Biking in winter in Minnesota: lessons for education.

Concern for my children and global climate change spurred me to start biking to work this year, after a long layoff. My trip takes me from Minneapolis, through three suburbs to my college in Bloomington, about 9 miles one way. Scheduling constraints and the limits of my middle-aged body translate to 1-3 bike trips a week. I stopped riding for six weeks from December to January when below-zero temperatures or consistent heavy snowfall made biking unsafe.

As I ride I think about my teaching and my students' learning. What follow are some of my thoughts on the parallels between higher education and commuting by bike, though others likely have stated the same with greater skill. I'll leave it to your skilled mind to substitute the education parallels.

For most of my ride, I control very little except my choice of path. I don't get to choose where roads were built, or how safe the existing bike infrastructure is, or the outside temperature or precipitation. Good preparation, in clothing, bike accessories, and knowledge of my desired route, is the primary way I can ensure a safe and comfortable ride. Minor mistakes in planning, forgetting a towel or underwear, can significantly disrupt the rest of my day.

Every motor vehicle I pass is an existential threat, so I defer to everyone. "Hey bike boy, go #@$! yourself!" - "Ok, have a nice day" I reply. It's useless to get angry with the roads, or the weather, or even bad drivers: there's no remedy. Patience and forward movement are the only options, especially with slippery conditions. Just keep going.

Biking requires constant effort and attention, and with both I arrive much faster at my destination. Poorly designed infrastructure, like traffic lights that need a car's weight to trigger the signal, force me to make difficult decisions. Should I cross against the light, or wait through several cycles until a car pulls up next to me to trigger the light? My choices are often made in less-than-ideal situations, yet as long as I get home safe, I judge my choice a good one.

Commuting to work highlights race and class issues. My bike lights and shiny jacket tell drivers I'm not poor. I can afford bike parts and accessories that make biking comfortable in most weather situations. Many people express admiration for rich people biking to work, which is odd as I see many low-income people biking and wonder if their co-workers admire them for this everyday activity. As I bike through predominantly white neighborhoods, no one has stopped me to ask me what I'm doing there.

Arriving at work or home feels a little epic, and I wish (just a little) that people acknowledged that minor epic quality that commuting under human power entails. "I'm here and it was not easy arriving: a little love?" People that acknowledge the epic quality of my day, "how was the ride?" make me feel more welcome and valued in their presence.

Moving through a community in a way most people don't move inspires deep humility and vanity. Listening to the humility offers wisdom.

When do we just abandon the road?

I recently saw the mock-ups of my college's new website: it's terrible. It emotes a fascist and fetishistic adherence to a white/black/red color scheme, includes lots of shouty titles in ALL CAPS and deploys a cramped font that even at normal reading distance and size is hard to read. My friend pointed out these issues, and I agree with him, and am taking his critique one step further. As digital infrastructure, it's a new strip mall, reflective of 2021 digital architectural values that somehow ignores humane design cues. The smiling student pictures (always in boxes) can't penetrate the modernism. Horkheimer and Adorno would giggle and then weep. The new site isn't all bad: finding material should be easier, but it's not going to be pleasant or welcoming.

Reviewing the new site made me think about how we have different and lower expectations for digital infrastructure than for physical infrastructure. Our content management tools are a great example. We try to "manage" learning with CMS that are like the worst Old Country Buffet ever: endless choices laid out in confusing groups, like hot mac and cheese next to jello which is perched on bbq ribs, all of which sit behind curtains that only open when you tickle them with feathers. What, you didn't click on the tiny down-arrow carrot coquetishly hiding behind the ALL CAPS section title?, shame, no syllabus for you!

And this is just the digital infrastructure of the college. The wider digital world has so many more failures, including privacy invasion, the ballooning mis and disinformation worlds of social media, racist and opaque search algorithims, and the failure to treat internet access as a utility, rather than a service. So many households (urban, suburban, and rural) lack access to reliable high-speed internet, it's hard to complain about poorly made internet when so many lack access to it. Even when one was has access to the internet, searching for accurate information is incredibly challenging and that's not just because there's more information available. We largely see what people who pay for search engine optimization want us to see.

The internet can be a place of discovery, support, and learning, but most of our digital infrastructure actively discourages that. As I contemplate redoing my world history 1 course for the spring semester, I'm wondering, when do I just give up on some infrastructure? If I rode my bike on a road that consistantly resulted in flat tires, when would I just try another road?

