 2.0 had succeeded in enabling any potential author to self-publish the author's work online, for the rest of the world to access.  And it meant that a few people with intent and some smarts about how to deliver a message could foment a social movement, armed with no other resources than their wits.  The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated the power of Shirky's hypothesis.  Yet online was doing something else to us as readers, probably not what those aspiring online writers were hoping for from their potential audience.  First, the sheer volume of stuff out there meant that any reader would have to sort the stuff into two categories.  Most would go in the ignore-pile.  The rest would go in the okay-I'll-look-at-it-pile.  For email we could apply filters to let much of this sorting happen automatically.

For stuff that was out there on the Web, there needed to be some other mechanism.  Uber bloggers like Stephen Downes became Web traffic directors.  If they thought a post was interesting they'd write a summary about it, link to it, and may of their regular followers would duly click the link.  (What sort of read these followers would give the piece is anyone's guess.)  Downes did that on occasion for one of my posts, for which I'm grateful.  Yet he was also critical of me for being too prolix, sometimes giving him a lot more than he wanted on the subject.  (On one post he found my indirect treatment of the subject matter appropriate, but most of the time it was too much for him.)  I didn't pay attention to this criticism other than to note it.  In retrospect, the criticism was prescient.  However, to address the criticism properly, it is unclear whether I should have written shorter posts, or if I should have just stopped posting altogether.  That is one of the questions I'm asking here.

Apart from the content filtering issues, since too much content got through to be manageable, people really developed a double filtering approach.  They would skim stuff that got through the first filter.  Then they'd apply perhaps unarticulated criteria to decide whether to give the piece a more serious read.  Yet having too much on your plate was still a chronic issue because, in addition to all this reading, everyone was also an author (of email if not of a blog) and that was on top of work done via face to face communication or on the phone.  (An administrator on campus goes from one meeting to the next.  The staff who worked for me spent a good chunk of their day consulting with instructors or sometimes with other staff on campus.)   Multiprocessing developed as the way to manage the too-much-on-your-plate problem.  A cottage industry soon emerged to critique multiprocessing.  This piece by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? was one of the more widely read on the subject.  Cognitively challenging tasks (I recall a presentation by Peter Doolittle where he had us count backwards from 100 by 7's) require paying attention and concentrating on that matter only.  Our ability to do this has lessened, according to Carr.  We've developed habits where we want to divert attention rather than focus - check email, see if anyone has accessed our blog, maybe reread our own latest creation, and a bunch of other stuff like that.

So, if you wrote a brilliant essay and published it in your blog, there really was no way of knowing whether the ideas were being communicated to those people who did find the post and started to read it.  This realization is unnerving, especially if your motive for writing that brilliant essay essay is to educate the audience.  That said, the reputation of my blog was probably highest right around the time Carr's piece came out.  As a consequence, later that fall I received two different invitations to do writing elsewhere, from people who knew me (the first invitation) and people who knew of me (the second invitation).  I opted to do the first but not the second, because I didn't know whether I could handle the workload involved in doing both.  In retrospect, this was also an error.  A fledgling writer should accept all invitations.  Who knows where that might lead?  Plus, about twenty months later I retired.  If I could have had a writing gig in hand then that would have been very good for me.

To this not quite stable situation defined by Web 2.0, the emerging technology made fundamental changes.  The three I'll focus on are Facebook, Twitter, and the smartphone.   For sharing photos of your cat, or a selfie of you doing something a little bit foolish but not too risqué, or travel photos, these technologies are a pure boon.  They make the sharing of stuff like this so much easier.  Messages of good cheer, as a rule, benefit from social media, with the recipients and the senders sharing in the benefit.

But there are some downsides.  One is something we learned back in the 1990s when we were using FirstClass and similar applications (WebBoard, Allaire Forums, etc.).  People have a tendency to say things when composing at the keyboard that they would never say in face to face conversation.  Our filters for what is appropriate work differently when operating online.  Many of us learned the lesson the hard way to never write an email when you are angry.  Calm down first.  And, even if we learned the lesson for email, we then forgot it when applied to these other environments.

Next, the newer technology is biased toward short form communication.  Nobody wants to read a long essay on their phone, unless they really have to read the essay and they don't have access to it any other way.  But short form technology is terrible for discussing complex social issues.  I am amazed that so many people don't seem to understand that.  If you care about an issue, write a white paper on it and then write a good two-page executive summary, which is what other people will read.  But writing a white paper takes time, while blurting out something is a snap.  And, given current reading habits, many people won't even read the executive summary.  If you want a broad audience for your ideas, a Tweet does the job, even if it does a total injustice to the subject matter.

Then there is the problem that you don't know your audience when composing your stuff.  This is surely true for Twitter.  It is also true in Facebook when you comment on a friend's post, where a friend of that friend might respond to your comment, but you don't know that person.

It is an ideal in our society that we can argue with one another when we disagree about the issues.  Earlier I wrote a post called On learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't.  My view is that most people don't know how to argue, but many of these people feel obligated to participate in contentious discussions on uncomfortable subject matter, with the obligation stemming from the ideal articulated in the first sentence.  Some of us blindly enter into arguments online that invariably don't go well.  As a writer I know that I will shape what I say based on my knowledge of the audience.  Why doesn't that same thought apply to these online discussions?  We seem to have the mistaken belief that in arguing on contentious matters that our response should depend only on our own beliefs and not on the beliefs of the person we are arguing with.  It then becomes a contest to one up the other person rather than to illuminate the truth.  That mistake leads to a lot of too glib responses as well as to very frequent ad hominem attacks on people who don't deserve to be treated that way.  We let the convenience that these technologies afford impair our good judgment on these matters.

* * * * *

I was very slow to use Twitter, because it was antithetical to the blogging I do.  But I do have this odd habit of writing rhymes.  Eventually I learned that the 140 character limit tends to improve the quality of those - it doesn't give you enough rope to hang yourself.  So on most days I post one Tweet, a daily rhyme, if you will.  I have it set up for Twitter to feed Facebook.  That works maybe 60% of the time.  The rest of the time I copy the Tweet and repost it in Facebook manually.  Some years ago I had my Blogger feed repost as a Facebook note.  When that stopped working I took to do it manually.   So my friends in Facebook are now exposed to both of these forms of expression.  Add to that one more type of post.  I take one of the four quotes of the day and repost that along with a quip from me that relates to the quote.

As I previously mentioned the narcissism in monitoring my blog hit counter, I want to note that watching the red Notifications indicator light up in Facebook is that much more addictive. The Like button, in particular, is on the one hand genius, on the other hand an instrument of the devil.

From this I know that they rhymes have a much better batting average getting through to my friends.  The quotes with the quips are next.  Now, and for the past several months, the long form essays are like grapes dying on the vine. I don't know if that's a permanent thing or more a consequence of the times in which we live.

My dilemma is that working through a piece like this one is part of my personality.  I need to do the thinking that is in the background to produce this sort of essay, if just for me to keep being me.  I am usually motivated in writing one of these essays to problem solve on a social issue and then to offer my theoretical solution, using the writing to enable to process to work it all through.  Until I got involved with ed tech, I was quite used to coming up with ideas that other people ignored.  That happened all the time.  During my time as an administrator on campus, however, people started to pay attention to what I said, sometimes even to act on it.  I got used to the attention I received.  When I retired, I got several emails from friends that said they valued my opinions.  It did not occur to me at the time that some of the value was not in what I wrote, but rather in the position I had when I wrote my stuff.

