The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 2)

Note:  This entry continues my discussion of the need for a CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning.

Bruce Blog CUNY CITL

C. Centralized Online/Hybrid Oversight

In several blog posts (link), I have bemoaned the lack of guidance from CUNY Central in dealing with many aspects of online planning, support, and implementation. For an institution the size of CUNY, it makes little sense to have 20+ campuses, each pursuing their own methods, policies, structures and goals concerning online learning. In sharp contrast, SUNY has a more centralized approach (SUNY Online Network) to online learning and, consequently, they offer over 15 times the online programs that CUNY does. Moreover, by itself, the CUNY School of Professional Studies’ online programs are not sufficient in size and scope to impact online learning for the entire university. The end result is that, despite the best of intentions, CUNY is over a decade behind in terms of implementing online learning compared to SUNY, and over two decades behind some of the leading public universities (e.g., University of Wisconsin, eCampus).

There is much work to be done in turning around this somewhat dysfunctional situation at CUNY, which admittedly might not happen in my lifetime. Nonetheless, one critical measure that can help turn the ship around would be to have a centralized office dedicated to online learning to advocate for it, support it, and facilitate online learning throughout CUNY.

How might a central office be useful? For example, there are potential synergies in having one portal through which students can register for online courses at any CUNY campus, or system-wide Blackboard support 24/7 for faculty and students, or being able to leverage faculty development efforts across multiple campuses, or being able to work with vendors to support specific online initiatives in an expeditious manner.  As online has become mainstream at virtually all public institutions, I believe CUNY is at a strategic disadvantage by not having the ability to plan and guide the delivery of online programs across the entire institution. The “loose federation” of CUNY campuses will lose out in the online arena to those institutions whose efforts are both focused and streamlined to produce online programs.

D. Coordination/Advocacy for Instructional Technology

A new CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning would be an advocate for new learning technologies throughout the university.  Whether it is skeptical and resistant faculty or administrators, there needs to be a reliable and respected counter  to the numerous roadblocks to change that often occur at CUNY. Failing this, these battles over turf and power will slow innovation on each CUNY campus. Moreover, instructional technologists at each campus need to be recognized and supported in their efforts to spread the word on technologies for teaching and learning.

In January 2013, I convened a CUNY-wide Forum of Instructional Technologists. Although the event fell outside of my work responsibilities, I felt it was sorely needed. At this meeting, we had time to review instructional technology issues at our respective CUNY colleges and discuss commonalities.  As far as I know, there was no follow-up meeting after that event. Instructional technologists throughout CUNY are working hard on their campuses with little support, guidance or resource and idea sharing with other colleges. This lack of coordination amongst technologists at CUNY is a lost opportunity which has several undesirable results including feelings of isolation for technologists, much duplication of effort, and wasted time and resources.  I believe we need to do better.

A centralized unit in support of instructional technologists on all CUNY campuses is needed. This might take the form of centralized training opportunities / workshops for technologists, a resource-sharing network of IT strategies that work, the funding of some instructional technologist positions on various campuses, and review panels to test and recommend specific products. Other universities have organized this area more effectively  (see SUNY  Network for Instructional Designers) since they recognize the importance of academic technologies to support the central mission of their institution.

There is a substantial need at CUNY campuses going unmet and a wide disparity at campuses throughout the university concerning Instructional Technology. For example, are two instructional technologists per 1500 faculty sufficient to support new digital tools on campus and with no funds available to be spent on new instructional technologies? I believe not, yet this is the actual situation at a prominent senior college within CUNY. Will CUNY have the vision and courage to address this need? I believe central office oversight in this area is critical to long-term success.

Graphic: Created by Louis Oprisa (CETL Technologist) using InDesign

Posted in CUNY Practices, Envisioning Online, Instructional Technology, Online Learning Policies, Procedures, Systems, Strategic Planning for Online | Comments Off on The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 2)

MOOCs: The Adult Learning Renaissance

More and more it is becoming evident that the impact MOOCs will have is on adult (lifelong) learners and not on your typical undergraduate. I am currently participating in Kathy Davidson’s wonderful MOOC entitled, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” with thousands of others. The landscape is a rich learning environment with excellent videos, online textbook and links to articles, community site, peer-assessed assignments, quizzes and other useful innovations. Your average online professor would be hard-pressed to produce anything near the quality of this team-produced course hosted by Coursera.

