Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tepid about Tenure

I am back home, and with vacation behind me I guess it's time to get back to work.  I've got the day-job for which I've already created a list of tasks to undertake; the teaching of my newly renumbered course INSDSG 684 (formerly 619) and the updates I want to make to the course materials as well as gearing up for my #altcred experiment, version 2.0; and finally the Great Big MOOC Book which I need to kick into high gear (two big things on the docket: additional reviewers and a publisher).

While I was away in Greece I participated in an online Orientation session for my EdD program which starts in August.  The timing was a bit brutal since I needed to be up at 03:00 (Greek time) to participate in an online session that was 18:00 MT. Regardless I did enjoy hearing from my classmates and professors, people who I will get to know more over the next four years.  One of the questions we were prompted to answer as part of our introduction was where do we see ourselves in five years after graduation.  This is one of my favorite questions, and I generally have an answer for it, but this time around I was a little perplexed and didn't have a concrete answer (well, one that I would personally consider concrete and actionable). 

Up until recently my answer for "what next?" was a tenure track job, probably in a College of Education, teaching in a program that focused on adult learning, online learning, and educational technology.  I still want to do this, but I am more tepid about tenure.  Tenure has been described to me as "job security" for those who have it, but it seems more like a velvet jail that you fight really hard to get into.  Just prior to leaving for vacation one of my colleagues told me that their "writing schedule" for this summer would be really hectic.  I guess it's "publish or perish" time because that's the only reason someone's unpaid summer months (remember faculty work September to May) would be crazy with writing.

Don't get me wrong, I like research. I like to explore questions that are of interest to me and see if I can find answers to them.  What I don't like is this artificial aspect of "you must publish x-many whatevers in y-rated venues in order to get to keep your job."  Academia is the only place I've seen people who have passed their probationary work period (usually a year in most professions), who have demonstrated good teaching and good work ethic for a number of years and still come up for additional scrutiny during their tenure review. Here your previously evaluated work (evaluated annually through a faculty review process in each department) gets evaluated again. What might have been passing marks in previous annual reviews may not land you in non-tenure (especially when department politics and interpersonal conflict are involved). This seems like an unnecessarily stressful position to put employees in.

And, once people are tenured, they can feel free to hang their hat and be done with any serious amount of work. I've heard stories of people who have just refused to take part in department faculty meetings (part of the "service to the department" category of your job duties), and there was nothing that the department could do about it because these individuals did not care about merit pay (something that comes out of annual review processes). Thus if you are content with your pay, you can stop all research activity, and all service to the institution and profession, and only focus on teaching two courses per semester (this is the regular course load at my University, I don't know what other schools are like).

The reason I am tepid about tenure isn't that I don't think I can make it, if ever I am in that situation, it's just that I think that the system is very very flawed. I would love to have a position in the future where I get to teach, where my working year is September to May (with a decent pay), and get to spend the summer doing whatever pleases me (research would be part of it, but it would also include a lot of rest). But, I don't think I can do it within a tenured context. I would like to have colleagues who respect the privilege of being a teacher, and respect their fellow colleagues, enough to be productive at work. Fighting for a tenured track job (the few that exist), and going through the gauntlet of "publish or perish" in order to keep your job, only to be in potentially dysfunctional department is a bit too much :-) In other professions you can pack up and go elsewhere, however in Academia when you get tenure (or if you are tenure track), if you decide to leave your current post you might be viewed as damaged goods (unless of course another school/department is trying to poach your from your current department/school).  In a currently tight labor market, that's not a good position to be in.

Anyone else in academia have thoughts about this? :-) Would love to hear them!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Trials and Tribulations of a book editor

Over the last few days I've been thinking about The Great Big MOOC Book, something that's been a project of interest since my first MOOCs (cMOOCs back then) and something I finally got the wheels off th ground, posted a call for chapters, even though I didn't have a publisher, got a number of great proposals that my two great colleagues, Rebecca Hogue and Alan Girelli, helped read, evaluate as well, and provide comments to the authors, and we're off! The call for papers also got the notice of JHU press, which was a nice compliment to my modest effort, and it seemed that we were nicely on track.