The opinions of retired people, particularly when they are not expressing about their own self-interest, are not as valued as the opinions of others, no matter how well articulated.  It's too easy to put the guy in the doddering old fool category.  The simple fact that he produces these very long pieces is evidence enough that he's lost touch with reality.  Everybody else is too busy to read them or too impatient to read them.

Further, there is still the writing in well regarded periodicals that remains in long form (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.).  There is an abundance of this sort of writing.  The diligent reader doesn't need to add to the pile.  It's already too hard to keep up.

In figuring out how to close this piece, I wondered if I was writing an obituary.  I decided against that.  Instead, I imagine myself as a latter day Don Quixote.  Chivalry is dead.  Thinking, if not quite dead yet, has fallen by the wayside.  So I will tilt at my windmills, not expecting anything to come of it, but still hoping for a miracle that something does.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Fear of Emasculation

For the last several months, I've been reading the newspaper less and less.  It seemed like the same story, over and over again.  And since the story was so depressing I asked myself, why bother?  Sunday was different.  I read quite a few pieces - mainly opinion as is my habit - on what seemed like a variety of topics.  I wondered if it was possible to connect the dots between them in some way.  To make that more concrete, I asked the following question.  Is the news about Google from last week somehow connected to what recently occurred in Charlottesville?

As you might guess from reading my title, I believe there is a connection and that is it.  Here's a bit of disclaimer before going further.  I tend to see connection in disparate things.  Sometimes those are really there.  Other times, I'm probably forcing the issue beyond what the evidence suggests.  In those cases where I'm right, making note of the connection provides some insight into the underlying causality.  We really do need to understand the causality before we talk about remedies, both those currently in place and potential alternatives.  In this piece, I won't consider remedies at all and will focus only on the underlying issue.  I will do this by considering a variety of snippets that are neither current nor directly related to these matters.  They are meant to illuminate and bring out the parallels that seem evident to me.

Let's begin with this one, a clip from SNL circa 1990, when I still watched the show - Hans and Franz Pumping You Up.   The bit is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at the height of his film popularity then.  (Terminator 2 - Hasta la vista, baby - would come out the following year.)  Satirical comedy of this sort gives some insight into popular stereotypes, in this case what it means to be a man.  It is about being strong, but it is more than that.  It is being strong of a certain type.  This is not strong in the sense of speak softly but carry a big stick.  This is totally in your face.  It is talking trash, the way Larry Bird talked trash.  Talking trash includes putdowns of rivals.  The ultimate putdown for Hans and Franz is to call somebody a girly man.  (You can hear that usage around the 1:35 mark of the clip.  Dana Carvey as Hans is talking then.)

So there are two take aways from this particular example.  One is the implied phobia in males from being identified with feminine characteristics - somehow this make you less manly and you should be ashamed if that is the case.  The other is that the notion of what it means to be strong may have changed from the time I was a kid to when this SNL skit was aired.  With the earlier notion a strong person was courageous but didn't show bluster.  That would have been unseemly. With the later version, it's part of the package.  It may be that both versions co-exist now, in which case we should ask when one will prevail and not the other as well as why that is the case.

This next snip is from my class last fall, a blog post by a student who writes under an alias, the first real post of the course.  The class in on The Economics of Organizations and the prompt for this post asked for students to discuss some of their own experiences with organizations.  He wrote about his fraternity, a very interesting read for the mindset it illustrates.  He writes about how the ritual of initiation transformed him and his fellow pledges from a boy into a man.  Many years earlier I had a student who joined the Marines after taking my course; I believe he enlisted for this purpose of entering manhood.  When I next saw him after his training had concluded, he had gotten noticeably thicker in the chest and the upper arms.  In my class from last fall there was a different student who was in ROTC.  He had done a summer of boot camp of some sort in Northern Virginia.  From the little I know about it, I believe such intensive experiences can be transformative.  I was far more skeptical that one hell week in a frat could have a like effect.

After describing the initiation process he discussed how the national organization had banned the initiation week, as something entirely unnecessary.  He was very upset by that.  He thought the ritual of initiation integral to what the fraternity was about.  Eliminating the ritual would eventually kill the fraternity.  He thought the people at the national were misguided in banning the practice and he felt aggrieved about it as a consequence.  His fellow fraternity members were likewise aggrieved.

I wrote extensive comments on this post.  I deliberately didn't engage my own skepticism about what he argued, but instead looked at what the national was doing from the lens of liability insurance and limiting the chance that liability occurs after some incident at the frat where things went too far and turned out horribly wrong, along with another argument about maturing without the need for a rite of passage like fraternity initiation.  In his response (which was quite tardy) he engaged the second argument, but not the first.  He was able to maintain his grievance that way.  It was important to him, so I perceived, that he not cave in.

I should note that a different student in the class also wrote about the general issue of the University cracking down on the Greek system and that the bad press that fraternities and sororities have received the past few years had been unfair.  She reported that her sorority was disadvantaged as a consequence.  She made the point that the bad actors were usually fraternities, not sororities, but the new rules applied equally to both.  There is thus the similarity between the two posts about feeling resentment toward the new rules.  But this second post didn't try to defend sorority practices as fundamental to personal transformation of the sorority members.   A couple of years earlier I had a student who was then president of her sorority and she used that as an example for most every post.  She referred to the members as girls, not women, which I found noteworthy.  She also gave the distinct impression that most members who were not sorority officers were interested in the sorority primarily as a means for having fun, which for me is not hard to imagine at all, but is hard to reconcile with the notion of personal transformation.

In any event, it is useful to consider the fraternity as a metaphor, for the type of people it attracts and the mental outlook it encourages in its members.  There are service fraternities and academically oriented fraternities that are not based in a common living arrangement.  There are also student organizations that are similar to fraternities but don't call themselves that.  One of those that I'm a little bit aware of is ACM, which attracts students interested in programming and other computer science and computer engineering issues.  At least at Illinois, when I was told about it (fall 2009), the student members talked trash with one another as the normal banter within the group.

This third snippet is meant to suggest there are other possibilities for what it means to be a man (really what it means to be an adult).  I wrote about this in a post on my dad's morality and whether it holds up today.  I was discussing various principles that taken together gave the core of my dad's beliefs.  This is the most relevant paragraph to the current discussion.

The second comes from when I was a working adult and my parents had moved to Century Village West, a very large condominium community for retirees, most of whom are Jewish.  We referred to the men who lived there as AKs, my dad included.  This bit of philosophy is how the world seems from the perspective of an AK.  My dad divided the adult non-retired population into two groups.  Most were in the first group, SHs.  (My dad would say the SH word out in long form.  I'm using initials here only because I'd prefer not to write an expletive repeatedly in this post.)  These people were SHs because they cared about themselves only and were quite willing to screw others for personal benefit.  The much smaller group were human beings (or in Yiddish mensches).  When I would visit my parents in Century Village I would completely surrender myself to their rhythms and ways of doing things, the only way I knew that we'd all get along.  Being a mensch meant you did whatever it took to get along.  In this case the ethical imploration was, don't be an SH.

