At Tuckerman's Ravine


We seem to gravitate toward whatever season we're not in anymore. Thus hordes of skiers and climbers head for the glacial cirque known as Tuckerman's Ravine, on the southeast side of Mt. Washington. The howling winds blow up 60 feet of snow a year into the ravine from the upper part of the mountain, making the ravine skiable into June. On sunny days, the crowds are already congregating early in the morning to slide down its dangerously steep slopes.

Skiing in the wet, mild air of April on bouncy corn snow evokes a mellowness tinged with melancholy, and extreme sleepiness, at the end of the day. For full drug-like effects, you need to smell wood smoke from the nearest ski lodge.


Tools of a brutal trade

whale tools The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth's gallery at 715 Purchase St., New Bedford, will present "The Harpoon Project and the Legacy of Lewis Temple'' on Jan. 29, at 6-8 p.m.

Mr. Temple was an African-American abolitionist and inventor. He invented the toggle harpoon in 1848 -- another way to torture whales but nice for the industry, which by that point was already in  decline.

Panelists include Carl Cruz, of the New Bedford Historical Society, Michael Dyer,  of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Janine da Silva,  of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and Linda Whyte Burrell,  an artist. The panel will be moderated by Marc Levitt,  of the "Action Speaks'',  an NPR radio show based in Providence.


A troubled beauty

  Norfleet cover Norfleet cover



Manmade beauty within natural beauty -- but not refuges from reality. That's what William Morgan has described in his new book,  with gorgeous photos by Trevor Trento:  "A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York & New England'', published by Norfleet Press and selling for $49.59. This book itself can be a heirloom.

Mr. Morgan, a distinguished architectural historian, has written a text that does not sugarcoat the tough  and uncertain lives led by many farmers, especially when most of these farmhouses were built, in inland, upland New England and New York State, in the late 18th Century and well into the 19th.

The farmers were constantly at the mercy of the weather, far-away market forces and other factors over which they had no control. The book is informed by a deep understanding  of the  architectural, social and economic history, and  life today, of  the rural part of our corner of North America.

Messrs.  Morgan and Mr. Trento implicitly make the argument that the old country house can be as beautiful as any mansion, while evoking more humanity. There's a poignancy about these old houses.

But, my God, they sure can be hard to heat and maintain!


Laying a glove on Seekonk


Photo and comment by WILLIAM MORGAN
The Massachusetts town of Seekonk, which means black goose in Wampanoag, was once a quiet rural place of woods and marshes, often traversed, and sometimes ravaged  by, Native American warriors during King Philip's War, in 1675-76.
Then, in recent years, came the wholesale paving over of the place with box stores, shopping centers, car lots and all the other hallmarks of Everywhere, U.S.A. In other words, Seekonk is a place that I try to avoid.
Alas, I accompanied my wife on some last-minute Christmas shopping in Seekonk, to be surprisingly rewarded by this composition created by an abandoned rubber glove on the pavement in front of T.J. Maxx.
I was reminded of the abstract photos of Rhode Island School of Design Prof. Aaron Siskind, whose haunting details of forgotten and found objects in the New England scene famously included a Gloucester fisherman's old glove.

Chris Powell: Get paid to hire back those you fired


Maybe other big employers in Connecticut will get an idea from the state 
Economic and Community Development Department's latest excursion into corporate 

Last March ClearEdge Power Corp., owner of the former United Technologies Corp. 
fuel-cell factory in South Windsor, laid off more than 100 employees. But this 
week state government loaned the company $1.4 million at a deeply discounted 
rate, with about half the loan to be forgiven if the company adds 80 employees 
over three years. Rehiring employees laid off in March will count toward the 
total of new employees to be added to achieve loan forgiveness. 

So in Connecticut you now can lay off your workers and then get money from state 
government for hiring them back. 

