A Personal Note on Ostrom, Open Learning, and Me

As usual, I have way too many balls in the air and way too many ideas happening at once.  It’s exciting but every silver lining has a touch of grey. (hat tip , Robert Hunter).

I continue wearing my multiple hats as part of the school’s Open Learn Lab. I still have no title, although ITS calls me the Project Champion (thank you).  I actually prefer “Chief Instigator”.  Anyway, it continues to be me as server sys admin, dev  ops, open pedagogy evangelist, WP developer, inventor, faculty professional developer, and chief pixel washer.   We are digital, so there’s no bottles to wash anymore. Just pixels.  This year I do have two fantastic  enthusiastic student interns that are convinced we’re going to revolutionize higher ed. On top of all that, there’s still the half-load of teaching and course development.  And in a community college, once you’ve done the governance & faculty leadership gig, it kind of sticks to you – especially if you’re trying to get the Lab “institutionalized” (translation: into the org chart & budget permanently).

So I’ve been spending most of the past year trying to figure out for folks where or how “open learning” fits into the college – ours or any community college.  I think I’ve been making progress on that front with the Commons of Our Own idea.  But then David Bollier at OpenEd17 steps into my world with his talk of the commons.  BAM.  The grey cells start firing at accelerated pace.  The economist part of me starts kicking in and I’m off to the races.

Bollier gets me to start researching and reading and listening to Elinor Ostrom.  Now I’m embarrassed to say that while I had a most passing familiarity with her work, I hadn’t until now taken a deep dive.  My loss. That’s both the silver lining and the touch of grey.  Her and Vince Ostrom’s ideas on governance of commons, polycentric complex economic systems, and the differentiation between commons as behaviors vs common pool resources has the little grey cells firing like a fourth of July fireworks finale. Silver. Lots of silver.  It’s all coming together.  My multi-disciplinary career and background, the Open Learning Lab, the tech, higher ed governance and policy, pedagogy, and what we need to do for people.  BAM. Silver linings.

Unfortunately, I’m not a young man. Touch of grey around the temples.  Ok, ok, ok, lots of grey throughout.  I get a feeling that I missed my calling and a chance to really do some interesting stuff in this commons area.  I could have done so, so much but my education didn’t really expose me to the Ostroms or the Commons (except for the myth of the “tragedy” thereof).

So I’m kind of overwhelmed now.  Today, while out on my walk, I listened to Elinor’s lecture at Indiana U just after her wining the Nobel Memorial Prize.  I found myself alternating between shouts of “yes!” as I connected her ideas to our present situation in open learning and higher ed, and  then followed by waves of sadness and perhaps tears (“no, you have something in your eye!”) as I realize what could have been personally.  As I said, I’m not a young guy.  I’m gonna have to make the most of these years left.  There’s a lot to do and lots of connections to make.  Collaborations about innovation aren’t the easiest thing to put together at a community college.

I promise I’ll blog and tie all this stuff together.  I have to.  I promised to talk about it at OER18 and OEGlobal 18 in April.

Here’s the lecture:

And, hat tip to Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia.   

Innumeracy and Generosity – Don’t be deceived by big numbers

Just a quick note here.  Lots of people today, especially the media, are making a big deal out of Jeff Bezos and his wife’s donation of $33 million for a scholarship fund for DACA Dreamers. For example there’s this CNN article.  Lots of tweets. It’s a nice gesture. It’s definitely a worthy cause – although worthy causes are legion.

My problem is with the intimation that this is somehow a noble sacrifice. The problem here is common in economics data. We get lost in big numbers and get fooled.  $33 million sounds like a lot. To over 99.9% of Americans, it’s a number we can’t really fathom. It sounds like so much money.  Let’s take a closer look. Bezos household net worth – the value of his personally owned assets minus their debt – is estimated at $105 billon (Bloomberg) or $104 billion (Forbes) (source: Google on Jan 13, 2018 ).  That’s billion with a B. Bezos is 54 years old.

