Category Archives: Education

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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

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

This guy’s official.
cc licensed

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:
Author: Luke Waltzer
Version: 1.0.0
Author URI:

//Change Wrong Password Error Text

                            "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';

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

	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="" 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=""></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!


photo: DSCF-Photographer

Today I migrated Blogs@Baruch, the 10k user WordPress installation I manage, to a new server. Our previous server was unable to handle the system’s activity. We had been in a Jumpbox environment, which our colleagues at the Baruch Computing and Technology Center had directed us towards a few years back out of concerns about the resources available to manage a LAMP stack alongside the dozens of other virtual environments the school manages. Problem was, Jumpbox only supports 32-bit lamp environments, which max out at 4 gb of ram… simply not enough for the amount of traffic and usage that we get, especially given the propensity of certain processes in WordPress to eat up a ton of ram. We were getting to the point where the server needed to be rebooted almost daily over the past month in order to clear out processes that were locking things up. My comrade-in-arms Tom Harbison and I were on constant alert, interrupting family dinners, story time with our children, and, most horrifyingly, college basketball games to get the site back online and verify that no damage had been done. As a colleague told me, “that’s just no way to live.”

Moving to a more robust server became necessary if our system was going to continue to grow and evolve in response to community need, which is becoming ever more intense. We began discussions in mid-winter about where we’d move Blogs@Baruch. Our choices were to host externally, perhaps with Cast Iron Coding (where our cousin UMW Blogs is hosted) or with a host like Softlayer (where another CUNY WordPress install is hosted); or to ask BCTC to build and deploy a new server for us. Both decisions were feasible, yet both had costs and benefits. Hosting outside would give us total control over the environment, though at a monetary cost that might be difficult to maintain down the road. It would also require making outside systems interact with CUNY systems… let’s just say that has been a problem in the past. Hosting at the College would get us in-house support, but also make us dependent upon an IT department which has a specific set of pressures upon it to keep the systems of the college running, to be responsive to the needs of users here and also the demands of CUNY central administration.

In the end, we decided to continue to host Blogs@Baruch at the College, for a few reasons. The most important is that Mikhail Gershovich, Tom and I very much see this project and the others at CUNY like it as efforts not only to foster certain pedagogical and communicative opportunities for members of our community, but also as tools in a larger battle to push our university and others in a particular direction in their approaches to supporting educational and information technology. It may very well have been easier to go to outside hosting: we could have moved more swiftly, wouldn’t have had to address the same security concerns, and could have bypassed bureaucracy altogether. But if one of our goals is to encourage the broader adoption of free and open source software within higher education, then taking the easy way through risks limiting the potential impact of our experiment. I’m proud that our College values this project and has given it support in tough economic times. That support isn’t only monetary, but also the valuable and highly in-demand time of our CIO Arthur Downing and his staff at BCTC. This project is as much theirs as ours, a point they’ve articulated through their support for this migration. We think the extent to which the system is homegrown adds to its vitality, and makes it a strong model for what open university publishing platforms can be with just a few of the right people saying “yes.”

It’s fitting that this migration happened on the Day of the Digital Humanities, when many of my colleagues at the intersection of humanities and technology across the world are sharing details and reflections about their workdays. In the course of my week — often in the course of a day — I visit classes and help students with projects, consult with faculty about assignment and course design, oversee the work and writing of graduate student fellows, build WordPress themes, research plugins, help develop programs and workshops, speak with staff members about their use of social media, advise projects elsewhere at CUNY, and occasionally write, present, or teach a class. Through this all, I must make sure the platform that propels much of my work remains viable and growing. This last bit is the least familiar to me of my tasks: though I administer a system I’m no system administrator, and I often need help. It’s ultimately much easier for me to call Phil or John or Patrick in the building next door than to dig through forums or to push my friends and connections for free advice (or to get on their calendars for the paid version).

Managing a platform like this has complicated my understandings of both university information technology and open source software deployment. Yes, much of the fetishization of security in IT comes from a fear of litigation, from uncertainty and doubt about the motives of users, and from a proprietary mindset that weighs the cost and risk of every moving bit. We should push back against that culture. But security isn’t always only about these things; it’s also about ensuring the stability, functionality, and sustainability of a system so that its users can reap the most benefits. That sometimes may mean denying users the ability to do certain things on the system, or at least channeling them into a process that helps them do those things in a way that doesn’t risk compromising stability (especially if they’re expecting and relying upon stability). Conversely, it also means going to bat for users with the powers that be and expanding a system’s capabilities so that we can all ultimately do more.

