Assessing Coursera, the LMS

Coursera announced last week that it will be partnering with ten state university systems to “explore MOOC-based learning and collaboration on campus.” The news revealed what many of us who have been working in this field for some time have known since about when non-Canadians started talking about MOOCs: grand proclamations about the inevitable revolution coming to higher education via Silicon Valley are being propelled by a significant amount of hot air. Eduprenuers interested in changing higher education by developing new technological tools and curricula are going to have to do the same thing that a lot of us have been doing already for years: experimenting, failing better, iterating, scaling, dreaming, scratching and clawing within/against existing institutional frameworks, and persisting.

The most troubling aspect of the MOOC hype has been how quickly this approach to teaching and learning with technology has been seen by a variety of constituencies as a tool/excuse for slashing public funding for higher education, for “doing more with less,” and (in the spirit of capital accumulation) for proclaiming that only the elite universities can lead us through contemporary communicative changes. The MOOC hype has somehow squeezed another tier of employment into the system — “course guiders” — who will sit below adjuncts and slightly above peer mentors on the hierarchy of academic labor (and will displace both in some spaces). Proponents and detractors of xMOOCs agree on one thing: the primary goal of all this is “disruption.” The proponents are certain that whatever replaces the status quo in higher education will be better, while the detractors see such thinking as reckless academic planning at best, and mendacious privatization at worst.

The second most troubling aspect of the hype is how poorly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning so much of what’s happening in the xMOOCeshpere has been. In announcing their partnerships, Coursera noted that “studies have shown many benefits to blended learning.” They tried to link the word “benefits” to this study but screwed up the html in the post so that the link is dead (it’s still dead nearly a week after first posted). The study they failed to link to is focused primarily on K-12 instruction, and its citation evidences a sloppiness and a carelessness about this stuff. It suggests either they don’t know what they’re doing or they don’t care what anyone else thinks about what they’re doing. It’s actually kind of edupunk, if you convince yourself to think that way about it.

Much of the same sloppiness is embedded in the design of the Coursera learning platform. As Alex Usher and others have noted, Coursera just announced to the world their service is essentially an LMS. If you’ve not taking a Coursera course, I encourage you to do so — with a pseudonym, if you like — because it becomes clear that absent the hype and praise from the New York Times op-ed page, Coursera is Blackboard with a hipper stylesheet and a slightly enhanced feature set.

Which is to say, Coursera is pretty meh as a space for teaching and learning. Online courses take place in spaces, and just as the physical environment in which we teach impacts the ways we communicate with our students, virtual environments can be structured to make certain things possible and other things difficult. The design of Coursera as an LMS reinforces traditional notions of the “class” and the classroom, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to think about and experiment with new structures. Just like Blackboard.

It also makes clear the idea that effective teaching online requires experienced, thoughtful, and engaged teachers. There’s a lot of bad models out there, which, when combined with bluster and grand proclamations, has led to some deliciously loud failures this year. If you look at the primary modes of interaction that Coursera affords, you see a platform that, just like other LMSs, places significant barriers before the instructor who wants to do something new, something open, or something connected.

What follows is based on a review of 8-10 Coursera courses that ran in Spring 2013.

The 15 Minute Video Lecture
Students, we’re told, need to have lecture content broken down into digestible chunks, and these chunks must be less than 15 minutes. Universities that partner with Coursera have to bear their own costs for producing the courses, and much of the investment (which tends to be around $50k a course) goes into high definition video content. Coursera will help you integrate a quiz into your video lecture, which in theory isn’t a bad way to make a lecture more interactive. Courses provide a transcription of the lectures (which are often sloppy), but do not offer audio files, which makes listening to them on the go quite difficult. Coursera tells you when your account has viewed a lecture, but it’s up to university partners to name the lectures, sometimes leading to titles like Rousseau 1, Rousseau 2, Marx 1, and Marx 2. University partners can also annotate lectures, but rarely do (it happens more in the math classes than others). In many cases you wonder where that $50k is going.

I don’t really have a problem with the idea of the chunked lecture, as long as it’s by a seasoned lecturer. If I were ever to teach a course on the American Civil War, I’d draw heavily upon David Blight’s work, and would extract specific segments to combine with other texts. I do though have a problem with the fact that within Coursera these bits of content are usually locked into specific courses run during specific time periods on a specific service that requires a specific log in. It’s clear that most Coursera courses view video content as the sine qua non of instructional modes. So did the Sunrise Semester.

A recommendation to colleges producing content for Coursera: make sure your video content lands in your institutional repository, and consult the librarians (always consult the librarians!) on ways to make this content discoverable and reusable. And, make it truly open.

Forums
Most student activity is located within the Forum area of a Coursera course, which, again, is planned, organized, and supported by each university partner. The faculty and/or course assistants must establish and name subforums in a way that fits the structure of the class. In any course this is a pedagogical process, where teachers first imagine what conversations they would like to nurture and then adapt the structure of the space to fit the dialogues that are actually emerging. In a fully online course, the stakes of instructional design are heightened. There’s a lot of room for error within this process, and it requires experienced, adaptive teachers.