The median household net worth for Americans in his age bracket was $100,404 according to the most recent data for 2013/2014 from Census Survey of Income.  The median means there are as many households with more assets as there are with less assets. It’s the middle observation. It’s typical.

So Bezos has pretty close to a million-times larger net worth than the typical household for somebody of his age. He and his wife sacrificed $33 million of their assets to make this donation. On a strict linear scale, that’s the equivalent of the typical household for his age bracket donating $33.  Yep, that’s all. $33.

Bezos’ sacrifice is the equivalent of an ordinary, typical 54-year old giving $33. Actually, it’s less of a sacrifice. Economics teaches us about diminishing marginal utility of income or money. Basically, when you’re rich each additional dollar of income or asset is much less valuable to you than if you’re poor. To a poor person, the $33 means eating or healthcare. When you’re really rich, it’s just another digit you’ll round-off on your financial statement.

I laud the Bezos family for making a donation. It’s a good thing to do. But let’s not make it out to be more noble than it is.  The bottom 20% of households in that age bracket have zero or negative net worth. The single mother with no assets that stuffs a twenty in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas makes a lot bigger personal sacrifice.

Blockchain in Higher Ed: Guided Pathways and Bitcoins

Both blockchain and bitcoin (I know they’re not the same, but they’re related) enthusiasts are, shall we say, “passionate”.  They’re true believers. It’s a cult.  For proof, I would suggest you read the comments for any post/ article that’s even just skeptical of blockchain-based manias, but I value our friendship and I don’t want you to put yourself through that experience.  Unfortunately, I have, against my better judgement, done exactly that. I’ve read the comments from some of the true believers.

forbidden-151987_1280Warning: I’m making a huge mistake. I know it. I’m going to write a post that mentions blockchain and bitcoin. I’m going to violate the first rule of having a sane, manageable blog: “Don’t Feed the Trolls”.  To make it worse, I suspect most will think the title is clickbait. That’s because they’ll see “blockchain” and “higher ed” and assume it’s another fawning futuristic piece about how techie heroes will rescue higher ed from itself by riding in on their gleaming horse named blockchain.  If you’re looking for that or for some puff piece worshiping our supposed blockchain future, go away. Don’t reach for the comments button.

What strikes me about the discussions of blockchain or bitcoin (I’m going to use bitcoin to refer generically to all blockchain-based cryptocurrencies) is how similar the discussions are to so many change initiatives in higher ed.  It’s not about solving a problem or making things better, it’s really about an ideology and a particular rhetorical/philosophical position. In the voices of blockchain/bitcoin enthusiasts I hear the echoes of higher ed administrators and “leaders”.

First, if you’re curious about blockchain and/or the possibilities for it’s application in higher ed, you’re better off reading these posts first.  The first two are by Audrey Watters. Whenever the question is edtech, you should always start by reading Audrey Watters. The second two are very good analyses of blockchain technology and it’s status as a technology in search of a problem it can solve.

Second, let me be clear about blockchain and bitcoin as I see them.  I’m not going to make the full argument now. I’ll likely have to do that later this semester since students in my econ classes are asking. Some are saying bitcoin isn’t a currency, it’s a speculative asset. It’s definitely not a currency and doesn’t have the potential to become one. It’s not liquid, it fails as a unit of account, it has no state (with taxing power) to compel it’s use as money, and it’s not a useful store of value. In short, it’s not money.

Meanwhile, blockchain technology is a solution in search of a problem. The Stinchcombe and Kernohan articles do a great job of explaining this. Supposedly, blockchain distributed ledger technology solves a problem of trust between anonymous or distant transactors. But it doesn’t do it very efficiently. What’s more, it doesn’t really solve the trust issue. It just moves the trust questions to another level. A technology can’t really solve a trust issue because trust isn’t a technology problem. It’s a people, behavior, context, and institutional problem. A technology for “solving” a trust problem is simply a technology that changes some behavior, incentives, or information for some people. It inevitably opens new or different trust problems. It’s trust issues all the way down (sounds like a commentary on psycho-analysis). There is no magic tech or silver bullet to solve people’s trust issues. Trust can’t be established in the universal. Trust can only be established in the specific, in context, with actual humans.

