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UVA disaster: About those online classes

It’s kind of strange when there’s something in the news that you actually know something about.  I’m talking about the online classes that were the underlying reason why UVA president Teresa Sullivan was fired.  In truth, it’s not the classes themselves that did her in.  It was the fact that she stood in the way of progress making a ton of money for prospective investors and rectors on the board of visitors who want to make UVA into a business that offers academic goods and services.

The best explanation for what might have happened is by Anne-Marie Angelo, UVA alum and current PhD candidate in History at Duke.  (H/T Lambert at Corrente)

But let’s talk about those online classes for a second.  As many of you may know, Brooke takes her AP English courses through Stanford’s Online High School.  Stanford runs their OHS classes through an application called Saba Centra. It uses another program called eCollege as well but Centra is how the online classes are distributed. I was skeptical at first how this was going to work but it turns out that it is very good.  The class is held in real time with high school students from all over the world.  The app initially didn’t work on a Mac but they’ve straightened that out in the past year.  Through Centra, the teacher can call on students.  He/She can ask some of them to write short responses to questions while she is discussing the day’s material with other students.  Students can respond to each other, chat and give “applause” feedback.  The interface is loaded with features.  It truly is an interactive experience and I’ve often passed by the basement door to hear her talking to her teacher as if she were in an actual classroom.  Classroom attendance is strict.  You can only miss a class for technical reasons or your grandmother died.  If you’re sick, well, you’re at home soooo, what are you doing with your time??  In addition to the live classroom experience, the teacher can also provide supplementary material, like videos, that can be viewed through Centra.  Students can view this material at their convenience within a given timeframe but if it’s part of an assignment, attendance will be recorded and graded.

I credit Stanford OHS for getting Brooke back on level and thoroughly challenged.  The class material is not easy for a high school student.  The course follows the Stanford University schedule so Brook’s course ended in May, leaving her time to finish up her other online courses which are not taken through Stanford.  These two classes are American History and Precalc and are offered through a for profit curriculum provider.  The application it uses is not as complete as Stanford’s.  The classes are prerecorded and you go at your own pace.  The interface is kludgy and it’s a bit like studying for your written driver’s exam.  If you don’t answer the questions exactly as they have been spelled out in the lesson, you can’t go forward, even if you disagree with the answer or find the question poorly worded.  The experience is much more pedantic, less lively, less personal.  It’s something you want to get over with, not something to look forward to.

So, there are good online packages, like Stanford’s, which should be the current working model to be tweaked and adjusted for course material, subject and size of class, and there are not so good online packages.  But the thing that makes Stanford’s OHS stand out is the quality of the faculty.  This year, Brooke’s teacher was a professor of English who had scored AP English essays at one point in her career.  Last year’s teacher was equally well qualified.  I’ve asked Brooke several times if she thinks the classes are worth the outrageous price tag and she always looks like she would be bereft without them.  What you are paying for in the end is the faculty and the program.  Stanford has a lot of experience working with exceptional learners and the way it uses Centra and has set up these classes reflects that experience.

The bottom line is that you can’t just rush into these things.  It takes time to research the online setup, choose materials, create supplementary material and train staff to get the best possible experience.  Of course, there is no substitute for the ambience of a college or university where you can spend time with people in your classes who share your interests and with whom you can talk about issues that are important to you.  Taking an online class or two is fine but you really need to be there to transform yourself and learn how to learn.

So, I sympathize with Teresa Sullivan who calls herself an incrementalist.  In my opinion, that is exactly the approach that is needed when it comes to carefully and effectively implementing an online class so that the student and college gets the most value from it.  Just buying a package off the shelf and running a few training seminars for the staff is just so corporate.  What comes along with that will be a behemoth IT department and a standard, one-size-fits-all interface that will frustrate all but the most dedicated hackers.  You know how I know this?  It was in the way in which the forced resignation was handled.  No one in the faculty was consulted and it was done quickly, without much thought to fallout or repercussions for the university’s reputation.  The Board of Visitors want to make money and that means skimping on the interface, implementation and preparation steps so that a lowest common denominator image can be rolled out before the fall classes start.  That’s probably why university professor Bill Wulf resigned yesterday.  He knew that the minute you turn your expertise over to a corporate standard, you lose all control over it and any catastrophes that follow.  Everything becomes centralized and making changes or handling problems becomes very difficult. Ask anyone who’s every worked in corporate research.  The management class seems determined to get in the way of true progress.