Let's make a few further points on this.  First, while the notion of a mensch is fundamentally Jewish, by the time I was a kid the idea had penetrated the popular culture, as evidenced by this schmaltzy movie, The Apartment.  Second, similar notions can be found in other religions.  Human decency is the core idea.  Yet, recalling my dad's expression, SH's exist in all religions.  Hatefulness is in no short supply.  If people can barely fend for themselves, their selfishness may be easier to understand and accept.  Otherwise, it is hard to tolerate.  Third, it may be that most of us act one way as the general rule, but then in special domains we act either even more like a mensch, as I did when visiting my parents in their condo, or more like an SH, talking trash when in some competition.  Around the time of that Hans and Franz bit, a group of us, professors and graduate students mainly from the Econ department, would have boys night out and play some poker about once a month.  The talk at the card table was a little more aggressive, though we played dime-quarter with a three-raise limit to deliberately keep the maximum somebody would lose within reasonable bounds.  The point here is that competition calls for a different tone than when you are helping somebody out.

My sense of things is that those who try to be a mensch and have been doing so for some time don't fear emasculation, though if I may take myself as an example, there are many other things of which such people might be phobic.  Being a mensch doesn't cure those fears, only this particular one.  Indeed, being a mensch may expose you more to these other fears as it requires shedding some layers of self-protection in order to open up oneself to others.   People who view manhood as strength, in contrast, have an inner fear of emasculation.  (Recall the scene from the Godfather with Johnny Fontaine.)  That is true whether the strength is physical or intellectual.  The fear may remain dormant when the person is successful.  It comes out when the person is put under extreme stress, where the person isn't capable of relieving that stress on his own.

I want to bring in one more snippet and then tie all of them taken together to the current news.  This one is about the first episode of the TV miniseries, Centennial, entitled Only the Rocks Live Forever, with a focus on the character Pasquinel, who is a French Canadian trapper and trader.  He has traveled far into the wilderness in what is now Colorado.  He is the embodiment of manhood as strength.  Yet he is fair with the Indians he encounters.  He has an initial harrowing experience with the Arapaho chief Lame Beaver, but they both stand down.  Soon thereafter they become trusted friends.  Lame Beaver, before he dies, requests that Paquinel marry his daughter.  Pasquinel honors this request.  Yet  Pasquinel is no saint.  Far from it.  He also takes another wife, this time white, one who lives in St. Louis and is the daughter of one of his business partners.  The polygamy notwithstanding, even though it creates some awkwardness because he can only be in one place at a time, Pasquinel treats people decently as long as they have done no harm to him.  He is ruthless with those who have stolen from him or who try to hurt him.  So this snippet illustrates that the strong person who treats others with disregard or is mean to them, when there has been no prior provocation, creates a distortion of the ideal that the Pasquinel character embodies, where human decency is both the norm and the initial way to behave.  Selfishness by the strong as a first move should not be championed.

* * * * *

To make the previous discussion operational, one needs some model as to how the fears we have influence our behavior and our preferences with regard to the preferred culture in which to live and work.  I am not a psychologist nor a sociologist.  So I will do some hand waving here.  My underlying assumption is that the psychology of misogyny and the psychology of racism are fundamentally the same.  They are both about boosting the ego of the practitioner, to cover up for fundamental fears.  There are surely differences in degree.  If there are also differences in kind, what I say next is somewhat off, perhaps totally off.  I will treat each as an aggressive response to the fear of emasculation.

I have reached this point in writing this essay without having read James Damore's essay about Google culture.  I had read several pieces about the essay, but hadn't read it myself.  I've just had a look.  My reaction follows.  I want to note this sequencing here for the following reason.  It may seem that I cooked the above to refute what Damore has to say.  I did not.  What actually happened is that I found this piece in the News-Gazette where the CS Department here criticizes Damore's essay.  From this I learned he is a U of I grad, class of 2010, though in Biology rather than Computer Science.  The thing is, his date of graduation is near to when I learned the little bit I did about ACM.  Was Damore a member of ACM when he was a student here?  That would be an interesting tidbit to know.  In any event, having garnered this background information I began to make the connection between Damore and my student from last fall whom I wrote about above.  The similarities seemed strong to me, especially in each holding to their own view passionately and in each possessing a strong sense of grievance.

Pretty early in Damore's essay the reader is confronted with this table in a section called Google's Biases.  This precedes any discussion of gender. I really just want to focus on the table, but because the PDF split it across two pages, my screen shot includes some of the surrounding text as well and I will make note of one bit of that.



I found the expression"deep moral preferences and thus biases" puzzling.  Let me suggest what I have in mind via recommending that we take an axiomatic approach.  We should first identify a few axioms that constitutes what it means to be ethical.  If you are religious, that might be the ten commandments. Alternatively, you might consider a set of ethical principles as articulated by some political philosopher, such as John Rawls in his essay Justice as Fairness.  I went through such an exercise in a post called A schlub in a business school, which was written 9 years ago when the economy was tanking and where it was quite evident that the burst of the housing bubble was due to a massive amount of irresponsible behavior - predatory lending, if you will.  So, I started with the question, what does responsibility mean?  (At the time there was a lot of discussion about responsibility in my college.)  I deconstructed responsibility into three axioms: 1) responsibility as obligation, 2) responsibility as enlightened self-interest, and 3) responsibility as belief in The Golden Rule. Now this may not be perfect.  Defining the boundary of each of these is likely to be quite difficult and, as I have noted recently, the philosopher Peter Singer makes the same point about the difficulty with determining the boundary.  I can also imagine that the ethical system we focus on not make responsibility the exclusive province.  But in any system that I can envision, The Golden Rule or some equivalent would be one of the axioms.

Now, to continue with this program, there might be Left Preferences about social behavior that provide a set of additional axioms and Right Preferences about social behavior that offer a different set of additional axioms.  Then, take the common axioms that are the ethical principles and the two different sets of preference axioms and from that derive something like the table that Damore gives us.  In this exercise, you can't choose your ethical principles.  They are there for moral people to adhere to.  You can choose your political preferences and we might disagree about those.

Given that program, we might then go in the opposite direction.  Take a table such as what Damore provides.  Can the ethical principles be extracted from those.  In particular, can The Golden Rule be extracted from those.  My reading of the table is that The Golden Rule can be extracted from the Left Biases column, but it can't be extracted from the Right Biases column.  If Damore or some other Conservative can show convincingly that my reading of the table is in error and they can get The Golden Rule out from their side of the table, then we can have a conversation.  Otherwise, this table appears to be the artifice of an SH who wants to claim the moral high ground, when no such claim is warranted.

