Archive | February, 2013

Efficiency and Wiki Humanism (Digital Artifact for #EDCMOOC)

24 Feb

The following is the final blog post related to a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I am currently taking on “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” which is being run by the University of Edinburgh. 

This is my digital artifact, created as a final assignment for the course.

The Efficient Student

It’s a word I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency from my students at U.C. Berkeley over the past decade:

I want to be a more efficient reader.

I want to write more efficiently.

I need to be more efficient with my time.

I want to be efficient.

Who can blame them?  Many of them sign on for crushingly hard schedules, and load up on additional activities and jobs that will pay their way through college, set them up as attractive candidates for post-graduate careers and further education, and, maybe, leave a little time for fun.

And with the skyrocketing rise in tuition at UC, as elsewhere in the country, the need to get the degree ASAP becomes even more pressing:



Sometimes, the word comes out in odd ways:  I want this argument to be more efficient.  “You mean you want it to be more concise or pointed,” I think to myself.  But then maybe that’s not what they mean.

There are a whole host of factors in play here, both historical and contemporary, but (I’m sorry, I want this argument to be efficient) a large measure of efficiency’s ascendancy as a virtue for my students and for our society at large comes from our increasing reliance on the Internet and mobile technologies and the speed with which we’ve come to expect certain (often mechanized) processes to work, the work of a college education among them.

The Efficient Educator

Can educators be more efficient?  Doubtlessly we can, and certainly I want to be.  The more pertinent question, however, is whether we can teach our students more effectively.  Again, the answer is certainly yes.

And digital tools can help make us more efficient.

But does more efficient mean more effective?

Jump away for a moment to take this efficient digression.

Wiki education:  So much of my classroom material has been adapted, cribbed, riffed, cross-referenced, and yes, perhaps even stolen in acts of petty pedagogical larceny from my former teachers, my colleagues, and our predecessors.  How many of our lessons are lessons passed on from others that we have then Wiki-ed, whether substantially or slightly?

I could do the same for others:  leave digital artifacts of my teaching lying about for others to glom on to.  Other teachers could just take it and tweak it.  Students could take it and teach themselves.  They could collaborate on it and figure out a better, more efficient way to work.  And I could go use my time more efficiently, maybe by moving back closer to nature, or evolving in other ways.



After all, my Prezi digression above (Over there?  Under this?  Out of here?) was built from a template someone else created, and then I (sort of) Wiki-ed clumsily onto the template with my own text and other text and images from others. I’ve extended the reach of my own capacities by using digital tools.  Is this a glimpse of what it means to be transhuman?

…Build it, leave it, let someone Wiki it, and I’m gone…


Wiki Wiki…


It starts to sound like a hip hop DJ working the record on the turntable back and forth…




I’m being silly, but I’m also kind of serious.  (And, given the architecture of sampling that scaffolds so much of hip-hop DJ culture, the comparison is apt.)  I wonder what I might upload on-line, what I could off-load into the laps of my students and give them responsibility for doing according to their own paces and aptitudes, and then whether I might be able to offer my “social presence” to them more productively, more…efficiently.

Just so long as they’re not more likely to drop out if I do this.

Though they shouldn’t drop out if I do it right. Right?

The Efficient Human Being

The efficient human being, approaching perfect efficiency, might be post-human or transhuman, or it might be something else, a distinctly Wiki-ized entity, something approaching the Singularity–a Sci Fi idea that in some circles has dropped the “Fi”–when a collective, technologically rooted superior intelligence will supposedly evolve, where the “I” becomes a “We,” and the “We” becomes a Wiki.  A very very smart Wiki.

Manufacturing has long been replacing people with machines. Developers are at work on machines that one day may be able to comment more efficiently on student writing than I could. Content farms use search algorithms to efficiently determine what stories they want their writers to generate in return for a few electronic pennies. Thousands of Chinese laborers and their ilk have been treated like overworked, highly efficient machines (willingly or not) to create the efficient device on which I write this somewhat efficient post and the efficient device on which you read it.

  “Well, John Henry was a little baby…hummmmmm!! 


The John Henry Ver 2

There are plenty of things of vital importance that are inefficient. Whether one is working in the arts, the sciences, or in business, the creative process is inefficient.  The scientific method is exacting though sometimes inefficient. So is the nature of most true human relations, and so is figuring out who we are.

And love? There are many descriptors that come to mind, but efficiency isn’t one of them.

