Wednesday, September 03, 2014

What My Work Is

I study and teach about teaching and learning. Often with an emphasis on helping faculty and programs transition to using digital tools, but too I do workshops on using older technologies creatively -- textbooks, whiteboards, seat arrangements in brick and mortar rooms, assignment ideas, and reasons to shift a teaching emphasis here or there.

Fourteen years ago, Bedford/St. Martin's (B/SM) hired me as a New Media Editor. Over that time, my title and responsibilities changed. I became Director of New Media, and then Director of Digital Teaching and Learning, a title I still hold for the moment.

I joined B/SM June 16, 2000, coming from Colorado State University (CSU) where I had been the Director of the Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator, a tenure track position I was offered, and accepted, despite not having finished my dissertation. And because I managed not to finish within a year of the hire, I forced CSU into the awkward and unwanted by them task of having to fire me.

I began teaching in 1986, as an MA student at Boston College, and did some adjunct teaching at Lyndon State College before joining the PhD program at UMass, Amherst, where I lucked into teaching first year writing in 1991 in a computer networked classroom, a rare opportunity back then. So I came of intellectual age, really vested in teaching writing and learning and pedagogy in a digital setting. UMass is where I got to work with Charlie Moran, Anne Herrington, Peter Elbow, Marcia Curtis and others, reading and writing about composition theory and practice, experimenting with teaching, being mentored and introduced into the field, all with people who really care, very deeply, about students learning to become writers -- people self-aware of their learning and writing processes -- as a way of learning to write. Computers and writing and teaching writing in a way that helps students find their way as writers all have been what I've focused on since, including since coming into college textbook publishing.

So back to my job. I am in editorial. I don't write code or supervise those who do. I don't work in sales or report to marketing. I work in editorial, though since Macmillan reorganized its companies a bit, my .sig file is a bit more complicated than it used to be, with Bedford/St. Martin's no longer a company but instead an imprint, a colophon on a book spine:
Nick Carbone
Director of Digital Teaching and Learning
Humanities Editorial Department        
U.S. Higher Education Division
Macmillan Education
ncarbone AT macmillan DOT GOES HERE com
But my work, by and large, is what it's always been. I focus my time on faculty professional development, technology for teaching writing/for teaching online, course development and curriculum design, writing and program assessment, QEP planning, and the like when I'm in the field.

Back in the office I offer advice to colleagues on what would be a good idea to develop in our technology, usually recommending things we lack the bandwidth or resources to do on the one hand or that not enough professors would ask students to buy on the other. But that's o.k.. An idea doesn't need to be enacted to be good, to do good work in developing what can be done. Even things that cannot be done stretch the understanding of what's possible, and lay the ground work for down the road, getting people to look at where things are going, what may emerge as necessary later. And in the meantime, someone else, whether a competing publishing company, an open education resource project, a new educational venture, will build something that executes the idea well and proves their faculty and student value in it, or demonstrates why it wasn't quite the right idea after all.

And when that happens, when a technology is available that looks interesting, I get to play with it. So I dance in and out of e-portfolio programs, swim in multimodal composing software, explore new ideas for online writing tools and communities. Sometimes I work these tools we don't make at Macmillan into workshops, encouraging faculty and students to experiment, especially if the tool looks like something teachers and students can come to know and use beyond the course in a way that will have lasting value and purpose for them.

I also work offline a bit, looking at chapters of print books from time to time for editors and authors to help them address the presence of computer-based technologies in research, reading, thinking, and writing that faculty and students do. I keep up with reading the literature and attending conferences in the fields of composition and rhetoric, computers and writing, developmental reading and writing, and first year experience (all courses and fields I taught in over the years), dabbling in history and communications too once in a while.

I also get to travel -- to visit more colleges and campuses than I could ever imagine doing as a full-time professor. I see more variety of teachers and students, more variety of the physical classrooms, buildings, and locations of campuses. Teaching and learning are bound by material reality -- the shape of rooms, the location of windows, the nature of offices, the degree to which students commute or reside, what people are paid to teach, pay to learn, and more. When considering how best to help people teach and learn, there's nothing like being there. One of the great joys of the job is being on campus, talking to a faculty member in his or her office, and being interrupted by a student. It's great when students seek out teachers; it reveals more about a place, a professor, and a pedagogy than just about anything else. And witnessing these interactions, often quick but sometimes such that I excuse myself, is a privilege.