Of course plans change, things happen, and one of them being that I am starting a doctoral program at Atahabasca Univeristy this fall (EdD in distance education). I am wondering how much of my time The Great Big MOOC Book will take this fall semester. I've got 8/10 chapters in for review by me and my fellow reviewers. I was planning on having a rough draft ready for my trip to Athabasca this summer in order to give AU press a copy and see if they are interested in seeing if they would like to publish it (open access) but it looks like my new deadline for this should be around November or December. One of the reasons I want to pitch it to Athabasca is that they offer a free PDF, in addition to the paid paperback version. This was something that I had in the call for chapters as a feature of the book (it being open access).

In the meantime, I've had conversations with two people who've published books, through publishers, about their experiences. Since I am new to this, there is much to learn; both on the editing front, as well as the interface-with-the-publisher front. What I learned was that edited volumes, such as The Great Big MOOC Book, have a hard time with publishers because (at least from what I gathered from my two sources) academic publishers are in an academic monograph frame of mind when they review manuscripts, and edited volumes are much more difficult to get approved. I don't know if this is universally true, but it is giving me pause to ponder.

If finding a publisher (who wants to publish and offer an open access downloadable) of this book proves to be too much of a hassle, I seem to have a moral dilemma. On the one hand I may be able to get a publisher, but no open access. On the other hand, I have a potential venue for publishing that is open access, but it is an open access journal, not a book. It appears to me (at least from what I read in various places in academia) that people value book chapters more than journal articles (even if they are for a special issue). So the conundrum is this. Should I really spend a lot of time looking for a publisher that does OA, and risk the chapters going stale? Or should I pursue a more assured path to getting the research out through a special issue of a journal?

This experience has made me rethink the other book I was planning, the instructional design of MOOCs, for which I have already got 12 tentative chapter titles and topics. What are your thoughts?

The silver lining here is that this experience is giving me ideas and potential paths for future jobs and careers after the doctorate is done (since tenure track jobs are an endangered species).


Sunday, June 22, 2014

The calm before the storm

xkcd comic from

Being in my last few days of summer vacation for this summer, I've started thinking about all the things I have to do, and want to do, in my professional and school life. August is drawing nearer, and I have to buy some plane tickets to Edmonton, and also book a hotel room for my stay during the orientation week for my EdD program. I am excited, yet a bit "freaked out"; not the right word, hence it being in quotes, but it is in the ballpark. The unknown is something that makes me uneasy, but at the same time I know that I'll learn a lot, meet new and interesting people, and have fun while at it.

The one thing that dawned on me was this thought: can I still MOOC while I am taking part in a degree program? I started MOOCing back in 2011 partly because I was done with formal school (where I could get a degree for doing a course of study) and I wanted to continue learning. Going back to school means at I will most likely have to cut out some activities in order to properly manage my time. Luckily my train commute to work (2.5 to 3 hours per weekday) does provide me with ample time to read and brainstorm on activities. I've prepared quite a few conference posters, conference presentations, and proofread a lot of papers while on the train.

The wildcard is the MOOC. I've been looking at my coursera, EdX, eliademy and futurelearn lists of courses I am interested in and over the next academic year (September to May) I've got at least 15 courses. I am thinking to myself and wondering if I can keep on MOOCing while doing school work. I guess my plan of attack will be to continue on MOOCing (it is a planned dissertation topic anyway) and then axe MOOCs that would be low on my "completion list" if I need more time.

I am wondering how other doctoral students are balancing their school commitments with their side learning project commitments. If you are (or were) a doctoral student, share your thoughts :-). I know that when I ws pursuing my last 2 masters degrees (concurrently) I basically blocked everything else out pretty much, except for some Sloan-C workshops.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The failure of teaching and learning centers.

Last week I caught something on inside higher education on the closure of Teaching and Learning Centers (CTL hereafter) in colleges and universities around th country, at a time, where seemingly, there ought to be more demand to keep them open, engage, and train faculty, and be a catalyst for a better college experience for everyone involved. This is what I remember from the article that I read when it came out (currently blogging from a boat crossing the Ionian Sea, no internet to verify, and will be too lazy to go back later to re-read everything).

