Information Technology

How best can the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative invest billions in personalized learning?

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Experts weigh in on what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative needs to do to put the Facebook founder's billions of dollars toward expanding the use of personalized learning.

Colleges move to digital transcripts managed by outside firms

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Use of e-transcripts catches on, opening the door to new uses for the student record.

Market forecast predicts major growth within LMS industry

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A new market forecast suggests learning management systems won't just survive for another five years -- they'll thrive.

As colleges prepare for major software upgrades, Kuali tries to woo them from from corporate vendors

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As colleges replace aging campus management software, billions will be spent. Can open-source Kuali save money, and gain traction against corporate competitors?

U.S. call for advice on publicly funded research reignites open access debates

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White House solicitation about the government's role in making federally funded research available to the public rekindles debate over open access.

Universities look to get discounts on e-textbooks for students

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Universities have started banding together to negotiate favorable contracts with software vendors. With new effort, a group of them aims to exercise similar leverage with publishers on behalf of students.

IT productivity paradox in higher education ‘overstated,’ study suggests

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Study finds that technology spending spurs gains in colleges’ outputs -- but they vary depending on the institution.

UT Austin launches Stampede2, the fastest U.S. university supercomputer

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The University of Texas at Austin has unveiled Stampede2, said to be the most powerful supercomputer at any campus in the U.S.

The intellectual value of texting (essay)

Literacy experts have for decades recognized that periodic hysteria over so-called literacy crises in the United States is based largely on myths. Nevertheless, the most recent crisis framed in the media names millennials’ overdependence on technology as somehow to blame, with texting especially suspect.

We can’t deny our SMS language (our “textese” or “txt-speak”) varies considerably from the sentences we write for work or school. Portmanteau words, ellipses, abbreviations, neologisms and emoticons aside, texts frequently carry what many academics would deem errors -- slips in punctuation and spelling that texters may overlook for the sake of quick communication. But while instructors may have by now wrapped their heads around the inevitability of texting and its role in evolving the English language, relatively few have acknowledged that texting is neither ruining English nor hindering individuals’ literacy or academic writing practices and abilities.

As we embarked upon a small-scale study of 10 multilingual undergraduate students’ everyday literacy practices at CUNY’s City College, we expected texting to come up as a regular practice of undergraduate students. What we had not anticipated was the range of valuable uses and substantive gains afforded by texting. We came to realize that we as educators are long overdue in exploring some of the advantages afforded by SMS language, although, of course, many of us already have. Texting, for instance, is proving to be a useful tool in higher education and for communicating in the classroom.

Preliminary results from our study, however, show that beyond offering opportunities to communicate quickly with friends, family, classmates and even teachers, texting also provides some intellectual benefits. Participants used texting to process feelings and ideas, and their texting practices seem to foster both an open-mindedness to language differences and a willingness to more actively negotiate communicative obstacles like unfamiliar language uses and errors.

A few examples from millennial texters themselves (whom we refer to throughout this article with pseudonyms) will help illustrate. When asked about her home literacy practices, Anne, 18, admits most of her daily reading and writing revolves around one mode: “I text. That’s all I do.” A freshman at City College, Anne sends texts to her friends and three sisters about her day, her observations on the commute to school and whatever pops into her head. There is often no response, but that is OK. She just wants to get her thoughts and intentions out there. Anne’s texting serves as her journal.

Contrary to perceptions that view virtual social interactions as inherently transient, Jessica, also 18, feels differently. “If I were to send a text, they [friends] would read and understand. But later on if they feel bad, they could look at it again, and be like, let me calm down again. It’s like reading writing later and having it to look back on. They are there with you,” she says. Jessica and her texter friends take advantage of texting as a written mode of communication to negotiate their gut responses to information with the more tempered interpretations that they come to with time and further reflection.

Nearly all students we interviewed expressed a preference for texting over speaking in person because, as Cindy, 25, puts it, “I can stop and think; how can I say this better, more correctly?” Text messages are not as spontaneous or heedless as we might assume. As an act, texting provides opportunities to process experiences, as well as communicate and maintain relationships. In addition, texting offers communicators regular practice with brainstorming, drafting, revising and editing. For instructors who emphasize treating writing as a process involving critical thinking and reflection, this is welcome news.

Nardin Sarkis, a student writer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains here that texting may call for increased attention to grammar and punctuation, not less: “When a simple period can mean the difference between an aggressive or inviting tone, more and more users will be punctuation conscious. This delicate focus on punctuation enriches communication and celebrates its intricacies.” Sarkis reminds us of the focus needed to switch effectively between registers and languages, as all speakers and writers do at one level or another.

