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.

Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends….

I’ve been a little nervous about sharing this, because I know I’ve enrolled in quite a few doctoral programs in the past only to decide they weren’t right for me, or, more recently, that I just wasn’t at the right time of life to get through such a program.

However, I’ve always kept my eyes open for an ideal doctoral program in educational leadership or educational technology, one that had very low tuition rates, very liberal transfer credit allowances, and that seemed to have its act together organizationally.

I decided that school is the University of the Cumberlands, and I’ve enrolled in their doctoral program in Educational Leadership. I applied somewhat on a lark — actually, they sucked me in by responding to my filling out a web form that I meant only as an inquiry by thanking me for having filled out an application and saying all I needed to do was submit the materials to accompany it, e.g., recommendation, transcripts, test score, and essay. Since they did such a great job making it sound like I was already in progress, I found myself going ahead and submitting everything else. Very smooth, UC.

Now, that alone wouldn’t have been enough to get me to enroll, but they did a number of other things right. Their admissions person was helpful and informative but never pushy. She offered to let me submit additional references in lieu of a test score, but since they accepted the Miller Analogies Test, which takes like an hour, I just went and took the test. They went out of their way to accept all my previous doctoral work rather than look for ways to reject it like some schools, and as a result I got the maximum of 18 semester-hours of transfer. Since the whole program is 60 semester-hours, that means I walked in being 30% done.

Then there’s the money. At $375 each, my 42 remaining semester-hours will cost a total of $15,750. And those courses can be taken one at a time, six terms per year, which is the sort of scheduling I prefer.

I’m a few weeks into the first course now, and the instructor has presented the material in an engaging manner, and she’s flexible about when assignments are submitted. There’s a weekly synchronous component, but so far it’s been about an hour each week, and it’s actually been useful and fun to participate. It’s decent material, but the workload is entirely manageable and the expectations are reasonable. I also appreciate they talk about the dissertation from the from course, and that their completion rate is very high — unlike some schools, they actually want people to finish.

It’s also nice to do this sort of thing on the buddy system, and my friend and my fellow Virginian Matt Brent has also signed up for the same program, although we’re in different classes this term.

Anyway, that’s what’s up.

Fourth Time’s The Charm?

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

Northeastern University College of Professional Studies logo
I wasn’t going to do this for a really long time. When I chose a Bachelor’s degree program, it was clear which one was the right one. I signed up at Charter Oak State College, finished it, and was done. Similarly, I had no problem selecting the right Master’s degree program. The program at George Washington University was the right one at the right price, and once I enrolled I never doubted that I would finish it, even when things got tough.

Doctoral study has been different. I’ve made three different attempts to scale this particular mountain, and in each case I haven’t reached the summit. I enrolled in the Doctor of Health Education program through A.T. Still University but lost interest in it after a few terms when it became clear it wasn’t a good enough fit for my interests. I enrolled in the PhD in Economics program at Swiss Management Center, only to look at the first course and realize that four years of hard core economics was similarly not sustainably interesting to me. More recently, I applied to a set of universities here in the States for programs in Higher Education, and enrolled at the University of Memphis. Well, I ended up concluding that that one wasn’t my doctoral home either, and have withdrawn.

It’s not that Memphis was bad, because much of it was good. I liked my advisor, and one of my courses was excellent. It’s true that my statistics course was being taught by someone with zero aptitude for or interest in teaching, but I was still on track to get an A in it when I withdrew, so that wasn’t really it either. I just didn’t love it. Maybe this is absurdly idealistic of me, but I want to love it. Or at the very least, I want that same “this is it!” feeling that I got from previous schools where I’ve finished what I started.

So now what? Interestingly, shortly after I’d reached this conclusion I got an acceptance letter in the mail from Northeastern University in Boston. I’d applied to them at the same time as Memphis and Liberty, but their admissions cycle was so much longer than the others that I hadn’t heard back until about six months after I’d submitted everything. I realized that one of the issues I’d been having was with enrolling in programs that were “close enough”, but the program at Northeastern is specifically in International Higher Education, which is my exact primary area of interest. So I decided to take one more chance, and respond affirmatively to them.

I guess there’s no such saying as “fourth time’s the charm”. I hadn’t planned to blog about this until I was a few terms into things just so I’d be sure that I wasn’t going to withdraw from yet another program. But too many people know at this point for me to pretend it’s not increasingly common knowledge, so rather than say nothing I’ll go ahead and occasionally relay my experience with this. I’m going to do a residency during my very first term, which will be different from previous programs, and I like to think that it will help that the “connection” feeling that so far has eluded me in doctoral study.

