Liberty Through Entrepreneurship

Recently, the Institute for Humane Studies held a “Liberty Through Technology” contest for full and part time students to win a tablet. The selection process revolved around explaining why their giving the recipient a tablet would advance the cause of liberty by enabling academic research. Here were the questions they asked, and my responses. To be honest, if I had won a tablet I’d probably mainly use it for reading books on the john, but I didn’t think they would find that a particularly compelling reason, so instead I submitted the following, which conveniently, is also true. (While I didn’t win the tablet, they did call me a finalist and gave me a $25 credit for, which was very nice of them.)

What is your current research interest and what questions would you like to answer through your future research?

I am interested in the use of distance learning to deliver entrepreneurship education to students in low and middle income countries.

I would like to determine what mobile learning strategies are the best for attracting prospective students and for educating them once they’re enrolled. Relevant topics would include keeping students engaged in their learning despite not having a classroom environment, fostering cooperative relationships among students who may be spread across many countries, and on determining which mobile learning approaches are compatible with the uncertain Internet connectivity found in many lower income countries.

How does your research topic advance liberty?

I realize that it’s something of a rarity that someone keen on liberty is in a graduate school of education. Such schools have the reputation for being the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” of higher education: where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. That’s doubly so in that schools of education are known for being safe harbors for leftist ideologies that would ignite and turn to dust were they ever exposed to the harsh daylight of the real world.

I’ve long thought, however, that higher education can be a strong force for liberty. Many people who will never stop at an information table or visit a libertarian web site, and who if asked would express no interest in such things, will listen with rapt attention to a liberty-friendly curriculum if it’s delivered in a university classroom where they are earning credit towards a degree.

I’ve chosen entrepreneurship education as a specific focus for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that starting a business is an excellent way to run headlong into a myriad of ways that the state hinders one’s prosperity. I recognize that not all entrepreneurs become libertarian, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Secondly, I believe that starting a business has been underrated as a way to advance the cause of liberty. Think tanks and political action are all very well, but there’s something to be said for changing the system by selling people an alternative. If, as the saying goes, libertarians see the state as damage and route around it, then someone has to bring those alternative routes into existence.

Finally, every once in a while, an entrepreneur will succeed in a way that makes considerable amounts of money. For those who may become friendly to liberty to become wealthy can only be helpful in the long run in a world where money talks. I expect that’s even more the case in economically developing countries where money goes much further than it does in North America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

How can a tablet help you achieve your research goals?

With such a device handy, I would be in a better position to evaluate various approaches to mobile learning that would answer the questions I’ve outlined above. I indicated an Android device because such devices are more affordable and thus more common in economically developing countries.

Spring Cleaning

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” — Samuel Ullman

Now that it’s spring, at least astronomically, many people’s thought turn to spring cleaning. Traditionally that’s meant tidying up the house, getting rid of all the things that accumulated during the winter when it was too cold to spend much time outside, and taking advantage of the newly returned warmth to finally clean out the car. (Those of you with kids know exactly what I mean.)

I think this spring I need to go a step further. I think this year I need a thorough spring cleaning of my brain. Lately I’ve felt bogged down by a life filled with many things to do but without a lot to show for it in terms of reaching my goals. In fact it’s a bit worse than that, sometimes I’m not even sure what my goals are anymore. Just getting to the next paycheck without having a negative bank balance isn’t enough, but that seems to be where too much of my thought every month is going. I’m too young to let things like that make me feel old.

So I’m going to think about what it is that I’m doing, and what I really might want to do instead and start finding better ways of making that happen. Everything is on the table — my approach to school, the contracts I go after, everything. It’s not that everything in my life is bad, far from it. And I do enjoy most of what I do. But increasingly, I have a rudderless feeling, like these things don’t actually add to much of a destination, and with only so many years on this earth, it’s not okay to feel like they’re being… well, not wasted, exactly, but not maximized either.

Going back and rereading this, I see that it seems a bit jumbled. But I think I’ll leave it that way and post it anyway. I expect that in future posts what I’m trying to say will be a bit clearer. Besides, jumbled is a bit how my brain feels. See? A spring cleaning is definitely in order.