I also found the table too reductive to be useful to me.  I am entirely ignorant of how things are inside Google, but my hope is that it would be too reductive there as well.  As I mentioned in the previous section, I try to be a mensch, which if the table did make sense would put in on the left side.  But I find I'm in all the boxes, to some degree.  For example, on the top line, I want my undergraduate students to call me Professor Arvan and not address me by my first name, yet I will go out of my way to help a struggling student, as long as I can see the student is trying. This is such a simple example too.  How can the table accurately describe people's preferences in a much more complex setting?  On the next line, for example, weren't most of us taught that we're the outcome of both nature and nurture?  I still subscribe to that view.   Yet I believe that some differences are better explained by variation in inherent talents, even while I also believe in the importance of Deliberate Practice as described by Ericsson, et. al.   Even this, however, is not sufficient.  We must come to terms with the observation that income mobility is far less in the U.S. than in other developed countries.  This makes our system seemed rigged, an argument advanced by Richard Reeves in an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  If the system is rigged, there is a problem with the entry on the second line in the right column.  Of course, Reeves works at Brookings, a left-leaning think tank.  So Damore and his buddies might be inclined to disregard that argument.  Yet the income mobility facts themselves are not in dispute, as far as I know.

There is a second issue with the table that I don't get.  Damore was an employee at Google until he was let go.  He was not part of Google's management team.  Doesn't management have the prerogative to run the company as it wants, subject to Board approval.  If Damore thinks Google's management is making an error by enforcing the left column of the table then: (1) Wouldn't the market discipline Google for making that mistake?  Is there any evidence of such market discipline?  (2) Couldn't Damore find work elsewhere at another company that doesn't make that mistake or start up his own venture?  (3) And, in the meantime, couldn't Damore live the left column at work and the right column when he is on his own time (and then not needing to write that memo)?

On point (3) I'd like to bring in a fact that I learned from this piece, I'm a woman in computer science.  Let me ladysplain the Google memo to you.  (Otherwise, I will not take on the arguments in that essay.)  Google is an elite employer, hiring only 1% of its applicants, presumably the best and the brightest.  This F. Scott Fitzgerald quote therefore seems relevant.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

If Damore and other Google employees can, in fact, do this, why is there such a strong sense of grievance?  Is it that they don't want to do this, because that offends their sensibilities?  In other words, is there no anti-productive effective at all by playing the left column, only some disgruntled male employees who nonetheless are as productive as they would be otherwise?  Or, perhaps, there might be some anti-productive effect, which could indicate that these employees are not quite as talented as they think they are.

There are two other issues with the table as structured.  There is no concept of social distance associated with it, no sense that we might behave differently with those very close to us, our immediate family and our very good friends, than with those who are somewhat close, and again differently with people we don't know at all. One way to reconcile my being in every cell of the table is to bring social distance into the discussion.  I am more on the left hand side with those close to me, more on the right with those who are far away. Unlike Damore, I do value collegiality, a lot.  And as I have written recently, I come to treat people who might potentially become close to me, students or work colleagues, with a sense of affection at the outset.  Most won't penetrate my outer boundary, but a few will and I'd like to encourage the possibility.  I will readily admit to there being jerks in the world - quite a lot of them in my experience.  My preference would be to not have to deal with them at all.  My having authority is useful for dealing with jerks.  Then I can say bugger off (or other words to that effect).  Authority is not useful for bringing people closer.  For that, we're all the same at core, though clearly possessing our own idiosyncratic characteristics, which is what makes the interactions fun and engaging.

Given this omission, one has to wonder why it's not considered.  This may be a generational thing.  For people that I feel close to my preferred mode of interaction is face to face conversation over coffee or a meal.  Online interaction is great, especially in being able to stay in touch with a much larger circle of people than I otherwise could, but if face to face conversation is available it is much better.  The Sherry Turkle critique applies to my generation as well as to Millenials, but my generation still has this affinity for face to face conversation.  If Millenials have a greater fraction of their interactions online, particularly on their phones where by the nature of the medium text messaging is terse, much potential richness in the discussion is lost. This may create the impression that everyone else is equidistant.  If that is true, then one is apt to embrace a more pure form of interaction, either always on the left side of the table or always on the right.  It is this purity which I find so frightening.  This gets me to the next point.

There is also the issue of whether unrestrained authority eventually goes over the deep end, particularly when operating under stress.  A good read about this is John Hersey's The War Lover.  (I thought the movie version with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner wasn't very good.  To get a sense of the issues here you need to read the book.)  Self-restraint on this is surely better than external constraint.  Self-restraint, in turn, emerges when even those with immense authority nonetheless possess a modicum of human decency and likewise, those followers of the authority figure also maintain an element of human decency.  On this one, I was pleasantly surprised by Stanley McChrystal's Op-Ed, Save PBS.  It makes us safer.  This is one example of somebody most of us would associate with the right column of the table operating on the other side.  In my ideal, we would all do that.  We would differ in degree, to be sure, but we would be not be purely on one side or the other.  All things in moderation.  This is where self-restraint comes from.  Otherwise the possibility of going over the deep end seems far too likely.  The examples of that abound. 

This concludes my simple critique of Damore's argument, without ever getting at the gender issues.  I believe there are fundamental flaws before you get that far.  When I used to read economic working papers that one of my colleagues wrote (this was in the 1980s and early 1990s), once I found a serious error I would stop reading the rest of the paper. This would infuriate my friend and co-author Jan Bruckner, though he would nonetheless want me to have a read of his next paper (or the paper written by one of his students) because he valued my criticism.   In the case of Damore's paper, I did read further, more to get a sense of what the furor was about than for any other reason.  Many others have commented on it.  I will leave it at that.

I wish the simple critique would suffice, but it does not.  Attention must now shift from Damore's memo to Google as a company and to the entire ethos of Silicon Valley, as well as the rest of the IT industry situated elsewhere (so Amazon and Microsoft as well as Apple and Facebook and others).  The broader critique is suggested in this piece, Google Doesn't Want What's Best for Us.  There are several points to the argument.  The first is that these companies are huge monopolies and are essentially uncontested within their own market niche.  Where I asked the rhetorical question above about whether the market would discipline Google for making an unwise business decision, the reality is that Google's market power gives it an enormous buffer to manage the ill effects from any one poor decision.  The market power is coupled with a Libertarian outlook that informs upper level management.  The Libertarian view then is in an unholy alliance with the brogrammer culture.  Both abhor external constraint, though for quite different reasons.

The second point is that where in the days when GM was America's largest company the nature of the relationship between consumers and producers was much more bilateral, now things have changed and the relationship is triangular.  We users are a big part of the equation, even as we don't pay directly for services such as those that Google provides.  The paying customers are the advertisers.  Our use then offers personalized information that the advertisers crave, so they can customize their message to us.  Google is the custodian of much of this personalized information and there is a huge amount of data of this sort.  (For example, I must have done well over 100 Google searches just to write this post.)  It is troubling for somebody else to have the goods on you, especially so when that person or organization is not otherwise close to you.  How can you be sure that the information won't be used for some nefarious purpose in the future?  (Or that it won't be hacked in the future and then used for a nefarious purpose.)  So it becomes more important than ever for there to be a trust relationship between these big monopoly providers and users like me.  How can that work, however, if I'm of a Liberal orientation and they are Libertarian?