The forums for each course are sortable by creation date, activity date, level of activity, and threads to which you’re subscribed to; you can also see “top forum posters,” who are awarded points and ranked “based on the sum of the square root of all the votes received for each post.” (I don’t know, either). There are many paths to interact with the content, but if you dig down there’s very little sustained dialogue actually happening within the forums. Good ideas are raised and responded to once or twice, and then things tend to peter out. There’s little to no remix and iteration — which are central modes in innovative digital pedagogy — in part because the forums make it difficult to do this type of work. Technical questions are mixed with task-oriented ones; content-based questions often go without response; students get anxious.

Fine. This stuff happens in all classes. But a good teacher anticipates concerns and confusion and corrals it towards productivity. In the Coursera courses I participated in, very little to none of this redirection happened. Posts in forums can be tagged, but rarely are. Useful tagging requires instruction, and instruction on tagging requires a sense of how to structure taxonomies. (Consult the librarians!).

Until recently, Coursera didn’t support permalinks in the forums, which made it very difficult to find your way around. Permalink functionality is now present, which allows email subscriptions to include anchors to specific comments in a thread, and for each member of a course to see a compiled stream of their forum posts from within that course. This is a massive improvement in the platform over what it was just a few months ago. At this moment, however, the activity stream is not extracted to the platform level; it’s only available within a course, and that course must be currently active or archived in order for you to access your posts, which you can only do by clicking into the course. Each course is atomized, just like in Blackboard, and thus there is no space currently on the platform for thinking about or working at the level of curricula.

Forums behind logins that are not permanently available are not open.

Assessments
There’s basically two modes of assessment within a Coursera course: quizzes and short peer-evaluated essays. There’s some space here for thoughtful pedagogical work that reinforces certain ideas from course content (quizzes can be useful). The prompts for the essays however are widely varied: in one class I “took” the same prompt was used for every reading in the course:

Please write an essay that aims to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course. Each essay should be between 270 and 320 words.

The essay should focus on this unit’s reading and the subject may be any literary matter that you studied in that reading: plot, style, theme, structure, imagery, allusion, narrator reliability, and so on. Such matters are discussed in the video clips.

This is a terrible prompt for many reasons: the target essay size is incredibly small and distracting, not even enough space for a blessay. And the focus — “any literary matter that you studied” — is far from what my comp/rhet friends would call an “enabling constraint.” Other prompts I’ve seen are stronger; one asks students to hone in on a text’s arguments, exposition, and use of evidence, and then provides a detailed rubric that defines what it means to do that well.

The peer assessments are double-blind, and there’s no quality control or opportunity for continued exchange after the review phase is over. Students often create a forum thread to solicit more dialogue about what they’ve written. This is a microcosm of one of the overall structural problems with Coursera: the inflexibility of the platform locks communication into specific spaces, which poses significant challenges to iteration. What about making rubrics available outside of the assignment, or even outside of the course? What about allowing students to know whose work they’re reading, and who’s reading their work, to force more honest dialogue and accountability?

Openness on the web requires the flexibility to loosely join small pieces, and to directly engage whomever is engaging you. Coursera fails on this count. Not open.

Data Lock
Coursera students have no way to extract their content (other than to copy and paste) or to delete their account, and the only way to delete previously published content is to navigate to it individually and delete comments one by one. Users retain “ownership” over their content, but grant Coursera the right to do whatever it wants to do with it. What kind of ownership is that?

This data lock-in, more than any of the other structures, makes clear the level of concern Coursera has for students who use its platform. Disallowing a user from deleting their account and extracting their data? Not. Open.

MOCs

We’ve established that these are most definitely massive online courses. There’s a specific set of pedagogical benefits that truly open education offers students and the world: it foregrounds connectivity and puts the student at the center of his or her own learning; it prioritizes the generative iteration that is central to the evolution of ideas; it is skeptical of expertise; and it posits that learning is not limited to specific spaces but instead flows across them.

The design of Coursera as an LMS makes those learning goals very difficult to integrate. A good teacher can teach well using any set of tools, and it’s certainly possible to have “good” courses inside of Coursera. But the structures and design of these platforms matter, their settings and capabilities are ideological, and the notion that an institution can simply choose to scale up without experimentation, trial, and error is foolhardy. Spending $50k to do so is an outrageous waste of resources. Maybe Coursera is realizing all this and has determined that there’s more potential profit in changing their mission and competing against Blackboard under some perverted notion of “openness.” They’ll probably have a better chance of making a buck there than if they try to go toe-to-toe with the Canadians.

Baruch Status, Post-Sandy

Hi All:

As you may have noticed, the Baruch College website and all web services, including Blogs@Baruch and VOCAT, are not available. Baruch is without power, and though backup power kept things running through Tuesday night, they ran out of fuel. CUNY will re-open tomorrow except for Kingsborough, BMCC, CSI, and Baruch. CON ED claims all in Manhattan will have power back tomorrow or Saturday, so assume information and access will increase then.

