Education Needs to be Inconvenient

Seth Godin is one of the most thought-provoking thinkers I know.  Here’s a recent blog post of his that FSEM students might find interesting:

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Imagination and Education

At one of the first sessions of my First Year Seminar this year, we brought in Naomi De la Tour, via Zoom conference from the Institute for Advanced Teaching & Learning at Warwick University to lead  a discussion on imagination, risk-taking and education.  Naomi did a fantastic job.  Regretfully, the internet connection was less than ideal, cutting out fairly regularly during the session.  As a result, Naomi provided a post script to the discussion, which I include here:


Dear all,

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to participate in the class as smoothly and seamlessly as I would have liked. We seem to be having some issues with the wifi here.

I enjoyed hearing your stories of transformative learning experiences. Thank you for sharing them. One of the things I would like to invite you to think about following the seminar is the difference between how we experience our own learning and the way it is understood or described by the system in which we learn or those working within it. As I listened to your stories, the words ‘failure’ and ‘success’ or their synonyms came up a number of times. For example, one of the stories I heard on Friday described how one of you (forgive me; I didn’t hear the name) felt that a significant learning experience had been not doing as well in a spelling bee as hoped; they described learning the lesson that sometimes success doesn’t correlate to effort, and you can fail even if you have worked hard. This is a lesson I find I keep having to learn in different situations as my life goes on (I’m trying to move away from a conception of learning as something you tick off when you’ve ‘studied’ it and towards an idea of recognising the value — and inevitability — of learning apparently the same thing many times over, sometimes because the circumstances are different and sometimes because I am understanding the nuances or applications differently) but I’d also like to gently challenge the idea that such a learning experience was a ‘failure’. If we don’t get as good a mark in something, or place as high as we would like in a competition as we would like, do we need to use the language or emotion of failure to describe it? If we have learned something that has altered our understanding or way of seeing the world might it be that, in addition to the experience of failure, we can have a sense of gain or learning? This might sound semantic, but the language we use to tell stories of our learning experiences can create or reinforce ways of imagining what ‘good’ learning is, and we can embed those in our approaches to our own interactions with learning, success and failure and our own identities.

Below, I’ve offered a few prompts and questions as an invitation to you to think about the difference between ‘official’ or ‘institutional’ learning, (perhaps this might include learning that’s listed on a lesson plan, in learning outcomes or that we might be tested on officially in exams at the end of a semester or year) and ‘unofficial’ or implicit learning that might go unrecognised or unacknowledged. It was interesting to me how many of the learning experiences you described happened outside the ‘official’ environment of a classroom, for example. This is an opportunity to reflect on your experiences and insights as ‘expert’ learners who have succeeded in the system well enough to be studying at a prestigious university.

  1. This poem by Mary Oliver is set in a classroom.

The Poet Dreams of the Classroom

Mary Oliver

I dreamed

I stood up in class

and I said aloud:


why is algebra important?

Sit down, he said…..

Then I dreamed

I stood up once more and said:

Teacher, my heart is falling asleep

and it wants to wake up.

It needs to be outside.

Sit down, he said.

What is your response to reading it? What do you think the student in the poem is learning in the described interactions? Given the teacher’s responses, what do you think he has internalised and learned as being important in the context of this class? How is he teaching that to the student?

2. In this excerpt from Lynda Barry’s graphic novel ‘What it is’ she talks about her schooling teaching her to ask two questions of herself whenever she draws. What do you think of her questions and the way she describes learning them? What questions have you learned to ask of yourself in relation to your learning or about something that you love to do?

3. In Nick Sousanis’s book Unflattening (first chapter here), he looks at the homogenisation and standardisation that underpins some education and makes an argument for how we internalise that within ourselves. Do you feel this is relevant to your experience of education? If so, how? If not, why?

Finally, a few more questions for you to reflect on in relation to your own experiences

  • How has your educational experience shaped your understanding of what ‘good learning’ is?
  • What do you wish to do with your life,? What do you believe a life lived well would look like for you? In what ways has learning and education helped or hindered you with this so far?
  • How you can you notice the stories you tell about your education?
  • In what ways might you think about further developing your own autonomy and agency in your education experiences?