A friend, and colleague, later emailed me about this trend and also included a more snarky (albeit humorous, I think) Chronicle op-Ed which took the form of a memo from a director of one such center to a university big-wig (from memory this is what I recall anyway). In any case, I chuckled a bit with both stories because it's not really about centers for teaching, rather about the value that universities place on continuing professional development (CPD) of their professoriate, especially those who are in the adjunct ranks. Now, through research and publishing, one might say that faculty do undertake professional development, and I would agree that this is indeed a type of professional development (keeping up with subject matter expertise), but this is only one side of the coin. This is not what CTLs are aimed at. They are aimed at the other professional development, namely the Teaching, Learning, and Pedagogy angle of professional development.

Now, academia has problems, we know that. One of the problems centers around priorities that universities reflect onto new and existing faculty (through various reward structures and mechanisms), and relating to this is the aspect of career ladders for the professoriate. CTL cannot exist in a vacuum, disconnected from this reality, and this is why they have, for the most part in my opinion, been toothless implements of a university structure that treats symptoms rather than treating problems holistically. Is there a problem (or perceived problem) with the ways of teaching of the current professoriate? One solution is a vibrant CTL, but it's only part of the solution, not the panacea that people hope for.

My own experiences with CTLs come from working with the, now defunct, Learning Center and UMass Boston, working as an instructional designer at UMass training faculty and providing consultations, being a classroom technology specialist (my first "real" job!), and seeing what other local area institutions have done with CTLs. I've crashed some development workshops at other universities and had some nice conversations with their trainers and directors. Based on these, albeit limited, interactions in the Boston area I can give you my 2 cents on what is wrong with CTLs:

1. There is never a right time for a workshop when your clientele isn't interested

When I had my first job on campus I started discussing with colleagues what they do and how it all fits in. After all, I was new to the workforce, and most importantly new to the domain of academia. By that point the Learning Center had been on th decline for a while and this was credited to the fact that some key influential figure (who I never met) had left. During this previous director's tenure the CTL was offering a lot of workshops that were well attended, but now neither where they offering many workshops, nor were they well attended. The common reason I heard about the lack of attendance was that there was never a "right" time. Some professors taught three times a week, others two, others stacked all of hybrid teaching in one day so that the only day that they had to come to campus. Thus, with no "common" times, it was hard to fill workshops.

At the time, 13 or so years ago, I bought this as a plausible story, but now I know better. As the moral of one of my old ESL stories goes: "you can't please everyone". The problem wasn't that there wasn't a common time for most professors, it was that professors have little incentive to attend these workshops. We all describe tenure and promotion as being a three legged stool, with teaching research, and service being considered equally. We know, however (at least in the cases I have looked at) that this is a bit of a bald faced lie. Research is BIG, publishing is BIG, and people get into arguments over whose is bigger, who has the bigger grant, who published more books, who has more citations, and so on. With research being so disproportionately weighed, something else has to give.

Tenure-track professors may elect to focus more on teaching since teaching evaluation may be more beneficial than loads of service in a pre-tenure post, but you still have finite time on your hands, so you won't go crazy with these types of workshops. If these workshops, or support circles, for pre-tenure faculty are not satisfactory within the first few tries, then there is little incentive to come back, or even bring friends along. The short version of this boils down to this: external reward structures are not conducive to having a vibrant CTL. If faculty were rewarded, either by earning required CPD credits, by earning required points on their merit every year, or rewarded by other means, they would attend your workshops. I know it's a bit weird, but learning for learning's sake in academia is not a reward in and of itself!