Hope you’re all weathering the storm well. As far as I know, I’m the only member of the f/t staff who currently has power, as I’ve fled NJ for family near Philly. You can email me at lwaltzer at gmail.com, or call my cell (in the sig of the emails you’ve gotten from me) if you need anything. Mikhail and Tom are without power in NJ, though occasionally charging… you can reach them at mikhailgershovich at gmail.com and thomasharbison at gmail.com. Suzanne is in the city, and I’m not sure if her power situation, but her non-Baruch email is suzaep at gmail.com.

Hang in there folks. Looking forward to us all getting back to our work soon.

Pastor McRemus’ Sermon on Academics, ctd.

At the request of the author, we have unpublished “Pastor McRemus’ Sermon on Academics.” All of the comments were unpublished with the post.

The author writes:

It was only speech. It caused no actual harm.

To be clear, this was the author’s decision and the author’s alone. We will be deliberating internally about any changes in policy to come about as a result of this episode.

Posts and Comments Together, Oh My!

A few days ago, Captain Primate asked:

WordPress doesn’t have something like this built-in I guess because of the different ways that posts and comments are managed and have metadata attached to them. But, if users are logged in when they comment (which you can require in the Settings -> Discussion page) then comments are affiliated with the accounts of anyone who is logged into your site when they comment. The trick is then to display that information.

I did something like this for a jumbo psychology course where the faculty member wanted to get quick summary information of the work students had contributed to the site. I had originally tied the process to the plugin WP-Stats because we were looking at lots of other data (WP-Stats allows you to generate all sorts of stuff… I think D’Arcy Norman originally turned me onto it). But when looking at it today I realized those are separable processes, and it’s really pretty straightforward. I’ve thrown together a child theme of Twenty Eleven that includes the following additions to the author.php file (wrap them in php open and close tags):

At line 29 I added this code which generates a numerical summary of posts and comments by the user whose author archive you’re visiting:

							global $wpdb;
							$user_id = $post->post_author;  //change this if not in a std post loop
							$where = 'WHERE comment_approved = 1 AND user_id = ' . $user_id ;
							$comment_count = $wpdb->get_var(
    						"SELECT COUNT( * ) AS total
							FROM {$wpdb->comments}
							{$where}
							");
							$user = get_userdata($user_id);
							$post_count = get_usernumposts($user->ID);
							echo '<p><h1 class="entry-title">Summary of Activity on this Site</h1></strong><br />Number of Posts: ' . $post_count .' <br/> Number of Comments: ' . $comment_count . '</p>';

At line 71 I added an echo to mark off the POSTS section.

And at line 84 I added this code which pulls and displays a list of comments by that author with a link to the post they commented upon:

				echo '<h1 class="entry-title"><em>Comments:</em></h1>';
				$comment_author = get_the_author_id();
				$comments = get_comments(array(user_id=>$comment_author));
				foreach($comments as $comment) :
				$url = '<a href="' . get_permalink($comment->comment_post_ID) . '">' . get_the_title($comment->comment_post_ID) .'</a>';
				echo ('"' . $comment->comment_content . '" <br><em> posted on ' . get_comment_date('M j, Y') . ', on the post ' . $url .  '</em><br /><br>');
				endforeach;

It is helpful also to be able to generate a list of authors so you can navigate easily to their author archives… the plugin we were using to enable this widget for the past few years — Authors Widget (no longer in the repository) — was ferkakte, so for that function I started using a Samsarin PHP Widget with the following code in it:

function ListTheAuthors() 
{
wp_list_authors('optioncount=1&orderby=name&show_fullname=true');
}
 
function widget_ListAuthors($args) {
  extract($args);
  echo $before_widget;
  echo $before_title;?>Site Authors<?php echo $after_title;
  ListTheAuthors();
  echo $after_widget;
}

A couple months ago Jason Parkhill threw that code into a little plugin to make a very basic List Authors widget (thanks Jason!). You can play with the line ‘optioncount=1&orderby=name&show_fullname=true’ to get the configuration you want for your site. Use this as a guide to making modifications.

Here’s Jason’s List-Authors plugin.

And here’s the TwentyEleven child theme I threw together that displays posts and comments together on an author’s archive page (remember… authors must be logged in when they comment or their comments will not appear on their archive pages; and, of course, you must have Twenty Eleven in your wp-content/themes folder). It’s not elegant (if there are no comments, you just get a blank space below “Comments”), but, it gets the job done. Please hack it and share it to your heart’s content!

FRO12: Now Much Artier

This summer Mikhail Gershovich and I re-wrote the three blog prompts required of all Baruch College students taking Freshman Seminar. The previous prompts, which we wrote a few years ago, were way too formulaic. When crafting assignments, you get what you ask for. We had asked students to tell us “this,” and they responded by writing “this.”

One of the goals of the freshman blogging initiative was to get a sense of who our students are. Instead, we were getting a sense of who our students felt we wanted them to tell us they were. Very few posts integrated media, and students responded to them as though they were a burden rather than an opportunity.

We feel these new prompts are much improved:

Post One, due by mid-September Create a two minute video, an eight image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

Post Two, due by mid-October For this assignment, you must 1) post the self-reflective monologue you’ve developed in your seminar workshop AND 2) embed a self-portrait, which can be a photograph, an image, a cartoon, a drawing, or some other depiction of how you see yourself.