Thank you again for inviting me to join you on Friday. I wish you a learning journey of surprise and transformation as you go through your university life. Though, as surprise and transformation rarely happen easily or in spaces of intellectual comfort, you may not thank me for that wish for you 😉

Other readings that might challenge your thinking about education:

bell hooks: Engaged Pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour: Ethical online learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice

James and Brookfield: Engaging Imagination: Helping students become creative and reflective thinkers (Intro)

Neil Postman: End of Education

Paulo Freire: Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Maxine Greene: Releasing the Imagination

Best wishes,

Naomi de la Tour


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What Makes a Compelling Faculty Development Opportunity?

This post is going to be short and I hope sweet. The best faculty development opportunities I’ve experienced in my career haven’t been designed primarily (or explicitly?) for faculty development:  Examples include UMW’s Faculty Academy, ELI Annual Conferences, at least in the early years, the SERC project, and OpenEd Conferences, to name just a few.   What have they had in common? They were rich scholarly experiences, rather than training per se. That workshop on Excel may have taught me a few tricks with the software, but they didn’t fundamentally change the way I teach or think about teaching. The best faculty development opportunities were framed in a way that drew me in, that made me think the question they were exploring was interesting, even if I came in thinking the opposite. (I could name some of these, but I don’t wish to upset any of my friends.  What you should remember is that I ended up in the right place.) These opportunities became intellectually compelling so that for a while (an hour, a day, a few days—whatever the length of the event) I forgot about real life and immersed myself in the problem at hand. And then, much to my surprise, I found myself thinking of ways this exploration could be applied to my teaching.  In short, these activities were about scholarly learning rather than training.

That’s what I’ve found rewarding about #OpenLearning17-18.  There were several topics in #OpenLearning17 that I didn’t think would interest me, but somehow I was carried along by the interest of my co-learners, and then found that I was interested as well.  Part of it was the journey–the fact that I was studying a topic with a group of colleagues who, in the process, became friends.  I wanted to contribute to our collective learning, so I had to take the process seriously.  This is especially true in an open learning environment.  Part of it was the conference effect–that what was happening was occurring outside of my normal work.  That’s why going away, either literally or virtually, matters.  With open learning, the colleagues I worked with included people I might never have had a chance to meet in real life.  Yes, non-economists! 😉  That diversity (of place, of discipline) made the experience much richer for me.  And it continues to do so.


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Tolstoy, Economics and OER

OpenStax - $ Contribution page

David Wiley wrote a recent blog post that had me scratching my head. In the post, David argued that OER is in a feature of the resource, not who is providing it and whether the provider is offering it for free. This whole thing got me thinking about OER, commercial publishers and non-profit providers.

I know there are people who are opposed in principle to publishers who charge for their products in order to make a profit. I don’t have a problem with profit. If a chef opens a restaurant in my community and offers good food at a reasonable price, I am happy if they make a profit with the business, because that means they are likely to stay around. What I do have a problem with is excess profit. My favorite example, which some of you will remember, is Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster offered lousy service and charged too much. But they were the only game in town, so if you wanted to watch a video that night, you pretty much had to go to Blockbuster.

The first rule of economics is that nothing is produced for free; if it’s free to use, someone else is paying. This is not a moral judgment. Rather, it’s a fact of life. Everything (or almost everything) has a cost to produce. Image of Leo Tolstoy dressed in peasant clothing

Leo Tolstoy gave up the copyright to his early novels, and adopted a peasant lifestyle.   I can’t imagine what his family thought of that. Most of us are not like Tolstoy. We all need to provide for ourselves, and our families. When I helped write OpenStax’ Principles of Economics, I was paid a reasonable stipend to compensate me for the time. It didn’t make me rich, but it was enough. If I was one of those heroic authors, like my colleague Caitie Findlayson, who writes an open textbook without the support of any publisher, I would be able to do it only because I had the luxury of time as part of my professional responsibilities as a tenured faculty member. In other words, I would be implicitly compensated by my institution, but the cost would be the other scholarly work I wasn’t able to do in that time. There is always an opportunity cost. If I was working 9 to 5 somewhere, I wouldn’t be able to do the project at all.

