WCET14 Student Panel: What do students think of online education?

Yesterday at the WCET14 conference in Portland I had the opportunity along with Pat James to moderate a student panel.[1] I have been trying to encourage conference organizers to include more opportunities to let students speak for themselves – becoming real people with real stories rather than nameless aggregations of assumptions. WCET stepped up with this session. And my new favorite tweet[2]:

As I called out in my introduction, we talk about students, we characterize students, we listen to others talk about students, but we don’t do a good job in edtech talking with students.  There is no way that a student panel can be representative of all students, even for a single program or campus[3]. We’re not looking for statistical answers, but we can hear stories and gain understanding.

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  1. Pat is the executive director of the California Community College Online Education Initiative (OEI) – see her blog here for program updates. []
  2. I’m not above #shameless. []
  3. As can be seen from this monochromatic panel, which might make sense for Portland demographics but not from a nationwide perspective. []
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In Which I (Partially) Disagree with Richard Stallman on Kuali’s AGPL Usage

Since Michael is making this ‘follow-up blog post’ week, I guess I should jump in.

In my latest post on Kuali and the usage of the AGPL license, the key argument is that this license choice is key to understanding the Kuali 2.0 strategy – protecting KualiCo as a new for-profit entity in their future work to develop multi-tenant cloud hosting code.

What I have found interesting is that in most of my conversations with Kuali community people ,even for those who are disillusioned, they seem to think the KualiCo creation makes some sense. The real frustration and pushback has been on how decisions are made, how decisions have been communicated, and how the AGPL license choice will affect the community.

In the comments, Richard Stallman chimed in.

As the author of the GNU General Public License and the GNU Affero General Public License, and the inventor of copyleft, I would like to clear up a possible misunderstanding that could come from the following sentence:

“Any school or Kuali vendor, however, that develops its own multi-tenant cloud-hosting code would have to relicense and share this code publicly as open source.”

First of all, thinking about “open source” will give you the wrong idea about the reasons why the GNU AGPL and the GNU GPL work as they do. To see the logic, you should think of them as free software licenses; more specifically, as free software licenses with copyleft.

The idea of free software is that users of software deserve freedom. A nonfree program takes freedom away from its users, so if you want to be free, you need to avoid it. The aim of our copyleft licenses is to make sure all users of our code get freedom, and encourage release of improvements as free software. (Nonfree improvements may as well be discouraged since we’d need to avoid them anyway.) See http://gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-even-more-important.html.

I don’t use the term “open source”, since it rejects these ethical ideas. (http://gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html.) Thus I would say that the AGPL requires servers running modified versions of the code to make the source for the running version available, under the AGPL, to their users.

The license of the modifications themselves is a different question, though related. The author of the modifications could release the modifications under the AGPL itself, or under any AGPL-compatible free software license. This includes free licenses which are pushovers, such as the Apache 2.0 license, the X11 license, and the modified BSD license (but not the original BSD license — see
http://gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html).

Once the modifications are released, Kuali will be able to get them and use them under whatever license they carry. If it is a pushover license, Kuali will be able to incorporate those modifications even into proprietary software. (That’s what makes them pushover licenses.)

However, if the modifications carry the AGPL, and Kuali incorporates them into a version of its software, Kuali will be bound by the AGPL. If it distributes that version, it will be required to do so under the AGPL. If it installs that version on a server, it will be required by the AGPL to make the whole of the source code for that version available to the users of that server.

To avoid these requirements, Kuali would have to limit itself to Kuali’s own code, others’ code released under pushover licenses, plus code for which it gets special permission. Thus, Kuali will not have as much of a special position as some might think.

See also http://gnu.org/philosophy/assigning-copyright.html
and http://gnu.org/philosophy/selling-exceptions.html.

