I got the point of Edupunk…it's the opposite of a factory!

As I said in my October 14, 2009 post:  “I got the point of Edupunk right away.” At first I was a little cautious about using their  apocalyptic language with all the talk about irresponsibility and lethargy and the literal redefinition of what it means to be a university.  That was before I started interviewing some of the revolutionaries for my book.

I started to see the difference between the expensive, closed, corporate systems that, as Jim Groom says,  have been “foisted onto the American higher education system as a substitute for deep reflection about what universities should be evolving into,” and the open,  democratic systems that need simply to be connected together by lightweight, easily programmable platforms.

If you need a touchstone to rely on, then think about blogging.  A little PHP programming, a widget or two, and you’re ready to go.  If you are very serious, maybe you can add a lightweight registration system to separate out the serious participants from noisy but ultimately uninteresting rabble who might stumble in after partying at the celebrity gossip site next door.

My colleague Mike Hunter and I ran an experiment this spring with our Introduction to Information Security Course.  We wanted  to encourage classroom discussion, but realized –or, rather,  I have come to expect after forty years in front of computer science classrooms — that two thirds of the students simply would not raise their hands in class.  Even if their grades depended on it.  So we set up a blog.

The rules were simple.  Participation counted for ten percent of the final grade.  We would keep track of who spoke up in class, but we also let students create or join conversations online in lieu of actually speaking up.

We were just jaded enough to guess that near the end of the semester — particularly if we reminded them that their grades were at stake — there would be a spike in traffic and that some students would guess that padding the written record with  valueless but copious comments was an easy enough path to improving their letter grades.  So we stopped counting after final exams and put an upper limit on how may comments would actually affect their grades.  This in effect rewarded students who made early, meaningful comments.

Two thirds of the class participated.  Some didn’t like it very much, and they said so online. Others thought the organization of the blog was opaque and  unhelpful.  They were right, but in our defense, we did not aim very high.  The best students were active in both the physical and virtual classroom.  The most gratifying feedback was from the students who said they thought it was incredibly cool that there were discussions that spanned several weeks and included both faculty members, students, and guest lecturers.

I always thought that I was pushing it with my anti-factory rant about the lack of open systems in universities, but I quickly convinced myself that Georgia Tech’s multimillion-dollar course management software implementation of Sakai was not democratic.  It did not permit public and private blogs to live together.  Like all course management systems, it is designed to keep people out.  Extending it in any useful way would have meant a major Java development project (enough said).

What happened at the end of the semester was an even bigger shock.  Our teaching assistant finished entering the raw test and project scores, and then scampered out of town, leaving me to assign letter grades and close out the semester.  How hard could that be?  There was already a button for assigning letter grades.  So I pushed the button.  All hell broke loose.

It turns out that  Sakai defaults to a standard weighting of grades, and the cleverly designed classroom/blogging participation scheme that Mike Hunter and I had devised threw that standard weighting out of kilter.  When I pushed the button, I unwittingly assigned class participation grades that were ten time more important than we had thought they were going to be.  It made a couple of students happy, but most were not.

When I finally reached our grader — a computer science PhD student — and asked him why he had not customized the grading scheme, he said he could not figure out how to do it.   Grading is the most fluid and individualized component of university teaching, but we had been unwittingly trapped in a factory in which deviation from the standard grades required sweat and ingenuity.  Anyone who wanted to use Sakai for anything more than an expensive grade book was out of luck.

I’ve been stewing over this experience all summer.  When you set out to create the opposite of a factory and find yourself  instead caught in the gears of an assembly line, it clarifies the the situation.  I decided to write a short note on the experiment along with some suggestions for how to improve things, but today’s Faculty Focus stopped me in my WWC tracks with a story about an otherwise anonymous Professor Jones, whose experiment with classroom blogging led to this:

Thinking that others might want to add a blog to their class as well, [Jones] goes to IT and offers to lead workshops for faculty on blogging in higher education. A few weeks later he is informed by IT that they have not only rejected his proposal, but that he is in violation of university policy and must stop immediately. Professor Jones asks what university policy he has violated, and is told that the policy has not yet been created, but will be soon.

I’d better shelve my plans to make some modest suggestions about Sakai.  I might be seen as an instigator. That sort of thing is like a red flag. It draws unnecessary attention in a factory, and I don’t see Paulette Goddard coming to my rescue.

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