So, as the linked piece argues, Google tries to have it both ways.  The internal culture to Google that Damore critiques is Liberal, at least in some domains, so it can appease users like me.  This makes the company two-faced, since it still has these strong Libertarian leanings at the top.  The inherent inconsistency must eventually lead to fracture.  In that sense, the Damore memo is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. How can this hold together in the future?  My own approach to this dilemma as a user is to seek self-protection by relying on many different vendors for my cloud use, with my personal data scattered across them.  With Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, I'm guessing this works reasonably well.  I'm afraid that both Facebook and Google have far too much information about me for me to feel comfortable.  What recourse, if any, do I have and do people like me have?  I don't know.  And the issue will surely get more acute as the reliance on AI gets greater and greater.  This leads me to the last point.

We now have a substantial history on the decline in manufacturing.  (For example, see Figure 1 on page 4.)   This, in conjunction with the decline in blue collar work overall, has led to real emasculation, not just the fear thereof.  Some pieces of evidence for this are the opioid epidemic, the concomitant decline in life expectancy, and the replacement of cohabitation for marriage among working class people.  (Low wage earners make for poor spouses.)  It is unclear to me whether these negative consequences could have been anticipated until quite recently and if mitigations could have been taken were those consequences anticipated early.  I don't know.  But now we have this history and it is reasonably well understood.  The rise of AI poses the threat of another round of significant job dislocation, this time of entry and mid-level white collar work, as well as further job loss for the blue collar worker (self-driving cars replacing Lyft drivers, for example).  Surely the tech sector is aware of these issues.  This makes the Libertarian view of the tech sector's responsibility particularly troubling, both in causing the potential dislocation and in not being willing to pay corporate profit taxes to finance the possible mitigations.  If we ever get out of our current political moment, which now seems to be sucking up all our mental bandwidth, these are the issues that will occupy most of our attention.

* * * * *

I will have less to say about the events in Charlottesville, partly because I've been so pained by what has happened that I find it hard to discuss and partly because I am far less certain about why somebody becomes a White Nationalist, though I will walk through one possible explanation.  That said, I definitely want to keep this section in the piece. I hope to make clear why momentarily.

Let's begin with the following.  A friend in Facebook posted this link.  The kid in the picture is of the age to be a student in my class.  Indeed, he could very well be mistaken for a frat boy on campus at Illinois. (He's enrolled at the University of Nevada - Reno.)  The picture makes you wonder what the age distribution is of those White Nationalists who marched.  I gather that some of them are still kids.

It is probably impossible to do the social science, but I'd like to know how those marchers would react to Damore's table.  Suppose they would embrace it as a reasonable abstraction of reality, if so asked.  This potential result would make it defensible to consider White Nationalists as Right Biased people who have gone over the deep end.  Were this observation to be realized, my guess is that it would horrify Damore and his ilk, who want no association whatsoever with racism.  Yet such a connection might then stick, which could cause an OMG moment for the brogrammers that would then lead to some modification of their views along the lines I've suggested above.

Last week former President Obama tweeted about Charlottesville, an oft repeated message.  Nobody is born with hatred for others.  That must be learned.  I heard this message for the first time when watching South Pacific as a kid.  It's there in the song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.  While this message is obviously true, it still remains to be determined how and when the White Nationalist marchers learned this lesson.  Did they grow up in a racist family and that's how it happened, like father like son?  Or did they grow up in a much more tolerant family and learned the lesson while in their adolescence or as young adults from people outside their household?  Knowing the relative numbers on this would be interesting and informative.  Absent that, I'd be curious if there is a profile one might construct to explain the behavior of those in the second category.

Fascism thrives when the economy is in severe stress.  College students now, particularly those who are not ace programmers or in some other STEM field that offers good employment prospects, are operating under a great deal of stress.  Many of them are experiencing depression because of the stress since their economic prospects are so uncertain.  That vast majority don't turn to racism as their personal solution, or so I would like to believe.  My guess, however, is that some do.  Further, I'd conjecture that among this group they have a strong prior disposition toward Right Biases.  They then went in search of situations where their demand for authority could be satisfied.  Beyond that, fully aware of this possibility, the Alt-Right marketed in a way to target these people, to recruit them to the cause.   This is the Devil in action.  We all should read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  I read it while in college and could stand to re-read it.  In writing this section, I'm invoking my memory of Hoffer's argument, as poor as that is.  So my presentation may be a bit off.  I hope, however, that there is still something to what I'm saying here.

My fear is that we are now in a vicious cycle which will spiral out of control, driven by the causes I've sketched above.  I'm guessing that many other people are worried about the same thing.

* * * * *

Over the weekend I made a post in Facebook in reference to Charlottesville - I can't deal with this.  A friend responded almost immediately - yes, you can.  This very long blog post is me trying to deal with it, by doing what I've been trained to do, seeing if I can make sense of what is going on by offering a plausible theoretical explanation.  I'm sure I got some details wrong.  I usually do.  I hope there is still enough left that makes sense and that it offers a worthwhile read to those who slog through the post.  I leave it to those readers and others to take it from there.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Thoughts from a Has Been: The Next, Next Digital Learning Environment - Team Production in Instruction

This post offers some reactions to the recent piece by Phillip D. Long and Jon Mott, The N^2GDLE Vision....  In many respects, I am not qualified to offer a meaningful critique, as I retired back in summer 2010 and have not kept up with developments in the field since.  But I haven't been able to get all that came before entirely out of my system, witness a couple of critiques I've done since retiring about earlier pieces written in this vein, such as this rhyme about work by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and a longish post entitled Feedback Rather than Assessment, about the previous NGDLE paper that appeared in Educause Review by Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap.  Further, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Not an insignificant bit of Long and Mott's piece is about 'dissing' the learning management system, a cottage industry within educational technology for well over a decade, one that I've participated in even after retirement, for example in this piece, Some regrets about learning management systems.  Indeed, that post and its sequel, Where Are Plato's Children?, make me quite sympathetic to the 'smart online tutor' part of Long and Mott's vision for N^2GDLE.  But there are many other parts of this vision that I found idealistic in the extreme.  So one wonders whether their conclusions are robust to making more realistic assumptions, or if that would produce quite a different result.  As my strength is looking at the learning issues through a political economy lens, that's what I will do in this post.  I hope it produces some value add for readers beyond the value it produces for me by allowing me to purge these thoughts from my system, which is quite frequently my motivation for writing a piece.

If there is such value add, much of that will be found in elucidating where I am wrong, so in making credible counter arguments.  I not only admit the possibility that I might be in error on these matters, I recognize that in some places that is especially likely. So I offer up my piece as a challenge, not just to find the errors, but to refute them.  Doing that should make Long and Mott's argument stronger.

Let's get to the heart of the matter right off.  Developing this software environment will take incremental resources, while many of our campuses are in flat or shrinking revenue environments.  More importantly, developing the content that will utilize this new software environment will also take incremental resources.  In my reading of the paper, the content development piece will be much more expensive than the software development piece.  Further, while the software part might be expected to be funded within the IT budget on campus,  where IT leaders can manage revenue reallocation, the content part surely won't be.  So the powers that be who control the revenue allocation outside of IT must buy into the vision to make this a go.  Will they?  Why should they?  If they don't, then Long and Mott are merely preaching to the choir.  It might not occur to the choir to think this through from a political economy angle.  So it is conceivable that the Long and Mott piece appeals to learning technologists yet at the same time the ideas therein are doomed at the campus level.