So, that’s where we are with Blogs@Baruch: we’ve just expanded the system’s capability so that it can do what it already does better and faster, and so that we can see if it can also do some new things. It’s also where I am in my work as an educational technologist: mediating between the growing needs of an exploding community of users and the capabilities and demands of an institutional structure that sometimes gets us and sometimes doesn’t. And it’s where I am in my thinking as a digital humanist: wondering every day how emerging technologies are helping and forcing us to rethink the work — all of the work– that we do in the university.

Finding #ds106radio

I really dug the DIY Radio for Teaching and Learning session that Mikhail Gershovich organized last night at Baruch College. I’ve been following the evolution of the community that’s emerged around the digital storytelling courses (named ds106) begun at University of Mary Washington and joined by folks all over the world, and have watched with interest as that community has explored the integration of web radio over the past year. But I’ve refrained from jumping in for a number of reasons. First, I’m not much of a joiner. Second, I saw that ds106 radio seemed to have taken over the lives of many of the folks involved, and I simply don’t have time. Third, as a self-diagnosed enthusiasthmatic, I didn’t feel I have the stamina to participate in a movement whose mood generally puts the good vibes in the digital humanities community to shame. Fourth, when confronted with evangelism, which I often find boring, my instinct is to turn the other way. And fifth and by far the most important, I’m not particularly interested in punk, and ds106radio plays a lot of punk.

These reservations aside, I did know from the get that ds106 was on to something interesting and that radio is just a part of that, and last night’s presentation gave me a firmer sense of just what that is. I was reminded last night of the emergence of Found Magazine, which was created by Davy Rothbart, who I attended college (and played a lot of hoop) with. Found collects “found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles– anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life. Anything goes.” Found’s finds reveal the poetry and humanity in the quotidian detritus of every day life. When my wife and I got our first issue of Found, it immediately changed the way we related to our lived environment. Random pieces of paper blowing across the sidewalk had real stories and real life behind. Binding them into a collection made a space for readers to creatively explore and imagine the voids left by the individual artifact’s isolation and abandonment.

I was similarly struck by the way ds106radio has altered the way that Grant Potter, GNA Garcia, Jim Groom, Michael Branson Smith and Mikhail  as well as several others have integrated the possibilities of web radio into their interactions with the spaces around them. They seem absorbed by the experience of ds106radio, always imagining how to make use of it, constantly thinking of ways to bring what’s around them to the network, and doing so in deeply personalized ways. Grant is focused on creating, expanding, and simplifying the technical capabilities of the experience, drawing upon his ability as a technologist interested in telephony. GNA is an educational psychologist, and her interest in the space seems to revolve around mindfulness and nurturing a sense of community. Mikhail has embraced the role of deejay for its own sake, but has also shown the promise of the medium for capturing oral history and begun to imagine curricular integration around a set of tools like these. Michael has taken the first difficult stab at bringing the ds106 world into the curriculum of a CUNY college over at York, and while he’s made amazing artistic contributions (and to the ds106 ecosystem, he’s also made use of his connections to expand the set of tools ds106ers can draw upon in their audio production and brought #ows on air. And Jim, whose work with ds106 inspired this whole thing, has started to imagine the range of ways that a web radio station might be integrated across the curriculum at UMW.

As much as Jim might recoil in horror at the term, he’s an academic through and through, and in and only in the best sense of the word. After his presentation with Mike Neary and Joss Winn last week, I felt that the MOOCification of ds106 and the attention to the community beyond UWM embedded a implicit critique of the institutional limitations of the university. While I think these awesome projects suggest a dynamic about the nature of change and innovation within higher ed that we would benefit from teasing out better understanding, Jim’s presentations these past two weeks have reiterated to me yet again that more than anything he’s deeply committed to the idea of curricular innovation and evolution using free, open, powerful tools in a way that specifically and systematically fosters digital and networked literacies. Jim wants you to think he’s crazy and unpredictable and unbound, so he references heroin and porn in his presentations. But his work can’t help but reveal that he is in fact something much more radical and profound: an intensely committed educator. (Not that I ever doubted that. But I don’t think I’ve ever written it, and it’s only fair given the millions of keys he’s struck professing his love for me).

Rock on #ds106radio. I’ll likely call mic check at some point. And much more importantly, I’ll be rolling the possibilites of web radio into my thinking about ways educators can stretch, invigorate, and revolutionize the classroom.

If you missed it, here’s the presentation, which lays out with much more passion and clarity than I can what ds106 and ds106radio are:

DIY Web Radio, Part 1 of 2

DIY Web Radio, Part 2 of 2


Where are the students?