The economic development commissioner, Catherine Smith, explains this as a plan 
to induce ClearEdge to expand in Connecticut rather than at its facilities in 
Oregon and California. But the plan will work only at the expense of inviting 
more big employers to blackmail state government -- not just by threatening to 
move but also by laying off employees and then demanding that state government 
ransom them. 

While the Democratic Party still poses as the party of working people, the 
“economic development” policy of Connecticut's Democratic administration takes 
from the poor to give to the rich. Big employers have blackmail power; small 
employers don't. So small employers and their employees pay more in state taxes 
to subsidize bigger companies and their employees. 

Yes, many states are subsidizing big employers this way and inducing subsidy 
competitions with other states. But since subsidies to big business come at the 
expense of small business, both in taxes and general competitive disadvantage, 
the best economic development policy still is a tax and regulation regime that 
is favorable to all businesses without regard to size. 

Connecticut's unattractiveness to business and residents alike did not arise 
from a lack of subsidies to particular businesses but rather from the failure of 
government generally to provide value even as it has 
grown and become more expensive. 

That is, education policy has not been producing more or better education but 
mainly has just been enriching educators. Welfare policy has not reduced poverty 
and enabled and required people to start supporting themselves but rather has 
worsened dependence and anti-social behavior. Connecticut's government employee 
policies practically forbid ordinary public administration. And so forth. 

Connecticut's big problem is that the premises of some of its major policies are 
mistaken or, really, mere pretexts for parasitism. 
* * * 

According to a recent study by the state Office of Policy and Management, as 
reported by the Waterbury Republican-American, revenue foregone by state tax 
exemptions totals nearly half of state government's tax revenue -- $7 billion in 
tax breaks against $15.3 billion in receipts. 

While some broad exemptions may be sensible and command wide support, like the 
exemption of food from the sales tax, many exemptions are obscure and the 
product of special pleading or pandering, like the celebrated exemption for 
clothing and footwear. Legislators propose dozens of such tax breaks every year 
and some become law, like the one enacted last year to give tax credits for 
restoring historic houses. 

Apart from basic decency, which explains the food exemption, there may be only 
one justification for tax exemptions: efficiency, as when application of a 
general tax to a specific transaction will forfeit more money than it raises, by 
driving business out of state. By that standard state government probably could 
raise billions of dollars or finance billions in general tax reduction by 
repealing many less compelling tax exemptions. 

But it has been many years since Connecticut has been able to appropriate that 
much political courage. 

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn. 

'Pretty white gloves'




He sits on a folded-over cardboard box, slightly off-balance and without any visible sign of support other than the granite wall of the bank behind him and the few coins in the paper cup he shakes at each passerby.

Does he realize it is 4 degrees above zero, or minus 25 degrees if you factor in the wind that blows through the city and his bones with little concern for statistics? Does he notice the thick cumulus lifeforms that escape from his mouth in shapes that shift and evanesce like the opportunities that once populated his life?

Can he even distinguish the usual numbing effect of the cheap alcohol from the cruel and indifferent caress of this biting alien chill?

Too many questions, he would tell you, if he cared to say anything. But his tongue sits in silence behind crusted chapped lips and chattering teeth while half-shut eyes follow pedestrians fleeing from the bitter cold and his outstretched cup.

His gaze falls upon the hand holding the cup as if it were some foreign element in his personal inventory. Surprised at first to find it uncovered and exposed, especially in weather this frigid, he now recalls that someone at the shelter had stolen his gloves and left in their place the only option he still has in much abundance.


Examining the hand, and the exposed fingers encircling the Seven-Eleven coffee cup, he smiles in amused perplexity, murmuring to himself, “White gloves.”

Lifting his hand for closer inspection, he adds, “Pretty white gloves.”

