Posts from ‘Digital Education’


One of the great problems in online education is the low completion rates for classes and subsequently programs. To be sure this is certainly partially the result of overeager recruiters and administrators who are in it for the buck or the developers and teachers of online classes who have not made them interesting enough to hold users’ attention in both the short and long terms. We should certainly take steps to police the recruiters and administrators as well as develop best practices for online courses to make them better. The third leg of the stool however is the student him or her self.  The high dropout rate is not the result of some moral failing from the student, but rather the failure of motivation and time devoted to online education. Sometimes this is the most rational choice given the other demands on a students time.  The reward, for example the increased job options versus expenditure calculation, both in time and money, does not persuade students to continue or even possibly to start. The difficulty or ease of the course may not match the commitment of the student.

The question arises how much pressure should there be on the educators to lower the barriers to students and how much should it be the students who have to raise themselves above the barriers? When I was in the classroom I recognized but always resented the fact that being an entertainer and keeping the material interesting to students was one of my jobs as a teacher.  Sometmes some students didn’t realize the importance of the information quite apart from the method of presenting it.  To make them realize was of course part of my job.  In any teaching you have to show students that it will be worth their while to put in the effort to learn something. Many times however while it was apparent to me that this stuff was important students might find it less so. With online learning we still have this responsibility but need to be more explicit about it and also present material in a way that keeps the student’s attention despite a greater number of distractions than even the classroom allows. Educators have a responsibility to make their material as attention grabbing, interesting, clear and pointed towards the end goals as possible.

Students for their part need to act too:

Allow enough time to complete online classes.  I have a friend who says that the real time to complete something is what you have allowed times pi (3.14).  That is to say that things usually take much longer than one plans and online education is no exception. Online students usually have many other things going on in their lives and if they are not careful online education will be one of the things squeezed out.

Online education takes away some of your time doing other things.  When we first entered childbirth class many, many, many years ago, they had us do an exercise.  We wrote down all the things we spent time doing in a day before the birth of the baby.  After we had completed the list they asked us to consider which of those things we could do less of in order to care for the baby.  I would suggest you do the same before choosing to pursue online education. You never find time to get things done; you make time. What things will you have to give up or cut back on to pursue online education?

Meet deadlines.  Most things in life have deadlines, some hard and fast, some soft.  In a course however once you fall behind it becomes increasingly difficult to do. Meeting deadlines is one of the best and most useful skills one learns in school.  If in the world outside school you become someone who can be depended upon to meet deadlines you will go far.

Always try your best.  There will be many times when you feel you can’t do something, spare the time for something, are tempted by shortcuts or are just too tired.  You need to fight through those times to do the best you can do within the time you have to do it.

Keep your eye on the prize. At times the minutia of a course may seem a long way from the prize you are seeking.  Just like the “wax on, wax off” scene in the original Karate Kid, tasks that seem to have no connection to the final goal may indeed be training you in ways that are not apparent. Persevere through the times that seem the most distant from your ultimate goals and you may find that those goals are closer than you think.


When academics especially humanists think of using the web we use as our model the printed page.  We have online “journals” and are looking for ways to produce online “books”.  This is of course natural in that these are things most familiar and that have made up most of our lives.  We have learned how to analyze, produce and teach with these printed materials and are loathe to relinquish these things in which we have invested so much.  Much of the the current stage of digitization has been about being able to reproduce printed materials for easier dissemination.  Yes non-printed materials like photographs and to a lesser extent audio, video and film have also been  reproduced but they are just the tail on printed materials digital dog. This digitization has allowed archives and libraries to reach a much wider audience and have made research so much easier that it would be foolish to bemoan this occurrence.  However other attempts at the digital humanities from “Anthologize” to “Sophie” have also been attempts to reproduce print forms and analogues with varying degrees of success.

While I wish all of these projects success (after all when it comes to the digital humanities let a thousand flowers grow) I wonder if the “book” as model is too limiting and we should build new models around what the web does best.  One such could be the network.  As David Theo Goldberg point out at a workshop recently if one looks at the “Acknowledgments” for any book one can see that a book itself is a network that has involved many people including helpful librarians and archivists, colleagues who have suggested ideas, and others who have helped produce the book or simply tolerated the author while the book was being produced. The book itself links materials found in various archives and ideas drawn from scholars or books the author has encountered most of which are listed in the footnotes and bibliographies.  In the best books these links have been subjected to the author’s own analysis and then frozen in time in the book format. This analysis has generally gestated over several years as the materials were collected and then sat in the book publishing process for from six months to several years. Some have benefited from this process and aged like fine wine; others have stagnated and seem stale when released. In the resulting publishing process most often the books concerning current events are those hurriedly pushed to press and those meticulously researched and analyzed do not concern current events.  This also can be a blessing as well as a curse.  Many books produced in the flush of current events can be timely and accurate while those produced later can be more reflective, considered and take into account consequences and manifestations of current events that do not occur immediately.  Although the publishing industry is struggling to adapt to the digital domain the book is not dead and will inevitable be a part of the landscape for many years to come.

