Harvard/Stanford Call for ‘Ideas for a Better Internet’

By Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
ETCJ Associate Administrator

[Note: This announcement is from a post (6 Apr. 2011) by Elizabeth Stark in the A2k listserv.]

The Berkman Center at Harvard University and Stanford Law School are pleased to announce a new initiative in which we invite the world to submit their ‘Ideas for a Better Internet.’ We are seeking out brief proposals from anyone with ideas as to how to improve the Internet. Students at Harvard and Stanford will work through early next year to implement the ideas selected. Interested parties should submit their ideas at http://bit.ly/i4bicfp by Friday, April 15. Please spread the word far and wide, and follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Ideas4BetterNet.

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Ideas For A Better Internet

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and Stanford Law School are pleased to announce ‘Ideas for a Better Internet,’ a joint initiative aimed at fostering innovation around the most pressing issues currently facing the Internet. We invite anyone — interested individuals, scholars, entrepreneurs, organizations, and others with great ideas — to submit a proposal. Continue reading

College Prepared to Go Online When Disaster Strikes

Totally Online, by Jim ShimabukuroThe title of this press release caught my eye: “Ancilla College Ready to Go Completely Online as Part of Emergency Preparedness Plan”[1]. In case of emergency, the college can break the glass and press the red button that says “Campus closed. We’re now completely online.”

Ancilla is in Donaldson, Indiana, about 90 miles southeast of Chicago, and the college has hired The Learning House, Inc., to develop OPEN, which is an acronym for online preparation for emergency needs.

With OPEN in place, the college is now prepared for anything and everything that spells disaster, including flu pandemics, snow storms, floods, hurricanes, and heavy rains. Officials can now shut down the campus without worrying about disruption in learning. Like an emergency generator, all the classes shift into online mode and continue with learning as usual.

What happens if the campus shutdown lasts for months? Not a problem. From the moment OPEN, the emergency backup system, kicks in, it can function until a couple of weeks after the official end of term.

The heart of the OPEN system is Moodle, or modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment. It’s open-source and free, and it serves as a CMS, or course management system — aka as a learning software platform, LMS (learning management system), or VLE (virtual learning environment).

University of Iowa - building on campus flooded

Faculty “pre-load” what are called Moodle “course shells” with all the stuff that’s associated with learning, such as lessons, schedules, readings, lectures, assignments, activities, discussions, resources, etc.

Students, instead of reporting to their classrooms on campus, use their computers and internet connections from home or other locations to log in to the online counterparts of their classes and continue their education.

Interestingly, nowhere in this article does the writer say, directly or indirectly, that the online classes are in any way inferior to F2F (face-to-face) classes. The implication is that nothing in the way of quality is lost, and students continue to receive an effective education.

Don’t get me wrong. No one, including me, wants to see Ancilla shut down by a disaster. However, suppose it does happen in the first week of instruction and extends to a week after the last day of instruction, and suppose learning continues completely online without disruption and student achievement and satisfaction with the online classes are neither more nor less than with F2F classrooms.

Would the college pour millions into reconstructing the F2F campus and continue with business as usual, returning to the classroom-based model of learning and abandoning the online model until the next disaster strikes? Or would it pause to take stock of online learning as a viable alternative?

My guess is that it might take a disaster of this magnitude to change the way colleges view totally online classes. And once they do, they’ll never return to the mindset that classrooms are the only way to teach effectively.

BTW, this article is the first for this column, “Totally Online,” and in coming weeks and months, I’ll be publishing others that touch on the subject of completely online instruction. Other editors and writers are also debuting their columns this week in ETC: Jessica Knott, “ETC, Twitter and Me,” and John Adsit, “Meeting the Needs.”

Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back

Judith SotirBy Judith Sotir

I absolutely agree with Judith McDaniel (What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching, posted on July 19, 2009) that online learning of any sort requires a different dynamic than traditional teaching techniques. Although technology has moved from an interesting idea in the latter part of the last century to a defining role in this century, I don’t see schools necessarily following suit.

