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Open Ed Talk:  Keeping the Person in Personalized Learning

On March 20, 2024, I gave a talk (rant?) about keeping the person in personalized learning. The slides can best be described as a collection of angry screenshots, so I won’t be sharing them, but in the off chance anyone is interested in the sources/information, here it is:

Student Works I highlighted:

You don’t have to mandate ice cream

I heard today that once upon a time, CUNY tried to mandate that every faculty member be required to use Blackboard and only Blackboard.  That attempt was unsuccessful, as I hope this draft policy will be as well, for the same reason- if the LMS is good (as we have been promised it is), then there is no reason to force its usage- faculty will use it because it is good and it is there.  Most CUNY faculty members already use Blackboard- somewhere around 90%.  And they use it in lots of different ways, which is great- different instructors and students experimenting is how we find new and better ways to teach, whether we are online or in person, or a mix of both.  

color photo of three ice cream cones

Apparently, I’m incapable of responding to this draft policy without beating a metaphor to death, so here’s one more.  If you are planning a party for a large group and looking for the perfect dessert, ice cream is a great choice.  Lots of people like ice cream.  It works really well as a sweet treat and it will make many of your guests very happy.  You don’t have to force people to eat the ice cream- if ice cream is available, lots of people will eat it voluntarily and be appreciative of the tasty treat.  However, there is no way 100% of your guests will eat the ice cream.  Some might be allergic to the ingredients, some may prefer savory to sweet, and some might have brought their own homemade dessert that is tailor-made to their needs and preferences.  If you force-fed ice cream to every single guest at your party, you would be a terrible host- it’s rude and you could make some of your guests really sick!  

Or imagine you were grocery shopping for your family or friends, and, being the considerate shopper you are, you decide to buy some dessert.  It’s hard to go wrong with ice cream!  However, if the only sweet you ever bring home is ice cream, your family may get sick of it.  And you would all be missing out on the wide universe of delicious things in the world- there could be amazing sweets that you would like even more than ice cream, but if you only ever have ice cream, you’ll never know.  

I’m not sure how much CUNY is paying for Brightspace, as their pricing seems to be custom, but one estimate is $30,000/500 users for 12 months.  If we use 225,000 as a rough estimate of students (of course, there are thousands of instructors and administrators who would also be users, but let’s be conservative in our estimating), that would be about $13.5 million per year.  I know CUNY negotiates, and I hope we aren’t paying nearly that much, but even so- that’s a lot of ice cream money!  I hope it ends up being a sweet deal for our students, faculty, and staff- I really do.  I hope many students and faculty will use it to enhance their learning and teaching.  But I also hope that CUNY realizes it should let its faculty members choose whether and how to use the LMS- force-feeding Brightspace is a bad idea. 

One LMS to rule them all? 

one LMS to find them, one LMS to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

Movie poster for The Lord of the Rings, with a large burning eye encircled by a gld ring, with text that says "One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them"

The draft policy for mandatory sole LMS usage is a massive incursion into academic freedom.  While the EVP has offered several reasons for this policy, none of them justify this curtailing of instructors’ academic freedom.  Isildur had good reasons and good intentions when he kept the one ring to himself, but it still ended badly for him.  

This policy is the functional equivalent of having every session of an in person class observed and/or recorded (a clear violation of our contract).  I have no doubt that being able to monitor what is happening inside of every online class is attractive to administrators, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  The villain in Lord of the Rings, Sauron, used his all-seeing eye to dominate all of the peoples of Middle Earth.  The draft policy would give CUNY the same all-seeing eye into each of our online classes.   

But extensive surveillance of students and instructors is not the only harm.  This policy would prevent innovation in online learning (and of course, in in-person learning too, if the policy is extended to the rest of our classes).  In learning, as in magic rings, one size does not fit all. This draft policy would prevent instructors from exploring the benefits of open educational practices, which the state of New York has already given CUNY more than $20 million to support since 2018.  By enclosing all online learning solely in the LMS, we remove real, authentic learning experiences that are vital to preparing our students to succeed after graduating.  Working solely in the LMS teaches students how to use the LMS, which is a skill they are extremely unlikely to need after they graduate; it also sends the message that learning should be limited, contained, and left behind as soon as the semester is over (as students lose access to their classes in the LMS at the end of every term).  Learning and working on the CUNY Academic Commons, by contrast, gives students familiarity with WordPress, which is a significant technical skill students can then put on their resumes.  How can we prepare our students for the challenging careers of tomorrow if we are prohibited from having students use real online tools in our classes?   It is right that CUNY should invest in an excellent LMS so it is available for instructors who want it.  But it is incredibly short-sighted to hamstring the world-class educators creating meaningful and effective learning experiences for their students by mandating that they exclusively use the one LMS and forgo all other platforms and tools.  

