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Macaulay Springboards: The Capstone as an Open Learning Eportfolio

a later version of this essay appears in Eportfolio as Curriculum, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, from Stylus Publishing.

Macaulay Springboards: The Capstone as an Open Learning Eportfolio

Joseph Ugoretz

Macaulay Honors College, CUNY



A department office at a large public university is often a busy place. When I was an undergraduate, long ago, that was certainly the case. There was a small room, though, through a frosted-glass door, attached to the department office at the university where I was a student, and that room was not busy at all. Nobody, it seemed, ever went in or out that frosted door. One day, while waiting for a signature on a form, I opened the door and looked in. The room was full of filing cabinets, tall, grey and solidly packed against the walls. Even peeking through the door, I could see dust on the tops of the cabinets. These were not cabinets for frequently-used files.

Closing the door, I asked the department secretary what those were. “The honors thesis files,” she said. “To graduate with honors, you have to write a thesis. When you turn it in, I file it in there.”

I was certainly not an honors student myself. I wasn’t going to write a thesis, turn it in, or have it filed anywhere. But I was struck by the dusty, secluded fate of those theses.

Later, as a graduate student, I would write a thesis. And a dissertation. I would serve as an advisor and committee member receiving and evaluating many of them. Later still, I would see the movement (in many institutions) from the strict definition of a thesis to the somewhat broader concept of a capstone.

It’s with that concept that I want to begin.

The Capstone Requirement

A capstone project is a project of significant reach and scope designed to bring together and demonstrate a student’s learning in a specific major or program. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities Brief Overview of High-Impact Educational Practices, “these culminating experiences require students nearing the end of their college years to create a project of some sort that integrates and applies what they’ve learned.” (https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips)

Generally speaking, a capstone, like a thesis, is supposed to culminate an educational experience and demonstrate that a student is now experienced and capable as a scholar and practitioner of the field in which she has been trained. The idea of the capstone is the idea of demonstrating and documenting and making clear that there is now a level of expertise and that there is a significant example of accomplishment that can be certified. Certification and exhibition are the keys to the capstone. Generally, these productions are judged, rated, accepted by some body of experts that rules them acceptable. A capstone is often supported by a course or group of courses, and may also include creative or artistic productions, but, more frequently than not, it is a long (usually, but not always, longer than the final assignment for a single course) formal paper. Often it takes the form of a “mini-dissertation,” complete with the sections that are often found in a dissertation or monograph produced by advanced scholars in the student’s chosen field.

My institution, Macaulay Honors College, is the honors college of the City University of New York. We have high-performing students across eight campuses, in over 300 different majors, united by a common identity as honors students, a common set of interdisciplinary seminars in critical thinking in the first two years, and a common set of rigorous academic requirements (spelled out in the student handbook at https://macaulay.cuny.edu/community/handbook/). One of those requirements, from the launch of the Honors College in 2001, has been the requirement to complete an honors thesis or capstone project. This is a common requirement in honors programs nationally; the National Collegiate Honors Council includes an honors thesis or capstone requirement as one of the “Basic Characteristics of a Fully Developed Honors College” (https://www.nchchonors.org/uploaded/NCHC_FILES/PDFs/NCHC_Basic_Characteristics-College_2017.pdf). At Macaulay, these projects were completed in the student’s own major or program on their own campus in most cases, and with the advisement of a faculty member from that department. The departments were responsible for assigning, reviewing and judging these projects.

Each year, advisors, campus directors, or the students themselves could nominate a thesis to be considered for the annual Thesis Award to be presented at commencement. These awards, in fact, were the only central review of the projects that took place, even though creating the projects was a central requirement. Almost every project nominated was, as should be expected from honors students, of high quality and broad scope, within a specific academic area. It was often difficult for the committee to select a winner, and the Thesis Award (later renamed the Capstone Award as that broader terminology became more current, but most awards were still given to students whose “capstone” was a thesis) was a pleasant surprise and a positive reinforcement for the students who received it.

Beginning in 2005, Macaulay Honors College also provided a course, a year-long (two-semester sequence) “thesis colloquium” as a purely optional or voluntary support mechanism for students who wanted extra structure and encouragement in completing their projects. This course accepted students from different majors or programs, as well as those who had interdisciplinary or hard-to-classify interests. It was a successful course and students who took the course had uniformly strong thesis projects at the end, as well as presentations at national and local undergraduate research conferences. Because it was optional and the students taking the course were self-selected, the numbers were always small—often only five or six students (out of a graduating class of approximately 500 in the honors college as a whole).

So this was the model at Macaulay—a not uncommon model for an honors college, or for many kinds of similar programs. Students were “required” (although the stringency of that requirement was somewhat inconsistent) to complete a project that was called (variously) a thesis or a capstone. The college (and the departments) provided varying levels of support and scaffolding for these projects, but for the most part, like a master’s thesis or a dissertation, they were independent projects, closely echoing the master’s thesis or dissertation but on a slightly smaller scale.

At the same time, we had introduced (beginning in 2008) our own eportfolio platform for all students. Eportfolios@Macaulay (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios), built in WordPress to allow maximum flexibility and individual control for students, was being used as a learning management system, as well as for group projects, individual student projects, student and faculty publications, class assignments, reflective travel journals, and a wide range of other purposes. The diversity and individuality of the eportfolios was appealing to students and the openness and flexibility of design and audience interaction was providing students with a strong motivation to do impressive work and spend time and energy on representing and reflecting on their learning.

As the then-Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning and Technology, I consulted with the instructor of the thesis colloquium course and showed her a few examples of the kinds of work students were doing with eportfolios. She was impressed by the students’ increased sense of ownership of their work, the integration of the diverse elements of their learning and the students’ participation in actively deciding what was most powerful and significant for inclusion in their eportfolios. She agreed to make a small preliminary adjustment to the thesis colloquium course. As an addition to the assignments and activities of the course, all of which led to the traditional thesis paper, we asked each of the students to create an eportfolio as a representation of the thesis project.