This is not a site for undergraduate learners—although they would be welcome to participate. I imagine that well over 90% of the students are adults, many in academia, that wish to advance their knowledge in this area and see what a MOOC has to offer. Adult learners, as we know, are self-motivated, not needing a campus experience, capable of higher order thinking and writing (we hope), and bring a wealth of personal experience to the table.  For the most part, they are not seeking credit for this course, or even need to have this as a component of a degree. We are taking this MOOC due to our inherent interest in the topic, our love of learning, and the need to be part of a greater community of learners. We are, I believe, the real “early adopters” of MOOCs, and part of a parallel revolution in online learning—that of non-degree seeking adult learners.

In a previous post, I reflected that the real impact of MOOCs was overstated in the undergraduate arena. I feel that the real story was the acceptance of online learning within the conservative bastions of higher education. In essence, online learning has won the decade-plus battle for acceptance in academia. In that context, MOOCs are more a flashy online hybrid that may have a great future, but have little immediate impact for the vast majority of college students today.  There are many issues to iron out including students getting credit for these MOOCs, ownership of the content, academic rigor and assessment, etc. These will take time to resolve and, in time, there certainly will be a place for MOOCs in college teaching.

However, most of these challenges do not really apply for adult learners. MOOCs can, and are, having an immediate impact for those of us interested in learning a range of topics we never had the time or opportunity to explore.  Thus, MOOCs can be part, I believe, of a renaissance in adult learning. Often adult learners regret not fully taking advantage of opportunities during their college career, or the over-specialization inherent in their graduate studies.  With MOOCs, many of us see the possibility for learning on our own terms—taking what topics interest us in the convenience of our homes and doing so when our schedules permit — and while paying little or no fees (at this point in MOOC development). As baby-boomers retire and have more free time, I predict many of us will continue to pursue lifelong learning opportunities. MOOCs are real, and will start to usher in a revolution in adult learning.

Posted in A Learning Pedagogy, Envisioning Online, Online Best Practices, Online Learning Policies, Procedures, Systems, Paradigm Shift | 6 Comments

The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 1)

I have been blogging for several years about online and hybrid learning and technology trends in academia.  In that time I have made several proposals in my blog regarding ways I feel CUNY needs to change concerning instructional technology and online learning.  Among the ideas I have advocated include:

  • Creating a CUNY-wide Office for Online Learning (blog link)
  • Establishing a Vision Statement for Academic Technology at CUNY (blog link)
  • Creating an Emergency Plan for Academic Continuity in case of a crisis (blog link)
  • Promoting a “change incubator” to research/pilot educational technologies (blog link)
  • Transforming our teaching paradigm to a learning paradigm (blog link)
  • Organizing all Instructional Technologists at CUNY (blog link)
  • Developing a Strategic Planning Process for Hybrid/Online (blog link)
  • Viewing online as a strategic CUNY asset to support/fund (blog link).

Although most of these proposals have yet to be implemented, I now see a common thread that includes many of these into one proposal, namely, creating a CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning. This Center would act as the CUNY-wide focal point for several critical functions including:

  • Envisioning/strategic planning;
  • Incubating, testing and piloting new technology initiatives;
  • Planning/advocating/assisting hybrid/online learning;
  • Coordination and outreach to Instructional Technologists on campuses;
  • Collaboration and partnerships with private companies, as well as other institutions;
  • Pursue grant opportunities for new technologies;
  • Advocating with CUNY Central and faculty for these technologies.

The graphic below points to the direction that I feel would be useful.

Bruce Blog CUNY CITL A. Envisioning/Strategic Planning

The single factor that separates those institutions that are truly serious about implementing innovative technology for teaching and learning on campus is an organizing vision. This vision statement needs to be put on paper, disseminated to the entire institution, and readily available. Complementing this vision statement is a planning process that is strategic in nature. It acknowledges the opportunities and challenges inherent in technological change, including an assessment of a “failure to act.”  The most effective institutions will not only have a strategic plan worthy of the name, but the actual planning process will be fully operational down to the details of how that institution functions. This later condition is rare in academia; however, it is essential if an organization wants to ensure that their vision materializes. CUNY needs an office that can provide leadership in this envisioning, planning, and strategizing process.