So the work I do is scholarly and academic, but without the pressure to publish for tenure. I still write articles for collections, give conference presentations and lead workshops, serve on an editorial board for the WAC Clearinghouse, teach as an adjunct on occasion, and do other service work in the field. So I live an academic life, but instead of being paid by a university, I'm paid by a textbook publisher.

My work then is not about publishing, though I work in publishing. It's not about profit, though I care that the company earns a profit. It's not about developing books or directly developing software, though I work with folks who do that and chip in my thoughts. It's about teaching and learning writ large and teaching and learning writing most of the time.

So it's a fun job because teaching writing is fun. It's an important job because teaching writing is important. And it's a job that involves lots of revision, adaptation, and change because how writing is taught and learned is revised and rethought over and again. So it's also an adventurous job, not settled, not fixed, offering something new at regular, if not all, turns.

Slow Editing and Student Error

A few weeks ago an e-mail came up on a discussion list I'm on that asked for advice about how to address what was termed a "Fatal Flaw Error Policy." I hadn't heard that phrase before, but recognized the practice -- drastically marking down or automatically failing unless revised, a paper with too many errors. I searched the Web, and found this incarnation of the approach at the School of Business at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (
Fatal Error Policy--Adopted by the School of Business faculty on November 13, 1995 
Business students must practice professional standards in writing. To this end, all written assignments must meet minimal presentation standards to be acceptable. These standards address spelling, punctuation, format and basic grammar. The term Fatal Errors refers to technical English errors of form. Specifically they include the following:
  1. Each different word misspelled,
  2. Each sentence fragment,
  3. Each run-on sentence or comma splice,
  4. Each mistake in capitalization,
  5. Each serious error in punctuation that obscures meaning,
  6. Each error in verb tense or subject/verb agreement,
  7. Lack of conformity with assignment format,
  8. Each improper citation, or lack of citation, where one is needed.
Papers with more than three fatal errors marked by an instructor on any one page, or more than a number specified by the instructor for the entire document will be returned to the student and subject to a grading penalty as prescribed by the instructor. Instructors will determine the number of resubmissions allowed and the penalty attached to each resubmission. Penalties for final course papers (where there is no time for a resubmission) will be determined by the instructor and will be based on the relative importance of the assignment to the determination of the final course grade. This policy applies to all 200-level and above business courses. 
Since the nature of written assignments will vary from course to course, please discuss writing expectations and other details on the application of this policy with each of your instructors.
As I said in reply to the post about the idea, a policy like this is borne usually from frustration. The policy assumes students can write without the flaws given above, but that  underneath they might be too lazy too attend to the issues unless failure to do so is, well, fatal. Or it assumes students can find a way to get the errors removed. It's an all stick approach. And as you can see, the School of Business at SIUE has been following it since 1995, 19 years come November 3, and so from the business school faculty's point of view, it must be working.

I don't like the policy, and I wouldn't use it in my own teaching. There are better ways, I think, to get students turning in close to error-free final drafts than threatening a dire grade. That said, I do think it is important and possible to set a final draft standard that calls for students to submit well proofed and edited prose. I  think writers at any level of ability, including students placed in basic or developmental writing courses, can write be shown how to proofread.

But a lot of courses with writing, including many first year and basic writing courses I've visited over the years,  do not teach how to proofread.  I've seen a lot of courses where students are asked to cram handbooks to try to learn the major and minor rules for standard edited English in 15 weeks, have witnessed students being lectured on dangling modifiers, have seen students required to submit over and over to automated spell and grammar checking software until the writing is cleared of errors, and I've seen policies like the above, where students are held to drastic consequences for having too many errors.

Often these approaches result in many students giving up, not because they are lazy or stupid, but because they are frustrated and not being shown how to look at their own and classmates' writing and to proofread and edit it for surface level errors. That skill -- proofreading -- is different from knowing what makes a modifier dangling, what is a fragment versus a full sentence, what verb tense is in use, where subjects and verbs are and whether they agree.  Being able to understand what a handbook says, in the context of looking at a handbook and its illustration of an error and how to correct it, is not the same as spotting an error in writing. Being able to choose the correct revision of an error on a multiple choice quiz, is not the same skill as being able to see the error in one's own prose and making the edit needed to address it.