The Stinchcombe article does a particularly good job of analyzing how blockchain has failed in so many use cases. For example, blockchain and bitcoin/cryptocurrrencies were supposed to revolutionize electronic payments by eliminating the middle man processors like Visa and MasterCard International. As Stinchcombe points out, those middleman processors are still here because institutionally they function well and provide real value. That’s the theme throughout Stinchcombe.

The entities blockchain was supposed to disrupt and replace are useful institutions that provide real, valuable services. Of course, the techno-enthusiasts that jumped on the blockchain/bitcoin mania haven’t seen the value of those institutions. That’s because they operate from a limited ideological viewpoint (see Audrey’s and Kernohoan’s posts) that’s both a distorted view of the world (usually a Randian-style libertarian fantasy) and that discounts any knowledge or field they aren’t experts in. The techies don’t know their history or their sociology or institutional analysis or  economics in any real depth. They know code and they have a simplistic fantasy ideology of how the world works. Details and rich understandings are hard and take time.  And, getting back to their comments on threads, they don’t respect those other knowledges so they discount all the voices that say “hey, maybe this isn’t going to work that way”. They have to shout down and denigrate as Luddites any one with some richer analysis or context.

And that reminds me of the change efforts in higher ed. For one example (there are many) most anyone at a community college, and even university, is likely familiar with the push for Guided Pathways. The education guru establishment, funded by folks like the Gates Foundation and led by foundations, consultants, and ed tech companies, sells some “innovative” concept that will “solve” some supposed serious problem in higher ed. In the case of Guided Pathways, the perceived problem is a mix of  excessive number of drop-outs, “wasted” credits when transferring, and the accepted “fact” that students “don’t do optional”.  Administrators and sycophantic, ambitious faculty embrace the new solution credo and discount all the faculty voices that say “wait a minute, it’s not that simple.”  Who needs context or analysis when you’ve got the true solution? Instead, faculty and staff are urged to get on-board lest they miss the train the same way investors are urged to buy their bitcoin lest they miss out on the promised future of all riches.

Of course, these problems are themselves only problems through a particular lens. Deeper critical thinking may or may not lead us to reject the solution, but it will certainly lead to a more effective solution. What do we mean by “wasted credits”? Are we saying the students may have learned “too much”? What standard is learning enough, then? Or is perhaps the real problem that students take more classes than we want them to or maybe than they can afford but they don’t know they can afford? Perhaps the real problem is the cost structure and financing of higher ed. Do students really “not do optional”? Or do they simply get lost and make poor choices because we don’t provide readable, usable curricular guides?  If they persistently make poor choices, isn’t that a teaching opportunity to teach them how to make a better choice? How do they learn how to choose if we won’t let them choose? Asking questions like these in a college is like asking the bitcoin salesman questions about the sociology, economic institutional structures, and liquidity problems bitcoin is supposed to solve. In the long-run, it would be a better use of school resources and avoid some waste, but in the short-run it makes the salesman feel stupid. Don’t question that emperor’s clothes. They’re beautiful.

 

 

Do As We Say, Not…

In keeping with my recent promise, I’m going to do a shorter and definitely incomplete post.

Most parents eventually realize that children follow our examples way more than they  follow our instructions.  If you really want your child to do X or behave like Y, then you have to model that behavior and do X yourself and behave like Y.  The admonition to “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t very effective.  They will do as we do, not as we say.

Yet colleges, and I presume universities, although I speak only with experience about colleges, seem to be predicated on the idea that modelling desired behaviour somehow isn’t relevant in the college context.

I can’t tell you have many times I’ve been to a professional development event or major conference and had to sit through some long presentation  and lecture where the speaker was trying to convince me not to lecture any more.  Or where the speaker was using  a word-dense Powerpoint slide deck to convince me that the research suggests not using Powerpoint in class.  Right. Do as they say, not as they do. Then there’s the time college leadership has brought in outside speakers to lecture us on the need to flip our classrooms.

