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leslieLeslie Madsen-Brooks is skeptical about the kind of disruption start-ups and tech folks promise. She highlights ways university faculty and staff are already driving thoughtful technological innovation through engaging in open source, open learning projects. Projects which focus on the individual and collective empowerment of students and communities, rather than commercialization will ensure lasting, productive disruption.

I’ve heard that higher ed needs to be “disrupted” because it’s not cost efficient, it treats students as learners rather than customers, it’s risk-averse and unproductive, it values research over teaching, it doesn’t offer enough flexibility to adult learners, it’s too focused on prestige and credit hours instead of broad-based student competencies, it’s done a lousy job of using technology to expand affordable access to degrees, faculty spend too much classroom time lecturing and faculty act as if we should be exempt from the sweeping technological change that has upended the newspaper and music industries.

I’m not opposed to disruption; rather, I’m skeptical about the kind of disruption start-ups and tech folks promise: “paradigm-shifting” technology that improves university teaching and learning. The truth is, many of these start-ups clearly have no idea what actually works in higher ed and know little about the direction university teaching and learning have moved in the last 10 years, because they’re trying to take us backward, not forward. Start-up and commercial tech are certainly proving disruptive—just in all the wrong ways.

But this is a not (merely) a post complaining about bad technology. Instead I want to highlight the ways university faculty and staff are driving thoughtful technological innovation. These are people who intimately understand students’ needs and the faculty’s interests, tech skills and psychology. And although there are some acclaimed universities launching projects with the aim of spawning start-ups or transferring commercial technology to industry, I want to showcase a few projects that take the opposite track: they’re innovative, but they tend to rely on open source technologies, and their focus is on individual and collective empowerment of students and communities, rather than commercialization.

Those who have been paying attention only to partnerships among Silicon Valley companies and the Ivies may be surprised that the beating heart of a tremendous amount of academic technology innovation is a small state university in Fredericksburg, Virginia. At the University of Mary Washington, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technology has launched at least four amazing initiatives that should be replicated widely because it’s clear to even casual observers that they advance teaching and learning in myriad ways. For one, evidence of student learning appears on the open web, and I encourage you to check out the current blogs developed for courses. Faculty, too—and I know this from first-hand experience—benefit from knowing what students are thinking (as expressed in blog posts and comments) before they convene for class.

Several years ago, UMW’s DTLT premiered UMW Blogs, termed “the Bluehost experiment” by the DTLT staff because in its first iteration, it was little more than a WordPress Multi-User installation on an inexpensive ($6.95 per month) shared server at Bluehost. Today, any UMW student, faculty, or staff can set up a blog for class or personal use on UMW Blogs—and 500 courses have been brought onto the platform since fall 2008.  Anyone can browse the courses using UMW Blogs or discover all kinds of non-course blogs by exploring the latest posts featured on the home page. The UMW archives, for example, recently put online a series of lectures by the late civil rights leader James Farmer, and Jess Rigelhaupt’s Oral History class has created Rosie the Riveter, an excellent resource that includes “firsthand accounts of what people experienced on the American home front during World War II.”

Next to emerge from this innovation engine was DS 106, an open course on digital storytelling, originally taught by Jim Groom, but since taught by several different instructors, including noted ed tech thought leaders and innovators Martha Burtis and Alan Levine, and recently by instructors at other universities as well. Because of the strong networks of the instructors and students, DS 106 took on a life of its own, with students—both those enrolled at UMW and those following the course from elsewhere—providing daily fun assignments (“the Daily Create”) that stimulate participants’ creativity and stretch their technological savvy. DS 106 spawned ds106 radio, a free-form, streaming broadcast for which anyone could volunteer to provide content.  How popular is DS 106 and its apparently endless stream of creative multimedia content? In spring 2012, Groom launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a better web server for DS 106, and the campaign raised 600% of its goal in just a few days, providing funding for all kinds of course improvements and expansions.  While Kickstarter provided private funds for this project, I’m excited about this kind of crowdsourced funding—although I’d be even more enthusiastic about greater public funding—because it allows project creators greater future freedom than would, say, funding from investors whose motive is more likely to be profit than pedagogical revolution.

Springing next from the mind of the DTLT geniuses was Domain of One’s Own, in which each first-year student at UMW receives a domain name and space on a web server. The project encourages each student  to “reclaim the web” by “taking control of your digital identity,” gathering its artifacts “in a central place that you own and control.” And it’s offered in collaboration with the university’s Office of Information Technology Services:

The pilot gave 400 students and faculty their own domain name and web space to install a portfolio of work or map onto existing systems. In Fall of 2013 every incoming student at UMW will have the opportunity to choose their own domain and receive a web hosting account with the freedom to create subdomains, install any LAMP-compatible software, setup databases, email addresses and carve out their own space on the web that they own and control.

