Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents and Precedents

Today is the federal holiday for Washington's Birthday, which we now refer to generically as Presidents' Day. There are many reasons to honor the first president, if only because of the many positive precedents he set--eschewing any form of address that smacked of royalty, e.g., or not running for a third term. The latter is particularly important, because had he done so and won (which he likely would have), he would have died in office in 1799, meaning that the new United States would have had the example of a president holding onto the office until death, instead of voluntarily stepping aside.

In that same light, there was another precedent set by his less-revered successor, that perhaps deserves our notice on Presidents' Day. Few historians would place John Adams up there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt in the pantheon. But he did at least one thing that should not go unremarked: he gave up power, not because he wanted to, but because the voters wanted him to.

Adams ran for re-election in 1800 and lost the hotly contested campaign to his vice-president, Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the contest, the two sides had predicted calamity if the other prevailed. Abigail Adams believed that "the peace, safety, and security" of the nation depended on her husband's re-election. If he were not returned to office, she wrote, "I am mortally certain we shall never have another" election.

Yet, when the votes went against Adams, he accepted the verdict. Perhaps the near-simultaneous death of his son Charles helped put his electoral defeat into perspective. Rather than plotting how he might remain in office, or how he might later re-gain power, Adams moved on: "The only question remaining with me is what shall I do with myself?" No unquenchable thirst for power consumed him: "I must go out on a morning and evening and fodder my cattle, I believe, and take a walk every afternoon to Penn's Hill--pother in my garden among the fruit trees and cucumbers and plant a potato yard with my own hand."

This precedent is among the most under-appreciated in our history. Yes, Washington chose not to run a third time and gave up power. But Adams had tried to remain in power. He hoped that the garden he would be tending the next four years was the United States. It was not his will to return to Massachusetts in March 1801. He believed in all sincerity that the voters were wrong. But when the vote went against him, he accepted it and went home.

This unquestioning respect for process should have our admiration and emulation. In an age in which far too many people believe that the definition of a "bad process" is one that produces a result they do not like, Adams shows us that respect for process transcends our personal desires, beliefs, and ambitions.

As Pope Benedict showed last week, sometimes the best example to set is not grasping for power, or desperately clinging to it, but the graceful relinquishment of it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Another Measure of the Change ...

The opening paragraph from a New York Times article this past Tuesday:
WASHINGTON — With studies suggesting that long lines at the polls cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes in November, party leaders are beginning a push to make voting and voter registration easier, setting up a likely new conflict with Republicans over a deeply polarizing issue.
Whether or not there should be long lines for voting--lines so long that hundreds of thousands of people were dissuaded from voting--is now a "deeply polarizing issue."

If there's one thing that ought to beyond partisanship, it is that we should not have undue burdens on exercising the right to vote. People should not have to choose between voting and going to work, picking up their kids from school, or caring for their loved ones.

It isn't. We now have a political party that is so desperate to win that it is willing to do anything--save making themselves appealing to a majority of voters--to make that happen. If that means making voting so burdensome that hundreds of thousands of people are unable to do so, they say "so be it."

We've been hearing a lot about GOP "re-branding" lately. No party, no group of people, can "re-brand" just by using different words and smiling a lot. Once you reveal who you really are, people know. Changing that negative view requires changing substance, not just appearances.

If Republicans really want to "re-brand," a good start would be to get on the right side of this basic American value. They need to stop trying to make it harder to vote. Then they can start trying to get those people to vote for them.

Monday, February 4, 2013

MOOCs and Books

What if we developed a technology that enabled an expert in a field of study to reach not dozens or even hundreds of learners but tens or even hundreds of thousands of learners?

That question was purposefully posed so as to make it sound profound in its potential possibilities. But if you think about it for a second, it's actually kind of dumb. We have done this, many times. Gutenberg did it with the printing press. Edwin Howard Armstrong (the true father of the radio) did it. So did the pioneers of TV and the internet. There's nothing fundamentally new about the idea.

Nonetheless, last week Thomas Friedman wrote one of his typically breathless columns on the promise of the new education technology tool called MOOCs (massive open online courses). Teasing Thomas Friedman about this tendency is shooting fish in a barrel, and he is right to see potential benefits from these courses, but as usual he goes overboard. In Friedman's view, MOOCs have the "potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world's biggest problems."