Memphis: Day One

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.” — The Buddha

start of a race

Today my first classes begin at the University of Memphis. I’m taking Statistics I and IT Trends. I did fine in statistics as an undergraduate, and I have a pretty good support system when it comes to statistics, so I’m not as worried about that as I’ve heard some people get. And having done a Master’s in educational technology, I’m not exactly terrified about an IT course for educators either.

Speaking of educational technology, it looks like Memphis uses Desire2Learn as their LMS. It’s one of the few systems I haven’t seen before, and I suppose it’s okay. It seems to run extremely slowly, but in fairness there’s a notice saying they’re aware of it and are working on it, so there’s hope that won’t be a constant situation.

Even though it’s a distance learning program, all of my classmates who have introduced themselves so far today seem to be from Memphis, and most of them work for the University itself. I suppose that’s not surprising since it’s a new program, and it will take a little time for most people in the wider world to hear about it. Even though I keep my ear to the ground on these things, I only heard about it by chance.

Having read both courses’ syllabi, the most daunting thing will likely be the twenty page term paper for IT trends. I’m hoping that my experience in the field will help on this a lot, though, and that I can even turn this into an opportunity to do something publishable, or even start with something that might be relevant to a dissertation topic later.

So those are my first impressions. So far so good, anyway!

Hunting For Scholarships

“Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” — Woody Allen

money, gold coins, and a stock chart
Unless you’re in one of the vanishing set of countries where they’re publicly provided, one of the biggest problems with getting a degree is paying for it. My doctorate will be no exception. The University of Memphis is a state university, and like most state universities it has different tuition rates depending on whether one is from that state or not. I’m definitely not, in fact despite the fact that it borders my home state of Virginia, the only time I think I’ve ever been in Tennessee was about a dozen years ago when I drove from Northern Virginia to Phoenix, Arizona.

While rates for those out of state are very high, fortunately the University of Memphis is also part of the trend among public institutions to offer in state rates (or something close) to those who are only taking online courses. In fact, because of this, my experience with them is likely to be less expensive than it would have been to attend a local university.

Of course, that’s a long way from it being free. Distance learning graduate students don’t have the same assistantship opportunities that those attending full time on campus do, which means my primary avenue to fund my continuing education is to take out student loans. While that will certainly cover everything, I’m well aware that a loan is something that must eventually be repaid with interest, so I’ve also been on the lookout for scholarships. It seems there really aren’t that many out there for part time adult learners. Most of what I’ve found on various scholarship search sites are lottery-style “scholarships” that are from companies that seem primarily interested in developing a list of prospective students that they can repackage and sell to for-profit and other marketing-driven schools.

But I’ve entered those lotteries anyway — why not? And I’m staying on the lookout for scholarships for which I may be qualified. I’ve seen that there are a number out there for those in the dissertation phase of their programs, and I’ll be sure to go after those once I get to that point. But in the meantime, well, suggestions are definitely welcome!

Yes, but can you really learn that way?

So, the last step before applying to any of these doctoral programs, is, of course, to finish the Master’s degree. I have two courses to go, but now that I work at Marymount I figured I’d rather take two courses there for free this term and transfer them back to GW to wrap things up rather than pay to take courses at GW, however good they may be.

So because of my concern about using too much leave, and because GW was concerned that the course I was going to take might be too similar to another I’ve already taken, I found an alternative, a nice course called “Cross-cultural/International Curricula” that, while occurring in a classroom rather than online, is still also an extremely good match for my interests. I sent the syllabus to my faculty advisor at GW, Ryan Watkins, and his response in part was:

Given the situation this sounds like a fine choice to me… it does have a nice match with your long-term interests. My only disappointment with the syllabus is that it will be a campus-based course. Can you really learn in that archaic format? Do they have to check your ID to make sure that it is really you coming to class? Can people really learn with out continuous access to the Web? Hahahahaaaa

It’s certainly nice to see butt-in-seat learning get some of the same undeserved criticism that distance learning gets for a change! Of course, at the same time, I’m also glad Ryan approved the course, you know, despite his reservations.

Go Tukkies!

I finally had the chance to speak live (albeit only by phone) with Dr. Johannes Cronje, the fine gentleman I’ve been referring to as a prospective doctoral supervisor at the University of Pretoria. After that great, positive conversation, I’m willing to commit: I’ll be doing my PhD through the University of Pretoria.