So that’s what’s happening. And if this confirms your suspicions about my lack of sense, fair enough.

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.

Online Student Services

I posted this in my class discussion about online student services, and thought it might be of at least marginal general interest, especially since it includes a follow up to my previous post about UM’s support of students who use open source technologies.

What online student service do you believe to be of greatest value to all stakeholders? Why?

Asking which student service is the greatest value seems like asking which puzzle piece is the most important. Some of the pieces might be bigger than others, and some might be in the middle of things while others are out there on the edge, but you can’t complete the picture without every single one. Especially considering that in this era of shortfalls and budget cuts nothing superfluous can survive, if there were a student service that were unnecessary I think we’d see it start to disappear from what colleges and universities offer their students.

That said, and especially given that money makes the world go around, I think I’ll argue that financial aid is the greatest value to all stakeholders. Without it, many if not most students wouldn’t be able to attend in the first place, obviating the need for any others. And without those incoming funds, many institutions would soon have to close their doors.

What student service(s) has gone online that shouldn’t have? Why?

I think [a classmate’s] example of remedial education shows that there are some student services that either shouldn’t go online, or at least should only go online in a careful way. Remedial education is something where immediate back-and-forth conversations between student and instructor can be vitally important for understanding. That doesn’t mean that they can’t go online altogether, however. Such services can be provided in a synchronous format, such as Skype, WebEx, or a similar service, rather than asynchronously through a discussion board.

Tutoring is another example, and for the same reason. Students requiring tutoring may be less far behind than those at the remedial level, but the principle of timely access to answers is the same. If this service is offered online, it should be offered synchronously, even if it’s also offered asynchronously as well.

What student services are not online? Explain why they may never go online.

There are no student services that are not online. There are distance learning institutions that offer a comparable experience to that of a traditional campus, including both academic and non-academic components.

The one exception is wellness services. And to some extent even this is possible to do remotely, as the emerging practice of telemedicine shows. But for the most part distance learning institutions leave this one be, especially as much of the motivation for offering wellness services on traditional campuses is to prevent the spread of maaldies among the university community, which isn’t a danger with online learning.

Using an example of a poorly executed online student service, what design factors were not taken into consideration during implementation?

I have a personal story of a poorly executed online student service, here at UM. I’m also taking Statistics I this term, and in this course the use of a remotely hosted application is required. At one point I was having trouble getting this application to save a file to my local machine, something it had done before successfully. It was clear to me that there was some sort of issue on the remote end, and that my own machine was configured properly. I called technical support, and spoke with someone who was polite, but whose level of technical competence was completely insufficient to understand my problem. I knew she was having trouble understanding me, but my heart really sank when ten minutes into our conversation she asked, “Wait, what application is this again?”

Eventually she decided that the reason that I was having trouble is that my local machine runs Linux rather than Windows or Mac OSX. I knew without doubt that this was not the problem, but clearly there was no better help to be had from her, and she did at least offer to open a ticket, so I gave up and let her. It turned out that I was right, in that when I tried to do the same thing again I was successful — UM’s turtle-slow network was finally no longer timing out. As for technical support, I heard nothing more from them for eight days, until I finally received an email letting me know that they were closing my ticket because they don’t support Linux.

Design factors missing from this experience include:

  • The service was not only not designed from my point of view, but there was no knowledge of veteran staff tempering anything.
  • There was no focus on new technologies, indeed technical support gave up as soon as they decided that a new technology was involved with the situation, even though it wasn’t.
  • There was no delivery of just-in-time service. Even the lowest priority ticket should be worked before eight days have passed.

To be fair, I should add that this was my second experience with UM technical support, and the first experience was completely different. In that instance, I was trying to get connected to the remote application in the first place. That was a Linux-related issue, yet the technician took the time to find out the information I needed and provided it anyway.

So perhaps the poor execution of this online student service isn’t so much design as it is execution, and that with better consistency it would be a well run service for those of us who rely on doing things online.

Free Software At The U. of Memphis

“Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free.” — Linus Torvalds

I’m a big fan of free software. I had been running Windows and DOS before it all the way back to the early ’90s, but I always had an interest in free software and about two years ago I finally made the switch to Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been very happy with it, as it does everything I need, and since it’s easier for me to be the system administration for the family if we’re all on the same system, I went further and bought Adella a laptop with Ubuntu Linux, and even gave my mom’s old PC a new lease on life by replacing her crawlingly slow Windows XP installation with Ubuntu Linux.