The historian in me views such proclamations with deep skepticism. The same potential was seen in radio in the 1920s:
Starting in 1921, broadcasting licences were held by universities in Utah, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Casey, 2008, p. 46). By 1925, 171 licences had been granted (Farley, 1952, p. 18). In addition, K-12 education systems in Ohio and Wisconsin were developing “schools of the air”, that would provide curriculum for use within traditional schools and distance education programs (Reid, 1942, p. 118; Williams & Nicholas, 2004, p. 111).
Enthusiasts believed that not only would radio provide a new delivery vehicle for education, it would transform how everyone taught and learned: "the new medium of radio was seen as aiding in the promotion and implementations of new, promising educational theories for teachers and students alike."

How many of us today see radio as having prompted a revolution in education?

No doubt radio was sometimes put to good educational use (as the article quoted above argues). But a revolution? I don't think so.

In the 1950s, there was similar enthusiasm for the potential of television to educate the masses, and again, TV has been put to some good educational use. But did TV revolutionize education? Hardly.

The key trait in all of these reflexive embraces of technology is the perennial American desire for a cheap technological quick fix to our problems. The North American British colonies were founded during the Scientific Revolution and flourished during the Enlightenment. Americans love technology, and for good reason. Technology has been very good to Americans. Where we lose our way is when we see it as a panacea, or as an end rather than a means.

The simple fact of education is this: it is hard. It is hard for teachers, it is hard for learners. It requires work. It is labor-intensive. There are no short-cuts. No new technologies, no trendy new techniques from self-styled educational innovators ever have or ever will alter those facts.

In the end, a MOOC is an information delivery vehicle. So is a book. It is entirely possible for an individual with enough motivation to self-educate by going to a library and reading. But how many people actually do that? Precious few. Most of us need structure, incentives, and perhaps most of all, someone with expertise (i.e., greater knowledge and experience than ourselves) to hold us accountable for the quality of the work we produce.

Friedman uncritically quotes a Princeton professor who says his online version of one of his courses produced thousands of questions and comments, compared to the "few penetrating questions" produced in his actual classroom. "Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching," he says. His teaching improved as a result, he says.

That's great. But I have a question that wasn't answered by Friedman. Did each of those thousands of students get their questions answered?

The answer of course is "no."

So who really benefits from this, if the students do not get answers to their questions?

The professor writes: "Although it was impossible for me to read even a fraction of the pages of students' comments as they engaged with one another, the software allowed me to take note of those that generated the most discussion."

As is so often the case with exciting new ideas that purport to be all about the students, the benefit here goes to the professor, not the students. His ego is stroked, he gets lots of "feedback" on his ideas. And maybe the student learns a little something too. Whatever.

The professor openly admits he never reads even a fraction of the student comments, but he dismisses that as something of no importance. Why? Because now, the technology itself determines what matters. Note how the professor has shifted his emphasis--what matters now are not the "few penetrating questions" he used to get in the old-fashioned physical classroom but the most common questions or comments from the MOOC--as relayed to him by software. Since no software will ever be able to identify a "penetrating question," we just can't afford to worry about them. No doubt there were penetrating questions in those thousands of comments, but the professor never read, much less answered, them.

This, we are told, is a positive revolution in education.

There is no doubt value in the quantification of student reactions to class material. We get it all the time in traditional classes. If the vast majority of students do badly on a given exam question, I learn that either the question was not very good or my explanation of the relevant material was lacking. I know I need to improve something. That's good feedback.

It is not, however, necessarily the case that the most discussed point is the most important point. (Many students are remarkably skilled at driving discussion to areas of little or no significance.) That's where the judgment and expertise of the teacher comes in--we have the responsibility to know what is essential and what is marginal. In this case, the teacher has outsourced that job to the students via quantitative data-gathering software.

This, we are told, is a positive revolution in education.

Anyone who has spent time as a teacher knows that the best question is rarely the most common question. That one student who asks that great penetrating question brings value to the whole class, potentially--but not if no one (including the professor) ever hears it. In MOOCs, that's more likely than not.

This, we are told, is a positive revolution in education.

MOOCs can never truly replicate real teaching. Thousands of people listening to a lecture online will no doubt gain something from it. But when there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a "course," there is no true feedback from the teacher. That person is no different from an author of a book. The material produced by the teacher may have great value, but that's where the influence ends. The students, like readers, are effectively on their own.

Just as I'd like to see more books made more available to more people who want to read them, I want people with no other educational options to have MOOCs. I'm sure the most determined students among them will gain real advantages from them.

Friedman promotes MOOCs as a solution to the very real problem of providing education widely and inexpensively. But no thinking person should be fooled that MOOCs constitute "education" any more than simply having a library makes for a college.