Creative Commons License photo credit: ShuttrKing|KT

Boone’s post about Blackboard as an impetus behind his turn to open source software development got a lot of attention on Monday, and for good reason. He struck a fine balance between deep knowledge, a moral center, and a progressive stridency that many of us who are doing work at the intersection of technology and higher ed aspire to but rarely achieve. It’s ideological, for sure, but its ideology is a simple one: Blackboard is ripping off students by locking the institutions responsible for nurturing their development as thinkers and makers into an expensive relationship with a software whose design is hostile to thinking and making. That’s troubling enough. But, as Boone notes, it’s doubly troubling at a place like CUNY, where the vast majority of students have few choices when it comes to higher education.

Boone’s piece resonated with educators and developers who like to think deeply about this stuff, and kicked off a series of exchanges on Twitter about how we might translate broad anger against Blackboard into some kind of transformative action. And yet, a significant piece is absent from the puzzle: there seems to be little student outrage over the fact that Blackboard is the default option for teaching and learning with technology at CUNY and so many other places.

Is it important that undergraduates know the details on this stuff? Or is this situation more akin to a faculty member choosing texts for a class, an act of tuition and fees paid along with faith that the “experts” will act in the best interests of the students?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I find it more concerning that I’m not sure students care to know. CUNY undergraduates have barely made a whimper since their tuition was raised 15% in 2009, and 7% this academic year, with promises of additional hikes each of the next four years. There were some scattered student protests: an internationalist group and marxist social workers at Hunter organized a rally. I heard a rumor, unconfirmed, that A group of anarchists at Queens College stopped traffic on the L.I.E. to protest the hikes. But there’s been nothing across campuses, nothing sustained, and the loudest protestors, as always, are CUNY Grad Center students, who are often steeped in the history of protest (especially at CUNY) but who only make up a sliver of the student population. Compared with students in Europe, American students show few signs of organizing and making demands.

If CUNY’s undergrads aren’t motivated to oppose such steep tuition hikes, it’s hard to imagine that they’d deeply engage with the types of ed tech decisions made by the University. Would CUNY actually jettison a relationship with a corporation to which it has outsourced so much of its thinking about teaching and learning with technology without students demanding it? CUNY is a huge bureaucracy, and getting it to change direction is a monumental task.

I’m fortunate enough to have carved out a niche with other like-minded educational technologists and digital humanists at the University where we can think deeply about and create alternative structures for the exploration of the way that technology is changing teaching, learning, and scholarship. My project is funded directly by the student technology fee, a fact that I’m proud of. Our campus puts its plan for the tech fee online for all to review, and it’s a symbol of enlightened leadership that we’ve been given the space to experiment. Still, there’s little evidence to assume that most CUNY students know or care about the substantial fees paid by CUNY to Blackboard, or the much more exorbitant costs of the CUNY First ERP transition, or (despite our recognition) how much bang for the buck projects like Blogs@Baruch, The CUNY Academic Commons, and ePortfolios@Macaulay deliver.

Our innovations remain on the edges of the University. In some ways, to be honest, that’s preferable — we don’t have as much pressure to scale and as a result we have both less scrutiny and greater ability to respond nimbly to changes on the ground. If we had more resources and a bigger mandate, our work would change significantly. But at the end of the day, CUNY students are still sending a significant chunk of money to Blackboard without any say, and the overwhelming majority of faculty members aren’t thinking through the pedagogical implications of a continued client-service model of educational technology.

So we can be proud of the critique we’ve waged and the alternatives we’ve constructed. But Boone’s post reminds us in the starkest terms that we’ve not accomplished nearly enough. We have more to do. But so do our students. They can start by asking some questions, and hopefully, down the road, making some demands.

Uncomfortable Truths

The best, most vibrant comedy mines the depth of uncomfortable truths. I first discovered Louis CK’s standup a few years ago, and the bit that got me was about what an asshole his four year-old daughter was.

CK taught me not only that my frustrations with parenting were common, but also that because of the fact that they could be tapped for great art, they were that ambiguous stuff that makes life, you know, life. Any respectable parent feels terrible when negative thoughts cross their mind about their children. But any honest parent will admit having them. That’s why I both cringe and kind of get it when Louis CK quips “I love that kid to pieces. But I wish she was never born.” Of course he doesn’t think that all of the time… but there are moments when thoughts of which we’re not proud creep uncomfortably into our minds. It’s part of the human condition; why not talk about it? Better yet, why not joke about it?