Being multilingual calls for code-switching and, at times, a more hybridized language. Linguistic processes like these are becoming publicly known for enhancing cognition and social relations. And we can understand SMS language as one “code” to which writers switch. With this in mind, we instructors could be encouraging students to see value in texting and, yes, to enhance those communicative acts. The more students are cognizant of their own literacy practices, the more equipped they’ll be to build on their linguistic repertoires and the better they’ll be at navigating discursive expectations, including those of edited standardized English.

Of course, it is also the case that conventional spelling and punctuation errors are commonly overlooked in text messages and social media posts, a communicative norm that may not sit well with fellow teachers. But our participants help frame this practice as a benefit. Brooklynn, 18, explains that her texts to friends sometimes “… don’t even look like words … [but] random letters inserted into words where they shouldn’t be, with letters missing.” She attributes this brevity to typing too fast or to excitement. But, of interest, the errors do not matter all that much to her since people will get what she is trying to say.

Linguist and compositionist Suresh Canagarajah has emphasized the value of communicative approaches like Brooklynn’s in his discussion of strategies multilingual writers draw on when negotiating English in conversation and writing. One relative feature of multilingual communication, he explains, is that it is typically consensus oriented and supportive: “Multilinguals devise strategies to help each other achieve their interests by working with each other positively to achieve intelligibility.” This means that “if an interlocutor comes across an item that she feels is incorrect or unintelligible, she moves on with the conversation rather than attempting to correct, judge or walk away from the interaction.”

Texters like Brooklynn apply this conversational quality of open-minded negotiation of meaning to written communication. That is remarkable, at least in part because a movement toward more accommodating and concerted communication styles seems necessary to ensuring effective communication in increasingly diverse contexts, like that of our classrooms, the workplace, our neighborhoods and far beyond. Brooklynn’s perspectives on texting suggest there’s much hope for more widespread approaches to consensus-orientated communication.

Meaning and Openness

All that said, it is important to note here that Brooklynn’s openness to errors does not transfer into the formal classroom. Referring to participating in peer-review activities in her second-year composition course, Brooklynn admits to being a “mean person” about other students’ writing: “I’m like, this is wrong and this doesn’t make any sense and this is terrible … I had this long list of what was wrong with it.” Brooklynn is willing to negotiate and work through errors and omissions in texting contexts, and the norms guiding interactions over text and social media invite such a collaborative approach to receiving and interpreting communication. But her response to receiving information in an academic setting is one of dismissal and judgment.

As a reader in academic contexts, Brooklynn’s expectation is that the responsibility for effective communication lies solely on the shoulders of the author; thus, her willingness to work through communication, as an equal collaborator, disappears. Academic discourse offers its participants a variety of cognitive and rhetorical skills, but Brooklynn’s attitudinal shift from one context to the other reflects how expectations in academic discourse may foster closed-mindedness to language differences, nonstandardized communication practices and the presence of errors.

Of course, students should be aware of the values placed on “correctness” in academic discourse, and Brooklynn’s experience suggests that students are already privy to the demand for edited standardized English prose. But in this globalized era when students are bound to engage in intercultural communication, shouldn’t instructors and students alike be privileging making meaning over grammatical correctness? Openness over intolerance to difference? Collaborative negotiation of communication over idle reception of information? We say yes.

As educators, disavowing the red pen ourselves would be the first step toward teaching students to focus on meaning and accept differences. A second challenge lies in figuring out how to bring into our classrooms the openness our students already exercise in their everyday communication practices. We see promise in going beyond merely tolerating the inevitability of widespread texting. We should be celebrating the affordances of SMS language and treating texting as one of many ways to work with students to enhance their abilities to communicate effectively across different registers, languages and discourses.

Missy Watson is assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the City College of New York. Her research lies at the intersection of composition and second-language writing and revolves around seeking social and racial justice. Madhuri Karak is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation explores issues of resource extraction and development in central India's indigenous corridor.

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Essay: Looking back at predictions about MOOCs

After thinking that interest in and excitement about massive open online courses had faded to the background of the higher education landscape, I was surprised to see a recent flurry of news media coverage of MOOCs. Even more surprising, I found myself impressed -- the work seems markedly different from the wave of stories that flooded the popular and higher ed trade press in 2012, with less hype and longer evidence-based studies. For example, recent coverage included a report from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that analyzes characteristics and behaviors of their own MOOC students, and a study by Stanford University and MIT researchers that addresses the persistence of international students who have enrolled in MOOCs.

Having written and spoken about MOOCs many times in the past, this recent resurgence prompted me to look back to my own articles, research studies and blog posts from the MOOC heyday to see if some of my own claims and predictions have come to pass.

The term “MOOC” will go away. I am somewhat surprised the moniker has stuck around as long as it has, because what exists today is quite different than what we were discussing five years ago. In “A MOOC by Any Other Name? An Online Course,” I suggested that we would stop talking about MOOCs because they were another variation of an online course, with too much variety in the term’s application. I was not entirely accurate, since we’re still using the term -- however, I stand by my assertion that we’d do better to move away from it. There still is no one thing that exemplifies what, exactly, makes an online course a MOOC. Since there are even more permutations of MOOCs these days, I’d be curious how the academy and general public perceives and understands the name.

