Archive for the 'Teaching and learning' category

A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 2).

Here I'm continuing the round-up I began compiling in the last post of responses to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here).

This post focuses on some of the discussion in the blogosphere. It is not exhaustive! There are other discussions worth reading, and responding to, that I'm putting off for another post -- but I will get to them! What I'm including here covers less than half of my open browser tabs on the subject right now.

College Misery, San Jose State and the Harvard "Justice" MOOC:

Members of the Department of Philosophy at San Jose State wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, the Harvard "superprofessor"* whose MOOC on Justice they are being asked to "teach" (exactly what this would mean seems somewhat unclear to all involved) instead of a course of their own devising.

It's hard to choose just one part to post, since they summarize pretty much all the relevant issues, from the need to adapt curriculum to a local student population to the danger of class stratification in higher education to the irony of offering recorded lectures as an alternative to the supposedly-outdated in-person lecture model.

sciencegeekgirl, Why we won't teach your MOOC:

I hadn’t realized that these recorded MOOC lectures were being contracted by other universities as course material — I thought that MOOC’s were primarily used by individuals.  This is a troublesome trend to me.  While such online lectures could feasibly be used in a “flipped classroom” style approach, the more likely use is to replace local expertise with national “superstar” lecturers.  It feels quite counter to the aim of a university education, to develop deep expertise in contact with experts in your field of study.

annevans9, MOOCs: has the counter-revolution started?:

It would naïve in the extreme to think that those who control the purse-strings aren’t eyeing up MOOCs (and indeed other types of on-line offering) as a cheap option. If Harvard-quality higher education courses could be delivered to everyone via a computer screen at minimal cost, that would indeed be the answer to any finance director’s (or finance minister’s) dreams.

The problem, of course, is that the quality inherent in a Harvard education is not encapsulated in the typical MOOC, which is merely a recording of some lectures, with some additional material (such as on-line tests). To think that the quality of an education lies entirely in attending classes given by a rock-star lecturer, is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, we’ve long known that attending large group lectures is one of the least effective ways to learn. And what about the guided discussion, the individual feedback, the help with study skills, the library resources, the extended reading, the opportunity for submitting lengthy formative written work, the stimulation of peer group debate…..? Not to mention the pastoral care and advice and all the other aspects that go to make up a student’s experience at university.

Ars Politica, Don't Fear the MOOCs:

Those in the “salvation” camp, see MOOCs as the best thing to happen to educational access since the printing press. Now, students from Zimbabwe to Brazil can enroll in a Harvard class, or even a lot of Harvard classes, and finally get the Harvard education once reserved for rich Americans. Those of us whose jobs require us to read things like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education every day are now quite used to the MOOC- Messiah language that is just now starting to filter out to the real world.

The other side sees the MOOC as the ultimate adjunct instructor—a slick technological talking head that can do all the teaching that needs doing and reduce professors everywhere else to graders and bus drivers for a few superstar professors back East. The philosophy department at San Jose State recently threw their shoes in the MOOC mill by refusing to pilot a MOOC philosophy course from Harvard.

So who is right? Well, in my opinion, both the messianic and the apocalyptic MOOC prophecies have it wrong. As I see the future of higher education unfolding, the vaunted MOOCs are destined to play an important role in the process, but not the important role currently played by the classroom professor.

What the MOOC might eventually replace is the textbook.

language goes on holiday, Justice and "Justice":

I think it's good that Sandel's lectures are available free online… It's not good, though, if professors are turned into teaching assistants by administrators or politicians who demand that they teach Sandel's course instead of their own, or show his lectures instead of teaching their own classes. (I don't mean that it's bad to have students watch one on a day when you're not available to teach, or have students watch several specially selected segments if they seem helpful.) …

On the other hand it is all a bit suspicious. Why have an edX version of the course at all if it's much the same as the already available free one? Why does Sandel say "we made a version of the course available on the edX platform" rather than, say, "I pointed out to all and sundry that the material was online and free"?

the contrary flâneuse, Open Letter from San Jose Philosophy Dept to Michael Sandel:

I would have expected a distinguished professor of the philosophy of law to both know and be willing to comment more. It's up us then to do the philosopher's job of figuring out how and what to know, and then questioning it ~ relentlessly if necessary. collects a bunch of links to articles on MOOCs in Week6/7-ish of Composition I, and includes this observation:

You know, I’m not going to say that Sandel is lying in his response where he says he had no idea how edX might try to use his online course materials. But either Sandel is not being entirely truthful or he is not quite as brilliant and broad of a thinker as [NY Times columnist Thomas] Friedman and the folks at edX might think.

iterating toward openness, SJSU, edX, and Getting it Right/Wrong on MOOCs:

The one section of the letter that absolutely breaks my heart is the top of page 4:

Good quality online courses and blended courses (to which we have no objections) do not save money, but purchased-pre-packaged ones do, and a lot. With prepackaged MOOCs and blended courses, faculty are ultimately not needed.

Oh, MOOCs. How thoroughly, completely, and profoundly you have failed us.

The SJSU faculty’s last statement is true if and only if one underlying assumption is met – that the content of the pre-packaged course is traditionally, fully copyrighted. So with regard to this particular edX course, whose YouTube videos all say “Standard YouTube License” for example, the SJSU criticism is accurate. This fully copyrighted, pre-packaged MOOC is clearly meant to run as is, and is not meant to be taken apart, adapted, localized, and customized by local faculty. If edX intended for those things to happen, they would take down their silly registration barrier and put a proper license on the course.

