Desire2Learn Is Now Brightspace!

Dear Commons Community,

For those of us who follow the activity of online software providers, Desire2Learn announced yesterday that it was renaming its learning-management system, which will now be called Brightspace. It will also be adding several new features including game-based learning. In addition, the company said it was teaming up with IBM to improve Desire2Learn’s predictive analytics and with Microsoft to add a Windows 8 mobile app for e-books to Desire2Learn’s offerings.

This seems to be a good move for Desire2Learn in its competition with BlackBoard, Inc.


A.F.T. President Randi Weingarten: Arne Duncan Has Turned His Back on Educators and Parents!

Dear Commons Community,

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Friday that Arne Duncan,  President Barack Obama’s education chief, has turned his back on the concerns of educators and parents, but did not go as far as the NEA in calling for his resignation. As reported in The Huffington Post:

“Teachers unions have been clashing with the administration over its support for charter schools and its push to use student test scores as part of teacher evaluations, a relationship that further frayed after Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke in support of a California judge’s ruling last month that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers.

“We need a secretary of education who walks our walk, and fights our fight for the tools and resources we need to help children. And we are deeply disappointed that this Department of Education has not lived up to that standard,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a speech at a union convention in Los Angeles.

She said the judge’s decision in the California case “presupposes that for kids to win, teachers have to lose. Nothing could be further from the truth.” She added that Duncan needs to listen to parents and teachers “rather than dismissing their concerns.”

Earlier this month delegates of the largest teachers union — the National Education Association — called for Duncan to quit. That action underscored the long-standing tension between the administration and teachers unions — historically strong Democratic allies.”

It is becoming apparent that Arne Duncan and indirectly President Obama have lost the confidence of educators and it will be interesting to see how Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidate for president responds in 2016.



Rape on College Campuses: Victimized Twice!

Dear Commons Community,

As reported by the press last week, many colleges and universities “are failing to comply with the law and best practices” on handling sexual violence, according to a new report, which found more than 40 percent have failed to do any rape investigations in the past five years. The sobering news comes from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., whose staff did a survey of 440 four-year institutions of higher education and found problems affecting nearly every stage of responding to sexual violence.

Among the issues:

  • Approximately one in five undergraduate women has been the victim of sexual violence or attempted sexual violence in college. Despite that prevalence, about 41 percent of schools surveyed have not conducted a single investigation into assaults in the past five years.
  • Annual confidential student surveys, one of the best ways to get an idea of sexual assault issues on campus, are only being done at 16 percent of the schools.
  • Only 51 percent of the institutions offer a hotline for survivors to report assault, and only 44 percent give the option to report sexual assaults online. About eight percent don’t allow confidential reporting.
  • Staff are not always trained adequately: More than 20 percent of the institutions provided sexual assault response training for faculty and staff.

The report is putting higher education on notice to clean-up its act in responding to victims of rape and sexual violence.

The New York Times had a featured story of a young freshmen who was allegedly raped by members of the football team at Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges in upstate New York. The article goes into great detail of the review investigation and makes the case that the victim was victimized again by the process.

Higher education needs to do the right thing in both pursuing sexual predators and protecting victims while doing so.



Who Pays For the Pending Bankruptcy of Corinthian For-Profit Colleges: Students and Taxpayers!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an article analyzing the Corinthian Colleges debacle and pending bankruptcy. Here is an excerpt:

“In the years before the mortgage crisis, financial regulators often looked the other way as banks and other lenders pursued reckless activities that cost investors, taxpayers and borrowers billions of dollars. When trouble hit, these regulators had to scramble to fix the mess that their inertia had helped create.

This same dismal pattern is now playing out in the for-profit education arena.

For years, federal and state regulators have done little as dubious operators of for-profit colleges and trade schools have pocketed tuitions funded by taxpayer-backed loans. Many students left these colleges with questionable educations and onerous debt loads that cannot be erased in bankruptcy.

