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Celebrating and Questioning Open Access Week

October 18, 2010

Today at my university, the Scholar’s Lab held a talk on Open Access with Madelyn Wessel, Associate General Counsel and Dr. Brian Pusser, Curry School of Education. The talk was in celebration of Open Access Week (Oct 18-24), and served as a follow up conversation to the open access resolution passed by our Faculty Senate.

What is Open Access?

According to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), open access is the creation free, unrestricted, on-line access to scholarly publications in order to foster collaboration, teaching and learning, and the public good. The open access movement has come out of academic and research library coalitions such as SPARC in reaction to the capabilities of on-line content sharing and the simultaneous consolidation of the publishing industry. Though information wants to be free, the costs of purchasing journal subscriptions is outpacing inflation by 10-12% annually. Institutions are shedding access to journals by the hundreds each year. Librarians warn that this situation is not economically sustainable and point out its conflict with technological opportunities for knowledge sharing.

Open access is also becoming a requirement of federal grant agencies and private foundations which demand public access to the final products of funded research. NIH recipients, for example, participate in PubMed Central. About 60% of publishers currently allow authors to retain the rights to participate in such repositories.

The Faculty Senate’s Resolution

Over 30 colleges and universities have passed open access mandates as a requirement of employment. Here, the Senate created a non-mandatory system in which faculty may opt to participate in a digital repository. This digital repository would include pre-publication drafts of articles accepted for publication in scholarly journals to be made available one year after they have been published. The resolution was a compromise that allowed for the creation of a repository, but did not require participation as a requirement of employment.

In the debates leading up to the resolution, faculty asked important questions about the future of knowledge sharing. Many faculty are convinced that something needs to change, but not all agree on the form that open access should take.

Challenges of Open Access

Two of the main concerns for faculty were the tenure process and academic freedom. Open access, if taken to its ideal end of providing free, unrestricted, on-line access to scholarly publications, could alter existing systems of status and recognition derived from the restricted print access provided by the publishing industry. Those on the tenure track worry that their work will not be properly evaluated. Across the board, faculty shared concerns about how quality will be vetted. Open access could also harm the publishing industry. The publishing industry adds value to scholarly work in the form of editorial, distributional, and promotional resources. For some professional societies, publications also provide necessary revenue to support the field. Faculty wonder whether universities are able and willing to replace these resources while retaining a commitment to academic freedom in light of current economic pressures on higher education.

Opportunities for Open Access

The clearest opportunities are those laid out by the Open Access movement – lowering costs and facilitating the sharing of knowledge among faculty, students, and the interested public. Additionally, Wessel points out, scholars will also retain more personal rights to their own work.

However, these benefits don’t entirely outweigh the faculty’s concerns, particularly in a time of financial and technological uncertainty. How will publication be funded? How can we ensure the quality of the work that is distributed? Are we are contributing to the death of the publishing industry? Should we care about the fate of the publishing industry? These questions remain open in the academic publishing industry just as they do in the music and newspaper industries.

I believe risk and uncertainty can be opportunities for creativity and progress. I look forward to learning more about Open Access and encourage other scholars to take the time to educate themselves on the costs and benefits, to participate in the digital repository, and to add their voices to the dialogue. If we consciously engage, as so many academic faculty and librarians have done over the past few years, we can direct the future of knowledge sharing.


Multitasking in the Classroom

October 13, 2010

There have been several articles relating the latest cognitive and neurological investigations into how multitasking affects the brain, from the NYT article to PBS’ Frontline special Digital Nation. As studies (as yet largely speculative) are translated into lay terms, we are told that multitasking is the message of interactive media – that the logic of interactive media and access through wireless handheld devices leads to constant checking of email, texts, looking up information in a space where hyperlinks and interactive side bars lead us far away from our original purpose. The consequence for the brain is (over)stimulation of the decision making process. The consequence for cognition is that we are in a constant state of anticipation. This fight or flight pose toward on-line interaction limits our short term memory (which Google will gladly compile and house for us) and our ability to mull over ideas in ways that allow for creative thought, deep analysis, or synthesis. Multi-tasking also may be associated with higher levels of anxiety and attention deficit.

These preliminary studies lend support to a common classroom policy banning student use of handheld wireless devices during class (i.e. laptops and cell phones). But we actually know very little in terms of how students perceive and respond to these rules, and much less about the consequences of wireless devices on student learning in the classroom. In an upper level undergraduate seminar in sociology called Media, Culture and Society, my students and I explored these questions. While this exploration is by no means representative or comprehensive, the exercise helped me to reflect on how I incorporate technology into the classroom and raised some pedagogical questions that deserve further study.

