THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 9, Issue 5 – August 4, 2014
Trip to Boston
This week’s BLAB is late because I was in Boston most of last week to attend the Campus Technology 2014 Conference. Since SUNY Canton is a college with a technological mission, I thought it was important that I attend and see what the latest trends and ideas are in the information technology area. I also wanted to connect with several vendors presenting there to set up some potential pilot projects, assuming there is interest in them on campus. My friend Sam Conn, who was the VP/CIO at SPSU and is now the VP/CIO at SUNY Empire State, was also going to be there and I was looking forward to reconnecting with him. My parents were also going, to hook up with friends and family in the Boston area.
We were planning on leaving on Sunday morning and at the last minute, got a phone call from Kyle Brown, who was also going to the conference. He had been planning to fly down, but his flight out of Ogdensburg had been cancelled due to the plane getting a flat tire. He asked if he could join us, and we were happy to have him. So, with a slight delay, we left at 9:30 AM. The sky was a bit overcast as we got on US 11, heading north. It’s a nice drive through several attractive small towns at the top of the state (Potsdam, Moira, Brushton, Malone, Chateaugay, Ellenburg, Mooers, and Champlain) and we reached Rouses Point at about 11:15. [Interesting fact: A number of towns in the North Country are pronounced a bit differently than you’d think. The “Rouses” in Rouses Point is pronounced to rhyme with “spouses”. The name “Madrid” is pronounced “mad rid”, not like the Spanish capital. The town “Gouverneur” is pronounced “guv-a-noor”. No doubt there are others.]
Rouses Point is a pretty resort town at the top of Lake Champlain, about 2 miles south of the Canadian border, and we took the bridge into Vermont there. The road becomes US 2, which goes through the Lake Champlain islands. The weather cleared up at this point, giving us blue skies and puffy clouds for the rest of the trip. The route through the islands is just great, crossing several bridges on Grand Isle, going through the towns of Alburgh, Grand Isle, and South Hero. It then crosses back to the mainland, connecting to I-89 in Colchester, a total distance of about 40 miles. It takes a little longer to go this route but it’s worth it, because there are lovely views of the lake on both sides of the road, the towns are quite attractive, and there is beautiful scenery all around.
After getting on I-89, it’s a pretty ride through the green mountains. We stopped at about 1:00 at a nice restaurant in Waterbury (a little before Montpelier, the state capital) for lunch and to gas up, and were back on the road by 2:00. We hit the New Hampshire border at a little after 3:00, passing Hanover (where Dartmouth College is), Grantham, and then Warner, where there is a really nice fall foliage festival that Jill, Mark, and I have attended many times. About five miles before Concord, the state capitol, the road began to back up and it was slow going as we made the merge onto Interstate 93. The highway was jammed down to Manchester (where I lived for many years) and most of the rest of the way down to the Massachusetts border, due to lots of folks returning from their weekend trips. The road widens there, and it was smooth sailing into Boston. We reached the Sheraton a little after 6:00, which wasn’t too bad. The big surprise was the charge for parking at the hotel: $49 a night! Holy cow! After checking in, we went to dinner at a Thai restaurant nearby, joined by a friend of my parents who lives in Cambridge.
Like any other conference, the sessions and workshops at Campus Technology 2014 were a mixed bag—some were quite good, and some less so. I’ll make some comments on a few sessions that I think were noteworthy.
How Big Data Will Change Everything
The first keynote session at the conference was titled “How Big Data Will Change Everything We Know About Education”, presented by Stephen Laster (Chief Digital Officer, McGraw Hill Education). The talk was very interesting, but c’mon—change everything? While big data has the promise of telling us many things, I doubt that very many of our core beliefs about higher education will change very much. Data, both big and small, can be extremely helpful in making decisions, IF the questions are accurately framed, and IF the data is analyzed in a very careful way. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Data is a tool, not a panacea, so we’ll need to work hard to gather data accurately, to scrub our records to make them more accurate, to carefully frame questions, and to analyze data to make our decisions as good as possible.
10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching
An impressive workshop I attended was named “10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching”, given by Ann Taylor (Director, Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State). The Institute has a lot of useful materials that they’ve been kind enough to provide online, so everyone interested in good online teaching should take a look at their website.