An image of his daughter . . . Elissa, he thinks her name was . Yes, Elissa!, he recalls. An image of Elissa rises up in his mind, from a photograph taken when she was ten and beautifully adorned in a new Easter outfit: black shoes, frilly lavender dress and hat and, yes, pretty white gloves. The photo once sat on a table in his living room, but he couldn’t tell you what happened to it, nor to the table or the living room, for that matter. They were just gone. Swept away in the same tide that pulled out all the moorings from his life, and everything else that had been tethered to them.

The last time he’d seen Elissa she was crying, though he no longer remembers why. Must have been something he’d done or said; that much he knows.

“Pretty white gloves,” he repeats, staring at his hand.

He recalls the white gloves from his Marine dress uniform. At most he wore them five times: at his graduation from officer’s training school, at an armed services ball in Trenton, New Jersey, and for three military funerals. There was never a need for dress gloves in Vietnam. They would have never stayed white anyway; not with all the blood that stained his hands.

Out of the corner of his eye he can see a policeman walking towards him and instinctively hides his cup, some vestige of half-remembered pride causing him to avert his gaze from the man’s eyes at the same time.

“We need to get you inside, buddy,” the officer says. “You’ll die of cold, you stay out here.”

Moments later, a second police officer, this one a woman, steps up to join them.

“That’s the Major,” she tells her colleague. To the seated figure she offers a smile.

“You coming with us, Major?”

“Go away,” he answers, looking up as he leans further against the cold granite wall. “Don’t need you. Don’t need no one.”

“Can’t leave you out here,” the first officer says. “We’ve got orders to bring you and everyone else in.”

“Leave me alone!” the seated man shouts, gesturing with his hands as if he could push them both away.

“Oh shit,” the female officer says under her billowing breath. To her partner she whispers, “His hands. Look at his hands.”

Quickly recognizing the waxy whiteness for what it is, the officer shrugs, “Guess we’re a little late.”

To the man on the sidewalk, he offers, “That’s frostbite, buddy.”

“No,” the seated man protests. He holds up both hands, numb and strange as they now feel and offers a knowing smile of explanation.

Just like the Marine officer he once was, just like the sweet innocent daughter he once knew, just like  the young man grown suddenly old on a frozen sidewalk, his hands are beautiful and special in a way these strangers will never understand.

“White gloves,”he insists proudly.

“Pretty white gloves.”


Paul Steven Stone is a Cambridge-based writer. His blog, from which this comes, is www.paulstonesthrow.com.


Baby Boomers as shut-ins; Gees' infernal groves of academe


(rwhitcomb4@cox.net or rwhitcomb51@gmail.com)

Will America soon get more realistic about the “Silver Tsunami” of Baby Boomers heading into old age? So far, the nation’s policymakers have mostly been in denial, though it’s probably the biggest fiscal and social challenge of the next few decades in America and Western Europe.

But then, most Boomers themselves have been in deep denial. Many have not saved nearly enough money. They might have been lulled into complacency by seeing how many of their parents, beneficiaries of historical luck, have lived comfortably on old-fashioned defined-benefit pensions (and Social Security), which many of them started enjoying upon remarkably early retirements.

Some of the oldest Boomers — those born in the late 1940s — have those traditional pensions; most of the younger ones will have to settle for, at the most, 401(k)s. Meanwhile, most Boomers underestimate how much ill health will beset them as they age.

But there are even bigger problems. Consider how dispersed America (capital of anomie) has become. As always, many families with children break up as couples divorce — though more and more the couples don’t get married in the first place — and people move far away from “home” to seek jobs or better weather, or are just restless. This leads to a sharp decline (accelerated by modern birth control) in the number of large but close-knit families. At the same time, there has been a huge increase in the number of younger families where only a very harried mother, who may well never have been married, is the sole parent in place, amidst a societal emphasis on “self-actualization” above family and civic duties. All these factors mean that a lot of old people won’t have the family supports enjoyed by previous generations of old people, even as they generally live longer, albeit with chronic illnesses.