(Don’t even get me started on how edX oh-so-deceivingly puts “Some Rights Reserved” in their footer without ever specifying which rights those are. “Some Rights Reserved” is, obviously, a nod to Creative Commons licenses – but the site does not use one. Check their Terms. When you don’t use a Creative Commons license, why try to hoodwink us into thinking you’re “one of the good guys” by putting that language in the footer of EVERY page?!? And this is how the one NON-profit in the space behaves. No wonder people are suspicious…)

If entities like edX and Coursera and Udacity would simply be open – meaning, use an open license for their materials – the concerns of SJSU faculty and others could be assuaged. Rather than pre-packaged, teach-as-you-receive-it collections of material meant to undermine faculty, openly licensed course frameworks empower faculty to tweak and customize and modify while still saving money. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You can have your cake and eat it, too, when you use open licenses. The either/or presented by the SJSU faculty is only true when purchased-pre-packaged courses are copyrighted – like the edX course is.

Academe Blog, MOOCs, shared governance and academic freedom:

It is, of course, precisely this unbundling process – the separation of content provision from actual instruction – that makes moving a course on justice to the English Department possible. Should the SJSU Philosophy Department, or any other department, resist the MOOCification of higher education, their face-to-face students can simply be diverted away to other departments or (thanks to the wonders of the Internet) anywhere else in the world and the university will still make money! Offer enough cost incentives to take MOOCs instead of face-to-face classes and there may not be a single student left on campus before too long.

What does it mean to have a university without professors? Certainly it makes shared governance, the primary means of enforcing quality control upon methods of instruction, a thing of the past. Perhaps more importantly for society at large, what does it mean if future students everywhere get only one view of what justice means? Nobody is censoring anyone if you simply take away their listeners, but on cultural terms that result may be even more disturbing.

Democratic Underground, Professors at San Jose State Criticize Online Courses:

I read Sandel's "Justice" book and watched some of his lectures on PBS a few years ago. While they make great class supplements, it's not a good idea to create entire carbon-copy courses out of THAT particular product.

Based on comments I've heard from another friend in college who's been actively defending the use of MOOCs on campus, I suspect that MOOCs may be a method of union-busting (he was complaining about the university faculty union criticizing MOOCs). But with budget cuts making fewer sections available, what other solutions are there? And then there are students who can find the time to learn but whose schedules or life circumstances prevent them from being physically present on campus at all.

Monitoring University Governance, Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State:

But faculties across the country are increasingly raising doubts, and organizing opposition to MOOCs. (e.g., Dan Berrett, Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10, 2013).  There are two distinct bases for this opposition.  The first goers to shared governance--faculties have raised serious objections to the introduction of MOOCs as an administration initiative, usually with little or no faculty consultation, viewing this as a way of end-running faculty authority.  The second goes to substance--that MOOCs do not deliver quality or substance to a necessary minimum extent.  This post looks to recent oppositional statements by faculty governance organizations at Harvard, Duke, American, and San Jose State. 

New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science has been hosting some of the best discussion I've seen of issues we raised in our open letter, and of MOOCs more generally. A sample:

Comments on An Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Dept at San Jose State from Lisa Shapiro:

I'm having an interesting exchange with Gene Marshall about this issue. Some universities (like Gene's home institution of Wellesley) have bought into MOOCs with the idea that they have the power to make education accessible to those in poorer countries, and in particular women and other systematically excluded groups. And I suspect that there is a lot of truth in this -- there are universities in the developing world, but they have a real shortage of resources, material and human. Students might not be able to get hold of the books, but they can get hold of the lectures and other online materials. On the other hand, in the developed world, administrators are leveraging what is essentially a noble idea into one far less noble that involves compromising what we can afford. There are a load of complex issues to navigate here, but I think they are really interesting ones. I should add that I think that SJSU has done us all a great service in writing that open letter.

And from Ed Kazarian:

the thing I worry about even in regard to the defense of MOOCs as a means of making education available to people outside of the 'developed' world is that there's an implicit assumption that short-circuiting the process wherein local and indigenous institutions might develop to serve these populations is a net good. I get the idea that MOOCs and other similar models can be a great way of providing 'education' for people who might not need or want some of what a traditional university provides -- but most of those people, it seems to me, are already 'educated' to some considerable degree (with employment qualifications, and the skill sets--including study skills--that come along with time in the meat-space educational system). Recent studies have shown that people who aren't positioned to do well in a conventional university classroom do considerably worse in a MOOC environment--and I can only imagine that where there's a real systemic lack of educational institutions at all, MOOC courses that are a sort of watered down, less interactive, virtual version of a 'lecture' classroom are going to be of very little use by themselves to students. But even if they were wonderful, how can we justify exporting 'our' classrooms as a substitute for the development of local classrooms, teachers, and students?

Comments on Michael Sandel responds from John Protevi:

Shorter Michael Sandel: "Hey, why are these bartenders at that low-end joint I have never even heard of calling me out, just because I'm working with Seagram's to install a hologram of me in your local bar to replace them? After all, I Didn't Mean To Hurt Anyone (TM), and I wasn't in on the deal their bosses cut with the middleman."