Some of my favorite authors are black women fantasy authors, such as Octovia Butler and N.K. Jemison. Their protangonists always understand the connections between social systems of oppression and the built world. To succeed, the protagonists always leave the road to find a new path.

Running shoes are broken (a side-note on higher education issues)

The following rant is about how an industry designed to supply one thing (running shoes) can foster inequality amongst the practitioners (runners). I find many parallels in higher education, especially with practitioners of bespoke pedagogies that work only for fewer than 45 total students a semester and education technology companies that sell expensive software of marginal use to students.

There is a running boom in the U.S., the result of closed gyms and stir-crazy athletes in need of a fix. At the same time, running shoe companies are in an arms race to produce the fastest marathon shoes. These expensive shoes are like race cars: they are designed for elites and regular users can hurt themselves if used inappropriately.

With new technologies to tout, shoe companies are increasing their prices. The MSRP price of the big-tent shoe for most companies (the equivalent of a family sedan like the Camry) has increased to $130 from $120. Most of the new elite shoes with claimed high-speed technology sell for more than $180, up to $250, though durability is generally low.

Meanwhile, the move to online shopping has forced independent running shops to spin up websites, quickly. In my city, several local running stores hired the same company to code their websites, with terrible results. Load times are glacial, search features are out of 2001, and the filtering capabilities are. . . odd. They give people the options of "responsive, balanced, or plush" for ride. 30 year of running, and I have no idea what I'd chose for this, and you can only chose one. The site is clearly designed to highlight fashion, not function, as scrolling over the shoes shows you other colors, not specs or an alternate view (say the sole).

As independent running shops are struggling to adjust to their new business reality, the running shoe companies themselves are dumping more shoes online, through their Amazon connections, and pricing the shoes below what the independent shops can afford to offer. I recently found some Mizuno shoes -sold by Mizuno on Amazon- for $70 less than at my local shop. Amazon has terrible labor policies, so I use them as little as possible, but I get why folks make the choice to buy the same shoe for less.

Who do the new technologies and higher prices benefit? Mostly the shoe companies, Amazon, and the very rich and very fast runners. Imagine if someone claimed a new knife would allow you to cook far tastier dinner than before: you'd laugh right? Very few of us are limited by the cutting technology we use in our culinary efforts. It's our time, our abilities, what we're willing to put into an effort that shape our outcomes. The claims that new shoes will make us faster is a lie. If you increased your sleep by 4% a night, you'd have better results than buying new shoes.

Thankfully, there are some countervailing forces. One prominent shoe review site has called out the lie of claims on the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% as marketing crap. More shoes sites are regularly listing affordable running shoes, acknowledging that the price-wars to the top haven't yielded shoes that serve most runners. These are positive developments. I doubt we'll see shoe companies to offer their excess stock to independent running shoe companies instead of dumping it on Amazon.

This rant is about running shoes, but we see many of the same trends in higher education. Ed tech, such as TurnItIn and proctoring software, claim to be solving problems, but are really just the equivalent of a price increase for college students. Most of the claimed innovations in digital communication (Zoom, MS Teams) primarily benefit rich students, who can afford fast internet connections on powerful computers. Most students do better with the equivalent of a phone call, perhaps sharing a screen shot at times. Much as with shoes, advances in technology and the structure of the industry are not benefiting most practitioners. Time will tell whether higher ed or runners can push back these trends.

Our Faculty Union Created an Award for Contingent Faculty (and you can too)


My community college has a faculty body of around 40% contingent faculty based on full-time equivalent. Before last year, these contingent faculty weren't eligible for certain awards, including one given by my the state colleges board of trustees, which called their award Educator of the Year. If it sounds odd that you could win and an award for being educator of the year that only tenured faculty are eligible for, well, you're right. But we call the winner of the Super Bowl the world champion.

Contingent faculty are the most hard-working and innovative professors in any higher education system, and they deserve greater recognition.


My local chapter of our faculty union -the Minnesota College Faculty Association - created an award which we called the MSCF Faculty of the Year Award. We didn't call it the Contingent Faculty of the Year Award.

The proposal for the award first went through the executive council of our Union, and then was passed at a full chapter meeting. A committee of five tenured faculty was appointed by the executive committee to adjudicate the award.

First, we called for nominations from the campus. Then we asked nominees if they wished to be candidates. Candidates needed to submit a teaching statement, syllabus, and a favorite assignment. 95% of nominees chose to become candidates. The portfolio the candidates submitted focused on teaching and was intentionally easy to compile, in contrast with many awards portfolios. We encouraged faculty to put "Nominee (or Candidate] for Faculty of the Year" on their CVs.