There was still a lengthy, well-researched written paper as a final outcome or production of the class, but some students (this started out as a non-required option) also elected to use an eportfolio to do something more than simply posting the paper online. They included early drafts, initial research directions that weren’t ultimately followed, and personal reflections. The first students to take this direction, in the spring of 2011, were those with interests that were more interdisciplinary, more connected to contemporary culture, and (not surprisingly) students who were more fluent and capable with digital tools.

And in the first projects that took this direction, we started to see a kind of richness, a kind of connection to the material, and a kind of life beyond the requirement, beyond the bachelor’s degree, and beyond the dusty secluded fate of the thesis room’s filing cabinets.

An early and successful example is “Ending Dualism at Hogwarts” (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/hpapocalypse/ ). There are several implications of this project that we noticed as the student was developing it and that we wanted to explore further. First, the student was able, through the “about me” section, as well as the FAQ, to provide a context and a connection to her own interests—to what made the thesis project interesting and valuable to her, beyond the scope of a requirement or assignment. “Why Harry Potter? Wouldn’t a more serious thesis be a better way to spend your time and energy?” the student asks in her FAQ list. Her answer,

[the enormous popularity of these books] puts a lot of kids (and adults!) on the receiving end of a pretty explicit moral message about the importance of love, selflessness, tolerance and social justice. I don’t think it would be a waste of time to study how Rowling was able to achieve that kind of success. It would certainly be of interest to future authors and anyone else who also wants to promote those values in a way people can understand and enjoy. As someone who falls into that latter group, I think this project is just about as serious as it gets.

links her own project to a wider universe of discourse, as well as to her own identity and personality.

Also, in making design decisions, in thinking about how to present and organize her eportfolio site, she was able to think about categories and taxonomies for her work (when is a draft a draft? What makes a revision into a separate direction?). And because the site lives on the open web, she could make decisions about licensing (she chose a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial license) and sharing. Not only could she decide that her work (or portions of her work that she selected) could move beyond the secluded file cabinet, but she could actually invite and encourage further interaction beyond the moment of “completion” of the project and the degree. (And in fact, this student does still link to the site on her LinkedIn profile as of this writing, more than six years after she graduated, now that she is fully established in a post-graduate career).

As an English teacher and student of literature, I like to think through terms and terminology, and dig into metaphors. Looking at “Ending Dualism at Hogwarts” and other projects from our early efforts to use eportfolios as part of a capstone experience, I started to think further about the term “capstone.” A capstone is a crowning accomplishment, a moment of completion.

It’s also, as an object, outside of any metaphorical meaning, in the most literal sense, a stone. This idea was somewhat troubling.

We didn’t (and don’t) want the final project of a student’s undergraduate degree to be something heavy and limiting. A “stone” that is a “cap” implies an end to further exploration, a finished structure that can’t be altered, a maximum high point that can’t be surpassed. A capstone is something that will sit in one place, immovable and unexamined. But that was not the kind of product that we wanted these projects to lead to, and it was not the kind of experience that we wanted for our students as they finished their undergraduate degrees.

The Springboard Concept

It was this thinking that led to the idea of the “springboard” course and the “springboard” project. In using the term “springboard,” I was thinking of the typical understanding of the term–a diving board at a swimming pool–but I was also drawing on some of my own long-past circus experience and imagining an act that we called the springboard, but that I’ve since learned is usually called the Russian Bar (http://www.fedec.eu/en/articles/416-russian-bar) . The Russian Bar is held on the shoulders of two strong performers while a lighter agile performer (the “flyer”) does jumps, twirls and stunts using the launching impetus gained from the flexibility of the bar and the strength of the holders. I liked the idea of the project as a launching pad, an impulse to further growth and research and exploration, but more than that as a type of performance that was practiced but also public, meant to be shared and received by an audience, and actually even produced as a community effort. The student creating a springboard project, like the flyer on the Russian Bar, launches higher because she’s working from a flexible base and because there are others helping and pushing and working in concert. The individual performance is not completely or solely an individual effort based on individual strength. The concept emphasizes the reality (one of our desired outcomes) that every individual project is also collective. Without the participation of others, every project is incomplete and doesn’t go as far as it needs to.

So with this metaphor in mind, with this new approach developed, we recruited students for a new version of what used to be our “thesis colloquium.” This course used the eportfolio as a central organizing element of the curriculum so that students from diverse academic interests and with diverse types of projects could work together to produce the products, the springboard projects, that would be represented in the eportfolio projects that would be (along with the written thesis project that they still produced) the final outcome of the course. Students in the course would develop eportfolios as part of the process of taking the course, and a final eportfolio (sometimes, but not always, the same site) would be the final presentation and product, in addition to whatever written thesis or creative work their academic program required. This was an additional requirement in a course that already had a heavy workload, but by integrating the springboard project (the eportfolio) into the thesis colloquium, the additional requirement could work as a support system for the existing requirements. Working on the springboard helped the work on the thesis, and the thesis helped the work on the springboard.

We launched the course with a website (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/springboard/) , developing the idea and proposing it to interested students, in the spring of 2013, for students who would be able to begin the course in the fall of 2013 to graduate with completed projects in the spring of 2014. On the site, and in presentations for students to explain the idea, we started with a set of foundational principles:

The springboard project:

  1. Builds on a student’s earlier work and displays and reflects that work.

  2. Proposes new directions, asks unanswered questions, poses unresolved dilemmas. In response to these challenges, the Springboard Project proposes specific research and learning pathways, providing a plan with clear goals and defined next steps

  3. Includes personal reflection, uniting the affective and the cognitive elements of research.

  4. Includes multimedia facets, utilizing appropriate tools and presentation techniques to present extra-textual resources.

  5. Is presented to, and open to the interaction of, a wide public audience. It is a multidirectional communication.

These have remained as the guiding principles or ground rules for the course as it has continued to be offered, although we have continued to modify and develop the practical expressions of these principles. Each of these principles feeds directly into eportfolio-connected activities within the course curriculum, and each draws from the particular affordances of eportfolio pedagogy.