And from Ed Kazarian:

1) Re: the claim that somehow these consequences might have been unanticipated or unwanted, imagine this scenario: 'You, a Harvard professor (let's remember the prestige element in all of this), signed a contract with an educational company, albeit a non-profit one, that is more or less independent of your university, and that allowed more or less unrestricted use of the materials you made for them, and you turn around and claim not to have imagined that this might include it functioning as a replacement for courses taught in brick and mortar classrooms at other institutions.' If you're that stupid, it's still blameworthy. Presumably, however, you're not, in which case this explanation is just a sign of how much contempt you actually hold your audience in.

2) Re: the significance of the non-profit status of companies like EdX (I'd originally assumed that it was for-profit): It's important to recognize that the distinction between non- and for-profit enterprises here makes virtually no difference for at least two reasons.

a) The fact that these materials will be used for the purposes of replacing courses taught by local faculty to local students in an environment where there is all the bilateral communication that one ordinarily expects from that relationship is the important point. I find it frankly terrifying that some of the 'name' faculty participating in these things seem to have complete disregard for the way that their participation tends toward the elimination of other faculty voices than their own (or short circuits the process that might otherwise lead to their development). It represents a complete loss of any sense of academia as a pluralistic community of scholarly voices.

b) The simple fact that the 'non-profit' in cases like this can almost axiomatically be said to operate as a trojan horse for a series of very much for-profit instances. John mentions some ways in which this could happen above, but it's also important to see how the entire model here fits with larger trends towards universities turning their basic revenue model into that of being a non-profit 'shell' (and in this case, a highly prestigious and so proportionately more valuable one) for various for-profit interests that want to sell to their 'clients.' Thus we are already seeing things like outsourced dorms, where universities are paid by developers for the right to build and manage student housing for them, or outsourced student records, etc. The extent to which the institution (at any tier) is actually functioning in a 'non-profit' way is steadily shrinking (though the impact of that, and the directionality of the flows of money, differ at different points in the overall system). Non-profit, here, is a modesty veil, but an essential one insofar as people's willingness to pay for a lot of this depends it remaining effectively out of sight.

And from Gordon:

1. I don't know about piling on college admins at Harvard and other private universities, but somebody should pile on the state legislatures that starve the universities to the point that a decision to outsource the education of its citizens to a video stream from Harvard seems like a good idea. There's fundamental structural problems here, of which this course is just an example: university administrators now tend to come from the managerial class, not the faculty; neoliberal orthodoxy nursed by compliant think-tanks and generous corporate donors have led to an inexorable decline in state support for any public institutions; and so forth. Structural problems of the "go and reread David Harvey" kind.

2. It's interesting that he says he first put the course online for free, and now through EdX. Sandel could plausibly believe he's making his courses freely available in places where those who can't get to Harvard could benefit. After all, it's hard to argue that putting something online for free reduces access to it. But things turn out to be more complicated than that, and it looks like we're seeing some of those complications here. The problem is, on the one hand, that the "commons" or "public domain" isn't a level playing field. On the other hand, things in the commons are vulnerable to corporate exploitation.

You should, as they say, read these discussion threads in their entirety, then do some hard thinking, and maybe chime in with some ideas for moving forward in the discussion following the post Can academics organize around attacks on academia?

The discussion in the comments of the post at The Philosophy Smoker, San Jose State University calls out Sandel and MOOCs, is a bit more pessimistic in tone, as befits a job-seeking commentariat that has been watching its profession get adjunctified and now possibly MOOCitized. (All the more reason to participate in the creative problem-solving in that New APPS discussion of ways of responding to attacks on academia.)

3 responses so far

A shift in the MOOCmentum: coverage of and conversations around our open letter to Michael Sandel (part 1).

In response to the SJSU Philosophy Department's open letter to Michael Sandel (which you can see in full here), at least two important things have happened.

First, all the top-down pressure on our department to pilot the edX packaged version of Sandel's "Justice" MOOC as a "flipped" course (despite the fact that our existing PHIL 122 "Social Justice" has been serving our students well) has magically disappeared.

Second, a lot of really good discussion about MOOCs and related issues in higher education has broken out all over the place. It seems like we've gotten to the point where people want to look beyond the hype and think about how new educational initiatives (and the role of private entities in driving them) could actually play out when the pedagogical rubber hits the road.

There is so much conversation out there that I cannot give you an accurate digest of all of it (especially during final exams -- things get busy here!). But I want to give you a round-up of some of what I've been reading, probably in at least three parts.

The Tech, Amherst College faculty vote against joining edX:

On April 16, 2013, Amherst College faculty voted 70-36 against a motion to join the edX consortium. …

According to the Amherst Student, debate at the deciding faculty meeting centered around the suitability of the edX platform and massive open online courses (MOOCs) to Amherst’s educational mission. …

At the end of the meeting, the faculty voted to approve a second motion that would explore alternatives to edX. The motion claimed that Amherst’s mission is “best served by having the College itself, rather than an outside organization that offers so-called massive open online courses, develop and offer these online courses and course materials.”