B. Change Incubator

However change is defined, be it Christensen’s concept of “disruptive innovations,” or Tagg’s concept of a “paradigm shift” from instruction to learning, or what conferences trumpet as “transformational change,” one thing is clear — in CUNY (as in many such institutions), such change will be opposed, sabotaged, and undermined by many competing stakeholders —  all with apparent veto power.

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, the best way, and in reality the only way to implement meaningful change, is “in the margins.” By that term, I mean that existing structures, relationships, and arrangements need to be suspended, or at least mitigated, for a new approach or program to begin. Accordingly, I recommend an institutional “incubator” where significant changes may be researched, piloted and evaluated outside of the pressures from a variety of stakeholders that, by definition, are the gatekeepers for the status quo. Although this may seem unlikely at CUNY, I would remind you of the examples of SPS online programs, the MacCauley Honors College, and other programs where such exceptions were made, and alas, a more flexible arrangement resulted in excellent outcomes.

Admittedly, at this point in my career, I may suffer from a tad of impatience. From time to time, the tone of my blog posts certainly reflects this, and for that I offer no apologies. For positive innovations to succeed at each CUNY campus and throughout the institution as a whole, we need to carve out safe-zones for experimentation and for testing new technologies and teaching models.

In addition, some of these changes might have commercial viability. Accordingly, such “change incubators” might look into supporting creative faculty with new technologies or approaches that might have commercial potential. For example, some BMCC professors  are working on a game-based Learning Management System that has been presented at several CUNY IT conferences over the years. These and other ideas need to be piloted and given a fair chance of rising above the entrenched forces of the status quo.

Next Blog Post: The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 2)

Graphic: Created by Louis Oprisa (CETL Technologist) using InDesign


Christensen, Clayton,  “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive,” Chronicle of Higher Education,  Retrieved at:

Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at:

Tagg, John, The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA., 2003.


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Can CUNY Thrive with “Disruption”?

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who coined the term “disruptive innovations,” has followed his book with a recent Chronicle article entitled, “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive.” Although his theme is that such “disruptions” produce better outcomes in the long term, it poses potential hardships to those industries or institutions who refuse to adapt to the new environment. I will review his short article in the context of institutional change, with an eye toward CUNY.

Christensen is a Harvard business professor whose primary focus for his theory is business and those who lose out to disruptive innovations along the way. Certainly, the lesson of Detroit auto makers, and the current default of that city’s bonds, can be considered Exhibit A in terms of how not being responsive to change in the auto industry led to loss of market share and eventual bankruptcy. In a similar vein, traditional newspapers’ finances were “disrupted” by the trend toward online classified ads as in Craig’s List. Is such a fate possible in the education sphere? In a word, “yes,” in time.

Paradigm Shift in Education

I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift throughout the field of education that will eventually replace our current instructional model with a teaching model, as I discussed in a previous post (link). Increasingly, many critics see the need to replace our current teacher-centered, 3-credit Carnegie units (seat time), over 15-week semesters, to a more dynamic, student-centered structure where learning is the center and students are the drivers of learning. This paradigm shift will take a generation to achieve, but the signposts toward this new model are now becoming more visible. Performance-based learning, badges for achievement, flex-time for semesters, learning facilitators, individualized learning programs, MOOCs, and many other trends, including the dis-aggregation of the traditional faculty role, are constant reminders that change is coming, but not immediately.

The rise of online education, which is the focus of this blog, has gone from a controversial sideshow, to an accepted fact of strategic importance at many colleges and universities. I regard online learning, with over a 20 year history in its wake, as a significant trend that can has been gradually adopted, yet in and of itself, is not transformative.  Largely, hybrid and online courses fall within the same academic structures that regulate traditional classes, although that may change with MOOCs. So, for example, online classes are often 3 credits, taught during a 15-week semester, with traditional assessments of learning, etc. That model is not transformative in and of itself, but rather it operates within the existing structures.

Can CUNY Adapt to “Disruptive” Innovations?

From our research on disruptive innovation, it does appear, though, there are two ways for an organization to survive and thrive when disruption happens,” Christensen writes (reference below). The first method is to create an “autonomous unit” which can quickly manage change to ride the disruption wave. For an institution like CUNY, this would mean creating new nimble structures — what I call “change incubators,” that operate outside the prevailing systems, processes and culture.