2. You are focusing in the wrong clientele

So, as I pointed out above, these CTL seem to focus on tenured and tenure-tracked faculty at their institutions. This has issues, as I wrote above, but there is also an additional issue: the fact that the majority (from what I've read) of the faculty, especially those teaching introductory courses, are adjunct faculty. So, not only are CTLs focusing on the smaller number of faculty, they are also not getting them into their workshops. CTLs, in my estimation, need to focus on training adjuncts in order to meet their mission goals. Sure, adjuncts pose problems. Some, like me, teach one course per semester because we love teaching and interacting with students. Teaching might be thought of more like a hobby. There are adjuncts, who in addition to teaching because they love teaching, might be a "professional" adjunct teaching a number if courses at a number of schools to make ends meet. Adjuncts are generally paid pretty poorly when we compare their earnings to what tenure stream faculty make, so if someone is teaching a number of courses, time to attend CPD is limited, and it's also without pay.

One potential way to get CTL to be relevant is to work with the administration to provide CPD for adjuncts. At the moment many are beholden to the course evaluation which can be a double edge sword. If you get marked down by students for being "too tough" that might be the end if your teaching career at that school. If adjuncts had annual reviews, where classroom innovation, CPD, and teaching were factored in, this could be an instrument to reward good adjunct faculty (increase on their base pay), provide for pathways for improvement (for those who want to improve), and provide for a mechanism to get rid of the dead wood that doesn't really serve the institution and it's students well. This would help remediate issues with adjunct equity, as well as make the CTL relevant again.


3. Don't focus on just individuals workshops, think grander!

Back when technology (computers and the internet) in the classroom was new, and when I started working full time, my supervisor at the time had procured some money for technology. He was also a trainer and instructional designer. He opted to spend this money on laptops, which at the time were bulky (compared to what you get today in the likes of a MacBook Air) and expensive (around $2000 if I remember correctly). He went out to departments and marketed a training program where faculty would apply to be part of a cohort. This cohort would get one of these laptops, and work on "converting" a face to face class to an online course. The laptops would have everything they needed. All they needed to do is to attend biweekly workshops with their cohort, submit homework by the due dates, and participate throughout the year (October to May if I am not mistaken). At the end, if you participated in all of the workshops, came in for the monthly brow bag lunches with your cohort to show off what you did and show others how to do it, you got to keep the laptop. No catch, it was yours!

People came in by being lured with a free laptop, but got one or two courses "converted", got to form bonds with the fellow faculty, and, in addition to skills, they had a support network. The workshops all connected with one another and, at this point, the closest analog would be the Effective Online Teaching workshops that Sloan-C provides, as well as the Sloan-C bootcámp course that you do when you want to undertake their certification. Motivation to continue on a course of study (as we've seen recently with MOOCs) is a pretty complex thing, but having some buy-in, some rewards (both tangible and intangible), and some way to keep cohorts connected with one another (peer support/peer pressure) helps in getting people to attend, and to continue to attend, such valuable workshops.


4. Hire the right people for the job

This is my last point, and I don't mean it to be a dig at anyone in particular. If you are a colleague , or friend, running a CTL or related organizations (such as faculty development offices, centers for improvement of teaching, instructional design departments, and so on) don't take this as an attack on your credentials. What I am about to write is meant as a general observation, and the hypothetical director of a CTL is an amalgam of everything that is wrong.

Many years ago, when I first joined Facebook, one of the things you could add to your profile was a quote. At that time, one of my long time friends had posted a quote from Anton Chekov which went like this: "any idiot can face a crisis; it is the day-to-day that wears you out." I think this quote is really applicable to CTLs. It appere to me, again through my limited experience, that CTLs are operating in crisis mode. There is some issue, or perceived issue, and they aim to take care of training for it. Alternative credentials and badges are all the rage? Workshop! University purchased new software? Workshop! Moving to a new LMS? Workshop!

While it is easy to count the number of workshops we've offered and pat ourselves on the back, this is no different than having MOOCs tell us that they enrolled 100,000 people. What's important is not the raw score of workshops (or number of participants for that matter), but rather the number of repeat faculty at these workshops, and the overall effectiveness of what we are doing. Anyone can "research" the current trends and offer workshops in those trends, but it takes a really great leader of a CTL to go to where the puck is headed, not to where the puck is.