A viable business model will emerge. The original MOOCs lived up to the first O: open. They were entirely free for the massive numbers of students who enrolled -- over 100,000 students in some courses. The courses were largely self-paced and included minimal or no faculty interaction. Completion rates hovered below 10 percent and the courses provided no transferrable college credit from the institutions that sponsored them. Course content was provided by reputable U.S. universities through various partnership agreements with the three major MOOC platforms, Coursera, Udacity and edX, which were mostly funded by venture capital. Free courses equaled no discernible revenue stream.

This has changed. Free and open is no longer completely true. Emphasis on personal enrichment is no longer the value proposition.

The three original MOOC platforms still exist but have been joined by others like Open University’s FutureLearn. In addition, institutions host their own MOOCs on local learning management systems.

All of the major platforms now charge fees for certifying completion. The original three MOOC platforms appear to have found their niche by migrating to the nondegree professional development and contract-training sphere, taking advantage of the growth of alternative credentials (e.g., nondegree certificates and microcredentials) that are recognized by industries and employers. Many offer and charge for badges or other credentials that can be displayed on social media platforms like LinkedIn. For example, Udacity offers nanodegrees, edX offers MicroMasters and Coursera offers specializations. Some of these credentials also include university credit through university or alternative credit providers. Computer and data science, programming, and software development dominate the offerings. Students pay to earn these various credentials and certifications, and some platforms offer need-based financial support.

Reputation, not revenue drives investment. Early on I studied institutional leaders’ motivations for investing in MOOCs. Important motivators included increasing institutional and individual faculty reputation, expanding international reach, and exploring innovative and more effective ways to teach. Generating revenue was not a principal motivation.

This, too, has changed somewhat. While general reputational enhancement and the exploration of online teaching innovation no doubt result from an institution’s involvement in MOOCs, generating revenue (at least covering costs) and integrating MOOCs into degree-granting programs appear more common.

Georgia Tech continues to offer a low-cost, high-enrollment master’s degree in computer science on the Udacity platform with support from AT&T. Well over 3,000 students have enrolled in the program. The university has recently added a second high-enrollment, low-cost master’s in analytics on the edX platform.

Arizona State University offers the Global Freshman Academy on the edX platform, providing credit-bearing, self-paced lower-division courses to a domestic and global audience. ASU also offers individual self-paced and instructor-led credit-bearing courses with edX. Though the courses and programs are not free, the relatively low cost of these programs, combined with the robust online platform, seem to contribute to the access missions of these large public institutions.

MOOCs can be vehicles for continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Yes and no. The recent reports from Harvard, MIT and Stanford illustrate this. The Harvard/MIT report explored the background of students, time on task, paid certificate completion rates and the relationship between certification rates and the Human Development Index (World Bank composite index of a country’s life expectancy, education and income indicators). Researchers at Stanford and MIT focused on interventions to increase persistence and completion among international MOOC enrollees. These sophisticated studies increase our knowledge of MOOC student behaviors, but findings are not applicable to other academic settings.

Higher ed will be firmly entrenched in the MOOC 3.0 era. In a 2013 post, I applied the Gartner technology hype cycle to MOOCs and predicted, “we will enter a plateau of productivity and the various permutations of MOOCs will become part of the higher education mainstream.” I do believe we are in the plateau of productivity with MOOCs, but not within the higher education mainstream.

Both the MOOC platforms and universities emphasize using MOOCs and alternative credentials to support professional development for working professionals, mainly in technology fields where employers are willing to provide ample financial support. The exception would be institutions like ASU that focus on providing access to their regular undergraduate curriculum. But the push is overwhelmingly toward professional development markets.

Adoption of other technologies that support improved pedagogy, access and affordability -- such as open educational resources, learning analytics and personalized learning -- is growing, but not dependent on the development of or contribution from MOOCs.

MOOCs can play an important role in postsecondary attainment. In 2013, I optimistically wrote, “MOOCs and their derivatives, and the accelerated experimentation and wide-ranging conversations they have sparked, have played an important and energizing role in our quest to help more students along the path to postsecondary attainment.” I admit this was an overstatement, especially now that I am chancellor of an access-oriented institution.

With some exceptions noted previously, MOOCs are mainly a technology business, focused on providing a return on investment (even for nonprofits like edX) by targeting the large nondegree professional development and technology training market. Though the MOOC experiment over the past five years has resulted in many positives, this era also reminds us that when it comes to degree attainment, there really is no magic bullet. The hard, in-the-trenches work of helping the students of today get and remain focused, learn, and stick it out to degree completion remains the province of mainstream higher education -- MOOCs or no MOOCs.

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Cathy Sandeen

Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin Extension. She previously served as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.

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