For a more realistic approach, it would seem, we need to understand the preferences of the powers that be.  Let me assert here a reactive rather than visionary way to articulate these preferences.  (This is one of those assumptions that can be challenged.)  The powers that be will want what instructors and students want.

Do the majority of instructors and students favor the status quo over what is proposed by Long and Mott?  In this status quo there is much surface learning.  (For example, see Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do.)  Long and Mott want deep learning across the board.  How do we get from here to there?  Maybe we can't.  To support that conclusion, I offer up the metaphor of the Tragic Tory, that I wrote about some years ago in a column for the then Educause Quarterly, now defunct.  There can be substantial lock in to the status quo, so much so that it blocks all potential improvements.  We have no problem seeing this in considering, for example, the QWERTY keyboard, which was designed around 150 years ago to make us type slower, but which persists even now, even though typewriter keys jamming hasn't been an issue for upward of 45 years and perhaps quite a bit longer than that.  Why is it hard to imagine that we are locked into an old mode of teaching and learning and that external factors, like No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement, have actually exacerbated the lock in to these traditional approaches?

The next part of this is to argue that there needs to be substantive culture changes to break the lock in and make progress, but then to ask whether those cultural changes should be targeted only at where we want to end up (what I believe Long and Mott are arguing in their piece) or if these changes need to address where we currently are (my view as to what is necessary).  In my post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study for exams?, the first half sketches out the nature of the lock in, in accord with George Kuh's Disengagement Compact.  Then, in the second half, I offer up a series of suggested reforms that taken together were meant to move us away from the status quo to something better.  However, I wrote this post as a thought experiment only.  I didn't expect the ideas to be embraced because I didn't see the willingness to do so then and I don't see the willingness to do so now.  That inertia can certainly find foundation in that the suggestions for change, such as the ones I advanced, are unproven.  Making drastic changes based on pure speculation is a fool's errand.   But there isn't even the will to begin piloting on ideas such as these, to test whether the ideas hold water, especially since doing that itself will take some incremental resource.  At least on my campus, we have a strong tendency to put such incremental resource toward new course offerings that parallel emerging social issues or recent research developments, rather than to take on large intro courses that have been taught for some time and try to make them better.  However, if contrary to fact such an effort to change the culture in a manner like what I suggest were put into place, we would need to confront this next question.  Would we still need a radical new vision for the online learning environment?  Or would that then be superfluous?

I will return to the cultural issues in the next section, where I consider team production in instruction, something Long and Mott argue for.  Here I want to consider some of the purely technological aspects of their vision, partly to illustrate my confusion as to what they are arguing for, and partly to couple that with my skepticism about pulling off this vision.

There are two aspects to their technological vision.  One part is the interoperability of tools - the Lego metaphor at root where the varies pieces snap together.  The IMS standard is mentioned in this context.  (Whatever happened to SCORM?  Actually, I don't want to know the answer to that question.)  In the abstract, interoperability would seem highly desirable.  Who would argue against it?  (Me, or course, as I will try to get at below.)

The other part of the technological vision is that the online learning system becomes this vast store of the learner's experience with the system, which can then be used for personalization of the subsequent experience, aided by a large dose of artificial intelligence.  (Perhaps the authors can get Amazon to become a big sponsor of their efforts and then they can call their environment Alexa^2, which in my mind would be an improvement on their current unwieldy title.)  I have no big critique of this piece of their argument beyond the critique I've seen by others of AI systems more broadly considered and their potential for abuse of the personal data that these systems amass.  We live in a world nowadays where fear that Big Brother Is Watching is more prominent than it has been for some time.  Unless we have ironclad ways to assuage those fears, I don't understand why we would engage them further in online environments to promote learning in higher education

I do have a different issue, however, about use data that I would like clarification on.  This is best illustrated by considering the learner working at a large desk, with a laptop but also with other learning tools, perhaps a textbook, perhaps a pencil and and pad of paper.  Suppose the latter are utilized to aid formative thinking - writing equations, drawing graphs, posing questions in all caps, and other things like that which go beyond mere doodling.  With technical content, I'd imagine that sort of thing happening quite a lot, though I confess that maybe that's people my age who would do it but current students would not.  If there is such content generated by the student, does it remain outside the learning system?  One can imagine having a video camera capturing this content, which might be one type of work around.  But if the students themselves were aware of being watched in this way, wouldn't they feel 'on stage' so that they are self-conscious about it?  That itself could substantially weaken student engagement, to the point were one ditches the idea of the camera.  Yet if there is no such work around, why should we be confident about the data which are captured by the learning system somehow being sufficient for the desired personalization?  On this one, I simply don't get why the authors have faith that the student generated data that would be captured by the system would be sufficient.

Let's get back to interoperability.  I would like to divide software between applications that have their main audience, perhaps their entire audience, for use in instruction, and then perhaps only within higher education, from other applications that have broad use outside of instruction and, indeed, the instructional use might be just a minor bit of the overall use of such software.  For applications in the the first group, expecting interoperability may make sense, with exchange of user data between apps the desired goal.  If, however, adhering to the standards that deliver interoperability imposes a cost on the software development, should we really expect applications in the second group to embrace the standards?   The political economy of the situation suggests that will not happen.  What then will occur?  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

I make screen capture videos for my class with my voice over.  Some of those are of PowerPoint presentations.  Others are of Excel files that I use to illustrate the economics.  I put those files into my campus account at Box.com.  The videos are in YouTube.  Both Box.com and YouTube offer use statistics.  But those data are not granular the way that Long and Mott envision; they give aggregate use but not individual use.  The campus did come up with a video service, based on Kaltura, but well after I started doing this.  I don't know whether the campus video service offers granular use data or not.  In the meantime, I discovered substantial external interest in my videos.  (You might call this the OER use of the content, but I want to note that most if not all the demand is coming from students who are taking parallel courses elsewhere and who are stuck on particular topics.  They find help by going through the YouTube search engine, but would never look at a repository of learning objects or a referatory like Merlot to find what they are looking for. This student use is unlike use by instructors elsewhere who might bring the content into their own courses.)  I feel some continued obligation to support this external use, so would prefer to leave the content where it is rather than to port it into some closed container, just so I could get better use stats for my own students.  If a significant fraction of other instructors are like me in this regard, quite possibly for quite different reasons, but using these sort of tools that will not integrate well with the learning system, reliance on these other online environments will remain the norm into the future.  For example, adjunct instructors who are likely to teach for many different universities over a comparatively short time span might prefer to keep their content at an external host rather than in a campus-supported system. And, if that is the case, instructors themselves will devalue the benefits from the integration of tools that Long and Mott argue for.

On just this example, I can see an argument for quite a different vision - a fairly stripped down environment that does the very basic functions well, but does only those functions.  That would clearly be cheaper.  And it might offer better performance on those tools that do survive into the new environment.  This alternative probably wouldn't inspire learning technologists and other IT professionals.  Yet it might make others on campus quite pleased.