There are, of course, retirement communities, with some of the high-end ones set up like country clubs. The better ones have gradations of care, from independence, within a rather tight if safe community, organized by for-profit or nonprofit organizations, to “assisted living,” which usually involves residing in an apartment and getting help with some daily tasks, and, last, the nursing-home wing for those who have slipped into full-scale dementia or are otherwise disabled.

But plenty of people can’t afford to live in a retirement community.

More realistic and pleasant for many folks are such organizations as the Beacon Hill Village model, in Boston. In this, for hundreds of dollars a year in dues you become part of a formal network of old people (and thus indirectly the networks of their families and friends) and get such services as easy access to transportation, shopping, some health-care connections and trips to cultural events. The central idea is to let people “age in place” — to stay in their homes as long as possible.

Of course, most old people eventually get very sick and end up in the hospital and/or nursing home. But the Beacon Hill approach is attractive — if you can afford the dues.

The fact is that most oldsters will have to create their own informal networks of family and friends to help look after each other as their mobility declines. And in the end, the majority must depend on family members, if they can find them. So often, obituaries report that the recent decedent was at the time of demise in some strange place with no seeming link to his or her past. It’s very often the community where a child — more often a daughter — has been living. As Robert Frost said: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” “They” generally means a relative, not a friend.

Until then, will you have enough loyal friends to look after you when you get really old? You’d better make sure that your pals include some folks too young to live in retirement communities.


Hurrah for “Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion,” Constance Bumgarner Gee’s well-written memoir. Most of the self-published book is about her time as the wife of the very driven, peripatetic and big-spending E. Gordon Gee, who has led the University of Colorado, West Virginia University (twice), Ohio State University (twice) and Brown University, where he had the tough luck to succeed the much-liked  and world-class hugger Vartan Gregorian, who had gone on to run the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There’s lots of, by turns, hilarious and sad personal stuff in the book — about her sometimes bizarre relationship with her immensely well-paid and workaholic husband, the silly controversy about her using marijuana to treat her Meniere’s disease, her love of her riverfront house in Westport, Mass., and her ambivalent attitude toward her native South. But best is her vivid portrayal of university boards and administrations these days.

It’s not a pretty picture. The social climbing, empire-building, brand obsession, backstabbing and money-grubbing don’t present many good civic models for today’s students. The  stuff at Brown was bad; it was much worse at Vanderbilt in Mrs. Gee's story. Big universities are starting to look like New York City hedge funds whose partners are driven to build ever bigger houses to show off to each other in East Hampton.

Now to reread Mary McCarthy's novel "The Groves of Academe''.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com), a former editor of The Providence Journal's editorial pages,  is a Providence-based editor and writer. 

Chris Powell: Low prices vs . high pay



Money manager, cable television commentator and former Connecticut U.S. Senate 
candidate Peter Schiff undertook a cute stunt the other day to counter the 
clamor for a higher minimum wage and the clamor against big, bad Walmart. 

With a video camera recording him, Schiff walked around the parking lot of a 
Walmart store purporting to represent a group he called “15 for 15” that seeks 
to persuade Walmart to put a 15 percent surcharge on its prices to pay for 
raising the minimum wage of its employees to $15 per hour. Instead of "Low 
Prices Every Day," Schiff said, Walmart could change its motto to "High Wages 
Every Day." 

But as he surely anticipated, Schiff found no shoppers interested in paying 
higher prices to underwrite higher wages for Walmart employees. The shoppers who 
talked with Schiff said they felt pressed financially themselves. 

That is, Walmart isn't Neiman Marcus or even Sears. Rather, Walmart is where 
people shop to save money, and Walmart stores are busiest in the hours after 
welfare and Food Stamp debit cards get recharged by government agencies. 

If many Walmart employees aren't earning much, many Walmart shoppers aren't 
earning much more, and many aren't making anything at all beyond what they get 
in government stipends. 