OpenStax is a nonprofit organization. Where did they get the money to pay me, and to pay the other expenses of producing the book? The answer is grant funding. Grants are great, but they run out. Then what? How does OpenStax pay for the servers on which the book resides? How do they pay for updates and corrections? How do they pay for new editions? This is a perpetual challenge for non-profits. As far as I can tell, OpenStax has a four-pronged approach:

  1. They ask for donations. I don’t know how successful this us, but I suspect it’s not much.
  2. Ten percent of their adoptions are in print form. They sell these at slightly over cost, which means those copies generate some revenue.
  3. They look for more grants, but granting agencies prefer to fund new books to maintaining existing ones.
  4. They find commercial partners to work with, like Sapling Learning. Sapling offers the OpenStax text with online end-of-chapter problem sets and quizzes. In return, Sapling gives OpenStax a modest kickback, and then OpenStax markets the Sapling option. (I mention Sapling because I used their product after I adopted OpenStax. OpenStax has many more partners than Sapling.)

Do people criticize OpenStax because of their affiliation with Sapling who charges a fee for the book plus ancillaries? I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. Do they criticize OpenStax for openly allowing Sapling to use their open texts? I’ve not heard that criticism. Have people criticized Sapling for exploiting the open license of OpenStax? I haven’t heard that either.

The elephant in the room is commercial publishers who are beginning to offer OER wrapped in a package for a price. Traditional proponents of OER are rightly suspicious of commercial publishers who are new to the OER field. Commercial publishers have a long history of charging very high prices for textbooks, higher than can be justified by costs.

Take “Inclusive Access” for example. If you’re not familiar, Inclusive Access is a marketing venture by commercial publishers to rent digital texts to an entire class for a discounted price. Students are on the hook to their university for the bill, unless they opt out, so the “nudge” is in the wrong place. Inclusive Access strikes me as akin to OpenWashing. While the digital text is cheaper than a new print edition, at my school at least it’s not very cheap, coming in a bit under $100. It’s a pretty good deal for the commercial publishers, since the marginal cost of a digital copy is about zero. And Inclusive Access is certainly not OER since the access goes away at the end of the term.

When is it legitimate to charge for OER? Like any product, charging is appropriate if the product adds value, in this case to the OER. Sapling added value to OpenStax Principles of Economics because it offered a feature that OpenStax didn’t have. The problems & quizzes helped students learn better than just with the text alone. Similarly, Lumen Learning adds value in its Waymaker platform for the same reason.

Of course, one can argue that the value added isn’t worth the price. In the older model of commercial publishers, they charged for the book and then offered the ancillary products, including online quizzes and problems for free. But the package was pricey. Cengage is currently charging over $200 for their market leading Principles of Economics book.  That price has come down from its original $385.  Sapling charged about $40 for its product, which included OpenStax Principles of Economics. Lumen Learning charges $25 for its Waymaker Principles of Economics. Sapling struck me as a bargain for what it offered my students. Waymaker, which I’ve used for the last three years, is even better, especially since my own statistical analysis has shown that the average student does at least as well with Waymaker as with the previous commercial text I used. Perhaps more importantly, Waymaker seems to help weaker students more than stronger ones.

Commercial publishers have traditionally charged too high a price for their books two reasons: First, because they have a higher cost structure (due to their large sales force). Second, they have exploited their market power to charge more than a reasonable price for their products. Netflix mailing envelope w/DVD insideMonopolies often fall when a technological improvement creates better alternatives. Thus, Netflix supplanted Blockbuster.  Only when OER came on the scene did cracks appear in the commercial textbook oligopoly. (For non-economists, an oligopoly is an industry dominated by a small number of firms that exploit their joint monopoly power.) Newcomers like Sapling brought textbook prices down to under $50. And Lumen Learning brought them down to $25. Is $200 too much to ask a student to pay for a textbook? In my opinion it is, especially given the alternatives. Is $25 too much to ask? I’ve asked my students that question every semester that I’ve used Waymaker, and no student has ever said yes.

Lumen Learning deserves some kudos: For every course for which they offer their Waymaker value-added OER, they also offer a free version of the Waymaker content without the added features. This free version is openly licensed to include the 5Rs. It’s hard to ask more than that.

Disclosure: I’m the lead subject matter expert for Waymaker Principles of Economics and I’ve taught with Waymaker for the last three years.


Image credits:

OpenStax website

Image By Ilya Repin – ugFXC9F7-NWM9Q at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Image Netflix courtesy of Abhijit Bhaduri via

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The nicer the hotel, the higher the price for Wi-Fi

Free WiFiThis is a response to a question posted on Twitter from @rharneson, with a nod to @BryanAlexander–the title is an application of Alexander’s Iron Law of Hotel Connectivity.