We asked the campus community to submit statements of support for the candidates.

Our committee reviewed the submitted portfolios based on excellence in teaching, supporting students, and service to Normandale and the wider community. I found that review process to be rewarding as I read innovative and inspiring pedagogy.

The winner was announced at our opening convocation for spring semester 2021 by our Union president and all the candidates received the statements of support made by the community. The winner will receive some academic regalia, likely a medal, to wear at commencement indicating the award.

Lessons Learned

Should you wish to do this for your campus (and you should because contingent faculty members deserve far more recognition than they are given), please consider a few of our lessons learned.

  • Everything will take more time than you think it will, from creating the award process to collecting nominations and supporting statements, to meeting as a committee.
  • The award reflects the values of the campus. Our campus is pedagogy and service oriented; your campus may have a research focus. We included categories to judge the award based on what our contingent faculty contributed to our campus. Note that we didn't ask for a CV, and thus avoided questions of degrees or publications.
  • Getting broad input will improve the award, including from contingent faculty. Our award improved as it went through our executive committee and then chapter meeting for approval, and then again as the awards committee met.
  • Having clear guidelines for how the award will be judged from before you seek nominations will make the award committee's job easier. We had those guidelines, which reduce the potential for the award to be a popularity contest.
  • Someone on the awards committee needs to be competent organizing digital information. We used google forms to solicit nominations and support statements and Office 365 notebooks to solicit candidate portfolios. Meetings were held over zoom after March 2020. This went well for us, but there are many digital bumps that could've derailed the process.
  • Done well, the award process emerges out of an ethics of care and highlights the contributions of contingent faculty and gives those faculty paragraphs of praise for their work.

Why the NY Times Vaccine Timeline is Bad

Why the NY Times Vaccine Timeline is Bad

I have three qualms with the Interactive Timeline titled "Find Your Place in the Vaccine Line."

  1. It's factually misleading. The C.D.C has only voted on Tier 1a as of today (2020-12-4). The prose below the graphic includes this information, but telling people "this is where you are in line" and then qualifying it with "The final order is not yet determined and depends on successful vaccines being adequately tested for every group" is misleading, at best.

The author also didn't bother to build even mildly realistic parameters for the interactive. I entered that I was a two year-old health care worker from Hennepin County with COVID-related risks and it just spit out a place in line.

  1. Creating a vaccine line which misrepresents the risk/benefits of vaccination (see point 3) encourages line jumping by the privileged. Already some Republican legislators in MN have suggested they should jump the line over seniors with comorbidities. My family has a great-grandparent who is a 99 year-old World War 2 pilot and the idea that any legislator should get a vaccine that might allow a war hero to enjoy his 100th birthday is, well, go-to-hell Paul Gazelka.

  2. The vaccine line misrepresents the risk/benefit nature of vaccination. Everyone understands lines: we used to stand in them for things we wanted. Go to a candy store, stand in line, get your candy, eat it- the closer to the front, the better right? That's not how vaccination works.

For one, this vaccination campaign needs people to go the candy store twice, buy the exact same kind of candy exactly 21 to 28 days apart. Again, this detail is in the supporting prose below the interactive, but late qualifiers aren't much use once you've bated the hook.

More importantly, vaccination is more akin to everyone getting a big bag of candy while still standing in line, and getting to enjoy it as soon as the first person buys their candy. By the time it is your turn to buy your candy, you've already enjoyed a large portion of it.

  • When healthcare workers get vaccinated before me, they'll have a 90%+ chance of not getting ill from COVID, and will be ready to care for me should I get sick. Just by having available medical experts, my risk of dying goes down. Mmm, first jelly bean!

  • When at-risk populations get vaccinated, they have a 90%+ chance of not getting ill from COVID, which means more hospital and staff capacity, which opens up more medical resources should I need them. So tasty, this candy!

  • When essential workers get vaccinated, people who provide me things and services to me -- like mail, food, K-12 teachers, and city services -- have a 90%+ chance of not getting ill from COVID, ensuring our society can better operate. I can't get enough of this candy!

Given my low risk, it is better for me for others to get vaccines first, because it improves both my access to medical care and to goods and services I need. (Also, lots of people I and others love don't die:) The interactive timeline obfuscates all these benefits in the interest of faux ordinal placement.

And, as this thread makes clear vaccinations prevent illness, not necessarily infection. So, although vaccination will occur in an order, we all need to keep masking, washing, and social distancing until we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated. For us to return to normal, we all are safe only when we ALL are safe.