So of late, in my travels and visits to campuses where student error is a concern, discussions have turned to slow editing strategies, things that help a student transfer what they learn from a handbook and its exercises to their own writing. A favorite handout for that at the Council on Basic Writing Resource Share from February 2014 (Direct link to the item here: -- ).  The idea of the handout is to show students how to use a word processor to break up their reading, to disorder a copy of the essay into an alphabetic list of sentences.

That step, making a copy of the essay using File/Save As, printing the draft, working with one sentence at a time and asking for each sentence if it needs an edit, is slow. It's slower than running through a spell checker, and slower than uploading the paper to a service like Grammarly. It's slower than asking a friend to proof, or getting an editor to catch errors (though both of those are good and valuable steps writers use, and students should be taught to use too).

It asks a writer to stop, to read not for meaning but for correctness. It's something they shouldn't do at all in early drafting or as they move and add details, cut things that aren't needed, refine thoughts with more reading. It's a step that works better if a piece has had time to sit, unread, untouched for a few days, a week. It's a step that works best with a bookmarked handbook, one that the writer's been taught to know how to look into on their own as well as from assignments and teacher direction to read about error X.

But if these issues are important to teachers, so important that their presence in writing is fatal, then it's just as important to teach the skills for addressing the error. Lecturing, harping, reading grammars, doing exercises do not teach the skill of proofreading. Teaching proofreading and giving students practice at it with their own and classmates' writing is required. And that takes time because to do it well, it has to be done, at least to start, slow.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Notes on Software and Teaching Jobs in Higher Ed After Skimming the Pew report on AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

Pew canvassed 1896 people by sending an " 'opt in' invitation to experts who have been identified by researching those who are widely quoted as technology builders and analysts and those who have made insightful predictions to our previous queries about the future of the Internet." 

52% think technology will lead to new and better jobs overall, as it historically has done, but 48% worry that technology is replacing jobs and not creating enough new ones.
Oremus framed it this way:
Replacing manual labor with machines on farms and in factories was one thing, the worriers say. Those machines were dumb and highly specialized, requiring humans to oversee them at every stage. But the 21st century is witnessing the rise of far smarter machines that can perform tasks previously thought to be immune to automation.

Today’s software can answer your calls, organize your calendar, sell you shoes, recommend your next movie, and target you with advertisements. Tomorrow’s software will diagnose your diseases, write your news stories, and even drive your car. When even high-skill “knowledge workers” are at risk of being replaced by machines, what human jobs will be left? Politics, perhaps—and, of course, entrepreneurship and management. The rich will get richer, in other words, and the rest of us will be left behind.

All of which has brought John Maynard Keynes’ concept of “technological unemployment” back into the academic discourse, some 80 years after he coined the phrase.
Both the Oremus piece, which includes links to other sources, and more importantly the Pew report itself, would do well in a writing course exploring technology and culture, or technology and economics. That nearly 1900 experts are divided, nearly evenly, on the future of jobs, makes this the kind of topic that will not have easy answers.
And remember, this use of technology is getting into education too, with the push for self-pace (lone learner) platforms that seemingly seek to be student proof or teacher proof  by using adaptive tools, automated assessment, interstitial quizzing and other means to funnel students over a prescribed learning path until they come out the other end having satisfied the learning gauntlet. Pearson's Propero is good example of this kind of learning technology; it's being offered to colleges as a way have students take a course and earn college credit, all with no instructor. It's software designed to replace a person with an MA or PhD who would otherwise teach the course.

So it's not just future jobs that are at stake, but current jobs too. There's a balance lost, especially in learning, when machines take over decision making. Software with fixed paths, even if adaptive and adjusting the content to what is not yet been mastered (as measured by what the software can measure), really doesn't teach learners to learn.

Deep learning requires that learners get advice from fellow learners and instructors, reflect on their prior learning choices and next options, and then make decisions about their own learning, good and bad ones, and learn from those decisions, whether good or bad, something about the subject of the course as well how they learn.

But I don't want to say all software is bad. Adaptive learning, automated writing assessment tools, data on engagement, and other information gleaned from learner action and learner choices, can do great things for students and teachers. When designed to support a learning community, defined broadly as students and teachers talking to and learning with and from one another, educational software can provide evidence, show patterns, recommend learning strategies that students can discuss with classmates, teachers, advisers, and academic coaches. Learning, especially learning to read, write, and think critically is hard and sometimes messy work. Software can supply an ordered view into that messy process. Learning comes from understanding what the views mean or tell, and making choices about what is working, what not, and making changes, experimenting, and reassessing over and again.
Good technology -- software, for example, like Eli from MSU, or MARCA from UGA's Calliope Initiative, or MyReviewer from USF, TTU's RaiderWriter, LightSide's project to use AWE as a basis for student/teacher discussion instead of teacher replacement -- can all give teachers and students useful evidence of learning, or of engagement, that becomes the basis for reflection, planning, conferencing, talking to peers, revising, learning from seeing what is working, what is not, and from all that helping the writer and learner to make a choice -- provides a matrix for transformative assessment -- about what to work on next and how to go about it.
And that's what's useful about the Pew report and its divide. It teases out possibilities as well as perils.
Also, as an aside, Pew URL is interesting for a cool social networking feature. As you read the sampling of comments some of the 1896 people made, you'll see embedded in the text Twitter's bird icon. That indicates excerpts from the findings that Pew has tweeted and a link to the tweet where it was used. Kind of cool and rhetorical move worth its own discussion.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Getting Ready to Have no Office

Macmillan Science and Education, where I work, is consolidating offices. New York offices at 33 Irving Place and 41 Madison Ave, along with one or two other locations will move into one building in Manhattan. Our company leaders herald the new office layout -- an open design -- as a campus, where private offices and/or personal cubicles give way to rows of computer terminals, scattered couches and chairs, maybe some tables in nooks and crannies, or small, fish-bowled conference rooms for meetings.

I work in Boston and once leases expire, the plan, we hear, for Boston will be as it is in New York and was in London: a move to a campus-based office model. In anticipation of that move, though it may be years away, I removed from my current office anything personal because campus offices eliminate the personal. I also removed work related materials -- manuscript hard copy, notes from meetings, scholarly books I own that I consult, books we publish, print outs, whiteboards and other workplace desiderata.

So now my office looks like this:

My office as it now stands. Once the whiskey is finished, the glasses will be packed in that white box on the low left shelf and the box will go home with me. The laptop is on a spare chair as a way to create a standing desk. 

Of course, when MHE sets up their campus offices, they'll supply plants, color, furniture, and other amenities, that, like a new library or student union on a college campus, will look contemporary and vibrant, designed no doubt for cross-colleague communication and serendipitous discoveries of new ideas. That's a key pitch for the campus version of the open office. And too as an education publishing company, operating on a campus metaphor resonates with the mission to foster research and learning.

In the campus office, employees share space, much the way that on a college campus the library, learning center or student union each provides open seating for students to use on their visits to those places. Visually, based on glimpses from similar MSE offices in London pictured in a company video, the offices resemble a fairly well appointed college student union or library. Here, take a look:
A shared computer area in an open office, where I believe any open terminal can be used by any person who needs it. Much like a computer lab on a college campus.

A conference room, a tradition in traditional offices as well. So nothing new, but often these are now designed so that walls are glass.

Little nooks where colleagues can work in semi-private in small groups or alone. 

Tables placed in places where there's room, borrowing from library design.
If you've been to a college campus in the U.S., you know that the images above all are like the kinds of spaces colleges provide to students and faculty: open, no assigned or named seating, workstations may be present, but laptops abound, students cluster where they will, classrooms, conference room, study rooms, nooks for two or three, supplement the commons areas.

If you've been to college campuses, have walked through areas like these, you'll have seen energy: students in conversation, small study groups at work in a conference room, fingers flying on keyboards, and the immobile work of quiet readers in lone concentration. The campus office hunts for that vibe. Whether it can capture it, I'm not so sure.

For when students and faculty go to those public spaces, they carry in with them only what they can carry out. They do not bring plants, nor photos of family or friends, nor art from their walls, nor mementos, nor cork boards or white boards, nor more books than can fit in a backpack, nor anything else that they might leave out or hang or use or keep in their their faculty offices or dorm room or apartment off campus. They cannot carry those things because there's no where to leave them. Their use of the space is temporary, impermanent, and random.

