Saturday, May 9, 2015

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Bronze coin from Canusium, with laureate head of Janus on obverse and prow of a ship on the reverse

My favorite ancient Roman deity is Janus, the two-headed god of beginnings, endings, and transitions.  His temple in Rome, the first of which was constructed by Rome's second king Numa Pompilius, famously closed its doors when Rome was at peace.  Rarely in the history of ancient Rome were the doors of Janus's temple closed--and by the time Augustus shut Janus's doors (first in 29 BCE), the gesture had become more imperial propaganda than a reflection of reality.  It feels a bit like Rome has been pacified and it's time to enjoy a bit of engaged relaxation, what the Romans called otium.

Now that my part of the Online Rome project has come to an end, at least with regard to the instruction of the online course to UT Austin students, I'm thinking a lot about what's next.  My job was to develop a sustainable, scalable (within reason) online class that could produce high levels of student learning.  It was supposed to be efficient, both in terms of maximizing the efficiencies of technology and, bluntly, in terms of costing less $$ to instruct more students than our current face to face courses do.  I also worked hard to leverage the advantages of the online medium while minimizing the disadvantages.  I spent a lot of time and creative energy to find solutions that preserved quality but also maximized the efficiencies of technology.  I made sure that the instructor's time was spent giving feedback on high value learning activities.  I am very proud of the work I did, together with the course instructor, Dr. Steve Lundy.  We delivered exactly what we promised when I was given the grant.  Part of the final "product" was a trained instructor whom the department could afford to hire; and a plan for training additional instructors.  Every piece was in place for the course to be a good experience for UT Austin students; and a good opportunity for Classics PhD students to get some experience with online instruction.

Quo vadis?  First of all, Steve and I are not done with Online Rome, not by a long shot.  Steve will work with the department on the transition, do consulting work for our Liberal Arts IT Development Studio (who have, thankfully, protected him in various ways for next year), and work with me on some research related to Online Rome.  He will also be instructing the University Extension School section of the course in Summer 2015 and, probably, Fall 2015 (so, you want to take the course as it was designed, from an actual Roman historian?  Pay $350 to register via UEX and transfer the credits wherever you need to, including back into UT Austin).

I am also thinking hard about other ways to connect students to the Online Rome class.  One audience I'd especially like to reach is those in the UT System, who don't otherwise have access to a course like this.  I'm also interested in collaborating with 1-2 large, established online programs to think about how these programs might be able to make this course available to their students, and what an agreement to do so would look like.  As we move closer to a future in which many students will take a lot of the Gen Ed courses online, it will make sense for online programs to partner with faculty from other institutions to share content.  This is roughly the idea behind Unizin--but Unizin positions itself as the clearinghouse and repository.  This is one model; another model is, in essence, a more direct kind of collaboration between individual faculty and online programs.  I am very interested in working with some proven programs and experienced staff to see what a more direct collaboration might look like.

I am especially excited to now have the time to return to writing--about emperors and the senate; about online course design; about higher education policy.  I am currently digging in on two book projects: a traditional classics monograph that looks at the complex and evolving relationship of the Roman senate and the emperors, beginning with Sulla in the 1st century BCE--a project that took shape as a direct result of my work in building Online Rome.  My second book project, Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Ecosystem, builds on my "innovative teaching" experiences over these past three years, with blended and online course design and implementation.  I have a rather unique vantage point: I know the scholarship and theory very well but have also been down in the trenches, designing and implementing and revising the courses, and doing so at scale.  I have had to learn how to manage a budget, manage a project, hire and fire people, and deliver on deadline (this last one wasn't such a problem!).  I've also had a first-hand look at the challenges our current policies and infrastructures pose to the successful implementation of truly innovative courses.  There is a tendency to blame faculty for lacking creativity or being unwilling to take risks.  I've learned, usually the hard way, that these risks rarely pay off, at least in the short run.  I've also learned that, eventually, policies and infrastructure get put in place to prevent the worst abuses/problems.

I'm planning to use this blog as the place to organize and process a lot of the thinking for the Digital Teaching and Learning book.  Blogging is a great adjunct to my writing process, both because I have to figure out how to articulate in writing what is in my head but also because it usually generates comments and insights from people who know much more than I do. These comments and conversations make me aware of issues that I hadn't thought about and, especially, clarify for me the real issues.  Like, for instance, that the central issue with online education is labor.  That has emerged so clearly from my project, at every turn and in every way.  It's all about labor and contingency--and as soon as faculty automate their labor to the point that it seems like they can be cut out of the work, they will be.  It's not an accident that the person my department hired to run the Online Rome is also running another major program that I built, together with another colleague.  We did such a good job that, even to a PhD in classics, it seemed reasonable to replace us with someone who has a very, very different skill set from us or from what the job will demand.  I don't think I would have realized the centrality of labor issues in this whole conversation without people like Karen Gregory.

Down here in the trenches of higher education at the large, underfunded state university, I feel like we are poised on the precipice.  It's a time of great change.  This is unsettling, particularly because much of the change thus far has been for the good of the empowered classes (mostly high level administrators) and has severely harmed our institutions, our current and future students, and the most vulnerable members of our profession.  I am sad to see my senior colleagues so unable to protect the future of higher education, so disengaged with the political and economic realities of higher education that they make catastrophic decisions without even beginning to understand what they've done or why it matters. 

I'm a historian--something I'd have never said a decade ago.  But these days, I'm pretty solidly a historian and will be.  I happen to study one of the most interesting periods of history--the end of the Western Roman Empire.  The Roman West in the 4th and 5th centuries tells us that times of great change are also opportunities.  I hope that I will also look back and think that some good things happened, that some unmet potentials were fulfilled.  I have to confess that, at the moment, my optimism is flagging.  I try to remember that change, especially good changes, often happen slowly and painfully.  I don't want to believe that we are in a death spiral but I do sometimes wonder.  I'll keep fighting the good fight for now.

Coin issued by Nero in 64 CE, to commemorate the negotiation of a peace deal with the Parthians.  The coin's reverse depicts the Temple of Janus in Rome, with its doors closed.


  1. I'm glad you are going to be blogging as you work on the digital learning project! I will really enjoy reading about that here. And kudos to you for having the stamina to tackle something like that. I am very optimistic when working with students, so that's where I focus my time and attention. When I step back and look at the institutional/political context, I mostly just shudder. Working with the students is much more rewarding! :-)

  2. So very, very true about working with students. That's exactly it. My optimism waxes and wanes and is directly correlated with the amount of time I spend working with students. I know it's important to also think about the big institutional issues and am glad when I have the chance to participate in those conversations--but it takes a toll on my morale.

  3. And the students do help us keep our sanity when we decide to turn around and inspect the institution! :-)