I didn’t mean for this digital artifact to sound anxious or dystopian.  I’m actually more hopeful about the prospects for technology, and for the interfaces between human beings and technology, in higher education and elsewhere, than I seem to be expressing here.  But it’s difficult to control one’s emotions—they’re terribly inefficient.  Always slowing us down, the damn things.

Becoming a more efficient human being?  Yes, that would be nice.

Becoming a human being for whom efficiency is a cardinal virtue?  Not so sure about that.

Perhaps if we just keep it simple.

Two turntables and a microphone.

Two smart phones and a WiFi connection.


Take it, Herbie Hancock:



Being Human Means… (Week 3 of #EDCMOOC)

13 Feb

The following is the fifth of several blog posts related to a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I am currently taking on “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” which is being run by the University of Edinburgh.  This week’s theme:  “Being Human.”

Being human means that you can only run so many parallel programs–husband, father, writer, teacher, neighbor, friend, citizen, freelancer, consumer, debtor–before the system starts to shut down.

Being human means some weeks you’re a MOOC, and some weeks you’re not.

Being human means that the dog needs a walk, and no, he’s not going to leave your side until at last you go get the leash at which point he will become so excited that he will SNORF!! through his nostrils onto your pants.  You will have to change your pants.

Being human means alternately finding this infuriating and hilarious.

Being human means your daughter is not sleeping and so you are not sleeping and then she climbs into your bed to sleep and so you switch places and go to sleep in her bed, which means you are a human surrounded, as humans sometimes are, by stuffed animals and graham cracker crumbs and the thoughts in your head that keep you awake until the dawn starts to creep and you figure you may as well get up and do some writing.

Being human means not being sustainable.

Being human means you are, in some sense, made of meat, and the meat needs recharging but there is no easy battery with which to charge yourself.

Being human means you have no on/off switch.

Being human means the damned MP4 about being human won’t freaking load, but it’s probably not the machine’s fault, it’s yours.

Being human means being impatient, sometimes.

Being human means leaving digital ephemera in a way that we once (and still) leave biodegradable ephemera.  Being human means this ephemera gives a hint of who we are, who we once were, but it is not up to the task of representing the totality of the thing itself.

Being human means marking student papers, too many student papers, electronically in a way that is both entirely efficient and not (“Be quick, Kuno!”) because a human marks papers more sloppily and yet more deeply than a machine ever could.

Being human means believing this, even if it is an entirely self-serving point of view, even if machines already are marking papers.

Being human means because if not believing this then the point exactly what is?

Being human means consciously writing the above as if a machine wrote it.

Being human means that sometimes we go into the Peace Corps to serve our fellow human beings by doing things like teaching English in China, where we suddenly take ill, and die.

Being human means we leave families and friends in mourning, and we leave behind digital traces of ourselves, of our own making and of others’ making.

Being human means we leave old emails and schoolwork in the in-boxes of our teachers and on eternal cloud-sourced course websites that hover over Northern California and the world and the satellites and will last longer than the molding boxes in grandma’s attic.

Being human means we are good people who no machine could precisely duplicate.

Being human means that sometimes we go far far too soon.

Being human means it’s been one of those weeks.

Being human means we hope to live another week, to keep up with this project of defining ourselves, because we, like the shark, must keep moving.  You never know when being human will stop.

Being human means rest in peace, Nicholas Castle.

The Quiet Place to end Week 2 of the Scottish #edcmooc

8 Feb

One of my students shared this yesterday with his classmates, and also with his “classmates.” (I have two sections of the same class who share an online discussion board on Piazza).

My students uniformly loved it.

There are some interesting things to comment on here, but I’ll reserve those and let you have your own experience of it.  All you need is to be in front of your computer with your finger over your space bar and the speakers on.  It takes about 90 seconds of your time.

Click here to enter The Quiet Place Project.  (A note on using it: If the Quiet Place fills your screen on your browser, pressing the F11 function key (on a PC) or simultaneously pressing the command+shift+f keys (on a Mac) backs you out of it.)

Night night.


Will the Revolution Be Monetized? — Week 2 of the Scottish #EDCMOOC

7 Feb

How we feel about technology is, in part, wrapped up in questions of financing.  Or, in the modern parlance, monetizing.

Will I get paid?

What will it cost me?

