NY Times Editorial:  Time to Fix the Fafsa!

Dear Commons Community,

The lead New York Times editorial (entire text appears below) today is a plea for the U.S. Congress to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as Fafsa.  This is long overdue and the fact that it is the subject of a Times editorial is indicative of the need to unburden students and their parents from this horror of an  application form.  Fafsa has 105 questions and 88 pages of instructions making it “as torturous and perplexing as a federal income tax form”.  The editorial refers to Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, who comments that the information needed to calculate eligibility for aid is already collected by the Internal Revenue Service. In a simplified system, she says, tax filers could just check a box on their 1040 and immediately learn of their eligibility for federal grants and loans.”

What a relief it would be for students and parents to be able to bypass the Fafsa.  Please, do something Congress!



New York Times

Time to Fix the Fafsa


Is Congress finally ready to pass legislation that would make it easier for harried parents and students to apply for federal financial aid?

Legislators and the Department of Education have been trying for years to radically simplify the standard form, known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa. But every time they cut a few questions, they add a few more. Today the Fafsa has 105 questions and 88 pages of instructions, making it as torturous and perplexing as a federal income tax form. Research suggests that the sheer length of the form and the confusing instructions are a huge deterrent to families that need financial aid, especially low-income families sending a child to college for the first time.

President Obama has taken steps to simplify the form. But there is a limit on what he and the department can do without new legislation from Congress. Hence the interest generated by a bill introduced in January by Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and co-sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, and seven other senators, mostly Republicans, that would reduce the form to a single postcard containing two questions: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago?

Optimists believe the bill could be voted on and approved either this year or early next. A bill introduced in the House would also simplify the application process, albeit not quite as drastically.

Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, says that the information needed to calculate eligibility for aid is already collected by the Internal Revenue Service. In a simplified system, she says, tax filers could just check a box on their 1040 and immediately learn of their eligibility for federal grants and loans.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama had said he would allow families to apply “simply by checking a box on their tax form” authorizing the use of their tax information. His administration continues to espouse that as a goal. But for now, even without new legislation, his administration has reduced the number of questions on the form. It has introduced technology that allows students and parents to skip some questions, based on their answers to previous questions. And it has introduced a tool that allowed more than 10 million online applicants to automatically transfer their I.R.S data into the application form for the 2014-15 school year.

Of the more than one million high school seniors who do not fill out Fafsa each year, most would be eligible for Pell grant scholarships for low-income students. The administration says that its improvements have increased the number of students filling out Fafsa by about 30 percent, from 16.4 million in 2008-09 to 21.2 million in 2013-14, and that the time required to fill out the form has been sharply cut. The administration is planning to announce further simplification steps shortly.

A report issued last month by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggested several simplification measures with an ultimate goal of eliminating Fafsa entirely and basing eligibility for federal aid on income information provided to the I.R.S.

Research by Professor Dynarski and her colleagues showed that eliminating most of the questions would have very little impact on the final aid decision, but would greatly increase the number of students applying. Counseling is a crucial part of the process. A field study by H&R Block showed that low-income people who received immediate assistance from their tax preparers, and a simplified process for completing the form, applied for aid in greater numbers and were more likely to complete two years of college than those who got no assistance.

There is a potential downside to reducing the application to two questions or no questions at all. Some institutions and some states want information that would not be provided by the two questions, like whether a family has substantial assets that could be sold to finance higher education, or how long an applicant has lived in a state. All parties — federal, state and institutional — will need to think hard about what information they really need and how best to keep the number of questions to a minimum.

U of Penn Study:  Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students!

Dear Commons Community,

The Center for Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania released a study yesterday describing the disproportion in the number of black students suspended or expelled in thirteen Southern states.  As reported by the Center:

“Nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year – 55% of those suspensions occurred in 13 Southern states. Districts in the South also were responsible for 50% of Black student expulsions from public schools in the United States.

This report aims to make transparent the rates at which school discipline practices and policies impact Black students in every K-12 public school district in 13 Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Despite comprising only 20.9% of students in the 3,022 districts analyzed, Blacks were suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates.

The authors use data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to present school discipline trends related to Black students district-by-district within each state. Districts in which school discipline policies and practices most disproportionately impact Black students are also highlighted. The report concludes with resources and recommendations for parents and families, educators and school leaders, policymakers, journalists, community stakeholders (NAACP chapters, religious congregations, activists, etc.), and others concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and the educational mistreatment of Black youth in K-12 schools. The authors also offer implications for faculty in schools of education, as well as other sites in which teachers are prepared (e.g., Teach for America) and administrators are certified.”

This study documents an important issue that erodes the education of many black children in this country.  While the study’s analysis focused on the South, the problem is widespread throughout many parts of the country.




As 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Approaches:  Racial Divide Exists in New Orleans over the Recovery!