Dr Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation (gnu.org, fsf.org)
Internet Hall-of-Famer (internethalloffame.org)
MacArthur Fellow

I appreciate this clarification and Stallman’s participation here at e-Literate, and it is useful to understand the rationale and ethics behind AGPL. However, I disagree with the statement “Thus, Kuali will not have as much of a special position as some might think”. I do not think he is wrong, per se, but the combination of both the AGPL license and the Contributor’s License Agreement (CLA) in my view does ensure that KualiCo has a special position. In fact, that is the core of the Kuali 2.0 strategy, and their approach would not be possible without the AGPL usage.

Note: I have had several private conversations that have helped me clarify my thinking on this subject. Besides Michael with his comment to the blog, Patrick Masson and three other people have been very helpful. I also interviewed Chris Coppola from KualiCo to understand and confirm the points below. Any mistakes in this post, however, are my own.

It is important to understand two different methods of licensing at play – distributing code through an APGL license and contributing code to KualiCo through a CLA (Kuali has a separate CLA for partner institutions and a Corporate CLA for companies).

  • Distribution – Anyone can download the Kuali 2.0 code from KualiCo and make modifications as desired. If the code is used privately, there is no requirement for distributing the modified code. If, however, a server runs the modified code, the reciprocal requirements of AGPL kick in and the code must be distributed (made available publicly) with the AGPL license or a pushover license. This situation is governed by the AGPL license.
  • Contribution – Anyone who modifies the Kuali 2.0 code and contributes it to KualiCo for inclusion into future releases of the main code grants a license with special permission to KualiCo to do with the code as they see fit. This situation is governed by the CLA and not AGPL.

I am assuming that the future KualiCo multi-tenant cloud-hosting code is not separable from the Kuali code. In other words, the Kuali code would need modifications to allow multi-tenancy.

For a partner institution, their work is governed by the CLA. For a company, however, the choice on whether to contribute code is mutual between that company and KualiCo, in that both would have to agree to sign a CLA. Another company may choose to do this to ensure that bug fixes or Kuali enhancements get into the main code and do not have to be reimplemented with each new release.

For any contributed code, KualiCo can still keep their multi-tenant code proprietary as their special sauce. For distributed code under AGPL that is not contributed under the CLA, the code would be publicly available and it would be up to KualiCo whether to incorporate any such code. If KualiCo incorporated any of this modified code into the main code base, they would have to share all of the modified code as well as their multi-tenant code. For this reason, KualiCo will likely never accept any code that is not under the CLA – they do not want to share their special sauce. Chris Coppola confirmed this assumption.

This setup strongly discourages any company from directly competing with KualiCo (vendor protection) and is indeed a special situation.

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A Weird but True Fact about Textbook Publishers and OER

As I was perusing David Kernohan’s notes on Larry Lessig’s keynote at the OpenEd conference, one statement leapt out at me:

Could the department of labour require that new education content commissioned ($100m) be CC-BY? There was a clause (124) that suggested that the government should check that no commercial content should exist in these spaces. Was argued down. But we were “Not important” enough to be defeated.

It is absolutely true that textbook publishers do not currently see OER as a major threat. But here’s a weird thing that is also true:

These days, many textbook publishers like OER.

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Better Ed Tech Conversations

This is another follow-up to the comments thread on my recent LMS rant. As usual, Kate Bowles has insightful and empathetic comments:

…From my experience inside two RFPs, I think faculty can often seem like pretty raucous bus passengers (especially at vendor demo time) but in reality the bus is driven by whoever’s managing the RFP, to a managed timetable, and it’s pretty tightly regulated. These constraints are really poorly understood and lead to exactly the predictable and conservative outcomes you observe. Nothing about the process favours rethinking what we do.

Take your focus on the gradebook, which I think is spot on: the key is how simply I can pull grades in, and from where. The LMS we use is the one with the truly awful, awful gradebook. Awful user experience, awful design issues, huge faculty development curve even to use it to a level of basic competence.

The result across the institution is hostility to making online submission of assignments the default setting, as overworked faculty look at this gradebook and think: nope.

So beyond the choosing practice, we have the implementation process. And nothing about this changes the mind of actual user colleagues. So then the institutional business owner group notices underuse of particular features—oh hey, like online submission of assignments—and they say to themselves: well, we need a policy to make them do it. Awfulness is now compounding.