The 10 title principles were:
- Know your audience
- Get organized
- Get comfortable with the technology
- Communicate expectations
- Let your personality show
- Be engaged
- Build community
- Plan for the unexpected
- Provide meaningful and timely feedback
- Practice continuous quality improvement
That’s a darned good list, and much of the workshop was devoted to delving more deeply into each point.
The list was based on “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” by A.W. Chickering and A.F. Garrison (1987), whose list indicated that a good instructor:
- Encourages contact between students and instructor
- Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
- Encourages active learning
- Gives prompt feedback
- Emphasizes time on task
- Communicates high expectations
- Respects diverse talents and ways of learning
Notice that the original list is about undergraduate education in general, not about online learning, and was written well before online education became common. This illustrates the important point that the very same things that characterize quality face-to-face teaching also characterize quality online teaching. There’s a convergence going on between face-to-face and online teaching, and contemporary well-designed courses recognize this.
Challenges, Trends and Important Developments in Higher Educational Technology
An excellent keynote with the above title was given by Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He’s an extremely good speaker, who mentioned a number of things worth looking into and emulating:
- UMBC has a Gates grant to link themselves to community colleges in Maryland to promote better communication between them and to promote better transferability of both students and credits.
- The head of IT on his campus is viewed as a critical academic advisor, and is part of the executive cabinet.
- UMBC’s chemistry department has developed a “Chemistry Discover Center” (click to see it) that operates as a flipped classroom (more on this format below) where students work in groups to solve problems during class, facilitated by faculty. I’ve seen several places that offer critical gateway courses in the sciences in this way, and the consensus of opinion is that students learn and do better. Improving success rates in gateway courses (without sacrificing rigor) will be critical to our improving retention and graduation rates.
- UMBC uses its learning management system (Blackboard) to generate data to show their students that there is a correlation between grades in courses they are taking and the number of hours they spend on effort. It’s a funny thing—students instantly see this in sports, but when it comes to their courses, this is somehow much less obvious. Many students (and some faculty) think it takes a “special” kind of mind to be good in particular subjects. I don’t buy it. My experience has shown me that motivation and drive are the key factors to success.
- UMBC captures the stories of returning adult students who have succeeded, and use them to recruit other adult students and show them that they can make it.
- Finally, president Hrabowski had a couple of nice quotes: “Teachers touch eternity through their students.” and “Watch your thoughts—they become your words. Watch your words—they become your actions. Watch your actions—they become your habits. Watch your habits—they become your character. Watch your character—it becomes your destiny.”
Flipped Classroom: Social, Connected and Personalized
“Flipped classrooms” are all the rage at conferences these days. It’s when the students learn the “content” of a subject themselves outside of class, with the “homework” part (solving problems, analyzing case studies, etc.) done in small groups in class, facilitated by faculty. Often, the same sorts of materials used in online courses are given to the students to help their home-study of the content. The real key here is the more active working on problems in small groups, as opposed to the traditional lecture where the students sit back passively and watch the professor solve the problems.
The flipped classroom model is a fine one and works well in lots of contexts. What I don’t get is why people thing this is something new. The sciences flipped part of their courses long ago—they’re called labs. Other courses have operated in a similar kind of flipped mode since ancient times—they’re called seminars. The Socratic Method, commonly used in legal education (like in the movie “Legally Blonde” or the TV show “The Paper Chase”), is an example of flipping the classroom—students study the relevant material outside of class individually or in groups, and the professor then poses open-ended questions within the class for them to discuss and answer.
Another keynote, “Reinventing Education”, was given by Anant Argarwal (CEO of EdX). The talk focused on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that he developed for the intro Electrical Engineering course. Argawal argues that we are still doing education the same way as 100 years ago at a time where everything else has dramatically changed. He and the folks at EdX believe that these MOOCs can change the educational paradigm.
Statistics for his course showed that 150,000 students registered for the MOOC, of which some 30,000 completed the first assignment and 7,000 finished the course and earned a verified certificate. These are impressive numbers—150,000 is more than the total enrollment of MIT over its entire history, and 7,000 is more than the number of students taking intro EE there in any given year. That having been said, it’s also pretty obvious that the course never really had 150,000 students in it—the majority took a quick look at the course and moved on. In the Q&A, I asked him how many of the 7,000 who earned a verified certificate were able to get their certificates translated into actual college credit. His answer indicated that some colleges are working on that issue, but that few students had yet done it.