And if you think this policy has nothing to do with you, because you don’t teach online, or because you don’t use anything outside of the LMS anyway, I would refer you to what happened to the Shire at the end of the Lord of the Rings (even though it didn’t make the cut into the films).  The hobbits of the Shire thought they could ignore the rest of Middle Earth and focus on their own little area, but this did not protect them from significant damage.  Just as representatives from all of the peoples of Middle Earth formed the fellowship to destroy the one ring, it is incumbent on all of us- whether you’re full-time or part-time,* whether you teach intro classes at a community college or graduate seminars, or anything in between- to oppose this badly written and hastily presented draft policy.  

*  Your efforts are especially necessary if you’re full-time, as our contingent colleagues are more vulnerable to pressure and repurcussions. 

Does it though?  

(TL:DR summary: increasing administrative efficiency does not justify radically curtailing academic freedom, surveilling instructors and students, and limiting innovation and real world experience for our classes.)

Does the draft policy forced LMS use actually do what it says it does?

Color still from the movie Thor Ragnorak.  A white man with a blong beard is wearing armor and has a squished expression on his face.  Text says, "Does it though"

The University-supported LMS is CUNY’s only platform for delivery of online instruction that:

  • Addresses user data privacy under various privacy laws, including FERPA, GDPR, CCPA, COPPA, PIPEDA, ISO 27001, 27018, SOC 1 Type 2, SOC 2 Type 2, Cloud Security Alliance (CSA), and Security Trust and Assurance Registry (STAR);
    • Does it though? I am not a lawyer, but this seems like an alphabet soup dump of privacy laws and regulations to scare faculty and staff into quiet acquiescence.  There are many others who can speak on this with more authority than I can, but I’ll pick some low-hanging fruit:  it’s unlikely that GDPR, a policy of the European Union about data processing in Europe, or COPPA, a federal regulation about collecting data from children under age 13, would apply to anything happening in my university class in New York.  So why are they included in the draft policy? 
  • Contains tools to assess, support, and improve accessibility of course materials to facilitate compliance with legal requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act;
    • Does it though? ADA compliance is both ethically and legally essential, but forcing sole LMS usage (and automated evaluations/reports conducted by admins without the knowledge or consent of instructors) does not seem the best way to make sure our instructors are providing learning materials that are accessible to all of our students.  Providing extensive, funded professional development about how and why instructors should make their courses accessible would ultimately be more effective towards achieving this goal- Kingsborough’s Center for e-Learning’s Universal Design for Learning Summer Workshop is an excellent example, and you can see just one of the great training materials designed by KCeL to help faculty make their courses accessible here.  Sufficiently resourcing our campus centers for disability services and centers for teaching and learning would also go further towards providing accessible learning experiences for students than surveilling online classes.  
  • Is integrated with CUNYfirst to facilitate automatic data transfers such as class rosters and grades;
    • Does it though? I suspect this is more of a wishful thinking situation- this hasn’t been the case in Blackboard, and two decades in CUNY make me skeptical that a new LMS will seamlessly transfer data automatically (this is less a complaint against any new LMS than a statement of fact about how difficult it is work with CUNYFirst). 
  • Supports best practices framework for instructional design for distance education courses and programs, aligned with national standards (e.g., Universal Design for Learning);
    • Does it though? How, exactly, does this policy support best practices?  By making it easier to surveil online classes (their forms, designs, and content, as well as student’s work) and applying a score?  That sounds like the ability to constantly observe our classes, and I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed?  Even if such constant intrusion was allowed, you run the risk of reducing teaching to checking off whether an instructor posted 3 times in their classroom (the way some rubrics of online courses reduce learning to “posting 3 times and replying twice”).. This is bad for designing our classes, and an equally bad way to measure the quality of instruction.  Also, if we’re going to be using best practices for distance education, will we be cutting all class sizes to the recommended best practice of no more than 12-15 students?
  • Contains interactive features that foster student engagement and active participation;
    • Does it though? This is a big promise, and I would love to see what these interactive features are supposed to be.  So far as I have seen, they don’t amount to much more than the same automated surveillance emails currently available in Blackboard- the ability to set rules to send generic emails to students who have not entered the classroom, or spent enough time in the classroom, or submitted an assignment in X number of days.  Automated emails do not improve student engagement- real communities of learning, supported by authentic relationships between instructors and students do.  Furthermore, if a student is struggling with a crisis, an automated email may actually do more harm than good (while a sincere communication, from an instructor who has developed a relationship with them, could help them connect to relevant campus resources and find their way back to the course).  Finally, sending automated emails to students sends the message that automation is the way to manage the class- if faculty use automation and robotic replies to “foster student engagement,” can we really be surprised if students resort to using robots (Chat GPT and the like) to do the work for these classes?
  • Provides 24 x 7 x 365 support for faculty, students, and staff;
    • Does it though? This is a huge promise, and I’d love to see the details.  Will this support be provided by CUNY staff, who are being compensated fairly for this high level of availability and service? Or will it be provided by the vendor (and how much will that cost on an ongoing basis?).  I take issue with the claim that D2L is the only platform CUNY has that has excellent support for students, faculty, and staff, as I’ve gotten extremely fast responses from both CUNY Academic Commons and CUNY Manifold support.  I’m talking incredibly fast- I have  emailed at 3am, and gotten a response with a solution by 8am, or emailed a question on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and gotten a response within the hour!  And the responses I got were from actual members of the CUNY community who know and care about our shared students- I doubt that D2L’s tech support can deliver that.
  • Records academic engagement for financial aid disbursement to confirm eligibility for Title IV funds; and
    • Does it though? “Records academic engagement”-  nothing like reducing teaching and learning to “did they enter some amount of keystrokes into a discussion board” to really soothe the academic heart.  Who cares WHAT the engagement is, or if it is even actually engagement, as long as it can be recorded easily!  (Please also see the response to the next point as well, since the same answer applies in terms of “this policy only applies to online classes”)   
  • Enables reporting compliance for IPEDS, ADA, homeland security/visa status, and NC-SARA.
    • Does it though? “Enables reporting compliance” is another way of saying it’s easy for those with admin privileges to pop into a class (or hoover up its backend data) to streamline their reporting process by cutting the instructor out.  CUNY must already have processes for meeting these legal requirements that do not require mandatory LMS usage- why does the ECV believe that these processes are suddenly so terrible as to require a massive incursion into academic freedom?  And even if the processes are in fact so cumbersome or problematic, they would still have to be used for in-person classes, unless it is the goal of the ECV to use this policy as a test balloon, with the intention of soon requiring that all classes regardless of modality must use the one LMS. 