The Springboard Course

The springboard course, as the first principle states, is designed to be integrative, to pull together the disparate pieces of a student’s educational career (during college and before. And after). One way to help students make these connections, we have found, is to ask them to develop and post online digital, multimedia, educational timelines and to post those to their eportfolios. These digital timelines allow students to map out the course of their education from their earliest days (in elementary school and before) to the present and projecting into the future. Because the timelines are digital, students are able to include illustrative images, videos, links to websites and

other media to represent each of the separate moments or dates on the timeline—moments or dates that the students designated as significant in their educations—and to provide a sense of movement and progress that a static text-based timeline can’t easily communicate (we generally have students use the open-source TimelineJS tool for this). In most cases these separate dates or moments on the timelines were also developed and described in posts on the eportfolios. By building this assignment into the course curriculum and making the presentation of this wide-ranging timeline part of the presentation of the final project, we ask students to locate the final projects not only as culminations or final achievements of their education, but as connected pieces of the larger set of experiences. Students include classes and in-school activities and assignments in their timelines, but also life events and discoveries that are not connected directly to school (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/thevictoriaproject/timeline/ is one example. The student includes her daycare experience, various elementary and middle school teachers and projects that were memorable for her, college courses and study abroad trips, and more.

We also specifically ask students, in connecting their classwork and outside of classwork to these final projects, to look ahead, as well as behind. The eportfolios, by providing students a space to capture their research process and to reflect on it as it was ongoing, prompt a projection of their work into the future, beyond the confines of the undergraduate degree. Locating learning as a process that is ongoing and integrated helps students to see that they could plan out specific paths and directions (even when those were unclear at first…or even when they remained unclear) for uniting their interests and launching their learning into new areas and new interactions (“With my springboard project,” writes one student, “I sought to figure out what factors cause frustration in the math classroom, and then I looked at different techniques currently used by educators to reach ELL [English Language Learner] students. Hopefully, I can take these lessons with me, as I move forward with my goal of becoming a math teacher in the New York City public school classroom.” https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/mehnaj/springboard-project-improving-secondary-mathematics-instruction-for-english-language-learners/ ).

Similarly, we ask all the springboard students, no matter their field, to complete an assignment to create and post on the eportfolio a syllabus for a future class, that the student would teach, on the subject of her project. Even students who don’t have majors or career goals in education have years of experience with classes and syllabi (from the student side) and very strong opinions about what makes an effective or ineffective syllabus. This assignment gives students the opportunity to conceive of their education as something that gives them the role of expert, of sharer of expertise. Making their syllabi public on the eportfolio gives them a concrete reality and commitment to communicating their expertise and participating in the further development of their field.


One of the things that so often gets lost in the thesis or capstone project is, as our third principle tries to address, the affective component that is so critical to personal connection with the work. Advanced scholars know that the joy of research is what balances the frustration. The suspense and inspiration balance the tedium and the concentration. The eportfolio model, with reflection central and with a space (able to be prominently featured) for journaling the process as well as the product, allowed our springboard students to include, rather than denying, the different emotional responses they were having to the work. The students keep research journals right in their eportfolios, and that section can enliven the final product while still allowing the students to have and honor the emotional component as well as connecting it to the intellectual component (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/monsters/2016/11/08/salem-reflections/) “At some point in my research, I knew I would have to visit Salem,” begins one such journal from a student researching monsters in popular culture. Her journal entry details not just her research, but the entire process of dealing with an unfamiliar small town, problems with weather, businesses being closed and uncertain public transportation, and all the emotional effects of these obstacles.

When I could contact the family who tried to help me get out of Salem, I expressed my fears, uncertainties, gratitude, fatigue, and chill. I sent photos of how red my hands had become, jammed in the pockets of the winter jacket, and the inability to Facetime just covered the embarrassing tear-streaks over reddened cheeks as I tried to make my voice normal for them. I spoke more of the cold and the quick turn of the weather than the real life horror scenario I’d just run through.

And she connects her own experience to the subjects and her research,

My experience of uncertainty and fear was brief and largely psychologically built, but life in the colonies was filled with uncertainties and fears of that nature in day-to-day life. These could include insecurities about health of the self or young children, where mortality from sicknesses was much higher than today; insecurities about crops or catches leading to food insecurity or commercial insecurity; insecurities about the weather impacting home and property; insecurities about wild animals and other dangers of the wilderness surrounding them; and even insecurities in soulcraft, where Satan was real, his effects visible, devils prominent, and salvation uncertain and subject to rescindment.

In addition, because the eportfolio captures all the different steps of the process, students are able to evaluate for themselves what kinds of techniques (outlining, annotating, mind-mapping, interviewing, fieldwork, lab experimentation, etc.) are most effective for their own particular learning styles and topics. All these techniques and the students’ self-evaluations of them become pieces of the larger picture that the project presents—it’s not just about the product, but the entire process.

Eportfolios, unlike traditional written papers, provide the unique opportunity for the inclusion of multimedia materials. Interactive digital timelines are one such element, as discussed above. Beyond timelines, students include video, maps, drawings and photography, and audio files, as appropriate and connected to their projects. This has proven especially helpful for students who are using the springboard option to pursue a more interdisciplinary approach than their major field of study would normally include. When a student’s academic interests include both biology and art, for example, and she wants her research and project to include the connections she sees in these two areas, an eportfolio is often the best space to make those connections. Because an eportfolio can take a range of different designs and make connections via hyperlink, allowing the connections to be multiple, multi-directional and digressive when necessary, a student can create a design that is actually about (for example) medical illustration as a unified, complete and integrated interest, rather than segregating her skills in only lab research or only charcoal drawing. She doesn’t need to ignore or short-change any of her interests or diminish the connections between and among them. (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/wormsandlearning/)

The fifth principle of the springboard course and project is one that is uniquely fulfilled by the eportfolio, and one that is a direct response to the problem of the dusty filing cabinets in the thesis room with which I began this essay. Macaulay’s eportfolio platform, based in WordPress, provides a range of options for publication and sharing. Students themselves can decide whether to make their final eportfolios public, public only to the Macaulay community, password-protected (so that only individuals to whom they give explicit access can see it), or private. And they can make these decisions in different ways at different times, changing the settings themselves, as they develop the eportfolios. They can also choose to have only certain parts or sections of the eportfolio public, or partially public, at certain times. It’s not an all-or-nothing decision. This gives students the freedom to take risks and explore difficult material, but also to have sharing and taking part in a wider intellectual community as a sanctioned goal.