My reasons include:

  1. I like my supervisor, and think we’ll get on well. He’s interested in my topic, open educational resources, and we seem to share a dismissive attitude toward bureaucracy. Critically, he also has a great deal of experience supervising doctoral students, including externally. (I have the feeling he’s fun at parties, too.)
  2. It’s not on the North American model, so I don’t need to do any coursework, other than to gain specific knowlege. I may take a course in Statistics to bone up on quantitative research methods, but I can do that for free at Marymount and that’s fine with Johannes.
  3. I can write a series of articles rather than a monograph. This interests me because I’m interested in several different aspects relating to OERs, so once I have a lit review done I’ll want to go in a few directions, but doing so at article length rather than a monolithic monograph is better suited for my temperament. This is also good in that by the time I’m done I’ll have at least five publishable scholarly articles.
  4. Pretoria’s on the list of the top 500 universities in the world as ranked by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It was in the 401-500 list, which it shares with such institutions as Boston College, Drexel University, and the College of William and Mary.
  5. It’s a South African institution, which means it has the developing world perspective I want, but without the lack of resources that usually accompanies it. And since South Africa’s a Commonwealth country, a degree from Pretoria ought to be locally well received when Adella and I eventually return to the West Indies.
  6. The cost is one tenth what an American school would be. That’s not to say that’s how one should choose one’s alma mater, but saying that saving a truckload of money didn’t interest me wouldn’t pass anyone’s straight face test.
  7. I won’t have to go to South Africa to do this. However, I’ll want to visit, should circumstances permit, say for defenses, even if they could be done by videoconferencing. And there’s graduation. I haven’t gone to one yet, but for the PhD, that seems worth it.

So that’s where I am. I’ll apply for provisional acceptance now, and start doing my literature review while finishing my courses at GW, then hopefully in January I’ll be registered there. Go Tukkies!

The Waiting Game

One of the problems with doing a research-based program mostly by email correspondence is that one is limited by the other person’s rate of response. For example, I sent my prospective doctoral advisor an email regarding the possibility of meeting him when he comes to Atlanta next month, but have not heard back after almost a week.

I suppose emails get lost, and people are busy and respond when they can. And I realize I’m only a prospective student. But I’m reminded of a friend’s experience trying to do a PhD through South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, in which after almost a year of correspondence, suddenly there was nothing but silence from his advisor. I suppose this is a somewhat scary way of doing it.

At least in the meantime I’ve found even more to like about the University of Pretoria. It turns out that one of the two well known global rankings of universities, the one from the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, lists it among those that are 401-500 on the list. It being considered among the top 500 universities in the world is not too shabby. There are only three others in South Africa that made the top 500: Witwatersrand, Cape Town, and KwaZulu-Natal.

Anyway, back to waiting. I remind myself that it’s not like Johannes owes me a quick reply or that when I sent was particularly time sensitive. I suppose it’s just that I’m just excited to move forward.

And Then There’s Doctoral Work

I said yesterday that not everything was bad for my grad school endeavors in the last few months. The good thing that may be happening is that I’ve corresponded with a potential doctoral research advisor.

See, I knew way back when I was going back to finish my Bachelor’s that I was starting a long road that would culminate with a PhD. I know that may make it seem like I’m a glutton for punishment, or that I’m taking going back to school to an unreasonable extreme, but my goal is to be able to start my own institution, or at least to be able to consult on distance learning, and that pretty much means a PhD is a requirement.

The next question was where. Doing my Master’s through George Washington University was an easy choice, as it had an unbeatable combination of ideal subject matter, high prestige, and low cost. There was no obvious doctoral program, though. At some point in the last two years I’ve considered all of the following:

  • The insanely expensive Executive Doctor of Education in Higher Ed Management at the University of Pennsylvania. Sure there’s a $100,000 price tag, but it’s an Ivy League school and it’s ranked seventh among U.S. graduate schools of education. Moreover, the entire program can be completed start to finish in two years — including dissertation. Ultimately I succumbed to sticker shock. Some people may have their employers helping them pay for that program. I would not.
  • Staying on and getting an EdD through George Washington. The thing is that the tuition rate for that program would be a lot higher than what I’m paying for my Master’s there, and my total would ultimately be something like fifty grand. That’s still a lot of debt to incur, especially with four kids who themselves will be starting college in just eight years.
  • The local state school, George Mason University, has a PhD in International Education. Total debt incurred on this one would be about twenty to twenty-five grand, still a lot, but less obscene than some other options.

