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Topic: Truce on the Tech Front at San Jose State
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Truce on the Tech Front at San Jose State
Posted: Nov 26, 2013 1:13 PM
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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, November 25, 2013.
A Truce on the Tech Front at San Jose State

By Steve Kolowich (San Jose, Calif.)

Peter J. Hadreas is tapping his knuckles on the desk again. He was a
jazz pianist before he was a philosophy professor here, and it's hard
to tell if the tapping is an unconscious tic or a rhetorical
technique, but he does it every so often when he is focusing very
hard on what he is saying and wants you to do the same.

"To have somebody in front of you whom you really believe is going to
try to find the truth of things even if it goes against the group-to
see somebody like that is as powerful as learning what ad hominem and
half-fallacies are," he tells us. "I don't think the screen can do

He's talking about online education, of course-a high-profile issue
here at the San Jose State University, where Mr. Hadreas is chair of
the philosophy department. He says the web is great for transmitting
information, but that the most important exchanges occur among humans
face to face. Teaching philosophy, for example, is not just about
plunging a bunch of data into another person's brain; it's also about
empathy, spontaneity, and the sense of embarking-together, and in
good faith-on the mission of learning. The key, in other words, is

The man sitting across from Mr. Hadreas agrees. He's Khosrow Ghadiri,
a part-time lecturer in electrical engineering here. He believes the
web can help hammer home the bedrock concepts at the foundation of
his discipline. But he still sees his presence in the classroom as
essential for students.
"They need authoritative figures, so that when they ask the question
they believe you," Mr. Ghadiri says.

Sometimes he'll overhear his teaching assistant give a perfect answer
to a student's question, he adds. "But the students, they don't
believe him. They verify it with me."

The two men share a laugh-which is odd, because they're supposedly
enemies in the struggle for the soul of public higher education.

San Jose State has made itself the center of a national debate over
what kind of role online teaching tools-particularly those developed
by nonuniversity providers-should play in traditional classrooms. In
the debate, Mr. Ghadiri and Mr. Hadreas have become notable for
representing points of view that are opposed, if not actually exactly
opposite. But months into San Jose State's high-profile experiments
with massive open online courses and their cousins, blended courses,
the two men have never met before this morning.

To be fair, I had been reporting on San Jose State for months without
having met them either. So, on a sunny Monday in October, the three
of us agree to meet in Mr. Ghadiri's classroom to find out what, if
anything, we can learn face to face that had not been apparent from a

As it turns out, no fisticuffs or hot-tempered exchanges take place.
No one accuses the other of holding back higher education or driving
it into a ditch. There's none of the overheated rhetoric typical of
online comments, op-eds, and other forums for jousting over what
higher education needs in this time of technological innovation and
economic upheaval.

There's not, I learn, really very much disagreement at all.

Trust has been scant at San Jose State University over the past year.
The Academic Senate, citing a lack of administrative openness and
"extremely low morale," last week asked the chancellor of the
California State University system to review governance at the
university. Budget woes here have coincided with controversial
experiments involving MOOCs that have drawn intense scrutiny from the
media, faculty unions, and other observers.

"What I didn't hear as this was being talked about, by the president
and just about everybody who is talking about the value of flipped
classes, is how labor-intensive it is. They don't talk about that."
Online courses are nothing new at San Jose State, an institution of
31,000 students in the heart of Silicon Valley. But by last spring,
Mr. Hadreas and his philosophy colleagues thought that the
administration's enthusiasm for online education had gotten far ahead
of the faculty's. They were also concerned about the company that the
university's president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, was keeping. He had
appeared at press conferences with the leaders of Udacity and edX,
two major providers of massive open online courses, and had
volunteered San Jose State to test whether online tools originally
developed for MOOCs might help the university graduate more students
at a lower cost, both to students and to the state.

"We must seek new ideas and approaches from other industry sectors
and promote audacious thinking through carefully reviewing and
adapting effective innovations," the president wrote in a report.

The idea of bringing MOOC materials into the curriculum struck the
philosophy professors as more than audacious. So when their dean
asked one associate professor to consider using edX materials from
Michael Sandel, a Harvard University government professor, in one of
the department's courses, Mr. Hadreas and his colleagues went on the
offensive. They wrote an open letter, addressed to Mr. Sandel, that
cast his MOOC as a Trojan horse and warned of "products that will
replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished
education for students in public universities."

The letter became a manifesto for the backlash against MOOCs. Mr.
Hadreas says he wasn't the primary author, but as chair of the
department he became the letter's public face. Shortly after it was
published, Mr. Hadreas was singled out at a meeting of the University
Council of Chairs and Directors. "They stood and applauded," he says.

Khosrow Ghadiri had none of Mr. Hadreas's concerns last fall when he
started putting MOOC materials on his syllabus.

Back then, he was just another lecturer at San Jose State. That
changed when he "flipped" his introductory course on circuits,
incorporating video lectures and other materials developed by edX,
the nonprofit provider of massive open online courses. The
experiment-in which he assigned online lectures from edX as homework
and used class time for quizzes and group work?-was an overwhelming
success. Student pass rates were less than 60 percent in the two
traditional sections of the circuits course. The pass rate in Mr.
Ghadiri's section was 91 percent.