Dear Commons Community,

It has been almost ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005.  A new survey by Louisiana State University indicates that the recovery has been perceived more favorably by white residents than black residents.  As reported in the New York Times:

“As the 10th anniversary approaches of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic levee breaches in New Orleans, a new survey finds a stark racial divide in how residents here view the recovery.

Nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered, while nearly three out of five blacks say it has not, a division sustained over a variety of issues including the local economy, the state of schools and the quality of life.

The survey, which was conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, was released on Monday. The hurricane and the failure of the New Orleans levees on Aug. 29, 2005, caused more than 1,800 deaths across the coast and damaged or destroyed more than a million houses and businesses…

The L.S.U. survey echoes both what has been quantified elsewhere — such as a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR that also found a racial gap in attitudes — and what is apparent by simply spending time in different neighborhoods around the city.

While a plurality of New Orleans residents rate the quality of life as about the same as before Katrina, the L.S.U. survey reports, more than one-third of blacks say it has gotten worse. The percentage of whites who believe their quality of life has improved, at 41 percent, is more than double the percentage of blacks who say the same thing…

The poll of 2,195 respondents, both in New Orleans and elsewhere in south Louisiana, was conducted via telephone interviews from July 7 to Aug. 10. The margin of sampling error within the city was plus or minus five percentage points.

The differing views about the state of the city may also reflect a change in the city’s makeup. Any comparison of New Orleans’s population before and after Katrina is complicated, in part because the population was not stable in 2005 but, according to some examinations, on a steady downward trajectory.

But comparisons are also made difficult because many of those here in the city now are not those who left. The L.S.U. survey found that more than a quarter of the city’s current residents had moved here since Katrina. Those who did so were wealthier and more likely to be white and college educated than those who lived here before 2005.”


Jaime Holmes: On the Need to Teach Ignorance!

Dear Commons Community,

Jamie Holmes, a fellow at New America and the author of the forthcoming book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, proposing that faculty need to do a better job of teaching ignorance. He posits that too much of what faculty teach emphasizes what is known but it is the unknown which unleashes the creativity to experiment and seek answers. He provides several vignettes of faculty who have felt the need to teach ignorance in their courses. For example:

“In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them— not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities — Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.”

Holmes concludes:

“The study of ignorance — or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford — is in its infancy. This emerging field of inquiry is fragmented because of its relative novelty and cross-disciplinary nature (as illustrated by a new book, “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies”). But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

The time has come to “view ignorance as ‘regular’ rather than deviant,” the sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey have boldly argued. Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.”

Is ignorance bliss?



Will the Day Come When Androids Write Fiction?

Dear Commons Community,

Claire Fallon, Books and Culture Writer for The Huffington Post, explores the possibility of androids writing fiction. Referencing a blog posting by the writer James Bridle, she questions whether we may be coming to the day when artificial intelligence reaches a tipping point when machines can use “imagination” and “experiences” to write or at least co-author fiction.  Here is an excerpt:

“Robots that write fiction? You couldn’t make it up.” The Guardian headline plays on a trope that, at its core, is rather insulting to fiction writers, who have a pretty good track record of making up wild things — concepts far more imaginative than stories composed by AI.

Putting that aside, James Bridle’s breezy blog in The Guardian looks ahead eagerly to a time when fiction will no longer be the exclusive realm of living authors. “Robot writers could become co-authors of our most complex subjects, helping to write the narratives of climate change and political upheaval,” he breathlessly speculates, without specifying why robots would excel at writing about these topics or how they would collaborate with humans, as he implies. Still, could they?

Well, perhaps, the way that “soothing mothers” might “give up their babies, plot bank robberies and become threatening bank robbers” — just one scenario generated by the Metaphor Magnet, a fiction-writing robot, for an earlier Guardian piece. It’s not impossible, but there’s no particular evidence that it will happen that way.

Lest we get too eager, there are still significant hurdles for machines to clear before the day they make novelists superfluous.”

Fallon goes on to mention several examples of software programs that tease the possibilities.

“The What-If Machine [Computational Creativity Project in Europe] tosses out intriguing hypotheticals, of the sort that might spark a full work of fiction; if a writer wants to loosen up by checking out some totally crazy computer-generated scenarios, WHIM is a pretty solid bet to get the creative juices flowing.

That said, these scenarios don’t really make up stories, and most sound stilted, trite or absurd.”

The idea of droids or software writing fiction is somewhere in humankind’s future – exactly when is hard to say.


