Going Public the UVa Way

“Why does a stationary skater remain stationary?” That’s a question that Lou Bloomfield asks his students in the opening lecture of “Physics 1050: How Things Work,” which he has taught at the University of Virginia for 21 years.

Many physics students think they understand inertia. But they might not actually understand how profound inertia is unless we see it in … uh, inaction.

So Lou stands up on one of those huge lab tables that anchor science lecture halls and places a smaller table on top. On that table he places a crimson tablecloth, a plate, a glass of wine, and a flower vase. Then he whisks the table cloth out from under the items, leaving them intact. It’s one of his simpler demonstrations, but it frames and illustrates inertia better than any diagram or sentence ever could. Students never forget that trick.

Lou is an outstanding professor in every sense. His research has generated more than 100 papers, he has received many awards, and he is a fellow of the American Physical Society.

He is also a faculty leader. When UVa wasted millions of dollars four years ago on one of the worst student-registration and information systems (called SIS) in all of higher education, many of us protested and asked the information professionals on campus to fix the system and improve its impossible-to-use interface. When the system administrators protested that they had no way to change the proprietary system, Lou decided to make his own fix. In a few hours, he wrote a batch of code that scrapes the course-scheduling and enrollment data from SIS and presents the data in a simple-to-read table. “Lou’s List” is now the default source of course information for UVa students and faculty. In more ways than one, Lou Bloomfield has made UVa user-friendly.

More often than not, the best scholars are the best teachers. If a scholar is passionate, engaged, and curious, all of those emotions come through in the classroom. College students are a diverse lot. But the one thing they all do well is spot a faker. If we slow down our scholarly engagement, it shows right away in our teaching. And students quickly spread the word that we are no longer worth their time.

Lou is best known on the UVa Grounds for his exciting and innovative undergraduate teaching. In the videos that he offers of his lectures, the room is overflowing, despite the fact that students can get the lectures later, on their computer screens. He uses a case-study method to teach physics, eschewing the more common abstract approach. And despite his deep knowledge of computer technology and his willingness to deploy feedback systems like clickers, Lou forbids students to use laptops and tablets during his lectures.

I’m telling you about Lou because his course will be among the four pilot, noncredit courses soon to be offered by UVa through Coursera, the consortium of research universities hosting various massive open online courses (MOOC’s).

The university announced on Tuesday morning that it had reached an agreement to offer these noncredit courses as a way of experimenting with the format. “They will in no way diminish the value of a UVa degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village,” said Teresa Sullivan, the university’s president. This is not a massive embrace of MOOC’s. No one is twisting faculty arms to develop them. And no one pretends that MOOC’s substitute for or undermine the value of real UVa courses.

You might remember from my previous posts about UVa that one of the items on the checklist of the radical members of the Board of Visitors who manipulated Sullivan into resigning last month was the notion that UVa was somehow “falling behind” other major research universities that had decided to offer MOOC’s through Coursera and other services.

As I’ve already written, if those board members had only asked around, they would have learned all we have been doing with digital experimentation in the classroom—much of which is destined to be more valuable to the practices of teaching and learning than gimmicks like MOOC’s are.

So why did UVa surprise everyone (including me) with its Coursera partnership this week?

For one thing, Sullivan wanted to ensure that she had high-profile faculty who were willing to lead such efforts. The president and her deans had been working with a select group of faculty (I was not privy to these discussions) for many months to prepare for this move — which makes the rash decision of the board to push her out in June even more appalling.

Second, she had to ensure that the interests of the university were being served. There are so many details and issues that have to be worked out when engaging in open, online distribution of course material. It’s always better to do things slowly and correctly than recklessly.

I have already outlined my issues with MOOC’s here. To be clear, I support them. What I oppose is foolish and fact-free hyperbole about MOOC’s, higher education, and technology. I wish pundits would stop declaring that MOOC’s are revolutionary when they are merely interesting (not that there is anything wrong with that). No one is going to become a physicist via MOOC’s like Lou’s. But someone might fall in love with physics and start the hard work of becoming a real physicist. So I hope more UVa courses end up on Coursera (though mine won’t be among them anytime soon). And I hope more major public universities join such efforts.

This is why I am pleased about my university’s new partnership with Coursera: There are still too many people out there who don’t know how much fun physics can be. For years people have been buying Lou’s books, thousands of UVa students have had the privilege of learning from him in the lecture hall, and his lecture videos have been available to anyone who clicked around looking for them. But this new opportunity can connect Lou’s lectures—and physics in general—to new audiences around the world.

This Coursera platform offers everyone a chance to see some of the best work we do here at UVa. And it offers experimental systems of feedback and assessment for viewers who are not part of the formal UVa program. Eventually Lou should be able to measure which lectures work well and which do not. He should be able to see what parts of the world seek out his lectures and which do not.

This experiment is an expensive public service. It’s a gift UVa is giving the world. But it has two potential returns. The first is idealistic: It will help spread knowledge from a public university to the public it serves. The second is cynical—and it’s exactly what Sullivan stated in her announcement of the Coursera deal: It will “enhance our brand.”

Now, let’s be frank. The latter return is not substantial. In fact, it’s sort of insulting to those of us who work here. The University of Virginia needs no “brand enhancement.” Once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost. I suppose university presidents lapse into such language to placate the MBA’s on their boards. But the challenges and duties of private firms do not in any way resemble the challenges or duties of universities. So we must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.”

UVa just has to keep doing what it’s done for years, only with greater public support and transparency. And that’s where that more idealistic return comes in. Offering a handful of outstanding lectures via Coursera gives us a chance to spread the gospel of knowledge and exploration to a wider audience.

We on the faculties of public universities must continually reach out beyond the lab, the conference, and the classroom to spread our ideas in clear language and connect with communities across our states and across the globe. As long as we never forget what we owe the public, the public will never take us for granted. If we all tried to be a bit more like Lou Bloomfield, no one would take us for granted again.

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