In this video, we see Microsoft present a dialogue-free vision of a Utopian future in which technology increasingly connects us, giving us more useful information and generally making our lives and work more efficient and convenient:

Then in this short film, we see a different, dystopian vision of a future technology (and company) called “Sight”:

In the first video, we have a company with a lot to gain from technology’s proliferation. Microsoft has monetized its products extensively, and looks to do more of the same; it is well positioned to do so.

In the second video, we have a corporation as invading privacy and individual authenticity in more disturbing ways.  (It hits at least one of the common themes of science fiction marked by Annalee Newitz:  “the privacy apocalypse.”)  Naturally, the money-making company and its representative, the creepy man, are the baddies here.  The individual–the woman thinking she’s out on a regular (if highly technologized) blind date–is the victim.  She doesn’t stand to make money from the transaction.  She stands to gain, or lose, a potential boyfriend. And maybe her dignity.

A Formula for Measuring Utopian Levels

Perhaps there is a partial formula here that could express our levels of optimism or pessimism about the advance of the digital revolution.  I’ll call it the Technological Utopianism Rate.

TU = $/ax

Here, TU (your Technological Utopianism Rate, which expresses your level of positive, hopeful feelings about technology)…

…is a function of $ (the amount of money you stand to make from technology or digital environments)…

…divided by ax (on a scale of 1-100, your relative anxiety level about the personal or societal destabilizing effects of technology).

So let’s say you were a Microsoft executive making $200,000, and you had an anxiety level about technology of 10.  Your TU would be 20,000 (with upward adjustments according to what opportunities for venture capital investment or start-up company potential or salary increases you anticipate.)

In contrast, let’s say you were, oh, a fusty old teacher whose salary was paid by a local school district, with no particular prospects or inclinations to earn money in a digital space (for your teaching or other services) except for your dividends from your retirement account’s investments in Microsoft.  Let’s say that the latter amounts to $1,000, and also that you had a technological anxiety level of 71.  Your TU would be about 14.  This could go lower, even to zero, should your job be made redundant by advances in technology.

The examples and the formula oversimplify the case, but it’s certainly reasonable to say that the more economic stability or gains you stand to make from it, the more enthusiastic you’ll be about technology.

The Revolution Comes to Higher Ed

Now, picking up with that teacher and his ilk, let’s map this equation onto higher education. As Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr note in their contrasting discussions of MOOCs–Shirky embracing them, Carr advising skepticism–universities and colleges (including UC Berkeley, where I work) are anxious about what online learning means for them.  Will higher education be the next industry to be radically changed?  Depending on which individual at which university you’re talking to, the TU level is lower or higher, but in effect, the aggregated TU is currently at or near zero for most institutions, because the numerator in the equation is zero.  The digital revolution in higher education has not been monetized.  At least not for the schools or their teachers, by and large.

As Shirky and others argue, this may be a good thing.  Traditional higher education is expensive, they note, and is getting more so; it benefits a limited audience; and the effectiveness of its methods of educating undergraduates is suspect.  Universities are overdue for some major changes.  Surely, the logic goes, there is a better,  more efficient, more cost-effective, more widely accessible way of providing education by leveraging technology.   Well-designed MOOCs, offered for free or for minimal cost, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, might be one such answer.

Three questions to tease out here.  Two of them (and they’re important ones that both Shirky and Carr engage with) I’ll put to the side for now:  first, what changes does higher education need to undergo to revitalize itself and better serve its mission to educate students?  Second, might MOOCs offer an education as good or better than what a typical student might get in a series of university classrooms?

Let’s assume for the moment that MOOCs potentially could offer many of the same benefits, and ask the obvious money question:  who is going to pay for them?

Are the esteemed lecturers from the University of Edinburgh who are facilitating the MOOC I’m currently taking on e-learning and digital cultures being paid by someone other than their home institution?  Clearly their research interests dovetail with the content of the course, so they are getting some benefit from designing the course and helping guide us 41,000 “students” through it, even if they’re doing it pro bono.  But if they were to offer this or other MOOCs in the future, would they be paid?  Would the U of Edinburgh pay them to subsidize the education of us 41,000 free riders?  Or would the instructors primarily rely on what Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, has called “psychic income” for sustenance?

It’s not sustainable.  If good teachers aren’t paid a living wage, if we students don’t pay something, or if the public doesn’t subsidize that free/affordable education, then MOOCs, whatever their virtues, will wither or else be run by hacks looking to make a buck.  It’s the hacks who worry me.