Adam Mansbach’s book “Go the F-ck to Sleep” taps into that same feeling by playfully articulating the redundant, exhausting, and endlessly unproductive processes that parenting requires. Deploying verboten language when discussing something so truly precious as our kids provides necessary release from the quotidian torture all parents endure. Bill Cosby’s bits about parenting, which led to his sitcom in the 1980s, were funny in an observational and performative way. But Cosby’s routines are ultimately less satisfying because they construct family life as chaotic yet still under control, parents as harried but ultimately capable and on top of things even though kids say the darndest things. Now that I’m a seasoned parent, Cosby’s stuff feels less true. Balancing parenting, work, bills, marriage, life, and still maintaining some inner-direction requires persisting and progressing despite constantly not being on top of things. Most of this is because parenting is so demanding. Being able to hold in my head both unconditional love for my children and the honest acceptance that they make my life worse even as they make it better required a maturation process I didn’t realize I’d have to go through when I first held my daughter.

Watching the evolution of CK’s career over the past few years suggests the moment where it’s therapeutic to vulgarly talk about your children is but a stage. As he told Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine:

The mistake so many parents make, he tells me, is to go into mourning for the life they’ve lost. “All those early bits I did calling my kid an asshole came out of not knowing how to handle it. You distill those feelings in stand-up.” But as his children get older, he says, he’s become more confident about his role—something he wants to incorporate into the show. “They’re amazing now. It’s nice to be with them. It’s delightful. And you know, it also doesn’t last very long.”

I’ve started to see that kind of light in my future with my kids, even though the 2 year-old is a fledgling maniac and the 7 year-old is simply learning to be difficult in new ways. One particularly long trip home from an exhausting birthday party in Brooklyn a couple months ago sticks out. They were both worn down, over-sugared and tired, and either could have lapsed into assholicity quite easily. Our small car could have been turned for 90 minutes into a hurtling torture chamber. But instead the kids were quite pleasant, singing to each other and entertaining us, dozing off sweetly before we got home. The moment was a window into a future where we will be able to spend more time just being people together. We’ll often enjoy each others’ company, and have the ability to occupy ourselves when we don’t.

Of course, when we got home, both kids woke up, and took another hour to get the fuck back to sleep.

(95/365) Eh?!

The Challenges of Turning Inwards

(95/365) Eh?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah G…

Over the past few years I’ve approached the digital humanities with a touch of skepticism. Much of this has had to do with my own career path and anxieties: I did digital history from the mid-1990s through 2003 or so, and since then — even while writing a traditional history dissertation — have worked primarily as an educational technologist focused on pedagogy, curriculum development, and open learning initiatives. These two fields overlap in many important ways, and have much to learn from one another (a dynamic that I and others have attempted to tease out). Yet I regarded the rise of the digital humanities with a certain amount of bemusement since much of what was regularly being heralded as new felt to be the logical next stage of something already familiar to me. I finished my Ph.D. in 2009 and found that there were better opportunities in educational technology awaiting me than on the history job market. As I was making this move, the excitement and celebration and “woo-hoo!” that surrounded the digital humanities put me off a bit. It seemed discordant with the state of the field that I had come to know watching very few of my colleagues and friends land desirable jobs.

Over the past six months I’ve pushed myself to examine these feelings more closely, an effort that began when my pal Matt Gold asked me to contribute to a volume he’s editing on debates in the digital humanities and culminated in my attendance at my first THATCamp this past weekend at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I’ve emerged with a fuller and more complex take on the digital humanities, one that’s softer if still a bit critical (then again, I’m critical of everything). I was struck by a few things about THATCamp in relationship to other academic conferences: the earnestness of the curiosity that infused the enterprise, the genuine commitment to openness and sharing that so many attendees possessed, and the democratic willingness so many folks had to engage with whomever approached them. I was pleased to leave with a handful of ideas for projects to pursue. I needed a shot of adrenaline at the end of a relatively demanding year where I regularly felt that my professional autonomy was being made tenuous by circumstance. THATCamp delivered some inspiration, and for that I’m thankful.

Still though, after submitting an essay to Matt and my trip this past weekend, I feel as though some of the assumptions I had about the digital humanities have been reaffirmed even as I have come to understand them more deeply. One common theme threaded through several of the sessions and conversations that I had and observed at THATCamp: many attendees are working through some sort of frustration with their home institution.