Now, what could Teresa Sullivan have done differently to save her job?  Well, she *could* have taken a serious look at the various schools and maybe scaled some of them back.  I would have started with the Darden School of Business at UVA.  One wonders if Jefferson would have approved of a business school as being sufficiently rigorous enough for UVAs standards.  Business management isn’t really a science, it’s fairly artless and it is anything but humane.  Everything I’ve read about business curriculum is that it tends to be trendy, appealing to the business class that has the attention span of a magpie distracted by shiny objects. It’s also light on actual content, much of it not well validated, except for the math, economics and accounting.  Couldn’t you just roll that stuff into the economics department or send the future spreadsheet jockeys to an accounting program?  Or she could have resolved to review the business program to make sure we aren’t graduating too many students who have no background in the industries that they will be managing.   I know that if Sullivan had done something like that, those of us who have been laid off from our corporate research positions would have been eternally grateful.  And given how unethically the MBAs have lead the global economy off a cliff, she might have prevented even more cocky Brooke’s Brother’s assholes from ruining the world.  She could have been a hero.

But that’s all water under the bridge now.  What’s coming up is finding a permanent replacement for Sullivan. And I have just the right guy for the job!  That’s right, why not just recruit Barack Obama?  There’s a good chance he’s going to lose anyway once the working class base he blew off in 2008 votes in November.  There’s not a damn thing a hipster creative class person can do about that if Obama insists on running.  And he’s got the right mindset.  He’s a good fundraiser, he likes schmoozing with donors, who he will give his full attention to later, and he’s not terribly sympathetic to labor, which makes it all the easier for the Board of Visitors to dynamically strategize how to “harmonize” their benefits.  (When you see “harmonize” in the company bulletins, update your CV)  Besides, Obama is all about Change!™  It’s a match made in heaven.  Solve two problems at once: hire Obama as the president of UVA and get a real Democrat to run in his place in November.

Update: Siva Vaidhynathan, professor of media studies at UVA gave an interview this afternoon that sounds eerily like my post.  It’s like some kind of Vulcan mind meld.  Cue the Twlight Zone theme.  Here it is in its entirety, about 30 minutes.

Wednesday: Something old, something new

It looks like I missed the 400th Republican presidential debate again last night.  How did the audience disgrace itself this time?

David Frum and Jonathan Chait wrote separate columns in the New York Magazine criticizing their own side for being unreasonable.  David Frum’s makes more sense with his, “Whoa, when did you Tea Party people get to be so crazy?  That shit is fucked up and bullshit” disbelief at how off the rails his party has slid.  He never criticizes their expectations.  Just their overreach.  To Frum, it would have been easy for them to get everything they wanted out of Obama and the Democrats.  In fact, they pretty much have.  Frum is upset that now there is a universal mandate and other things the insurance companies don’t like written into law for health insurance and that will be hard to walk them back.  But he completely ignores how expensive and unattainable that insurance still is to those of us who no longer have those costs covered by our employers.  He doesn’t even offer any new ideas about how Republicans were supposed to make it more affordable.  He’s just pissed that they pushed so hard back when they didn’t really have to.  He makes a mistake about praising Obama’s eloquence and intelligence that is admired globally.  I think that might have been true at first but the honeymoon has been over for a long time.  Perhaps Frum is projecting his own admiration of Obama since it is precisely the Frums that Obama is trying to appeal to.  But in general, he’s right.  The Republicans have been so obstructive and so whipped up to heights of artificial fury by imaginary injury by the forces of right wing media that they don’t know when to declare victory and call it a day.

Chait?  {{sigh,  shakes heads, sighs again}}  Chait admits up front that he’s an Obama apologist.  Well, you can pretty much figure out what follows from that point onward.  Yes, once again, he chastises the left for actually expecting something.  It’s one big long revision of history of each of the past century’s Democratic presidents and how all of them come up short compared to Obama.  No president is spared.  Even Roosevelt, who Chait forgets to credit with, um, just about anything.  How many people are around to remember what Roosevelt did anyway?  Jeez, I don’t know but my Grandmother would have chewed your ear off if you’d criticized Roosevelt.  Sure, the guy wasn’t perfect.  What person is?  But let’s not pretend that the changes he put in place weren’t radical and transformative.  The Republicans have been fighting his programs since their inception and have been losing.  That’s an amazing accomplishment even if they had a rough start and didn’t cover everyone at first.  Clinton gets the same old, same old that we’ve been hearing from lefties for 4 years now.  What Chait conveniently glosses over is that the tactics the Republicans and the media used to discredit and bedevil Clinton throughout his two terms had never been seen before.  They were so new and notable that we came up with a phrase, the “vast right wing conspiracy”.  The difference between Obama and Clinton is that Clinton seems to have learned how to deal with his Republican opponents and drive them crazy.  Obama has not.  Obama has made it an art to drive his own base crazy.