A good example is a recent workshop I did for staff from a local school district. The instructors specifically requested a workshop on “Using Blogs and Wikis in the Classroom” and were willing to give up some summer sun hours to attend. The tech coordinator (or facilitator, since the position of technology coordinator was eliminated and a principal stepped in to fill the gap) was more than willing to set up the workshop. However, when I got to the school (and remember, the TOPIC was blogs and wikis), I found that the firewalls blocked all access to any form of social websites, including blogs and wikis. I spent a good amount of time with the IT department getting access to a limited number of blogs and had to verify the content of those (even my own, by the way) I was given access to.

laptop with the words The Internet crossed out by a red St Andrew's Cross

Even after gaining access, throughout the workshop, that access was spotty, as links were sometimes allowed and sometimes blocked. From the instructor viewpoint, wanting to bring these tools into the classroom was questionable, given that experience. While filtering websites is important to schools, better dialogue is needed to allow instructors the access they need to teaching tools while still maintaining control of questionable content.

As a former school board member, I recall similar issues in the late’ 80s and ’90s with the IT department, administrators, and even board colleagues regarding having access to the Internet itself from the classrooms. While they saw the value of administrators and staff using the Internet, they balked at allowing the same access in the classrooms. I understand well the frustration of instructors who want to use these tools with their students but run into brick walls when they try.

While not identical, limiting access to Internet resources strikes me as similar to banning books. Instead of allowing instructors to develop educational content as needed, a concern from a limited group blocks all access to these sites. A better dialogue needs to be developed, including perhaps even a faculty liaison committee to bring these concerns to the proper channels. Simply assuming that teaching with computers is the same as traditional teaching keeps students from the tools they need to succeed in the real world.

ESL/EFL Teachers and How They Use Technology

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

There is a wide variety of hardware and software available for teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) and of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Even though the contexts between the two types of teaching/learning are different, the motivations are the same. Teachers and students want and need access to techniques and strategies that effectively teach English. Depending on the  specific context,  the teachers and students may have more or less access to various types of technology.

Before we go any further, for those of you who are not familiar with this field, I will define ESL and EFL. The ESL teacher is teaching English in an English immersion context.  The students are learning English in an environment where English is the primary language spoken, such as the US or Australia. The EFL teacher is teaching English as a Foreign Language in an environment where some other language (or languages) is primary, such as in France or Taiwan.

As I stated earlier, context often determines the type and amount of technology that is available. For example, ESL teachers who teach adults in American community colleges also iwb2often incorporate teaching computer skills into their classes. A teacher in an online program, whether ESL or EFL, uses a variety of web technologies for his/her class, which may include Skype, Ning, or other such online tools. A teacher in Peru may not have classroom access to a computer, but have access at home so that she/he can find lesson ideas online to use in class.

I decided to interview several ESL/EFL teachers to find out how they use technology, especially computer-based technology, in their classes, and I will start with myself. I do not usually teach English, but this semester, spring 2009, I am teaching EFL to university students in Poland who are studying to be English teachers. There is a computer with Internet access in the teachers’ office and I have my own laptop and Internet access at home, so I can reproduce and create classroom materials. One classroom where I teach has a computer and projector for showing DVDs and PowerPoints. Therefore, I have been able to integrate some computer-based technology into lessons. Most of my students have regular access to computer-based technology and use it regularly, so, besides my own use of the computer for presentations and the Internet for gathering materials, I set up a Ning so students could engage in a couple of online discussions.

In addition to classroom teaching, I have been tutoring a woman in another country using Skype, and I also email her occasional homework assignments. Since she only has access to a computer at work, we talk during her lunch break about once a week. I often use the chat feature to type a correction as she is speaking, so I do not interrupt her flow. Her spoken English is quite fluid, and, because of the slight lag in Skype, I have found that if I correct her verbally, it is more disruptive than when I type her the note. She can look at the note when she pauses and can then ask me about it or repeat it as necessary. I also use the text function sometimes to give her the phonetic spelling of a word or to write a phrase out for her. Combining these two functions has worked well for us.