The first session I attended, on whether or not “digital literacy is a done deal,” emerged out of attempts at the University of Mary Washington to launch a “Digital Knowledge Initiative.” Jeff McClurken, who proposed the session, argued that the DKI grew out of a sense that much of the experimentation that has been happening on UMWBlogs wasn’t filtering throughout the entire school and hadn’t been institutionalized in a way that was sustainable, scalable, and truly transformational. Martha Burtis, who also contributed to the proposal, noted her discomfort with an initiative that might disembed the building towards digital fluency from other curricula. Separating out those pedagogical processes ultimately might weaken them. Both positions reflect the desire to compel others at the institution to embrace lessons that can be drawn from the digital humanities about the role of technology in nurturing humanistic inquiry which revolve around openness, sharing, experimentation, visualization, embracing discomfort, and tapping into imagination. Much of the rest of the discussion focused on the challenges of compelling reticent colleagues to integrate such values into their own work, particularly the self- de-centering required of so many who’re steeped in research and teaching from very narrow niches.

A subsequent discussion that I attended extended a morning conversation about “inclusion” in the digital humanities while absorbing a session that had been proposed by Sheila Brennan on “documentation.” I have to say that while this investigation emerged out of earnest self-reflection and a genuine desire to make the digital humanities into a more fully representative field, parts of the conversation unsettled me. Though it wasn’t directly articulated, it was pretty clear from the conversation in the afternoon that most of the concern was about bringing scholars of color into the DH fold. While I agree that ensuring that tools and projects emerging out of the digital humanities are accessible is extremely important, the notion that those committed to the field need to put forth significant effort to make events like THATCamp more ethnically diverse is problematic. The THATCamp “movement” prides itself on openness and welcoming, and those feelings were certainly in full effect in Fairfax last weekend. A working group that focuses on targeting populations of humanities scholars who aren’t present in force at THATCamps risks reifying the insider/outsider us/them constructs that spurred the organization of this session in the first place.

There’s no easy answer to the conundrum of diversity in DH, but I do think that those trying to address this question would be as well or better served by looking inwards at the field than by organizing outreach. For instance, I’m curious how many disagreements there are at THATCamps, and to what extent real diversity might challenge notions of the “niceness” of the field? There’s also the question of politicization. Black and ethnic studies departments emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement, as part of broader efforts to explore untold histories in an effort to empower. I’ve not done research to verify this, and I feel a bit uncomfortable making the observation, but after a lifetime around higher education it certainly seems that scholars of color are still more likely to do their inquiry within this mission than outside of it. Research in these fields rarely pursues knowledge simply for its own sake, but rather does so regularly out of the sense that the process of making knowledge is political. That vibrancy and purpose has drawn me intellectually to the history of race and ethnicity. Does the fact that the digital humanities “movement” hasn’t articulated an explicitly radical agenda contribute to the lack of diversity at events like THATCamp? I really don’t know, but it seems a question worth asking. This is not a call for a more self-consciously radical digital humanities, but rather a call for more reflection about the nature and implications of true diversity within higher education.

Talk in that session turned to how digital humanists might reach out to such scholars on their campuses and draw them into projects or at least the conversation, and it was here where integration of documentation made the most sense. Good documentation is the best tool to make accessible what humanists are doing with technology, and ultimately to draw additional scholars in. A second conversation on documentation on Sunday morning extended this discussion, and it was particularly useful in suggesting tools for creating documentation and methods for integrating the creation of supporting materials into the production process. This discussion also focused on the frustrating art of imagining and addressing audiences not necessarily familiar with the language, methods, or processes of the digital humanities.

A final session asked “what can we learn from journalism?” Part of this conversation again constructed digital humanists as conduits for innovation to filter into their home institutions. A significant chunk of the work I do with Blogs@Baruch involves finding and sharing new models for teaching with technology across the curriculum and helping faculty members adapt those models to their pedagogical purposes. It’s here where I think the work of educational technologists and digital humanists most overlaps: for our work to be effective, we must have the ability to compel people into it, and that requires quite a different skillset than those that go into producing a new tool, visualization, or archive.

One of the most useful things that I got from conversations at THATCamp was some necessary perspective on how positively folks on the outside view the initiatives that I’m involved in at CUNY. Admittedly, most of this was likely out of broad familiarity with the CUNY Academic Commons, to which I’m a Community Advisor, but Blogs@Baruch is the Commons’ sister project, sharing an ethos, a politics, and circumstance that go far beyond software. I’m not shy about muscling Blogs@Baruch in on some of the Commons’ shine. What I think each of these projects shows — along with our other sisters — is that as frustrating as this process often is, a digital project becomes stronger as it grows organically within and in response to the concerns and uses of a distinct community, whether that be a college or an imagined user base. So much is to be gained from the networked conversations and experiences that happen within the digital humanities and at THATCamps. But the difficult work of turning that knowledge inwards — which often entails productively engaging resistance that can originate from both inside and outside our own selves — is at least as important.