Last week, Nicholas Kristof revived the old canard that academics have removed themselves from the public sphere through obscure prose and interests. Among the problems we might identify in Kristof’s essay -- thereare, obviously, many -- is the irony of a writer with the resources of The New York Times supporting him chiding the rest of us for not writing in outlets such as The New York Times.
But who gets to write in The New York Times -- and to whom is The New York Times accessible? If we’re talking about accessibility and insularity, it’s worth looking at The New York Times’s own content generation cycle and the relationship between press junkets and patronage.
So, instead of confusing intellectual meritocracy with access to outlets, let’s look at how The New York Times itself generates content about something that matters greatly to professors: higher education.
What I learned there -- besides how weird corporate-sponsored conferences are, right down to commercials they looped on screens between talks -- is that there is a system of content generation that feeds thinkpieces and thinkfluencers with greater speed and sound bite concision than most professors can offer.
It’s important to note that the only professors on stage at this conference on the future of higher education had left teaching and research as faculty for academic upper administration or to launch their own MOOC companies. While Kristof might see this lack of platform as more evidence of academic self-cloistering, I see it for the closed system that it is: “influence” comes mainly from those who might be in the position to take out full-page ads in the Times.
I saw the Schools for Tomorrow conference advertised in the Times’ Sunday Magazine, and looked into registration online. It cost $795 for a one-day event. For reference, I just registered for a four-day conference in my humanities field for $150.
I wrote to the Schools for Tomorrow registration office and asked if they could lower the cost for actual professors, bringing it in line with typical registration fees between $75 and $200. They said they could bring it down to $495. I found some institutional money for online teaching development and paid the “reduced” fee.
The $495 did not, however, guarantee me a seat when I got to the conference. The mid-three figures is a lot for humanities faculty and their limited (if existent) travel support, but in this world it just got me through the first door. It turned out that the plenary talk by Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) on globalizing access to education was overbooked, so while corporate sponsors like Bank of America and Blackberry enjoyed reserved seats in the auditorium, a lot of self- or university-sponsored folks like myself ended up watching on screens in the basement.
This was the first lesson in sponsored access to influence and content creation. Since Khan’s talk led into the panel discussion “Has the University as an Institution Had Its Day?” a lot of professors sat out the Q&A in the cheap seats. Not even, really. We were in a different arena altogether.
These weren’t conversations; these weren’t arguments. Mainly, these were rehearsed pitches for products, policies, and industries in which presenters had considerable financial or political stake. Some featured speakers, like former Senator Bob Kerrey, had a foot in several categories: he was in the Senate, he had been president of the New School, and he is now starting a for-profit university.
At various points it became clear that the speakers were used to talking to one another “on the circuit” as one said to another, suggesting that they’d been on the online education junket a lot together that year. And some cycle back through the Times meetings. Having missed Sal Khan at the education conference, I could have caught him the next month at the DealBook business conference.
The third lesson of the conference, however, came when I picked up my New York Times at home. The November 1 "Education Life" section titled “The Disrupters” is almost entirely drawn from or inspired by the conference. One conference reviewer quipped that “so many Times newsroom staff members are participating in the conference, they might not be able to put out the paper on Wednesday.”
To the contrary, such events seem to be built into their content generation strategy. “The Disrupters’ ” lead article, "Innovation Imperative: Change Everything, Online Education as an Agent of Transformation" was written by Michael Horn and Clayton M. Christensen. Both hail from the non-university-affiliated Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. The latter is a business professor at Harvard and the former was a panelist at the conference. Here's Horn’s bio from the conference webpage. He did a 25-minute one-on-one with David Leonhardt, the Times'sWashington bureau chief, advocating “The Disruption of Higher Education.”
According to his bio, Horn studied for an M.B.A. at Harvard (presumably with his co-author Christensen), then gained a platform as an educational innovation consultant at Arizona State, the editorship of a “journal of opinion and research about education policy,” and invitations to testify on issues relating to education. He does so not from a university, but from an institute that operates in the world between academia and lobbying. He does not balance his time between teaching, service, and peer-reviewed research and publishing. Yet he is a recognized authority on higher education according to the Times’s invitation. And then his work is immediately funneled into and amplified by featured space in the Sunday Times.
Even if the Times itself might be forgiven for seeking out breathless think tankers over professors who lack their own Center for Thinkfluencer Excellence, we might be more critical of the blurry line between content and advertisement.
Elsewhere in the issue you’ll find Bob Kerrey’s Minerva University, a for-profit liberal arts venture, featured prominently. It is mentioned in the Horn article, and is the focus of this article on “affordable elitism.” And then there’s major conference sponsor, Capella University. Their “credit for competencies, not credit hours” model is the subject of this article. It was also a major topic of conversation at the conference, discussed at length by Capella University's president, Scott Kinney. Days before the conference, every registrant received an email promoting Capella and bearing their logo.
How much money did Capella pay for this multiplatform marketing strategy? And where did their marketing end and the ideas at the conference begin? They were in the email of all registrants. Their logo was all over the conference and in full color on the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine. Policy changes crucial to their success were discussed favorably at a conference with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in attendance, and they got an article focusing on them in the Times just below an editorial praising their sort of educational “disruption.”
When Kristof's article began raising questions about professors’ ideas and public influence, I was reminded of the way influence moved from the $795/$495 per person corporate-sponsored conference to the pages of the newspaper of record.