To some extent, CUNY has created alternative incubators with the Macauley Honors College, SPS Online, and the new Guttman Community College.  Each of these comes with a unique mission and focus, but operates outside of the institutional constraints that prevent good ideas from becoming actualized.  This is what I called “change in the margins” in a recent blog post.  Instead of directly confronting the unionized, tenured, silo-ed disciplined, bureaucratized, top-heavy, and largely unaccountable bodies of a typical CUNY college, when originally conceived, these alternatives were able to get exemptions from many of these barriers to innovation.

This is exactly the approach advocated by Christensen. In this manner, new ideas, technologies, and methods can be piloted and tested in an environment safe from the many institutional stakeholders who prefer to stifle innovation. Without such change incubators at this or any other similar institution, the “diffusion of innovation” explored by Everett Rogers, will instead yield to reinforcement of the status quo.

Next Post: Proposal for a New Structure


Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at:

Christensen, Clayton & Horn, Michael B.,  “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30 ,2013.  Retrieved at:

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Tagg, John, The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA., 2003.


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Re-envisioning the Vision (Part 2): The Vision of Ubiquity U

“A whole new kind of education for a whole new kind of world . . .”
Quote from Jim Garrison (Founder and CEO of Ubiquity University)

What does a transformative vision of education look like?  I can think of no better example than Ubiquity University. I recently came across this organization and was surprised, relieved, and validated.  Surprised that this organization has acted on some of the most vexing issues facing higher education; relieved that they have given those of us who are critical of academia a viable alternative; and validated that my ongoing focus on “vision” and paradigm-shifting change has been addressed.

Here are some of the qualities in their wonderful program.

Focus on the Student and Learning

Ubiquity University is not focused on students obtaining degrees, but rather, “in the revolution transforming education, the focus is increasingly on the student and the skills they need in a radically changing world. This reality is what education must address.” (From Ubiquity U. website—see link below).

Many programs say they are student-centered, but most are instead reflective of Tagg’s “instructional paradigm.” (Link to previous post on topic).  To build a program from the ground up, based on real student needs rather than antiquated disciplines reflecting the instructor’s interests or static program requirements, is a revolutionary beginning.

Ubiquity University, focused on competency and skills needed in today’s society, has long been talked about but rarely actualized.   ” . . . modular, competency-based experiences that foster collaborative creativity and develop skills directly relevant to their lives.” (From Ubiquity U. website—link below).  A modular approach allows for flexible curricular adoption and change while providing the potential for students to structure a program of learning best suited to them. A competency-based curriculum builds usable student skills that are taught and demonstrated in authentic contexts.

Relevancy of Courses and Learning

One of the most critical aspects of student engagement is for them to see the importance of what they are learning as meaningful to their actual lives.  The traditional curriculum, beginning with introductory classes in the sciences and social sciences, often seem removed from a student’s frame of reference. If that is the case, it is hard to obtain student buy-in and their full effort. Ubiquity’s courses are quite different.  They provide an inter-disciplinary, global view, with subjects that are topical and relevant to the challenges we all face today.  The course titles tell the story.

  • Global Focus on Shaping the Future
  • Great Books of World Wisdom Traditions
  • Science and the Mind
  • Personal Leadership and Social Innovation
    (Link to see more Ubiquity Courses)

A Learning Model

Ubiquity’s learning model is well thought out and “holistic” in the best sense of the term. Like traditional programs, they offer study in the form of lectures, tasks, research and discussions. Just from my initial impression of their literature and website, I would argue that even these normal activities are better integrated into a meaningful whole than the typical college offerings.

Source: Ubiquity University Website (see references)

Source: Ubiquity University Website (see references)

The traditional model in academia stops with these study modalities. What sets this model apart is the equal emphasis on a student’s personal development along with their becoming a change agent in the world arena. I’ve always thought that life skills, not merely academic ones, were important to teach in college and K-12. This would include working to solve real world problems, the ability to work with others in groups and lead groups, and building personal traits like perseverance, self-discipline and self-reflection. Through coaching/mentoring and experiential learning, Ubiquity U. addresses this critical aspect of real learning for students.

But Ubiquity goes even further in their model.  Under the moniker of “Missions,” they foster independent student thinking about their impact in the world and creating a personal vision for their lives.  This is accomplished via innovative learning journeys, internships and “change projects” that personalize learning and create real meaning for students to incorporate into their lives immediately.