The Interactive Timeline discusses some of the complications of the vaccination role out, but not this central issue of how vaccines work to prevent illness, not necessarily infection. At the very least, if there's going to be an ordered list, it should be qualified with some rudimentary grounding in what the list claims to describe.

Journalism has a responsibility to present information in ways that inform our citizenry. Th NY Times Interactive Timeline "Find Your Place in the Vaccine Line" doesn't do that, and misrepresents what matters about vaccination all in the service of an interactive data visualization.

Ever wish there were an introduction to distance digital college courses? I made one.

After hearing from colleagues this spring who wished for an introduction to online courses for students, I spent the summer creating one. "Return to Enter: An Introduction to Digital Distance Higher Education," is a five-lesson module.

Each lesson is designed to take 30-45 minutes, making all five suitable for the first week or weeks of a course. I designed the lessons for a first-generation community college student beginning their first year. There are 45 different pages, with a mix of text, pictures, and minimal videos.

These lessons are OER. You can use them in parts or in whole as you wish. I built the lessons with, which allows for PDF, HTML, and Markdown export. Of those formats, the HTML export yields the most accessible documents and PDF exports yields the least accessible version. See the teacher's notes for how to copy the course.

A couple of caveats:

  • I use language carefully. I don't call distance digital courses "online" because almost all classes use the web.
  • These lessons are not Normandale Community College or Minnseota State and Universities specific or approved.
  • Accessibility should be very good (it's mostly text with high contrast and captioned photos). I encourage feedback on how to improve accessibility.
  • This is the first version of these lessons. Student and faculty use and feedback will improve these lessons. I'm especially interested in improving Lesson 5 "Math online."
  • I've tried to use examples from across the disciplines, though I acknowledge historical examples are more abundant.

If you wish to offer feedback, please see this form: . If you register for a Notion account (free), you can also leave comments directly on the lessons for me.

Let’s stop lying to our students.

Much of what we do in higher education is out of the force of habit. Call it insitutional or pedaogical inertia. One of the reasons I like to change the theme for my websites is to make myself (and others) think about what works and what doesn't with web design.

I just completed a draft of a module on what I think students should know before starting a distance digital class (which everyone calls online college). I struggled a bit when it came to several sections because there are poorly made and executed tools that students have to use successfully if they are to succeed in college. Sometimes I feel like I'm handing students a screw driver with a 45 degree angle in the shaft and then pretending that's normal and they should be able to use it without difficulty.

So much of distance digital technology is beholden to educational habit, including our use of content managment systems, our deployment of virtual meetings such as Zoom to replicate face-to-face class time, even our normalization of feature creep in software. I recently saw Apple added support for videos in the spreadsheet program, Numbers. Because when I'm hashing through data, what I need is to get rickrolled. One section of the module attempted to explain how it required 7 steps to upload a file to our LMS, and I couldn't pretend that process was well designed, so I just laid out how to do it, called it cumbersome, and moved on.

Given the disfunction in the US govertnment and global dystopia we are living through, it feels doubly disingenous to pretend that poorly designed or performing education tools aren't just that: crap. If we lie, and say, "oh yes, this is great tool and an evidence-based approach to your education" we fail ourselves and them. Instead we should acknowledge the failure and then keep going. "That's a bent screwdriver, I know, but you need to drive that screw if you are going to build this fence, so let me show you how to use it."

At least by acknoledging the failures of our own tools - including our own pedagogies - we can build trust with our students as they build their education careers. And that's whats most important part: students are still learning, still moving forward in their lives towards their degrees and certificates.

An introduction to distance digital higher education.

I and many have noted the uneven knowledge base of students taking college courses, often as a product of equity issues in K-12 education. College accelerates rather than ameliorates these uneven penetrations of knowledge, especially when students take what I call distance digital courses.

Distance education has been around for a long time. Adding web-based elements to distance education is typically called "online education" but I think that term "online" ignores the distance elements of it. As well, there are so many elements of "online courses" that are digital but not web based, I think calling our courses "online" versus "face-to-face" does an an injustice to the total skill set students need to succeed.

So, I wrote five lessons to help students taking distance digital education courses to help bring everyone up to the same level. My direct inspiration was Mike Caufield's Check, Please! fact and source-check lessons. I used the same publishing tool and cribbed much of the pedagogical structure (and some language) from the original ( Whatever brilliance underlying this model is credit to Caufield and all its faults lie with me.