Even though I am not an English teacher, I meet them through conferences, online courses and workshops, and the invisible network that English teachers seem to have. I decided it would be interesting to see how some of my colleagues in different English teaching environments use technology in their classes. The following comes from interviews with two of them.

Australia, Adult Intermediate ESL

Teacher A told me that she has “been involved in teaching ESL with computers since 1995, starting with using ESL programs in a computer lab.” She said that she learned very quickly that she needed to upgrade her computer skills “and since that time,” she said, “I haven’t stopped doing that, formally and informally. Formally I’ve done many computer-related jazz_chants2courses, including a Graduate Certificate in Multimedia, Certificate III in IT, and Masters in Education (Computers in Education). Informally, though, I haven’t stopped, being involved with CoP Webheads in Action for quite a few years.” Since 1999, she has also trained ESL teachers in her college in the use of computer technology.

She then went on to tell me how her use of computer technology has evolved. “I’ve tried using various applications,” she said, “through MS Office, ESL programs, blogging, wikis, and IWBs [interactive whiteboards]. Each of them has been useful for different purpose and audience.” In an attempt to maintain a paperless classroom almost everything is set up so that it is done on the computer, including grammar exercises, reading activities, and listening activities. Over her years of teaching English using technology, she has found that hands-on activities, either individual (in the computer lab) or individual/group with Smartboard have been effective.

In her present class she has access to a wide range of technology. She uses an interactive white board for web-based and Notebook (Smartboard proprietary software) interactive exercises. These activities can also incorporate audio and video, so she often uses a camera to take photos and short videos to enhance her lessons. She also has access to a Student Response System (clickers) that she uses for tests and other assessments. Teacher A also relies on email to stay in contact with students and has found that wikis are useful for developing and posting class programs, files, and links. They are especially helpful for students who are absent to keep up with what is happening  in class.

However on the downside, she has found that technology is not always an effective learning tool for some of her students for a variety of reasons. One form of technology which she has found problematic with her students is SMS (text messaging). She stated that the English they have learned through this medium is a different kind of English and that once students learn it, it is difficult to unteach.

She has also learned that student blogs require too much time for many of these students so that they do not do them at home and have too little in-class time for them. She said that the students in her present evening class are a mixture of young and old people (21 to 50), long-term residents and new migrants (from 3 to 23 years in the country). They either come to class after work or after swapping childcare duties with their husbands. Most of them have no energy or time to study at home, let alone to use the computer (often occupied by younger generation). Only a few students in her class check the class website/wiki.

United States, College-Level Academic ESL Writing

Teacher B originally told me that she doesn’t use technology much in her classes, but I encouraged her to talk to me anyway. She said that one reason she doesn’t use technology much is that she has “an incompetence complex.” Then she went on to say, “Ironically, I run my school’s computer lab.”

She said that another reason she does not use technology a lot is that she thinks it can be overused. She found that, because young people “feel comfortable with this low-context, pronunciationpeople unfriendly medium,” they will often overuse it and ignore other ways of interaction. She gave an example of teaching students irregular verbs with flashcards. Most were not interested. However, when they discovered an online irregular verb quiz, they were eager to participate. Her comment was that “they obviously prefer the impersonal to the personal.” She thinks that this type of interaction “does not include important human contextual clues during discourse” and is concerned that the development of interpersonal communication skills will suffer as a consequence.

However, do not get the idea that Teacher B is a technophobe. She uses the ELMO document camera with a Smart Board to display papers for group discussion and uses audio equipment to play Jazz Chants, rhythmic chants for teaching English pronunciation and stress. She said that she likes “to refer students to on-line exercises, but it takes a lot of time to find good matches for each student.” She also encourages use of the computer lab for independent reading comprehension work using the Kenmei Internet Reading Lab.

Teacher B also uses other technology with her students, but she thinks it should be moderated and mediated by the teacher. For example, she likes to use Pronunciation Power software, but she commented that “It is useless if used unmonitored, and that is the way it is promoted!” In the fall semester she is planning an inductive grammar activity for her students using an online corpus, which she believes will help them improve their writing.