Through the holistic learning model that Ubiquity offers, students can better see the importance — and the greater context — of their learning in their lives. Whether Ubiquity’s program (which just recently got off the ground) can be scaled or replicated at other institutions remains to be seen. At Ubiquity University, however, it looks as though students receive a beautiful learning experience that may point to a new vision of what is possible for higher education.


Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at:

Tagg, John, (2003) The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Ubiquity University Website:

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Re-envisioning the Vision (Part 1)

In the past few months this blog has been in a hibernation of sorts.  I just have not been motivated to write any more about MOOCs, online learning, strategic planning for instructional technology or such things. There are many reasons I can give for this hiatus.  I no longer feel that technology change alone will bring significant changes in learning. Online learning, something I have long advocated, has largely won the pedagogical battle and now is integral to most institutions of higher education.  And yet, significant change in how we conduct teaching has still eluded us, both individually and collectively.

Or, this blog’s hiatus could stem from my feeling that my talents in this area have gone largely untapped and unrecognized within my employment or extended sphere of influence. But that’s not it either. While these and other factors have some merit, what I feel is really lacking is a tangible idea of what a better model for higher education would look like in the context of our current societal challenges. In other words, I personally, and we collectively, need to “Re-envision the Vision.”

Where’s the Vision?

We are stuck. Stuck in the muck of our fears, belief systems, structures and histories—for starters. But before we relinquish these dysfunctional and antiquated patterns, we need to, as Stephen Covey wrote, “begin with the end in mind.” That “end” is a new vision for a new day.

“Vision” is essential for change, be it transformational, disruptive, paradigm- shifting, or innovative. These changes may be necessary, but they are clearly not sufficient in my view.  If we are honest, we need to ask fundamental questions about what we are doing and what we wish to accomplish. For example:

  • How does change happen at any college or university?
  • How resistant are structures within these organizations to change?
  • Are the changes we seek even possible within these given environments?
  • Who are the change agents and what influence do they have?
  • Where is that compelling, meaningful, achievable, and worthwhile vision for our college or university?
  • Has this vision been recently updated to reflect the changing nature of society and the new challenges that students will face?

None of these questions, if honestly explored, will lead to the conclusion that change is easy, or in many instances, even do-able. Instead, it may lead to the conclusion, that if you have a compelling vision for what is needed, you had better expend your energies not with reforming what is, but rather, with creating new structures. More and more, this is the conclusion I am reaching in my evolution. But what does a new vision for learning look like?  That is the subject for my next blog post.

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Move Over MOOCs: The Real Revolution is Personalized Learning

Given the hype about MOOCs in the past two years, it was inevitable that a reassessment would happen.  In an article entitled, “The MOOC Disruption Proves Less Than Revolutionary After All” in last month’s Chronicle, some of the hot air was let out of the MOOC balloon. Even some of the initial proponents of massive open online courses now see their role in a more limited evolutionary context, not a revolutionary one. MOOCs will be part of a spectrum of online course and program options that colleges may choose from. These options range from web-enhanced and flipped classrooms, to hybrid courses meeting partially online, to traditional courses using MOOCs or open educational resources, to fully online courses and programs — with all the combinations and permutations possible in these and other approaches to teaching.

In my blog post last spring entitled MOOCs and Magical Thinking, I cautioned against expecting too much too soon from this innovative approach to learning.  It will not transform college as we know it, and moreover, its initial impact will be limited, at best. Few students will ever be able to earn credit for such courses, and the traditional institutional structures within higher education will go largely unchanged. The real story, I blogged, is not the emerging MOOC environment, but rather the ongoing importance and acceptance of online learning  as a strategically important cornerstone to college pedagogy.  “The battle is over, and online has won,” I concluded in another post over a year ago.

MOOCs have had their day in the sun, and maybe have had too much of it. However, relatively unreported is a truly innovative, well-planned, and potentially revolutionary online implementation program, as reported in the latest Educause Review Online.  Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning Program (website link), I believe, is where you may see the future potential for online learning played out in real time.