I tweeted “how annoying it was to pay for hotel Wi-Fi.”  @rharneson replied:

The nicer the hotel, the higher the price for Wi-Fi. Please explain the economics.

I’m not a micro economist, but let me try to understand and explain this. I admit that I’m using my own experience as an example, but I suspect it’s not un-typical.

People with money (either personally or on business travel) are more likely than people without money to stay in nicer hotels. This is me when I attend conferences. When I travel with family for fun, we are more likely to stay in a less expensive hotel.

People with money are more likely to need or desire connectivity.   I know that I mostly live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. When I am home or in the office my laptop and Kindle are connected, making them work better. When I am in the car, my phone is connected. Email & social media follow me wherever I go. When I find myself in a place without connectivity, I am always surprised. Why can’t I look up a word from the eBook I’m reading on my Kindle? Of course, there are work-arounds, but they require additional effort that I don’t usually have to put in. When I travel to a conference, I tend to work a lot in my room. In such a setting, the value of internet access is significant to me.

When I travel for fun, I’m visiting friends or going to a place (e.g. beach, mountains, etc.). The hotel is a place to sleep, little more. I don’t expect to need Wifi, since I’m not there to work.

What is the price of hotel Wifi? I paid $9.95 per day last week at an otherwise nice conference hotel I won’t name. While it was aggravating to pay, the fee was less than 5% of my $200 hotel room. For that price, the convenience was worth it. (Note to hotels:  If the Wifi price is more than modest, I will consider alternatives; e.g. Wifi hotspot from my cell phone.)

Suppose the cost of offering Wifi is modest and largely fixed, whether one is supplying one room or ten. Then if, as a hotelier, you’re going to offer Wifi, but few people are willing to pay for it, the revenues brought in are likely to be minimal. So you might as well offer it for free, and offer it as a feature. Even though few people would pay for it, more people will use it and feel good about your hotel. On the other hand, if most people are willing to pay for it, you might as well charge them as long as you keep the price modest.

Image Credit: WIFI FREE! LLIURE! GRATIS! by paco, reme y nina roman pomares via Flickr.

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A Cautionary Tale about Expectations

I was talking the other day to a fairly senior administrator in academic affairs about OpenLearning18.  This administrator has been very supportive of our institution’s open initiative, and so I was just bringing him/her up to date on things open.

I made a comment about his/her boss only seeming interested in OER, but not the other “opens.” The admin looked chagrinned and said, “I’m not sure I understand any of the opens besides OER.”  I was, in a word, surprised.   I have been talking with this admin for years about the various aspects of open that I’ve been involved with, and I just assumed he/she understood what I was talking about.  Though in retrospect, I guess most of what I’d talked about in detail was OER.

I wonder how many academic leaders, that each of us interact with, do we think understand the various dimensions of open, but who really don’t.  Could that be a reason it’s been difficult to get traction?  How can we best address these wrong expectations, or more precisely, how can we better educate our leaders on the range of opens?

Something to think about!

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A Conceptual Framework?

I participated in OpenLearning17 and am back for OpenLearning18.  Why you ask?  Because I learned enough last year to articulate better questions this year.  Last year, I went in somewhat blind.  (There might be something we can learn as teachers here
about the experience of our students.) This year, I have a much better sense of what’s in store for me and how to get the most out of it.

To prepare for Week 1, I read the excerpts from Doug Englebart, “Augmenting Human Intellect“.  When I’ve read it before, I found it to be powerful but abstract.  This time around, though, I saw it as a conceptual framework for OpenLearning18.  Which is to say, my experience last year helped me understand what Englebart was saying in 1962.  And what Englebart said, has informed me about what we will be doing starting tomorrow.

Image Credit: Alex Handy from Oakland, Nmibia – Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart Uploaded by Edward

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Introduction to Learning Science: Helping students study less & learn more

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to lead a discussion on learning science, something which I find fascinating and which I’ve learned a little bit about.  Once I dug into the subject, I realized that one could teach a semester on learning science and still not cover it all.  I know–that’s naive.  So given that I only had an hour plus to present, here is what I came up with:

Video (unedited):

Powerpoint:  Intro-to-Learning-Science-2

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Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

You can lead a [person] to college, but you cannot make him think.