Chronicle of Higher Education, As MOOC Debate Simmers at San Jose State, American U. Calls a Halt:

The California faculty union, which represents more than 2,000 professors on the San Jose State campus, has written a memorandum sharply criticizing the university's president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, for what the union sees as a preference for "private rather than public solutions" when it comes to online tools and content. ...

Meanwhile, at American University, the provost sent a memo on Wednesday to the entire faculty and staff reiterating a "moratorium on MOOCs" while the university, in Washington, D.C., continues to draft a policy on how the massive courses would operate there.

The university is taking its time in deciding whether it wants to pursue institutional partnerships with edX or Coursera, another MOOC provider; or whether it wants to allow professors to teach MOOCs on their own, through Udacity or some other platform.

Contrary to institutions that have eagerly embraced MOOCs, American is purposely avoiding experimentation before it decides exactly how it wants to relate to the new breed of online courses. "I need a policy before we jump into something," said Scott A. Bass, the provost, in an interview.

The Harvard Crimson, San Jose State Professors Criticize edX as 'Social Injustice':

In addition to citing concerns that JusticeX would replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities, many SJSU philosophy professors said they were unsettled by the implicit message of having SJSU students watch the course as homework and then discuss it in class.

“The message is that students at Harvard deserve to have a live professor lecturing in front of them. They can make comments, ask questions, and have discussions with that professor, but San Jose students don’t,” said S. D. Noam Cook, an SJSU philosophy professor. “That seems to be quite inappropriate for any department in any university.”

The Guardian "Comment is Free", Will 'Moocs' be the scourge or saviour of higher education?:

With no clear business models in place – and a reliance at this stage on volunteer labour – it is not clear how the returns on investment will materialise. Will Moocs be a new form of social media? Marketing tasters for established, paying courses? An alternative form of continuing education or outreach? An alternative to textbooks or course materials?

Efforts to monetise Moocs come as politicians wrestle with public disinvestment from mass higher education. According to the US commentator Christopher Newfield: "The distinctive feature of Mooc marketing in 2013 is the shift from being an intriguing experiment to being pushed as a workable solution to budgetary and access crises." …

In California, Senate bill 520 would force universities in the state system to recognise Coursera courses recommended by the American Council for Education. The San Jose State University philosophy faculty complained recently about a decision taken by its senior management to force the use in class of Michael Sandel's edX Mooc on justice.

These academics argue that Moocs, far from taking learning to new vistas, are just "prepackaged materials from outside vendors" (Harvard and edX are private institutions) and being used to re-engineer public education. They see Moocs as the start of an "efficiency" drive to get rid of qualified staff or replace them with teaching assistants.

So, what of the UK? The government is keen to promote "efficiency and diversity" in higher education and has already commissioned a report into Moocs and other forms of online distance learning. The British University Finance Directors Group has indicated that FutureLearn "could well promise a low fixed-cost future". …

As a cheap alternative to degrees, Moocs do not yet pass muster. But as an alternative to public investment, technological solutions with private backing may sway policymakers. In straitened times, will broadcasting the videoed byproducts of elite institutions be seen as good enough for the masses? It would be nice to hope that our commitment to equity and equality in education would resist such temptations.

The Boston Globe "Braniac", San Jose State to Michael Sandle: Keep your MOOC off our campus:

MOOCs are almost certainly here to stay, but the exchange between SJSU and Sandel demonstrates that after several years of feverish adoption, there are still a lot of issues to work out.

NPR Blogs, "13.7 cosmos & culture", Is Massively Open Online Education A Threat Or A Blessing?:

Colleges and universities are communities with their own local cultures, values and ways of doing things. In the face of budgetary pressure, how will these communities withstand the temptation to give up the hard work of making knowledge and, instead, just subscribe to courses being produced and packaged elsewhere?

One might object that MOOCs are no different from textbooks. What is a textbook, really, but a programmed course template, a whole course in a box? Have popular textbooks destroyed local learning communities and entrenched established hierarchies? No.

This is an important point and it brings out how complicated the issues are. So often with new technology we simply reenact old battles.

But maybe the comparison with textbooks breaks down. Textbooks are limited in ambition. They don't replace the whole curriculum; they give it a grounding. Good teachers use textbooks.

Will they come to use MOOCs the same way?

Or will administrators appeal to the existence of MOOCs as justification to make some of those good teachers redundant?

The New Yorker, Is College Moving Online?:

In his office that afternoon, overlooking a small quadrangle and the back of the Swedenborg Chapel, King told me that he didn’t think MOOCS were quite ready to replace the classroom. “At the moment, there’s a very big difference between an online experience and an in-person experience,” he said.

Just how much is lost has lately been a subject of debate. At Harvard, as elsewhere, MOOC designers acknowledge that the humanities pose special difficulties. When David J. Malan, who teaches Harvard’s popular and demanding introduction to programming, “Computer Science 50,” turned the course into a MOOC, student assessment wasn’t especially difficult: the assignments are programs, and their success can be graded automatically. Not so in courses like Nagy’s, which traditionally turned on essay-writing and discussion. Nagy and Michael Sandel are deploying online discussion boards to simulate classroom conversation, yet the results aren’t always encouraging. “You have a group who are—they talk about Christ,” Kevin McGrath, one of the coördinators of CB22x, told me soon after the discussions started up. “Or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.”