WordPress is (if the student sets the options to allow this) a platform that is extremely well optimized for search engine discovery. So students’ work, rather than sitting isolated and abandoned, is discoverable widely and by the entire range of learners who might be interested in their topics (to the extent that students share their work). And those external learners, that wider community, have (again, with the student’s control and moderation) the potential to add comments and further the discussion. This openness to participation from an audience is a key feature of the eportfolio. Some students, in fact, in a move that we encourage when appropriate, even actively promote and invite participation from their audiences, through FAQ’s, posting and linking to their eportfolios on social media, or even opening a “share your story” page right on the springboard eportfolio site. (https://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/storytelling/share/). In some ways this openness to external participation calls into question the traditional definition of an eportfolio. If an eportfolio includes the work of others, rather than just the student herself, is that still an eportfolio? Is it still the work of that student? These are open questions, not just about eportfolios as a genre, but about the overall nature of scholarly inquiry. They are questions that we want students to see as live issues, as philosophical positions on which they can have a stance and to which they can contribute. In making decisions about what kind of sharing what kind of participation they want to offer to readers, even into the future, students are pushed to actively consider and debate, rather than just passively receive, conclusions about research and scholarship that will continue to influence their learning far beyond college.

Not so directly connected to the eportfolio element of this course’s curriculum, but nonetheless critical to our efforts to have students open their projects to a wider audience, has been our commitment to having students present their work in this class publicly at national conferences (such as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and others). Traveling together as a class, having the experience of acting as members of an academic community and sharing their research with other scholars across disciplines provides the students with a perspective on their work and its place in the intellectual landscape they are entering.

Conclusions and Looking Forward

As the springboard class and its curriculum has developed over the past few years, moving beyond the pilot initiative, we have noticed some surprises. Perhaps connected to the way we originally proposed and presented the course, we have encountered larger numbers of students who have interdisciplinary or otherwise unusual ideas for topics. A major challenge for the course and the students has been pushing the students to narrow and focus these topics. The freedom that the eportfolio curriculum offers, the inclusiveness of digressions and of a range of only minimally connected material, has sometimes been more of an obstacle than a benefit. Yet at the same time, the eportfolio’s emphasis on process and reflection has allowed the course instructors to point clearly and concretely to when these obstacles were arising, and for the students to take the advice (after narrating and processing it in the eportfolio’s research journal) to narrow and specify when necessary (while preserving the digressions and “unrelated” pathways as directions to be pursued in the future).

Another challenge for the course instructors has been that students sometimes undertake projects that have subjects well outside the instructor’s own area of expertise. The math major in a springboard class taught by a historian, or the comparative literature major in the course taught by an ecologist, have challenges that are not there for a more typical thesis project supervised by a professor in that particular field. We work with this challenge by asking for some consulting from colleagues when necessary, but also because one emphasis of the course and the project is in communicating to a wide range of audiences. A student writing a math thesis may have a thesis (that will be included in the eportfolio) that will not be readily understood by a non-mathematician. But the research process, the journaling and the reflection, as well as the student’s own summaries and proposals about the project are readable and understandable (and directed towards) by a wider range of audiences, who can then decide whether or not to read the thesis itself and will certainly have the context required to understand that thesis more fully, even if they are themselves mathematicians.

We also have found (what should not have been surprising) that this curriculum is not a panacea. The eportfolio-centered curriculum, the collaborative support and scaffolding of assignments, the shared commitment to presentation and personal engagement and integration—all of these are helpful for students with a wide range of abilities and levels of commitment to the project. The factors that make this class different tend to have a positive effect on even the weakest students, even those most distracted by life events and stressors. But the class and the project do still require intellectual ability, motivation and commitment. Even in a self-selected group of students, even in a course pilot that is optional and open, we still do not always see that.

Looking to the future, we hope to make this model more prominent, to convert a majority of our current thesis or capstone projects to springboard classes. Already in the few years since our first pilot, we have transferred the instruction of the course to several different professors, all of whom have added their own elements and refined the approach. Each year, the number of students volunteering for this option has grown. There are requirements to successfully implement this type of curriculum. The instructor has to have an interdisciplinary bent (in the 2017-2018 academic year we are experimenting with a team-teaching approach with two instructors and two linked sections of the course) and be willing to work closely with a group of students with varying interests over a full year. The class size has to be small (the amount of close participation in student work through many stages is otherwise too onerous). And the instructor has to be extremely adept in the eportfolio platform as well as the other digital and multimedia tools that the students will want to explore and utilize. At Macaulay, we assign an Instructional Technology Fellow (a doctoral student with both teaching experience and digital technology expertise) to assist in the course, helping students (and the professor, no matter how adept) to use the most current tools for research, communication and presentation, and to incorporate these into the eportfolio.

The eportfolio-centered curriculum of the Macaulay Springboards is developing, for our students, as a productive and powerful alternative to the dusty seclusion of the filing cabinets of the thesis rooms. Students in this program are able to complete projects, to develop eportfolios, that situate their learning in their larger life narratives, that integrate their studies across disciplines and fields, and that give them a place in the wider scholarly and intellectual communities across academia and the digitally-connected world.


Women in STEM

Last week I was at the 2016 Summit of the National Center for Women and Information Technology.  It was an interesting conference in several ways (the large, mostly empty, slightly creepy desert hotel constantly evoked the warm smell of colitas), but mostly because of the very powerful keynote by Melissa Harris Perry.