New York Times Editorial Advises Mayor de Blasio Not to Overreact to Women Baring Breasts in Times Square!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times editorial this morning advises Mayor Bill de Blasio not to overreact to the handful of women who bare their breasts in the Times Square pedestrian mall. The editorial (see full text below) makes the point that this is a media-created story and does not reflect a major problem that is changing the nature of one of New York City’s special places. The editorial rejects one proposal to return the mall to automobile traffic. It also takes a swipe at Governor Cuomo “to stop being ridiculous” with his unnecessary and unhelpful comments.

The Times editorial is right. This has become an overblown story mostly fueled by the New York Daily News that has had a week of headlines accompanied by photos of near naked women on page one. It is a shame that the Daily News which was once a great New York newspaper, has lowered itself so far into the depths of the tabloid gutter.



Shirtless Bodies in Pointless Times Square War


In New York politics, as in Newtonian physics, there is action and reaction and, too often, overreaction.

Take Times Square, and the handful of women there who expose their painted breasts and pose for photos with tourists among the Elmos and Spider-Men. They are vastly outnumbered by the milling throngs of out-of-towners, and far tinier than towering images of near-naked models preening and pouting on the digital billboards all around. But their presence has been enough to stir a Lower Manhattan tabloid into a righteous fury.

“BUST THIS FLESH PIT” read one Daily News headline this month. “TOO MUCH TO BARE,” said another.

Times Square has an old reputation as a crossroads of bad behavior. But is it really being overrun again by vice? By pimps, prostitutes, muggers, drug dealers, bootleggers, pornographers or even card-game hustlers? Not even close. And yet The News, horrified at the rampant shirtlessness, put these frightening women on Page 1 for four straight days. (Its usual spot for breasts is Page 3.) It called the city to arms to repel this “dastardly” outrage.

Predictably, distressingly, our leaders took the bait. On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of a multiagency force “to curb topless individuals” and their costumed counterparts in Times Square.

There’s nothing wrong with asking smart people to study a problem — and the intense crowding in Times Square and reports of harassment of naïve tourists by illegally aggressive panhandlers certainly qualify as problems. But the size and firepower of this task force are more appropriate for an Ebola outbreak. It is led by Police Commissioner William Bratton and the City Planning Commission chairman, Carl Weisbrod, and includes the Police Department; the Manhattan district attorney’s office; the Transportation Department; the Law Department; the Department of Consumer Affairs; the Department of City Planning; the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; NYC & Company; and the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, Alicia Glen.

Their job is to study how topless women can be “regulated,” and to report back by Oct. 1.

On Thursday, Mr. de Blasio suggested one solution: eliminating some of Times Square’s pedestrian plazas, apparently on the theory that if you can get tourists to go away, you reduce the topless-woman threat. Other officials suggest creating a pen for the women and costumed characters — sort of a panhandling zoo — or turning this great bustling commercial zone into, of all things, a park.

Such proposals, and Mr. de Blasio’s sudden willingness to roll back years of ambitious streetscape redesign, are a monumental overreaction. The mayor could save everybody a lot of time. He could just meet with a few First Amendment lawyers and some of the women and men who make their living posing for tips. He doesn’t have to wait a month — he could get a report this afternoon. It would remind everyone that being shirtless in the city is perfectly legal, a privilege men have enjoyed since forever. That the people who flock around the painted women in Times Square do not seem terribly offended. And that those who are can always walk away.

Most important, it would say that panhandlers who become aggressive and obstructive can be dealt with. Mr. Bratton’s officers are trained to handle terrorists and epidemics and armed criminals. They are more than capable of dealing with half-naked panhandlers who get pushy.

This page is not endorsing extortion. People who break the law should be arrested. And the city should be seriously thinking about how to make Times Square work better than it does — in many ways it is too successful, clotted with so many slow-moving people and vendors and leafleteers and untalented buskers that it can be a highly unpleasant place to try to walk through. Its vibe can be cruddy.

But Times Square is not going to hell, or anywhere near hell’s vicinity. Mr. de Blasio’s enemies have been predicting New York’s downfall since before the mayor took office. He should not be feeding their false narrative by panicking over some localized crudeness. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who recently said that he thought what the women were doing was illegal and had to be stopped, and that they reminded him of the “bad old days,” should stop being ridiculous.

The Times has a long relationship with our namesake square. It’s in our backyard now, since we moved to Eighth Avenue, but it was our front porch for more than 100 years. We and the city have survived rallies and riots and many, many New Year’s ball drops. More seasoned members of our staff remember how shuttle vans used to take late-shift employees in safety from our old 43rd Street building to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Pennsylvania Station.

Times Square can reveal New York at its bleakest and most brilliant. It took grit and resolve to stick with it through the bad times. This is not one of them.


MSNBC Airs Softball Interview With Anti-Teacher Activist Campbell Brown!

Dear Commons Community,

Here is a short article from The Huffington Post commenting on Campbell Brown’s bid to be the latest corporate sponsored education reformer. 