The campus work spaces that look like the images seen above are not, like a publishing office, used 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 hours a day, five days a week. On a college campus, unlike an office borrowing the design, open work stations, open seating, shared conference rooms and small group nooks are all temporary and interstitial spaces, way stations used on the way from offices/dorms/apartments to classes. Or, if in the library, used for short bursts, relative to where most time is spent.  (Though when deep into research that requires months of long days, the library can feel like home.)

Intermittent work in open, shared and public spaces, differs from working in office with a door one can shut for privacy and concentration, where there's a desk one leave work out on for more efficient resumption each morning,  and where small personal accoutrements -- art, plants, favorite pens, coffee cups or teapots -- make coming in a little more pleasant.  And so it's no surprise that some of the research (summarized here by Julie Beck in The Atlantic Monthly and here by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker) on open offices shows that productivity falls, workers become more stressed, and the office becomes a place employees are happy to not go to when they can arrange to work elsewhere.

I'm among those who will not do well in an open office, not if I need to spend all my time there. As amenable and contemporary as their design may be, with color, furniture, use of space, they are by design more impersonal, and thus despite their colors and comforts, colder places to work. By design a worker has no permanent place, no private place. I've worked in factories and other jobs where I've had no place, but for maybe a locker to hang and store a coat. And in all those places, workers were easily replaced, some less so than others, but replaceable still. Now publishing isn't factory work. The offices MHE proposes differ mightily from the noise, grime, and grind of machinery I experienced in my factory jobs. 

These new office models -- where a place to sit is make due, a place to talk quietly or privately is make shift, and that make no room for the personal installation of art, photos, awards, degrees, books, papers, plants, toys, and yes, a bottle of whiskey maybe -- reduce the sense of who people are. And by that reduction, reduce the sense that people belong. Right now, when I go through our current offices, even when I colleague's not at her desk, I can glimpse who they are, what their children and grandchildren are into from where photos are taken, the kind of work they do from what stays on their desk, the cultural references they know from their art and knicknacks, how they think and plan from the way they plot out their whiteboards, and so much more. I can know them better as people with lives outside the office and colleagues with skills and talents inside the office.

But in the new office design, if people are not there that day, not in, there will be no trace of them. No sense of them. And in that lack of trace, these new office designs make it feel to me like people who work there are more transient and replaceable than before. Because when folks are out of the office they are as gone from view as passengers in an airport lounge whose flights have departed.

In a review of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval, Jenny Diski describes vividly an open office failure:
Jay Chiat decided that office politics were a bar to inspirational thinking. He hired Frank Gehry to design his ‘deterritorialised’ agency offices in Venice, California in 1986. ‘Everyone would be given a cellular phone and a laptop computer when they came in. And they would work wherever they wanted.’ Personal items, pictures or plants had to be put in lockers. There were no other private spaces. There were ‘Tilt-A-Whirl domed cars … taken from a defunct amusement park ride, for two people to have private conferences. They became the only place where people could take private phone calls.’ One employee pulled a toy wagon around to keep her stuff together. It rapidly turned into a disaster. People got to work and had no idea where they were to go. There were too many people and not enough chairs. People just stopped going to work. In more formal work situations too, the idea of the individual workstation, an office or a personal desk, began to disappear and designers created fluid spaces where people wandered to settle here and there in specialised spaces. For some reason homelessness was deemed to be the answer to a smooth operation.
So I see these open office plans coming but the offices, as resplendent as it they come to be, and as nice as they might be to visit or attend a meeting there, as soulless and empty. Which is why I've decorated my current office accordingly and only go into it when I have a face to face meeting scheduled with a colleague. Otherwise, I work from home, and when I travel to attend conferences or visit colleges as part of my work, from airports, from hotel rooms, and yes, the campus libraries and student unions my offices back home will soon come to imitate.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What Can Metacogntive Tutoring Research Teach Textbook Publishers?