I would like to suggest another model however: the networked web site which links many of the same sources that a book would use, provides analysis,  produces an immediacy that books necessarily lack and can change in an agile fashion to create a “non-frozen” end product that can be brought up to date as circumstances warrant.  Let me take each of these things in turn. I am a historian by trade and the process of visiting archives never fails to give me the thrill of holding the same (or a copy of a) letter that an important historical personage held or the personal insight into a person or event. The digitization of materials only gives an attenuated version of this thrill if one at all but that digitization has made those materials available to a much wider audience. In fact this digitization has made so many materials available that it threatens to drown us. A scholar provides a selection of and a guide through such materials whether in the printed form of a book or in this new form of a website.  This collection of material can itself be actual or virtual with the scholar either creating an archive of actual materials, notes on materials, or links and footnotes to such materials.

The web site as well as the book privileges the author’s analysis even as it may disguise its nature as one person’s opinion beneath the “authority” which the form conveys.  The difference of course is that the publishing process usually provides a “vetting” of the writer’s analysis while the Web does not necessary have that restriction.  In this “vetting” process at the very least the author’s production, collection and selection of data, his or her logical inferences and the form of assertion should be examined.  The author should be able to answer the questions, “Why do you think this is true?” and “Why should we believe you?” The written piece should respond “These pieces of evidence lead me to believe that such and such is probably true and you should believe too.” This is no less true for the website.  The difference is that instead of having a panel of “professionals” do the vetting, it in effect “crowd sources” the vetting. The crowd should not accept whatever is presented uncritically, a lesson too often demonstrated by its omission. The user of the web site must  examine the author’s analysis, use of logic, assumptions and implications. Through analysis the scholar points out which materials are relevant and which are only marginally so. Data give analysis its support but analysis gives data its importance as well. The author’s use or misuse of logic, underlying assumptions and the implications drawn from the analysis must also be carefully scrutinized.  Of course one should do this with books or articles as well, but too often reliance on the vetting system is the normal approach particularly for those who feel they know little about the subject.  The web site lacking this system calls for user to do it themselves.

A web site with rich media can do things that a book or article can’t. Ever since Woodrow Wilson called Birth of a Nation “history written with lightning,” people have recognized the impact that multimedia can have on the presentation of “history.” In a world where we are constantly bombarded with images from movies and TV, where Youtube has become a part of everyday life, where the increasing digitization of text, video and audio has occurred, and where the Internet has become the fastest and widest disseminator of information; the gaining of knowledge through reading alone is not the preferred or most effective option. The abundance of historical media that begins with the 19th century development of photography and the 20th century developments of the motion picture, radio and television has created abundant resources. At the same time the formation of the web, social media and generations X, Y and beyond, have prepared an audience for multimedia history.  Multimedia history creates an experience that is more real than reality; more in line with the way reality is perceived; and more easily absorbed than written history. Rather than spending pages of text describing something with rich media we can show or demonstrate it. By networking things in a specific database or by linking them to virtual databases we can draw a variety of sources into our analysis.  We can use text, photographs, audio, video, feature films, graphic art, documentaries and such to name a few.

The web site is extremely flexible. The collection of media can be changed or augmented as new things become available, analyses are changed, or things become obsolete. Unlike books it is not frozen in time as long as maintenance is periodically done.  Like books users can proceed at their own pace, go into depth on some parts which are of interest, skim or omit those which aren’t, and go back  for repeated viewings. Unlike books users can also drill down through links that take one away from the web site to follow interests that they may develop through the web site and still return.  The web site is therefore not only a product in itself but also a gateway to other places and media.  It is the equivalent of reading a book in a well stocked library where many of the books, articles or media are right at hand.

Finally the web site should allow for the democratization of knowledge.  Not only will it be disseminated and widely available but it will allow for other analyses as well. The author of course controls his analysis which is embedded in the site in both obvious and subtle ways.  Many users will go to the site just for such guided analysis and to bring the work of the professional historian into the public domain is a worthy goal.  Other analyses using the same or different media are of course also possible.  By allowing for other analyses, filtered along qualitative and not ideological grounds, the web site can grow as users add new media or analyses to it. It becomes a living thing that occasions revisits to note changes and new parts.


Recently while reading  Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s article “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” I read  a sharp criticism about the viability of digital enhancements to teaching.  Davidson and Goldberg’s future book extols the virtues of a digital future which allows students to be educated in a way that spurs their independence, curiosity, and connection with the world.  I will discuss their argument in a future post.  Right now I want to address one of the criticisms of their view on by Kevin Nenstiehl (here).

