Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What’s so Elusive about Open Educational Practice?

Although openness in education, or OEP is perhaps one of the most important developments in higher education during the past decade, there are factors that inhibit conversation and practice. Some of these factors and strategies are outlined.


For what seems quite a long time I have been advocating for the adoption of what we are now calling Open Education Practice (OEP). It started out with open source software, and then open educational resources, and more open governance, supporting agile methods, and now it has expanded quite broadly. The rationale for openness itself has evolved and elaborated as well to include (reduced) cost, (improved) control, adaptability, agility, authenticity, efficiency, sustainability, and just general goodness. I think now for the most part it is generally recognised that openness represents an alternative way of being rather than just a thing that we do or things that we make and use.

I know a lot of other folks (close colleagues and those who I have admired from a distance) who have been early adopters and advocates of open practice going back a good deal more than a decade and I know that a lot of them have left the university to pursue their openness interests in a range of other types of organisations. This should give all of us a little pause to think about why this is the case. I have been giving some thought to my experiences with openness and started outlining some of the factors that make it challenging to have meaningful discussions about openness and to move the agenda forward at universities. It so happened that the Online Learning Consortium issued their call for proposals for their 2014 meeting while I was mulling this over and I thought that it would make a nifty topic. So I took a few minutes and submitted a brief proposal - as much to see who will show up and to see if my experiences have been unique. I am guessing that they are not unique, but know that they are informed and that they are incomplete. So, I'll be talking a bit on the topic in a few days and I thought that I would share the main points here as well.


SOO logo hereEarth CC BY by Erin StandleyNoun Project.
On one level we tend to talk about open educational practice in terms of the artefacts created, appropriateness of licensing agreements applied, and such. This framing of the dialogue constitutes OEP as a host of things including open education resources (OER), open access publishing, free and open source software, open policy, open textbooks, open data, open technology standards, open metadata, open file formats, open research, and more broadly open education. Although the range of artefacts associated with OEP collectively gives us something tangible to talk about, and some good examples of what our practice way include that are reasonably easy to measure and do, at its heart OEP is more fundamentally about the nature of educational experiences. It is about an approach to our educational practice, the assumptions that we make about the importance of co-creation, the ability to participate in an increasingly digital culture, how we view the relationships among learners and teachers and content and activities. It is about reducing barriers to collaboration, flexible and personal learning, and promoting digital and information fluency. It is about liberating intellectual capacity, promoting expression, and active participation in culture creation - and it invites openly participation in the world beyond the university. It says something about what we think a university education should offer.

At the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) we are currently engaging in a consultation and development process while building something we are calling our “Educational Experience Plan.” On one hand it is a document that captures some of our educational commitments, capacity gaps, strategies, and tactics; but probably more importantly it is a process that supports a conversation about education, the expectations we will create at USQ, and how we approach a more desirable state. Two of the topics that have generated some thoughtful dialogue during early consultation were:
  1. The “mythic” assumptions of software and information, which provide a self-imposed posture of playing the role of the victim who is captured by artefacts and rules representing a digital culture that is fundamentally immovable.
  2. Digital Renovation, which liberates one to change those things that are digital to meet our needs and express our meanings.
One of the unifying threads connecting these topics was that they are both tied to the barriers and costs organisations either create or relieve. These are also core concepts associated with OEP in terms of internal capacity and educational objectives.

We recognise too that OEP impacts some of the cultural normal of many colleges and universities, and may also challenge the ways that some of our commercial partners work. This is particularly true of those vendors whose business models are based on wealth generation through limiting access to information - that is by promoting mythic assumptions and increasing barriers to digital renovation.


Openness in education, or OEP is perhaps the most important development in higher education during the past decade. The movement has resulted in dozens of education collaboratives, millions of open resources, new business models, Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs), micro Open Online Courses (mOOCs), and an explosion of alternative higher education organisations. Although there has been no census, we know that it has improved access to data, research, and educational opportunities for individuals and by extension has help the growth of knowledge and perhaps broader social capacity and quality of life - at least for some. State and national governments have pledged commitments to open public resources, as have international agencies, while a number of public funding agencies and philanthropic foundations have mandated that whenever their funding is used, all resulting intellectual property will be made available under an open distribution license. 

That is, it has captured the imaginations of our funders, policy makers, and the media. There is no escaping it – OEP has become important.


To ignore these trends, along with the reported savings and other benefits to students that come along with the adoption of OEP, is to ignore the three principal sources of educational funding globally for teaching and research; a) public support, b) philanthropic support, and c) student financial contribution through payment of tuition and fees. In short, openness is important and will continue to have impact because:
  • Openness Strikes at the Nature of Knowledge Creation and Distribution (it is relevant)
  • Openness has the Potential to Change Business and Economic Models for Higher Education (it supports the potential for disruption)
  • Openness has the Potential to Change the Expectations of teachers, learners, and funders (it changes the locus of control and assumed sources of information)
  • Openness Strike at the Underpinning Value and Recognition Systems in Traditional Universities (it strikes at our identities and how we recognize scholarship)
I have argued (and will in my next post), that openness and OEP in particular promotes traditional values of the academy and is perhaps one of our more productive counter-cultural expressions addressing the excesses of neoliberal economics as applied to higher education. 

We all recognise that change in the higher education sector has been more rapid and perhaps substantive than many are used to and prepared for. And as members of the college or university community there is an expectation that we are preparing for an uncertain environment. In the contemporary university this places a certain pressure on boards and executives and other managers to anticipate what “sector” trends mean to the health of the university as a home for scholarship.

Along these lines, there is a reasonable argument that consigning OEP as irrelevant today is not unlike having dismissed online learning as a fad 15 years ago. The questions need to be about how we shape the agenda to promote the values of education, scholarship, and discovery. So, 
  • Why does it seem difficult to develop a meaningful, robust, and sustained discussion about openness on many campuses? 
  • Why is the topic of openness so elusive to so many university leaders? 
  • How does executive leadership effectively advocate for the dialogue? 
  • And how can members of the broader university community lead, participate in, and support the conversation?
  • Is the university the best place for open education practice and in which other organisations can we find good OEP examples and models?
I would suggest that the conversation and practice is made more difficult by at least 6 factors. This is not an exhaustive list and in many ways simply points to much more fundamental attitudes and broader economic, social, and technological factors. But, it is how I have experienced some of the challenges. And perhaps is a good place to start.


1) Intentional Confusion
Open-washing: Like “organic” and “green” the term "open" has been used in ways that destroy the meaning of and educational benefits of openness. Open-washing makes it difficult to discuss openness in a rigorous way because we are exposed to the use of the term in ways that are intentionally deceptive.
2) Look What I did! Isn’t Great?
Culture of Production not Participation: The power behind Openness is its potential to catalyze creativity and growth through collaboration, participation, and contribution. The launching of a new OER repository, an OER based course, or a MOOC has become the crowning achievement of OER participation, rather than contribution to an established community. Contributing to an Open Project is much more difficult (culturally) and harder to rationalize economically (funding), than starting-up a similar project with institutional branding. Many universities and university staff are happy to share what they have created, but are less culturally disposed to participate in an established community, use what others have created, or join an existing open project.
3) Openness –what do you mean?
General Understanding and Discrimination: The terminology surrounding openness has become quite messy. It is not difficult to understand why many well-intended colleagues have difficulty understanding and discriminating between openness, transparency, and fee free resources. It is not uncommon to have repeated discussions with colleagues during which the differences between OER and open enrolment are untangled. This is different than open washing as it is not intentional, but open washing contributes to the confusion.
4) The Nature of Academic Data, Information, and Knowledge
Intellectual Property, Copyright, and Licensing: The relationships between intellectual property and access can be a pretty esoteric topic. The issue is made more messy by the corporatisation of the university environment during the past 35 years, the pressure to develop external sources of revenue through commercialisation of intellectual assets through re-licensing and transfer and the understandable erosion of trust between university management and teaching faculty. In our current context openness seems counter intuitive.
5) You can Only Share it if You Can Find it.
Data and Information Management: The effective use, capture, and sharing of OER and other open resources requires some capacity to manage data and information openly. Anybody can create open resources, but it takes some intent to make them discoverable. Currently its storage tends to be distributed, which is just great, frequently permissions need to be verified, and principles of access and versioning need to be understood and supported.
6) Do I Get any Credit for Doing This?
Recognition: Faculty often indicate that although they would like to engage in OEP, the time spent and outputs attained are not currently valued by their university in terms of workload, promotion, and tenure. How can we recognize, value, and incentivize the creation and use of OER within the academy? If we take seriously our role in information dissemination and knowledge growth, and we really do think that openness (sharing effectively) is an important catalyst, then should participation in an open intellectual economy be rewarded formally and meaningfully?


These factors will not change on their own. It has been my experience that at universities it is critical to develop a meaningful conversation and one of the best ways is to generate channels and working models for the discussion. Some of the strategies I have seen (successfully?) pursued have included:
  • Openness Awareness Programming
  • Participation in Openness Consortia
  • Building Openness into Policies and Procedures (including IP Policies and Workflows)
  • Establishment of workflows, support, and structures liberating value through discoverability.
  • Promoting publishing in open access journals, use and creation of open textbooks, and recognition for reuse rather than creation.

If you have any additional factors to contribute or strategies you have tried or seen others try, please feel free to contribute at the OLC session or if it is more convenient feel free to post a comment here. If you are at the OLC meeting this year, it would be great to see you there, hear your thoughts, insights, observations, and experiences. 


Hewlett Foundation extends CC BY policy to all grantees

CC BY 4.0 required on U.S. Department of Labor $150M grant

An open door to UNESCO's knowledge

Australian Research Council (ARC) Open Access Policy (version 2013.1)

The Oberlin Group – Path to Openly Accessible Scholarship

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Ruminations on University Presidency: The University's Voice


The second part of the Introduction to A Free and Ordered Space, Ruminations on University Presidency moves from a  beautifully crafted parodical description of Giamatti’s presidency to a doorway that invites us to view what remains constant about the university, what has changed, and why it has done so in such an unsettling way. It also points us to the public role of the University and its faculty.

The university is the place where the seeds
of speech first grow and where most of
us first began to find a voice.

The second half of the Introduction to A Free and Ordered Space is a lot less playful than the first. Here Giamatti points to the nature, purposes, and failings of the University, preparing the reader for the body of work included in the book.


Lakhovsky Conversation
Public Domain
For Giamatti the university is conversation. It is important to note that he does not choose to define the university as an institution in which conversations happen, or as a place friendly to conversations, or that it is a place that incites conversation – although it clearly has these qualities, instead he defines the university as a conversation. As mentioned in my last posting, Ruminations on University Presidency: evil is abolished and paradise restored, at the very end of his parody tenure as president, Giamatti was finally engaged by some group of "clergy" from the community that was interested in discussing “The problem of evil and the Restoration of Paradise.” The group's interest surprises Giamatti who informs them that he had issued a memo on the topic years ago when he first started as president and that he had tired to solve that problem. To which his guests let him know that they were not there years ago. And so the conversation started. Although we never learn if paradise was restored in New Haven (or any of our campuses), we do learn that according to Giamatti, it is these types of splendid and serious conversations that is a great university.


Giamatti completes the introduction of his book by explaining what the consequences are when the conversation goes quiet. The university conversation is one between students and faculty, across ages, overlapping with itself building and challenging culture, while over time associating ideals with realties. Conversation is the slow and steady way that higher education grows knowledge. And it is through this conversation that the university contributes to sustained civilisation.

Johann Heinrich Füssli - Silence
Public Domain
So, what happens when the conversation goes silent? Giamatti is not referring to absolute silence, but instead he is referring to the absence of critical and reflective dialogue. A dialogue that the university needs to have about itself with itself and with the public, without which the university loses its vitality. He speculates that the silence may be due to smugness within the university itself, making it unnecessary to explain itself because its value is self-evident, its mission so obvious that it does not need to be explained, and it purpose so virtuous that it needs no defence or justification. If this is the case, there is no need for the university to reflect on its purpose and there is no value in communicating outwardly even if something were to be discovered through critical reflection. No matter what the reason is for the silence, self- satisfaction or otherwise, Giamatti was seeing evidence of disconnection in the 1980's. And by this time, according to Giamatti, for more than a generation the University had failed to engage with the public and itself, which had two profound results.


First, without engagement with the public about the nature and purpose of the university, the problems it is facing, and how it is responding, a vacuum is left where the conversation needed to be. The empty space is filled by others from outside of higher education for their own purposes; commercial, political, personal, or otherwise. And when the void is filled by politicians, profiteers, and the well meaning, but uninformed, without any commentary from the university what is the public to think? The University should not be surprised when its identity is distorted, and framed by others without consideration for its purposes, now left dispossessed of its traditions and culture. Giamatti not only places blame on the university for its current state, but also accuses the university of failing the public in its educational role. Because higher education has failed to engage in and lead the conversation about itself, he asserts that,
When those who know best the realities and ideals of higher education fall silent, for whatever reason, or believe themselves only manages, not leaders, then the public is denied access to higher education in a fundamental sense, access to its thinking about what is going on and what it is for.


The second result of the generation-long silence is that the university looses touch with the publics it serves. What has resulted is a disconnection with other institutions and a disconnection with itself. Without a sense of identity, without the critical and reflective conversation to provide both rudder and anchor, university mangers look-up, embarrassed by how out of touch they have become. Not knowing what else to do, they cast about, jumping from fad to fad, while losing track of what is and has been important. Along these lines, Giamatti warns that
When the university lurches spasmodically rather than changes in a patience, inefficient, and purposeful way, a larger society that hears nothing about the principles and purposes of higher education from clear voices within higher education also sees a whole class of institutions as floundering..." 

What we see here is not only the university losing touch with its contemporaries outside of the university, but we also see a class of institutions loosing touch with themselves.

Taking a step back for a second, what really draws a smile from me is Giamatti's assertion that universities ought to approach change "in a patient, inefficient, and purposeful way" striking a discordant note with how many other organisation types are expected to approach change. This notion is probably worth holding on to and thinking about.


The final point Giamatti makes is about the relationship between universities and their role in teaching moral values. This question was raised within the context of the university being out of touch with public expectations and not effectively engaging in the conversation with the public. The university has not been an important part of this conversation, failing to inform those participating that although universities do teach moral values, they do so through their actions (and inactions). In our best traditions we teach moral values through our fidelity to the truth, our tolerance for the search, and our commitment to do so through civil discourse rather than through coercion. Giamatti, uses the topic of "moral values" to pull together the central themes in his introduction noting that
Silence does not make the point that families are where moral values... are first and longest implanted; that churches or synagogues or other houses of worship are where moral values are supposed to be taught; and that the classroom, or the academic part of the university, is where values of all kinds are meant to collide, to contest, to be tested, debated, disagreed about-freely, openly, civilly... 

Giamatti clearly articulates his perspective on the shared responsibility of moral value formation among different parts of society and the unique role that higher education plays. He also illustrates why it is important for universities to break the silence and set expectations that stop the purpose of higher education from being recast inappropriately.


It is worth noting the long standing role of universities as unique places with responsibilities to support academics engaging in civil and public critical discourse. In very many ways this strikes at the core of academic freedom. The AAUP's 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure clearly creates a moral commitment for universities to enable and support the public expression of ideas in the pursuit of truth within the discipline and providing protection to faculty for expressions made as private citizens. With this, the academic has responsibilities to fairly represent their knowledge and how it does or does not relate to their scholarship, role at a particular university, and status within the academic community.

Academic freedom is intended to create protections for faculty to exercise rights of expression and by extension creates a reciprocal responsibility to act on that right. A tidy logic plays out here.

  • As it is the academic staff and students that constitute the university, and 
  • as discussed in this post, for Giamatti the university is conversation, and 
  • as the principles of academic freedom are intended to ensure that academic staff have the right to participate in the conversation, 
  • the exercise of academic freedom through acts of public expression becomes essential to the existence of the university. 

It simultaneously creates the rights, expectations, and protections for the university to take place.

Through his work with the Public Intellectual Project on TruthoutHenry Giroux seems to take the responsibility a step further for academics, not only asserting that there is a responsibility that all academics share to act as public intellectuals and to engage in the conversation, but also doing it in a way that is accessible and meaningful (effective). That is, the academic has an affirmative responsibility to exercise her or his right to expression as an act of academic freedom. And the conversation should not be restricted to peers, where public dialogue is needed. In the statement of purpose Giroux crafted for the Project he points to the problem of academic abstraction and aloofness, both reducing the impact of academics engaging in, informing, and intellectualising the public conversation. His call is to raise and perhaps radicalise the discussion in ways that are accessible and relevant. He sets the purpose of the Project stating that
Within the last few decades, the emergence of public intellectuals as important cultural and social critics has raised fundamental questions not only about the social function of academics, but also about the connection between higher education and public life, between academic work and the major issues shaping the broader society. Truthout's Public Intellectual Project will provide progressive academics with an opportunity to address a number of important social issues in a language that is both rigorous and accessible. All too often, academics produce work that is either too abstract for a generally informed public, or they separate their scholarship from the myriad of issues and contemporary problems that shape everyday life in the United States and abroad.

Dollarmen Graduates - Jared Rodriguez
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Although Giroux clearly indicates that there is a gap in effective engagement, which the Project is intended to address, he goes a step further in an interview conducted by Victoria Harper titled Neoliberalism, Democracy and the University as a Public Sphere, in which he points to much more serious concerns about the changing nature of the university and the corruption of its purpose from within and without. Here in 2014 Giroux points to the neoliberal agenda and the conceptual corporatisation of the university in a way that Giamatti only hinted at in the 1980s. While Giamatti points to the poverty of university leadership emulating corporate and government structures and norms, he is highlighting how the university purposes are eroding. Thirty years later Giroux has clearly experienced Giamatti's future and it is decidedly not good. Responding to a question about the ways in which neoliberalism threatens higher education, Giroux explains that
What is distinct about the current threat to higher education and the humanities in particular is the increasing pace of the corporatization and militarization of the university, the squelching of academic freedom, the rise of an ever-increasing contingent of part-time faculty, the use of violence to squelch peaceful student dissent, and the view that students are basically consumers and faculty providers of a saleable commodity such as a credential or a set of workplace skills.

The article is full of indictments that touch on virtually every aspect of the contemporary university. It is worth a good read. I will certainly be referring to the article (wrapped in an interview) along with other literature written since the publication of A Free and Ordered Space that treats the changing nature of the university, public expectations, and purpose. Furthermore, in addition to exploring the challenges higher education is experiencing and the role of academics, I would like to explore ways that university academics and others are liberalising the corporate university and perhaps recapturing and redefining the purposes of a college or university education in this new context. I would also like to take some time to identify colleges and universities that have managed to retain important elements of the public purpose of higher education, not as a throwback or as a token, but as a fundamental cultural value, exercised regularly, included in academic and managerial culture in the context of the realities in which contemporary universities are situated.

Once again, and as usual, please feel free to comment or otherwise reach out to me with your insights.

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure

The Public Intellectual Project

Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism, Democracy and the University as a Public Sphere


Lakhovsky Conversation

Friday, 13 June 2014

Ruminations on University Presidency: evil is abolished and paradise restored


In the introduction of A Free and Ordered Space, Ruminations on University Presidency, Giamatti parodies his experience as president of Yale University, and the university broadly, foreshadowing the rise of the corporate university. Through his parodies he pokes at the corporatization of the university, some of the relationships between the university and society, and the character of university presidency in the late 20th century.

“Being president of a university is no way for an adult to make a living.”


I look back at the date of my last post made in March 2013 with a little embarrassment recognising how much time has passed. As indicated in my last few posts, Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space” and More Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space,” I had planned to really dig into A Free and Ordered Space, but got swept away with all that comes along with an international move and a new appointment. I have finally been forced to raise my head a bit through participating in a University of Southern Queensland version of “23-Things,” which includes a section on blogging and has resulted in renewed interest in sharing on this forum.

So, I am going to pick-up where I left off, but with no promises that I will stick to a schedule. I have reread the introductory chapter, Ruminations on University Presidency, which I found absolutely engaging… actually much more so than a year ago. I think that my experiences here in Australia and the opportunity to reflect from a distance on what is happening in the US has sharpened some of my thinking.

As mentioned in earlier posts, A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of speeches and presentations. So, the introduction serves a critical function, in effect providing guidance to the reader and pulling at threads that the author intends to pursue. In this case Giamatti decided to structured his introduction first to provide a retrospective overview of his 8 years as president of Yale through a series of parodies that need to be read a few times for full enjoyment. He then takes the time to address what a university ought to do, where he has seen the university fail, and the consequences of such failure. I will address the first part of the introduction in this posting and then move on to the second part in a later posting.


In the first part of his Ruminations on University Presidency, Giamatti describes the transformation he experienced while moving from scholar to corporate citizen. He pokes at the corporate university with such skill that I could not help but smiling and then thinking and then not smiling so much.  He is of course writing his own comedy while also painting the university’s tragedy – its assent into corporate culture and his role. He is of course speaking of a general trend at universities and an affliction suffered by university leadership more generally.

Giamatti chooses to make his point by cataloguing the anxiety he experienced while preparing for his presidency and how he responded. As it turns out, he felt compelled to focus on learning about the corporate world and concluded that Yale needed a corporate strategy and a policy, neither of which, as he points out, are things that he has ever had. During his preparation his activities included:
  • casting about;
  • soliciting data, forecasts, projects, and models;
  • doing comparative and longitudinal studies;
  • making a flowchart, and convening a taskforce.

All of which are activities that many of us know quite well and by implication are the things needed to repair the decent of the university. At the end of his preparations, while squatting in his garage he wrote the following policy:
[[File:Hieronymus Bosch 073.jpg|thumb|Hieronymus Bosch 073]]
The Fall of the Rebel Angels
This work is in the public domain world wide
To the members of the University Community: 
In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University Policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored.  
I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective. 


The responses to Giamatti's first policy are playfully prepared to illustrate a profound lack of understanding from a variety of archetypes, to lay bare a cast of predictable characters / caricatures, and to flaunt his misguided trust. Most of the characters either do not recognise any evil, see it, but do not want to change anything, or feel that Giamatti himself and others like him are the source. Eventually though, toward then end of his tenure, evil is recognised by a small group of "clergy from in town" who act on behalf of campus academics and engage in thoughtful conversation with the intent of making things better.


Giamatti then tells of his visit with an elected representative, Congressman Phlange, from the third district of a state we call Grace, in what I assume is his collective experience with the political environment and how it represents our public. Once again, by implication, it is the sentiments articulated during this visit that fertilise the growth of corporatization as it has taken its shapes in the American University. During his visit, the congressman briefs President Giamatti, and during the business end of the briefing the President is informed by the Congressman that:
  • We think that NIH cuts should go through.
  • We are not impressed with your fatuous argument that we can’t change the rules half way through the game.
  • We believe that student aid benefits only the rich and the poor; rather than stopping abuse, we’d rather do away with everything.
  • We are for cutting out charitable deductions, instituting for the 2 percent floor, and for forbidding gifts of appreciated assets.
  • We do not believe in a federal science facilities fund or in the nonprofit postal subsidy.
  • We think it would be the height of fraud and abuse to fund the Humanities.
  • We intend to uncap retirement, cap technology transfer, cut the NEA and NSF, get rid of the Library of Congress, and slash the Health Manpower act.
And the punch line to this familiar joke is that these positions are held because the Congressman and his public want to get this country moving again.  Taken together, these internal and public perspective-holders are the unofficial self-appointed "university owners" as discussed by Henry Rosovsky in The University, an Owners Manual. Rosovsky's description of these constituent groups is probably worth introducing in a future post as well.


I find this all very satisfying, first for its pure entertainment value, but also for its continued relevance. In the first part of his introduction, Giamatti is pointing toward the confluence of attitudes and conditions that have driven the growth of the corporatization of the American University, which in itself is a complex topic that merits additional consideration. Now, in 2014 many of us in Australia can take notes as well as we assess proposed higher education reform, which very much frame the university as a business competing in a free market for student customers. 

It is my feeling though that what we really need to do is assess ourselves. The acceptance by university administrators, academics, university governance groups, trustees, and the public that universities are knowledge corporations that through their teaching mission are designed solely and practically to feed the job market is not part of an inescapable logic yielding universally beneficial outcomes. But there needs to be a conversation. It needs to be critical and reflective. And university academics and leaders need to frame it in terms that assert value in our fundamental purposes. The value would seem to include a broader social service requiring a logic that is different but not entirely divorced from maximising returns to our "equity holders" as defined appropriately.

In the second half of Giamatti’s introduction he poetically describes the nature of the university, its essential connection with conversation, and the need to rekindle it in public.

It is my hope that as I progress through what Giamatti is communicating in A Free and Ordered Space, the treatment of these topics will become more subtle, thought provoking, and meaningful for those of us participating in current conversations about the changing nature of higher education and the identity of the university. As always, I invite discussion and critique. I also invite those with insights to share their knowledge about what was happening at Yale and other universities during the mid-70s through mid-80s that may have influenced Giamatti's thinking and attitudes. Insights about specific events along the lines of what Eric Feinblatt shared in a comment last year are incredibly valuable. 

The Corporate Analogy Unravels, Chronicle of Higher Education

The The Earthly Paradise (Detail - The Fall of the Rebel Angels)

Brief excerpt from Paradise Lost referenced in Giamatti's first policy
Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view, Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause Moved our grand Parents, in that happy state, Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off        30
From their Creator, and transgress his will For one restraint, lords of the World besides. Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?

Friday, 1 March 2013

More Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space”

I am following my last post in which I introduced my intent to use A Free and Ordered Space, by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a vehicle to explore some current issues in higher education. In this posting I explain why I have choses A Free and Order Space as a resource.

I am following my last post, Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space,” in which I introduced a project. During the coming year I intend to review and engage in the book A Free and Ordered Space by A. Bartlett Giamatti. In the first post I provide some background and the reasoning behind why I have decided to work on the project. Today I will indicate why I have chosen Giamatti as my guide. In short, it is a combination of the contexts under which the addresses were made, the topics addressed, and some of the characteristics of Giamatti himself.


There are all sorts of ways of engaging in personal and professional development and all sorts of resources from which to choose. So why choose a Free and Order Space? Perhaps it was my state of mind that magnified the relevance of the book, but when I started reading it, I recognized the importance of the topics being discussed and the authenticity in which they were being treated. The topics, even those treated in passing, have proven to be enduring. They are easily identified in conferences, professional discussions, appearance in policy, and their treatment in the public media during the past years and months. That is, they are important and persistent. They are themselves the types of problems that universities are designed to pursue.

I believe that the principal reason why the issues discussed by Giamatti and treated in a Free and Ordered Space have continuing relevance is his insistence on applying a value-ladened lens, which framed each topic in terms of enduring principles supporting the purpose of the university. Giamatti's continuous refocusing on principles serves as a reminder that each problem ultimately needs to be addressed in terms of the university, not the corporation, not the swirl recorded and projected in popular media, not the mishigas of political urgency, not the mishmash of popular opinion, not the logic of popular managerial cults, and not the fear and uncertainty these things bring. Given my reaction to Giamatti's writing, it struck me that there would be merit in reviewing each address (chapter), teasing out the themes, relating those themes across addresses, and contextualizing them in terms of what we are facing, in many cases, more than 30 years later.

This is all fine, but why choose a Free and Orders Space? Giamatti approached relevant questions in a principled way; but haven't other authors done so as well? Of course they have, but this book has some qualities that are ideally suited for my purposes. Giamatti was performing in an act of service, as a teacher, from the unique perspective of the President of what many perceive as a truly great university. The topics covered in his addresses and the context in which they were delivered provides a unique an useful platform for review and extension. In each address the combination of chosen topic, audience, context, and the characteristics of the author presents an opportunity for those of us writing at a different time with different experiences to apply enduring principles to challenges that have spanned decades in different forms.


I found that a book published more then 20 years ago that features writing more than 30 years old provided a sense of safety and distance. Giammati was writing with the intent of addressing contemporary issues to students and other stakeholders of the early 1980s. In most of his addresses he was identifying critical issues and was trying purposefully to demystify them. The nature of the topics and the circumstances under which the addresses were made provide us a unique opportunity to reflect on the qualities of the topics under discussion and the degree to which the university and its environment has changed in recent decades. It provides touchstones from which to interpret current events. Some of the topics included in his addresses were,
  • the nature and value of liberal education,
  • the push to utilitarian education,
  • the pressure of federal regulation,
  • the appropriate role of college athletics,
  • the role of transparency, openness, and freedom in the properly functioning university, and
  • the relationships between academic and administrative staff in the university.


As mentioned above, A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of addresses that Giamatti delivered to key constituents including students. Through each presentation he was addressing a set of issues that he felt were timely and relevant, which provides the reader with insights into what the president of Yale felt was of critical importance at the time. That is, each of the book's chapters is somewhat self-contained and manageable, but the collection reflects a set of relationships that together form rich patterns. The organization of a Free and Ordered Space and the purpose of the writings is ideal for a reader interested in topics germane to the nature of the University. The following list of audiences that were addressed in Giamatti's speeches provides some insights into what Giamatti felt were important messages for a range of stakeholders, but perhaps most interestingly, for students entering and leaving Yale College.

The Nature and Purpose of the University
  • 1987 Association of School Administrators
  • 1987 Commencement at Franklin and Marshall College
  • 1978 Inaugural Address, Yale
  • 1981 Conference on Excellence in Education
  • 1883 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1984 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1986 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1981 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale

The Earthly Use of a Liberal Education
  • 1981 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1983 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1985 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1983 Association of Yale Alumni “Humanities at Yale”
  • 1977 Conference on the Humanities at Yale
  • 1978 Convention of the Modern Language Association
  • 1979 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1980 Association of Yale Alumni (April)
  • 1987 Williams College
  • 1980 Phi Beta Kappa Lecture at Yale
  • 1980 Annual Report of the President, Yale

The Private University and the Public Interest
  • 1979 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
  • 1979 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1980 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1982 Convention of American College of Surgeons
  • 1980 Association of Yale Alumni (October)
  • 1982 Graduate and Professional Convocation, Yale
  • 1982 Partners in the Research Enterprise: A National Conference, University of Pennsylvania
  • 1982 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1985 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale
  • 1980 Freshman Address, Yale
  • 1984 Senior Class as Baccalaureate Address, Yale


Dr. Giamatti served as a career academic, as scholar as well as administrator with his last appointment in the academy as president of Yale. It is my feeling that his writing reflects the wisdom and experience of a professional balancing the purpose of the University as a common good with the management of the University as an organization. In doing so, Giamatti frames and harmonizes some of the tensions modern universities are facing. His treatment of these tensions shows an understanding and respect for the those contributing to the purpose of the University with special attention given to the undergraduate student. In short, I believe that Dr. Giamatti was in a privileged position to write holistically about the University, chose to write about authentic challenges to the University, and wrote with principle. As has already been pointed out in a comment by Eric Feinblatt to the last post, Giamatti, like all presidents, made controversial decisions, some of which seem inconstant with fundamental espoused beliefs. These apparent inconsistencies and the contexts in which they grew and exist merit as much consideration as what was included in Giamatti's writings.


Of course anybody reading the book now has a different perspective than did the author who was writing 25 to 35 years ago. In addition, there are differences in the type of formal education we received (liberal/utilitarian), the types of universities that we have served (public/private; elite/non-elite), the principal roles we have served (academic/administrative), and other contexts (US/Overseas). My perspective on the University comes from a vastly different set of experiences than does Dr. Giamatti's. This is likely to be true of many who read his book and it is my feeling that our differences, when well recognized, will add something beneficial to the discussion.


Enough explanations. As mentioned, I plan to move forward through the addresses in the book in the order they are presented. I will not really be working to any schedule. I may take a week or two to post the first one to give a little time to anybody interested enough in reading along to pick up a copy of the book.  Once again, and as always, I welcome involvement.

Giamatti, A. B. (1988). A free and ordered space: The real world of the university. New York: W.W. Norton.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space”

I intend to use A Free and Ordered Space, by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a vehicle to explore some current issues in higher education.  In this posting I explain why I am doing this and I briefly introduce a Free and Ordered Space. In my next post, I will continue the introduction.

This graphic is not open content.  I am using it under terms of fair use.
In the coming months I plan to use “A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University” by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a source and sounding-board for my thinking about higher education. In the spirit of Mortimer Adler, I hope to engage with Giamatti through his writings and perhaps through this public forum engage with others as well. I intend to methodically embrace the text; teasing out its explicit messages, its latent meanings, the patterns that are formed within, and their relevance to what we presently see about ourselves in higher education. I also hope to extend in some way Giamatti's thoughts and observations by simply building on them and applying his logic to what is currently happening within and without the university. At the very least, the ensuing posts will anchor and catalog my thoughts, but potentially others will join privately or publicly in an effort to make sense of some enduring issues.

Although I am happy to simply step through the book and share my thoughts, I also want to extend an invitation. While at one level I of course invite comment and conversation, I also invite other forms of participation. If anybody reading this blog has special insights or interests in the topics treated and would like to share their perspectives, I would be happy to expand the discussion with guest postings.

A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of presentations, which are organized into three thematic areas. Giamatti groups his presentations into the following formal sections:
  • The Nature and Purpose of the University
  • The Earthly Use of a Liberal Education
  • The Private University and the Public Interest

In addition to the 23 addresses in the book, Giamatti includes some introductory materials. I will try to treat an address/presentation (chapter) each week or so, but anticipate that some will require more time to appropriately prepare. Most of the addresses include multiple themes, each of which may merit separate posts. I will almost certainly find the need to pause occasionally to summarize and reflect a bit, share additional thoughts, and make modifications to prior posts. In addition, I fully anticipate some interruptions as professional workload ebbs and floods (right now it is mostly flooding) and personal commitments demand, so this project could extend throughout the coming year.


As indicated above, methodically treating A Free and Ordered Space may be a nontrivial activity. I'm a pretty busy guy. Like most folks, I have professional responsibilities and personal commitments, which leave me with little extra time. So, why should I spend it this way, and why would anybody decide to spend their time engaged with this project, even to passively follow along? For me, the answer is sort of simple. I am troubled. I am troubled by the way many colleges and universities are reacting to a variety of changes within the University and without. I am seeking a way to to better understand what is happening, a better foundation from which to interpret what others are writing, a more grounded perspective to interpret regulations and policies, and a principled footing to better contribute to my chosen profession and avocations. Frankly, I have found that reading current events in publications that treat higher education is not doing the trick.

A number of months ago I reached out to Dr. Marcelette Williams to exchange a few words about what I was reading and thinking about on the topic of liberal education and the university. At the time I had recently read The University: An Owner's Manual by Henry Rosovsky, and was working through Newman's Nine Discourses in The Idea of a University. Marcie recommended that I read a Free and Ordered Space as Giamatti was one of her favorite published voices on the topic. I had reported to Marcie for 3 years while serving the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Williams serves as the Senior Vice president for Academic, Student, and International Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, and stands as one of the most thoughtful and humane figures I have work with in higher education. Given my relationship and respect for Marcie, I was thankfully predisposed to take her advice.

I know that I was reaching out to Marcie to fill a gap. I had recently left UMass to join a start-up company and found myself among a small group of intensely smart managers planning to sell services to universities. Even though I had served as a university administrator for nearly to 2 decades, surrounded by managerial types (and functioning as one), things felt fundamentally different at the start-up in ways that I had not fully appreciated or anticipated when I first joined the organization. The nature of the conversations took the colour of efficiency and scale. Student services were framed as ends in themselves, while student development, discovery, civil advancement, and service of the common good were largely absent in our dialogue. It was, perhaps rightfully, assumed within the company that not only were these concerns those of the university, but their clear articulation could be principally absent in an education service provider. I am of course not being critical of the organisation. After all, a college or university outsources services when an external organisation possesses characteristics or capacities that do not or ought not exist within the college or university. I should have known that this was going to be the case, as this company was designed to “take care of business,” and that its value is located in its ability to do things that the universities themselves could not. Yet I was taken unawares by just how differently my working colleagues viewed the purpose and nature of the university than had I.

It was these experiences that punctuated the feeling that I had personally strayed from the reasons that I had first decided to pursue a career in higher education. I believe that there is a gap, which I had allowed to grow, that I am starting to explore with this project. Although I have since move back into the University, am serving the University of Southern Queensland, and feel very much as if I am in my professional home, the gap still has meaning.


A Free and Ordered Space was published posthumously in 1990, and is a collection of addresses that Dr. Giamatti had made to a variety of groups while he served as president of Yale. Most of the addresses were given between 1980 and 1985 and many were presented to undergraduate audiences of incoming and graduating students. I will provide more detail in the following post. For those colleagues who may be interested in reading along, you can access the book through many libraries or purchase the book through the usual channels. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down open versions of many of the addresses, but I will continue to look. If they exist, I welcome any suggestions about sources for open and other types of relevant resources. I will maintain a page dedicated to resources, and perhaps, time permitting, will keep a annotated reference list. I will for the benefit of casual readers start each post with a summary of the address, but I am sure that my efforts in this regard will fall short.

As this post was going to get a bit too long, so I have decided to split it in half and will post the reminder during the next day or two. In the following post I will outline why I think that Giamatti, through a Free and Ordered Space, will serve as an excellent guide who provides touchstones to interpret some activities and events in higher education.

Giamatti, A. B. (1988). A free and ordered space: The real world of the university. New York: W.W. Norton.

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. L. (1972). How to read a book (Rev. and updated ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Newman, J. H. (1959). The Idea of a university. Garden City, N. Y.: Image Books.

Rosovsky, H (1990). The University: An Owner's Manual. N.Y.: W. W. Norton.

The University of Southern Queensland

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

How can the Course Catalogue Save Education?

In a recent article, James Lang introduces the notion of “Far Transfer” to help address questions about student learning and critical thinking.  As treated here, far transfer is the ability for a learner to apply concepts across classes and circumstances, and represents one of the most desired outcomes of a college or university education. When achieving far transfer learners are exercising critical thinking. Transdicipinary and liberal education are important considerations to help ensure that the university course catalogue is a vehicle for learners to achieve far transfer and critical thinking.

More than a week or so ago James Lang wrote the first part of a series published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Why Don't They Apply What They've Learned, Part I. In the article Lang questions why many students do not seem to be able to apply previously learned knowledge over time and across courses (and more generally across circumstances). In his article, Lang refers to a recent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, in which Susan Ambrose and her co-authors use the term “Far Transfer” to describe the ability of a learner to apply knowledge across courses. That is, far transfer is the ability of learners to apply conceptual knowledge learned in a class to learning situations and practice in other classes and to circumstances outside of the classroom (perhaps on the job). Intuitively we must recognise that far transfer is a pretty important aspiration of higher education. After all, the ability for our students to apply knowledge outside of a specific classroom situation is a reasonable expectation that reflects not only on the ability of the learner, but also on the relevance of the university itself.

Lang makes it clear that Far Transfer is not easily accomplished, pointing to Ambrose and then James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, Lang highlights that:
  • Transfer is difficult, and it becomes increasingly difficult as the application context becomes increasingly dissimilar or novel to the learner. The failure of the learner to successfully transfer their learning to an unfamiliar or novel context can be attributed to tying their knowledge too closely to a specific situation, or it could be associated with their learning being overly formulaic or shallow. This reveals in the learner an understanding of the mechanics of problem solving, while lacking the understanding of the underlying principles being used.
  • Although conceptually it may appear that applying learned rules across situations should not be too terribly difficult, there are physiological changes in the brain that allow for transfer. Cognitive development depends on the growth of neuronal networks in the brain, with transfer of knowledge across situations being made possible when these networks connect.

After Lang takes us through some examples of how he creates expectations of far transfer in his writing classes, he makes what I think is a critical point.

If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them "critical thinking," for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.

This notion stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, it seems that teaching critical thinking skills is frequently cast as the University’s holy grail. That is, critical thinking is often identified as one of the less tangible, highly valuable, and infrequently achieved outcomes sought from graduates of colleges and universities. Second, for me, it points to two critical topics that extend far beyond skill development or skill delivery – the transdisciplinary curriculum and liberal education.

Transdisciplinary Education

Lang chose the following quote from Zull to connect conceptual notions of what critical thinking is with the physiological response in a learner's brain to learning a disciplinary subject (forming a neuronal network element) and connecting these networks in ways that allow for far transfer.

"Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks," Zull writes, "so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don't have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science."

For me, Lang seems to be setting the ground for the need to really think about the function of courses and the functions of curriculum in different but complementary ways. Disciplinary and technical skills, that are frequently very sophisticated, are developed in particular classes. While, courses represent the vehicles in which disciplinary conceptual networks are created, it is the constellation of courses that compose a well-developed curriculum that provides the platform through which disciplinary neuronal networks can connect allowing for far transfer of knowledge.

Liberal Education

So, if a transdisciplinary curriculum can serve as the framework for an educational experience that lends itself to far transfer and critical thinking, how do students take advantage of the opportunities being offered and actually make the connections among disciplinary networks? It seems to me that simply creating the opportunity for far transfer and critical thinking is not enough. Evidence of critical thinking will require some capacity on the part of the learner to connect the networks with some discipline and creativity. For example, when applying far-transfer, how does the learner decide which concepts from which networks best apply to a problem situation under a variety of circumstances? To what degree can a particular conceptual model be applied, how much of the model needs to be modified, or integrated with other models? What sort of intellectual disposition and what sort of behaviours do learners and practitioners need to successfully engage in critical thinking?

It seems to me that the arts and habits that are the hallmarks of a liberal education are germane to disciplined and creative far transfer. To illustrate, I refer to an earlier posting titled Is a liberal technical education something more or something else? in which a short listing of the arts and habits that are assumed by a liberally educated person. One of the lists started with
habits of an educated person
  • the habit of attention
  • the habit of submitting to censure and refutation
  • the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy
Taken together these habits (along with others) will help learners make thoughtful attempts at far transfer and improve their ability to critically apply their thinking in the future under other circumstances.

Just a Little More

So, for me, the punchline from Lang's article is that for learners to achieve Far Transfer and Critical Thinking they must have
  • opportunities to create disciplinary neural networks (acquired on the course level), 
  • opportunities to connect disciplinary networks (acquired through a trans-disciplinary curriculum), and
  • the behaviours and capacity to actually make those connections (acquired through a liberal education).

Because it is obvious that far transfer and critical thinking are particularly valued outcomes when they are extend beyond classroom application, it makes sense to think about the transdisciplinary curriculum more broadly. We might think in terms of moving from a transdisciplinary curriculum to a transdisciplinary education that includes “off-campus” experiences such as experiential and service learning, citizen science, and citizen civics. In addition, we might more consciously construct the notion of a transdisciplinary education as continuing throughout a lifetime.

Maybe I am predisposed to rationalise my way to this conclusion, but it does leave me in a happy place. By my thinking, the elements of an education designed to achieve Far Transfer and Critical Thinking are for the most part inherent in the University mission – teaching, discovery, and service. It is a matter of rethinking the nature of traditional curriculum, to support a transdisciplinary education and recognising the value of a liberal education along side professional (and vocational) education to support the development of technically competent professionals who are able to apply critical thinking. Add a little life-long learning, and some universities may have made themselves relevant in a more broad and recognised way, without fundamentally changing their values, staying true to their learners and the common good.

Continuing that thought...

During the last few days, while I was constructing these few paragraphs, my attention has been drawn to a (wonderful) posting by Christine Geith titled How the Course Catalog Killed Education at the WCET Frontiers site. Its influence on the title of this posting is obvious. Now it seems to me that Christine has hit on an important insight about the poverty of the college and university catalogue as an expression of value. She asserts that the value of the University does not rest in its catalogue of courses or programs, but instead is embedded in its “Brand.” It is the brand that serves as an expression of the university's capacity to distinguish its catalogue with something far more then the simple collection might imply. I think that Christine and I are barking up the same tree from different sides. Christine did a very tidy job at pointing to what the research university brings to the table beyond its catalogue, while I am pointing to the role of the catalogue in creating that "something more, "which transforms taking courses into an education and transforms course takers into critical thinkers.  

It is my feeling that thinking beyond the course catalogue will help us better frame the ongoing trend toward fragmentation in higher education and the “unbundling” of traditional college and university services. Although thinking beyond the catalogue is critical, we may also ask what type of course catalogue will best support a university education? One that delivers on helping learners achieve far transfer becoming critical thinkers and practitioners. I believe too that this type of thinking and these types of questions can provide a way to frame the ways we engage with things like MOOCs, education service providers, open educational resources (there will always be more things), and more generally understand the economics, identity, nature, and value of the University and higher education (themes that seem more timeless).

Why Don't They Apply What They've Learned, Part I

Is a liberal technical education something more or something else?

How the Course Catalog Killed Education