He soon became a beacon for technological experimentation at San Jose
State. This spring, when President Qayoumi announced a new Center for
Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning, he tapped Mr. Ghadiri to
help teach professors from other California State University campuses
how to use edX materials in their own courses. Andrew Ng, one of the
founders of the MOOC company Coursera says he is a "huge admirer" of
Mr. Ghadiri, and has "learned a lot from him."

The philosophy professor and I meet in Mr. Ghadiri's classroom at
about noon, just as the sun is burning away the last of the morning

Mr. Hadreas is 68 years old, with tortoise-shell glasses and
thinning, gray-white hair combed from the front of his scalp to the
back. He comes off as shy and a bit guarded, but he speaks
confidently in a resonant baritone.

We sit in the back, at one of many small tables that fill the
classroom in lieu of individual desks. Mr. Ghadiri gives group
quizzes at these tables at every class session. Group work is not
just a cornerstone of the flipped-classroom model of teaching; it is
also a characteristic of engineering work. "In industry, they are as
a team-they are not individuals coming up with a circuit," he
explains later. "So they are going to work as a team of three, so
that they can figure out how to communicate with each other."

The homework was to watch videos, on the edX website, of professors
from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lecturing on the day's
lessons. After watching the videos, Mr. Ghadiri's students submitted
forms rating each lesson on a four-point scale from easiest to
hardest. Now, Mr. Ghadiri begins the class by going over the topics
his students seemed to struggle with the most in a lecture of his own.

Mr. Ghadiri is tall, with a generous waistline and spectacles
befitting a 62-year-old academic but the thick, obedient coiffeur of
a younger man. He speaks slowly and emphatically, wrestling his
Iranian accent through every sentence. He paces at the front of the
classroom for about 25 minutes, talking through slides describing
basic signals and unit step functions.

Then Mr. Ghadiri sends his teaching assistants around with the group
quiz. A low din rises as the students turn their attention from the
professor to one another. Mr. Ghadiri heads for the table in the
back, and greets Mr. Hadreas with a warm handshake.

After the group quiz, he explains, the students will take individual
quizzes to test their comprehension alone. Counting individual and
group quizzes, the students will take 60 in-class assessments over
the course of the semester. "Every single day, even if they don't
watch the video, they come here each day and face that," says Mr.
Ghadiri, pointing to the quiz sheet. "They cannot ignore it!"

The quizzes are an experiment-and, like most of the experiments Mr.
Ghadiri is running in this class, they have nothing to do with MOOCs.
He's using the video lectures from edX as a resource akin to a
textbook, but he's also using a textbook-an electronic one, written
by Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and the founder of edX, who is
supplying electronic versions to Mr. Ghadiri free.

"We are not committed to the edX," he says. "But at least I want to
be able to tell faculty: We did an experimentation, edX does this
good, this one"-he points to a piece of hardware that his students
are plugging into their laptops to simulate a circuit board-"this one
does this good, textbook does this good. You choose. Pick and mix."

As for the quizzes and feedback forms, Mr. Ghadiri writes those
himself. He corrects the quizzes and collates the data without help
from edX. It's a lot of work. "Eighty hours a week," he says.

Peter Hadreas's eyes widen. Mr. Ghadiri repeats the figure twice for effect.

This, perhaps above all else, makes an impression on Mr. Hadreas. He
knew Mr. Ghadiri's course was not supposed to curb labor costs the
way proponents hope a MOOC would, with one professor presiding over a
virtual classroom of thousands of students. But he thought the point
of infusing a traditional course with online technology was to make
it more cost-effective, and Mr. Ghadiri seemed to be doing more work
than ever before.

The university says the savings from courses like Mr. Ghadiri's will
come with the higher pass rates. At San Jose State, half the cost of
putting a student through a course comes from tuition, and the rest
is subsidized by the state. "Each time a student retakes a course,
the student and taxpayers pay twice," says Pat Harris, a university

At the same time, Mr. Ghadiri is putting almost all of his time and
energy into this course.

"This is really what is eye-opening for me," says Mr. Hadreas, as Mr.
Ghadiri ducks away briefly to help a student. "Because what I didn't
hear as this was being talked about, by the president and just about
everybody who is talking about the value of flipped classes, is how
labor-intensive it is. They don't talk about that."

At a time when classrooms are becoming laboratories, when instructors
are constantly collecting data about their students and using that
information to refine their teaching, an 80-hour work week is the
price Khosrow Ghadiri pays for his autonomy. He could, in theory,
direct his students to edX's online quizzes, which are graded
automatically. But he believes students won't be as energized, or
motivated to persevere when stuck, without their classmates and
professor there, in the room, to unstick them.

So he writes and grades all his own quizzes, and collects and
collates feedback from his students on his own. But Mr. Ghadiri
admits that this is not a sustainable system. Even he would run out
of steam eventually.

This is where MOOC companies can help, says Andrew Ng.