In his brilliant critique of Shirky’s commentary on MOOCs, Aaron Bady notes the ongoing dis-investment in public education here in the U.S.  He also writes:

“Since there is a lot of unmet desire for education out there, and since that desire is glad to have the thing it wants when it finds it for free, it seems all to the good that students can find courses for free.  But while we should ask questions about why venture capitalists are investing so heavily in educational philanthropy, we also need to think more carefully about why there is so much unmet desire in the first place, and why so many people want education without, apparently, being able to pay for it.  Why hasn’t that desire already found a way to become demand, such that it must wait until Silicon Valley venture capitalists show up, benevolently bearing the future in their arms?”

The venture capitalists are there, as Bady notes, because with the gaps in public investment in higher education they see an opportunity to “speculate.”  They see the potential for the revolution in online education to be monetized.  And they want to be in a position to collect if the cash starts to flow.

In Which the Bank Teaches Us a Lesson

There once was a young man, just out of college, looking for a job during a recession.  He searched and searched, and one day, the public relations department of a major bank pulled his resume out of a pile and offered him a job as a writer.  The young man wasn’t too keen on working at a bank, but a job was a job in those recessionary times, and so he took it.  The pay was quite good.

They spoke a different language, these bankers.  They spoke of “leverage” and “cash flow” and returns on equity and investment.  The young man listened, and learned the language.  He wrote their press releases and brochures, he wrote speeches and jokes for the CEO to tell at luncheons.

In public statements and interviews, the CEO was constantly noting his laser-like focus on serving the bank’s shareholders.  Not the customers or the employees–of course the bank was serving those.  But his primary focus was on increasing the value of the shareholders’ investment.  At the time, the naive young man found this a little weird.  Sure banks want to generate profits, he thought, and shareholders are technically the owners, but isn’t the idea to balance a desire for a profitable business with good service to customers and good jobs for hardworking employees?  Well, yes, but only if it serves the bottom line:  driving up that stock price, increasing the market capitalization of the company, for those shareholders.

The bank was about increasing profits at all costs.  The bank demanded logic of the following sort that the young man was once asked to explain to any journalist who cared to call:  “Yes, the bank is raising fees on checking accounts, but only so we can better serve our customers.”

“What the hell do you mean?” the young man imagined reporters asking.  And he supposed there was a certain kind of logic to it:  if the bank collected more fees from its customers, it would have more funds with which it could potentially hire more employees to work in the call centers, who could take more phone calls from those customers who would otherwise have been kept on hold waiting for an explanation of why their fees were going up.  See?  Doesn’t the bank have its customers’ best interests at heart?

You could almost believe you weren’t being spun if the dizziness stopped for long enough.

The young man, of course, was me, and I share this recollection because I find it instructive.  A bank is not a university–its purposes and functions are different.  But in looking at a bank–a kind of meta-monitizer with a relentless focus on profit–we see something to be cautious of in education.

A school doesn’t need to focus on profit in the same way that bank did (and still does), but it does need to operate in a way that is economically sustainable for both teachers and students and the larger community.  MOOCs as they’re currently structured are not sustainable, no matter how engaging they are (as this MOOC has been) or how poorly run they are, which is why some in academia take a look at them and see a future dystopia in higher ed.

If we can find a way to make them sustainable, and not merely monetizable in the Silicon Valley sense of the word, then maybe, just maybe, we might end up with a useful supplement to university instruction that could help foster a higher higher education that all of us presumably want.

In the meantime, I’ve got a high-fee checking account that might be right up your alley.

Navigating a MOOC–Helpful tips

4 Feb

As I begin week 2 of the Scottish MOOC, I’m grouping a few helpful suggestions from participants on how to survive and thrive in a MOOC environment.  I’m putting them here so I don’t lose track of them in the rabbit hole of the Internet.

If anyone is seeing this and has other helpful links, feel free to add them in the comment boxes.

With thanks to Diogo Alcobia (and Dave Cormier for the video embedded in Diogo’s blog):

And to Ilze Levina:

And to Felicia Sullivan for pointing to Collin Milligan’s blog:

Funny to link in this way to people I don’t know.  But that’s part of the point of a MOOC, yes?  Circles within circles…

Addendum:  UC Berkeley isn’t very far along the MOOC path, but here’s their link to their start at it:

And now this from Jeremy Knox, one of the five instructors facilitating our MOOC: