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Loose Cannons

Yesterday’s post prompted questions about what exactly a MOOC is.  It even prompted a note or two about why anyone would choose a stupid name like MOOC.  I can help with the first question.  Here is a video explaining the concept.  I can’t help with the second question, but if you have a better term please let me know.

In “Dancing with the Stars” I talked about what a classroom with 10,000 students might be like. The transformation of higher education has begun, and the pace of that change is accelerating.

Dick Lipton’s blog Godel’s Lost Letter has since attracted tens of thousands more.  It is a virtual seminar that, for example, coordinated a global effort to referee an important paper in the theory of algorithms.  At times, the number of viewers topped 100,000. Now Stanford’s Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun are offering an online course in artificial intelligence that will enroll 58,000 students.

On September 12, I will join with 60 or so colleagues to offer a MOOC for tens of thousands of students.  Georgia Tech  students will get credit, and others will get badges that could be convertible to credit if they ever enroll at Tech.  Other institutions will announce their approaches to certifying achievement in the course. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, a style of college-level teaching that was pioneered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The first MOOC, offered in 2008 by George and Stephen was devoted to the subject of their research, a style of learning called connected connectivism. It attracted 10,000 students.

The 2011-12 MOOC is all about transforming university learning and the organizers hope it will attract a much wider global audience.  They are calling it the Mother of all MOOCS.

The course will also be a C21U experiment on self-certification, a concept I discussed in my book. Where will this all lead?  It’s far too soon to predict an outcome, but within the last year, the number of experiments in higher education has exploded.  If you believe like me that innovative change is just what traditional colleges and universities need, that’s a good thing. The way to innovate is to try out lots of ideas.

There was a stir a couple of months ago when I pointed out that university research is by and large a money-losing proposition.  There are some ways to fix that, but, in the end, it all boils down to an institution’s mission.  Most universities expect professors to engage in scholarly activities, but externally sponsored research is a different proposition.

The number of research universities–that is, universities whose missions explicitly incorporate research, knowledge creation and economic impact–is quite small.  Even among AAU schools–a club that styles itself as the premier  association of universities “distinguishing themselves by the breadth and depth of their research programs”–sponsored research is an afterthought for many.  The bottom line is that for most colleges and universities research is mission creep. Sponsored research is driven in part by a mistaken belief that research funds are an effective way of supplementing operating budgets.

But it is not the only upside-down belief system at work in American universities.  There is a persistent argument in higher education circles that intercollegiate athletics is somehow good for a university. Big-time college football and basketball are unquestionably great entertainment.  There is simply no other way to explain a jam-packed 100,000 seat football stadium in middle of an otherwise deserted prairie. It is spectacle that translates well to television, too.

So it is not surprising that there are millions of enthusiastic supporters of collegiate athletics–fans proudly flying the colors of the local team from the antennas of their SUVs–who know literally nothing else about the institutions on which they lavish so much praise and attention.  They may not be alumni, parents, or students, but they are nevertheless  invested in the fortunes of their teams. They may not be able to name a single academic program offered by their favorite school, but they know the pedigrees, strengths, and weaknesses of every assistant coach.  It is the main reason that most university presidents think that intercollegiate athletics is a positive force for the university. The common phrase among presidents is that it is a “front porch” that “only expands the potential donor base and does not compete with academic fund raising.”

If that were true, it would be great for all.  The public gets to invest in higher education. The schools get a new source of revenue and the opportunity to advertise their academic programs to a new and otherwise unreachable audience. Applications go up.  Scholarships pour in. Everyone wins.  The problem is that university presidents know differently. The president of a major research university once showed me an email message he had just received from an alumnus:

…I don’t care about academics at all. And I don’t want you spend any of my money on it. The ONLY thing I care about is winning football games. And if you can’t get that right, I am not going to give you another penny.

It was not an unusual letter, and it depressed him. But I don’t think he read the same significance into it that I did. College athletics and the business of running a university are not synergistic.  Failure in athletics has an enormous negative financial impact on the university, but then so does success.