Post Three, due by early December Create or find a photograph or some other image (a meme, an animated GIF, etc.) that represents in some way your experience at Baruch thus far. Embed your image in a blog post in which you reflect, in no more than 500 words, on your impressions of your first three months at Baruch. Your response should be personal and creative. If you use an image that you did not create yourself, be sure to credit the source with a name, if possible, and a URL!

We trained the Peer Mentors who run Freshman Seminar in how to guide students through producing these posts, and gave them a range of tools that students can use. We also talked to them about the “why” behind these assignments. Each creates an opportunity to talk with students about intellectual property issues, about citation, about public and private publishing (students can password-protect their posts if they want), and about the network of publishers that’s emerging on our campus. In their coursework, we ultimately want students to break down artificial boundaries between the tools and ideas they use and engage outside of their schoolwork and what happens in school. We want to give them permission to apply the skills that power their hobbies to their academic pursuits. We want them to make some art, dammit. And we want them to learn how to do all this in a way that generates both specific expertise and “generalizable knowledge.” Doing so in a low-pressure setting like Freshman Seminar is a crucial first step.

We’re already seeing the fruits of this change in the first six hundred + posts that have come in. Want to see what college freshmen at public, urban university are listening to these days, and how they write about those tastes? Want to see New York City through the eyes of 18 year-olds? Want to see our students’ facility with the moving image (only a few have used video so far, but, this is great)? Then check out the 2012 Baruch Freshman Seminar Motherblog. This space aggregates feeds from around fifty individual sections of the course powered by the work of over a thousand students. That space will be filling up with work over the next few months, and we’re excited to keep looking at, listening to, and watching what our first year students come up with.

————————————————————

Originally posted on my personal blog

Collaboratin’

By far the best component of my current career path is that I get to spend a significant amount of time collaborating with really cool and smart people. These collaborations have been particularly fruitful over the past year, and it all starts with Tom Harbison and Mikhail Gershovich. When Mikhail hired me full-time at the Schwartz Institute and stuffed me into a windowless back corner office with Tom I warned him that if you put two historians together in a room for long enough, no matter how many bits you ask them to push, eventually they’re going to end up doing some history.

We’ve finally gotten around to it. We’re now on our second collaborative history project in the past year. The first was an essay we co-wrote for Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age about lessons we learned while Tom was teaching a series of introductory history courses on Blogs@Baruch. The vast majority of the work we were examining was Tom’s and Tom’s alone, and I’m grateful that he let me glom on and add my two cents in assessing the fruits of his significant labor. Ultimately, we argued that taking advantage of the variety of modes of writing allowed by a flexible publishing platform like B@B encourages an approach to the introductory history survey that focuses more on methods than coverage. Tom’s notion of a “micro-monograph” introduces students to the work that a professional historian does in a way that allows him or her to see the transferable value of those skills. Being a detective who can nimbly sift through a variety of information sources, learning how to construct meaning in the form of a narrative, and figuring out how to assess and measure the quality of argumentation: these are the generalizable skills that introductory history should foster. Of course knowing about the Pentagon Papers is important. But knowing why you should know about the Pentagon Papers is even more so.

Watching Tom teach those classes and then crafting this essay with him taught me tons about teaching history and writing. The collaboration was unquestionably positive. Writing a dissertation, or a journal article, or book chapter… these are lonely, isolating pursuits. I’ll confess that the isolation got to me pretty hard as I was writing my dissertation, and made me far less enthusiastic about pursuing a career that was dependent upon my producing books. I simply didn’t want my head to be in that space for large chunks of my life.

Co-authoring eases that feeling significantly. Those moments where you’re stuck on an idea or a phrase or an organizational conundrum cease to be internal recursive loops and instead become opportunities for dialogue and collective knowledge making. Sometimes the mere act of verbalizing the problem to a sensitive and familiar ear helped solve it. Other times we more explicitly addressed each others’ lack of clarity or precision. We ultimately had no choice but to push each other. We began writing different sections, then would trade until, over time, our voice organically emerged. We now can’t look at the essay and tell which one of us wrote what.

We’re currently testing that dynamic in the classroom, and I’m finding it just as rewarding. We’re team teaching a Digital History class, and collaborated in its design in much the same way as we did on the essay. We steal moments out of busy workdays to trade class prep ideas, articulate problems with our course structure, and plan time to plan. Most ultimately happens on email during our commutes, and in the 45 minutes before our class meets. During that time we co-author notes to guide us through our class meetings, and also an “assignments” post that lays out the work we expect of students before the next session. We then head to class, and one of us gets things sets up while the other answers questions or kibitzes (we take turns doing both), and then we proceed without really knowing which one of us will cover which bits of the class. Wednesday, for instance, Tom slipped into a really nice contextualization of how Sam Wineburg (who we’ve learned a lot from about pedagogy and “thinking historically”) does his work, and I discovered that the students weren’t familiar with the notion of historical “agency,” so did a five-minute lecture on the idea. It seems like our students appreciate having multiple voices — one noted that having two historians guiding them lent instruction in the class more authority because we check and verify each others ideas.