India Steps Forward in Science Education

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent press release in The Hindu newspaper, titled “Virtual lab for exploring science in top 10 institutes,” explained a new initiative by the government of India.

The release states, “Students pursuing higher studies at the country’s top technical institutes will now be able to do any experiment without going to a laboratory but through virtual labs.” It goes on to note that the government will be spending $40 million (Rs 2 billion) to complete this project within a year.

Coming on the heels of new virtual science lab commercial products from Romania, Turkey, and Scotland, this announcement should have our attention for two reasons.

It shows that India has made a huge commitment to gaining ground in science and engineering. They have decided to increase their ability to graduate qualified students in these fields from their premier education organization, the India Institutes of Technology.

The announcement also highlights our own problems. Rather than engaging in our own initiatives, we are spending our education tax dollars to import simulation software from foreign countries. We’re sending our stimulus dollars to the Middle East! As I have noted previously, the end of this process could be outsourcing not just of software services, but of entire courses including the teachers to foreign countries.

keller_21apr2009aFor a relatively paltry fraction of the money that India is spending, we could be promoting great science education technology initiatives right here at home. A few million dollars to make us more competitive in science education seems like nothing compared with trillions in spending and even with $40 million being spent on a single project by India.

I contacted our Department of Education about this topic and received a polite letter informing me that the Department does not do this sort of thing. I should contact the states, all 50 of them, one at a time! I have contacted many of the states too. They say that I should contact the individual districts, most of which say to contact the schools. Talk about buck passing!

I have a vested interest in all of this. My modest company produces a solution for online science labs that uses prerecorded real experiments. I do my best to avoid bias and like to think that my involvement just allows me to focus better on what’s going on. I see little support for innovation and entrepreneurship in education. As a scientist, I have great concern about this entire issue, which is why I entered the virtual lab business in the first place.

This journal is the perfect place to discuss these matters. It’s all about technology and change, after all.  While these two can be discussed separately, I prefer to discuss the use of technology to effect change in education. In fact, I see technology as our only hope for bringing about real and useful change, at least in science education.

The well-known challenges in science education today include:

  • increasing class sizes, sometimes over forty students
  • decreasing budgets made even worse by the recession
  • loss of lab time to high-stakes testing
  • complete removal of some labs due to new safety regulations
  • increasing costs for hazardous waste disposal
  • greater insurance costs for science labs where overcrowding causes more accidents
  • reluctance of overworked and underpaid teachers to change their methods
  • high teacher turnover due to the stresses of some current school environments
  • lack of new teachers trained in science, especially physical sciences

Great efforts have been made over the last quarter century to improve science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published to great fanfare, and have not fixed the problems. New professional development efforts also leave the science classrooms unimproved. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The Obama administration has proposed new curriculum standards, new science labs, and more professional development. These solutions require an abundance of two things we have little of: time and money. The sort of technology that involves physical materials, for example, smart boards, also requires lots of money and professional development to utilize them well.

Internet technology, on the other hand, requires only Internet access, which now is available nearly everywhere, and Internet-literate teachers. This evolving technology, if applied well, can overcome all of the above list of challenges except for the reluctance of many teachers to change methods to employ the new ideas. Given the potential benefits, we should certainly be investigating this approach in as many way as possible.

Why should our government talk about bold steps and yet be so timid compared with India?

A Digital Educator in Poland

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

During this Spring 2009 semester, I am teaching at a major university in a large city in Poland. My students are 3rd, 4th , and 5th year students , most of whom plan to be English teachers. Technology is playing a role in this experience in some expected and unexpected ways.

First of all, I have easy access to the folks back home. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1992-1994 and, during that time, the communications infrastructure was rudimentary.  Many people did not have telephones, myself included. The couple of times I called my mother in the U.S. I had to go to the post office and order the call. Then I had to wait until the overseas operator was able to connect to me. When I returned to Poland in 2000 the cell phone boom had occurred, and Internet service was on its heels. Now with Skype and IM and all the other communication devices at our fingertips, it is almost as though I never left home. This easy accessibility is actually a mixed blessing. The chair of my department has been able to give me tasks to do, even though I am several thousands of miles away.