The set up:
The main lesson plan for the day was to give a short lecture on Marshall McLuhan. As students filed in I handed them a folded slip of paper with one of the following instructions:

  • A: Focus your undivided attention on the lecture. You may use the computer to take notes in Microsoft Word. Please do not open any web browsers or use any hand held communication devices (i.e. smart phones).
  • B: Focus on the lecture. Feel free to multi-task on-line. However, please keep your activities discreet so you do not distract those around you.

The result:
At first I thought the lesson had failed. As I walked around the room I observed no multitasking screens. Every student contributed to the discussion. Many handwrote their notes and didn’t use the computers at all. Afterward, when I asked them about whether they followed the instructions three students tentatively raised their hands. Hoping for the best, I asked them to get into pairs based on the two sets of instructions and compare their experiences of the interactive lecture.
As the discussion opened up, the multitasking students told me they had followed their instructions, checking email, and looking up course related information on-line. In fact, most of the students did do some multitasking. They just did so discreetly and without missing a beat.

(A) I found it very difficult not to do it. My Blackberry kept going off (silently) and I was so curious about the emails I was getting. It was very hard not to check it.

Multitasking is far more prevalent than instructors might realize. Students are used to prohibitions on electronic distractions and know when and how to work around them.

(A) Every teacher says not to use the Internet, but it’s impossible. It made a difference that these instructions were in writing for this particular session. That scared me, especially since we just started, so I took it seriously. It was hard to suppress the urge though.

What emerged from the discussion was illuminating in terms of the pace of multitasking. Multitasking, students explained, is lightest at the beginning of a semester when they are getting used to the instructor, their classroom style and their pace. It is also lighter at this time, I believe, because they have a refreshed focus on school work and a less hectic schedule.
There are also particular moments within a class session where the urge to multitask beckons:

(A) There was one particular moment that was excruciatingly difficult not to multitask – when you erased the board in silence between our discussions of the two readings. I just wanted to check my email, to know what had come in. If I hadn’t had the instructions, I probably would have.

We then moved into a discussion of the effects of multitasking on their learning. Rather than cleave into two sides for or against multitasking, a consensus began to emerge that it was not whether you multitasked or not, but how, when, and why you were doing it that mattered.

(A) I think that multitasking is a skill that you learn and you learn how to do it effectively without getting overwhelmed or distracted. I was in a public high school that had a partnership with Apple and we all (students) had computers. We grew up multitasking in school and over time we learned how to learn that way. But I can see how for those who are just exposed to computers in the classroom now that it will take some time for them to use them effectively.

Others explained how some multitasking is useful to their learning and makes them more active and efficient learners:

(B) I was glad to get the instruction to multitask because I rely on my computer for note taking. My handwriting is illegible. I think it makes me more efficient as a learner because if you (the teacher) say a word I’ve never heard I can just look it up and catch up to speed, rather than go home later and look it up in a book, which would take longer and I probably would never get around to it. I’d also be lost during the lecture.

Other students agreed that access was useful to enhance their learning through the ability to merge information in electronic documents. They are linking their lecture notes, excerpts from readings, on-line dictionary entries and Wikipedia entries on theories and authors. Others claim that a quick email check during a transitional moment in lecture can revitalize their energy and attention, like hitting a reset button.
There are however ways that multitasking hinders the quality of their learning:

(B) I disagree about the efficiency argument that was just made. It may be more efficient but the ability to multitask can divide your attention to the point where you may get things done but you may not be doing them to the best of your ability. For example, last year I was planning an (extracurricular) event and I had at least one hundred emails to take care of. I did it during one of my favorite classes and I really didn’t get much out of it that day. It was efficient because I planned the event and attended class, but both my emails and my notes suffered.

This kind of “bad-use” of multitasking has less to do with the course design or with multitasking technologies themselves than a more general cultural mindset that we should constantly be overbooked and “getting things done.”

The take away:
In considering the effects of on-line multitasking, we should remember that students have always lost focus or been distracted by outside concerns (how many times have you seen a student fall asleep or write to do lists in the margins of their notes despite your best efforts to engage them?). It’s not possible to micro manage student attention and it’s not necessary to feel like their straying is a failure on your part as an instructor. This is important to know regardless of your technology policy.

What I take away from this discussion with my students is that in courses where I allow the use of wireless devices that I will talk with them openly at the beginning of the semester about appropriate and inappropriate multitasking. Part of their task is to work on developing their ability to focus and use technology in ways that are both efficient and fruitful. That requires honest reflection on everyone’s part. Part of my job will be to make sure that distracting uses are curtailed, even when that distraction is coming from external pressures, such as those experienced by the event planner above.

To me what makes it worth all of this extra discussion worth it in my field (rather than an outright ban) is that I think multitasking will be a structural feature of the tools they use for work, leisure, and their relationships with others. I see part of my role as an educator to help them make sense of this social fact and to learn skills not to become “media slaves.”

You’re young — you should know better!