She began by giving us a brief introduction to intersectionality and laying out the issue (a familiar one to this audience) of women’s underrepresentation in STEM, with some compelling (frightening) specifics.

For example, earlier this year, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein was awarded a PhD in theoretical physics at MIT.  Nothing really surprising or unusual about that (although good news for Dr. Prescod-Weinstein), until you realize that Dr. Prescod-Weinstein is not just an African-American woman, she is one of only 83 African-American women to receive a PhD in physics or a physics-related field.  83.  Not 83 in the past year, or 83 at MIT, or 83 with hyphenated last names.  83 African-American women with PhD’s in physics EVER.  In all of American history.

Then Dr. Perry showed us this graph (which I’d seen before, but which shocks every time) from the AAC&U study in 2010. (source)


Those lines show the numbers of degrees and faculty ranks for women of color in various fields.  In physics, math, engineering and computer science, the numbers are low from the start.  But look how all the numbers dive off a cliff when you get to the rank of full professor.

So the problem is real (and she had plenty more examples, some personal).  And the audience knew it, and were more outraged still to hear all the examples and specifics.  And Dr. Perry was very good about explaining how very many of the attempts to solve this problem (computer engineer Barbies, coding boot camps, job “opportunities” that don’t address the culture of organizations, internships or training programs that never lead to actual decision-making roles), even when they’re well-intentioned, are doomed to go nowhere, because they don’t address the roots and real causes of the problem.  Which, of course, is deep, cultural, and complex.

But, to her great credit, Dr. Perry went even further than explaining the problem and critiquing unsuccessful solutions.  (I was at first worried that this was going to end up as one of those “it’s a bigger problem and therefore we have to just throw our hands up in the air” talks) She provided a list of real practical steps, with deep reach and broad foundations, that could actually, systemically, successfully, pave the way to creating and improving real opportunities for girls and women of all kinds to participate in real ways in the STEM careers and academic pursuits in which they are underrepresented.

Here are those steps, as I captured them.  Working from my notes, hastily scribbled, I am certainly missing and mis-paraphrasing some of what she said.  But I thought this was real enough and strong enough to document.

  1. Fight voter suppression.  This one clearly surprised the audience, as it seemed somewhat unrelated.  But Dr. Perry’s link of underrepresentation to questions of policy and power and funding (controlled by the people who are most affected) made perfect sense.
  2. Reproductive justice and real sex education.  Women can’t easily make the whole ranges of choices about their careers and educations if they can’t make choices about their bodies and families and partners.
  3. Comprehensive immigration reform. So that women can pursue opportunities globally.
  4. Cite a woman of color.  Every time.  In every publication, in every talk, always cite at least one woman of color.  If you haven’t cited any, don’t assume there are none to cite.  There are, and the fact that you don’t know of them is part of the problem, not a reason to continue the problem.
  5. Follow Black girl leadership.  Don’t tell the girls what’s the “right” kind of STEM or of making, let them tell you.  Reading, or rocking, or singing or painting, can be just as much a way to learn STEM as coding.  Schools (and especially STEM programs in schools) need to stop acting like making art or music in school is some kind of weird distraction or waste of time.  (STEAM not just STEM).
  6. Honor the different intersections of all types of women and girls.  Talking about “women and minorities” completely ignores the people who are simultaneously both.  Girls and women come in all types of shapes and sizes and races and abilities.  Not all women are cis women.  Not every girl wants to be an astronaut or an athlete.  Lipsticks and head-scarves and boots and suits and leather jackets and fuzzy sweaters all need to be welcomed.
  7. Community engaged research. Projects and studies that meet the needs and answer the questions of real communities will often work better to engage real people than “Hello World” or fighting robots.
  8. (Here she quoted Antoine de St. Exupery) “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  It’s not about specific tasks.  It’s not about learning to code or learning calculus.  It’s about the endless immensity of the sea.  Get people inspired, not about tools but about goals.  Not about tasks, but about dreams. (as it turns out, St. Exupery might not have said exactly this.  But the point still needs to be made, and I still love it).
  9. Right to fail.  Not just that people have a right to fail, which of course we do, but that it’s right to fail.  It’s the exact right thing to do.  If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.

(As I said, I’m probably misquoting Dr. Perry, and almost certainly missed some of what she said.  9 points is a start, but only a start.  There’s more.  But I really love the way she looks at concrete practicalities as well as global principles)

As we at CUNY and all of education and higher education, and as I personally, work to include more opportunities for more people who have been left out of STEM (STEAM), I want to remember these as principles to work with.  And I would love to hear more discussion of all of them, at all levels.  Let’s talk about specific programs and initiatives, sure.  But also about bigger challenges and wider changes that address the real issues.

The Technology of Smarthistory

(A long and technical post follows.  If you don’t care to read it, if you’re of the TL;DR school, then go, right now, to Smarthistory.org and take a look at what kind of a beautiful OER can be made with WordPress.)

As anyone who knows me knows, I’m a big supporter (and helper, I guess) of Smarthistory (one of the most important Open Educational Resources on the web). I’ve been involved since the beginning.  I’ve posted about it before, more than once.  But Smarthistory has just reached another important milestone.  For years it was an independent stand-alone website, with several different designs.  The original iteration was in WordPress.  I built that one, and it looked…well, see for yourself.oldsh

That site was the beginning of Smarthistory and it did a lot of the good things that Smarthistory still does.  And I was proud to have built it with open source tools and for free. It even won an award, because it did work.

Then there was a small grant and a new design and new site in another open source CMS, ModX.  I didn’t build that one, and the design was much better as was the functionality.


That one actually won another award, a Webby, and got a lot more attention.  It was a great and beautiful site.  Then Smarthistory became part of Khan Academy, and eventually keeping up the separate website wasn’t viable anymore.  So the Smarthistory site went to the Internet Wayback machine.

Well, now, once again, Smarthistory is an independent site!  Beth and Steven have a blog post announcing and explaining the new setup.  And what their goals were.


