Finding My Voice – My Teaching With WP Journey

Note: I think I know how my online students feel when they fall behind because “life and work”.  I haven’t been able to participate as aggressively as I wished in #TWP15 Teaching with WordPress, but hope springs eternal.  Here goes my story.

In the video here I explain my journey to teaching with WordPress. I teach economics at Lansing Community College (and occasionally elsewhere).  As a community college professor, that means a lot of classes and few resources. I’ll confess, my journey to WordPress was originally motivated more by a desire to save time and simplify my workflow than by any great goal for improved pedagogy.  The improved pedagogy and learning outcomes happened anyway, whether I was trying or not, which has made it very interesting.  Simpler AND better. We don’t find that very often in higher ed tech.  I cover more of the details of how I progressively got pulled into the WordPress world in this video. It’s a bit long for an embedded video which is no surprise to my colleagues who know I love to talk.  The sound quality isn’t quite what I want, but I hope to edit it and improve it soon. But posted is better than perfect.

As I mention in the video, I’m not claiming to be the world’s pedagogical expert at teaching with WordPress.  I’m still experimenting. I’m trying. And I’m learning myself.  What’s been amazing to me is how things I’ve done because I wanted to save time or improve workflow have also led to better and improved learning by students. They love it.

I’ve actually used WordPress in several different ways as a professor. And in most of my uses, I haven’t replaced the traditional school LMS such as Blackboard, D2L, Moodle, etc. In fact, I can’t completely replace it (yet) because there are some minimum uses of the LMS that are mandated by my school. Don’t get me wrong. I want to eventually replace the LMS as we know them and I think WordPress can help us do that. I just am not there (yet).  So, I want to go over some of my uses and provide some links and screenshots.  I hope to share a little of what I’ve learned and maybe I can help other professors get started.  I want to emphasize how using WordPress can help us as professors to find our voice.

Note: I’m going to use WordPress somewhat generically. Yes there’s other open source tools available to run a website. Known and Jekyll-Git come to mind and if that’s your thing, great. But IMO, WP is the best combination of power, flexibility, supportive community, and stability available.

EconProph.comscreenshotThis is the website where you’re probably reading this right now (unless it’s been syndicated or copied elsewhere which is OK as long as it conforms to the Creative Commons license I assign).  I use this site to collect, curate, and comment on other economics and higher education related material I find on the Web.  It’s my editorial and general publishing platform.  I think all professors need a site like this.  It helps establish an professional voice for the professor. Increasingly academic research discussions and debates are being held on the Web via blogs of the professors.  Certainly they are in economics where journal publications have become kind of “tombstones” as Paul Krugman calls them. It’s where the final resting place for some academic argument lies. While the argument is raging though, the action is on the Web. In the lay world the same discussions are happening on the Web, only they happen in places like Facebook and Reddit.  The problem with  those is that once you post there, it’s not really your voice anymore. They own it. They control it. They can make it disappear. We need to have our own voice and the only way to do that is with our own domains and our own sites.

Teaching-wise, a site like this is really useful for online, hybrid, and f-2-f classes. It’s been many, many years since I’ve needed to copy a hand-out of some form for my classes.  It’s also an excellent way for students to see how their professor engages with the topics and materials.  That builds the professor’s credibility and it models the right thinking for students.  Even if you don’t teach a class with a WordPress, all teaching professors need a site like this.

The next site is my “teaching portfolio” site.  I think of it alternatively as “the world’s dullest site” or “my office in the cloud”.  It’s a great place to collect stuff for reuse later and where others can find or use them – things like vitae, syllabi, presentations, and comments from students.  It also makes a great background/bio/self-intro site for my students.  By the way, with the help of 1 or 2 WordPress plugins, creating and publishing new semester syllabi and schedules becomes a 5-10 minute breeze. It helps them see me as a professor, learn more about my background if they’re interested, etc.  It really builds a professional identity. It also helps me keep track of all the “service” stuff I do that my administration will ask about sometime next year but I will likely have already forgotten. I can embed my current calendar too.  and and

Econproph on Macro screenshotI teach the principles courses of economics. Micro in one semester and macro in the other, although lately I’m mostly a macro workhorse.  I teach these courses a lot. Fully online courses (students from 5 continents so far – come on Australia, you can do better).  But also traditional lecture face-to-face class and a 50-50 hybrid version as well.  I use the school’s LMS for grade reporting and any assignment where I want to use the auto-grading and auto-recording of scores features of the LMS. So basically quizzes are in the LMS (and right now discussion forums, too, but those are moving to WP soon).  Everything else is on a single WP site. My “lecture” content, assigned readings, videos, annotated version of the textbook table of contents, worksheet assignments, practice quizzes, and even additional links to explore the topic more.