If Walmart is too profitable for some tastes, it's still subject to the same 
labor and tax rules covering all other companies, and of course nobody has to 
shop there. Indeed, complaints about the supposed greed of corporations, their 
cutting labor costs and moving from high- to low-tax jurisdictions, are only 
reflections of human nature and individual interest. 

Shoppers want low prices just as stock investors want high prices, and while 
most people are ready to tell others what to do with their money, they are not 
so ready to be told themselves. 

* * * 

Now the thought police are prosecuting thought crime in America. Because he 
remarked in a magazine interview that he considers homosexuality sinful and "not 
logical," the A&E television network has suspended an actor in the program "Duck 

So are people really once again to be disqualified from employment on account of 
their mere opinions and politics, as they were during the Red Scares of the 
1920s and 1950s? 

Homosexuals long were a persecuted minority, but now that society is becoming 
more libertarian, what entitles those who are gaining dominance in opinion to 
persecute those who disagree? 

Must the price of political incorrectness include even denial of a chance to 
work and make a living? Do the opinions of actors really matter that much? 

It's not as if this particular actor is oppressing anyone or advocating 
oppression. All he did was express his opinion -- an opinion shared more or less 
by the recent bishops of Rome, whom no one proposed to fire or suspend though 
many disagreed with them. 

Power corrupts and the political left has become just as totalitarian as the 
political right used to be. 

* * * 

But big media always get a pass from the political left. The other day 
Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, was trivializing his 
office again for a little publicity, stuck in his habit from 20 years as state 
attorney general, urging the manufacturers of the Red Bull and Rockstar 
caffeine-loaded beverages to remove their product emblems from children's toys. 

Meanwhile mass shootings by the deranged, like the one a year ago in Newtown, 
are proliferating, likely inspired in part by the prurient gunplay pervading 
television, movies, and video games. But political criticism of that stuff has 
faded to almost nothing. 

Instead, Republicans are defending the constitutional right of any psychopath to 
own military weapons, and Democrats are getting too much campaign money from 
Hollywood to notice its poisoning of the culture. No, what worries Blumenthal is 
the caffeine industry. 

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.

Diner rises after Irene


A typical small New England town diner goes on as Wilmington, Vt.'s informal community center after being repaired after devastating  flooding by Tropical Storm Irene. Those high carbohydrate and animal-fat breakfasts may not make your body thrive, but your soul and social life get much sustenance.


These diners can be very friendly places but the  staff and customers know when to leave people alone, too. Take the Windsor Diner, in Windsor, Vt.  The great celebrity recluse J.D. Salinger, who lived just across the river in Cornish, N.H.,  frequently patronized the place; everyone left him alone.

Philip K. Howard: Infrastructure repairs drown in regulatory molasses

  To our readers: This column also ran in a pre-renovation version of  New England Diary a few weeks ago. As we seek to import the pre-renovation archives, we will rerun particularly important files, such as  Philip Howard's piece here.

-- Robert Whitcomb




President Obama went on the stump this summer to promote his "Fix It First" initiative, calling for public appropriations to shore up America's fraying infrastructure. But funding is not the challenge. The main reason crumbling roads, decrepit bridges, antiquated power lines, leaky water mains and muddy harbors don't get fixed is interminable regulatory review.

Infrastructure approvals can take upward of a decade or longer, according to the Regional Plan Association. The environmental review statement for dredging the Savannah River took 14 years to complete. Even projects with little or no environmental impact can take years.

Raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge at the mouth of the Port of Newark, for example, requires no new foundations or right of way, and would not require approvals at all except that it spans navigable water. Raising the roadway would allow a new generation of efficient large ships into the port. But the project is now approaching its fifth year of legal process, bogged down in environmental litigation.

Mr. Obama also pitched infrastructure improvements in 2009 while he was promoting his $830 billion stimulus. The bill passed but nothing much happened because, as the administration learned, there is almost no such thing as a "shovel-ready project." So the stimulus money was largely diverted to shoring up state budgets.