A full discussion of the numerous innovations of this program will take a second blog post (in the near future) to fully discuss.  For now, I will list some of the revolutionary, or at least “disruptive,”  elements that Fredrick M. Hurst describes in his Educause article. These innovations include:

  1. Truly self-paced instruction for students which include students choosing their starting and ending dates
  2. Faculty role as “guides/advisers” on the side, used when students need them
  3. Free remediation and testing prior to admittance into their programs
  4. Ability to transfer formal learning credits from other institutions
  5. Just in time teaching when student is ready and is motivated to learn
  6. Pre/post testing of students for each course to better gauge learning
  7. Collaboration with a known publisher (Pearson) to expedite course and program development, roll-out and implementation, with the ability to provide needed expertise
  8. Truly inter-disciplinary programs that go beyond the discipline internecine turf battles and other limitations inherent in current academic structures
  9. Assessment based on actual student competencies, not merely writing papers or passing quizzes
  10. Automatic tracking of student progress for advisers/instructors
  11. Subscription-based, low cost (on par with CUNY tuition) model for students which provides real value
  12. Potentially shortened time to degree based only on student motivation and aptitude
  13. A competency report to employers  (that outlines skills applicable to the workplace) in addition to a traditional transcript
  14. Big data reporting capabilities which allows program managers to adjust courses based on tracking cumulative student data in real time
  15. Program specifically designed within its own independent unit inside the university–allowing for change and innovation without threatening the existing institutional processes and policies.

In summary, I will discuss these points in greater depth in my next post.  For now, I can say with some confidence, that new models like NUA’s Personalized Learning represents a much greater challenge to the rigid structures and practices of academia than MOOCs ever will. An institution like CUNY would do well to send a project team to this and other such programs and see what lessons can be learned for this university.


Hurst, Fredrick, (2013), “Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning,” Educause Review Online, Sept. 4, 2013, Retrieved at:

Kolowich, Steve, (2013) “The MOOC Disruption Proves Less Than Revolutionary After All,”  The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 16, 2013, pp. A6. Retrieved from:

Northern Arizona University, Personalized Learning website:

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Digital Pacifiers

There are certainly benefits to the new digital technologies — cell phones, tablets, eReaders and a host of other devices.  But this post looks at the shadow side of these developments. On any subway, bus, or sidewalk in New York you see a significant portion of people (more weighted toward the young) using one or more of these devices.  I see them longingly scanning their screens, most oblivious to their surroundings, and I want to shout, “The answers are not there.”

Increasingly, I see these devices as “digital pacifiers” for the masses.  While we are all “connecting” with the net, being entertained with music, social networking, or even doing homework online, our ability to look inward and outward diminishes. Young people walk the street donning their headphones, often oblivious to their immediate environment and people around them. The phenomenon of “driving while texting” says it all in terms of being disconnected. For a digital medium that supposedly allows for making connections with others, we have lost the connection with the present, and to others in our immediate environment. We’ve created a “splendid isolation” in our own digital cocoons.

I came across an article in one of my hiking magazines decrying that today’s young are not venturing out in nature as much as previous generations. (see note 1). Tethered to their digital devices, it is not had to ascertain why.  In fact, “nature deficit disorder” is the term used by a therapist to describe this problem in young people. By losing contact and appreciation for the natural world, we lose an essential part of our existence and connection with a critical aspect of our being.

I have not made a survey regarding the content of digital media, but I suspect it is similar in many ways to the MTV U that I am forced to watch when I work out at the gym in Lehman College. The “content” runs the gamut from superficial videos that flash new  images every two seconds, to commercials to “Be Army Strong” or ones touting the latest inane reality show or acne skin cream. A constant diet of this can only turn one’s mind into mush, reduce one’s attention span to that of a gnat, and contribute to a self-absorbed narcissism. Our cultural landscape, as many have noted, has become more coarse, dumbed-down, and superficial.

As college teachers, we compete for the “hearts and minds” of youngsters exposed to these digital environments, and we are clearly losing the battle. Professors report students having shortened attention spans, being more distracted, and needing to be entertained rather than taught. The digital landscape seems to promote a passivity in students that discourages them from actively taking part in their learning process. Learning can be fun, but not necessarily so, but it does take effort and time on task. Failing such active engagement, students may become passive in their learning process like watching a movie, albeit less interesting than those in theaters or being streamed to their devices.