Then Chait brings up the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and I just had to walk away.  The Fair Pay Act was stalled in committee and never had a chance.  The Lilly Ledbetter act merely extends the period of time that women can sue for pay discrimination.  But first they have to prove that discrimination occurred, which they can now do by asking human resources for salary information of their colleagues.  And do you know what the likelihood of that is, Jonathan?  Somewhere between zero and less than zero.  If Obama had really wanted to score points with women and the world of work, he might have first lead by example and not acted like a patronizing head patter when his female appointees petitioned him for fair treatement.  And secondly, he could have developed a policy to  study, using quantitative analysis methods, workplaces where gender discrimination is alleged to take place.  That would have eliminated the he said/she said problems and smoked out a lot of bad behavior.  But Obama never did develop serious policies about womens’ issues.  He’s going to make his mouth move on the subject during the campaign but he insults our intelligence if he thinks rolling out Lilly Ledbetter is going to work in 2012.

Anyway, go read Chait’s monstrosity if you want to get a clue as to what the Democrats are going to throw at us.  Basically, it’s the same old guilt trip.  It’s YOUR fault if you expected anything from Obama.


I’m starting to pick up vibrations in my tin-foil antenna that the Democrats are getting impatient with their voters.  For some reason, those damn people aren’t as enthusiastic about who is in power this year.  And more than one reader here has excoriated OWS for not supporting Democrats.  “If OWS doesn’t get behind the Democrats, the Republicans will win and that would negate everything OWS is trying to do.  Don’t you see??  If OWS wants a political solution, it has to work to defeat the Republicans.”  You can almost detect the note of contempt underneath the frustration.  It must be maddening to have to talk down to people who really should be getting it.

Gosh, didn’t we go through this in 2008?  And where did I read that Obama was having problem with less than enthusiastic voters in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, three states he absolutely must win in 2012?  Wait!  Weren’t those the states he either insulted with his “bitter gun toters” shtick or whose votes he made irrelevant until his backers bought off enough superdelegates for him to score the nomination?  Yes, I think the were.  And then he botched his first term and made all the adult children of those seniors poor when he didn’t address unemployment.  Must suck for Obama and the Democrats to actually have to pander to the base voters since they did so well without us for 4 years.

I don’t know about the rest of OWS but I am unconcerned as to whether Democrats are going to have to work really hard for the next election cycle.  Urgency on their part does not constituted an emergency on mine.  My emergency happened when my company decided to layoff during the worst recession since the 1930s and the party who had all of the power decided not to do anything about it.


By the way, did you know that those companies that have been sitting on all of the cash they have been withholding from the economy have been buying back their shares with it so they can give executives fat bonuses and lay off the research staff?  True.  Some of them realize this might not have been the best use of money from a business productivity point of view but oh, well.  Damage done.  Their bad.  This shouldn’t be news to anyone but all that crap about how unemployment reflects structural problems and globalization and too few STEM workers (don’t make me laugh) was just nonsense.  I have become acutely aware of what is at the bottom of the unemployment problem from my own experience and from talking to people in other industries and professions: there is no money.  That is not to say that there isn’t money to pay people.  It’s just that the people who have it are sitting on it.  And they’re going to continue sitting on it until someone makes them get off that damn pile and share it.


Finally, something nice.  The NYTimes did a piece on online high schools including Stanford’s Online High School.  In Stanford Online High School Raises the Bar, the NYTimes profiles one of the most successful online high school programs in the country and points out that this is a growing trend while noting that not all online curriculum may be created equal.  Colleges have to be careful when they sign on to programs with for profit educational companies.  But Stanford’s OHS is different.  It is an offshoot of their original Educational Programs for Gifted Youth (EPGY).  Stanford OHS is the same online high school that the kid has been attending for two years now.  She only takes her English course at Stanford OHS but if I can sell enough blood, I’ll sign her up for her calculus course there as well next year.