Overall:  increasing administrative efficiency does not justify radically curtailing academic freedom, surveilling instructors and students, and limiting innovation and real world experience for our classes.

Draft LMS Policy is a giant lump of coal for faculty and students

“Lump of coal” is the most suitable-for-work way I can describe the terrible draft policy on LMS usage I received today. I can’t find anything about this policy on the EVP’s website despite the memo indicating them as the “Policy Owner,” so I’ve put a digital copy up here if you’d like to read it; you can also see the text of the draft policy and memo where John Jay Professor Andrew Sidman has posted it. Which means that this draft policy is being shared not on the EVP’s website, but on the CUNY Academic Commons, a platform that CUNY created for research, teaching, learning, and connecting across all of its campuses, which currently has 46,723 members, and which the draft policy would prohibit faculty from using to teach their students. This is honestly too much irony to handle during finals week.

Which brings me to the question of the timing of this draft policy process. The timing is so specifically bad as to imply either a complete obliviousness to university schedules or a desire to avoid meaningful discussion about the policy with key stakeholders such as instructors or students. The draft policy was circulated to the CUNY colleges on December 13, with feedback requested by January 30. To an outsider, this timing might seem okay, if a little short for the consideration of a major policy. But anyone who has spent any time in higher ed can clearly see this is the policy equivalent of a Friday news dump– only six weeks, with no notice, at a time of multiple holiday celebrations and then into January, where faculty are often busy with their research and preparing their classes for spring and students are in between classes and not on campus. It is hard to believe that the EVP of the nation’s largest public urban university did not realize how limiting the timing of their rollout would be, so it seems more like an attempt to sneak this policy in with minimal scrutiny, instead of a genuine good faith attempt to gather feedback from the CUNY community on important questions of teaching and learning.

Because of this terrible timing, I don’t have time to write out the reasons I think this draft policy would be extremely damaging to teaching and learning at CUNY, at least not until I finish grading. Rest assured, as soon as I finish giving my students feedback on their excellent work (wherever they have chosen to share it this semester), I’ll make the time to write about the privacy, academic freedom, equity, and basic dignity problems for both teachers and learners that abound in this draft policy. I don’t yet know what to do, but I know that doing nothing is not an option. If you’ve got ideas for how to oppose this draft policy, please tag me in!