But then a thing happens. Over the next few years, faculty surreptitiously develop a workable relationship with their new LMS, including its mandated must-use features. They learn how to do stuff, how to tweak and stretch and actually enjoy a bit. And that’s why when checklist time comes around again, they plead to have their favourite corner left alone. They only just figured it out, truly.

If institutions really want to do good things online, they need to fund their investigative and staff development processes properly and continuously, so that when faculty finally meet vendors, all can have a serious conversation together about purpose, before looking at fit.

This comment stimulated a fair bit of conversation, some of which continued on the comments thread of Jonathan Rees’ reply to my post.

The bottom line is that there is a vicious cycle. Faculty, who are already stretched to the limit (and beyond) with their workloads, are brought into a technology selection process that tends to be very tactical and time-constrained. Their response, understandably, tends to be to ask for things that will require less time from them (like an easier grade book, for example). When administrators see that they are not getting deep and broad adoption, they tend to mandate technology use. Which makes the problem worse rather than better because now faculty are forced to use features that take up more of their time without providing value, leaving them with less time to investigate alternatives that might actually add value. Round and round it goes. Nobody stops and asks, “Hey, do we really need this thing? What is it that we do need, and what is the most sensible way of meeting our needs?”

The only way out of this is cultural change. Faculty and administrators alike have work together toward establishing some first principles around which problems the technology is supposed to help them solve and what a good solution would look like. This entails investing time and university money in faculty professional development, so that they can learn what their options are and what they can ask for. It entails rewarding faculty for their participation in the scholarship of teaching. And it entails faculty seeing educational technology selection and policy as something that is directly connected to their core concerns as both educational professionals and workers.

Sucky technology won’t fix itself, and vendors won’t offer better solutions if customers can’t define “better” for them. Nor will open source projects fare better. Educational technology only improves to the extent that educators develop a working consensus regarding what they want. The technology is a second-order effect of the community. And by “community,” I mean the group that collectively has input on technology adoption decisions. I mean the campus community.

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Walled Gardens, #GamerGate, and Open Education

There were a number of interesting responses to my recent LMS rant. I’m going to address a couple of them in short posts, starting with this comment:

…The training wheels aren’t just for the faculty, they’re for the students, as well. The idea that the internet is a place for free and open discourse is nice, of course, but anyone who pays attention knows that to be a polite fiction. The public internet is a relatively safe place for straight, white, American males, but freedom of discourse is a privilege that only a small minority of our students (and faculty, for that matter) truly enjoy. If people didn’t understand that before, #notallmen/#yesallmen and GamerGate should certainly have driven that home.

As faculty and administrators we have an obligation–legal, and more importantly moral–to help our students understand the mechanisms, and unfortunately, often the consequences, of public discourse, including online communications. This is particularly true for the teenagers who make up the bulk of the undergrad population. Part of transformative teaching is giving people a safe space to become vulnerable and open to change. For those of us who think still of the “‘net” in terms of it’s early manifestations that were substantially open and inclusive research networks and BBS of largely like-minded people (someone else mentioned The Well, although The Well, of course, has always been a walled garden), open access seems tempting. But today’s internet is rarely that safe space for growth and learning. Just because students can put everything on the internet (YikYak, anyone?) doesn’t mean that they should.

In many, if not most, situations, A default stance of of walled garden with easy-to-implement open access options for chosen and curated content makes a great deal of sense….

There are lots of legitimate reasons why students might not want to post on the public internet. A few years back, when I was helping my wife with a summer program that exposed ESL high schoolers to college and encouraged them to feel like it could be something for them, we had a couple of students who did not want to blog. We didn’t put them on the spot by asking why, but we suspected that their families were undocumented and that they were afraid of getting in trouble.

This certainly doesn’t mean that everybody has to use an LMS or lock everything behind a login, but it does mean that faculty teaching open courses need to think about how to accommodate students who won’t or can’t work on the open web. I don’t think this sort of accommodation in any way compromises the ethic of open education. To the contrary, ensuring access for everyone is part of what open education is all about.

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