The alignment of personality, skills, and intellectual goals obviously play a significant role in the success or failure of a collaboration. Tom’s awesome, so it’s easy. In the spring I collaborated with Cheryl Smith and Mikhail (both awesome too) in helping Cheryl’s Advanced Essay Writing course craft audio stories along the lines of what you might hear on This American Life. Mikhail and I pushed into Cheryl’s class several times over three or four weeks to help students work through, shape, and ultimately put to audio their story ideas. Cheryl spoke to them about voice, narrative, and about how to draw lessons about writing from the act of composing for radio. Mikhail lent considerable expertise about producing audio and imagining an audience. And I was able to speak with students about scaffolding their projects, planning for technological contingency, and seeing parallels between each segment of the process — from planning through production to post-production to performance — and the acts of writing and editing. Ultimately, the projects would not have been as rich as they turned out without our unique combination of voices guiding students through. We all shared the goal of experimenting with this type of project, helping students find and capture their voices, and learning from one another.

Working on these projects (and watching others emerge over the years in the same spirit) has gotten me very interested in the curricular possibilities of collaborations that push back against the confines of the single class with a single instructor taught within a single semester. That structure is implicitly hostile to the collaboration our students will need to be able to do in the workplace. Frankly, there’s no reason we have to accept it.

The fact that collaborating with another scholar might keep one from going insane is just an added bonus.

FRO12: Now Much Artier

This summer Mikhail Gershovich and I re-wrote the three blog prompts required of all Baruch College students taking Freshman Seminar. The previous prompts, which we wrote a few years ago, were way too formulaic. When crafting assignments, you get what you ask for. We had asked students to tell us “this,” and they responded by writing “this.”

One of the goals of the freshman blogging initiative was to get a sense of who our students are. Instead, we were getting a sense of who our students felt we wanted them to tell us they were. Very few posts integrated media, and students responded to them as though they were a burden rather than an opportunity.

We feel these new prompts are much improved:

Post One, due by mid-September Create a two minute video, an eight image slideshow, or a ten song musical playlist that represents who you think you are to your classmates. Embed your creation in a blog post and then write no more than 500 words that explains how what you’ve created speaks to who you are.

Post Two, due by mid-October For this assignment, you must 1) post the self-reflective monologue you’ve developed in your seminar workshop AND 2) embed a self-portrait, which can be a photograph, an image, a cartoon, a drawing, or some other depiction of how you see yourself.

Post Three, due by early December Create or find a photograph or some other image (a meme, an animated GIF, etc.) that represents in some way your experience at Baruch thus far. Embed your image in a blog post in which you reflect, in no more than 500 words, on your impressions of your first three months at Baruch. Your response should be personal and creative. If you use an image that you did not create yourself, be sure to credit the source with a name, if possible, and a URL!

We trained the Peer Mentors who run Freshman Seminar in how to guide students through producing these posts, and gave them a range of tools that students can use. We also talked to them about the “why” behind these assignments. Each creates an opportunity to talk with students about intellectual property issues, about citation, about public and private publishing (students can password-protect their posts if they want), and about the network of publishers that’s emerging on our campus. In their coursework, we ultimately want students to break down artificial boundaries between the tools and ideas they use and engage outside of their schoolwork and what happens in school. We want to give them permission to apply the skills that power their hobbies to their academic pursuits. We want them to make some art, dammit. And we want them to learn how to do all this in a way that generates both specific expertise and “generalizable knowledge.” Doing so in a low-pressure setting like Freshman Seminar is a crucial first step.

We’re already seeing the fruits of this change in the first six hundred + posts that have come in. Want to see what college freshmen at public, urban university are listening to these days, and how they write about those tastes? Want to see New York City through the eyes of 18 year-olds? Want to see our students’ facility with the moving image (only a few have used video so far, but, this is great)? Then check out the 2012 Baruch Freshman Seminar Motherblog. This space aggregates feeds from around fifty individual sections of the course powered by the work of over a thousand students. That space will be filling up with work over the next few months, and we’re excited to keep looking at, listening to, and watching what our first year students come up with.

Integrating with Active Directory; or, Why it Ain’t All Bad Being Official

This guy’s official.
cc licensed http://www.flickr.com/photos/dkscully/5038201085/

I just completed a major overhaul of the authentication process by which users log in to Blogs@Baruch. Previously, users were able to create accounts on the system as long as they had a Baruch email address. Just over a year ago, however, our CIO requested that we implement Active Directory authentication, and we’ve been working towards this for some time. Now, any user in the college’s Active Directory can simply log into the system, and doing so creates their account.

Several technical issues needed to resolved before we could make the switch. The two biggest were the inadequacy for our purposes of existing ad integration plugins and the process by which existing local WordPress users would be migrated to AD accounts. I worked with my friend Boone Gorges to address these issues, using Glatze’s Active Directory Integration plugin as the base. We had considered using Curtis Grymala’s fork of Glatze’s plugin, and Curtis was very generous in taking the time to explain his modifications to us, but ultimately we concluded Glatze’s plugin seemed to get us closer to where we needed to get.

