Die, American cable tv news, die

Did you know CNN publishes a Fear and Greed Index?  That this is a regular thing?

Hang on.  Let me start again.

Network movie screen capThe first step towards media and information literacy in 2015 is to stop watching American tv news.  Seriously.  TV news has become the real life version of what the classic 1976 satire Network only fantasized about, a barkingly mad and bad excrescence of mock journalism, some terrifying new media entity beyond self-parody.

While some have become anxious about the poor information one can sometimes find on the web, tv news has raced past the worst Wikipedia glitches and plunged into an abyss of its own making.  The story of the rise of the internet as a cultural touchstone has the fall of American tv news as its grim parallel.

A sign of this truth is how easy to find hilarious examples of CNN, MSNBC, or especially Fox “News” emitting embarrassing stories and moments.  In fact, let’s just skip Fox for now, since they’re clearly partisan and openly bonkers.  Their leaders and staff are no doubt busily preparing to become the war-happy government news channel for that Starship Troopers movie.  Let’s set aside MSNBC as well, since they are also partisan, and if more intelligent than Fox (a very low bar indeed) they are relatively marginal.

No, let’s look instead at CNN, the mainstream cable news outfit.  The leading news channel for America in our times.  CNN, the respectable, putatively neutral one.  The current events video feed we find in public spaces.  Just think about that reputation for a moment, that CNN is something like our tv news of record, and realize how far we’ve fallen.

We could start with CNN’s Headline News branch.  The experience of sitting and watching Headline News for a while is a bit like listening to a meth-addled ADHD sufferer screaming into a kaleidoscope, while ragged copies of People magazine and Sports Illustrated get hurled past our faces.  As Wikipedia puts it,

Since 2005… its format has increasingly shifted to long-form tabloid-, opinion-, crime-, and entertainment news-related programming.

“HLN” is also somewhat bloodthirsty.  It’s the home of Nancy Grace, one of the best avatars for America’s addled lust for vengeance since Cotton Mather.

Speaking of which, what’s the leading story on Headline News today?  Of all possible events on Earth, which one do they deem to be of vital, international importance?  What topic will absorb scant journalistic resources and very precious air time?


HLN is America’s television destination for coverage of the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, the man accused of causing the death of Michael Jackson. HLN’s deep bench of talent provides a complete view of events in and around the Los Angeles Superior Court, as well as a comprehensive exploration into the lives of the Jackson family and Murray.

No, this is far too easy. Let’s put Headline News to one side for now, and go for the serious part of CNN, its relatively sober and thoughtful central channel.

Do you remember the time when one of their hosts wondered if supernatural forces or a black hole ate a missing jetliner? Or when said host then took to tweeting and retweeting conspiracy theories as further “explanation”? Continue reading

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Small schools losing numbers to big campuses in New Jersey

Declining student enrollment is an issue across the US, and acutely felt in the northeast.  Today’s case in point concerns New Jersey, where many private institutions are seeing student numbers decline.  Meanwhile, larger and public schools are gaining. Perhaps this is a representative story pointing to developments impacting the nation as a whole.

New Jersey Population map.Kelly Heyboer describes a situation whereby “most of New Jersey’s traditional, private four-year colleges and universities have lost students since 2009. ”

Some of the state’s smallest colleges have been the hardest hit. The College of Saint Elizabeth, a Catholic college in Morristown, saw its enrollment drop nearly 35 percent between 2009 and 2014, according to data compiled by the state Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.

The declines were similar at Georgian Court University (down 24 percent), Centenary College (down 21 percent), Drew University (down 21 percent), Rider University (down 12 percent) and most of the small and mid-size private colleges, according to the data.

Those are very large numbers.  They led Rider to commit a queen sacrifice, axing a fourteen full-time faculty and closing thirteen programs.  The distribution is unsurprising:

Majors that will be eliminated beginning next fall are art and art history, advertising, American studies, business education, French, geosciences, German, marine science, philosophy, piano and web design. The bachelor of arts program in economics and the graduate program in organizational leadership will also be eliminated.

And yet student numbers aren’t down at all campuses. “Seton Hall University, Monmouth University and Fairleigh Dickinson University held steady or had small decreases, according to the data.”  In fact,

enrollment at Princeton University and Stevens Institute of Technology, the state’s top-ranked private colleges, both saw healthy increases of more than 6 percent between 2009 and 2014.

Saint Peter’s University, which recently gained university status, and Pillar College, a small Christian college that opened a new campus in Newark, were also able to increase enrollment over the same time period…

Does this mean we’re seeing a broad shift in student preferences, migrating from small to large institutions?  Heyboer doesn’t give us total state enrollment figures, so we can’t tell if the total picture is of decline, or a wash, as numbers move from one group of schools to another.  To what extent are Princeton, Pillar, et al winning new students from beyond the state’s borders?

