A Tiny Evaluation of TED-Ed

Congratulations to Simon on his promotion! He is well on his way to achieving his goal of world domination.

Since we’re on the subject of British imperialism, or maybe imperialism in general —

I recently stumbled across this Ted-Ed video on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Watching the video produced a vague sense of dissatisfaction despite the eye-grabbing animation. I decided this deserved additional, more formal exploration, so I evaluated the video using these previously-posted instructional design criteria. So here we go . . .

  • Learning objective: greater knowledge about the Ho Chi Minh trail.
  • Content: the video is in fact about the Ho Chi Minh trail, but I don’t think it’s as informative as it could be. More on this below.
  • Organization and delivery: on its surface the video is logically organized, but at a deeper level it is constructed mainly as a series of facts. Facts are important for “domain knowledge,” but in my opinion their relationship to bigger questions should be more apparent. A reading assignment or lecture would do a better job of explaining why relations between North and South Vietnam “deteriorated” after the 1954 Geneva Agreements, and why North Vietnamese cadre began infiltrating into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail in 1959.
  • Practice and application: a multiple choice quiz.
  • Assessment and feedback: automated marking of the quiz questions.

At just under thirteen minutes, this Crash Course on decolonization and nationalism is about three times longer than the Ted-Ed video, but it places the Vietnam War (or rather the American War, since the Vietnamese also fought the French for similar reasons) in a much broader context. As a means of providing engaging and rich content — whether to the elementary, high school, or college students — the Crash Course is by far the superior product.

The lesson here is that even though a piece of technology is new and shiny it might not be better than other technologies that are available, and explicit evaluation can help identify why.

Teaching About Online Security

I’m a strong advocate of students getting in the habit of storing their work securely online through free services like Google Docs, Evernote, and DropBox. At minimum, it means I don’t have to hear the “my hard drive died” excuse. But any method of storing information entails risks, whether it’s paper or the cloud. Here’s an example of how to teach students about minimizing those risks from Julie Swierczek, the university archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University . . .

If you use Evernote, you probably received an email about the recent hacking of the company that compromised about 50 million passwords. While it appears doubtful that any data was lost, Evernote is asking people to reset their passwords.

This is a great lesson to share with students, for two reasons:

  • Evernote, Google, etc. are money-making, professional IT companies, and they still get hacked.  This is why people should never store valuable (to hackers) personally identifiable information, like tax information or social security numbers, through these services.
  • People should not use the same password for all of their online stuff, and they should especially avoid using the same passwords for logins to applications (like Evernote) that they use for banking or any other online financial transactions.  That way, if these applications get hacked, you don’t have to worry that the hacker will try hitting thousands of other sites online – which is exactly what they do – to see if they can login to any other accounts with the same information. A person’s best bet is to use a different password on every website he or she uses.  (Can’t figure out how to keep track of passwords?  Look into something like LastPass or Roboform.  These services not only manage your passwords, they generate random passwords if that’s what a user wants.)

Students who think this is not something they need to worry about should read about the hacking of Mat Honan, who lost everything he had online. Hackers not only can steal a person’s identity; they have ways of deleting all of someone’s stuff.  While the particular vulnerability mentioned in that article has been fixed, hackers are adept at finding new ways of creating mischief.

Being Trained For The Technological Dustbin Of History

new report by the non-profit Project Tomorrow indicates a serious disconnect between what K-12 principals want from new teachers and what education majors are learning about teaching in their college courses.

As described in an overview of the report from KQED blog MindShift, more than two-thirds of the teachers-in-training surveyed report that they “rely most heavily on field placements to learn about how to integrate technology into the classroom.” Coursework, on the other hand, emphasizes using technology for document and spreadsheet preparation, multimedia presentations, and smartboards — in other words, for the organization and display of information, rather than to enhance student learning.Univac

School principals, in contrast, want the new teachers whom they hire to know how to use technology “to create authentic learning experiences for students [and] differentiate instruction” as part of a move toward self-directed learning in the classroom.