Boone ultimately wrote a plugin called BLSCI-AD (get it on git) which combines all of the specific functions that we needed for this project. It fixed some problems Glatze’s plugin had working with WordPress multisite, addresses some fallback account assurances we needed (users who were not successfully migrated to AD — about 8% of our 10k+ users — are still able to log into the system using their old credentials), and, most importantly, runs a check of all existing users against the email addresses present in AD. When it finds a match, if the WordPress username and AD username aren’t the same, it changes the user’s WordPress username to the one in AD. While the migration is being performed a record is generated, sortable by successes, failures, and with additional data like user creation date, migration attempted date, and last activity date. The usernames of those whose migrations fail are manually editable through the report page, and every user’s previous ID remains recoverable.

This is really a remarkable bit of code, not least because of the hilarious and helpful PHP comments Boone strews throughout. There’s a lot of justifiable love for Boone on the web, but personally I enjoy working with him because he appreciates the complicated contexts in which we work, gets and supports the mission of our project, and approaches each contract as a collaborative puzzle–solving experience. Thanks, Boone!

I did have some mixed feelings about this transition, and I’ve been struggling to put them into some sort of order over the past few days. Blogs@Baruch began as an independent experiment, resistant to centralization and institutional oversight, and hostile to any outside efforts to control. But as we’ve grown and responded to community need certain pressures have been put upon us: all incoming freshmen do work on our system, and several programs, centers, and projects use us for their web presence. The college sees this as a space worth supporting and building along the trajectory we’ve already established. One goal they’ve had which over time came to implicate us was to simplify access to and unify logins for the various services the college offers. We had some concerns about this as an effort to establish control over Blogs@Baruch, but were satisfied through conversations with BCTC that this wasn’t the case. Tom Harbison (who along with Craig Stone helped us through the migration tremendously) and I have been granted the administrative rights to create Active Directory users. We’ve also been assured that all users who have had access to Blogs@Baruch in the past will continue to have access into the future regardless of their current relationship with the school. These are meaningful choices, especially in a place like CUNY.

So, while I’m a bit skittish about the implications of centralization (and a touch nervous about the performance implications of SSL admin rule now in place), I’m tremendously pleased about this technical accomplishment, and also about its impact on user management. Any user who is currently active in Baruch’s Active Directory can now simply log in to Blogs@Baruch with the same account they use to log into the wifi and into the school’s computers. If they had an account, all their stuff is there; if they didn’t, a user is silently created for them against their AD profile (it feels as though the user already existed).

I know that there’s some resistance to the fetishization of single sign-on out there in the hipster web, and I certainly am sympathetic to those arguments. If the experience is meaningful enough, folks will log in however they can to get it. We have a lot of that on Blogs@Baruch. But we also have users who are completely new to such experiences, who might be resistant for reasons cultural or philosophical, or who have been compelled to use the system by a faculty member. Those users now have zero technical barriers to entering the system, and I’m curious about what kind of serendipity that just might lead to.

A couple other technical notes. We use Boone’s Simple Import Users plugin to allow faculty members to easily bulk add users to individual sites. As part of this project, he wrote an AD check into that plugin so that if users haven’t been created in WordPress yet when their email addresses are entered into the import users field, an account is created for them. I hacked that plugin a bit to change the defaults and simplify the email generation options.

I also wrote a function into our BuddyPress theme to pull in the user’s Active Directory Description:

function DisplayedUserDescription() {
$user_meta = get_userdata(bp_displayed_user_id());
echo '
<div class="bp-widget">' . '
' . '' . 'Active Directory Description: ' . '' . '' . $user_meta->description. '' . '
' . '</div>
';
}

add_action( 'bp_after_profile_field_content', 'DisplayedUserDescription' );

And, finally, I hacked together a file (placed in mu-plugins) that changed the login page across the installation:

/*
Plugin Name: Login Hacks
Plugin URI:
Description:
Author: Luke Waltzer
Version: 1.0.0
Author URI:
*/

//Change Wrong Password Error Text

add_filter('login_errors',
            create_function('$no_login_error',
                            "return '

You now must log in to Blogs@Baruch with your Baruch user name.

If you do not remember your password, please follow the reset link below.

';"));

//Change Login Field Names Text

function wp_field_names_change($translated_text, $text, $domain){

	switch ($text) {
		case 'Username':
			return 'Baruch Username';
		break;
	}

	switch ($text) {
		case 'Password':
			return 'Baruch Password';
		break;
	}

	return $translated_text;
}
add_filter('gettext', 'wp_field_names_change', 1, 3 );

//Remove Register link

function remove_register_text ( $text ) {
         if ($text == 'Register'){$text = '' ;}
                return $text;
         }
add_filter( 'gettext', 'remove_register_text' );

//Change Reset Password Link Below Login Form

function remove_lostpassword_text ( $text ) {
         if ($text == 'Lost your password?'){$text = '
<h3 style="text-align: center;"><a href="https://mypassword.baruch.cuny.edu/" target="_blank">Reset Your Baruch College Password</a>

You now must log into Blogs@Baruch with your Baruch username.

All previous users of Blogs@Baruch will still be able to access their accounts after they are no longer affiliated with the school. We may however need to assist you in creating a new account and affiliating all content you previously produced with that new account.