It strikes me that there’s a lot of this behavior-message mismatch happening in our pedagogy  too. We want students to think critically and creatively.  Yet we will only accept whatever the big publisher’s textbook says as authoritative and we mark wrong the student’s attempts at another interpretation. Or, we mark them down when they deviate from the rubric. What’s worse, we say we want them to think critically, yet all of our course content – textbook, ancillary slides, problem sets, etc. – is just the packaged content Pearson-McGrawHill-Cengage oligopoly. We use it without even thinking about it, let alone critically evaluating it, modifying it, and making it our own.  Of course, without open licenses, we can’t modify it. So why did we choose it in the first place if we couldn’t critically make it our own? What are we really teaching our students?

In my role as founder and Chief Instigator of the LCC Open Learning Lab, I’ve been struggling with how to get more students interested in writing and creating on the public web.  I started with hopes of pushing them to create domains of one’s own, but I’ll admit it’s been a struggle to just get them to want to write on their own blog.  Unless you count Facebook and Instagram posts, writing as a way to think or express themselves is something they seemingly only do when it’s assigned and required.

Then it struck me. I’ve heard this complaint before. It’s kind of evergreen actually among faculty and administrators.  Students don’t write enough.  A common solution for several decades now has been for a college to create a “Writing across the curriculum” program (WAC).  The very fact that WAC’s have been around a long time and students still aren’t writing that much should tell us there may be something else missing in our solution.

I suspect the missing piece is what we, the faculty and administrators, do.  In my experience, outside of tenure-seeking faculty at research-oriented schools, most faculty  don’t really write much.  What little they do write is in response to an assignment: write a document assigned by an administrator.  I’ve been told they’re too tired to write after reading and grading all their student papers or any of a myriad of other reasons -reasons that sound vaguely like what I hear from students.

I know that before I discovered WordPress and blogging, I didn’t write that much.  I imagined a lot of things I’d write, but they stayed in my imagination locked away and totally incomplete – just like I suspect many of our students’ ideas.  But when I started blogging, embraced an open course content approach, and began to develop my own public persona on the web as Econproph, it all changed. My critical thinking skills improved. My ideas began to reach people. They responded. That inpired me and I learned more. It became  a virtuous cycle.

So, I’m wondering if Writing Across the Curriculum isn’t a case of “Do as I say, not as I do”.  Perhaps in order to inspired students to write more we should change the WAC program.  Instead of Writing Across the Curriculum, why not Writing Across the Campus?  Why should students be reading what their professors, deans, and provosts think and say?  Shouldn’t they be able to see how these people with whom they interact daily, actually critically think, engage ideas, and communicate?  Perhaps if we  Do the writing ourselves, they’ll follow our example.

Note to self:  If this was a “shorter” post at 794 words, then I apparently don’t know what “short” is supposed to mean.

 

 

 

Make Connections

WordPress makes a lot of dreams come true.  But it’s not the magic bullet. The WordPress community is.

Yesterday, the ever-inspiring Sue-Anne Sweeney (@MadonnaUAging) showed me this Tedx video by Barbara Sher.  She makes a powerful point. It’s not bad attitude or some other supposed personal character weakness that keeps you from your dreams. It’s isolation.  Isolation is the dream killer.

The remedy for isolation, of course, is to make connections. Meet people. Share your dreams.

So I’ve got a couple suggestions.  Find a WordCamp near you. Find a WordPress group near you.  Join. Share. You’ll meet a people that just might be able you help you. And you just might be able to get the warm feeling that comes from helping somebody else.

If you’re anywhere near the western metro Detroit area this Tuesday, January 9, come join us. Our first meetup is Tuesday, January 9, 2018 in Plymouth, Michigan. RSVP on Eventbrite so we know you’re coming! Bookmark the new site for the group: westmetrodetroitwp.wordpress.com.