Regulators have finally woken up to this ugly reality. And, once again, taxpayers and borrowers will pay the price of regulatory failures.

Last week, after years of being on the financial precipice and facing accusations of improper recruiting practices by authorities in several states, Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit education company with 74,000 students in more than 100 locations around the country, began to wind down its operations. In an agreement with the federal Department of Education, Corinthian said it would halt admissions and try to sell 85 of its campuses.

At another 12 Corinthian campuses, students can continue their studies until they graduate. Certain students who choose to stop attending classes will receive refunds, the company said.

Even as the company’s fortunes faded in recent years, Corinthian’s five top executives piled up real money: Over the last three years, they’ve shared $12.5 million in salaries and cash bonuses.

But taxpayers and Corinthian students — a vast majority of whom have borrowed to finance their educations — will be the biggest losers. When Corinthian eventually vanishes, its graduates will be left holding degrees from a defunct institution. This will make it even tougher for them to get jobs, resulting in higher default rates on their federal student loans.

What kind of losses might the taxpayers incur? Let’s do some arithmetic: Corinthian students received approximately $1 billion a year in federal financial aid. So if default rates on the last two years of aid were to rise by 20 percent, that would generate $400 million in losses.

“Many of the students who have already graduated will default on their loans and will be followed by the federal government for the rest of their lives,” said Robyn Smith, of counsel to the National Consumer Law Center and author of a recent report on how states can improve oversight of for-profit schools. “If the regulators had been better at doing their jobs, this could have been avoided.”

The article provides further details and is definitely worth the read. The bottom line is that Corinthian ripped off students and taxpayers while the United States Department of Education, state departments of education, and other regulators did practically nothing until it was too late.



The Hard Part of Being a Good Teacher: There is Not Enough!

Dear Commons Community,

Peter Greene, a teacher, writer, and blogger at curmudgucation, has an insightful blog posting on the hard part of teaching. He starts his posting with:

“The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.”

He uses the following methaphor to make his point:

“Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don’t actually have enough paint. And when you get to some sections of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you to get down off the ladder and explain why you aren’t making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good.

Where are school reform folks in this metaphor? They’re the ones who show up and tell you that having a ladder is making you lazy, and you should work without. They’re the ones who take a cup of your paint every day to paint test strips on scrap wood, just to make sure the paint is okay (but now you have less of it). They’re the ones who show up after the work is done and tell passersby, “See that one good-looking part? That turned out good because the painters followed my instructions.” And they’re most especially the ones who turn up after the job is complete to say, “Hey, you missed a spot right there on that one board under the eaves.”

His conclusion:

“…all the other hard parts of teaching — the technical issues of instruction and planning and individualization and being our own “administrative assistants” and acquiring materials and designing unit plans and assessment — all of those issues rest solidly on the foundation of Not Enough.

Trust us. We will suck it up. We will make do. We will Find A Way. We will even do that when the state and federal people tasked with helping us do all that instead try to make it harder. Even though we can’t get to perfect, we can steer toward it. But if you ask me what the hard part of teaching is, hands down, this wins.

There’s not enough.”

Words of wisdom from an experienced teacher.



Neuroscience: Not Only Don’t We have Answers – We Don’t Even Know What Questions to Ask!

Brain Neuroscience

Dear Commons Community,

Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University, and an editor of the forthcoming book The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists, comments on two major funding proposals for studying the brain in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Essentially he posits that science knows so little about brain function that we have not even formulated the right questions to ask about how to study it. Here is an excerpt:

“In spite of the many remarkable advances in neuroscience, you might get the sinking feeling that we are not always going about brain science in the best possible way.