Though some students love learning enough to be self-motivated, they are not the majority. Many, if not most, regard classes, even within their majors, as a nuisance. I would love it if my students had enough ambition to undertake the kind of team tasks Davidson and Goldberg describe, but anybody who has taught more than one or two semesters knows that if you get three students per class who don’t need to be prodded, you are one lucky cuss.

In other words most college students would not be interested in the new educational opportunities offered by those who evangelize for the use of digital educational enhancements. While my experiences hardly constitute a scientific sample they are instructive. I taught for thirty years at one of the most highly selective liberal arts colleges in the country. In that environment the number of self-motivated students who took advantages of opportunities to pursue independent interests, learn collaboratively, and use different learning methods, was quite high.  Colleagues who came to my school from other colleges remarked about how much better our students were than those at their former institutions. Colleagues at other institutions often complained about students at their schools in much the way Prof. Nenstiehl does. My son has attended two private universities and his complaints about his peers also find them to lack the self motivation, interest in learning for learning’s sake, and preparation to take advantage of any digital enhancements to courses.

Does this mean that the people who will take take advantage of the utopian virtues of digital learning that Davidson, Goldberg and many others have extolled will only be the students at the elite, highly selective institutions?  Are we seeing a class division of those who will get and use digital enhancements in their education or at least a division between the digital haves and have-nots? To answer this we need to understand the causes of student disinterest in what the digital progressives have in mind.  There is unquestionably a crisis in American schools in which we are not producing as many as we of the students who could take advantage of the digital age in education.  This crisis is much more complex than the proponents of No Child Left Behind have acknowledged and their educational reforms don’t address it at all. Standardized testing, calls for teacher accountability for student failure and restricting school funding are fixes that don’t get at the problems and won’t fix education. Wide income disparities, unequal educational funding, teacher unions and the misallocation of our best teachers are just some of the issues not addressed. There are students who rationally choose to look at college education only for how it will affect their material well being. There is also an anti-intellectualism in America (as Richard Hofstadter explained long ago) that mitigates against the students who Davidson and Goldberg believe will take advantage of their proposed changes in education.  The “digital natives and Gen-Y’ers” not withstanding, the issue is not only who is prepared for the digital age in education but who is interested in having it.

In short the digital education reforms that Davidson and Goldberg want to see at the tertiary level will only happen if we find a way to prepare more students for them at the K-12 levels. How can we do that and how likely are we to see it happen? First of all the cost for doing it has to come down and it has to be distributed at more schools.  As with any technical innovation it has to be accompanied by training in not only how to use new equipment but in how that equipment can be used to enhance a teacher in the classroom. Some of that educational exploration is already happening among teachers who are both forward looking, concerned about their students and willing to give of their time to develop techniques or communicate them to others. These teachers have to be enlisted and listened to and part of any change in the schools. The reward structure has to be revamped so that rewards are given for more than student success on standardized tests. Release time has to be financed so that they have the opportunity to develop new methods.

How likely is this to happen?  Given the current debate about education not very likely. The shrill volume, hysteria, political in-fighting and personal stakes involved hamper rational discussion of the real issues and the grabbing at what appear to be solutions when they are not.  But as the Africans say “No condition is forever.”  One day if we continue to say it, if we continue to develop new ideas, if we continue to work at it, someday we may be heard.


While doing some research I came upon the following quote from W.E.B. Du Bois,

In the long run the people will and must rule.  And our only opportunity is in helping to decide what kind of people these potential rulers shall be.  The failure of democracy in the United States and in the modern world is due primarily to the fact that the government has not succeeded in making the ruling people intelligent and efficient, so that democratic power is continually wielded by mass ignorance debauched by demagogues.

While I am aware that the success or failure of the United States democracy is in the eye of the beholder and different folks have different yardsticks to measure it by,  in regards to education, health care, citizens incarcerated, income distribution, job creation and so on, the American democracy is way behind other Western democracies. Continue Reading


Way back in my youth in an anthology I read a story by C.M. Kornbluth written in 1951 called “The Marching Morons.”  In it a man from the past awakes in a distant future shaped by a population problem.  Simply put there was not enough reproduction by those with high IQ’s and overproduction by those with low ones.  This has shaped a future where the few with high intelligence must constantly work to ensure the survival of the society because the vast majority of people are not intelligent enough to do so by themselves. You can read the plot summary here.  I have always been skeptical of the story because I saw it as class based one where those of the upper class resent (fear?) those of the lower classes and interpret them as having lower intelligence.  Perhaps African Americans having been called less intelligent and relegated to this caste for so long, have a special sensitivity here. Nevertheless we are moving toward a bifurcated educational system which will eventually make a two tiered society of a minority who know how to do things and a majority who do not. Education was supposed to be the method that kept this from happening.  It was supposed to spread the skills needed to become productive members of society wide even while reserving the best education for the upper classes.  Scholarships and such were supposed to be the lubricant that allowed the “cream” of the lower classes to move up into the ruling group.  Myths of upward mobility and meritocracy were supposed to gain the non ruling classes’ complicity in this system.