“Humanities have always been cheap and sciences expensive,” Ian M. Miller, a graduate student who’s in charge of technical production for a history MOOC intended to go live in the fall, explained. “You give humanists a little cubbyhole to put their books in, and that’s basically what they need. Scientists need labs, equipment, and computers. For MOOCS, I don’t want to say it’s the opposite, but science courses are relatively easier to design and implement. From a computational perspective, the types of question we are asking in the humanities are orders of magnitude more complex.” When three great scholars teach a poem in three ways, it isn’t inefficiency. It is the premise on which all humanistic inquiry is based.

The next round-up will focus on some of the commentary I've been seeing on blogs. Stay tuned!

4 responses so far

My department and a MOOC.

The Philosophy Department at San José State University (of which I am a part) took a pass on teaching Michael Sandel's "Justice", a MOOC licensed by the start-up edX, as a "flipped" course (which would have involved students watching videos of Sandel's lectures -- including his Q&A with his Harvard students -- and then coming in to discuss that in a classroom).

We explain our reasons for this decision in an open letter which you can read online at the Chronicle of Higher Education or download as a PDF here. The CHE article about the letter has some comments from the SJSU administration about the situation.

11 responses so far

Reasonable reactions to kids messing up in dangerous ways.

Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old Florida high school student, was expelled from her high school last week for mixing toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a plastic bottle on school grounds, creating some smoke and enough pressure to pop the cap off the bottle.

No property was damaged. No one was hurt.

Kiera described what she was doing as "conducting a science experiment" while the police described it as "possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device" -- both felonies.

While there has been a general increase in "zero tolerance" enforcement of policies by school systems, it is maybe not unimportant in the reaction in this case that Kiera Wilmot is African American. (For more on that, check out DNLee's post and the discussion at Black Skeptics.)

Schools, obviously, have reasonable concerns about students doing "freelance science" on school grounds, without supervision and without sufficient attention to issues like safety. And, there are sensible arguments that messing around with science (even the explode-y kind) outside the constraints of a lesson plan (and the inevitable standardized test question that follows upon that lesson plan) is precisely the kind of formative experience that gets kids interested enough in science to pursue that interest in their formal schooling. There's a challenge in finding the middle ground -- the circumstances where kids can get excited and take chances and discover things without doing permanent damage to themselves, others, or school property. In olden times, when I was in high school, some of our teachers managed to create conditions like these in the classroom. I don't even know if that would be possible anymore.

Meanwhile, we desperately need to figure out how not to read a 16-year-old's momentary lapse of judgment as a sign that she is a criminal, or a dangerous person to have in the classroom alongside other 16-year-olds whose lapses have not (yet) been so publicly observable. Smart kids -- good kids -- sometimes make decisions with less thought than they should about the potential consequences. Imposing draconian consequences on them isn't necessarily the only way to get them to be more mindful of consequences in the future.

My thoughts on this kind of case are made complex by very slight personal involvement with a similar case almost 20 years ago. In 1994, I lived near Gunn High School in Palo Alto, where a "senior prank" in the canter quad led to an explosion, a 15-foot plume of fire, and eighteen injured people, including two students seriously injured with second and third degree burns. The three seniors who confessed said they were trying to make a smoke bomb, but they had gotten it wrong. They all pled guilty to one felony count, were placed on probation, then had their felonies reduced to misdemeanors after they met particular conditions. They also faced a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of the injured students.

And, if memory serves, at least one of the students had his admission offer at an elite private college revoked.

I know this because I was teaching chemistry courses at a nearby community college that summer and the following fall, and one of the "mad bombers" (as they were being called in town) was my student. He was a good student, smart, engaged in the lessons, and hard working. In the laboratory, he took greater care than most of the other students to understand how to do the assigned experiments safely.

He wasn't, when I knew him, someone who seemed reckless with the welfare of the people around him. He definitely didn't seem like a kid looking to get into more trouble. He seemed affected by how wrong the prank had gone, and he gave the impression of having internalized some serious lessons from it.

None of this is to argue that he or the others shouldn't have been punished. They harmed their fellow students, some of them quite seriously, and the civil suits struck me as completely appropriate.

But approaching kids who mess up -- even quite badly -- as irredeemably bad kids (or, worse, as bad kids treated as adults for the purposes of prosecution) just doesn't fit with the actual kid I knew. And, possibly, going too far with the penalties imposed on kids who mess up is the kind of thing that might turn them into irredeemable cases, rather than giving them a chance to make things right, learn from their screw ups, and then go on to become grown-ups who make better decisions and positive contributions to our world.

4 responses so far

Does the University of North Carolina have any grasp of institutional ethics? (With a bonus thought-experiment.)

And here, the follow-up question to the one posed in the title of this post: Does UNC - Chapel Hill get that "institutional ethics" involves more than protecting the interests of the institution at the expense of people like its students?