— Elbert Hubbard

Okay, I’m back.  What, you didn’t miss me?  I have about six months worth of blogs posts to put up, but let me start with some low-hanging fruit.

I love and I hate teaching Honors students.  I have the privilege of teaching an Honors first year seminar.  Honors students are demonstrably better at the game of school than regular students.   They are invariably brighter than average, the often write and speak better than average.  But they often bring their own set of problems.  Perhaps this is unique to our Honors program which rewards grades over creative thinking.

This semester I taught a group of 6 honors students and 6 non-honors students.  Okay, it’s a small sample, but all honors courses are small samples.  I let students determine what topics in the course area (Economic Inequality) they wanted to study.  I let students decide how they wanted to demonstrate (and let me assess) their learning.  We settled on a collection of writing, speaking and research activities.

Three of the honors students stayed on the narrow path.  They struggled with my not telling them exactly what was required to get a good grade on an assignment.  They asked for rubrics.  They struggled when I asked them to explain what *they* thought.  One case in point: The final assignment was a reflection on what students learned, what they got out of our seminar experience.  One of the honors students gave me a very detailed summary of what we covered in 14 weeks.  What she thought?  Not so much.  Two students worked the course rules to earn an A.  This is not a bad thing, per se, but rather I was disappointed in how they earned their extra credit.  They each went for quantity over quality.  They each did activities that required little thought on their part, but merely attendance. (e.g. having a paper reviewed by the Writing Center staff.)  Did they learn from the activities?  I hope so.  But clearly they were looking to earn the most extra points with the least amount of effort.

What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.

— Henry David Thoreau

The other three honors students took chances.  They thought deeply about what we were reading and discussing.  At least for the time they were in my class, they cared.  They offered ideas, sometimes ideas far out of the mainstream.  They evaluated their own beliefs and in some small cases, changed their minds.  At the least, they ended up with a much more nuanced understanding of the issues.  Three non-honors students did the same.  Why weren’t they part of the honors program if the quality of their thought was as deep?  Apparently, they weren’t as good at the game of school. These 6 students made me proud.  They made the seminar successful, and for that I am thankful.

I worry about the honors students who were plenty smart enough to do what I asked, to take advantage of the opportunity the seminar offered.  They seem to be wasting their time, their efforts, their potential.  Maybe they will be willing to really think when they complete their educations.  Maybe they won’t.

For more quotes about education, see

What Einstein, Twain, & Forty Eight Others Said About School

Image Credit: Karen Bryan, Is the glass half empty or half full? via

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A Lesson for Online Teachers

This is a true blog post.  I haven’t thought thru this.  I don’t really have time to write this, but I want to get something down before I forget it, or decide it’s not valuable.

I’ve taught online for five years now.  Every time, I learn how to do it better. Online courses have a tendency to be isolating to the students.  I work hard to prevent that with layers of interactivity, study groups, and other things. Students have to be present on a regular basis or I notice and can reach out to them.

One thing I’ve done since the beginning is ask students to create short videos to introduce themselves to the class, just as I have done.  This works well, but during this summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute (which I haven’t blogged about yet, but will), I had a little idea to take it a step further.

Every week I hold a Google Hangout for my online students.  The hangouts give me a chance to talk about what I think students should be working on, especially those topics that are challenging to learn.  Perhaps more importantly, it gives students the opportunity to ask me any course related questions face-to-face (or rather screen-to-screen).  These hangouts on air are automatically archived on YouTube so students who can’t be present can watch the recording. And they do.

So here’s my little idea.  It won’t work for every online course or every student, but it made a little difference in my context.  I conducted the first hangout of the term from a conference room on campus.  I invited any students who wanted to attend it person.  5 students showed up along with 9 others in the Hangout.  (I know of several students who couldn’t get in so maybe next time we’ll use Zoom.)

The students who participated in person were more active than most who participated virtually.  Every in-person student asked questions, while only some did online.  The in-person group provided an enhanced dynamic to the hangout which lasted nearly an hour.  I was able to go back and forth from the in-person to the virtual audience, and they seemed to stimulate each other.

When we finished, the in-person group asked when we would do this again? They seemed to really find it helpful.  They also formed an immediate study group, which I have formalized when selecting groups for the class.  I hadn’t planned on doing it again, but when they asked I said, perhaps we could do it the hangout before each exam.

Something to add to my online toolkit.

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