I also took inspiration from several others scholars who I do not know well (or in the case of Tufecki, at all), but appreciate from afar. Roopika Risam, a digital humanities scholar has a willingness to jump into meaningful projects I appreciate. Maha Bali writes inspiring reflections about the the nexus of learning, teaching, and technology. My original forays into how technologies create learning spaces for the oppressed owe their inspiration to Zeynep Tufekci and her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests . I also love how all three scholars refuse to stay in their lanes. At my college, Lacey Mamak has been a teaching and technology mentor for many years, as have many colleagues inside my department and out.

This blog post will auto-tweet, so if you're reading this before ;2020-08-17, you may be frustrated not to see a link to my lessons. I feel I should give my college colleagues and the scholars named above a couple days to comment on my lessons (and for me to chase bugs) before releasing to the public. My thanks to my History and Political Science colleagues and friends for their support this summer for this project. Thank you Robert, Lisa, Kurt and Liz!

So you need a computer for college?

I looked around, including at my college, and didn't find any lists that could help a community college student who needed to get a computer for college. So, I made this chart of computer specifications for community college students. There are lots of "best laptops for college" listicles out there (not journalism) and plenty of engineering colleges that have computer specific charts, but it seems nothing analogous to this. You'll note I didn't designate laptop or desktop as an option: price, availability, family needs, and culture all shape that choice.

I tried to be realistic about what students will find for sale and what they can afford. I wouldn't buy the a computer with the minimum specifications on this list if buying new, but you could for under $200. I also didn't specify screen sizes as I've learned from my students that young eyes tolerate tiny fonts and scrolling much better than I do. I went back and forth over whether to include Linux computers. On the one hand, it's such a small percentage of students who might use them. On the other hand, Linux embraces the ethos of college in ways that Microsoft and Apple do not, so, to the barricades friends.

Feel free to send along feedback or requests for it in alternate formats. This is the first in a series of OER materials I'm going to produce that try to fill the gaps that exist between the world of tech - higher ed teaching - and scholarship of teaching and learning. Stay tuned.

⇧ ⌃ Because absolutely no-one asked for my COVID-19 hot take on how to shift control from face-to-face to a student-focused digital learning bridge.

I write this post as I see lots of tips emerging from digital humanities teachers and faculty developers about how to transition or switch to online formats in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though I find much to laud I also find much lacking, especially when considering my college, which is on spring break. I keep reading about "shifting gears" or "switching to an online format." Another path that Normandale and MN State might take would be to build bridges by shifting control (⇧ ⌃) to faculty and students in different ways. I do not see my college canceling face-to-face meetings for the rest of the semester. So, here are some steps we could take to make the time away from campus for students useful:
  1. Ask students not attend face-to-face classes for three weeks as part of a bridge to the end of the semester.
  2. The campus would be open and faculty and staff would continue to report for work, with social distancing as appropriate.
  3. The first week of the bridge would not involve coursework, but would instead involve planning by faculty and staff on how to complete the next two week's of the bridge. Planning would include:
    a. What are the accreditation requirements for different courses?
    b. What faculty development do faculty need to create learning bridges for their students? The focus should be on clear, high-impact learning strategies that use the minimum digital technology necessary.
    c. What are the options students can use to complete work away from campus and how can those options be enhanced?
    d. Contacting every single student by email, phone, or text until they respond to set up an action plan. This would involve significant time on the part of faculty, but would have huge payoff because every single student would have a check in. Scripts, written by or in collaboration with faculty would be useful. "Hi, it's professor X from Normandale, how are things? I want to let you know my plans to help ensure continuity of learning in this course. Plans. What questions do you have?" Many students will respond to email, some will need to be called. EVERY student needs a check-in.
    e. What social support services need to be readjusted (food shelves, counseling) to service student needs?
    f. Asking students what they need to succeed during the bridge period?
After a week of planning the semester bridge, the next two weeks of courses will be conducted remotely, now that they are well-planned. Different courses will look radically different, with some cramming content from textbooks so that labs can be privileged later in the semester and others shifting work from paper to digital formats. The key is to shift control to students and faculty, and not to the LMS or meeting software such as Zoom, in crafting the learning bridge. After three weeks, it will be April 6th which leaves a full month in the college calendar. As multiple doctors have noted, the point of institutional social distancing isn't to eliminate COVID-19, it's to flatten the curve of its spread so that our healthcare system can deal with it.
My fear is that my college and the MinnState system is too slow to plan a meaningful response and we'll wait until there is widespread infection, and then cancel face-to-face course, telling instructors to immediately start teaching through the LMS. Building a bridge while trying to cross it seems. . . perilous.