I’m not aware of too many colleges that will award credit for participation in an EdX MOOC, even if you have a verified certificate. What many colleges will do is let the participants take a challenge exam or some similar thing, and award credit if the student does well on it. Of course, many would award the credit if the student had learned the material entirely on their own—challenge exams have been around for a long time. Personally, I think that the strongest future for MOOCs is as supplements to more traditional courses, providing a very effective way to flip the classroom.
It should be noted that a few universities (Georgia Tech is one) run some fairly large online courses (with a few hundred students) within their own online degree programs (that have rigorous entrance requirements) and grant their own students credit for completing them. Of course, these aren’t quite massive and they don’t quite fit the definition of “open” either.
Of course, one of the most valuable aspects of any conference is being able to get together and talk with others interested in the same subject. On Wednesday afternoon, I got together with SUNY Empire State’s Sam Conn (VP/CIO) and Nan Travers (Director of Assessment); Kyle Brown (SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam’s shared CIO); several folks from BlueHost Inc.; and the president of N2N Services Inc., for a very interesting discussion on outcomes assessment (and its first cousin, competency based education), making courses more modular, using and assessing e-Portfolios, and other related matters.
A big problem with outcomes assessment is that it usually isn’t integrated into broader curricular processes—it’s treated as a separate process. As a result, faculty have to spend gobs of time doing multiple versions of essentially the same things related to assessment, and quickly grow to hate it. Who can blame them?
We spent a lot of the discussion talking about what outcomes assessment that was truly integrated into courses, curriculum, accreditation, and university planning might look like. What would be the most efficient and effective way to measure if outcomes had really been met, and for students to be able to prove that learning had really occurred? How might this be tied to such things as course design, remediation, honors programs, and other academic issues? The conversation led to some interesting possible ideas for some pilot projects and collaborations. I’ll be sharing some of these with the campus as the year progresses, and we’ll see where it takes us.
I had decided that I didn’t want to go back to Canton the same way as I came down to Boston, so on Thursday at 11:30, we all piled into the car and took off down the Mass Pike (which is the way everyone refers to I-90 in Massachusetts). The Pike is a toll road, though the last time I had driven down it (probably 10 years ago), they had removed the tolls from Springfield on west. Foolish me, I thought more of the road might be free by now, but things have actually gone back the other way—as of 2013, the tolls are back throughout its length, and the toll is now up to $5.85, not including two separate tolls for the section near Boston.
The ride was smooth, and once again, the weather changed from cloudy to quite nice as we progressed. It’s pretty un-scenic going through Worcester and Springfield, but things pick up in the western part of the state, with the Berkshire Mountains being quite nice. After paying the toll, we entered the New York Thruway for a few exits and another small toll, and turned off onto I-90 toward Albany. We stopped to get some lunch and fill up in East Greenbush. The sign said there was a Subway sandwich shop there, but we couldn’t find it, and wound up going to a local pizza place instead. This turned out to be a good thing, because the pizza was excellent—wonderful crust and lots of fresh toppings.
Back on the highway we went, and turned off on I-787, which from its number, I assumed would take me all the way to I-87. Nope—it goes most of the way, but the last bit requires you to turn off it onto NY route 7, which is like an interstate and takes you the rest of the way. I have no idea why it’s numbered that way, and Wikipedia says that the location of northern terminus of I-787 is uncertain, depending on what official document you look at.
Anyway, we then took I-87 north though Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls, two resort towns that get a lot of tourist traffic. North of there, things were pretty quiet as I-87 enters the Adirondacks on its way to Montreal. We got off on NY 28N, which loyal readers of the BLAB will recognize as the road that goes to Gore Mountain, where I had been two weeks earlier for the Adirondack Challenge. The rest of the trip was a repeat of my trip two weeks ago, going by Indian Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake, and Tupper Lake—beautiful locations all.
Kyle’s cell phone’s weather app had indicated that it was hailing up in Potsdam, so throughout the Adirondack segment of the trip, we kept expecting the weather to turn bad. There was a tiny bit of rain near Glens Falls, but that was it—the weather quickly improved and was quite nice for the rest of the day. We got back to Canton at about 6:30, tired but satisfied.
