Thinking digitally

Thoughts on reading about technology and scholarship

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An Alternative Direction for Higher Education

I have worked in higher education for nearly 30 years, which means I’ve only not been connected with an educational institution as a student or employee (librarian)  for two or three years since starting school at age 5.  I was raised in an academically inclined household, my father has a Ph.D. and was a professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. He went to Yale on a full scholarship. I don’t know whether or not there was any stigma attached to that scholarship, but I’m sure that he went to school with many young men whose parents had no problem paying the full tuition. When I went to school, I had 50% of my tuition covered by my college, my mother and father paid 25% and I covered the remaining 25% with student loans. I had work-study, and worked during the summers to have money to support myself during the academic year. I covered 25% of my four years of college with a student loan. I graduated  $4,000 in debt, which I took ten years to pay off. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? I could rent an apartment, pay for food, make plans for the future, and pay off my loan without feeling overwhelmed. It wasn’t that every family had $4,000 a year hanging around to pay for tuition, that is why 50% of my college costs were covered by my school. But it is also true that $2,000 is not equivalent to $30,000, which is what 50% of college tuition is likely to be today. It just isn’t the same thing, and it seems as though there is no end to the spiraling cost of education.

I find that when I find an article that addresses the state of student loans (that in some cases accumulate interest at 6.8% or 7.8% from day one), I find that the students are being blamed for placing themselves in the position of being burdened by impossible debt because they didn’t read the small print carefully, or they didn’t weigh their options by choosing a less expensive route, say two years of community college followed by two years of a state university. That also suggests that if $30,000 or more isn’t an insignificant amount of money for you, you have no business going to school that has tuition in that range. It isn’t the fault of the lender that students are burdened with this terrible debt upon graduation, it is the student’s fault for accepting the only terms available to them. And then we are back to a place where only the privileged are allowed the privilege of the best education with the most personal attention providing the greatest opportunity. I will just add for those of you who might not have thought of this yet. Our young up and coming generation is burdened by enormous debt during a time of high un- and under employment, unable to afford health insurance, or in many cases, live on their own. Doesn’t spell a positive future for any of us.

So, I am wrapped up in this vision of disparity and what I see as the irrevocable brokenness of higher education as we know it: Institutions as corporations, students as customers, schools as cost centers, services as revenue streams, branding and marketing to the potential full pay (who I understand have the entitlement to negotiate on just what full pay means) while putting the best quality education out of reach of the less advantaged.

What can be done? I’ve been formulating a scenario in my head over the past couple of years. While I believe that there is a place for organized educational institutions. My idea would not support the kind of research that takes place in major universities.  I think, nonetheless, that there has to be a quality alternative that operates in parallel and that will provide the personal attention and opportunity that is a hallmark of the best colleges and universities. We could be trendy and call it alt-ed, but I’ll just call it a parallel scenario for now. I imagine it as a cottage industry. It requires little infrastructure and serves a local community. It takes advantage of our wired and digital environment to make sure that each participant’s accomplishments are reviewed, shared, and will represent the equivalent of a transcript — albeit a much more detailed transcript than your typical list of grades.

As you read this, I am sure that you will be saying, but what about this, and how do we address that, and you haven’t thought about this. Well, remember, this is a parallel course. It isn’t meant to be the same, it is an alternative. The beauty of starting fresh is that you don’t have to reject anything or incorporate everything, you can take what you like from existing structures, but beyond that, we’re building from the bottom up. There can be more than one version, but in the end, the students have to have learned critical thinking and writing, public speaking, and to have delved deeply into subject areas associated with study in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. (And of course, I haven’t thought about everything and there would be many, many details to work out.)

My parallel scenario takes place in a small storefront, a kind of one room school room. Really, it could take place anywhere that is accessible and allows for sustained concentration that may include lectures, independent work, and group work. Cohorts would be small because the staff would be small and initially sustained by grants. Because the cohorts would be small, it would be possible for individuals to be at different levels in their educational process. The staff would determine the curriculum, which would likely center around the traditional disciplines, while individual student projects would reflect student interest. There is no intention that this would be an easier route or less demanding than a traditional course of studies. In fact, because there would no way for the students to go unnoticed, or to skip class, cheat on tests, fall asleep, text, Web surf, or otherwise be halfhearted about the program in such an intimate setting it might be much harder. This would be more than a flipped classroom. Much of the work required including class time would take place in the center. Arrangements would have to be made for access to journals, books, and databases, participation in inter-library loan. Perhaps there would be some kind of reciprocal agreements set up or grants jointly applied for with public libraries. We would further take advantage of the digital environment by making use of the electronic portfolio. All student work, including all comments on the work, would be filed into portfolios, that students would be able to take with them and that would be archived by the center. These portfolios would clearly demonstrate writing ability, videos might represent oral skills, content would demonstrate the ability to undertake research, synthesize information and to critically analyze texts and images of all kinds. The portfolios would be certified in the same way that transcripts are and clearly represent the successful student’s skills, knowledge, and expertise.