Building new infrastructure would enhance U.S. global competitiveness, improve our environmental footprint and, according to McKinsey studies, generate almost two million jobs. But it is impossible to modernize America's physical infrastructure until we modernize our legal infrastructure. Regulatory review is supposed to serve a free society, not paralyze it.

Other developed countries have found a way. Canada requires full environmental review, with state and local input, but it has recently put a maximum of two years on major projects. Germany allocates decision-making authority to a particular state or federal agency: Getting approval for a large electrical platform in the North Sea, built this year, took 20 months; approval for the City Tunnel in Leipzig, scheduled to open next year, took 18 months. Neither country waits for years for a final decision to emerge out of endless red tape.

In America, by contrast, official responsibility is a kind of free-for-all among multiple federal, state and local agencies, with courts called upon to sort it out after everyone else has dropped of exhaustion. The effect is not just delay, but decisions skewed toward the squeaky wheels instead of the common good. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.

America is missing the key element of regulatory finality: No one is in charge of deciding when there has been enough review. Avoiding endless process requires changing the regulatory structure in two ways:

Environmental review today is done by a "lead agency"—such as the Coast Guard in the case of the Bayonne Bridge—that is usually a proponent of a project, and therefore not to be trusted to draw the line. Because it is under legal scrutiny and pressure to prove it took a "hard look," the lead agency's approach has mutated into a process of no pebble left unturned, followed by lawsuits that flyspeck documents that are often thousands of pages long.

What's needed is an independent agency to decide how much environmental review is sufficient. An alteration project like the Bayonne Bridge should probably have an environmental review of a few dozen pages and not, as in that case, more than 5,000 pages. If there were an independent agency with the power to say when enough is enough, then there would be a deliberate decision, not a multiyear ooze of irrelevant facts. Its decision on the scope of review can still be legally challenged as not complying with the basic principles of environmental law. But the challenge should come after, say, one year of review, not 10.

It is also important to change the Balkanized approvals process for other regulations and licenses. These approvals are now spread among federal, state and local agencies like a parody of bureaucracy, with little coordination and frequent duplication of environmental and other requirements. The Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, now in its 12th year of scrutiny, required review by 17 different agencies. The Gateway West power line, to carry electricity from Wyoming wind farms to the Pacific Northwest, requires the approval of each county in Idaho that the line will traverse. The approval process, begun in 2007, is expected to be complete by 2015. This is paralysis by federalism.

The solution is to create what other countries call "one-stop approvals."  Giving one agency the authority to cut through the knot of multiple agencies (including those at state and local levels) will dramatically accelerate approvals.

This is how "greener" countries in Europe make decisions. In Germany, local projects are decided by a local agency (even if there's a national element), and national projects by a national agency (even though there are local concerns). One-stop approval is already in place in the U.S. New interstate gas pipelines are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Special interests—especially groups that like the power of being able to stop anything—will foster fears of officials abusing the public trust. Giving people responsibility does not require trust, however. I don't trust anyone. But I can live with a system of democratic responsibility and judicial oversight. What our country can't live with is spinning our wheels in perpetual review. America needs to get moving again.

Philip K. Howard, a lawyer, is chairman of the nonpartisan reform group Common Good. His new book, "The Rule of Nobody," will be published in April by W.W. Norton. He is also the author of, among other works, "The Death of Common Sense''.

The keg, a joint and hoping for a high number

Read  about Denis O'Neill's memoir about being at college (Dartmouth)  in 1969 when the last lottery for the military draft was held. Animal House meets geopolitics meets the hippies meets Scott Fitzgerald meets the State Police. The book  is called Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House. My number was 361. My friend Steve Perry's was seven. He was killed a few weeks after arriving in uniform in the Republic of Vietnam.