“After her show was cancelled on account of low ratings, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown reinvented herself as an education reformer and charter school advocate — this despite having little to no training in education, and never having taught students herself.

She founded the education advocacy group the Partnership for Educational Justice to fight teacher tenure in New York and recently launched the Seventy Four, an “nonprofit, nonpartisan” education news site.

However, as some critics have pointed out, Brown’s news site is largely dedicated to trashing teachers unions and advocating for school choice. And despite her group’s goal of bringing “transparency” to the education debate, Brown has refused to disclose the donors behind her Partnership for Educational Justice — which is not tied to the news site — saying only that they come from “both sides of the aisle.”

But MSNBC made no mention of Brown’s ties to advocacy groups — or her lack of transparency — when she came on “Morning Joe” on Wednesday to promote an upcoming education forum with many of the Republican presidential nominees.

The network basically let her make her pitch, then congratulated her on putting together the event. Now that’s hard-hitting journalism.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with having on guests with an agenda or a strong point of view, but the network should, at the very least, identify where its guests are coming from.”

Campbell Brown will come and go.  Parents have had enough of anti-union and corporate sponsored  anti-teacher groups undermining public education in this country.



New book, Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments: New Pedagogical Frontiers!

Conducting Research 51p1YkYzuWL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Dear Commons Community,

I am happy to announce that a new book, Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments:  New Pedagogical Frontiers, has just been published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis. I co-authored this book with colleagues, Charles Dzuiban, Charles Graham, and Patsy Moskal. Those of you interested in research in online and blended learning, will find it a valuable addition to your library.

Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments… examines various perspectives, issues, and methods for conducting research in online and blended learning environments. It provides in-depth examinations of the perspectives and issues that anyone considering research in online or blended learning will find insightful as they plan their own inquiries. Grounded in educational research theory, this is invaluable to both the serious researcher as well as the occasional evaluator. It also provides comprehensive, useful information on research paradigms, methodologies, and methods that should be considered in designing and conducting studies in this area. Examples of the most respected research in the field enhance each chapter’s presentation.

It is available at amazon.com at:


and Barnes and Noble at: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/conducting-research-in-online-and-blended-learning-environments-charles-d-dziuban/1121838565?ean=9780415742474


First Near-Fully Formed Brain Grown In Lab at Ohio State University!

Dear Commons Community,

Scientists at Ohio State University say they’ve grown the first near-complete human brain in a lab.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The brain organoid, if licensed for commercial lab use, could help speed research for neurological diseases and disorders, like Alzheimer’s and autism, Rene Anand, an Ohio State professor who worked on the project, said in a statement Tuesday,

“The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents,” Anand said.

The brain, engineered from adult human skin cells and grown in a dish for 15 weeks, is about the size of a pencil eraser, according to the university. It has the maturity of a 5-week-old fetal brain, and contains 99 percent of the genes in a fully developed human fetal brain.

“If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks, that might complete it, filling in that 1 percent of missing genes,” Anand said. “We don’t know yet.”

Other researchers in the field were skeptical. Anand’s claims haven’t been reviewed by peers. Instead, the feat was announced at the 2015 Military Health System Research Symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. (Anand’s team says the brain could have military research implications for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder).

“When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data,” Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, told The Guardian.

Earlier this year, Anand and colleague Susan McKay created an Ohio-based startup with the goal of commercializing the brain organoid platform. As The Guardian notes, Anand has not published details of his brain model due to a pending patent. “

While we congratulate Professor Anand and his team, I believe there will be a lot of ethical questions looming for this type of research.


Intel Releases Software that Stephen Hawking Uses to Speak!

Dear Commons Community,

People with disabilities across the world will have access to Stephen Hawking’s custom technology that allows him to speak with an artificial voice. Hawking has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, one of the symptoms of which can be an impaired voice. He worked with Intel for three years to develop the Assistive Context-Aware Toolkit that gives him an artificial voice. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The technology uses an infrared switch to detect the motions in his [Hawking’s] left cheek muscle, which he uses to select individual characters and build sentences. A cursor automatically scrolls across a keyboard on Hawking’s wheelchair-mounted tablet. When the cursor reaches the letter Hawking wants, he moves his cheek and an infrared switch picks up the motion. In this way he can build words and sentences, which are sent to his voice synthesizer.

“It is the best I have heard, although it gives me an  accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American or Scottish,” Hawking says on his website.

Intel is broadening the toolkit’s reach by releasing it as an open source platform, so anybody with a PC and a webcam can use it. It can be programmed to work with infrared switches and regular buttons, as well as a camera, the company said in a statement.   

“Our hope is that, by open sourcing this configurable platform, developers will continue to expand on this system by adding new user interfaces, new sensing modalities, word prediction and many other features.”

You can download the Intel software here.”

Good move on Intel’s part.