One major problem with all of these is that they’d require me to darken the door of a classroom again. Sure, I’m burned out for now, but I’m mostly tired of coursework that desn’t pertain to my interests. Besides, I like distance learning and don’t really want to go back to the hassle of parking in remote lots and running through the rain to try not to be late for class. Unfortunately, in the U.S. that doesn’t leave a lot of good options. All of the American institutions I could find that had PhD programs in Education by distance learning were (1) the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which is inexpensive and well regarded, but has little track record with my particular research interests; (2) Fielding Graduate University, which is expensive and also has little track record with my particular research interests; (3) evangelical schools like Liberty University (Jerry Falwell is not my cup of tea); or (4) poorly regarded for-profit institutions that I wouldn’t want my CV to touch with a bargepole.

Fortunately, unlike many Americans, I’m aware that the world doesn’t stop at the border. Because of my inclination toward seeing what foreign systems have to offer, I found that there are a number of universities in South Africa that are ridiculously inexpensive because of the rand being so devalued even compared with the U.S. dollar, yet are well regarded internationally. Better yet, having come from the European model, doctoral programs consist of the dissertation only, and do not involve all the coursework that is attendant with American programs. Given that my research interest involves developing world issues, I also appreciated the potential usefulness of studying through a university that, while having developed world standards and resources, is itself in a developing country. I also found that there were more people interesting in Open Educational Resources internationally than were in the U.S.

I kept South Africa options in the back of my mind as I went through all the local options, but when nothing American seemed right, I started shaking my tree to see if any good contacts in South African academia would fall out. And as of recently, I’ve been corresponding with an interesting Education faculty member at the University of Pretoria, and so far I feel strongly that this is the right path for me. It’s not the lower cost, although I’ll admit that’s not exactly a drawback. It just seems like a better process, and a way of moving forward that’s more in tune with my long-term interests.

Anyway, I may be meeting him in late February or early March, the next time he’ll be in the U.S. I suppose we’ll see.

The Story Thus Far: Grad School

So the last few months have been pretty tempestuous for my academic career, although not all bad.

First, some background. In 2004 I decided that since I was working in a university setting, and planned to do so for the foreseeable future, it was time for me to go back to school to finish my Bachelor’s, and then go on for graduate study. In addition, I’d long had the back burner idea of starting an online university, and realized that it would be completely impossible to move forward on something like that without academic credibility.

I had a little bit of credit from each of a pretty large number of places, as I had often taken a few courses here and there at whatever schools were convenient. I found out about a Connecticut state school called Charter Oak State College, which would allow me to transfer in all of my credit, as well as a Microsoft certification I’d picked up along the way, and would let me finish most of the rest through CLEP tests. By the middle of 2005 I had done this and had finally knocked that out of the way. I’d settled on a Master’s program by then, the Master’s in Educational Technology Leadership at George Washington University in D.C. GW is ranked in the top 25 nationwide for graduate schools of education, and the program was a steal at $12,000 total tuition.

I’d chosen early on to take an unusually fast clip, taking three courses at a time while still working full time. This was difficult, but meant I would finish in four semesters rather than six. Especially working in a university environment, I felt far behind my colleagues, and wanted to catch up as quickly as possible. I worked hard, and after three semesters I had a GPA of 3.77 and felt I was in the home stretch.

I was wrong.

In what was supposed to be my final semester, Fall 2006, I started off with a number of drawbacks I hadn’t faced before. Attrition on my team at the university where I was working meant I had a lot less time in the day to devote to studying. The demands of my family were as strong as ever. I switched to Marymount near the end of the semester when I was trying to catch up. And worst of all, when I did find time to study I was constantly enervated by a terrible feeling of burnout.

The result of all this was that I managed to flunk not just one, but two of the three courses. Worse again, one of them was a required course that is only offered annually. So much for completing the Master’s in December 2006, now I was looking at December 2007.

So that’s where I am now. There’s nothing I can take in the Spring, although I do plan to take my comprehensive exams and get those out of the way. I’ll take my last elective in the Summer, and retake that required course in the Fall. Then I’ll be done with it. Well, until doctoral work, but that’s for another post….