Rider’s president doesn’t think this is a local issue.

“This is a national trend. There is no question about it,” [Rider president] Dell’Omo said. “Schools are all going through this and trying to tighten their belts and really allocate their resources in the most efficient ways possible.”

(thanks to Jeff Benton for the link, and Wikipedia for the map)

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For educators, a charge on this Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, a holiday created to commemorate the end of World War I.  I have many things to say about this (the enormous importance of WWI, the ignored majority of that conflict, the role of civilians, etc), but will confine myself to one single point right now:

Educators, remember that a growing number of your students are veterans.

I rarely hear this discussed in American higher education, which is a criminal lapse.  It should be obvious, given that the United States has been fighting a series of wars at a planetary scale since September 2001.  That’s the longest war this country has ever fought – and a fact we barely discuss.

Why isn’t this fact more important to academia?  I think the professional and volunteer nature of the military plays a role.  Unlike a draft, which by design draws broadly on society, a volunteer force tends to stem from local traditions, family history, regional cultures, and other unevenly distributed drivers.

You can get a sense of this by looking at the geography of military service.  Generally, they don’t start from the northeast, that center of campuses and opinion-making.  Instead, America’s soldiers often some from the deep South and Appalachia:

"State-by-state enlistment rates, grouped into regional subsets."

“State-by-state enlistment rates, grouped into regional subsets.”

Not the regions which drive discussion in general, or within academia in particular.

Another reason is the way two successive presidents have shaped what the Pentagon calls the Global War On Terrorism.  Neither Bush(2) nor Obama have mobilized the nation into a massive, WWI or WWII-style posture.  Instead, as I said above, it’s a professionals’ war, and one sometimes fought with powerful technologies at a distance.

I saw this image years ago, and it haunts me:

“America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.”

America is not at war.
The Marine Corps is at war;
America is at the mall.

That’s a terrible sense of separation.  Yes, veterans have always returned to their societies with a powerful, sometimes irreversible sense of estrangement (check the extraordinary Achilles in Vietnam for a start).  But this current war, the global war on terror, seems to take this to a higher level.

Think about it.  A portion of the undergraduate and graduate student body have lived through war in a distancing, traumatizing way, and are now seeking classes in an academia that hasn’t prepared for this sort of thing in a generation or more.  How many campuses, how many academics take this seriously?

Some academics pay careful attention to this.  Here’s a Military Times list of “Best for Vets: Colleges 2015“.  Check who triumphs there: the University of Nebraska Omaha, the University of Maryland University College, Nebraska’s Central Community College .  Bravo to them!  But how often do we read of those schools in the Chronicle, or hear them discussed at conferences, or see them referenced in the academic social media realm?  For more along these lines, search for best colleges for veterans.  Notice how many online institutions lead the results.

What are they doing right, that other schools can learn from?

More: how can we discuss this more openly, and provide a better tertiary education experience for veterans?

This topic isn’t going away.  While president Obama wound down one war (Iraq) and might finish the US role in Afghanistan, forces are still arrayed around the world.  Those forces, those people, have lifetimes ahead of us.  If “lifelong learning” means a damn to we educators, there’s a multi-generation charge ahead of us right there.  The veteran is going to be a campus presence for decades to come.

Over on Facebook I have been posting selected World War I poems, each of which I’ve taught and find devastatingly powerful.  I won’t repeat them here, but you can follow these links for a sampler.

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Revolution in Higher Education: chapter 2

Revolution in Higher Education, coverContinuing with our reading of Richard DeMillo’s Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable (2015) (publisher; Amazon): this week we’re discussing chapter 2, “Shifting Landscape.”

Here DeMillo carries on his account of the MOOC story which he launched in chapter 1.  This chapter takes us from 2012 through 2013, following the expansion of MOOCs across American research-1 institutions and the breakout of Coursera, edX, and Udacity.  The launch of Georgia Tech’s MOOC-based computer science master’s degree is central here.

DeMillo carries on with several themes.  We see more of institutions working with MOOCs (especially Penn, University of Texas, and Georgia Tech), and less of campuses opposing them.  Economic sustainability continues to be a problem, unsolved at this point (and now), although we see corporations start to show interest. “There was a chorus of critics demanding to know who would pay for ‘free’ MOOCs”(1244).

Most important in this chapter is the goal of using technology to broaden access to higher education, by lowering costs and expanding the number of students who can engage with university materials (lectures only in this chapter).  DeMillo sees MOOCs as unbundling academic content, specifically extracting lectures and the possibility of assessment from the rest of university functions.