Here is the other example.  Over the years I have learned to use Excel as a homework tool, in a manner much like Plato.  (My design is based on conditional response - IF functions - and conditional formatting - the text of the response is not visible at all when the font is the same color as the cell background, and then one can vary the color and the nature of the font based on whether the response is correct or incorrect.  The approach also has graphs built up step by step as a sequence of questions pertinent to the information in the graph get answered correctly.)  This use of Excel follows many years where I used Mallard as part of the homework I'd assign in intermediate microeconomics.  Mallard, and its contemporary CyberProf, were first generation Web smart quizzing tools in the spirit of Plato.  Those systems eventually stopped being developed, but another contemporary, LON-CAPA, continues in use to this day.  These environments offered more sophisticated assessment tools than can be found in commercial learning management systems and might be considered forerunners of the smart online tutoring systems that Long and Mott envision.  Back to the Excel homework.  Many of my questions are fill in the blank, where the answer is an Excel formula that mimics the algebra needed to do the economics.  The algebra is then evaluated by whether it produces the right value.  Each student gets the same problems to work, but with different parameter values, where those are based on their own identity information.

To get credit for the homework, the students need to get all the questions right - no partial credit. When they do that Excel spits out an individual specific key.  The key is based on the particular homework and the student identity information provided at the start.  I would love it if this information could somehow automatically find its way into the course grade book, which is now kept in a learning management system.  But doing that is beyond me.  So, instead, I have students enter two bits of information into a Google Form.  One is that key I mentioned.  The other is the student alias that I assign.  (Each student alias is the name of a famous economist concatenated with the course name and semester of the course offering.)  Even if an outsider to the class somehow stumbled onto the information in this Google Form, the student's true identity should be protected.  So I believe the practice is consistent with FERPA.  But then I have to move the information over from the Google Sheet that has the student responses to the course grade book.  That I do manually.  This is extra clerical work that most instructors would not put up with.  I tolerate it because my class is comparatively small, about 25 students, and because it allows me to give meaningful homework that I otherwise don't have to grade.  If there were a learning system that did this as well as the Excel and eliminated the need for me to do the clerical work, I would happily incur the one-time costs of transferring my content into that system.  I hate doing clerical work.

Now consider the case in high enrollment classes, with at least an order of magnitude more students than my class, where the logistic issues in running the course are far greater, and where the class is very likely now taught by an adjunct.  These courses probably rely on the quiz tool in the LMS and many if not all of the questions are apt to be multiple choice, quite possibly imported from a publisher's test bank for the textbook that is used in the course.  If the same instructor has been teaching the course with this textbook for a while, no doubt there were lots of headaches getting the course site set up the first time through, but those headaches are in the past.  This is part of the lock in I mentioned above.  This instructor has not authored the assessment content used in the course.  Any assessment content that was more complex and designed for a different learning system would have to be screened by such an instructor, as to whether it is appropriate and really better to implement, meaning it is not buggy and one can anticipate large learning gains from switching approaches.  But, almost surely, this would mean the instructor would need to write different exams, an arduous task in itself.  It's then likely that mean scores on those new tests would be lower than the means have been on the current tests, just because the approach is new.  And it's likely that the instructor's course evaluations would take a hit as a consequence.  Would such an instructor willingly incur that for the promise of what the new system might deliver in the future?

Next consider other low enrollment courses like mine (which on my campus are mostly upper level courses, if not graduate courses.)  Such courses might not use the quiz tool in the LMS at all and instead rely on more open ended student assignments - projects, presentations, term papers, etc. Indeed, these courses may only use the LMS incidentally and instead use other collaboration tools to support course work. Do courses like these stand to gain much from having a highly personalized learning environment that Long and Mott envision?  Or do such courses already get personalization from the work as it has been designed for the course?  If the course is reliant on some other tool - a wiki, Google Docs, or some other environment that encourages collaboration, might the instructors of courses like this see little or no benefit in the vision that Long and Mott articulate, because they've been doing this for a while without interoperability so don't see the need for it?

In this second example, I am the exception who would embrace the Long and Mott vision.  (In addition to Excel, I have the students use blogs out in the open, according to their alias.  Tracking this, too, has to be done manually at present.)  The other instructors are the rule who would not, although the reasons are quite different depending on whether the instructor is teaching a high enrollment class or not.

Let me make one additional point purely on the technology part of the argument.  Long and Mott don't consider other potential uses for course sites, so don't get into some issues that have vexed us all over the years, such as whether much of the class site should be publicly available or if it should be hidden from the public eye and accessible only by those who have the appropriate login credentials.  Yet there are other obvious potential uses of these sites.  For example, students who are considering whether to register for this semester's version of a course but who remain uncertain whether that is a good fit for them or not will likely want to have a look at the course site when it was last previously offered.  This is particularly true if the instructor remains the same.  Instructors don't design their course sites with this other use in mind, so if they are presented with a closed container as the learning environment, they are apt to preclude this other use.  (Indeed, on my campus it is the academic department's responsibility to obtain copies of syllabi and provide those to students who are interested.  Information beyond the syllabus, while it might be useful to students during registration, is viewed as extraordinary and is not collected.)  There are other potential uses as well, for example, to have other instructors embrace novel teaching practices by imitating those practices developed by an innovating instructor.  These other uses suggest that class sites should be publicly available.  FERPA and copyright, in contrast, have encouraged the LMS to be a closed system, making external access to the class site difficult to attain.  Do Long and Mott have a way to get the best of both possible worlds?  Or is this one a case where we will continue to kick the can down the road, because that's all we can do?

* * * * *

I found myself so amazed by reading the suggestion that learning objectives should be correlated across classes, and that considerable effort should be put in so the joint course offering offers a coherent vision to the learner, that I thought it appropriate to devote a separate section just to consider that recommendation.  As an ideal, who can argue with it?  (I was amused that Long and Mott appeal to Herbert Simon to support this recommendation.  Simon is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and one of the truly novel thinkers in how organizations work, but I hadn't realized that he also had articulated this vision of team production in instruction.)   Yet it is so far away from where we are now that I wonder how it is reasonable to expect it to happen.  Or, to put it another way, what other accommodations must be put in place to encourage it to happen?

Let me first describe the usual practice as I see it in undergraduate instruction, at least on my campus.  Then let me consider some alternatives that depart from the usual practice and are more in accord with what Long and Mott consider.  Finally, I want to consider whether those alternatives can become more numerous or if that's not in the cards.

Many comparatively low enrollment courses have only one instructor over time.  The same person teaches the course over and over again.  No other instructor teaches the course.  To the extent that preparing a course for the first time is a big effort, the pattern I described is efficient as it economizes on the fixed cost of developing a new course.  In this environment the instructor comes to feel that he or she owns the course.  Outsiders who are perceived by the instructor as having less standing have little to no influence in how the course is taught.   Onto this let's overlay how faculty development happens.  In the main, this is by opt in of the instructor.  The college and the campus offer a variety of workshops and then market those to instructors.  It is the instructor's choice whether to attend those or not.  If the instructor attends, it remains the instructor's choice whether to embrace any of the lessons from the workshop or not.   The academic department that houses the course exerts very little influence on the subject matter of the course or on the learning goals embedded in the course.