If you are unable to log in, please email us at <a href="mailto:blsciblogs@baruch.cuny.edu">blsciblogs@baruch.cuny.edu</a> for assistance.</h3>
' ;}
                return $text;
         }
add_filter( 'gettext', 'remove_lostpassword_text' );

}

Zombies Rebels & Federals: #UMWFA12

I spent the better part of the week before last in Fredericksburg, Virginia at the University of Mary Washington’s “Faculty Academy.” This is a small event, spread over two days, and oriented primarily towards sharing among UMW faculty, staff, students, and guests. Michael Branson Smith, Mikhail Gershovich and I were happy to schlep down from New York, share some stuff happening at CUNY, and absorb some of the inspired commitment to innovative teaching and learning that so obviously infuses UMW.

There were several highlights of the trip for me. I studied much about the Civil War while in graduate school except, but not really the military history, and I’ve been listening recently to David Blight’s fantastic lectures about the war. It was a trip to learn that the notorious modern-day carpetbagger Jim Groom and his family live on the hill that the Union Army of the Potomac failed miserably to mount in an assault on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in December, 1862. The Union eventually took Marye’s Heights and the town in May 1863, and a year later Brompton House — which is now the residence of UMW’s president — served as the Federal Hospital for soldiers wounded in fighting to the south.

Brompton House
Brompton House, Federal Hospital 1863-1865, currently home of UMW President Richard Hurley

The town hums with the memory of the war to an extent that’s really difficult for those of us from the North to grasp without actually visiting. It seems every street is named for a general, historic markers dot several corners, and two separate, beautifully-maintained cemeteries house the remains of the war dead. If I had had more time I would have explored the battlefield more thoroughly and taken a tour or two; on next visit, I’ll be sure to carve some out.

I was however shocked to encounter three funkily undead Federals dancing to Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” at the base of Marye’s Heights.

Despite such spookiness, I’m pretty sure there will be a next visit because Faculty Academy itself was such a great event. It was actually lower energy than I expected it to be, which created a sharing, conversational vibe throughout Monroe Hall. Folks wandered in and out of sessions, and every presenter I saw was quite relaxed. I toured the “Media Carnival” that opened the event: Tim Owens showed off DTLT’s makerbots, Giulia Forsythe got folks doodling on the walls as part of a workshop on visual note taking, and Jim and Grant Potter described the DS106 radio ecosystem and brainstormed with faculty about teaching and learning opportunities. I then checked out a presentation by Jeff McClurken and his students Amy Benjamin, Shannon Hauser, Megan Whiteaker, Caitlin Murphy, and Micelle Martz about “Four Years of Digital History” at UWM. This session gave me some great ideas for the digital history class I’ll be teaching with Tom Harbison at my college this fall, particularly around balancing the allocation of class time between discussion and working on projects and also purposefully constraining the project options that students have to minimize the chance of students being stuck in neutral when there’s so little time in a semester to make something new. Jeff is awesome, of course, and the students spoke quite excitedly about how formative the experience of taking digital history was in their time at UMW.

Grant Potter gave the keynote on the first day, and even if he hadn’t just hanging out with him for a few days would have been inspiring enough. Grant’s a motherfucker, in the best and only the best sense of the word. He plays the hell out of a guitar, left handed and upside down; ran afoul of various Chinese authorities during a six year stay there by violating local expectations around broadcasting, web access, and, believe it or not, ice hockey; negotiated a full time work-from-home appointment with his current employer that allows him to reside 3000 miles away; and is just a really, really nice dude. His keynote was entitled “Tinkering, Learning, and the Adjacent Possible,” and as much as anything during the week it captured the essence of the experimentation that so many of us are doing with technology in education… keep moving, keep trying out new things, iterate the good, always embrace the unexpected, and never, ever let risk get in the way of a good idea. Add in that he shot out Ornette Colemen, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus during the week… well, let’s just say I’m a big fan.

That afternoon I saw a great presentation by Zach Whalen about electronic literature, and then saw how Andrea Smith goes paperless in the classroom (she’s a master of the keyboard shortcut). Then, Michael, Mikhail and I did a presentation on our dream of federating publishing platforms across 24 campuses. Michael talked about the CUNY Commons and Commons in a Box project as potentially providing the piping, Mikhail talked about the administrative hurdles to adoption, and I explored how federation might impact curricula at different stages of a student’s career. Thanks to all the UMW folks who came out to see us, and especially to Giulia Forsythe for producing these amazing visual notes of our presentation:

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by giulia.forsythe

Hearing more about Giulia’s art was one of the highlights of the second day of the conference. Us CUNYs were frankly honored to be on the receiving end of one of her treatments. She puts so much concentration and creativity into each of her pieces, and it’s rewarding for a speaker to have their arguments digested and then presented back to them in such an appealing way. I felt our presentation went well, but after seeing Giulia’s drawing of it I felt even better about the breadth and flow of what we had shared.