Mr. Hadreas and I are sitting in Coursera's headquarters in Mountain
View, not far from the San Jose State campus. If Mr. Ghadiri's
classroom isn't the belly of the beast for Mr. Hadreas, then surely
Mr. Ng's office is. Coursera, which is backed by tens of millions in
venture capital, is the largest of the MOOC providers, and perhaps
that's why it strikes the philosophy professor as the most sinister.
"Frankly, several administrators have indicated that the one we don't
want to work with is Coursera," he tells me later.

So Mr. Hadreas is surprised to find himself liking Mr. Ng very much.

The Coursera co-founder, who is also director of the
artificial-intelligence laboratory at Stanford University, is about
as nonthreatening as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs come. This,
arguably, has been the key to Coursera's success in earning the trust
of the many prestigious universities that have signed contracts with
the company. Unlike the theatrical Sebastian Thrun, Mr. Ng's
counterpart at Udacity, and the hyperactively on-message Mr. Agarwal
at edX, Mr. Ng comes off as restrained and not particularly eager to

Which is exactly what impresses Mr. Hadreas. At one point, Mr. Ng
displays all the zeal of a doctor reading a patient his vitals as he
enumerates what he believes Coursera does well, and what it does not.
One thing it cannot do well, at least not yet, is create and assess
students' noncognitive skills-their "capability in terms of teamwork,
communication skills, ability to regulate their own anxiety and work
through problems," says Mr. Ng. It is a moment that the philosophy
professor finds particularly memorable. "His point of view was very
honest," says Mr. Hadreas later, driving back toward San Jose. "That,
I think, is what people pick up on: that this person is, actually, an
honest man."

One thing Coursera can do well, according to Mr. Ng, is to supply
professors with online course material, like videos and worksheets,
while helping them collect and analyze student data.

The company has been focusing more and more on the services it can
provide to professors running blended online courses like Mr.
Ghadiri's. "Of course the vision is that the instructor should have
pedagogical control," Mr. Ng says, "but if we provide more materials
to them to use or not use as they please, that will allow them to
reduce their workload."

"I think that creating more content for an instructor to use, so long
as the pedagogical control is in the hands of the university or the
instructor-it seems that can only be to the benefit of the faculty or
the university," he continues. "Ultimately the control rests in the
hands of the university."
He pauses a beat. "The university-slash-faculty."

A San Jose State, the administration and faculty are still sorting
out the dynamics of control when it comes to online and blended

The Academic Senate is considering a new policy that could give
tenured and tenure-track faculty in each department veto power over
any new contract with an outside entity to "deliver
technology-intensive, hybrid, or online courses or programs,"
according to a draft provided to The Chronicle. The policy would also
make clear that professor workloads related to such courses would
accord with union standards, and that professors keep "the same
control and ownership of the substantive and intellectual content of
their hybrid and online course-related materials" that they already
enjoy in their traditional courses. That measure will come up for a
vote in December.

In the meantime, the university is trying to rebuild a sense of trust
on campus that has diminished during a year of poor communication,
acrimony, and fear. That process began last week, when the Academic
Senate and President Qayoumi met face to face in a classroom on the
second floor of the engineering building.

President Qayoumi delivered what was, by several accounts, an
emotional, off-the-cuff speech, in which he endorsed the call for an
independent review of governance at the university. That measure
passed by an overwhelming margin.

Nobody knows what MOOCs-and the new companies and technologies that
have come with them-will mean to traditional universities and the
professors who teach there.

In the absence of that certainty, it appears that the battle lines
will be drawn, for better or worse, along lines of trust. And the
main difference between Mr. Hadreas and Mr. Ghadiri, it seems to me,
is how much each trusts the San Jose State administration.

In their letter, Mr. Hadreas and his colleagues speculated that
administrators want to use vendor-supplied online courses, MOOCs in
particular, to "replace professors" with "glorified teaching

But Mr. Ghadiri reads nothing sinister into the president's push for
technological experimentation on the campus. Online tools
notwithstanding, he sees himself as more indispensable than ever. The
flipped classroom simply would not work, he says, if his students
were left in the care of teaching assistants-glorified or otherwise.
Mr. Ghadiri admits he was taken aback in April when he read that Mr.
Hadreas and his colleagues were not even willing to run an experiment
to see if the edX video lectures worked in their classes. But he says
he understands how philosophy is different from electrical
engineering-that learning outcomes cannot be as easily measured, even
at introductory levels. And he agrees unequivocally that professors
should be in charge of what they let into their own classrooms.

Mr. Hadreas, meanwhile, praises Mr. Ghadiri's dedication to finding
ways to be innovative on his own terms. "I really do respect the
experimentation that you're doing, and all the work that you're
putting into finding the best way to work it," he says, tapping the
table emphatically with his knuckles. "It all seems very valuable."
SIDEBAR PHOTO: When they finally met to talk about blended learning
and online instruction, Khosrow Ghadiri (left), an engineering
lecturer at San Jose State U., and Peter Hadreas, a philosophy
professor, agreed more often than not, to their surprise. Ramin
Rahimian for The Chronicle
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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