It’s not entirely a rosy account.  We see opposition appear:

Problems with individual courses, dissenting voices, and a deafening lack of enthusiasm from university presidents becomes as newsworthy as another batch of university partners for Coursera or edX. (Kindle location 1093)


Charges that MOOC providers were out to decimate the ranks of traditional faculty members or that students would be shunted to impersonal, ineffective videos versus high-quality classrooms were common.  Alumni were worried that large pools of enrolled online students would dilute brands that had been carefully built over a hundred years.(1202)

And “[t]he poor quality of many MOOCs did not strengthen the hand of early enthusiasts” (1210).

Problems appear in trying to practically accomplish unbundling, including determining costs (1295; 1109 etc.). After portraying criticism and aspiration alike, DeMillo synthesizes things thusly: “this was a high-risk bet that higher education was going to change radically” (1100).  He sees some criticisms as missing the point, when, for example, critics spot bad quality in classes, but don’t notice their rapid correction (1218), a point Clay Shirky made back in late 2012.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • DeMillo sees for-pay assessment as solving the MOOC dropout problem (1253).
  • We reach further back in history here, following the track of DeMillo’s previous book  Abelard To Apple. DeMillo traces a struggle in American universities between practical learning and liberal education, starting with the Morrill Act (1862) and Columbia University’s reinvention of the undergraduate curriculum (1126 et al).  We also get a reference to the history of digital innovations grabbing markets and depressing prices, starting with Craigslist and newspaper classified ads (1303).
  • There’s a fascinating, inconclusive discussion of determining and pricing faculty productivity (1312 et seq).  DeMillo explores the possibility that external grants, federal and private, somehow distort the ways universities charge for classes, but doesn’t really end up with a clear argument.
  • Michael Crow appears, but before his more famous run as Arizona State University’s president.  DeMillo links Crow to good old and doomed Fathom.com (1152).  This doesn’t add pessimism to the chapter, however.
  • Another online learning antecedent/alternative appears: Columbia Video Network (1186)
  • DeMillo sees MOOC developers using mastery learning techniques (1218), at least in terms of designing classes.

Overall, chapter two continues Revolution’s historical and aspirational drives. It’s more balanced that the introduction and chapter 1.

What do you make of it?

Next week, starting November 16th, is chapter 3: Levity, Brevity, and Repetition.

Would you like to follow along?  Simply snag a copy of the book from your library or MIT Press or the local bookshop or Amazon (etc.), and get reading.  I’ll post about each chapter at the start of each week, so you can add comments there.  I’ve set up a tag for all posts: demillorevolution.  Twitter’s also a fine place to chat (I’m @BryanAlexander).  If you’re into Goodreads, let us know so we can catch up (here’s me).

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First impressions of the New York Times VR project

This weekend the New York Times launched a virtual reality effort.  The “newspaper” published a 3d video documentary for mobile devices, and also distributed Google Cardboard sets to some home subscribers.

Here are some notes based on my first impressions.  For context, I haven’t played much with VR since the 1990s, when I used MUDs, MOOs, helmet-and-glove setups etc. in some of my classes.  I’m interested in Cardboard and Oculus Rift, but haven’t done much with them so far.

To get to the Times’ VR content I waded through the pages of its magazine. There I found print versions of the story and directions on how to get the apps, which are available for free from the Android and iOS stores. (The irony of finding a story about people suffering horribly amidst lavish ads targeted at very rich people is obvious and pungent.)

“The Displaced” is essentially that mobile device app, which pulls in some very, very large downloads.  You can watch the results from your phone, or by looking at your phone when it rests in Google’s cardboard goggles.

New York Times VR screenshot.

NYT screenshot.

Formally, the VR content consists of several video files.  You watch and listen to them as they play.  As befits video, you can pause the flow.  Unlike most video, you can swivel your phone and/or head around to peer into a scene in all directions.  It’s a good idea to rewind and rewatch scenes from different angles, since it’s easy to miss key details.

It took work to get into these clips.  Turning my phone didn’t always yield the intuitive response.  It wasn’t clear where the main action was going to be.  Finding subtitles sometimes took rotating the point of view.

I enjoyed some techno-nostalgia, remembering taking a class to a VR lab in Ann Arbor in 1997, and two of my students making a final class project out of homebrew VR kit.  “The Displaced” is far better as video, of course.

Watching and listening, I was reminded of a classic element in computer gaming. “The Displaced” is like a group of cut scenes: linear, essentially non-interactive at a narrative level, potentially content-rich.

These are emotionally affective videos.  It would be hard for them not to be, since the subject matter – displaced children – tugs primal heartstrings. But the VR adds to the emotion, partly due to good filming, and also to expanding our sense of space. That sounds cold, but I’m referring to being able to see Oleg’s shattered schoolhouse, or to track refugees as they chase down airborne food aid.