Don’t Call It a Resolution

So it’s a new year, the traditional time for resolutions. For some reason I don’t like the idea of resolutions, so I’m gonna say I made a few “promises to myself”.  My friend Chris Gillard (@hypervisible) self-describes himself in his Twitter profile as “I spend a lot of time thinking (and not enough time writing)…”.  I’m in that trap too. Not that I spend too much time thinking, but that I spend too little time writing. Or, to be more precise, I don’t write enough or often enough.  So a promise to myself is to write more and, in particular, blog more.

I’ve also promised to be more aware and reconsider my habits on commercial social media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. I think I’ll call it 3C Social Media – corporate, commercial, centralized social media. Chris, and others, have made the powerful arguements about why 3CSocialMedia is so awful. But they’ve also made the point that we can’t just “stop using it” as a solution.

One tactic that can help is a return to more blogging and RSS feed use.  So I’m promising to do my part and blog more. But that takes me back to “a lot of thinking and not enough writing”.  So, of course, I’ve been thinking about why I think so much but don’t write so much (this is really getting meta).  And I think the reason is a complete, finished argument. What I mean is, I’ve had this feeling that when I write or blog, I need to have a complete, finished, thorough argument or story.  This would sure explain why I seem so utterly incapable of a short, terse post. (well, that and my natural verbosity).

I’m trying to entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe, I don’t need to write a complete, thorough, fully-fleshed argument every time  I write.  So I’m going to go out on a limb this year and try blogging a lot more often. But be prepared, there’s likely to be a lot of posts where I’m just kind of saying “hey, this is the odd connection my little grey cells made in the shower this morning and I can’t get it out of my mind. It may not make any sense but I’m playing around with it.”   We’ll see how this goes.

A New Year. Auspicious loneliness.

So much. So much.

It’s a New Year.  It’s an arbitrary day out of the year, but culturally we use the Gregorian calendar and select it for new beginnings. Resolutions. New determination. Where I live north of the equator, we’re 12 days past the winter solstice. Days are getting longer (finally). There’s a trickle of additional daylight each day suggesting hope.  It’s auspicious.

I’m coming off break. Almost two weeks with little work done. I should clarify and say market-driven for my employer/profession. There’s always personal, household, and commons work being done but our culture doesn’t acknowledge that work.  Only exchange for money matters. The fact that I’m talking this way is also auspicious.  There were many powerful moments in the past year that I treasure.  Two of them were listening to David Bollier speak about the commons at OpenEd17 and whatever moment last year I was inspired to describe the Open Learning Lab work I’m doing at LCC as building a “Commons of Our Own”.

There were many other epiphanies, for example, almost anytime I read something from Sean Michael Morris.   If my culturally-conditioned new year’s resolutions stick, I’ll be writing much more about these epiphanies and insights as this year unfolds.  There were also amazing experiences. OER17 in London. Domains17 in Oklahoma City. OpenEd17 in Anaheim. Two OER Summits in Michigan. All of it sparked an amazing amount of learning, insight, creativity, and excitement for the change I can help make in the coming year and years.

An auspicious beginning for 2018.

But I’m stuck. I’ll be back on campus tomorrow. There’s no required f-2-f work today for me. So while the campus comes to life today, I’m staying in my home office and slogging my way through enterprise an LMS and “syllabus management” system and reading the emails. A message from payroll playing gotcha about the break and my interns. Reminder of how the LMS and syllabus management system are paragons of the learning prevention genre of systems.

I’m reminded of the budget, organizational, and policy battles I face when I’m back. Open learning hangs by a thread. It’s a spider’s thread to be sure, but it’s a thread nonetheless. I realize that all those epiphanies, all those insights, all that empathy, and all that transformation I’ve experienced over the past few years with the help of the open learning community were mine. The others on campus haven’t had them. Most of them don’t want them. Too hard. It might mean doing and not just complaining. Everyone’s too busy doing and being, well, busy to learn or change.

The more I learn and more I change, the greater distance I feel from my colleagues. Physically I am still at the same place. But mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and soul-fully, I’ve journeyed far.  I feel increasingly like a man from Mars on the campus.  And that loneliness, my friends, is inauspicious.