Leonard Geddes, Associate Dean of Co-Curricular Programs and Director of the Lohr Learning Commons at Lenoir-Rhyne University, began a began a series of LearnWell Project posts 7/23/2014 with a first titled, "A Metacognitive Peer Tutoring Model: Linking Thinking, Learning and Performance in a Peer Tutoring Program."

With a research grant, Geddes asked tutors who he had trained in metacognitive tutoring to record the issues they believed were causing students to struggle in their learning. 40 tutors working with about 80 students in tutorials that lasted an hour logged 522 reports, using this template to record the learning problem:


Please identify the problem(s) which led the student to seek tutoring. (You can choose more than one option.)

Doesn't grist the material in class
Experiencing difficulty seeing the relationship between what is covered in class and what is reflected on tests
Doesn't know to use the textbook or doesn't use the textbook
Doesn't know how to take notes
Attempts to memorize material only
Student is overwhelmed by the volume of information they are required to learn
Doesn't grasp what the professor is talking about in class.

Which lead to these results overall:

Results of Lenoir-Rhyne Tutors Observations of Student Learning Problems
Results from Leonard Geddes research on learning problems his tutors recorded encountering. Click on image to see more fully.

Now, there's a lot I don't know about this research --how tutors determine which problem is at play, for example. So I hope later posts by Geddes get at what the distinction is from "Doesn't grasp the material in the class" to "Doesn't grasp what the professor is talking about during class."  The first post reports that the categories were chosen from years of tutoring reports and documents, but hearing a bit more about the process for deriving the categories, especially where there seems some overlap -- is poor note-taking a cause of not grasping material? or does not being able to grasp make it hard to take good notes?

Note added 8/1/2014: Geddes second post is in fact getting at some of the questions above. I especially appreciate the views into actual tutoring sessions.

Geddes defines what metacognitive tutoring, writing:
Whereas traditional tutoring focuses on a particularly challenging subject area, and supplemental instruction addresses specific challenging courses, metacognitive tutoring focuses on students’ interaction with content, in general, across domains and academic tasks. We like to call it listening with a “third ear.” Metacognitive tutors address the immediate cognitive problems their students are experiencing while also remaining open to underlying metacognitive conditions that may be contributing to students’ academic problems.

I hope too that there's insight into a tutoring session, perhaps with some record of the discussion to illustrate more fully what metacognitive tutoring is in practice.

But all those and other questions aside, I'm engaged by the results above and like the idea of attempting to map learning problems, to excavate them and address them with students. So tutoring isn't about studying content alone, but studying with each student their own learning process and skills.

My role with Macmillan Higher Education Publishing involves the study of teaching and learning, and I wonder, looking at this, why textbooks score relative low as an issue, yet grasping material in the class is higher. Isn't a textbook a means of delivering course material? If tutors report that students know how to use a textbook, but that they still aren't grasping course materials, is there something textbooks can do more effectively?

When I started at Macmillan, it was with a company called Bedford/St. Martin's*, whose co-founder, Chuck Christensen, said to me in my job interview, that we were not in the textbook business, but rather the pedagogical tools business. And so as textbooks evolve with digital technologies to become more obviously pedagogical tools, where learning analytics, engagement analytics, adaptive learning, personalized learning, and other possibilities emerge, will there be a way to make our course materials such that students can grasp them more fully?

Is it possible to learn from the kind of metacognitive research Geddes and others are doing to build into pedagogical tools metacognitive aides for students?

I think so. Formative assessment that measures not just learning, but also that correlates learning with engagement, with prompts and questions to help students see if they're studying wisely, using their time well, taking good notes, and so on. Creating tools that invite written reflection -- that prompt note-taking while reading, that prompt active study planning (not just delivering links to recommending content after an assessment), that offer a learning journal, or the ability to form study teams. That is, I think it would be a mistake to simply make things that push and pull students, that force them to a path. Instead, we can make things that give students a formative look at where they are, where they need to go to meet course goals, and then choices to follow, suggestions, that students have to choose among.

Without that action -- student agency and choice -- metacognition means so much less.

And, given how important coaching can be in learning, making it so that students can let tutors see into the system, so that tutors can advise them on choices.

* In December, Macmillan reorganized its educational companies. Bedford/St. Martin's went from being an independent business, with its own president, marketing department, production, promotions, and other publishing infrastructure to an imprint under Macmillan Higher Education.