The benefit for me is great. It’s one place to edit.  Fix a typo in one place and it’s updated in all sections of the course. The editing interface is much better than any LMS. Media storage and embedding is great. And help is only a Google “WordPress how-to …..” click away.

For students the benefits are even greater. IT’s easy to read and navigate on mobile automatically. It’s quicker than most LMS’s. Most important, it’s friendlier to read. WordPress allows and even encourages material to be presented as a narrative. That makes navigating the course easier.  And easier makes more better learning. Instead of the tech distracting from the content, WordPress features the content.

This brings me to idea of story-telling. We learn by stories. Humans always have. It’s part of being human. And a course should be giant story with little stories and analogies embedded in it. WordPress helps you tell stories.  You might want to check out post on Courses as Stories.  The first WP version of my principles courses (what you’re seeing if you’re clicking in summer 2015) started some of this narrative-oriented layout to the course, but version 2.0 in the works will do even more. and

econhist screenshotMy other two major courses are a little smaller. Unlike the 4 or so sections of macro I might teach each semester, I teach only one section of Comparative Economic Systems (spring) or Economic History (fall) at a time.  These courses are different.  I’ve also setup WordPress sites for them and have all the content on there. However, in these two courses I either have students post their “research papers” and discussions on the course WordPress site, or I provide them each with their own blog and syndicate their course-related content into the course hub site.

The advantage here is improved writing and engagement. Students like becoming creators on the Web and not just passive consumers. They also respond well to the idea that the writing assignments are not disposable assignments that only the professor may ever see.

This format of connected courses has a lot of potential and I know I’m a follower and not so much of a path-breaker in this format. Most of cMOOC style courses have operated this way.




Malartu, My Other Project

This is only tangentially related to economics, but I’m pretty excited about some coverage I got for my other project (besides blogging here and teaching at LCC).  If you teach in higher education yourself, you might be interested.  If so, contact me.  The article is from Converge Magazine yesterday:

Economics Professor Starts Designing Tools for Faculty That Meet Their Needs

By Tanya Roscorla
on November 21, 2011 Policy

While vendors make plenty of technology platforms and services that serve students, most of them don’t meet professors’ needs, according to the experience of Jim Luke, an economics professor from Lansing College.

They require a major time investment and make professors’ jobs harder, he said.

“Just in 10 years the amount of time and work it takes to be a good teacher has just really skyrocketed, and a good bit of it is because of the software and the systems. They are not friendly and easy to use.”

While billions of dollars pour into campus enterprise technology and services for students, few people look at the teacher’s job. And few people create tools for teachers that they need.

For these reasons, Luke decided to start a nonprofit called Malartu Inc. While projects exist in the early stages, he hopes that the tools he envisions will help professors be more productive and effective.

Please read the rest of the article here as it describes our plans for TheProfNet and Curriculum Intelligence.

Student Loans and the Building Crisis

Student loans are gradually becoming a crisis.  At the macro level, student loans are the only sector of consumer finance that is growing since the recession began 3 years ago.  Federal student loans outstanding now total more than $1 trillion.  That’s more than total credit card debt.  From

Student loan debt only segment of household debt expanding

The Federal Reserve tracks federally backed student loan debt and the figures are astounding.  The only sector of household debt that has expanded in manic fashion during this recession is with student loans:

debt growth by sectors

Every sector has taken a hit including:

-Home equity revolving debt

-Automobile loans

-Credit card debt

-Other debt

Yet there goes student loan debt saddling countless students with back breaking debt.  Make no mistake, much of the for-profits are growing simply because of the government:

“(USA Today) For profit-schools. The highest default rates are at for-profit schools that tend to serve lower-income students and offer courses online. The University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest, got 88% of its revenue from federal programs last year, most of it from student loans.”

This is absolutely nonsense and shows how the coupling of Wall Street and the government have simply turned education into another commodity to water down and gamble on.  Like the multiple card game tables in Las Vegas higher education is the hottest game in town.

But unlike credit card debt, student loan cannot be reset or forgiven in bankruptcy court.  It’s a permanent burden on the former student.

In theory, the loan shouldn’t be a burden because it was an investment in greater earning power of the former student and now potential worker.  But since this current era of lesser depression or workers depressionbegan, incomes for the college educated have actually declined.  CalculatedRiskBlog quotes from the New York Times recent analyses of U.S. household incomes: (bold emphases are mine)

From the NY Times: Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling. A few excerpts:…

And on education:

Median annual income declined most for households headed by someone with an associate’s degree, dropping 14 percent, to $53,195, in the four-year period that ended in June 2011, the report said.