Then, as if granting students this creative freedom and technical autonomy wasn’t enough, this spring UMW launched Thinklab, a makerspace. According to its About page:

ThinkLab is the exciting new makerspace located in the Simpson Library at the University of Mary Washington. As a collaboration between the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, the College of Education, and the Library, ThinkLab hosts a variety of emerging technologies and tools for students and faculty across all disciplines. 3D printing, robotics, and electronics work using Arduinos and simple breadboard kits are just some of the many exciting things happening at ThinkLab.

The innovations and—yes, I’ll say it—disruptions, emerging from UMW exemplify some of the best practices in developing communities of learners, fostering collaboration, encouraging writing and reflection and developing curiosity about the world. Channeling George Kuh, Randall Bass emphasizes that such “high-impact practices” lead to “meaningful learning gains” as well as “high retention and persistence rates” because they encourage these specific behaviors:

  • Investing time and effort
  • Interacting with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  • Experiencing diversity
  • Responding to more frequent feedback
  • Reflecting and integrating learning
  • Discovering relevance of learning through real-world application

In an age when universities are pushing faculty ever harder to develop monetizable intellectual property, it’s refreshing to see faculty doubling down on using relatively inexpensive technologies to improve student learning. UMW is a case in point: it’s a modestly funded, small state university that, thanks to all the active minds (and periodic strategic hires) at DTLT and on the faculty, has become a major hub of innovation in higher education. It joins other cutting-edge departments and programs launched by other Virginia institutions, including the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab and the Virginia Center for Digital History, as well as George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, whose staff and fellows have created not only a lot of terrific curricular resources, but also ZoteroOmekaScholarPress,PressForward, and the globally popular THATCamp. It’s amazing how much scholars, programmers and others have accomplished in such a short time—and all without spinning off start-ups as seems to be so fashionable in higher education today.

This is the kind of disruption I’d like to see at more universities, especially out here in the Intermountain West, Pacific Northwest and Great Basin. That’s going to be difficult because, in Idaho at least, we aren’t developing or attracting people with the programming training to do this kind of work. Still, we can go a long way using inexpensive but high-quality, open-source tools.  And in fact, in my teaching, I have relied on a number of open-source tools, including WordPress and LocalWiki, and (to a lesser extent) Sakai, an increasingly robust alternative to the unwieldy course management system Blackboard. I require my students to create digital products and imagine new digital services they might provide, and I teach them about Creative Commons and the public domain.

I admit I feel a good deal of pride that this movement toward open source, open access learning founded on creative uses of inexpensive technologies is driven by digital humanists, faculty, librarians and academic technologists—including some people who manage to occupy all of those fields simultaneously. If you follow any of these innovators on Twitter or read their blogs, you can see their conversations and collaborations unfold, illustrating, as Scott Leslie points out, that disruption emerges from networks that enable open learning. Their collaborations and projects are excellent case studies of why Jon Boeckenstedt’s term “punctuated equilibrium” makes more sense than “disruption” when discussing changes in the digital landscape of higher ed.

I’m no detractor of entrepreneurship; I encourage my public history graduate students to make their own way in the world, and if I wasn’t so busy with my faculty responsibilities, I’d dabble in it myself. But what if, instead of investing so much time, effort and money in start-ups, MOOCs, lecture capture, unwieldy learning management systems, overzealous intellectual property protections and the like, we redoubled our efforts in open accessopen learning and open source? These are the efforts that would prove truly disruptive of business-as-usual at the university.

Of course, I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. Aaron Bady muses on what makes a good MOOC (hint: it’s open and free), and then points out that what most folks are talking about when they invoke “disruption” is a further corporatization of the university:

So I want to shift the debate a bit. [Clay] Shirky thinks in terms of “disruption” and what can come of it, in theory. I think in terms of what the “disruption” of the University of California system looks like in practice, as a complex of politicians, financiers, and career administrators move in lock-step to transform it into a self-sufficient corporate entity, and to enrich private industry in the bargain. I see a group of decision-makers who quite manifestly do not know what they are talking about and who barely try to disguise it, for whom “online” is code word for privatization. If I am against MOOC’s, I am against the way “MOOC” is being experienced in California, in practice: as an excuse to cheapen education and free the state budget from its responsibility to educate its citizenry.

There’s little need to hire Udacity or Coursera or any other ed tech company to disrupt higher education because faculty and staff representing key nodes in the network are already evolving the theory and practice of teaching, learning, research and outreach in ways that are incredibly productive, if not always recognized. Take a moment to explore some of the projects and networks I’ve discussed here and then ask yourself: who exactly is so invested in interrupting this productive disruption, and why? Why are universities considering spending $2 million to affiliate with a MOOC provider, when tremendous faculty creativity and the $6.95 Bluehost experiment are at hand?

This was first posted at The Blue Review, Boise State University’s journal of popular scholarship, and is republished with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  

About the Author

Dr. Leslie Madsen-Brooks joined the Department of History at Boise State University in 2010 as an Assistant Professor. She came to Boise State with a broad backgroundincluding work in American, museum, and technocultural studies, culminating with a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from the University of California, Davis.

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