Students attending these cottage centers of higher education would not pay tuition. There might be work in kind, size would limit the level of paperwork (bureaucracy), but I acknowledge that long-term sustainability would have to be something that was worked toward. I don’t think it is impossible, and I think that there are academics out there who would enjoy and thrive as scholars in such an environment. They would be positive developments within communities, and could lead to some students going on to more traditional institutions for graduate degrees, or perhaps be all they need to pursue meaningful careers.

This is a first attempt to write down my ideas. I want to consider thinking this through and even envision setting something up within my working life.

Update August 7, 2013

Just after writing this idea up, a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education described a scheme that has many similarities to my idea (you may need a subscription to view this article):

The ideas differ in several respects, one of them being that the Chronicle article describes a for-profit enterprise that would grow and expand. My system would be not-for-profit, and a little bit more like a Montessori school–in that there is a basic concept of what a Montessori school should be, but each school is (or at least many are) stand alone and serves its local community. It isn’t a franchise. But it is good to see a similar idea out there that stresses the importance of personal attention — the author uses the term anti-MOOC (keeping class size at 25-30).

An Idea that came to me as I read Toni Weller’s History in the Digital Age (2013)

I’d like to talk about Weller’s introduction to History in the Digital Age and then an idea that came to me as I read it. Weller’s introduction is a gloss of the topics covered in the book as well as a brief description of the intended audience. Weller’s writes to historians who consider themselves to be “traditional historians” and  are unsure of what it means to practice digital history. Weller points out that most historians, whether they think of it as “digital” or not, are doing much of their work digitally by using email, searching the internet, working with scholarly databases, and participating in discussion lists. Weller makes the argument that scholars are failing to teach students conceptual issues related to working with digital resources and they therefore fail to apply “traditional historical methodologies to their everyday digital and online experiences.” What got me thinking was Weller’s discussion of the subjectivity of selection that has always been part of history (see Michael Grant’s Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation 1995). This has been true with printed documents–one civilization burns the documents of the civilization it defeats; power and social status have something to do with whose voices survive and are preserved. Although libraries and museums seek to be objective, they are also serving a particular community and the ephemera of ten or one hundred years ago that wasn’t considered important enough for preservation, is today’s coveted primary source. When we choose what to collect and preserve we are undertaking a selective act. This is true as we create databases of documents and decide what to mark up and code.

What born digital material should we preserve? What will represent this time and place? How will we represent the original experience of the use of the Web sites, blogs, emails and texts that we manage to save? Weller writes: “The potential black hole of source material for the future historian is every bit as compelling as the traditional discourses of the lost voices in history–the illiterate, women, the poor or other minority groups” (9). We are faced with finding a way to effectively preserve an abundance of data, broadly representative of all that is out there, but also of preserving aspects of the context of its original use, and the technology through which it was originally viewed and created.

I have an idea that came to me as I was reading this introduction. My idea doesn’t address preservation of the voice of the powerless, but it does address the community with whom I work. It also takes into account the user’s experience with the item and provides at least a minimal amount of context. I do not think that it would be easy to carry out and it would rely on voluntary participation.

We (the libraries) would give hard drives to members of the university community, including staff, faculty, and students, both graduate students and undergraduate students. We would ask them to download the Web sites, listservs, electronic journals and newsletters they visit, the blogs they visit, comment on, or write, the notes they take (digitally or on paper). Essentially, we would ask them to save all the work they do in the course of conducting research, preparing for classes (as instructor or student), or assisting students or colleagues. The libraries would periodically swap out the hard drives to download everything into a database or repository.  It would have to take the form of a dark archive for a certain period of time. Practically, you could only ask the participants to do this over a certain period of time and perhaps on designated days, or even one week out of every month for a set period of time. A participant’s relevant written documents could be scanned and added to the hard drive.  There would have to be an easy way developed for adding Web sites. Possibly, you could use a tool such as  the Zotero plugin to keep track of citations and Web pages and other documents and then import the day’s library into the hard drive. Selection would, of course, be taking place, and documents would be purposefully included and omitted. I think there is no way around that, unless you are an institution that archives everything that goes through its servers (i.e., the White House).