Giulia offered one of the two keynotes on the second day of Faculty Academy, and talked about how the ds106 community that originated at UMW has given her the “tools and inspiration to unleash her creativity” upon her professional work. It was amazing to hear that though she’s been a lifelong artist, she only recently began to express this talent in her work on faculty development at Brock University. Both Grant and Giulia show what can be accomplished when creative people insist on bringing their unique perspectives and skill-sets to bear on their work inside of the academy in an integrated way. They each embody a profound rejoinder to the narrow specialization that the academy overwhelmingly prioritizes, and higher education would be better off with more folks like them.

We could also use more people like David Darts. David followed Giulia’s keynote with one of his own, and there was much to dig about his talk. I loved the way that he engaged with his slides, letting some speak for themselves and using others as prompts to a story or a statement or an observation. I felt that I wasn’t seeing a presentation as much as I was just hearing him relaxedly share his thoughts with us. Even more, I dug the extent to which David’s art is animated by an ethical engagement with processes of information flow. David invented the “Pirate Box” as a way of enabling students in his classes to easily share large media files that they were studying and playing with without risking exposure via the web. He shared the code, the project quickly spread internationally, he then watched something he had created take on a life of its own, beyond his control. The story of the Pirate Box is in many ways a manifestation of the process that so many of us thinking about teaching and learning in the digital age aspire to. We ultimately want the experiences and curricula we shape for our students through to guide them to a point where they think boldy, ethically, and generatively about both how to use technology and how to engage with information.

All three of the keynotes reiterated to me that the ultimate goal of the work much of us are engaged in is to empower ourselves and our students to digitally make our own social structures instead of merely adapting to the ones that are handed to us. It was great to be in a place where such a committed range of educators are seeing how many directions the pursuit of that goal can take us. So, big ups to Jim, Martha, Andy, Jerry, Tim, Alan, and the rest of the UMW crew. Thanks for having us!

CUNYd Pie

CUNYPie returned today after a too-long hiatus with its first trip to Staten Island, where we visited Denino’s. This was a two campus affair, as me and my homeboys from Baruch joined our sisters from City Tech for pies and pitchers, which I’ll get to in a moment. The occasion of our trip to Shaolin was the 8th Annual CUNY Coordinated Undergraduate Education Conference, at which we all presented. There’s lots going on with undergraduate education at CUNY these days, only some of which made it onto the docket at the conference. The controversy around Pathways was a subtext in each of the panels I attended, but was curiously absent in the day’s opening remarks. The general feeling I got from folks was one of resignation that Pathways was probably going to happen, we’ll just wait and see, and then we’ll make the most of it.

The keynote was delivered by Mark Taylor, who presents himself as an expert on “Generation NeXt,” and visits schools and other organizations to help them think about improving student engagement. The pedagogy he espouses consists of familiar stuff: flipped classrooms, active/engaged learning, future orientation, embracing technology (though as an information more than a connective tool), etc. The rationale he offers for this pedagogy is grounded in an analysis of generational difference, supported, as far as I can tell, by his synthesis of a range of secondary sources. Not sure if he does original research, as the papers presented on his site refer entirely to the research of others. We heard a good 30-40 minutes of talk about differences between the Baby Boomers and the generation just behind me, drawn significantly from Jean Twenge, whose work I’m not a fan of. Taylor doesn’t come down as hard as Twenge or Mark Bauerlein on “kids these days,” but rather sees in the generation’s broad characteristics learning styles that need to be adjusted to.

Taylor’s rationale was pretty Domino’s, which is to say, weak sauce. There was a lot of charm and playfulness and “I’m a southern yokel and you’re all New Yorkers” before he got to what he was trying to say. But you don’t have to be a professional historian to know that identifying the broad differences between generations is only the very beginning step towards understanding how higher education needs to evolve in the coming years. And you don’t have to be a CUNY lifer to know that our university serves a particular set of populations, only small segments of which look like the learners Taylor theorizes about. At one point Taylor argued that colleges and universities better adapt or they’ll face disruption from some unidentified, external force. I don’t necessarily disagree with this notion or find it problematic (except for when he likened students to customers). But many of us know this already, and are determined to be that disruption ourselves rather than simply to head it off. In that spirit, Mikhail and Tom and I left Taylor’s talk fifteen minutes early to go get set for our panel. In short, the keynote was a significant step down from Pedro Noguera’s rousing talk at this same event last year. Noguera knew well who we were and who we serve, and used that knowledge to speak directly to our challenges.

But all of this was prelude, prelude to pizza. Denino’s makes a damn good pie, thin but not saggy, with a cornicione that was a bit blistered, chewy, and crispy. We had four pies: a sausage (my fave), a margherita (good, not great), a half olive/half mushrooms (heavy on the olives, and quite strong), and an anchovy (to which I can only say this). The restaurant is a sizable, friendly family joint, and we were very lucky to get a table for ten just before the Friday dinner rush. If I lived on Staten Island, I would definitely be a regular. And it only cost us $13 each!

Big ups to Jody Rosen, who grew up on Staten Island, for picking the spot and then bullying me into writing this post. Only you, Jody. Thanks for organizing the outing and giving me that specific kind of CUNY Pie full and happy feeling again.

Denino's margherita and olive/mushroom pies
Denino's upskirt
Denino's sausage and anchovy pies