Because this story makes me wonder. In brief:

  • UNC student Landen Gambill reported that she was sexually assaulted by another UNC student.
  • At the time she reported the assault, the UNC mechanism for dealing with such reports was through the student-run Honor Court.
  • About month after the Honor Court heard Gambill's case, the UNC Honor Court was stripped of its ability to hear sexual assault allegations because the way it had been dealing with such allegations was probably not in compliance with Title IX
  • The Honor Court ruled that Gambill's sexual assault allegations lacked sufficient evidence to impose punishment on the other student she alleged had assaulted her.
  • Gambill and 64 others (including a former UNC Dean of Students) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the way reports of sexual assaults, and students making those reports, are treated at UNC results in illegal underreporting.*
  • Now, Landen Gambill is herself being charged by the student-run UNC Honor Court with violation of the Honor Code because, apparently, her participation in filing the complaint against UNC amounts to “Disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with another…. so as to adversely affect their academic pursuits, opportunities for university employment, participation in university-sponsored extracurricular activities, or opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University Life.”
  • It is worth noting that Gambill has made no public identification of the UNC student she alleges assaulted her.
  • UNC spokespeople deny that the Honor Court charge against Gambill is retaliatory -- and also deny that there is much the UNC admiinistration can do to keep the Honor Court from continuing on a course that looks very much like charging a student for reporting a sexual assault. From Inside Higher Ed:

    [A] UNC spokesperson said the university may not “encourage or prevent” the Honor Court’s top officials, the student attorneys general, from filing charges in any case. Given that, “a claim of retaliation by the university would be without merit,” Karen Moon, director of UNC News Services, said in an email. The court may consult with a faculty advisory committee on difficult cases, but Moon said she could not comment on whether they had. While there is a process for administrators to hear and overturn cases, Moon said, it must be initiated by the student attorneys general.

    So, it's the students who are mounting this action, and the university officials must stand helplessly by and hope it all turns out all right, I guess?

Let's take this case as an opportunity for a thought-experiment.

Imagine you're an administrator at a university. You want to maintain the university's reputation, so students will still apply for admission and faculty will still want to work there. You want to keep the university in compliance with relevant laws and regulations so, for example, you don't get cut out of federal funding of various sorts. You want to find sensible ways to create a campus environment where students can learn and be safe, and where students are active participants in upholding shared standards of conduct (which cover not only standards of scholarly conduct but reasonable ways to treat others within the campus community).

What are your first three ideas for productive steps forward from a mess like this? (Bonus points if these ideas seem likely to succeed.) And, how to you get buy-in from the relevant segments of the university community to actually take these steps?

Alternatively, consider the same situation from the point of view of a student and propose your first three ideas for productive steps forward.
*The relevant laws the complaint alleges that UNC is violating by underreporting its campus sexual assault are the Campus Sexual Assault Victims' Bill of Rights, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

3 responses so far

The case study protagonist as unreliable narrator.

Even though it seems like my semester just started, I'm already grading the first batch of case study responses from my "Ethics in Science" students. (Students, if you're reading this: I'm quite happy with how the class is doing! You'll get detailed feedback on your response by the end of the week.)

In case you're not familiar with case studies in the context of an ethics class, they usually consist of a brief description of a situation in which a protagonist is trying to make a decision about what to do. I ask my students to look at this description and identify who has a stake in what the protagonist does (or doesn't do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to the protagonist; to whom the protagonist has obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by his or her action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull the protagonist in different directions as he or she tries to make the best decision. On the basis of these details, I ask my students to choose a course of action for the protagonist and explain why it's an ethical course of action.

But here's something that makes the analysis difficult for the students: Often it's hard to pin down the fact of the case with certainty. The scenario is described from the protagonist's point of view. It seems to the protagonist that there's favoritism in the lab group, or that it's obvious why some of the measurement turned out the way they did, or that a colleague is going to react a particular way if a concern is brought to that colleague's attention. However, my students have been quick to notice in their discussions of the cases, what seems to be true to the protagonist might be false. For any number of reasons, the protagonist may have a skewed perspective on what's going on in other people's minds, on what the issues are with the experiment, even on his or her own competence.

The protagonist, in other words, could be an unreliable narrator.

Making a good ethical decision is easier when you can pin down all the relevant facts (including things like what future events would flow from the protagonist's various courses of action). But, as in real life, the case studies with which we ask our students to grapple have a lot of uncertainty built in. Postponing a decision about what to do until all the facts are in just isn't a practical option. Sometimes you do the best you can with knowledge you recognize is gappy.

Indeed, one of the big reasons I try to get my students to understand discussion as a valuable part of ethical decision-making is that, left to our own devices, each of us can be just as unreliable a narrator as the protagonist of the case study we're thinking through. The protagonist suspects favoritism. We suspect jealousy. Maybe the protagonist is wrong, but maybe the protagonist is right and we're wrong instead. Given the state of our knowledge in the world, we don't won't to lean on ethical decision-making strategies that require us to guess correctly about all of the unknowns.

The moral of the story is assuredly not the "there are no wrong answers" crap that humanities professors get from their naïve undergraduates. Instead, it's that taking account of other people's perspectives may be useful in helping us gain some critical distance on our own (and on the ways it might turn out to be wrong). Also, it's that an ethical course of action might require some active fact-finding to test whether one's perceptions in a situation are reliable before acting rashly on the assumption that they are.

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Related posts:

The value of (unrealistic) case studies in ethics education.

Some ethical decisions are not that hard: thoughts on Joe Paterno.

Question for the hivemind: workplace policies and MYOB.

Passion quilt: a meme for teachers.

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What I gleaned from the start of the semester faculty meetings.