This feeling was given prominent public expression on Monday, when hundreds of neuroscientists from all over the world issued an indignant open letter to the European Commission, which is funding the Human Brain Project, an approximately $1.6 billion effort that aims to build a complete computer simulation of the human brain. The letter charges that the project is “overly narrow” in approach and not “well conceived.” While no neuroscientist doubts that a faithful-to-life brain simulation would ultimately be tremendously useful, some have called the project “radically premature.” The controversy serves as a reminder that we scientists are not only far from a comprehensive explanation of how the brain works; we’re also not even in agreement about the best way to study it, or what questions we should be asking.

The European Commission, like the Obama administration, which is promoting a large-scale research enterprise called the Brain Initiative, is investing heavily in neuroscience, and rightly so. (A set of new tools such as optogenetics, which allows neuroscientists to control the activity of individual neurons, gives considerable reason for optimism.) But neither project has grappled sufficiently with a critical question that is too often ignored in the field: What would a good theory of the brain actually look like?

Different kinds of sciences call for different kinds of theories. Physicists, for example, are searching for a “grand unified theory” that integrates gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces into a neat package of equations. Whether or not they will get there, they have made considerable progress, in part because they know what they are looking for.

Biologists — neuroscientists included — can’t hope for that kind of theory. Biology isn’t elegant the way physics appears to be. The living world is bursting with variety and unpredictable complexity, because biology is the product of historical accidents, with species solving problems based on happenstance that leads them down one evolutionary road rather than another. No overarching theory of neuroscience could predict, for example, that the cerebellum (which is involved in timing and motor control) would have vastly more neurons than the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain most associated with our advanced intelligence).

But biological complexity is only part of the challenge in figuring out what kind of theory of the brain we’re seeking. What we are really looking for is a bridge, some way of connecting two separate scientific languages — those of neuroscience and psychology.

Such bridges don’t come easily or often, maybe once in a generation, but when they do arrive, they can change everything. “

Dr. Marcus makes a great case for the fact that when it comes to understanding the basic aspects of the brain, science has a way to go!



The Politics of Being the President of a Flagship University: William Powers v. Rick Perry!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzes how President William Powers maneuvered around his call for dismissal by the chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) system who many believed was acting under the orders of Governor Rick Perry. Powers is described in the article as:

“…a steely campus chief with powerful connections.

It was those connections that surely bore down on the chancellor as he mulled over six agonizing days whether to grant Mr. Powers a stay of execution. In that time, lawmakers, donors, alumni, faculty members, students, and the head of the nation’s most prominent group of research universities all decried what came to be called the “July 4 coup.”

“We had a lot of support,” Mr. Powers said in an interview after Wednesday’s agreement. “I think that had a big influence.”

The roots of Mr. Powers’s untidy success story go back as far as 2008, when public higher education became the biggest political news in the famously politicized state of Texas.

At that time, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, implicitly endorsed a conservative think tank’s prescription for the sector, which critics described as wasteful, expensive, and out of touch. The “seven breakthrough solutions” would change all of that, advocates argued, by treating students more like customers and ensuring that professors were as devoted to teaching as they were to doing research into often-esoteric topics.

Mr. Powers looked across that political landscape and drew one conclusion: The think tank’s proposals would weaken an elite research university, and he needed friends as powerful as Mr. Perry’s to stop them.

The president went straight to the University Development Board, a collection of wealthy and politically connected Texans, many of whom had given money to the governor’s campaigns. Mr. Powers’s message was simple, one of his advisers recalled: “We’re in trouble, and I need your help.”

“It really destabilized the governor’s political base,” said the adviser, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly amid a leadership crisis. “Many of those same people were people the governor needed.”

We are happy that Powers is able to leave the presidency on his own terms and even happier that he was able to stand up to the ideological witch hunt of Governor Perry.



Cracking Down on Scientific Fraud!


Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an op-ed piece today on scientific fraud specifically on scientists who fake results on experiments to receive government grant funds. Written by Adam Marcus, and Ivan Oransky, co-founders of Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks scientific errors, the op-ed raises critical issues especially related to the light penalties assigned to those who are caught committing fraud. The piece comments:

“Criminal charges against scientists who commit fraud are uncommon. In fact, according to a study published last year, “most investigators who engage in wrongdoing, even serious wrongdoing, continue to conduct research at their institutions.” As part of our reporting, we’ve written about multiple academic researchers who have been found guilty of misconduct and then have gone on to work at pharmaceutical giants…

In the vast majority of cases, in fact, funding is not repaid. And just a few of the hundreds of American scientists found to have committed misconduct have served prison time. In 2006, Eric T. Poehlman was sentenced to a year in prison — the first scientist to be imprisoned for falsifying a grant application — and also had to pay about $200,000 in restitution for whistle-blower lawsuits and lawyers’ fees. But the millions awarded to the University of Vermont for his work were never repaid.

Scott S. Reuben, an anesthesiologist, spent six months in federal prison starting in 2010 for faking data in many of his studies. Dr. Reuben was also forced to pay back more than $360,000 to Pfizer as restitution for misusing the drugmaker’s grant money.

But these are the rare cases.”

Those of us in research universities know the importance of federal grants and contracts to our work.  However, we need to be vigilant about fraud.    Marcus and Oransky are right to raise an alarm.


University of Texas – Austin President William Powers Allowed to Continue until June 2015!

Dear Commons Community,

The chancellor of the University of Texas System Francisco Cigarroa and William Powers came to an agreement that allows Powers  to continue as president of UT – Austin  for another year until June 2015.  As reported in the New York Times:

“The University of Texas has been engulfed in recent days in a long-simmering clash over turf, personality and ideology that has roiled the state’s political establishment, highlighted questions about the direction of public universities and brought the president of the flagship campus here close to being fired.

The battle has spurred divisions within the state’s dominant Republican Party, with prominent figures taking sides against the university regents and Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed them to their posts. Mr. Perry’s office denied any involvement, but he was widely seen as wanting the president, William C. Powers Jr., out. The chancellor of the University of Texas system, who once backed Mr. Powers, switched sides, and gave Mr. Powers what amounted to an ultimatum last week: Resign effective in October or risk being fired at the board of regents meeting on Thursday.

Mr. Powers refused, and on Wednesday, the chancellor and the president came to an agreement that gave Mr. Powers and his supporters a victory, allowing him to stay on as president for another year and preventing the regents from possibly firing, publicly and abruptly, a nationally respected academic leader.

A campus meeting of the Faculty Council that had been intended to show support for Mr. Powers turned into a celebration, with professors cheering and applauding, when the announcement was made that Mr. Powers would remain president until he formally resigns next June.

“I’m delighted to continue on,” Mr. Powers said in an interview, adding, “I try not to focus on the political aspects.”


In Denver at the OLC Blended Learning Conference!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday was an informative day at the OLC Blended Learning Conference. I attended sessions presented by Paige McDonald and colleagues who discussed the implementation of blended learning at the School of Health Sciences at George Washington University;  and Cathy Cheal who spoke about the MOOC development at San Jose State University. The keynote address was given by Mike Milliron (Civitas) who presented very effectively on learning analytics. As posted in his abstract:

“This message is a deep dive into Insight Analytics—hindsight work (e.g., data mining) and foresight work (e.g., predictive modeling) brought together to gain insight into student success patterns. These insights can then power Action Analytics, when these data and analyses are used in apps that go directly to the front lines of learning: faculty, advisors, and students. Brought together, insight and action analytics strategies can help struggling students succeed and strong students take their learning to the next level in on-ground, online, and blending modalities.”

I was part of a panel discussion with colleagues Patsy Moskal, Chuck Dziuban, and Charles Graham. The title of our presentation was Seeking Evidence of Impact in Blended and Online Learning which explored effective approaches for determining the impact of blended and online learning in educational environments. We used material from our recently published book, Blended Learning Research Perspectives, Volume 2. The session was well-attended and in my mind well-received.

In sum, a stimulating day at a first-rate conference.