Professors, we need you! Who, then, is the “we”? As lots of people have pointed out, if the “we” is the American public, then you’ve already got us as teachers, popular and specialist writers, activists and more.
If the “we” is pageview ad-metric revenue-hungry online content providers and writers, then that’s another question. Do you really want us? And if we come to you, how much will it cost to get in?
Jonathan Senchyne is an assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A version of this essay originally appeared on Avidly.
The “flipped classroom” is the idea of the moment, advocated by everyone from Bill Gates to Eric Mazur, the pioneering science educator. This educational innovation is exciting and promising – but I’d argue for a slight revision to the discourse to make sure we don’t replace one rigid format with another. My suggestion: let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom.
Educause, a leading organization for advancing the effective use of instructional technology, defines the flipped classroom “as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed." In the well-known Khan Academy model, students view short video lectures at home, freeing up class time for heads on and hands on engagement with course content, guided by the instructor. Proponents are definitely on to something – why did practice so often happen as “homework”?
Isn’t it better for a student who is stuck on a problem to have access to an instructor who can ask the right questions, offer feedback or explain difficult concepts or processes? Isn’t it better for students to analyze texts and images together in a community of learners, taking in new perspectives as they build understanding, rather than going it alone and then coming to class to hear what the professor thinks?
The “flipped” classroom seeks to be an antidote to the traditional model in which content is delivered in class by a lecturer, and homework becomes the site for students to practice. Some of the excitement is due to recognition of the power of active learning, and suspicion about the effectiveness of long lectures. Lecture can be a useful teaching tool, but we now know that lecturing for 50 to 90 minutes straight is money into an incinerator, so to speak. Given limits to students’ attention spans, there is a law of diminishing returns when lecturers persist in “covering the material” past the 20 minute mark. The flipped classroom model uses short, more digestible, lectures.
"If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity."
Yet I believe the lexicon for this change – flipping, reversing, inverting or overturning -- is problematic, and might encourage some to stop short of conceptualizing a more promising transformation. Manifestations of the “flipped” could become as rigid as the 19th century “all lecture, all the time” mode being critiqued.
Faculty should not stop lecturing to assembled students in favor of “all active learning, all the time” in classrooms. In the 21st century, the lecture plays an important role in helping students find a path in the avalanche of text and information. How does a disciplinary expert organize and evaluate this information? What ideas rise to the top and what are the relationships among them?
The best lecturers clarify key concepts with concrete, relevant and sometimes timely examples. They also inspire students, by investing their delivery with passion and enthusiasm. The bottom line: lecture has persisted because students need to hear from teachers. When trimmed down substantially and used intentionally in combination with other methods, lecture need not be relegated to video clips.
While not all proponents are advocating for a simple inversion that places all lecture online and all active learning in class, this reversal is the dominant way of discussing the phenomenon. If we name this innovation more precisely, we could lead some faculty to adopt it in more nuanced and effective ways.
Words matter. If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity. I think it is time to update our vocabulary, guiding the dominant conceptualization toward a more nuanced practice for the good of our students. What is good for our students is a scramble or mix of direct instruction and practice and feedback. The beauty is that technology affords us opportunities to provide for both needs in both online and face-to-face contexts. We need to use these two teaching approaches -- direct instruction versus facilitated practice -- intentionally to help students meet our learning goals.
What does this look like? Students in a scrambled class might start in the online environment by watching a short lecture or reading a course text, before engaging in an online discussion with fellow students. After engaging in these learning activities (which entail direct instruction and practice with the course material) they might complete an assessment that would enable the instructor to evaluate student learning and identify areas of difficulty or misconception.
This model of regular assessment before face-to-face class meetings is a key component of Eric Mazur’s version of the flipped classroom, known as “Peer Instruction.” (Indeed, Mazur has been experimenting and writing about his own robust and flexible version since the early 1990s.) Assessment activities online might include inviting students to submit questions, take a quiz or write a response to a targeted question.
Instead of coming into a “flipped” classroom for the engagement and practice, the mix of content transmission, practice and assessment has already begun.
The scrambled classroom enables a variety of approaches for the face-to-face environment as well. Class meetings in this model could include short lectures which introduce new concepts or address misconceptions that were revealed by online assessment. Direct instruction can then be mixed with active engagement, giving students the opportunity to practice new skills like applying, evaluating or synthesizing course concepts. Ideally, students will have opportunities to collaborate with each other. Students can also take advantage of the instructor’s presence as a responsive facilitator, as they wrestle with new ideas or skills.
The instructor might end face-to-face class sessions by assessing for understanding, using low-tech classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute paper” or “the muddiest point” or with technological tools like classroom response systems, better known as “clickers.” If questions or misconceptions are revealed, the professor might use that knowledge to build his/her next lecture, to be delivered in either the virtual or face-to-face environment.
We are at an exciting moment in education, with an abundance of technological tools to use for delivering content and engaging students. Wherever we teach on the continuum from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online instruction, we can and should be using technology in accordance with best practices.
With the scrambled classroom model, we are challenged to learn new possibilities, but also to design instruction based on principles we have known about for some time. In the scrambled classroom model, the innovation is not so much “online learning,” but “human learning” supported by all that the 21st century brings to the table.
Pamela E. Barnett is associate vice provost and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Temple University.