Monthly Archives: August 2013

Expanding the ds106 Model

I’ve been thinking for some time about how the framework developed for ds106 might be applicable to other subjects.  Seeing Mike Caulfield go forth and attempt this helped me think that I might be able to.

All this led to several Twitter discussions, and today to a post from Alan “cogdog” Levine in which he points out that, “You don’t get ds106 in a box.”  I’m pretty sure Mike’s tweet that Alan quotes was typed with tongue, or perhaps pinky, firmly planted in cheek.  Nevertheless, it seems possible that I haven’t been clear about what I’m trying to do and what I need\want.

I’m sure I’m not the only educator who saw the sustained engagement in ds106 and thought, “I wish classes at my institution could be like that. What makes it work as well as it does?”

Alan addresses this when he writes:

The magic of ds106 is not the web site, it is the people who came when Jim asked, and people who came later. It is the stuff between the sites that is the elixer, the social connectivity. Why would people be investing precious time in August doing daily animated GIFs? It is how waves of people come in, like recent ds106 infected souls such as Rochelle LockridgeChristina Hendricks. We even have a talking doll encouraging creative action. Then there is Mariana Funes who come to ds106 vis Martin Weller’s H817 open course.

He’s of course right about the social aspects, but  let’s try to answer his question, “Why would people be investing precious time in August doing daily animated GIFs?” Here’s at least a partial list of possible answers:

  • Jim Groom is a charismatic thought leader with a significant following. When Jim asked, he had a large enough network and a personal brand (does anyone remember EDUP__K?)  that the message got out. So does Alan, although I don’t know if he’ll admit it.
  • While it operates on different levels, the core of what someone does in ds106 is to “Make art, damnit” with all sorts of digital tools.  The University of Mary Washington, which served as the nursery for ds106, had the vision to allow those creative activities to count towards general education requirements.  UMW is also fairly selective
  • The aggregation model encourages participants to take ownership of their own identity and work.
  • The daily create keeps participants regularly engaged by giving them several small tasks each week.
  • Finally, the assignment bank creates a framework which permits participants , within some broad constraints, to choose what work they do, creating a rare sense of learner agency.

How many of those key features are replicable at an urban community college in a course which has a strong knowledge mastery component? Without realizing it, I’ve listed them in what I perceive as less to more replicable order.

  • I am nether bava nor cogdog.  Perhaps, since I’m just starting out here, that’s not a big deal.  I don’t particularly aspire to create a movement.
  • Water policy or music appreciation may never be as cool as animated GIFs, but thinking about how to make a more traditional curriculum into a ds106 model has helped me consider how even content driven courses can be more about doing than they currently are.
  • The core of the model, having students create in their own spaces, is a particular challenge.  Beyond the need to explain how this whole model works (did I mention I’m doing this in an online course), there is the challenge that, for the many students at institutions like mine that rely on financial aid, having any required course costs (like a domain registration) that can’t be paid in the college bookstore using a financial aid voucher is a big impediment.
  • The daily create, or its analogue, is something I believe to be possible.  My biggest concern is coming up with enough prompts. Since the course is all about becoming a more thoughtful listener, that’s what the daily activities should center on.  I’m still trying to figure out how not to have the daily listen decay into dull repetitiveness where the only thing that changes in the process is what you listen to.  A conversation with Mike Caulfield last week has helped germinate some ideas as to how I might stay out of that rut.
  • The first version of the assignment bank will be my creation.  I’m not ready yet for participants to design their own.  For it to align with institutional and course objectives and state requirements, I really want the ability to put multiple tags on each assignment ( something like the ds106 assignment category, an historical period tag, and an optional required tag fo the couple of tasks that are obligitory)  Alan indicates that this is possible ,but I’m far from certain I have the WordPress or PHP chops to do it, hence my interest in the theme on which Alan is working.Lisa Lane has previously discussed the challenges of running an aggregated course hub without a critical mass of coding knowledge somewhere in the design team.

Since this a course redesign, I’m also wondering how many of these assignments equate to an end of unit 40 question objective test.  It’s a shame that one has to do that kind of math, but as long as the Department of Education measures a credit hour in terms of student time on task, it’s inevitable.

So I join the handful of brave sources exploring this new model.  Will it work?  I’ll let you know in a few months.




The Risks of Curricular Unbundling

About a month ago, Cathy Davidson wrote about threats to higher education. While she mentioned several items, from de-funding and a narrow focus on STEM to the persistence of disciplinary silos, she left off an important one — unbundling.

Unbundling, as you recall, is the process by which things that used to have to be purchased together can now be acquired separately.  Unbundling is a major disruptor, as Clay Christensen would put it, and forces business models to change.  The newspaper, which put news, sports scores, movie reviews, and lots of classified ads in one bundle, has been disrupted to the edge of the abyss as people now  go to craigslist for ads, espn for scores, epicureous for recipes, and rottentomatoes for movie reviews , all on the web. The iTunes store disrupted the musical bundle of the album, allowing people to easily buy just the tracks they want.

Discussions of unbundling in higher education aren’t new,  For several years, the edublogosphere has pondered what it will mean if/when teaching is unbundled from assessment, or learning is unbundled from football games and fitness centers.  A kind of unbundling that gets less attention is the possibility of curricular unbundling, which might be the biggest threat of all to higher education as we currently know it.

At some point in their academic careers many journalism majors ask (at least to themselves), “Why do I have to take biology?” Many computer science majors ponder why they are required to take art history.  After all, these things won’t help me on the job market, will they?  Despite the ample evidence of the ways a broad education contributes to employability, particularly given the likelihood of several career changes over a working lifetime, many students, focused on getting that first job in their field, would take only the classes they believe to be economically relevant but for the fact that curriculum design requires coursework in other areas.

Distribution requirements are older than this notion of workplace flexibility.  They date back to a time when the focus of a college degree wasn’t about finding a job, but instead about becoming a well and broadly educated person.  At this early stage, most college students were well-enough off that their employment prospects weren’t dependent on their degree.

This mechanism has a beneficial side effect for the institution.  It allows courses with lower instructional costs (several hundred people in a lecture hall learning macroeconomics) to cross subsidize courses with higher costs (sciences, allied health etc.)  Christopher Newfield has written in more detail about how the cross subsidy works.

Since traditional higher education institutions are the source for most credentials, this works.  There is, for most students, no alternative to the traditional degree with its distribution requirements if they want to make headway in the job market.  What if that weren’t the case?

What happens when, because of the growth of things like digital badges (sorry, Dr. Davidson) a computer science major can create a “credential” that employers view as valid without having to bother with art history?  Here’s my near worst case scenario:

  • Students, freed to study only what they feel is economically viable, focus narrowly in a way that makes the silos of the traditional university department look positively interdisciplinary.Departments that have depended on their place in general ed requirements wither and die.
  • Cross subsidy dries up and aspiring occupational therapists, etc. have to pay tuition rates tied more closely to the actual cost of instruction in their field.  Degree fields that lead to “good jobs” become more expensive, and only those already well off can enter them. The decline of subsidy sharply limits the university’s traditional research and service missions,