I see a similar disconnect between political scientists and university students. We are trained, if one can call it that, to think about technology as a virtual filing cabinet that might make onerous bureaucratic tasks a bit easier. How many times have you been to a presentation about a new technology and seen people snap to attention only when someone asks “Will this sync with my calendar?” A few individuals might experiment with how to use a technology to improve the learning experiences of their students, but the professional rewards or recognition that they get for their efforts is usually minimal at best.

Eventually, though, the dyke is going to shatter. Innovation always forces an examination of old assumptions and sweeps away less productive processes. An entirely new paradigm will be adopted, as happened in U.S. manufacturing a century ago:

“Early 20th-century factories [initially] simply swapped waterwheels and steam engines for large electric motors but retained inefficient belt-and-pulley systems to transmit power from the central power source. Real productivity gains came only after manufacturers realized that many small motors distributed throughout a factory could generate power where and when it was needed; ultimately, it was the re-engineering of processes coupled with the new technology that generated explosive growth in U.S. manufacturing productivity” (p. 2224).*

If we are to avoid the fate of belt and pulley systems, we must foster the same qualities in ourselves that we claim are important for our students: creativity, a love of experimentation, and a willingness to learn from failure. Our profession and our employers must support us in this effort.

*Spencer S. Jones, Paul S. Heaton, Robert S. Rudin, and Eric C. Schneider, “Unraveling the IT Productivity Paradox — Lessons for Health Care,” New England Journal of Medicine 366, 24 (June 14, 2012): 2243-45.

Higher Ed’s Cost Disease

I recently read William G. Bowen’s The ‘Cost Disease’ in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer? — a brief compilation of two lectures that he gave at Stanford in October 2012. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bowen, he’s a former Princeton University president, who, as an economics professor, came up with the “cost disease” hypothesis for performing arts with William J. Baumol in 1966.

Three of the most important points about this report, in my opinion:

  • As a general trend, the cost per student in higher ed has risen faster than costs in the rest of the economy for as long as we’ve been collecting data on the subject — since the beginning of the 20th century. So rising costs is not a recent phenomenon. What is new is the reversal in the financial position of public and private universities. Public universities, because of reductions in state government allocations, have increased their tuition at a much faster rate than have private universities over the last few decades. To me this signals a movement toward the privatization of higher education in the USA.
  • While tuition has increased at both public and private universities, students and their parents have been forced to finance college education through debt, because incomes have not kept pace.
  • A well-designed empirical study at Carnegie Mellon found “no statistically significant differences in standard measures of learning outcomes . . . between students in the traditional classes and students in . . . hybrid-online format classes.” As the report points out, many other studies, less well-designed, have not found significant differences either. This leads me to think that the common criticism leveled against online instruction — that it simply “isn’t as good” as instruction that resides entirely within the physical classroom — might be more a reflection of our own emotion-laden memories of what we experienced as college students than anything else. Another factor that probably clouds our opinion of online instruction is the fact that the first providers of online education went after the bottom segment of the market, where quality in the physical classroom was probably just as terrible.

Trouble, Trouble, Toil, and Bubble

The January 2013 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics contains an interesting symposium on the “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” All of the contributors come from the elite universities that are the best insulated from having to adapt to a changing higher education environment, so it’s easy to dismiss what they say as the typical incessant and irrelevant hand-wringing of Ivory Tower intellectuals. But the simple fact that they are all commenting on the same subject in the same way (even if they don’t realize it) deserves attention.

Virginia Sapiro (Boston U) claims that even the most academically-talented college students find it difficult to successfully graduate without an expensive “array of advisors, high-touch academic experiences, support services, residential programs, [and] efforts aimed at stimulating engagement and a sense of place and community.” She then states that universities are now seeking ways to earn “alternative sources of revenue from learners whom they have had little or no interest in serving on campus” (p. 108). This would seem to be a situation of universities wanting to simultaneously have the cake and eat it too — let’s take what has become an inordinately expensive system of higher education that neither taxpayers, legislators, nor most borrowers still want to pay for, and tack on some peripheral profit centers in an attempt to remain financially viable. My guess is that such a strategy won’t work, at least for most universities that are forced to attempt it.