The new site is even more gorgeous than before–I think–and even more functional.  Some of the goals (as Beth and Steven explain) were to make the art the beautiful center, and to use the menus as teaching tools.  That point–that information architecture can be a kind of pedagogy, is one that I hope to take up at some length in a later piece.  Here I just want to detail, for those who might be interested, just how I made the site happen with WordPress and gave it the kind of elegance and functionality it needed to have.

So let’s dig into some of the technical details.

Smarthistory is running on WordPress, hosted by the wonderful folks at Reclaim Hosting.

Smarthistory is using a child theme based on the Customizr theme. This is a very bare-bones theme, and very clean (letting the images take the stage).  It is also somewhat difficult to work with, since it doesn’t use exactly the standard WordPress setup of template files, and all the functions are controlled by hooks…which are sometimes not so well documented.

That child theme uses quite a bit of custom css (and, unfortunately, a lot of the !important declaration.  I know that’s not usually best practice, but in this case it was often necessary).  In some cases I had to use CSS to duplicate what customizr does for some of its non-template templates.  One example of that is the Popular Now page, which, like the Browse by Image pages, came out particularly nicely.

There’s also a rather extensive custom functions.php file.  (I’m happy to share both of those, in detail or in full, if anyone wants).

And then there are the plugins…we’re using a lot of standard ones (akismet, for example), but there are some really special ones we discovered and used.  Here are the most important–all highly recommended for anyone working on any kind of similar project.  Most are free.

Ajax Search Lite provides the really powerful and image-friendly (with thumbnails!) search bar.

Co-Authors Plus allows us to have authors listed for articles (and even more than one author, hence “co-authors”) who do not have to have an account on our WordPress system.  Even better, it gives us (with some special help from the great Daniel Bachhuber, formerly of CUNY, who originally wrote the plugin) a very beautiful and functional alphabetical list of all the site’s contributors.  And each of them has a particularly nice author page.

Maps Marker Pro let us make custom maps which are so important to telling historical stories.

NextEnd Accordion menu let us have very specific and contextual left-side nav menus, different on different pages (the top-nav is a different plugin–see below).

Ubermenu gave us that top nav.  This is an absolutely amazing responsive menu, and when a site has such a large and complicated structure, this is critical.

Of course the site is Creative Commons licensed…and I consider that goes for the technical details, too.  So anyone who has questions about how we made things or made them work…I will always share and answer!

To make a site with (literally) hundreds of pages and (literally) hundreds of different menu items, and to make that into a resource that teachers and learners anywhere can use anytime for free…I am so happy and proud to have been involved with that!  And I should also mention the great assistance of Gwen Shaw and Nara Hohensee, both CUNY colleagues, who put in long hours and excellent work in getting the site ready for launch.

video player buttons disappearing in wordpress in all browsers

This one falls into the “reminding myself how to do the workaround” category, but maybe it will be helpful to someone else, too.

The WordPress media player has some nice buttons for play, volume, full-screen, and so on. But no matter what I did, I could not see those buttons in any browser. They were there, and could be clicked, but were completely invisible.

The problem is that those buttons are produced as .svg files (scalable vector graphics) and some servers have trouble associating mime-types with those. So the server won’t serve them up (or it serves them as plain text, or something, which they’re not, so they’re not visible), no matter what browser you use.

There are various htaccess tricks to register the mime-type, but I couldn’t get them to work.

However, those same buttons also exist right in the same directory as .png files, which the server is fine with, so I just went to /wp-includes/js/mediaelementplayer.min.css

(UPDATE: It’s now  /wp-includes/js/mediaelement/mediaelementplayer.min.css )

and replaced every reference to “svg” with “png.” That did it (had to clear my cache in safari to see them there).

It’s ugly to edit core css like this, and will break every time I upgrade, most likely, so I’ll have to do it again, so that’s why I’m noting it here!

A long and balanced MOOC report

I was interviewed for this report, although my role was small, and now it’s out, and I think worth a read. It’s long, but that means it’s comprehensive. I was impressed by the real openness and curiosity of the researchers and the way they didn’t start with preconceived notions.

So give it a read: MOOCs: Expectations and Reality

Why videos?

In the Cathy Davidson “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC, I’m really intrigued by her decision (or maybe Coursera’s decision?) to have so much of the content delivered by means of video. Particularly I’m intrigued (or even concerned) by the use of video that takes so little advantage of the affordances of the video medium.

In every one of the videos (all of which are much longer than I would recommend for any online video) I’ve found myself wondering “why does this need to be a video? Why not just text?”

There are so many great examples of educational video which uses what video can do. From the RSA Animate work, to the California Academy of Sciences series on biodiversity (for example). Or of course Khan Academy in general and Smarthistory in particular.

We know so many great ways to make educational video, and we already have text (even with illustrations). Why make videos that just translate text (or even lectures) into video?

I’ve written about this before. And I’m far from the only one. So I’m wondering what was the thinking behind doing things in the Coursera course the way that (at least so far) they’re being done.

In my own course (see particularly the mini-lectures)–not a MOOC, since it was far from massive, but generally open and certainly online, that I taught twice, 3 and 4 years ago, I thought about this a lot and chose to have text with hyperlinks and illustration (and broken down into much smaller pieces, and more readable), rather than me talking to the camera. And we (as a class) discussed that choice and discussed what video can and can’t do (as well as voicethread, discussion forums, audiobooks, traditional textbooks, etc). (And of course, the class used plenty of video, when that was appropriate. Just not video of me talking to the camera).

I really wonder what are the advantages (or at least differences) in having mini-lectures that are like mine (in the “Introductions and Foundations” section or “What is Learning and What is Literature” or any of the others), vs. having me say that same information (maybe with pictures on the side or subtitles) to the camera from a couch with a cup of coffee in my hand.

Creativity vs. Organization

I’m enrolled in Cathy Davidson’s “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” MOOC.

I’ve got some comments about the course in general in another post, but I thought that I might as well share, here, my first assignment for the course. No guarantees that I will keep up with these assignments, but at least I did complete the first one!