The archive would have to be dark to preserve the privacy of the individuals participating and also to preserve ownership of their research ideas. If we are preserving the experience and context as well as the data itself, while identity would not have to be associated with an individual’s collection, each individual collection would need to remain in tact or be able to be reconstituted through coding or metadata. At some point, the libraries would open the archive to the searching of raw data–research that allowed analysis while not revealing anything about the specific work of the participants. Eventually, the whole archive could be opened up–by this time it would have migrated several times,  been backed up in multiple places, coded and described so that historians of the future would have not only a database of digital objects, but an understanding of the time and circumstances under which the documents were used and the motivations behind why the preservation took place at all.

This idea is a research project in itself as well as a collection building project. It may be a good digital humanities project that would incorporate the skills of the scholar, the technologist, and the librarian.

What Ho! Red Herring–an undisciplined ramble

Red Herring 
by Laurel Russwurm

Red Herring on white circle surrounded by blueUsed under a Creative Commons Attribution license

I don’t really want to write about Jeeves and Wooster but I did want to say What Ho! And I do enjoy reading P.G. Wodehouse. Bertie is so well meaning and clueless (and privileged) and Jeeves is so smooth and wiley (not dishonest but definitely an Odysseus type trickster. He would be a favorite of Athena). Oh, the foibles of the depleted upper classes and the highly intelligent servant class. Jeeves reads “improving books,” in his spare time while Bertie and his undisciplined friends read the popular fiction of the day and sing the latest tunes. At least Bertie can play piano! Jeeves is a gentleman’s gentleman, and is as smooth as silk. Wodehouse knows how to create and paint a character. I love the description of Jeeves “shimmering” into a room. You can really picture that can’t you? When Jeeves first takes Bertie on as his client, he establishes himself firmly in the Wooster household by mixing Bertie a restorative cocktail. Jeeves knows what Bertie wants before Bertie thinks to ask, and indeed, offers more guidance than Bertie might wish. I would feel awkward with a servant, but if there were such a person as glimmering and acute as Jeeves taking care of the complicated details of life before the knots became to tight to untie and then cheerfully made sure your collars were ironed before you knew they were wrinkled … not to mention concocting a stimulating beverage now and then … well, that would be something one could appreciate. Which reminds me of one of my favorite nursery rhymes: “If wishes were horses beggars would ride, if watches were radishes we all would tell time.”

That’s my favorite when I’m wishing otherwise it is “Boys and Girls Come out to Play/The moon doth shine as bright as day./Leave your supper and leave your sleep/And come with your playfellows into the street./Come with a whoop and come with a call/Come with a goodwill or not at all.” This nursery rhyme evokes such freedom and spontaneity, a little saturnalia, where the children are in charge and the adults are taken down a notch. My own children were much older before they were leaving their supper and leaving their sleep to go out into the night. And even then, I’d set my alarm for 11:00 or midnight so that I could make sure they were home. When they were little, I didn’t let them go out in the backyard without me. In my childhood, I spent a lot more time roaming and playing even growing up in a city. My mother had a general idea of where we were. My two children grew up in rural Iowa and I was a working mother. But, when I was home, they were rarely out of my site, and they didn’t wander. They are both studying overseas now.

Lear's drawing of the Owl and the Pussy-cat

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. From the Owl and the Pussy-cat by Edwin Lear

What ho! What does all of that have to do with Thinking Digitally? It was more doing digitally. I verified my nursery rhymes on the Web, I wrote all my thoughts into this digital writing pad. I found the metaphorical image of my two children bravely heading out to sea on the Web. And now, in order to get on the other side of that image, I am typing on the code side hoping that I haven’t misplaced my image. And I haven’t!


Beginning to think Microsoft Office Clip Art It is a hot day to be thinking. At 9:33 pm it is 92 degrees and humid. As I took the trolley home, I planned out my evening. First get out of the clothes I’ve been wearing all day, second, take care of the cat, and third […]