Ironically, one way colleges have addressed the digital natives is to infuse technology into their courses.  As Perensky foretold it over a decade ago, students must “power down” their devices when they enter classrooms which are instructed by digital immigrants. He and others call for technologies to engage students in their learning process as had been done in the past decade, and accelerated by online learning. I don’t doubt the value in many of these technologies for learning, as I use them in my own courses. However, our embrace of the digital has come at a cost that I think needs to be acknowledged. The human connection, the natural environment, the time to be reflective and alone have all drowned under a digital tsunami.

Our distractions, be they digital or otherwise, take us away from being present. The prospect of spending time off the grid is frightening to many, like withdrawal from a drug. Like meatless Fridays suggested by certain groups, I would propose technology-free Tuesdays to give one respite from the digital deluge. Try vacationing a week without emails, entertainment, or even news.  I am reminded of the exhortations of Howard Beale– that crazy anchorman in the movie “Network,”  who urged his audience to turn off their televisions –in his mad, insightful rant (see link below).  I would agree, and update his advice to include all digital pacifiers. Turn them off, in order that we may regain all that we’ve lost in the process.


Louv, Richard. (2011) The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books. 303pp.

Perensky, Mark, On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001), retrieved from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Network (movie): Wikipedia reference:

Note 1: (From AMC Outdoors, July/August 2013, page 6)

“As our society struggles with the disturbing side effects of the digital age, which include a drop in physical activity and dissociation from the natural world by so many, especially the young, we need to support a new call to outdoor citizenship.”

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Reflection and Refocus

Note: Incredibly, it’s been two years since my first blog post, reposted below. I’d like to believe that it stands up well and is still relevant even in the fast-moving currents of online learning. 
I’m drawn to writing a new chapter in the future; one that may drift more far-afield as my own interests dictate and life process guides me. For now, I’ll briefly look back on my journey and set a new path for myself– a path with heart.

Online as a Strategic Asset

Imagine a six-story brownstone in the heart of New York City generously donated to the City University of New York.  The brownstone is structurally sound and the donors have agreed to support the extensive renovation required to transform the space as the home of a new college. Such is a brief history of the Macaulay Honors College situated on a landmark site on 67th Street. The beautiful building required extensive renovation to become a state-of-the-art learning space. Would anyone argue with the claim that this building, and the learning taking place within its walls, represents a significant CUNY asset?

Now, let’s image ten such learning spaces around New York City. Would they collectively represent a significant asset to our institution?  Estimating from their website, the Honors College currently graduates between 600-700 students per year. Ten such colleges would graduate approximately 6-7000 students per annum.   Given a concerted startup effort, I believe online programs throughout the CUNY system could easily accommodate these numbers, and moreover, represent an under-developed strategic asset for CUNY. However, many of these “virtual buildings” remain dormant, or un-renovated.

The question of how a virtual space or program becomes an asset is not difficult to fathom when you consider that corporations are allowed to put on their books intangible assets like “good will” and “human capital.”  Online programs within CUNY, albeit under-resourced and under-developed, represent a potential asset for the university on a par with buildings and campuses, faculty and intellectual capital. The issue is that this perspective is seldom if ever articulated or acknowledged.

CUNY has a proud and unique mission of access to education, academic excellence and affordability. Every high school graduate in New York City is guaranteed a spot in at least a CUNY community college and, if qualified, a CUNY senior college. I believe online learning, implemented well, can expand access to learning, promote positive learning outcomes, and foster continued affordability from an institutional standpoint. In summary, online programs are entirely consistent with CUNY’s mission and vision.

Why do I call online learning a “strategic” asset?  Here is a list of some answers, which I will develop in subsequent blog posts:

  • Many higher institutions consider their online programs as a critical aspect of their disaster preparedness planning;
  • Via online programs, CUNY can more easily reach potential students outside of our geographic area, thereby aiding recruitment and geographic diversity;
  • Given the expense of securing properties and construction, virtual classrooms represent a tremendous savings over “brick and mortar” (which includes extra savings for non- maintenance of buildings, and better space utilization on campus);
  • The time-shifting flexibility of online courses offer significant benefits for faculty and students alike, and may improve both student retention and time- to- degree completion;
  • Online learning can be a component of developing 21st century skills for CUNY students; and
  • Online learning fosters a shift from instructor-based to student-centered learning environments which research indicates creates more significant learning experiences.