Gary King (Harvard) and Maya Sen (U Rochester) identify four “external economic threats” to traditional universities: the Internet, distance learning, for-profits, and online start-ups — this last being from my perspective simply a logical symbiosis of the first three.

To the above four, Nannerl Keohane (Princeton) adds “migration of loyalties of some faculty and students to different modes of learning and away from their campus base.”* Universities were built at a time when the most economically viable method of creating and disseminating highly-specialized knowledge was to concentrate information (books) and smart people (instructors and students) in the same physical location. The tremendous start-up costs in land, buildings, equipment, and faculty, coupled with society’s constantly growing demand for knowledge, created monopolistic market conditions for higher education. A natural outgrowth of such a geographically-fixed system was student and faculty loyalty to a single institution. Alumni weekends, anyone?

These conditions no longer exist and we can see this in the data (the graph on p. 84 of the King and Sen contribution). The number of public and private four-year institutions in the USA has been level since 2000, after several decades of steady growth (college enrollment of Baby Boomer and GI Bill students in combination with Cold War policy priorities). Over the same period, private two-year colleges have declined precipitously and the number for-profits has skyrocketed. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to assume that the four-year institutions have hit an inflection point and the curve will bend downward over the next few decades. Many state university systems have already seen majors and departments eliminated on certain campuses as part of an effort at consolidation.

So we are left with the perfect crunch — a need for revenue, an inability to cost-effectively enroll additional students on physical campuses, and fading loyalties to all but the most prestigiously-branded institutions. The hoped-for solution to this impending nightmare is The Next Big Technological Thing, even though no one really knows what that Thing is going to be.

I have some other ideas:

  • Post-secondary education is openly biased in favor of and reliant upon the socioeconomically and educationally advantaged. As King and Sen point out (p. 86), U.S. universities currently only serve the approximately 30 percent of the country’s population that gets college degrees — making most of the Ivory Tower prognostications an exercise in survivorship bias. Ignoring the 70 percent of the population that can’t afford college or isn’t academically prepared for it is a stupid business model. Focus your energies on serving that market, in a pay-as-you go manner similar to what Udemy is already doing, and you might find yourself in a much better position.
  • In a similar vein, push college instruction down into high schools, where the physical educational infrastructure already exists. This is what much of Europe does already. There is no fundamental law of the universe that requires the most talented students to sit through four years of high school and four years of college.
  • Take the chains off faculty and let them experiment, a la Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok and their creation Marginal Revolution University. Yes, many of these experiments will fail. But not all of them will, and some will help market the universities these faculty are affiliated with — in some cases, by functioning as a portal through which that 70 percent of the population that is currently under-served can gain access to a high quality college education at a price that is much lower than it is now.

Meanwhile, this recent New York Times story helps confirm my belief that CourseraUdacity, and perhaps even edX — or operations like them — will become the providers of low-cost content to medium- and low-tier institutions that are looking to cut the price of attendance. Want to offer computer programming courses but don’t want to hire a department’s worth of faculty? Sign a license agreement with Udacity. Want to outsource the content of your liberal arts core? Your students can enroll in Coursera’s poetry and mythology offerings and at one price point they can meet once a week on campus with an instructor for discussions and collaborative projects; at another price point, students who pass a test (from which the MOOC provider and the student’s university of choice get revenue) earn two credit hours on their transcripts instead of three.

Perhaps the most telling statement in the article about these MOOC providers is from UPenn’s Edward Rock, a law professor: “it makes more sense to build your user base first and then figure out later how to monetize it, than to worry too much at the beginning about how to monetize it.” People tend to forget that Amazon didn’t become profitable until four years after its initial public offering, and it did so by building its customer base.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Dr. Keohane was president of Wellesley College when I took two courses there. I shall forever be grateful to her and other administrators at Wellesley for the campus meal plan that enabled me to get free ice cream from the meal tickets that the full-time students were (and presumably still are) required to purchase.

