Some days, making a blog worthwhile requires a considerable contribution of time and analytical energy on the part of the blogger; other days, it requires nothing more than posting the right link. Today is one of the latter sort. If THL readers are going to devote some of their web time this week to staying abreast of what's happening at the intersection education, technology, and the humanities, their best bet is to check out the special Digital Campus issue that The Chronicle of Higher Education published a few days ago.
There's more on offer in the Digital Campus features than I can cover here, but suffice it to say that The Chronicle has served up a perfect end-of-the-academic-year read for anyone interested in a well-rounded discussion of technologies in and of the classroom. Collectively, the pieces survey the changing landscape of education and try to solve the riddle of where we're going before we get there. That new technologies will continue to reshape the learning and teaching environment in higher ed is taken as a given; the question that emerges across the articles is that of how to best and--ideally--most gracefully be sure that those technologies are serving educational aims rather than the other way around.
A few "must reads" that pick up topics we regularly cover in this space include: Josh Keller on the easily underestimated difficulties of providing a digital campus with an adequate IT infrastructure; Jennifer Howard on a few pioneering steps toward the academic library of the future; Ryan Cordell's guide to new technologies that actually serve pedagogy; and of course, Kathleen Fitzpatrick's primer piece on the digital humanities.
That's the required reading for the week, class. Get to it.
In any world where money talks, the voice of Bill Gates, software billionaire and alpha philanthropist, is bound to carry. Gates belongs to the tiny fraternity of individuals with the clout and the finances to turn virtually any conversation on a dime--or rather, a mile-high stack of them, and while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation probably gets the most ink for its global public health work, the Foundation is also a central participant in the current discussion of educational standards and practices in the US.
Recently in this space, I noted that the Gates- (and Hewlett-) backed Next Generation Learning Challenges group pledged nearly $750,000 in grant funding to help the UC system get its large-scale e-learning intiative up and running in the next year, and the NGLC grant is only the tip of a much larger philanthropic iceberg that Gates is floating in the field of education. Last week, the Gates Foundation announced $20 million in grants for a batch of e-learning initiatives that emphasize a game-based approach to education.
As Fast Company's Gregory Fierenstein has pointed out, the Gates "mega-investment" seems well-timed to pivot the national conversation on primary education and the goal of preparing students for college and beyond. To counteract the general fecklessness that followed the No Child Left Behind law, most states have adopted a new set of curriculum standards collectively known as the common core. An article in the New York Times recently described the standards as "specific goals that, by the end of the 12th grade, should prepare students for college work. Book reports will ask students to analyze, not summarize. Presentations will be graded partly on how persuasively students express their ideas. History papers will require reading from multiple sources."
Put simply, the common core idea is to encourage students to think critically, which is great, and the standards themselves--neither dictated nor enforced by any sort of responsible national body--encourage local educators and districts to develop and adopt innovative and challenging curricula. This is also a fine thing, in theory. In practice, however, making good on the opportunity implicit in the common core moment will require both decisive action and flexible thinking, neither of which have historically been strengths of the educational bureuacracy at any level.
And this is where Mr. Gates sees his opportunity. While the general enthusiasm for doing something (something big) is coupled with a certain confusion about just what that thing ought to be, the door is standing wide open for a decisive actor to make a move. Gates is certainly that actor, and his Foundation just might be swinging the entire education conversation with his $20 million argument for instructive video games as a primary tool for fostering curiosity and a capacity for critical thinking.
While any move to shake up the education system is bound to elicit some controversy, an unmistakable desire for reform is coursing through the country, from Barack Obama on down. News of the Gates grants has been received with considerable enthusiasm in the education blogosphere, and even e-learning and gaming skeptics are likely to be inclined to listen to what the man who bears a great responsibility for revolutionizing the way that we do, well, everything has to say about fixing our broken education system.
And while many details remain unannounced, Gates has said one thing quite clearly: "Game on."
Just weeks before Easter, Dan Cohen's Syllabus Finder--dead since 2009--returned to the net. Sort of. The soul of the popular web tool for education research has transmigrated from its previous incarnation as a search service hosted by George Mason's Center for History and New Media into a new form: a downloadable database comprised of some 1 million syllabi.
Cohen created the Syllabus Finder to work with the Google SOAP Search API back in 2002, and for seven years, the Syllabus Finder's interface put the CHNM web server in touch with the Google web server to answer users' custom syllabus queries by combing the online syllabi of hundreds of educational institutions. Then in 2009, Google deprecated the use of its original API, and the Syllabus Finder was no more--just a sad text box on the CHNM page saying that the Syllabus Finder hoped to return one day re-coded and thanking users, until then, for their patience.
Syllabus Finder, it seemed, had met a fate that is not uncommon among web services--an early forced retirement triggered by compatibility issues. While the web is constantly growing, ever larger and ever deeper, it is also constantly outgrowing formats, versions, and so forth. Thus a web service coded to run with Google's all powerful search winds up with the shelf life of Google's Search API. For Syllabus Finder, that life turned out to be about seven years.
Then on March 30 of this year, an announcement on Cohen's blog made the old news of Syllabus Finder's death if not greatly exaggerated then at least no longer strictly relevant. Syllabus Finder was returning, reborn as the collected results of thousands and thousands of user queries made during the tool's live run. Cohen claims that the Finder actually processed some 1.3 million user requests in its day, so the amassed database is considerable, to say the least, and represents an invaluable data mining opportunity for education researchers interested in big picture pedagogical and bibliographic trends.
Cohen himself has already published an illustrative article using the data set to assess the books assigned in hundreds of American history survey courses, and more interesting studies on how particular subjects were taught in aggregate at the opening of the 21st century are no doubt forthcoming. Kudos to Cohen for recognizing that he was sitting on a mountain of data that was, in fact, a fascinating object of investigation and moreover, for making all of that data publicly available. Google may have left Syllabus Finder behind, but Cohen has given the old program a creative and exciting second life.