Generally beautiful Brown

There are architectural disasters on the Brown Universiy campus, such as the hideous science skycraper, the crumbly-looking Rockefeller Library and the brutalist List Art Gallery, but all in all, the campus is one of the most beautiful urban campuses anywhere, with buildings from Colonial days through most of the styles since then, including a bunch of recent "starchitects''. See my friend William Morgan's take on it.

Jay A. Halfond: Wallflowers in the online-education revolution


BOSTON For the past decade, we have been mired in generalizations in debating online education. Broad, often anecdotal and generally unsubstantiated comparisons have been made about the virtual and physical classroom–often taking the worst of one in contrast to the best of the other. But the range of what falls under the rubric of online distance learning is now far too vast to support simple and sweeping generalizations.

Most education conducted online is not necessarily for students at a distance—but an option for traditional, on-campus students. These students are mixing and matching, opting in and out of various learning modalities — and, in effect, voting for variety in their choice of how and when to learn. Still other institutions have developed programs offered fully at a distance to a national and increasingly global audience—which poses far different challenges.

Some institutions encourage faculty to build homespun online courses on their own, with little or no support, and of dramatically variable quality. Others provide sophisticated assistance and tools that help develop educational products with what Hollywood would call high production values. Some institutions target older, post-traditional students, who have the maturity and motivation to participate in asynchronous learning.

As with online courses, in-person classes reveal remarkable disparity, and those who know something about both have great difficulty comparing the average of one with the average of the other. Reducing so much variation into a glib opinion can be tone-deaf to the rich nuances and diversity of what is taking place. The academic landscape is vast and complex—and this complexity is humbling for those trying to understand our era or forecast its future.

But this is what survey research attempts to measure and help us better understand. The 2013 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, jointly administered by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, is the second annual attempt to gauge academic opinion on technology and teaching. Often, faculty opinion is based on little direct experience or familiarity, or biased based on their own plunge into online learning. Regardless, the evolving subjective perceptions of e-learning are fascinating to see unfold. Even when experiences are anecdotal or uniformed, this survey shows how, in aggregate, educational technology is gradually becoming a fixture within academe. But not without its nagging controversies. We are in the midst of something between an evolution and a revolution — a modification of business-as-usual and a major transformation. These findings provide a snapshot of our changing times, which will likely look dated and even naive a few years from now.

Lack of familiarity breeds contempt

More than one-fifth of America’s faculty—regardless of rank, institution and first-hand experience—agrees that online education can produce learning outcomes comparable to the traditional classroom. While 21% of all faculty respondents agree or strongly agree that “Online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those in-person courses,” this ranges from 17% of tenured faculty to 25% of part-time faculty and 59% of Technology Administrators. (I would predict lower results had the word “can” not appeared in this question.). All faculty, though, tend to think more highly of their own institution’s capability for quality online courses, with agreement growing to 26%. And those who themselves have taught online are twice as positive as those who only teach in-person. In short, the closer professors are to the actual experience, the most favorable they are. Faculty engaged early and often in online learning become the true believers—and enthusiasts for innovative teaching that seeps into all of their instruction. The key is to make the initial experience positive—by providing adequate support, reward, and respect for the time commitment this takes.

Context matters. The faculty surveyed are more prone to be positive for any one of a number of factors: if an online course is credit-bearing, part of a full degree or certificate program, or offered by an accredited not-for-profit institution, particularly those that offer both online and classroom-based courses and has a proven track record in technology-enhanced education. The institution’s halo establishes confidence in its course offerings, including those online. Online distance learning needs to be woven into the mainstream to seem credible.

The Inside Higher Ed survey substantiates the important role that accreditation plays as gatekeepers in distance learning, even if regional accreditors are just beginning to construct their capability to assess online quality. And those who have taught online value the institution’s track record more so (91%) than those without first-hand experience (79%). Faculty with online experience place a greater emphasis on that experience in determining institutional credibility. These professors perhaps appreciate the important collective element in introducing fully online programs—that it takes a village to deliver a quality distance-learning program. Quality distance-learning programs envelop faculty with the tangible resources to succeed. Institutions with reputations at stake will not leave faculty adrift to create quality online courses.

