Pandemic flu, school closing and community learning

With President Obama preparing parents that the current pandemic flu may close schools and the Centers for Disease Control’s Guidance for Nonpharmaceutical Community Mitigation providing guidelines for school closure, it seems worthwhile to revisit my April 2007 analysis of how a university might respond. (Update May 1, CDC Flu Infection Alert for Institutions of Higher Education — basic message, review your preparedness, and points to state preparedness plans, ca 2006. WA ID.)

1918-19 Flu Pandemic deaths. Gives an idea how long a school closure might be. Modern medicine might change the duration of the event.

1918-19 Flu Pandemic deaths (from CDC report). This graph gives an idea how long a school closure might be, this report on the event is WA state mentions school closure. Modern medicine might change the duration of the event.

The challenge for schools is the amount of time they may be closed and the amount of warning they may have before the closure. Two years ago when I speculated on the problem, my University was considering the implications of refunding tuition from a closure, and planning how it would use its Distance Degree Program to transfer all the university courses online.

That analysis was clearly flawed. Even if the university had started converting 1000’s of courses when the first flu case was reported in the middle of April 2009, on speculation of pandemic, it would not be ready by the end of April when the President is beginning to prepare parents for school closings, and the first American has died. Content-based courses delivered in Course Management Systems can not address this problem — they don’t scale fast enough and they are subject to multiple single points of failure. (paragraph updated 5/1)

Something more like my course packet for a pandemic is needed. And a strategy that uses multiple and dispersed online resources is needed to avoid single points of failure. One single-point failure that I did not examine in those previous posts is the death of the instructor. In traditional models, this presents a significant problem for assigning grades after school resumes. WSUCTLT has been pointing to a solution — new faculty roles and scalable community-based assessment (see the link:Updated Learning Spectrum self-assessment) Here WSUCTLT is examining the difference from the traditional model (which could not be moved online fast enough) and a community-based model that is inherently redundant and avoids single points of failure. In this model, if the school were to resume and the faculty member not return, one could credential the student (at least Pass/Fail) based on assessments provided by the community. What would be necessary is coaching in the course packet for the community to use in giving feedback, using something like WSU’s critical and integrative thinking rubric.

Gathering feedback to improve course design

A challenge to improving a course, or having a conversation about improving it, is to gather data and insights that can feed a rich conversation. Previously WSUCTLT described a technique for using a survey to make a survey, and developed an example of the technique in a mid-term course evaluation. This mechanism showed promise for gathering data from a faculty member about their course and then gathering related information of their students’ perceptions of the course.

In parallel with that work, we have used the capacity of our Skylight Matrix Survey System to create a rich and interactive custom report for faculty of their end-of-term course evaluation data. This page of the report surveys faculty (this is a PDF of an Excel sheet) on their course design goals (using the terms of the course evaluation that is administered to students). The next tab in the Excel workbook contains a comparison of the faculty and the student data (PDF of an Excel sheet), downloaded from the students’ evaluation of the course. This technique implements a reflective process regarding the college-wide course evaluation constructs.

We are also piloting work using the Harvesting Gradebook concept where the reviewers (other faculty, students and community) provide feedback on the assignment using the same rubric that is being used to provide feedback to students and to gather perspectives on the utility of the rubric itself. (See sample survey instrument.) This work brings the feedback loop down to the scale of the individual assignment and the community into the conversation about the utility of the yardstick.

We are now working on dashboards, using Google Docs and Google Widgets, to give real-time tracking of the data coming into the Harvesting Gradebook.

Google Widget showing radar graph of data

Google Widget showing radar graph of data

The goal is to make interaction with the data fast and flexible to increase engagement with the information being provided. We are aslo beginning to explore how the data representations could be captured in a faculty member’s portfolio for SoTL or program’s portfolio for outcomes assessment and accreditation purposes.

Earning credentials in a learning community

Recently David Eubanks has posted some thoughts on assessment and Gary Brown and I each followed up with comments. That led David to make this post summarizing (and re-broadcasting) the thinking we have been doing around a Harvesting Gradebook.

David’s is a smaller and more personal example of an idea I’ve been exploring: learning communities organizing around problems, providing critiques and credentials to members, and doing all this outside the walls of the university. In this case, David is getting his head around some work that I have been involved in so I have a different perspective than in the Lisi example I wrote about before.

In a little email to Gary, David writes “I’m still wrapping my mind around it, and hope I didn’t get any details wrong.  If I need to correct something, please let me know.” David, I think you got it about right, especially because you note “I hope the registrar has a defibrillator in the office” which tells me you recognize the magnitude of the disruption this idea proposes for the current institutional structures.