The Digital Natives Are Not Restless

Somewhat related to Simon’s post about the use of new social media: Hurricane Sandy unexpectedly provided me with experimental environment in which to test student use online communication platforms. I’m currently teaching online courses for our master’s degree program in international relations. I have students on at least three continents and in who knows how many countries. Some reside locally and lost electrical power during the storm. A few might have evacuated to higher ground. Yet all of them were in communication with each other and me through the course websites, email, and phone. Assignments were submitted in a timely fashion even though I announced an extension of deadlines due to the weather.

I’m also teaching three traditional face to face undergraduate courses. All of these courses had tasks that could have or should have been completed using either the online Canvas LMS or the Statecraft simulation. Only six of my students submitted anything. I thought this was especially odd for the thirty-five students who are using Statecraft, since a new turn in the simulation began at 9:00 a.m. yesterday morning. Although classes were canceled, students were in the residence halls and the campus network remained operational. It appears that many undergraduates — at least at my university — still think of an education as something that is dependent on a physical classroom. While these students are quite happy to socialize via text message, they are not effective at using digital communication tools for other purposes. My older students — whose occupations frequently require problem solving  — are much more capable of operating in a globalized electronic environment.

Using New Social Media in Learning & Teaching

Last week, my colleagues and I presented to our Faculty on the School of Politics’ use of new social media (NSM) in our learning & teaching. This covered our work with Twitter, Facebook and blogging, plus some brief excursions into wikis.

The aim of the event was both to share our experiences and to reflect on the utility of NSM, since it remains a relatively new field for all involved.

Our Facebook page for the School has been very useful indeed for connecting with current students, alumni as well as future students and applicants. It provides a relatively stable place to post information about events and news, as well as connecting to colleagues’ research. 

In contrast, our Twitter feeds allow us a much more high-tempo channel of communication. The School’s channel is a site for joining up other users and the Facebook page, especially for reminders of events. Myself and most colleagues (such as Jack Holland) run individual accounts, where we hashtag posts for individual modules and events. For the former, it has been a good way to stimulate debate outside of the classroom, to share resources and to connect teaching to the real world.  For the latter, it has proved a particularly good way of getting in questions during public debates and for sharing those in real time with other people (e.g. our event last week was tagged as #FAHSLT).

Blogs serve a somewhat different market, mainly being aimed at academic colleagues and practitioner groups. Our two Surrey blogs (Politics @ Surrey and Cii), plus my own postings here on ALPS, allow us to post relatively timely contributions to topical debates, connect with new communities and try out new ideas for more substantial research projects.

Overall, we would argue that NSM has brought a number of basic benefits:

  • It offers a much more speedy and timely way of engaging in discussion, with all our users, allowing us to shape those discussions in a way that was very difficult beforehand;
  • It offers huge potential for synergies between teaching and research, as well as programme administration and marketing activities;
  • Finally, it extends our reach and profile well beyond what we could have achieved with old media channels.

However, it is also important to reflect on the costs involved:

  • Time costs are substantial, since NSM is predicated on constant interaction and the creation of new content. This requires many hours a week, however it is spread across individuals;
  • Personnel costs are also significant, especially if the different channels are to interact with each other. We have been very lucky to have a 0.5FTE post for the past two years working on this, which has meant we can constantly update sites, cross-link materials and generally encourage others to contribute;
  • Finally, NSM has the potential for serious reputational costs. We talk with students (and colleagues) about netiquette and the boundary between public and private. Usually that works, but sometimes not, so again that requires management of individuals. Just as good news can be spread very quickly, so too can criticism.

With all this in mind, the three basic questions to ask if you are a unit thinking of getting into NSM (and they are still relatively rare) are:

  • Is it worth it for you to do this?
  • Can you get it started? i.e. are there enough people who will be bothered enough to get over the initial hurdles?
  • Can you keep it going? Nothing is worse that a NSM account that’s not touched for a few months, so you have to have people who can generate content, week after week.