This list is far from exhaustive and any brainstorming session could easily double the number of entries. As an institution, we need to look at the potential for online learning with new eyes. Are we sitting on a veritable gold mine of untapped potential and, if so, should we think of allocating sufficient resources to fully renovate and develop those virtual online spaces?

Photo Credit: From Macaulay Honor College website (

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Change Incubators

When a large institution like the City University of New York looks to pilot significant change, they set up new structures rather than challenge the existing ones. These new structures serve the purpose of “incubators for change” within the larger university. For example, when online programs needed to be expeditiously rolled out, the School of Professional Studies was used to initiate the CUNY Online B.A. programs rather than attempt online programs at one of the 20 campuses. The reason is clear. The SPS online programs, like the exemplary Honors College, and innovative New Community College all needed more flexible and nimble governance/ organizational structures to successfully innovate.

What type of nimble structures or policies are needed for change? For example, all SPS faculty, whether they teach full-time at other CUNY schools, are considered adjuncts. Colloquial online faculty replaced a traditional faculty Senate in terms of governance. Such colloquial faculty are usually the ones advocating for and teaching online courses and are typically more open to change than their respective colleagues on campus. These and other changes in policies and governance foster SPS innovation which may develop without the constraints of faculty, unions and other stakeholders’ objections.  The lesson here, if you want to innovate, do it in the margins, not on the main stage.

Marginal Change

True innovation in teaching challenges existing policies or programs, and as such, will be resisted by those impacted by the change.  We see this in any discussion about online learning. The first question asked is,  “Will online negatively impact, or even displace, the existing faculty?” If faculty perceive online as a threat, they will resist it, undermine it, disparage it–all prior to experiencing the realities of online learning. Studies (see references below) consistently show that faculty who have not taught online are the most adverse to online learning. In contrast, for the many academics that have embraced hybrid/online learning, many report that their teaching has improved and even their enthusiasm for the profession has been enhanced.

At institutions with a long history of management and union discord, or those with a range of stakeholders in a decentralized organizational structure, change will not happen quickly, only incrementally at best. A variety of stakeholders must be consulted to get anything done, and invariably this process gets bogged down into a “what’s in it for me” mentality that ensures endless debate and postponed actions. In this type of institution, change can be “piloted” or be deemed “experimental” in an attempt to marginalize its impact on campus.  Without strong advocates for change at all levels of the institutional hierarchy, there will not be sufficient momentum to overcome the inevitable obstacles, hence relegating change to the margins of the institution.

Technology as Change Agent

Christensen’s concept of “disruptive technology” is worthwhile to consider in this context. Certainly teaching modes have been impacted by a host of technologies over the years including course management systems, video and web-conferencing, student response systems (aka clickers), blogs and wikis, presentation software, and a plethora of other technologies.  In the past decade, hybrid and online learning have become mainstays in the higher education landscape, but not equally across institutions. Alas, CUNY has allowed its online focus to be carried primarily by one college, namely the School of Professional Studies.  Although every CUNY campus has hybrid and online offerings as part of their pedagogical mix, entire online programs are only implemented at this one campus among the 24 within CUNY. The one exception to this rule will be a new online degree program for John Jay College which is being developed for a rollout in the fall of 2014.

In closing, I believe CUNY needs to develop more incubators for change on all campuses — involving entire online programs, not merely dispersed courses. SUNY, our sister institution in New York, has been doing a better job of incorporating technology innovation at the core of its educational agenda (future blog post on this) in terms of online strategic planning and rolling out online programs across all SUNY campuses. As I’ve written in the past, a centralized CUNY office of online would be a first step toward incorporating a CUNY-wide plan of action for online learning and technology innovation. Ultimately, if we are serious at CUNY about imparting 21st century technology skills to our students, we need institutional structures that put innovation at the center of university planning, not at the periphery.


Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., Lederman, D., & Jaschik, S., (August, 2012), “Digital Faculty: Professors, Teaching and Technology, 2012,” Inside Higher Ed and The Babson Group. Retrieved from:

Bacow, L. et al, (May 2012) “Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education,” ITHAKA S+R, Retrieved from:

Christensen, Clayton M. (1997), The Innovators Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail, Boston, Massachusetts, USAHarvard University Press.

Posted in CUNY Practices, Envisioning Online, Paradigm Shift, Strategic Planning for Online | Comments Off on Change Incubators