The meta analysis

By linking to the work and providing some reflection, David is both announcing his interest this Harvesting Gradebook community and extending some of his social capital to it. By linking back to David, and giving some assessment, I’m offering both a welcoming into the community of practice and some social capital in return. Without pushing these analogies too far, this post is offering a credential to David, certification that he “gets it.” And here is where things get dicey for the traditional university. Were a community of practice robust enough, and the accumulated credentials understood to carry substantial social capital, the community (and not the university) would be able to offer credentials. The income stream of the university would be treatened. Hence David’s concern for our Registrar’s cardiac health. (In the Lisi example above, time on a particle accelerator to test his theories would be certification of Lisi’s credentials in the High Energy Physics world.)

Harvesting Gradebook in the Wild


Gary Brown coined the term Harvesting Gradebook to describe a new strategy to thinking about assessment in a Web 2.0 ePortfolio context. Theron DesRosier, Jayme Jacobson and I have worked to implement the concept, inverting it from harvesting the work from its world contexts to harvesting the assessments made of the work in-situ.


(Image by Jayme Jacobson)

Harvesting Gradebook in the Hothouse

In Fall 2008 WSUCTLT partnered with Meriem Chida to pilot the Harvesting Gradebook in her class and in Spring 2009 with Rich King to make a publicly accessible “test drive.”

These pilots are constrained within the hothouse of university courses, and they contain certain artificial aspects as a result — time for completing the process being one, scale and authenticity of the problem being another.

Into the Wild

A. Garrett Lisi offers a glimpse of how the Harvesting Gradebook might function in the wild (in a Web 2.0 community). Lisi is independent of any institution, but his work is contributing to a theoretical development in high energy physics.

Lisi created Differential Geometry wiki  as a personal wiki notebook in theoretical physics, analogous to the concept that WSUCTLT has examined in its case studies for a workspace portfolio. Lisi describes dG:

“It’s sort of a “choose your own adventure” book in theoretical physics — only the book is being written day-by-day and no one knows the ending, or if there is one. It’s my real-time research notebook, made available to public view. I hope to make it comparable to an open ended Living Reviews in Relativity article in spirit and quality, but updated more frequently and navigable as a wiki. My long term goal is to construct a concise and beautiful theoretical description of reality unifying General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory, and the Standard Model using the foundations and language of basic differential geometry. Such a theory may not exist, but that’s what I’m after. And here you can watch me walk down every dark alleyway looking for it — until I find it, or at least some interesting stuff along the way. This evolving search tree will grow and be pruned in ways I can’t now predict. But I expect the information contained to be equivalent to a book and several overlapping research papers, wikified and presented as they are written. It’s open source physics.”

Lisi is developing social and intellectual capital by his strategy of working in public, and has posted a “pre-print” of some of his work in the highly visible High Energy Physics – Theory section of arXiv entitled “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”

The Wikipedia entry on Lisi’s paper gives a picture of how the work has generated social capital and become a focus of theoretical debate. The paper has been accumulating peer reviews (in the form of blog posts) and a number of citations including in refereed Physics journals as well as comments on the social news website

Unlike WSUCTLT’s course-bound Harvesting Gradebook examples, Lisi’s workspace portfolio and showcase pre-prints in arXiv are an open-ended community learning activity (the far end of the spectrum WSUCTLT has postulated (pdf) ). Important feedback is being accumulated in public forums, and the feedback is impacting Lisi’s stature in the High Energy Physics learning community (or Community of Practice).

This example is also interesting to me because it gives me a new perspective on the roles of showcase and workspace portfolios. Helen Barrett has this diagram that relates the two. In Lisi’s case, the showcase is his postings in arXiv. The workspace is the Differential Geometry wiki. The two run in parallel.

Moving Out

I’m moving again, the result of ongoing efforts to understand the relationship between the learner and the learner’s tools. Back in Feb 2006 I moved out of a university-hosted blog because parts of my life got too political for the university. For awhile now I’ve owned my domain and been blogging there.

Then about a year ago I led the unit where I work into blogging, in a blog hosted off campus, but branded with the name of our campus and unit. We have shared some interesting work there related to learning and authentic problems. We watched, but did not understand, what appered to be the strategy of George Hotz to have a blog per problem. (He does not seem to be doing that now, perhaps the social capital around his iPhoneJTag blog is just too great to give up and too hard to migrate.)

It looks like the current economy (is this the death of Web 1.0?) is going to lead to a re-organization of our unit and the current unit-branded blog may have a politically incorrect URL. So, I’m finding reason to build a blog around the problem of community-based learning and attract an affiliation group, rather than an employment group, to participate.

Hence Community-based Learning.

I’m going to re-arrange some of the other pieces of my workspaces in the process. More on that when I have it better refined.