Note that "gleaned" might suggest more in the way justified true belief than I actually acquired; at least some of these bullet points have all the tannins you'd expect from tea leaves. Also, there's maybe a little sarcasm, but I'm trying to get most of it out of my system before my first class meeting tomorrow. You have been warned.

Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Our university president and the governor of our state are super-excited about MOOCs. They're the wave of the higher ed future, y'all! And that excitement extends to entering a partnership wherein faculty at our university will develop MOOCs and the university will pocket a whopping 51% of the proceeds! The other 49% of the proceeds will go to a private company that will do ... something to add value to what our faculty build. No reason at all for California taxpayers to worry that this amounts to converting public funds to private profits!
  • Also, no need to worry that the University of California's bold initiatives MOOCward in UC Online have been much less successful than hoped. Because the California State University system will be able to figure it out!
  • Some faculty with an awareness of history pointed noted that, in the 1950s, precisely the same bold future of revolutionizing college education and broadening access to it was predicted, only with television as the delivery method. Remember how classroom instruction at colleges and universities had totally disappeared by the end of that decade? And this is why history departments must be phased out immediately!
  • So, our campus is phasing in its fourth "Learning Management System" (with which we develop and deliver content and interaction with students online) in 10 years. Faculty are scrambling to work out kludges to get the functionality with the new system that they had (but will be losing) with the old system. It combines all the hassle of a new prep with none of the intellectual thrill of a new prep. Bonus: Owing to the partnership with Udacity to develop and deliver MOOCs, there is absolutely no guarantee that the campus won't end up ditching this new LMS in favor of a (proprietary) LMS that Udacity prefers (and could yank out from under us in the event that the partnership founders). This is awesome incentive for those who have never used online tools in their pedagogy to start!
  • Faculty can reach a stage where they are so battered by directives from administrative levels beyond their department that they will hear their chair's proclamation "We will be doing [X] over my dead body" and ask "When must we implement [X]?" (I assure you, these are faculty who sincerely desire their chair's continued health and well-being.)
  • Administrators who think that they can appease disgruntled factions of the administrative units they oversee by making sure those factions are heavily represented on key committees and then listening to their concerns sometimes discover that listening to those concerns is not sufficient to appease the disgruntled factions.
  • Indeed, sometimes the disgruntled factions will make and distribute hundreds of fliers trying to rally the support of the less-disgruntled factions of their administrative units, including agitating for what could maybe shape up to be a coup against the administrators who listened to grievances but did not acquiesce to demands.
  • Such attempts to rally support from colleagues might be more successful if they showed awareness of the real challenges those less-disgruntled factions of the administrative units face, and especially of ways giving the disgruntled faction everything it wants might impact the resources and effective functioning of the less-disgruntled factions.
  • I have what feels like a memory that at least one of the first few start-of-semester faculty meetings early in my career here saw faculty generally gruntled. It's possible that this is baseless nostalgia, though.
  • You know what we hear that area employers are looking for in recent graduates? Good critical thinking skills. You know what core component of our General Education package the powers that be are seriously considering eliminating? Critical thinking! Of course, the proposal on the table is to fold the existing critical thinking requirement into another required course (the second semester freshman composition class), but some of us are fairly certain that student papers with solid mechanics but lacking critical thinking are going to end up being a horror show to grade.

I hope the rest of you in academia are experiencing a smooth start (or continuation, as the cas may be) to your term.

14 responses so far

Please don't beg me for mercy (a professorial rant).

I'm starting to twig to the fact that a small but significant portion of my students has no idea whatsoever as to what my motivations might be for going into the line of work I have gone into (i.e., being a philosophy professor at a teaching-focused public university). And indeed, it's possible that my own motivations may not be totally transparent even to myself. (Life is, after all, full of mystery.)

But, I can state for the record, with absolute certainty, that I did not go into the professorial biz so that people could beg me for mercy.

Seriously, I didn't.

I recognize that people learn differently. I understand that some people are good at mastering material before a midterm, while others only really understand the material after they've flubbed it on the midterm. You know what? As long as they can demonstrate that you understand it by the final, I'm happy (which is why I give positive weight to improvement when I assign final grades). If we could engage in this teaching-and-learning transaction without grades, it would make me happier than you can imagine -- even if it meant that I had to write evaluative letters for 150 students each semester. I know that the grading pen can make me appear permanently judgmental, but the judgments I make are focused on how well my students demonstrate their understanding of the material (including how well they can identify and explain what it is they don't quite get yet, since this seems to be an important stop on the way to getting it).

I do not look at my students and see their midterm scores. Neither do I believe that one's grades in my class are a reliable proxy for who's a good person.

That said, since grades are part of the landscape, there are some basic expectations about academic integrity in play.

One is that students do their own thinking and writing. Connected to that is the expectation that if they draw on the words or ideas of others, they will properly cite the source of those words and/or ideas. Moreover, if they enter into an explicit agreement that they will only use certain sources for particular assignments, I expect them to abide by that agreement -- because I think it's fair to take adults (including the adults who are my students) at their word.

And, when I discover students violating basic rules of academic integrity (and especially when they violate explicit agreements about what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds), they receive an F for the course and a referral to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development. This is exactly the outcome promised in my syllabus, and in the explicit agreements I secure from my students about ground rules. My students should be able to take me at my word, too.