Although I travel quite a bit and try to journal, I am rarely successful keeping up the journaling process. This time, I decided to set up a “private” social network on Ning (www.ning.com) for my friends. I recorded a video about my impending trip. I put up links to my Polish university and other interesting places. I have been posting pictures of my adventures and have written blogs to keep my friends informed. I think that having an audience other than myself is helping me keep up the process.

On the downside has been the lack of technology available to my students here. The building where I teach has one lecture room, reserved only for large lecture classes, that has a computer and projector, but no Internet access. The technology guy here did show me how to download some clips that I was planning to use from YouTube (using mediaconverter.org), so I was able to work polandaround the no Internet access issue. I have one class of about 40 students and that is the only one allowed to use that room. Unfortunately this week when I was planning to show a DVD and a YouTube clip, the system was not functioning. For my other classes, I have had to re-think how I teach them, taking into account that I would not be able to use the videos and PowerPoints that I usually use with my classes.

Another issue that arose is that none of my students have ever done an online discussion. I use online discussions once or twice a semester when I have to go to a conference. The university here does not have a built-in classroom management system like WebCT or Blackboard, so I set up a discussion on Ning. Because I did not have Internet access in the classroom, I had to take “snapshots” of the screens to show the students what to do. (The computer system was functioning that day.) Then I had to deal with the students’ anxiety about doing this activity. Most of the students participated, and I must say that the ones who did participate did a really good job, better than many of my students in the US. However, another professor has referred several times to the week I “missed” class. She obviously has no idea of how time-intensive setting up and conducting an online discussion is for the teacher or the students.

On the other hand, I was recently at a symposium in another part of Poland and technology, including Internet access, was available in many classrooms. This particular university also specializes in providing services for students with vision and hearing disabilities. They have special adaptive equipment in several classrooms to aid these students’ learning.

So far I have experienced the advantages of technology for staying in touch as well as the challenges it poses when there is little or no access in the classroom. I feel a little bit like I have fallen into Dean McLaughlin’s short novel, Hawk Among the Sparrows (http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/dean-mclaughlin/hawk-among-sparrows.htm), which is about a pilot in a modern fighter jet with nuclear missiles and technological guidance systems who goes through a time warp to World War I. None of his highly sophisticated weaponry will work in this low-tech time period so that, in the end, the only way he can be effective is to use his jet as a projectile and crash into the enemy’s installation. I certainly hope that is not my fate!

If We Don’t, Someone Else Will

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The United States is falling behind. For many, that’s not a surprising statement, but others will find it hard to believe.

We see statistics summarizing our declining science education, our lack of world-class Internet infrastructure, and many more. What we haven’t seen much of are examples of us falling behind in innovation. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s been predicted for quite a long time now by some more pessimistic prognosticators but not demonstrated.

My field is science, and my current work centers on technology to support science education. It’s no surprise that my example comes from that area. For years, I’ve watched as company after company (and even individuals) make science simulations and attempt to sell them as science “labs.” Of course, they’re not truly labs, but that’s beside the point.

sebit2These companies all have produced essentially the same product. It’s a Flash-based animation system wherein students make some choices of parameters and see the result. These animations are two-dimensional and have little support added online for learning and essentially none for tracking. I don’t have to list them here because a quick Internet search for “virtual lab” will give you lots of examples.

So, from where does the first visually appealing, three-dimensional simulation system sold in the United States come from? Turkey! You may have thought of Turkey as some backwater country with lots of small, dusty villages. Not so. It’s a vibrant, secular society that’s put a premium on education in general and science education in particular. Furthermore, they’ve committed to using online education to reach their goal of an educated society. Sebit Technologies has been created by Turkey’s telecommunications leader, Türk Telekom. With all of the money at their disposal, they have made some real waves in online education.

turk_telekomYou can bet that Turkey will not be the last place we see new competition for United States education dollars. Unless our country gets moving with true innovation, we’ll watch as more and more foreign-created innovations take over our schools (and other business markets).

As I’ve suggested before, teaching itself could eventually be handled offshore. Your children or grandchildren may be learning from teachers in India or China. That might sound quite cosmopolitan but will have a huge impact on one of our most stable professions — teaching.