On October 7, 1916, John Heisman coached Georgia Tech to a 222-0 route of Cumberland College. Neither team made a first down. Tech scored on every possession.  Cumberland gained a total of 22 yards. The Cumberland players were mainly ringers from local farms and factories who–because Cumberland had disbanded its football program– were recruited specifically to play this game. The pounding must have been fierce. Late in the game the Cumberland quarterback fumbled the ball, and it landed in front of a Cumberland lineman. The quarterback yelled, “Pick up the ball!” The lineman yelled back, “You dropped it. Pick it up yourself!”

There is cosmic significance to both the game and the panic-laced exchange between the doomed Cumberland players.  Intercollegiate athletics is set up to insure lop-sided outcomes.  Not necessarily on the playing field, but on university ledgers. College sports is also a financial game where there are lots of fumbles, but it is in no one’s best interests to pounce on them. If you are not on the winning team–and there are not many of those–you are going to take a financial shellacking. And even if you are on the winning team, it may not turn out so well for you.

It has been known for a long time that the financial model underpinning major college sports is crumbling. A 2009 report of the Knight Commission concluded that

It is clear that the question for many presidents…is not whether the current model is sustainable but given the forces at work, how long it can be sustained.

Some powerhouse programs do indeed make money. Georgia Tech runs one of the most profitable football programs in the country. Despite spending $1,250 per student, its football program turned a $9.35 million profit last year, but Tech is operating in rarefied atmosphere.  A recent report of the NCAA on revenues and expenses for Division I intercollegiate athletic programs shows why. Only about half of the 119 bowl-eligible football programs make any money at all. With so many media agreements with so many conferences, covering so many holiday bowl games, this seems impossible, but it is nevertheless true.

The major bowl games—the so-called Bowl Championship Series games– generate tons of money, and that money is spread around to the other schools in the conference.  So are the losses.  And there is a lot of red ink among the 34 post season bowl games. Bloomberg News recently reported on the “You pick it up!” outcome for the Big East Conference:

Rutgers University celebrated its 8-4 record last football season with a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl in Florida. Big East Conference schools got stuck with a $740,000 bill.

The Big East revenue sharing agreement also spreads bowl losses from South Florida ($428,000) and Connecticut ($430,000) across the remaining schools according to a formula that conference does not make public.

But that still leaves 60-70 football programs that operate in the black, and those programs—like Georgia Tech’s—surely generate enough money to help cash-strapped university budgets,  don’t they?

They don’t even come close. Net income from major sports does not go toward engineering scholarships or new language labs. It helps to offset other athletics expenses. According to the NCAA, 88% of the programs at bowl-eligible schools lose money.  The median loss in 2009 was $10 million.  The NCAA also noted an alarming trend. The number of profitable programs shrank from 25 in 2008 to 14 in 2009 and the revenue gap between profitable and unprofitable programs grew.

The University of Florida operates one of the most successful intercollegiate athletics programs in the country.  Those programs collectively lost $5.4 million in 2008-2009. Where do those losses go? Universities hate to use the work “subsidy” but that is exactly what happens in big-time college sports. The losses are subsidized by other sources of revenue, and, as I pointed out in my last post, American institutions have no new sources of revenue.

Some of those subsidies are tied up in not very obvious ways with university balance sheets. Building costs, for example, tend to be lumped together in capital fund raising campaigns. It is a conceit that -–however convenient—has a big impact on academic programs and students. A professor interviewed by the Knight Commission asked the obvious question:

What’s the justification for a public university directing sixty percent of its capital expenditures over an entire decade toward a non-academic auxiliary unit whose annual budget is only eight percent of the entire university?

The financial reporting for athletics is as opaque as it is for research.  The NCAA is aware of this and had been pushing hard for standard accounting practices, but that would make life difficult for those institutions that want to spin the wheel, hoping for a jackpot.