Hypothetically, if you're caught transgressing the rules and if I deliver precisely the consequence promised for that kind of transgression, pestering me to not deliver on the promise is not a good call.

Would it be just for me to make an exception to the rule just for you when your classmates have, variously, made the decision (possibly influenced in part by the promises embodied in my academic integrity policy) to live within the rules, or have been caught transgressing the rules and delivered the promised consequences? (Especially in the context of an ethics class, I expect you to have given a question like this serious thought.)

In the case that I were to give in to your demands that I treat your cheating as something other than cheating, what kind of obligations do you suppose it would place on me with regards to other students caught doing the same thing, now or in the future? What kind of obligations do you suppose it would place on me with regard to students who do not cheat? How would you suggest I update the language in my syllabus to reflect the kind of action you would like me to take on your behalf?

I expect you to be familiar with university policies on plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty, but if you run afoul of the rules and complain enough, we'll pretend it never happened. Plagiarism or cheating will result in a failing grade in this course, and offenders may be subject to further administrative sanctions, but if you're caught and you make a huge deal about what a bad outcome this will be for you, I will totally ignore the requirement that I report all infractions to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development.

I don't see that happening.

I guess my hypothetical cheater-who-doesn't-want-to-accept-the-consequences has already shown significant disrespect for our teaching-and-learning transaction by opting to cheat (rather than, say, opting to do the assignments according to the rules and learning something by so doing), and significant disrespect for my intelligence (in assuming that I am unable to detect blatant cheating when it's right in front of me).

But I'm also really bothered by the premise that I have the life and death power over the hypothetical cheater, to be cruel and crush a young life or to be merciful and let the hypothetical cheater go on to do many good things. That seems to disrespect the student's role in our teaching-and-learning transaction. I have the power to explain expectations clearly. I don't have the power to keep students from making bad calls, nor to go back in time and undo bad decisions for them. I don't want that kind of power.

The power I'm interested in is power to communicate ideas clearly, to give students feedback that helps them develop their competencies in reading and writing and thinking and argumentation, to convey to students what's interesting or important about the issues and ideas we discuss. This is a kind of power that can change lives (for the better, I hope), but whose exercise lets me interact with my students as autonomous adults rather than as petitioners begging to be excused from the consequences their own choices have wrought.

16 responses so far

Your consequentialist argument for cheating doesn't make what you did not-cheating.

I'm willing to accept that not every instance of cheating is necessarily clear cut -- that there may be some iffy choices that have not been explicitly identified as out-of-bounds.

However, I keep running into a situation that is quite different, where an explicit rule has clearly been broken* and yet, the person who has been caught breaking it tries to persuade me not to impose the promised penalty for breaking this rule** because the imposition of that penalty will lead to other bad consequences for the person who broke the rule that this person really, really doesn't want to deal with.

And look, I understand not wanting to live with the bad consequences of a choice. But the very fact that X will bring additional bad consequences for you does not mean that X was not cheating.

Those additional bad consequences from being caught cheating should maybe have been reason enough to try to achieve your desired ends without violating the agreed upon rules. Gambling on achieving those ends by cheating only works if you get away with the cheating. When you don't, articulating all the reasons that being caught cheating is going to mess you up does not make what you did something other than cheating.

* For example, "Here are the resources you may consult to complete this assignment and all other resources are forbidden," or "You must properly cite the resources you used in completing this assignment." In practices, violations of the first rule here are always accompanied by violations of the second (since otherwise, you'd be acknowledging that you used a source you were not allowed to use).

** For example, if you violated the agreed upon rules, you fail the course. (Here, the students must explicitly affirm that they understand the rules and will abide by them at the beginning of the course.)

3 responses so far

Another ponderable: Are public elementary schools becoming less secular?

Way back in the last millennium, when I was in a public elementary school in northern New Jersey (approximately 1974-1980), our school had holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances that were mostly secular. Snowmen and sleigh rides and reindeer featured heavily, and for every song or activity that made explicit mention of Christmas, there would be one that made explicit mention of Hanukkah (you know, for balance). It was pretty clear to us students, though, that serious effort was being made to keep holiday-themed stuff at our elementary school as secular as possible ... because that's what was appropriate in a public school (where kids had to be there whether or not they worshipped in a particular way, or at all).

More recently (approximately 2004-present), I have been the parent of students in a public elementary school in northern California where the holiday-themed classroom activities and music performances have been decidedly less secular. There has been an overabundance of straightforward Christmas carols (complete with verses with religious content), weak attempts to recognize the existence of Hanukkah by singing that one dreidel song, and no apparent effort to recognize the existence of (let alone incorporate in activities, performances, or celebrations) the seasonal celebrations of other religious traditions (e.g., Diwali). And, this convergence of "winter holidays" towards Christmas in the public elementary school has been happening despite a significant population of kids in the classroom who are not Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim.

All this leaves me wondering: Were serious efforts to keep religion from encroaching on our public school activities an East Coast Thing? Were they a late 20th Century thing? How is it that the adults running things in a significantly less diverse school district some 40 years ago were better at acknowledging that their student population might not all believe the same thing or partake of the same religious or cultural traditions than are the adults running things in our wildly diverse school district here in California?

Honestly, it's all pretty weird, and I'd like to understand the source of this receding commitment to secularism better.

14 responses so far

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