We shouldn’t give up without a fight. It’s time for our government to foster real education innovation. I don’t mean with tax breaks or allowing free market forces to work. We must have serious investment by government in technology infrastructure for education. We may even have to put tariffs on these sort of imports for a while in order to get our companies back into the game. The alternative is just to sit back and let the rest of the world take over education in the United States.

Defining One’s Diversity Philosophy: A Crucial Skill in a Changing World

osborne80By Randall E. Osborne
Staff Writer

In a world that is becoming increasingly “smaller” due to technology and ease of travel, it seems imperative to help individuals to expand their diversity views BEFORE they venture out into that world. In other words, it seems important to make an effort to expand people’s abilities to accept difference before they venture out into a world that is so obviously different from any one individual’s background. In an effort to do this, the author incorporates a diversity philosophy into his internet course on the Politics and Psychology of Hatred. Through assignments on middle class mentality, analysis of hate sites on the web, reading books about the Holocaust, personal explorations of privilege and other assignments, students are required to explore their own personal philosophies and views about the importance of difference.

The following is excerpted from a “Philosophy of Diversity” survey created by Cornell Thomas and John Butler (2000). Students are given an opportunity to answer questions about their diversity philosophy and then score them to determine whether they had more responses in assimilation, tolerance, multiculturalism, or inclusiveness. These categories were defined by Thomas and Butler in the following manner:

Tolerance = acceptance and open-mindedness of different practices, attitudes, and cultures; does not necessarily mean agreement with the differences. Implies an acknowledgement, or an acceptance or respect. Not necessarily an appreciation and usually consists of only surface level information.

Essentialism/Assimilation = the practice of categorizing a group based on artificial social constructions that impart an “essence” of that group, which homogenizes the group and effaces individuality and differences. The word implies that we are forming conclusions, relationships, and other cultural ties based only on the essential elements, as determined by “us.” It also implies that there is some minimal level of understanding that applies to groups.

Multiculturalism = the practice of acknowledging and respecting the various cultures, religions, races, ethnicities, attitudes and opinions within an environment. The word does not imply that there is any intentionality occurring and primarily works from a group, versus individual, orientation.

Inclusiveness = the practice of emphasizing our uniqueness in promoting the reality that each voice, when, valued, respected and expected to, will provide positive contribution to the community.

This was a learning experience for many students. For example, the “lesbian-identified bisexual” wrote that she was surprised to find that several of her responses had only been tolerant. She said osborne1she had expected that, because she was different, she should have all multicultural or inclusive responses. Another concern she brought up revolved around the possibility of using inclusive language but having the goal of making all people think or act the same way. This sparked an interesting debate about both inclusiveness and assimilation.

Before another assignment was due, students had a chance to “talk” via email and to “interact” through two discussion forums, one centered around the relationship between fear and hate, the second related to our moral or ethical obligations when dealing with hate. These fora allowed students to share their views and develop a sense of trust with each other. Next came the “hate site” assignment. It required the student to go to sites on the web that promoted hate and to analyze them by describing each site, defending its right to be there, and then explaining why it should not be there. By the time we were faced with the “hate site” assignment, many of us had already started to develop a sense of understanding regarding our own assumptions and biases. What resulted was that many of the students this semester did not “pat themselves on the back” over their own acceptance of difference after the evaluation of these sites; instead, many of them discussed their own reactions to the sites, sharing how it angered them or frightened them because some of the sites were written so well that they could almost be convincing.

It seems to me that such an exploration would be healthy for everyone. As people are exposed to more people in the world (through travel and through technological access to that world), stark differences in viewpoints and ideologies are going to become even more apparent. If we are to avoid having these differences only strengthen existing prejudices or even prompt hate-based behavior, it seems necessary to promote progression along the diversity philosophy continuum outlined by Thomas and Butler. This must be done at home, through schools and through the media.

Reference

Thomas, Cornell, and John Butler. 2000. Diversity philosophy. Paper presented at the Race, Gender and Class conference, Southern University at New Orleans.