October 6, 2010

I teach a seminar called Media, Culture and Society where we focus on issues of interactive digital media, or “new media.” In a discussion about Dhiraj Murthy’s article on new media and ethnographic research methods, my students raised concerns about how they, as young people, are expected to know how to use digital media tools to produce information in the workplace, but that they rarely receive any formal training. They described internships where they were expected to draft multimedia presentations in office settings where no one else knew how. At the same time, they recounted being admonished for stating their technical skills on their resumes because “everyone your age knows how to blog.”

According to my students not everyone knows these things. In other courses I’ve found that most students are familiar with how to absorb on-line entertainment (through facebook and youtube for example), but are nervous about moving from their role as consumers to producers of content. They are also unsure how to gather knowledge from on-line sources, because they are consistently told such sources are unacceptable in classroom assignments. For those students who do have expertise in final cut, photoshop, blogging, or even powerpoint and excel, they have learned these tools through trial and error in their leisure time or independently and haphazardly on the job.

Sociologist and communication studies scholar Eszter Hargittai has found that participation in the creation of new media content is unevenly distributed. It boils down to who feels comfortable messing around with technology and who does not. Women students and students whose parents have lower levels of education are less likely to develop these skills on their own.

This “participation divide” suggests that faculty need more information and more training about how to empower students to become media producers. But where do we begin? At UVa, SHANTI has developed a “knowledge base” though an open wiki that offers background information on emerging teaching and learning tools such as Zotero, Kaltura, and VisualEyes. I’m curious if readers know of other sources that are being developed to help faculty navigate emerging tools for teaching and learning. If you know of any, please offer suggestions in the comments.

Assessing Contingent Labor

October 1, 2010

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce is an organization that seeks to understand and address problems related to contingent labor in higher education. They are currently conducting a survey that will provide better, more nuanced data on working conditions and benefits. As the AAUP newsletter describes:

Most of the data on the working conditions of the contingent academic workforce particularly data about salaries, benefits, and course assignments exist in large data sets that have been aggregated and averaged at the national level.  Consequently, the similarities and differences that contingent academic workers experience across different institutions and institutional sectors, geographic regions, and disciplines become obscured.This survey aims to examine salaries, benefits, course assignments, and general working conditions as contingent academic workers experience them at the institutional level. The survey will collect institution- and course-specific information to create a more textured and realistic picture of contingent academic workers working lives and working conditions.

To complete the survey, go to:

Problems and Possibilites for Student Activism

September 21, 2010

Today in my Social Movements class Kevin Simowtiz of Virginia Organizing shared his experiences as a student organizer of the Living Wage Campaign. He also facilitated a useful discussion with the class on the obstacles and resources for student led movements. Here are the highlights of their conversation:

What are the obstacles to student* involvement in social activism or service?


  • Lack of an emotional connection to an issue – people may know facts but lack empathy
  • Social differences between students and less privileged people makes it hard to relate social problems to students everyday lives
  • Social and physical distance between students and the outside world makes it hard to escape the “bubble” and know what is happening
  • Service is not always regarded by universities as central to learning or student life

Time Bind

  • Students have increased demands on time – studying, working, commuting – service can be an added burden
  • Being a student means being transient. Four years is a short time to be engaged in a community.
  • In universities without service requirements or a strong center for service, it takes time and energy to find opportunities for engagement


  • While students are sometimes treated like consumers, they are not like regular consumers because they are also competing for scarce resources (admission, grades, credentials)
  • Competition can limit involvement in activities that are not seen to produce benefits in the job marketplace
  • Uncertainty about whether actions will have any real effects or cause real change
  • Fundraising can feel more tangible than direct service or protest
  • Bystander effects – someone else can take care of the problem

What are the particular opportunities for students to get involved in social activism or service?

  • Students have more time and flexibility than full time workers to engage and to do so in ways that are thoughtful and reflective
  • Students are often held at the bottom rungs of the job market in service occupations. In these jobs, they may have opportunities for contact with struggling older adults
  • Students make up a large and active constituency
  • Students often still have idealism and are more passionate about change

* We implicitly defined “student” as young adults enrolled full time living on or near campus

Bad Actors or Pathological System?

June 24, 2010

Today’s Congressional hearing on for-profit educational institutions is raising questions of finance, accountability, and technology. The most unethical for-profits, who Sen. Franken has dubbed “bad actors,” show us the worst-case scenario of our times.

The bad actors have capitalized on trends of joblessness, educational expansion, on-line learning, and easy access to student loans. A lack of financial regulation and shady accreditation practices allow for-profits to be predatory. They use high-pressure sales tactics and make questionable claims in their advertising as they seek financially and educationally under-prepared adults to enroll. Through targeting this population, the bad actors access billions in federal aid, much of which will never be repaid. In the worst cases, documented by PBS Frontline in College Inc, students are defrauded by educations that fail to provide adequate training, and with degrees that lack professional legitimacy. Low graduation rates, alumni unemployment, and loan defaults are problems that fall to students and taxpayers. In a sick twist, these problems have buoyed profits on Wall Street until recent hearings, which threaten to end unregulated access to federal aid.