I was browsing college basketball games last weekend, when I stumbled onto a public service announcement from one of those 119  FBS schools. It was an ad touting a new $50 million basketball complex bearing the name of a prominent local family. I sat up.  “I know that name!” The donor had been courted for a new academic building just a few years before.  Not only was there going to be another $50 million spin of the wheel, it had come at the expense of an academic program. Some front porch.

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.

Much to my daughter’s dismay, I like Green Day.  Maybe they’ve mellowed since the early 90’s.  Maybe I just need overdriven guitars and liberally sprinkled f-bombs to balance my ITunes™ playlists.  There is no doubt however that there was much concern in the family when I proclaimed 21st Century Breakdown album of the decade: “My Dad can’t like my favorite band!” I’ll admit I was slow to come around.  Back in the days before Georgia Tech had a College of Computing, the School of Information and Computer Science had a punk rock band with a marginally offensive name, and it didn’t catch my fancy.  Band members are now highly regarded professors at Georgia State, Vanderbilt and Clemson.  It took me twenty-five years but I’m starting to see the point.

On the other hand, I got the point of Edupunk right away:

[it] is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission.[1]

According to Jim Groom, the educational technology specialist at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington who invented the term “Edupunk”, “The whole idea is a reaction to the over-engineered, badly designed and intellectually constraining technology that has been foisted onto the American higher education system as a substitute for deep reflection about what universities should be evolving into.” Just like the early punk rockers invented forms for themselves, Edupunk is a catchy — and cheerily anarchistic —  way of thinking about DIY in educational technology. Like the punk rockers, Edupunkers don’t mind alienating the  establishment.  They are not without adult supervision, though.

There is a growing punk movement among mainstream educators, a reaction to recent trends in American higher education that in their view are taking colleges down a dead-end path. It is a sentiment that I share.  I’ll have more to say about the Edupunk movement in my book on the Fate of American Colleges and Universities in the 21st Century, but there is an interesting WWC collision at work here, and since I had such a great response to Dancing With the Stars,  I thought it was worth mentioning it.

No less authority than Clayton Christensen (of Innovator’s Dilemma fame) has noticed that higher education has gone all-in for an organizing principle that equates factory-like efficiency with effectiveness.  His 2008 book with Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn[2] is  a complete and damning analysis of the approach to standardized higher education that fires the Edupunk movement.

I was stuck between worlds when I was Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.  On one hand, I was a prime customer for technology that would genuinely improve operations in an environment where generating a payroll report or even simple analytics to predict enrollments seemed beyond the organization’s capability. On the other hand, I watched in horror the purchase and deployment of  expensive, awkward course management systems (CMS) that are the educational equivalent of the industrial-weight enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems  used to connect customer acquisition and financial processes to supply chain systems in large corporations.  You could almost hear Clay Christensen’s “Tut-tut!” as briefing after briefing made it clear that CMS was there to group and chunk and synchronize when, in the classroom, the real need was for specialization and personalization.

Six-sigma has hit higher education, and trends like CMS and outcome-based assessment combined with layer after layer of accreditation and bureaucratic program review — with their focus on documents, processes and repeatability – are exactly what has  the Edupunks up in arms.  Edupunk has with increasing frequency attracted the attention of VC’s like Union Square Ventures (think Twitter), whose Hacking Education conference brought together long-tail innovators and others who believe that one-size fits all standardized institutions have a real problem.

I’ll let you decide which roles are played by Alien and Predator, but I want to be clear about my vote: factory models have no place in colleges and universities. There are no statistical control charts for higher education, and models borrowed from manufacturing and social science are leading college administrators seriously astray.  The real disruptors are MIT’s Open Courseware, peer-to-peer tutoring of the sort I talked about in last week’s post, games, social networking sites like Atlanta’s OpenStudy.com, and online exchanges. These are the worlds that are colliding, and if they do, the next economic bubble to burst will be American higher education.


[1] How Web-Savvy Edupunks are Transforming Higher Education” by Anya Kamanetz, Fast Company, September 1, 2009

[2] Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, McGraw-hill