The 375-Billion Dollar Question. And the New Agora

eskow_tnBy Steve Eskow
Staff Writer
3 November 2008

I’m a chronic reader of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Part scholarly journal, part  newspaper and gossip column and help wanted advertising, each week its reporting brings to me the doings and thinking of faculty, students, academic administrators and education officials and accrediting agencies and all the shapers of academia in the colleges and universities in the US and around the world.

Lately I’ve been bemused by that 375-billion dollar question asked in the October 3, 2008 issue:

“The 375-Billion Dollar Question: Why Does College Cost So Much?”

The article itself never really gets around to answering the question. But each issue of the Chronicle provides pieces of the answer—and often analyses that are quite convincing.

Here is the answer of Honor Jones, a student. Her piece in the May 8, 2008 Chronicle is titled “Invest in People, Not Buildings.”

eskow01“Everywhere I hear the sound of dump trucks. It’s my fourth year at the University of Virginia, and they haven’t stopped building since I got here. A new commerce school, a new theater. If  UVA is any example of the state of public education in general, we need to evaluate our priorities before another brick gets bought.”

In his “Meditation on Building”  in the October 20 Chronicle faculty member David Orr paints this grim picture:

“It is estimated that the construction, maintenance, and operation of buildings in the United States consumes close to 40 percent of the country’s raw materials and energy and is responsible for about 33 percent of our CO2 emissions, 25 percent of our wood use, and 16 percent of our water use. In 1990, 70 percent of the 2.5 million metric tons of non-fuel materials that moved through the economy were used in construction.

“Further, by one estimate we will attempt to build more buildings in the next 50 years than humans did in the past 5,000. Most of this development will be driven by individuals operating in a market system that does not account for losses of farmland, forests, wetlands, or biological diversity — or for the human need for community.”

So: to students—some thoughtful students—and to faculty—some ecologically sensitive faculty—the university invests in buildings, not people, not the environment. The counter, of course, might well be: how else does the university house its students and the apparatus it needs for learning? How would the critics provide spaces for instruction, for housing, for study, for recreation? Are there alternatives to the buildings, or are the critics beneficiaries of the structures they deplore?

Which brings us to the question of the new information and communication technologies and how to bring their benefits to the university.

Xavier University’s answer is typical: build a building around the new technologies, and have the students come to the building to use them.

From the Chronicle, January 1,2008:

“A $28-million building called the Learning Commons will be erected to house the organization and serve as a center for various educational programs. Users will be able to get technical help, use multimedia software at any one of a bank of computers, view the library’s online holdings, and have their reference questions answered.

“The library, which will be attached to the new building, is being refashioned as simply a warehouse for books.”

eskow02The Xavier officials, of course, could not have seen the October 17, 2008 issue of the Chronicle and the story headlines “Colleges Struggle to Keep ‘Smart Classrooms’ Up to Date,” which  describes such a “learning commons” shared by the University of Colorado at Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.

“Professors who hold classes there say that years of financial neglect have left the smart classrooms nearly unusable.”

Xavier, then, might find that its $28-million is only the beginning of its commitment to keep its Commons smart and usable.

We need—need desperately—a new Learning Commons: a new Agora.

There are those who point out that we already have such a commons in the Internet itself. It is a worldwide commons that need not be enclosed in buildings: indeed, its possibilities for serving students and teachers and researchers are limited when it is enclosed.

The new Agora of the Internet is classroom, lecture hall, library, and students can take the Agora with them and listen to lectures and read books and engage in dialog with teachers and students who are scattered in time and space.

MIT, Yale, Stanford, Rice have put syllabi and lectures online.

David Wiley, then at Utah State, let unenrolled students take one of his online courses, and gave them his own unofficial certificates to show employers: this as a public service. And Stephen Downes and George Siemens allowed more than 2,000 unofficial students to take their online course “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge.”

There is a new Agora in the process of creation, a new Commons. And it will flourish free of the constraints of buildings, and, if we let learning move to where it is needed, we will enrich the lives of all those who can’t find their way to our buildings, or can’t afford the price of admission.