The Assignment:
What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced.

My effort:
As a teacher, I started as a camp counselor and tutor, beginning in 6th grade (my own 6th grade, when I was 12). I did lots of one-on-one work, lots of work about supporting and coaching students, lots of “guide on the side” and almost no “sage on the stage.” I made close connections with students and helped them to come to active learning on their own. I valued creativity (mine and theirs) and flexiblity–meeting students where they were, letting them guide the learning, enjoying a process with them without much emphasis or concern for product.

When I was first hired (almost 30 years ago) as a high school teacher, one of the first major adjustments or “unlearnings” I had to face was the insistence (by the NYC Board of Education) on organization, structure and rigid format. Every lesson, every class, every day needed a lesson plan that had to fit a very clearly-defined template. There was a “Do Now” and an “Aim” (both of which had to be on the board, visible to anyone who came in the room, in every class. When I started as a student teacher, I was told that the principal or a supervising teacher could come into the room at any time and ask to see my lesson plan. If I didn’t have it on paper, in the proper format, or if anything was going on in the class that was not explicitly mentioned in the lesson plan, I could be immediately dismissed…or at least “written up” with a poor evaluation.

As an English teacher, working with students on literature (from SE Hinton to William Shakespeare), on poetry and expression and creative writing, I felt stifled. I felt that I was being asked to kill language, murder learning, torture free thinking, in the ways that I had hated as a student and that I had seen as being useless to my own students. But I needed the job, needed the credential, so I continued. I learned to write plans and state clear objectives and to work backwards from the freedom that I really wanted for students and find ways to create that freedom within the required framework. I even found, eventually, that there were times and there were students for whom that structure was comfortable and encouraging. It turned out that a clear organization and structure could actually be a place where exploration could begin (and through some tricky writing, the written lesson plan could even contain openings, loopholes, where the exploration could be seen to fit).

I didn’t last too long as a high school teacher (seeing copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, brand-new and untouched, in the bookroom and being told that they were off-limits because they “stirred students up” was the final straw). And when I went from there to teaching college, I went much more back to my freedom-loving, digression-valuing style (some would say “chaotic”). But when I started teaching online, I found again that organization could be the ally of creativity, and that an online class particularly required a clear organization and a carefully-designed structure…or else there couldn’t be as many of the productive advantages of digression and serendipity.

These days I balance (or struggle to balance) creativity vs. organization, trying to make sure that we have, in every class, the right ratio of both. I like to think that I didn’t “unlearn” creativity, or “learn” organization, either. I unlearned the dichotomy and learned the balance.

Reverse Midterm

This exercise is one that I invented (pretty much on the spur of the moment) last year, when students asked me if we were having a midterm and I hadn’t planned on it.  I told them no, then thought it over a bit.  The next class I came in and put on a grave and serious face.  I started the class by telling them that I realized that we did not have a midterm scheduled, but we still had to have one, so today was the midterm.  After letting the moment of panic sink in I told them we would do a different kind of midterm.  We talked about the purpose of midterms generally, about questions being more important than answers in a class like this (this is a first-year honors seminar “The Arts in New York City,” but of course I believe the same holds true in all classes).  We discussed how a midterm was (could be) a chance to check in and see where the learning was happening and how it was going, but it was also a chance to reinforce and tie together the themes of the course.  It seemed that in most cases, they hadn’t really thought of a midterm as something that had a purpose–something connected to learning. It was just something you had to do to get your grades.  (in fact, this seems to be true for tests in general.  Students–and probably many teachers–don’t use or understand tests as learning tools, only as assessment tools…if that.  It’s fun and illuminating to hand students the power to step outside their educational process and and critique the tools and activities to which they’re being subjected.  Ultimately, ideally, that leads them to stop being subjected).

So I told them we were going to have a midterm, but it would be my midterm.  They write the questions, I have to answer.  I told them they could grade me, too.  (this led to some moments of real joy).

I started with a brief presentation (about 20 minutes), telling them this was part of my midterm assignment.  Sort of an essay question (last year I actually made a Keynote slideshow with pictures of the class activities and screenshots of their own work on the class site.  This year I didn’t have time for that, but it didn’t seem like a major loss).  I summarized what we had done up to that point in the semester, and gave a little preview of what was coming.  This let me sneak in an opportunity to be sure that the students could see and know the through-line of the semester, at least understand that I’m trying to build one and see it develop.  Using the presentation for looking back and looking forward let me highlight  some of the themes and questions that had been developing (and refer to specific students and specific assignments/discussions “remember when P- was so upset about that photograph?” “Remember when M- showed us the snowy scene outside her house?” “This was when we saw the jazz performance that surprised you all so much.”).

Then I asked them to each write five questions for me.  Last year I had each and every student write five questions and it was too many…I couldn’t possibly answer them all.  This year I put them in groups and had each group write five questions.  I told them they should be questions about the class, either what we had done or would be doing, what they wanted to know or themes they were curious about, and that it was really up to them–it was my midterm exam so I had to answer. I gave them about 7 minutes to write questions.  Most groups easily came up with five, although one group only got three, and another wrote ten but told me that they really were most interested in the second five.

After they finished with the questions I asked them to think for a minute about what it would be like if every midterm was like this? They liked the idea…and we talked about how writing a good question means you really have to know and think about the subject (they had just done it in their groups so they knew exactly what I meant).  They said “if we could give all our professors midterms like this, we would really know if they know their stuff and we could ask them why we were doing things the way we were.  Why we spent so much time on some things and so little on others.”

Then I sat down and read the questions aloud and answered them.  I tried to be really honest and think about them as if I was really taking a test (it felt like a job interview, which I guess is the closest I come to taking a midterm these days).  I tried to give my best answers, relating to what we had done in class, making connections and modeling how to use a test as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. Part of what I was doing was the “think-aloud” method (widely used and described, but introduced to me by Sam Wineburg) of showing how to approach a question or unfamiliar material. Of course some questions were a little silly, some were impossible to answer, some had premises that I had to question first, so I did all that with real seriousness.  I told them how hard it was for me to reverse my usual teacher impulse…which is to throw a question right back at them.  I told them (of course they had noticed) that I would usually work hard not to push my own response but to make room for their response.  But in this case, since it was a midterm, I wasn’t allowed to do that (several times I caught myself and chided myself and asked them not to “take off points.”)