It’s come a long way since I first toyed around with it in 2000, but because Linux still has such a small share of the market, occasionally I run into something I want to do where there’s no Linux support. When I would call my Internet service provider, for example, I quickly learned never to tell them I was a Linux user because their brains would turn to goo and they would stammer that they wouldn’t be able to help me. Similarly, when I worked for Marymount the helpdesk wasn’t in a position to offer support for Linux, almost all the students ran Windows or Mac, and that was all they could really handle.

I saw that the introductory assignment for my Statistics course was to get set up using a remote client to access a terminal server that had PASW, an expensive commercial Statistics software package, and that there were two sets of directions — Windows and Mac. “Uh oh,” I thought, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of that bit in “King of the Hill”, where… well, see for yourself:

So I contacted the University of Memphis helpdesk, just to see whether they could offer directions for a Linux user like me. I had really low expectations, but I was pleasantly astonished when they responded immediately with useful instructions. After a few iterations with them, I was connected properly and using the remote application. University of Memphis helpdesk for the win!

At the same time, using an application on their server over my not-so-great connection was pretty slow. The thing is, the reason they provide this convoluted means of accessing the application isn’t that it won’t run on people’s computers at home. The reason people have to jump through all those hoops is that licenses for this software are incredibly expensive. But free software to the rescue, because there’s a free software alternative called PSPP that is designed to replace it costlessly. I imported the data set in both places and it looked the same and gave me the same results, so I emailed my instructor asking whether he minded if I use PSPP instead. Because the directions on getting set up with PASW were so particular, I was concerned that he might insist I use it. But he asked which particular package I’d like to use and he sounds amenable to it. So that’s pretty impressive as well.

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!

It’s Official: I’m Going With Memphis

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” — Henry David Thoreau

sign saying Memphis

So I knew I was close to a decision on what to do for doctoral study (the third go around, that is), and after thinking carefully about whether I should wait a whole extra term just to hear back from Northeastern I’ve decided it’s not necessary. It’s official: I’m feeling really comfortable with the University of Memphis, and I’m enrolling in their Doctor of Education program in Higher Education.

It’s funny, because I was still telling myself that I was still mulling it over, yet already doing things like signing up for my email address, filling out a FAFSA and having the results sent only to Memphis, and even doing the financial aid entry counseling and master promissory note and everything. I came to realize that while I was a little nervous to admit it to myself, the decision had already been made.

I know I’ve already written at length about the reasons I was considering each course of action, so I won’t belabor them again. I just wanted to publicly mark it as a decision that’s completely made. So… go Tigers!

Memphis Beckons?

“All our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last.” — Marcel Proust

A tiger's face

Right now I have a decision to make, and I have very little time left to make it. I’ve applied to three schools: Liberty University, the University of Memphis, and Northeastern University. I’ve heard back positively from Liberty University and the University of Memphis, but not at all from Northeastern. The first decision was pretty easy, in that I know I would greatly prefer to attend the University of Memphis than Liberty University. But Memphis expects me to start this coming term, which is less than a month from now, and I have yet to hear back from Northeastern, and may not until the coming term at Memphis has already started.

So at this point I must do one of two things. I can either (1) start at Memphis this coming term, which would essentially mean I’ve made the decision permanently, since I’m not going to switch after that, or (2) I can try to defer Memphis for a term, see what Northeastern has to say, then decide between them.

The underlying question is whether I prefer one of these schools to the other. If I prefer Memphis, or I have no preference, I should start now with them. Only if I prefer Northeastern should I wait to see whether they accept me to start in July. The thing is, when I started out with all of these applications a few months ago, I thought I would prefer Northeastern to Memphis. But Memphis has really grown on me, for a few reasons. Their program is through an actual school of education, with a ranking and everything. (It’s a middle tier ranking, sure, but still a serviceable one.) They accepted only about half a dozen students into this program this term, which means it’s not a factory cranking out doctoral students as I fear Northeastern may be (or at least becoming). Memphis’s school of education comes recommended by my friend Tony Piña, and his opinion carries a lot of weight with me.

Interestingly, Liberty University keeps sending me email offering me inducements to enroll, like having some fees waived or a fleece jacket or a chance to win an iPad. They’re essentially saying in booming infomercial voice: “Act now and we’ll make the first payment for you!” Memphis, meanwhile, has been acting like no confirmation on my part is required. For example, they sent me information on how to get into my account in their online system, including my email address. And the department said they’re holding my place in the two courses for Spring term and asked me to let them know as soon as I get my student number so I can be properly registered for them. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Well shoot, of course you’re comin’ here!”

And by Christmas, I’ll have to decide whether they’re right. I hadn’t expected I wouldn’t wait to hear from Northeastern, but at this point, with how I feel, I think that may be exactly what happens.