For households headed by people who had not completed high school, median income declined by 7.9 percent, to $25,157. For those with a bachelor’s degree or more, income declined by 6.8 percent, to $82,846.

What’s more, the unemployment rate is also up for graduates (and all other categories). puts a graph to the income dynamics:

 Yet if we look at the earnings potential during the bubble years we see a very troubling picture:


Source:  BusinessWeek

Since 2000, in real terms college costs are now up by 23%

Since 2000, in real terms real pay for college graduates is down by 11%

This means potential disaster for graduates and other former students. From Leo Komfield at New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch:

The Department of Education recently announced that the national student loan default rate has risen to over 8 percent and we know that this measure provides only a limited view of the troubles that borrowers are having repaying their student loan debt. In the current economy, we can only expect things to get worse unless the Education Department tackles this problem head-on.

Among the defaulters are a large percentage of unemployed college students. It’s bad enough to be unemployed; however, when you add to this difficulty with being classified as a defaulter, you are really in trouble. Defaulting on federal student loans results in a lifetime of financial purgatory — it destroys your credit, making it impossible to obtain a credit card, car loan, and home loan, and it puts you at risk of having your wages garnished, and your tax refunds intercepted by the IRS.

The student loan market is back in the news as it makes its unrelenting march to the $1 trillion mark.  This crippling figure comes in the face of a decade of lost wages for middle class Americans.  Just like the housing bubble people were supplementing a disappearing middle class with more debt.  The allure of housing was that never in our history have we seen national home prices fall, until they did in dramatic fashion.  The same cultural nostalgia for education in every respect has created a zombie higher education system that is now expanding like the mortgage markets at the height of the housing bubble.  Why?  For-profit schools have largely lured in countless Americans into a system that has provided very little economic gains for students while enriching these Wall Street listed companies.  It should come as no surprise that the highest default rates stem from the for-profit system and most of these loans are federal loans.  In 2010 there were $100 billion in student loan originations, the highest ever in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

But it also spells a crisis on a much larger scale.  Reports are showing that the OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) is partially made up of significant numbers of young people and recent graduates in particular.  These are not the “dirty hippies” and “degenerates” that many conservatives have labeled them.  Rather, they are the people who followed the “rules”. They studied. They went to college.  In large numbers they took responsbility for their future by taking on student loans and investing in their human capital – all things society has told them to do.  Now, almost 4 years since the recession began, there aren’t any jobs for them.  They’ve graduated and now face payments on those loans.  But the jobs simply don’t exist.  When young people are educated and then are denied opportunity, there’s danger for society.  That’s the recipe for revolutions as we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt already this year.


Oligopoly and the Costs of Higher Education – Journals Edition

There are many reasons why costs in higher education have been rising faster than inflation for many decades.  A fundamental reason is because education is so labor-intensive and (so far) has been resistant to improved productivity via capital investment or technology.  This is called Baumol’s Cost Disease.

But there are other reasons too.  One is that historically higher education has been a non-profit industry but it is like healthcare in that much, if not all, of the costs are paid for by a third-party such as government instead of the consuming customer themselves.  There’s another similarity to healthcare in that in both it’s the seller, the doctor or the professor/university, that tells the consumer, the patient or student, what specifically they need to consume.  The consuming customer, the student or patient, doesn’t have all the information to know what they need.  This 3-way or 4-way transaction arrangement isn’t the standard buyer-seller arrangement of micro-economic texts about markets.  When a 3-way arrangement exists where there’s a seller, a consumer and a separate payor, conditions are ripe for abuse.  Basically, the seller tells the consumer to buy more at higher prices.  The consumer doesn’t object because somebody else is paying.

Historically, the arrangements never got out of hand because doctors in healthcare and universities in higher education were non-profit “professionals”.  But when for-profit entities entered, the dynamics shifted.  Higher education still consists of a a strong majority of non-profit institutions.  But they are surrounded by a several supplier industries that are very definitely profit-maximizers such as book publishers.  Publishers have long pursued a process of competing on features and making textbooks more expensive because the person who selected the book, the professor, didn’t have to pay.  Students paid through their student loans and they didn’t have much choice.

Eliminating choice is the key to higher profits.  That’s why monopolies and oligopolies make economic profits while firms in pure price competition don’t.

Now courtesy of a lecture by Hal Abelson at the Educause 2011 conference, passed our way by George Siemens at, we see why prices of academic journals have risen so much that many libraries can’t afford them.  It’s the trend towards concentration and oligopoly.  The government could do something about it via antitrust enforcement, but for several decades antitrust enforcement has been weak except for blatant conspiratorial price-fixing.  This image below (from this article – .pdf) demonstrates: