Distributed Labs for Sciences in Higher Education

This post by John Timmer on “How to run a successful research lab without having a lab” at Ars Technica really got me thinking this morning.

One of the real difficulties with online or distributed higher education in the sciences is the problem of lab spaces. How, other than using an online simulation, do you get lab time for students in the sciences when they may rarely, if ever, come to a central, physical campus. An additional, and related, dilemma is that for many universities, they increasingly lack adequate, modern lab infrastructure due to successive years of budget cutbacks.

One possible way to solve this dilemma might be for universities to divest themselves of labs altogether, instead renting lab time from a network of independent co-working labs. Imagine if a university were to outsource all of its lab costs and maintenance to an outside provider or providers. Students could use a “lab fee” to book time at any number of community labs (like any other co-working space), perhaps subsidized by universities paying a larger membership fee to these private labs to secure booking privileges for their students. Universities could arrive at cooperative agreements with community labs in other cities to provide lab opportunities for their online students, much the way we already do with proctoring centers and agreements.

If we can outsource housing, food services, test proctoring and IT services, why not physical lab space as well?

I’d like to explore the capital requirements and potential business models for this type of service in more detail.

Getting Social in the Classroom: Teaching in a Web 2.0 World (SLIDES)

Since I’ve had a few requests for these, I just wanted to share my slidedeck from my September 17, 2010 presentation, “Getting Social in the Classroom: Teaching in a Web 2.0 World” for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky.

[slideshare id=5234277&doc=gettingsocialintheclassroom-100919124946-phpapp02]

To answer a couple of questions:

  • I use Slideshare to upload and publish my slidedecks. It’s free and easy to use, and in keeping with the theme of the presentation, takes a traditional activity (sharing of slides) and makes them more useful by adding a social dimension to it. This deck is posted on a new Slideshare account I’ve created, but you can view some of my past decks for courses at http://slideshare.net/christopherrice. I’ll be moving some of the “greatest hits” from that account to my new account at http://slideshare.net/ricetopher soon.
  • Almost all of the photos in the presentation were found on Flickr’s Creative Commons pool and attribution is provided on each slide.

Thanks to everyone who came out Friday! And for those who were unable to make it (it was a glorious September Friday afternoon, after all!), I look forward to seeing you at my next presentation (I have an upcoming session on Copyright and DRM as part of this series to be scheduled for later in the Fall).

Originally published on EduFuturist.com

Disruptive Technology for the Traditional Lecture Model

At the request of Vince Kellen, CIO of the University of Kentucky, I produced the following chart exploring a continuum of the potential of various technologies to disrupt the traditional lecture model of course delivery.

Lecture Disruption Technology Chart

(Chart (c) 2010 University of Kentucky All Rights Reserved)

The idea behind the chart is to examine a continuum of the potential for disruption to the traditional “sage on the stage” model of course delivery posed by a variety of technologies.

To the left of the chart, we find those technologies that are most conducive to the preservation and enhancement of the traditional lecture model. Technologies such as slideware (PowerPoint, Keynote) and the Learning Management System (Blackboard, Mookle, Sakai) serve to reinforce those traditional aspects of this model by making it easier to conduct extant course functions. As one moves to the right on the chart, however, we see the introduction of technologies that increasingly disrupt the lecture model, as well as what we think of as the traditional face-to-face course. Color-coded columns are an attempt to group these technologies together into categories. For example, I’ve placed Second Life and Adobe Connect Pro into the same column as they – at a basic level – seek to preserve an existing classroom form and function, but pushed out into the online setting. The goal of both in education has, heretofore, been an effort at preserving a synchronous environment. Certainly, Second Life can (and sometimes does) go beyond that, but in my analysis, has not gone as far as it could toward the asynchronous experience.

The maximally disruptive technologies on the right are categorized as such because they do the most to take learning outside the traditional classroom environment, bounded by static and predictable time and space, and move learning out into the world in an asynchronous manner.

Over the coming weeks, I will be writing a series of posts to further explain my thinking behind this continuum, and explore the technologies within each category and their disruptive potential.

Originally published at EduFuturist.com

The Future of Higher Ed #1: Accrediting Individuals, Not Institutions

I’ve been thinking a lot about Higher Education lately, specifically future scenarios mapping probable and preferable trajectories for universities. One thing that continues to be a real point of concern is the issue of accreditation – the process by which universities and colleges are certified by outside institutions to provide degrees. The current system is predicated on the idea that institutions are accredited by meeting certain guidelines. But does this necessarily HAVE to be the case?

What would Higher Education look like if individual scholars were accredited rather than institutions?

Image going back to a more Socratic method of education (not pedagogy, necessarily). Socrates wasn’t a tenured faculty member. He was someone who provided an education in collaboration with his students. In modern language, he was his own brand, and educational rockstar, as it were. What if, instead of accrediting universities, accrediting institutions bestowed this legitimacy on individuals?

Individual faculty would then be like modern “free agents,” to whom students would go to or stay away from based on the strength of their personal brand. Students could take online or f2f courses with the faculty of their choice, regardless of location. Universities would remain degree conferring institutions, largely serving the function of certifying that students had obtained sufficient credits from accredited faculty to be awarded a certain degree. Universities might differentiate by devising innovative degree programs and serving as a collaborative hub between individual scholars.

Faculty would have to learn to market themselves by developing and providing innovative, superior education in an on-demand fashion. Groups of academics, either from the same or different disciplines, could form “bands” (like Cory, Mark, Xeni et al at Boing Boing) to aid in their marketing and intellectual collaboration. Academics would be free, then, to create their own departments/committees, structured however they like in terms of organization, curriculum, revenue sharing, marketing, etc. Eventually, these academic “bands” might want to enter into a deal with a university to develop a degree/curriculum in return for the university taking on the marketing, payroll/taxes, etc., or to provide lab equipment, etc. This is similar to the arrangement the Boing Boing folks made with Federated Media, allowing them to focus on content while FM focused on the business back end.

Many academics would oppose this, of course, due to its elimination of the Tenure System. However, the tenure system in the United States is coming to an end. I’ve seen studies which suggest that 2/3 (or more) of all faculty at 2- and 4-year institutions are contingent faculty. Actually tenured faculty only make up about 10% or so of the system. So, tenure, if not already dead is dying in a hurry. By keeping accrediting power with the universities, academics essentially set themselves up to all be low-wage contingent labor. If academics could get past the seduction of tenure, they might find the system I’ve described to not only be more intellectually and creatively rewarding, but also more financially rewarding in the long term.

As we rethink the role, purpose and design of textbooks and traditional classrooms and pedagogy, we might also benefit from rethinking the entire operational structure of higher education.

What do YOU think?

The Realities of Being a Writer in the Age of New Media

As always, Tony Pierce is the man. Here’s what he had to say to a group of young aspiring Journalists the other day (straight from the legendary BusBlog):

i said you might come into the office and they look at you and say, can you make it to LAX to interview the CEO of Virgin and review the Donnas playing right there in the terminal and do it with a flute of bubbly in your hand, and can you speed back to the office and write about something else, and help fix this person’s HTML and help fix Typepad, and help resize photos in a web based photo application thats not Photoshop and can you handle it all before it gets dark?


i said write when you come home from the club drunk. i said write when youre sad cuz your dude just broke yr heart. i said write when youre mad write when your glad write when you believe you dont have shit to say. all of thats practice. all of that is so that you can knock out one piece after another when youre getting paid to do it. but you hafta do it when youre young. cuz if you cant do it when youre young you will make up some lameass bullshit when youre not young and then you’ll realize you probably werent a writer in the first place.

I fucking love Tony. He lays out in better language than I could why I try so hard to get my students to blog, to use Ning and Wikis, to do journals about their Second Life experiences. You need to learn to use the tools, because as Tony points out, being a writer is more than just sitting down at the typewriter, like some romantic vision of Hemingway. Today, to bring it, you’ve got to have all sorts of mad web skills. Tony knows. He’s doing one hell of a job revitalizing the LA Times (and he has my eternal thanks for bringing me the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Blog). And this is why I try to get my students to write more, even when its on “frivolous” projects like Ning or short blogging assignments. Work on writing, honestly, the small stuff now. Learn the tools. Then with hard work, persistence and some luck, you can make a go of it. Just like my man Tony.

Now get out there and blog you bums!

Thinking the Future: Kardashev Scales and the possibility of sub-scales

Open Left put up this video today by Michio Kaku on the Kardashev Scale:


Currently, the Earth as a whole  is ranked at roughly a 0.7 on the Kardashev scale. We are not even a Type I civilization yet.

I was very intrigued by Kaku’s discussion of the evolution of structures such as the European Union as stages of development towards a Type I civilization. Clearly the development of a global energy economy, and the concurrent political structural development, are key to driving this change. But they are not the end points. Which leads to the need to begin discussing scenarios for how we may achieve Type I civilization. To do this, we need to understand which aspects of our current globalizations are leading us closer to Type I and which are driving us further away. In order to do this, I believe, we need to begin understanding subtypes on the path to Type I civilization. If we are indeed at a 0.7 level, we need to have a firmer classification system to understand why this is the case, and not just rely upon measures of energy consumption. As Kaku is pointing out, there are a whole set of political and ethical structures which surround this subtype. Wedges, in other words. How do we then begin to think in terms of moving smaller wedges to achieve the larger goal of Type I civilization?

I don’t have the answer here. I just wanted to throw out the idea for further thought. As someone who teaches Kentucky and Appalachian Politics as well as Political Theory, it interests me to think about how we might classify global regions on a Kardashev-type scale. What variables, other than energy, might go into this? How do we measure progress, so as to more efficiently guide our efforts?

(I wish more Political Scientists would begin to incorporate some selements of Futures thinking, or Futurism, into their work.)

But I think the most important part comes at the very end of Kaku’s talk. We always blather on about how “the children are our future,” but rarely do we talk about WHY this is the case, other than some vague notion of DNA transmission and continuation of the species. In other words, the biological meatware answer, not the civilizational software answer.  Kaku suggests that the children are our future (and our grandchildren) because we are at a unique historical vantage point for either reaching for Type I Civilization or falling back into something much more primitive. It will be OUR generation, as well as the following two, which figure out how to use the available fossil fuel/carbon energy economy to get us to Type I without killing us through rapid global climate change. Or not.

As others have indicated, we get one shot at Type I. We either wisely use the available carbon resources to build a sustainable future and then rapidly wean ourselves off of them, or we continue to use carbon until it runs out or we kill off our existing sub-Type I Civilization  because we just couldn’t make the leap. It will take nature millions of years to sequester all that additional carbon again (which is what the Age of Dinosaurs and beyond was all about, really) to stabilize the atmosphere and concentrate the carbon into usable energy. On that timescale, you see, humanity really doesn’t have any alternative. We either use what we’ve got to get to Type I, or its an EPIC FAIL.

So to get there, we need to be thinking about Wedges now. Which Wedges are the best to use, the most effective and efficient, will largely depend on developing scenarios for achieving Type I. This means understanding sub-Type I scales more thoroughly, and using them to build a Type I blueprint.


Cat Herding and Taking PS 545 Students on a Second Life Field Trip

My PS 545 American Political Thought class is doing a major Digital Ethnography project in Second Life this semester. To get everyone on the same page, we went on a “digital field trip” in the lab the other week,

Field Trip 01

and had some fun deconstructing the meth lab simulation on UK Island. That’s me in the all-black outfit in front of the plasma screen TV, looking like an odd cross between Foucault and Spider Jerusalem.

Field Trip 02

However, getting everyone to stay on task was a bit like, well…see this video for a more accurate explanation of my feelings on the matter:


I heart my 545 class, but seriously, you guys have got to learn to stay on task, quit breaking out into spontaneous dance parties, and avoid continual avatar transformation (though Lumpy Louie [sorry] gets props for the Kool-Aid Man avatar. I went around shouting “Hey, Kids! Kool-Aid!” for days afterward). <sigh> Things that “Old School” professors never have to worry about.

But, then again, I have a hell of a lot more fun than they do. 🙂

PS, To PS 545 students: someone needs to bring snacks for Snack Friday this week. Next Friday we’ll be in the Lab.

Thoughts on Nostalgia in the Face of Peak Oil/Global Climate Change

Over at the Oil Drum, Stuart Staniford has an excellent, data-driven argument for “Why Peak Oil Actually Helps Industrial Agriculture.” I really appreciate the research that Staniford has put into this piece, as it provides a nice tonic against the alarmism and doomist approach of people like James Howard Kunstler. Yes, Peak Oil is a problem. Yes, things are going to get quite, quite ugly over both energy and water. In all likelihood, there will be no avoiding this. We will be facing a number of major problems all at once: Peak Oil, Water Crisis, Global Climate Change, Global Financial Crisis. However, it doesn’t mean we should all stop what we’re doing and run around with clapboard signs reading “REPENT – The End is Nigh!”. Quite the opposite – we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work on fixing these problems collectively, with an intensity we haven’t yet managed to summon. I have little patience anymore for this idea that the collapse of civilization is imminent and we’ll all have to move back to the land and sit around strumming the guitar and telling folktales by firelight.

I call bullshit on that.

As Staniford concludes :

[T]he reversalist future of local food production on smaller farms with higher labor input will not come to pass as a result of peak oil. The industrial agricultural sector owns most of the land, and will be in an excellent position to increase their land holdings as remaining subsistence farmers fail or consolidate in the face of high food prices. Industrial farmers will have no reason to sell out to impoverished urban dwellers. Thus the industrialization of the land is not a reversible process any time soon – it is a fallacy to think so. The reversalists are expressing wishful thinking and nostalgia for the past, not a reasoned analysis of how the future is likely to play out. And urbanites worried about their future should not be looking to buy or rent a smallholding as a solution to their problems – industrial farmers are extremely efficient, and there is no way to compete with them except by becoming one.

Translation: This back-to-the-land-oh-noes-its-the-end-of-the-world reeks of nostalgia (think hippie patchouli-stink, just a bit milder and laced with a pheromonal whiff of panic). A nostalgia for a particular type of agrarian past, often coming from people who didn’t grow up on a farm or have farmers in the family. If you think closely on the issue, as Staniford does, you see that there is no going back, no return to an idyllic past that really only existed in your head and a memory clouded by nostalgia erupting in the presence of fear. There is only going forward: What are the trend lines? How do we live more sustainably given the realities of where we are now? What technologies do we need? What changes in how we relate to one another can we bring about without it being imposed by some arbitrary authority?

For example, I don’t find it ridiculous at all to begin talking about the need for urban farming. I also think that most all of what Kunstler and others have to say about returning to light rail, walkable communities, etc. makes a hell of a lot of sense, and is, in fact, unavoidable to some extent. This is a helpful aspect about learning to build a sustainable, livable future.

But please: as we progress into a sustainable future, let’s do so with our eyes wide open, with an eye to promoting a sustainable culture of abundance and promise, rather than the doomist future of reduced resources, massive sacrifice and lower standards of living that so many so-called environmentalists seem to be trying to sell. People like their cars, their iPods, watching films, plaing Second Life and World of Warcraft. People in Kentucky enjoy drinking coffee from Guatemala and eating bananas and having Tomatoes in the winter. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get up for drinking chickory and never enjoying banana ice cream again. So how do we build a sustainable, equitable future of abundance and high standards of living for everyone? What energy future do we need to build (see the Apollo Project for a great vision of this)? Can we build cars which help wean us off of oil? Could virtual worlds like Second Life help us to lower our carbon footprint by reducing travel? Can we grow our own gardens and feed ourselves largely through intensive local urban farming while still utilizing a large, energy-forward agricultural production system which uses less energy and water while preserving topsoil? Nordhaus and Shellenberger do an interesting job of discussing this discourse of hope and abundance in their important “Break Through.” I highly recommend it.

So, my 2¢. I’ll stop the rambling now. I’m more interested in hearing what YOU think about this. Leave a comment or send an email, I’d love to hear from you.

h/t: Jamais Cascio (OTF)

EDITED (1/22/08 1:45pm) TO ADD:  I do NOT mean to offend any farmers out there. That was NOT what I was trying to do. What I was trying to say is that (1) farming is hard work, often glamorized by people who have never done it, or think they’d be great at it because they managed to raise a few tomatoes and cucumbers without killing them; and, (2) I oppose the idea that we have to give up in the face of these monstrous challenges and that there is only one “correct” way out of the crisis. I have no problem with people who are (a) hippies, (b) like patchouli, and (c) have an honest desire to escape modernity by pursuing an authentic agrarian lifestyle. I have the utmost respect and love for Wendell Berry. However, I have no desire to pursue such a lifestyle and reject the discourse of lowered expectations and diminished dreams. I enjoy shopping at the local Farmers’ Market and I plan on returning to large gardening this summer because I miss the fresh produce and the discipline of gardening. But I also enjoy Second Life, Gmail, digital photography and my iPod. The key is how to do all of these things in an environmentally neutral or, preferably, environmentally positive/regenerative way.

I hope this clarifies things a bit.

“Hi, I’m a Mac. I’m a PC. And I’m Linux.”


I love this video (found on a thread at the Whitechapel board). It’s so true.

I also like the video because it simply, and humorously illustrates what the Open Source community is all about. Nice. Simple. and Short. We need more Burst Culture like this in the Open Source movement. Information and Ideological Downloads through the Pop Single form.

Pedagogy 2.0 and Second Life

Boy, Slideshare is just chock full of goodness today! Wanted to put down these two presentations for my own future reference, on on “Pedagogy 2.0”, or using Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom and another on Second Life in education, of interest to me as I’m currently on U.K.’s Second Life Policy committee.

[slideshare id=178755&doc=pedagogy-20-or-web-20based-elearning-1196000420670383-2&w=425]

[slideshare id=28216&doc=second-life-for-education-17293&w=425]