Larger enrollment classes may differ from this pattern in two ways.  First, there may be multiple lecture sections taught by different instructors.  In this case it is possible, though it doesn't always happen, that there is coordination between the instructors.  (For example, they may offer common exams.)  This coordination may be thought of as more for the purpose of consistency than to get at certain learning goals.  Large courses tend to be very static. When they are revised considerable thought is put into that.  In between revisions, there is little to no tweaking in the approach.  Second, there may be discussion sections led by TAs.  Those too need coordination.  TAs are supposed to follow the lead set by the course coordinator, rather that exercise their own independent judgment on the material to be covered.  Third, when the course serves as a prerequisite for some other course or some major, the client course, major, or department may react when there are complaints about the prior preparation not delivering on what it is supposed to be doing.  This doesn't happen very often.  When it does happen, there is some negotiation about how the course should be taught in the future to better satisfy client needs and aspirations.  Absent the prerequisite lever, clients don't have much power to influence how the earlier course is taught.

In my particular case, I have been teaching one section a year of a course called The Economics of Organizations since fall 2012.  The course is my design.  The course is taught under a special topics rubric.  If I decide in the future to spend falls outside of central Illinois, the course won't be offered.   There is nobody else to teach it. The department asks me for my syllabus each time it is offered.  Otherwise, the department exerts no influence as to the content of the course.  Put a different way, the trust model is in full use here.  I am trusted to make the appropriate decisions about course subject matter and course modality.  As long as there aren't complaints from students to the Economics department, the trust model holds sway.

Thus, what Long and Mott argue for regarding collaboration and coordination across courses would entail much greater involvement by the academic departments than is the current norm and some of that would need to address instructor willingness to adjust the teaching in a way where the instructor has far less control.  How to do that will pose a substantial challenge.

Now I want to offer a potential path through this thicket.  I have been involved in team teaching efforts on multiple occasions and they have been uniformly pleasurable experiences for me.  The one I want to focus on here was done in an adult education context.  From 2007 - 2009 I was part of an evolving group of 'faculty' who conducted the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute.  (Some people rotated out of the group while I continued to serve.  Others rotated in to replace them.  I rotated out after the 2009 institute.)  The institute itself lasts one work week.  The planning that goes into it is real and substantial.  Things may have changed since, but the way it worked when I was involved is that each faculty member would have primary responsibility for two different sessions and would be paired with a different faculty member for each of these, typically a different person for each session.  So some of the planning would be on a session by session basis, done by those two faculty to figure out the content of the session and then the way to conduct that session.  Then there was planning by all the faculty together along with the Educause staff who supported the institute, to put the pieces together and to work through the various snags that arouse in the process.

I found all of this quite collegial and very enjoyable.  I felt none of the ownership I mentioned for my undergraduate economics course.  Indeed, in my first year as part of the group I came in as a pinch hitter to replace somebody else who had gotten sick.  So I only started in mid year, when normally the start is much earlier.  As a consequence my job then was simply to make it work as best as I could and otherwise to go with the flow.  Yet people who know me are aware that I have a strong need to engage in self-expression in some way.  I found I could readily satisfy that with the group, even while earnestly trying to support the group goals.  Not everything worked perfectly, to be sure, but a good bit of it came off quite well.

LTLI has a structure that facilitates all the planning by the faculty and Educause staff.  All plenary sessions have the attendees in the same room at the same time.  When there was group work to be done, and there was plenty of that for a project called Making the Case, the various groups of attendees were separated but worked in parallel.  All of this was tightly scheduled, part of the planning for the institute.  In such a tightly structured environment, coordination by the faculty is much easier.

The parallel environment on our campuses sometimes occurs in professional masters programs, particularly those that have a common core offering during the first semester/year (the duration of the common curriculum depends on duration of the overall program).  During the common curriculum phase, the students take their courses in lock step.  A lock step curriculum is a good way to achieve the tight structure that can support substantial collaboration across courses.  If one wants broader collaboration across courses, as Long and Mott argue for, perhaps they should be considering whether there can be broader implementation of a lock step curriculum at the undergraduate level, particularly during the general education phase, during the first year or two.  We don't have that now. Each student registers for a unique program of study and is not grouped with other students who take all the same courses.  We might ask whether the alternative is possible and if it is what it would take to make it a reality.

Now a personal anecdote on this score as I, for one, think pursuing this goal of a lock step curriculum would be something good to do.  Nine or ten years ago, I was then the Associate Dean for eLearning in the College of Business, at one of the weekly meetings of the Department Heads, A-Deans, and Dean, I suggested that the college try to do just this.  The Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, a good guy who really cared about doing his job well, just laughed.  He fully embraced the goal.  But he said it was entirely impractical.  There was literally no way to implement it as just one college in a very large campus.

Now, with that memory still fresh in my head, I'm reacting the same way to Long and Mott.  The goals are great.  I wish them good luck in getting there.  But if I were allowed to bet on the proposition, I would bet against.  It seems to me just too hard to accomplish.

* * * * *

There are still a few other issues that bear mention and with which I will close this already very long post.

One of these is about the relationship between the textbook and the online learning environment.  Which drives the bus and which takes a back seat?  I won't try to answer that here, but surely it needs to be worked through in a convincing way, one that doesn't wreck the vision all by itself.

A second one is about the right market structure to support this new online environment.  Do we think it will be a commercial venture or a variety of competing companies that support this innovation.  My personal history here is more than a bit dated, but I certainly can remember back to when Blackboard bought out WebCT (Illinois was a large WebCT client at the time and the learning management system was my baby then).  To be charitable, let us say that things didn't go swimmingly immediately after that.  I am totally ignorant of the current nature of the LMS market, but I remain suspicious that a collegial environment can be sustained this way and that intermittent profit taking won't disrupt the innovation cycle in some manner entirely unintended by the pioneers of the innovation itself.   On the other hand, other approaches to sustain the innovation, whether open source, community source, or some yet new form, seemingly can work at low scale but then become encumbered beyond that.  My point here is that this too needs to be worked through in a convincing manner.

The last one is something I am continually surprised about.  Technologists such as Long and Mott continue to articulate a view that the technology itself will drive change.  They place great faith in the technology in doing that.  In their view the history doesn't refute this hypothesis.  It is just that we've had the wrong technology (the LMS) as the driver.  Put the right technology in place and the results will be wonderful.  I subscribed to this view for a short period of time in the mid 1990s, as I was just getting started with ed tech, when the possibilities seemed enormous, even while the bandwidth was quite limited.

I have subsequently embraced a different view, where it is the innovators and early adopters who drive change.  The technology acts as a facilitator for them and quite often the change then doesn't carry over to majority users.  Very early on in my time as a learning technology administrator, I learned about something called Hawthorne effects - early use of an innovation would produce different results than later use, in this case because the early use was monitored while the later use was not.  In the academic setting, I have come to believe that those early users are quite unrepresentative of the later adopters.  The early user has a desire to be creative with the technology and to fit it in interesting ways to address issues the current environment poses.  (This makes teaching very much like an applied research.)  The later users employ the technology in a much more mundane way.  The benefits from adoption are considerably less as a consequence.

I want to note that which of these views is right can't be identified by the history over the last 20 odd years or so.  But I think it obvious that more people in IT subscribe to the first view while more of those outside IT subscribe to the second.  So I will close by noting that if those inside IT want to make the Long and Mott vision a reality and if they really need to enlist some people outside of IT (those with budget authority) to support the effort, they have their work cut out for them.  At the least, I hope my post illuminates those tasks that need to be done to get there.