This isn’t complex narrative work.  It’s really a set of short interviews with the questions left out.

As a storytelling device, I’m concerned about production requirements at this stage.  These are professionally produced videos, not DIY, and not made by the stories’ subjects. This account describes teams struggling to get the tech working.  When will non-media people be able to make VR stories about themselves?

Back to space: that might be the signature contribution of VR to storytelling.  Establishing a three dimensional volume and letting viewers romp through it can be powerful.  I’m not sure if we know what types of stories are best suited for this, or when photos and video would suffice.  What stories benefit most from emphasizing location, not just as setting but as a continuous stage or omnipresent fellow character?  I didn’t see the recent US presidential debates in VR, and am not sure they would have benefitted.

I’m intrigued, skeptical, and interested in doing some work in this space.  I also have more thoughts about what VR means for storytelling and education, but that’s for another post.  Or posts.


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Blogging from the hospital

Bryan working in the emergency roomThis morning I blogged about way the digital and face-to-face worlds are increasingly intertwining. The context was a major IT and education conference.  Little did I know that I’d return to this theme in a far more personal sense.

I’m writing this post from the emergency room of Porter Hospital, about 40 minutes from my home.  As you can see from the photo, I’m a patient.  Porter staff are working like inspired, kind demons to fix me up.

Yesterday I was in another hospital for a couple of highly… intrusive procedures.  Things seemed to go well until early this morning, when they didn’t.  Things went very badly indeed.  I’ll spare you all the amazing Cronenbergian medical details, except for saying man! that’s a lot of blood.  As a Gothic lit person, I am professionally fascinated.

Porter has WiFi, and while it’s on I can get some work done.  So between bouts of unmentionable things, I can reply to emails, work on presentations, write up that report, use social media, and conduct my morning research, as best I can.

So let me share three observations about this sudden, strange story.

First, about that intertwined physical and digital: enough with the “online world is destroying human interactions”. Enough with it, I say!  I have received so much emotional support via these supposedly inhuman and inhumane devices.  From Twitter, from Facebook, from email have come expressions of kindness, wisdom, welcome sick humor, offers of favors, and more than I can probably process all at once.  This is an essential part of the online world, friends, and we’re nuts if we don’t not only acknowledge, but celebrate it.

Second, about this seemingly mad work ethic: reader, know that I love what I do very much, and work very hard at it.  This means you’ll find me typing away on ferries crossing bays, or on planes crossing oceans, or in cars bumping on awful roads, at all hours of the day.  Bryan energetically typing between intubations (oh yes) is what it means for me to be passionate about my work.

Third: my wife took the photo on this post.  She’s an amazing person in general, and has been the soul of generosity and wisdom in keeping me going.  I couldn’t do this without her, without her love.  I love you very much, Ceredwyn.

…and that’s all for now.  I’ll return to blogging depending on when and where various procedures occur.

All best, dear readers.

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Further reflections on EDUCAUSE 2015

EDUCAUSE 2015 annual conference logoLast week was the major EDUCAUSE annual conference.  I already shared materials and thoughts from my various presentations and events.  Here I’d like to offer some more observations.

And they aren’t in any particular order.  They are also personal reflections, since the even was HUGE, hosting around 7000 people, and I’m just one person.

Etextbooks were fairly present.  Sessions discussed them in terms of data analytics.  Even classic publisher Norton is getting into the game, with Smartwork, ZAPS (Psychology Labs), and InQuizitive.

Data analytics were all over the place.  Publishers, LMSes, CIOs all want more of this.

Casey Green takes a question.

Casey Green takes a question, speaking of excellent data.

Course improvement.  The Sydney-led BEST Network is an example of this, as is the very interesting Smart Sparrow (I hope to blog more about them later on).  This might complement, but is different from data analytics.

Open.  Many quiet signs of OER.

Growing integration of virtual and physical: this just keeps happening, despite our popular fears of the internet devouring human life.  I mentioned the nice ELI virtual session, .

Participants seemed eager to work both virtual and face-to-face realms to improve communication. As a small example, I was only able to see a few minutes of Michelle Weise‘s talk, “What’s After “Next” in Higher Education?” On Twitter I asked her for access to the slides, and she promptly webbed them up.  (Thank you!)  We never actually conversed, but being in the same room led to a productive online exchange (for me, at least).

And Twitter!  Things were on fire.  Aras Bozkurt helpfully created this social network analysis of Twitter discussion and influencers, on the fly, during the event itself, because he’s awesome that way:

Twitter ELI15 Aras Bozkurt

In short: the old conference walls are continuing to tumble down, brick by pixel.  Not all the way, but watch this trend. Continue reading

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