Interactive Learning and the 2012 Presidential Debates

The following comes from Rebecca Glazier at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock:

It’s election season again and, as always, an exciting time to be teaching political science. This election year we have an addition tool to use in our efforts to get students actively engaged in learning about politics: a new app that tracks real time reactions to the presidential debates. React Labs: Educate was developed through collaboration between political scientists and computer scientists. It runs on smartphones and allows participants to register their moment-by-moment responses to what candidates are saying during a debate. Instructors who register their classes to participate will be provided with data showing which of your students used the app (handy for providing assignment credit or extra credit), presentation-ready figures of the data from each debate (to facilitate post-debate discussion), and additional educational resources. Not only will you be engaging your students in the debates, you will be helping the political scientists on this project–Amber Boydstun (University of California, Davis), Rebecca Glazier (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and Matthew Pietryka (University of California, Davis)—collect data on  debate responses. You can find out more about React Lab: Educate and register your classes at the project website: http://reactlabseducate.wordpress.com/.

Managing Transitions

After my summer hiatus, I find myself back in the office, working through the pile of things that has accumulated on my desk in my absence. At one level, it’s a classic case of work-as-usual, in that there’s nothing that I haven’t had to deal with before at some point; but it’s also a key transition point.

In the past month, Surrey has switched over to its new VLE, SurreyLearn, after an extensive purchasing and implementation period. The switch to a completely new platform was predicated on the need for a step-change in functionality and robustness: my various responsibilities in learning & teaching have meant that I’ve been involved in the process from an early stage and I’m aware of the potential that the new system holds.

However, I now find myself asking how I am going to use this new system. On the one hand, I know that I can now do things that were impossible before, notably in integrating a number of other systems and networks into a single space. On the other, I am very dubious about innovating for innovation’s sake. One of the biggest barriers that I encounter when talking to colleagues across the sector is the fear that having an interest in L&T means having to constantly change one’s practice to accommodate the ‘latest thinking’. This concern is a real one, especially in situations where institutions are ambivalent about the place of teaching in their provision. Even here – where that does not apply – there are enough other areas of change that change-for-change’s-sake is not appropriate.

The upshot is that I’m going to wait for now. As the year progresses, I’m going to see when I can add real value-added via the new VLE, both from my own practice and from talking with others. This latter point is an essential one, in my view: Teaching can be a very personal activity, and often the most useful advice comes not from ‘the literature’ but from conversations with colleagues, especially those who have worked through the practicalities of a situation: educational theory is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to have a walk-through.

All of which leads me to a plug for internet resource on simulations that I was working on earlier this summer.  Thanks to the HEA, I was able to push on with a big part of the content. It’s meant to be a practical guide to using simulations and games (and draws on several elements from other ALPS contributors) and I’m very happy to talk about any of it with people and to receive more content.

When Technology Almost Gets The Upper Hand

After two weeks, two laptops, one iPad, one iMac, four webcams, five microphones, a motley collection of light fixtures, and various pieces of software, I’ve finally put together a combination of equipment that allows me to produce video lectures of sufficient quality.

We commonly believe that technology is supposed to support teaching and learning, but often the reality is the reverse. And I’m not just talking about hardware and software. While reviewing the work of others and making my own error-filled practice runs, I discovered why the typical YouTube video runs between four and five minutes: long videos, especially the talking head kind, are boring. I’m a university professor, which means I’m geeky enough to actually enjoy a well-crafted lecture. But my attention span seriously dwindles when I’m experiencing the two dimensional version. Joseph Nye has some interesting ideas, but watching him continuously expound upon soft power on my laptop screen for over 49 minutes is  impossible.

If I can’t do it, I doubt my students can either, which means my video lectures need to be in the two to five minute range. Saying what you need to say within that short time span requires distilling your normal lecture down to its most essential information — spare sentence structure, only one or two illustrative examples, no amusing anecdotes. I found that I was stripping out everything except what students absolutely need to know, and perhaps that is a good thing. If they get just a skeleton of ideas from my online lectures, they might have a better sense of what they should focus on when they are in class.