Relating to this, One of the problems I've seen revolves around hiring. We know that PhDs aren't prepared for teaching (in most cases) but they are also not prepared for managerial duties in academia. So what better candidate can we get for director of CTL? Someone with a PhD who is neither prepared to teach others, nor is he prepared to manage! Both being really important job duties for such a direct, especially one in a startup phase which might not have dedicated trainers or bleeding edge folks on staff. That was a snarky comment if you couldn't tell, but that's what happens. Someone with a phd in English Literature, History, political science, or other liberal art, with little to no connection to teaching and learning gets these posts. There may be good candidates within those ranks of PhDs, but that would not be my first choice for staffing. People can be good at many things, but this would be the exception, not the rule as far as I am concerned.

So those four points around the failure of CTLs. The battle is lost, the war is not over. Faculty do need CPD, and CTLs have a role to play in this. Without the right frame of mind, goals, and overall university culture, I would say that CTLs on their own just won't do it. We need a reboot of this organizational unit, and that reboot should not be out off any longer. Your thoughts?

Friday, June 6, 2014

MOOC on vacation: what does "completing a MOOC" mean?

View from Itea, Greece

Some people bring a book on vacation (which I have) and others immerse themselves in the local culture (which I am also doing to some extent), but since I find myself lucky enough to be vacationing somewhere with fast wifi access I decided to continue to MOOC while I am on vacation from the day job. I honestly don't know how well the experiment will go, but I decided to follow three MOOCs. One on FutureLearn, focusing on management (making those connections with my MBA), and two MOOCs on MiriadaX, the Spanish MOOC platform: one focusing on social media and marketing, and another focusing on media studies called "the 3rd golden age of television."

I didn't really think about my MOOCing until I had a back and forth with a friend and colleague on a Facebook about "completing MOOCs" and whoever completes one gets a unicorn ;). I guess the point he was trying to make is that completion is mission impossible. This made me think of my presentation at last January's NERCOMP symposium on online and international education where I spoke about MOOCs, and as part of that presentation I discussed that I had completed so many MOOCs (around 30 at the time) and had dropped out of two. I also went to class central (a MOOC aggregator) to mess around with it and decided to start counting the specific MOOCs I've completed. Class central has a variety of categories for MOOCs such as: interested (in taking the MOOC), completed, partially completed, dropped, audited and taking right now.

Of course, the system relies on the user to self identify which label applies to which MOOC the learner/user has taken (or wants to take). This got me thinking about how people self identify their role, as learners, in MOOCs. I think the "dropped" and "partially completed" are a little problematic because learners may have some issues with identifying that they quit a MOOC. Issues of self-efficacy, morale, and anxiety may come up if people deem that not completing a MOOC is a failure of some sort. So, I won't spend a lot of time discussing that now. Perhaps in a future post.

The big question, for me, is how do we define "completed" or even "audited". In a regular college course the line between completion of a course and an auditor is clearly demarcated: the auditor gets an "aud" on their transcript and the completer gets a grade and some GPA points on their transcript. The amount of effort between the two categories may be the same, but the line of demarcation is the transcript. In a MOOC, I know that there are some MOOCs, like the Rhizo14 MOOC where I've clearly out in much more effort than an xMOOC (let's say something on EdX or coursera), but I count both the Alexander the Great MOOC (which I completed this spring) and rhizo as "completed" regardless of the effort (measured in products and time sunk in the course) put into the MOOC.

Even with xMOOCs there are different levels of engagement. On open2study I attempted to engage in the forums, whereas On coursera I don't. Sometimes it's about the platform, other times about the course design, others about the ration if chaos vs usefulness of the forum. The bottom line is that the forum tool is not used that often (at least by me). So, coming back to our original focus, what does it mean to complete a MOOC? If a participant in a MOOC complete 3/4 of the MOOC and gets what he needs out of it, can this constitute completeness? If a participant comes in and views the videos and does the quizzes, does his constitute completeness? In a traditional classroom we have a notion of what completeness is because it's designed to be facilitated by a faculty member, who grades assignments, which aren't optional. In a MOOC where sign up, participation, and engagement are optional, is the model of instructor-defined completeness rubrics still meaningful? If yes, why? If not, why not? If somewhere in the middle of yes and no, what does your conception of completeness look like?

Leave a comment and chime in :-)