I can’t say enough good things about Stanford OHS.  The only thing that would be better would be if these kinds of courses were held in person in the local school.  But even my school district, as good as it is with many AP level courses, can not provide this level of instruction to gifted and talented youth.  In fact, one of the reasons I enrolled the kid in Stanford OHS was because despite her test scores and SATs she took in 8th grade that showed her to be in the top 1% of students nationwide, she wasn’t recommended for advanced courses in English.  Stanford placed her two years ahead based on a placement test and her abilities, not compliance in class to a series of (to her) meaningless tasks.  It challenged her in ways she wasn’t being challenged in school.  Her class schedule is more like a college course. It meets twice a week for 90 minutes each session and has supplemental course lectures as well. This works for her because unlike our regular high school, the OHS teacher doesn’t fill up every night with busy work like annotating texts for no reason or filling out worksheets or requiring 5 different drafts of an essay.  A draft and a final copy seem to be sufficient.  That leaves time to really explore the material in depth.  The level of the material is daunting.  And yet, she keeps up with her assignments, makes sure to never turn in late assignments and her grades are pretty good.  She has an A so far in her AP literature course and she’s only a sophomore.  I don’t feel like they’re cutting her any slack.

Whatever they’re doing for these gifted students is addressing their needs in a way that the public schools can’t.  It’s like they actually got to know what makes gifted students tick and are using that knowledge to correct bad study habits and provoke them to think in complex ways.  They *care* about these kids when the average harried high school teacher either ignores them or, in some cases, deliberately humiliates them.  I’m glad we had Stanford OHS for the two years that she’s been in the program.  What we’re going to do next year is another question.  But if anyone out there has a gifted student who is just sitting out her days in class until graduation, I understand that Stanford OHS is expanding…

Update on Stanford OHS:  I’m really disturbed by the comment thread.  There are a lot of commenters who think of this program as “elite”.  For those of us with kids who are being shortchanged by the educational system, it’s not elite.  It’s a godsend.  We would have nowhere else to go without Stanford.  Unless you have one of these strange creatures in your house, you really can’t imagine what a pain in the ass it is to get them the educational resources they deserve.  You’d think that teachers would be falling all over themselves to teach minds like theirs.  I imagine that mechanics and car afficianados dream of cars with the capacity for speed and performance.  Didn’t you ever know a garage addict who loved to take apart and reassemble an engine to make it go faster or better?  You’d think that teachers would have the same attitude when they met a kid with high capacity neurons but you would be oh so wrong. I have met very few.  Most teachers and administrators make flowery claims about addressing the unique needs of every individual student but when it comes right down to it, they’re more interested in rigid definitions of performance and those definitions usually have something to do with compliance.

The truth is that a lot of gifted kids slip to the bottom of their classes.  I know some of those former kids in my own family and I didn’t want that to happen to my kid.  Paying for Stanford OHS is not trivial and I am not a parent with an elite income.  But for us, it’s not a choice.  Until we start to value these children and provide the resources they need, we parents will continue to cough up the bucks to make sure they graduate from high school and develop good study habits for college.  Right now, Stanford OHS is practically the only resource we have.

I found a comment for that article that says it all:

As a recent graduate of the Stanford Online High School (OHS), I am happy to see the school portrayed in a positive light. For its students, OHS is a God-send. Nearly all of us have a common thread in our journey to OHS. We struggled in traditional schools with lack of academic challenge, inflexible administration, and bullying and unacceptance from our peers. At OHS, we find refreshing challenges that push our minds beyond their limits, teachers and staff that support us above and beyond, and a peer group that is accepting and celebrates our individual achievements and collective endeavors.

OHS is not an isolating experience. Beyond the myriad of clubs in the school, the majority of students have an extremely active life outside OHS – participating in music, acting, dance, sports, volunteer work, scientific research – the list goes on. While being at home on a computer can be isolating, OHS students are high achieving both in and outside the classroom. I have met people in college who went to a brick-and-motor school and lack social skills because they didn’t talk to people in school and stayed at home after school. The experience is what you make it.

I am proud to be a graduate from OHS and will always regard the school as a role-model of secondary education.