In a sense the public education system has succeeded in doing exactly what it was designed to do: make uncomplaining consumers who accept the status quo.  Continue Reading


The dirty little secret about college teaching is that not everybody is concerned with doing it well. No one is dedicated to doing it badly and all would rather be better at it than worse, but how much effort one puts into it is variable.  There really two parts of a college teacher’s job: producing scholarship and teaching.  There are certainly other aspects of it such as college administration through committee service, department chairing and even administration for those who have crossed over to the dark side.  Rarely do these however earn one the accolades, rewards and academic promotions of scholarship and teaching.  The degree to which either is valued depends upon the department, university and individual interest of the individual. Although the Holy Grail would be to do both well most of us fall short of that ideal. How much of each is expected varies from the major research universities where research and scholarship may be all and teaching is seen as a burden, to those colleges which see teaching as the mission and scholarship as just an extra garnish that may or may not be added. Most academic institutions lie somewhere on this continuum. Continue Reading


In a recent post I wondered aloud what the new existence of information formats that were “not-books” meant for the academy. At that time I did not either spell out the varieties of format that will become not-books nor really even tentatively explore what differences they make for the academy. I did not do so because the former is still in motion and the latter calls for a longer discussion than I can tackle in this space. I will explore neither of those things here but rather relate an experience that sheds light on both.

Last summer I participated in a workshop dedicated to one not-book platform being developed by USC.  Undoubtedly many more such platforms will be developed, compete, and finally shake down to several standards. This platform was using us as guinea pigs or excuse me, as a focus group to see how selected scholars from different stages in their careers (dissertation writing graduate students all the way to established scholars) would use this platform in projects of their own choosing. The developers of this platform are still in the alpha stages and made many changes on the fly as we pushed and pulled the platform in various ways in our projects.  Several outside speakers came in to talk to us ranging from a scholar whose project built on a preliminary version of the platform would be tested market by a university press to several preeminent scholars who spoke about the attempts to get non-book projects launched and funded at their schools, opposition they may have faced and finally building coalitions and centers to get things done.

One of the things that became clear is that much of the opposition they face is from those who think that only books have real scholarly value and books should be the metaphor in which the academy thinks. Continue Reading


I just got a new e-book reader.  I love it but it provides an opportunity to think about what the digital revolution implies for the information format that has served for hundreds of years.  I am by no means predicting the end of the book; books in paper or electronic form will always survive and be part of humankind’s legacy. Yet the transformation of them into electronic bits and bytes offers a new way of thinking about storing and transmitting information.  One can argue that this is also true for audio, video and photographs as well, but I only want to talk about the book and the educational process.  Academia is a strange place to say the least, but it and the book as repository of knowledge grew up in the same place: the monastery.  They are intimately intertwined, share fundamentals and are both threatened by this digital revolution.  For example tenure is based upon how much content published in peer journals or at reputable publishing houses a person may have done. Some of this content is provided for free at journals and such in exchange for publishing services provided by the publisher.

The contemporary institutions of both that is, the publishing house and the university, treat the digital revolution with suspicion so they have embraced it tentatively and gingerly.  It threatens the way they have done business and endangers the control over the fatted cows that provides them with a living.  Continue Reading


A few months ago one of my son’s college teachers asked me what parenting tips I had that she could use to make her son as intellectually curiosity, polite, hardworking and engaging as mine.  I quipped “Be careful what you wish for!” The truth is I’m not sure what we did that made him turn out the way he did.  Ninety percent of it comes from him.  The impetus to explore the world, respect people and have some personal and social concern for others is not something we explicitly taught although I would like to believe that he saw it practiced in our lives. This is not an argument for “nature or nurture” but only one that the drive to develop things like curiosity, respect and social concern needs to come from the individual. Continue Reading


Scholars have studied race from many perspectives ad infinitum if not ad nauseum. Yet the question that my elders always asked still prevails; “would you get the same result if you substituted white for the non white group?” We must still ask that question about digital media. A friend of mine once said he has to keep reminding his peers at his institution that African American history is American history.  In the same way (insert ethnic group here) American studies is American studies. The best American history and studies programs have realized this long ago even if there are some places that haven’t caught up with them.  Many of the ways digital media can assist in the scholarship and the pedagogy of America studies are also the ways they help in ethnic studies. Continue Reading