What happens from this activity right in the middle of the semester is that it ties the class together and engages all of us in the enterprise of the class.  We already have a pretty good team vibe by this point, an understanding that the class is something we’re doing together, and this makes it even stronger.  (Of course I’m leading the team, I don’t pretend otherwise.  But it’s active and inquiry based all the time.  The class is not something that’s happening to them or being done to them…it’s not even something they’re “taking.” It’s something we’re making).  When students get to think explicitly and critique carefully what’s going on this class, it creates exactly the dynamic I’m looking for in any class. So that’s the purpose of this reverse midterm.

Here (lightly edited) are most of the questions they asked this year.  Some were repeated so I won’t type them twice. (you can see that they have definitely absorbed “exam language!” and we talked about that, too).

  • How do we find out what are the things we can’t not make (this is a reference to the Adam Savage video we watched which has become a long-standing theme in the class http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/ugoretz13/steam/ also related to the Sol Lewitt “Learn to say Fuck You to the World” video)?
  • Why can’t everything be considered art? Why do we have to divide things between art and not art?
  •  Is there a difference in aesthetic quality between art that is confined to an “art place” and art that is all around us in the world? Elaborate
  • What is the best form of art?
  • In what ways is oral performance considered art and in what ways not art?
  • What’s your favorite poem? Why?
  • How do you distinguish what makes good photography?
  • Which art form do you think is the most honest? Least honest? Elaborate.
  • Extra credit: what is your shoe size?
  • How can you find art in your everyday encounters?
  • Every photograph manipulates/exploits its subjects.  True or False? Explain.
  • What form of art is the most expressive (Don’t worry, you will get all 20 points for this).
  • Is art inspiration or perspiration?
  • If you had the power to choose one of your senses to give up, which would it be?
  • Draw parallels between a museum, a space for religious prayer, and a playground.
  • Is nature independent from art? Why might someone consider nature to be art?
  • Is there any art form that you would like to entirely wipe out? Remove from existence?
  • Would passionately reading a love letter be a form of oral performance art?
  • Why or why not is music the most primitive art form?
  • Do you feel that arguing over artistic merit has a constructive purpose? Is arguing about art something that moves art forward or holds it back?
  • What is your perception of video games? Are they a form of art?
  • Do you believe art and love are related? How so?
  • Is grafitti art or vandalism? Defend your position.

I think this “reverse midterm” could work in all kinds of different ways–they could make the questions for other students to answer, instead of me (this year’s students did want me to use these same questions for next year’s class), or we could revisit some or all of the questions as a final which they answer.  There are all kinds of tweaks and modifications I want to experiment with.  I freely “release” 🙂 the exercise to any and all who want to use or modify or transform.

If all tests were given to teachers, by students…what would that mean for schools? I think often of how we could more closely approach Harmonica High.

Classroom Manifesto

In no particular order, I propose these two dozen….

Questions are more important than answers.

Cooperating is more important than competing.

Thinking is more important than knowing.

Searching is more important than finding.

Making is more important than having.

Opportunities are more important than rules.

Understanding is more important than achieving.

Learning is more important than teaching.

Conversation is more important than studying.

Reactions are more important than rubrics.

Student-student interaction is more important than student-teacher interaction.

Active not passive.

Never ask a question if you already know the answer.

Silence is powerful. Let it go on.

Watch faces.

Don’t repeat what was just said.

Learn ALL the names of EVERY student on the FIRST day.

STEM without Arts is useless and dangerous.  STEAM not STEM.

Feelings are always relevant.

Learning is joyous.

Be a person first.

Laugh at yourself.


The universe is the classroom, the classroom is not the universe.

Protecting Uploaded Files in WordPress

IMG_0641After a long day of struggling with various .htaccess solutions (none of which I could get to work at all in WordPress multisite), I had the wonderful idea to ask for help from the wp-edu listserv and within minutes, Daniel Bachhuber responded with a perfect solution.

But maybe I should have started with the problem.  (Let’s do it as a theoretical).  A professor has a class site in a WordPress install.  That professor has permission from the copyright holder (or has the right under fair use) to share a journal article with her class as a PDF.  She does NOT have the right to share that journal article with the entire internet.  So she scans the article to a PDF, uploads it to her WordPress install, and links to it on a page that is password-protected, giving the password only to the students (and changing it at the end of the semester) so nobody else can access that page.

The problem is that while the page where the link sits is password-protected, the file itself is not.  So anyone with the direct URL to the file can download it instantly, without knowing the password at all.  What makes matters worse, google (and others) indexes the content of PDFs quite commonly, so even an attempt at security by obscurity of the filename is bound to fail.  Anyone googling for the author’s name, or any of the terms in the journal article, would find a quick and easy link directly to the file, which the professor is now, in violation of copyright, giving away free to one and all (I’m not going to get into a discussion at this point of the overall ethics of copyright and whether or not that journal article “wants” to be free).

Extensive searching, extensive trial and error, over an extensive time had left me unable to solve this problem.  But Daniel Bachhuber’s suggestion is a simple and beautiful plugin, Ben Balter’s WP Document Revisions. I admit I had come across this suggestion in my googling, but I rejected it without really thinking it through, on the grounds that I didn’t need “document revisions.”  Silly me.

The plugin (which works fine and dandy in multisite, although I do recommend the network-admin add-on from the Code Cookbook) with a very simple interface, lets you set the upload directory outside the document root of your site, not accessible to any outsiders, and then it totally respects your password and beautiful permalinks.

It does much more, as a document workflow solution (sort of an open-source alternative to –ugh– sharepoint, in fact). But just for this little purpose, it’s quite nice.  Highly recommended!