Here are a few quick reviews of other doings during the past two weeks.
On Wednesday July 23, I had lunch with Dave Rourke (Director of HR) and Dave Hartle, Todd Bates, and Brian Harte, who are the leadership of the various unions at SUNY Canton. Working with unions is something new to me—my first two colleges were private and didn’t have unions, and my third was a public university in Georgia, a right-to-work state. We had a good discussion about working together to make sure that any issues that may arise are dealt with while they’re still small.
That evening, it was off to Ogdensburg with Executive Director of University Relations Lenore VanderZee to attend a meeting of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce held at the Frederic Remington Museum. The meeting showcased a number of businesses in the area, including the River Myst Winery, which is owned by SUNY Canton grads Randy and Denise Lemay. The museum itself is quite impressive, with an extensive range of paintings and sculptures by Remington, who was born in Canton, NY. Given Remington’s status as a western artist, I had always assumed that any major museum devoted to him would be in Denver or some other big western city. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that it’s actually here in St. Lawrence County.
On Thursday July 24, I had the pleasure of attending the dedication and open house of the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency’s Ernest J. LaBaff Industrial Building on Commerce Lane in Canton. It’s a nice facility, which currently hosts IDA offices as well as the St. Lawrence Brewing Company, owned by (you guessed it) Ken Hebb, a SUNY Canton grad. Ernest LaBaff is a labor leader who is devoted to economic development of the North Country, and the dedication was attended by several legislators, economic and educational leaders, and his many friends and family members. The dedication was followed by a reception, where I had the chance to meet Mr. LaBaff. Afterwards, purely out of solidarity of course, I walked down to the brewery and enjoyed a Sampler—four small (4 oz.) glasses of different beers offered there. The Honey Blonde brew was especially good.
On the Saturday afternoon before the Boston trip, my parents and I went down to Ogdensburg to see the Visitors Center and the waterfront. The area is beautiful, with a nice walkway, a gazebo that overlooks the river, a small marina, and a very nice park.
As we arrived back in Canton, my phone rang—my assistant Michaela was calling to ask if I was having difficulty finding the dinner. “What dinner” I asked? It turns out that I had screwed up royally, because while I knew my parent and I had been invited to dinner by chemistry faculty member Rajiv Narula and his lovely wife Geetika, I thought that the invitation was for a week later. I called to apologize, and Rajiv kindly said it was OK, and asked if I would still be able to come by for a while. My mother and I quickly hopped into the car and popped over. Rajiv has a very nice home in the village so it wasn’t far at all, and the dinner was wonderful—excellent vegetarian Indian cuisine, which all loyal readers of the BLAB are aware is my favorite type of food. Rajiv and Geetika have been married for about a year now, and I asked him if they had the full Indian wedding experience that I’ve seen in Bollywood movies. Yes, he said—it was the full three-day extravaganza with hundreds of relatives and the groom riding in on a horse, and several SUNY Canton faculty had gone over to share the experience. I wish I could have seen it! The company at the dinner was great with several Canton faculty members and their spouses, and we spent the evening talking and trading jokes. Afterwards, Rajiv said that I had an open invitation to come over for dinner anytime. I told him he didn’t realize what he had just gotten himself into—I might be by every night!
Last Week’s Trivia Contest
Last week’s contest had questions all involving the word “plate”. Our winner was . Here are the correct answers:
- In baseball, you cross it to score a run. Home plate.
- New Hampshire’s says “Live Free or Die”, whereas Idaho’s says “Famous Potatoes”. License plate.
- It can be used to replace your top teeth. Upper plate.
- Scientific theory describing the large-scale movement of the Earth’s lithosphere. Plate tectonics.
- Estuary between Argentina and Uruguay, also the name of a major Argentinian soccer team. The River Plate (Rio de la Plata).
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
In honor of my big trip, this week’s questions all have to do with Boston. As usual, the first with the most takes the prize. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO email@example.com since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- Major league baseball team located in Boston.
- Historical event whose motto was “no taxation without representation”.
- William Shatner, James Spader, and Candice Bergen starred in this 2004-2008 TV show.
- Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, during this event.
- Only song by the Rolling Stones with the word “Boston” in it (hint: It’s not in the title), it’s from the album “Let It Bleed”. They play it at almost every concert, and it’s usually the longest song in the set.