According to PBS Frontline’s College Inc.:
• Federal aid accounts for 75% of for-profit revenue
• For profit schools represent 10% of students and 25% of federal aid
• Students at for profit schools carry on average $30,000 in debt, far higher than rates at traditional schools
• While the industry claims a 10% loan default rate among its alumni, other estimates approach 50%
• For profit schools represent 10% of students and 44% of loan defaults

The bad actors certainly need to be held accountable. But I believe we also need to look at the pathological system that structures opportunities for such action. These hearings are not only indicative of the current economic crisis and the predatory lending practices that fuel it. They hearings highlight structural problems that will shape higher education in the years to come — the demographic expansion of higher education, the spread of vocationalism, and how on-line technologies will facilitate the process.

In the next series of posts on Slow Knowledge, I’ll be examining the relationship between slow knowledge and money when information wants to be free. Is the Internet or the market to blame for the “fastfoodization” of knowledge? Are Edpunks “useful idiots” in the privatization of higher education? How can traditional institutions make slow knowledge relevant in a world of fast information? Stay tuned…

Industrial Intelligence

June 5, 2010

This is a re-post from a blog I keep with my mom about family genealogy called social genealogy. It’s a historical look at the problem of education in a changing economy.

Willis Blaisdell was my great-grandfather. Before he passed when I was 5, he left me a number of neat and thoughtful tokens of his own childhood — a children’s book about the American Revolution, his first fork and knife, and the remnants of his coin collection, much of which he sold to afford nursing care. I remember him as a kind man with a vibrant mind.

My mom’s genealogical research (and her own memories of him) provide more insight into his life.

Willis was the first person in my family tree to complete college. He attended New Hampshire College (now University of New Hampshire), graduating in 1912. This year, almost 100 years later in 2010, I’ll be the first person in my family to complete a PhD. Like him, my access to higher education was opened up by changes in overall education levels and changing ideas about the need for higher education. This quote, from Grubb and Lazzerson’s The Education Gospel, could be about the worlds either of us entered after school:

Social commentators worried about transformations in the economy, about technological changes that required new competencies and new occupations, about the communications revolution…and about international competition. The inequality of earnings was growing. Real annual earning were falling among the working poor, and poverty was increasing . Immigration added to poverty, the sense of instability, and the challenges to schools.

In the early 1900s, as in the early 2000s, the pace of change – in technology, work and society at large, left a generation of youth searching out new opportunities in an uncertain environment. Education was seen as a path to certain mobility. Then, education was a means to produce industrial intelligence in farming, home economics, and industrial labor and there was a movement toward high school for all. Now, education is a means to produce creative intelligence in flexible knowledge industries like consulting, communications, and engineering and there is a movement toward college for all.

The expansion of education encountered a similar contradiction then as now. Those with educational credentials far outnumber(ed) the jobs that require(d) such credentials. As youth were trained in math, reading, and sciences, many of them ended up in unskilled and semi-skilled labor where such knowledge was not relevant. Today, scientific and professional knowledge industries account for roughly 30% of all jobs. By a stricter definition of the knowledge economy, high tech jobs account for only 2.5% of all jobs. While it has been more democratic to train everyone for high skill jobs, economic opportunities have not followed for the vast majority who have today moved from the industrial labor market into often low-wage, unstable service industries.

I find it interesting in light of these statistics, and my own uncertain career future, to look at the jobs Willis had and the relevance of his education to his life choices. After graduation, he did work in agriculture, first as a milk tester, then as a herdsman on his wife (Mattie Allen) parents’ farm. I don’t know much about these occupations, how he felt about them, or whether he felt he was using his degree, but I assume he was using it and enjoyed his work. I also get the sense that during that time, a commitment to his wife’s family farm may have been more important and meaningful than individual career success.

After his wife’s tragic death, he worked on his in-laws’ farm where he also raised his daughter Louise and son John. Later, he remarried and left the farm, where his daughter and son remained. He never returned to farming. Instead, he sold appliances and juices door-to-door. In his old age, he worked as a mail carrier in Gilmanton Ironworks. These occupations were quite unrelated to the scientific management of agriculture.

From Willis’ activities, I get the sense that a college education provided him more than particular skills. He had the range of interests (and the gumption) to invest himself in several careers, even into his 80s. His personal circumstances and relationships to people also likely guided him as much as the social conditions of his time. His successes and struggles offer me hope today.

Reference: W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson. 2004. The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.