Drilling down to the components of the learning process, faculty generally believe that the online classroom is most effective at conveying content, but less so in addressing individual student needs (such as interaction in and out of class, especially in reaching students at risk).

Across this survey, tenured faculty emerge as those most leery of the quality of the online classroom. Is this because of their relatively older age? Their conservatism, cautiousness or protective concern for the institution’s reputation? Or simply their relative lack of first-hand familiarity with the online experience? Across this survey, those who have experienced online teaching are more likely to find it equal or superior to in-person teaching especially in conveying content, responding to individual students, grading and communicating to the class. The best way to convert faculty to the cause of online teaching is to have them participate, and ideally more than once. Engagement seems to correlate with support. If skepticism dissipates with experience, what will happen as more and more faculty engage in online teaching themselves?

Just a few years ago, we saw a knee-jerk negativity toward distance learning—both as pedagogy and as relevant to the academic mission. There was a casual association of online and for-profit education, and a tendency to hold upstart alternative means of course delivery to an even higher standard than the conventional classroom. Online was vilified and the traditional classroom glorified. The skeptical spotlight was on new modalities and rarely on the mixed success of prevailing modes of teaching.

But when experience conflicts with beliefs, cognitive dissonance sets in, and those beliefs are forced to adjust. And that is what has been occurring across academe—as professors alter their attitudes toward online education to match the evidence from their own teaching and among colleagues and institutions they respect. A surprising 29% of the faculty respond that they have taken at least one credit-bearing online course—and 49% of those who teach online indicate they had had also been a student in an online course. Fundamental assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning are slowly being questioned, re-examined and debated. All students—both those who learn at their computer as well as those who attend courses on campuses—will benefit as a result.

Prejudice against the virtual classroom is evolving towards a more balanced view. Academic DNA inevitably generates a healthy skeptical perspective—but faculty minds are now opening up to new possibilities.

Tempered view toward MOOC-mania

America’s faculty, according to this Inside Higher Ed survey, are not swayed by MOOC hoopla. MOOCs are so remote to their world, involve only a tiny fraction of faculty at a still very small number of institutions, and, thus far, do not represent an enviable or desirable form of academic delivery. Only 14% of faculty respondents say MOOCs are offered on their campuses, and 17% say their institutions are planning to offer MOOCs. More than three-quarters of the respondents accuse the news media of overstating the value and importance of MOOCs, and only one-quarter believe MOOCs have great potential for positive impact. The fact that elite universities are offering some MOOCs has done little to improve online learning, according to all but 19% of the respondents. They are simply not persuaded that this is a development that matters much, or at least as much as pundits claim. Those who champion this revolution might very well be underestimating the counter-revolution it likely could generate.

Only 22% are inclined to believe MOOCs are creditworthy, and 67% fault the offering institution for not granting credit to its own students who enroll in MOOCs produced by their own faculty. Only 10% find MOOC completion rates acceptable. However, about half feel that MOOCs have some potential to address the high cost of higher education for students and their families. Only 13% say that MOOCs make them excited for the future of academia. Perhaps this is because any potential impact of MOOCs would be a double-edged sword. To address the challenges of tuition cost and student access, online education would need to become so scalable (with a much higher student-teacher ratio) that fundamental changes in teaching would occur. While adaptive learning, competency-based curricula and sophisticated analytics are very promising, faculty are likely to be concerned that any new structural model that addresses cost inevitably disrupts their roles, independence, satisfaction, and even job security—and likely to be questioning whether MOOCs, pedagogically, are a step forward or backward.

Those elite schools offering MOOCs have done so often outside their own internal and external processes. This skunk-works approach helped launch these efforts, but faculty believe they must now be drawn back in to justify the institution’s brand. Indeed, 81% of those surveyed believe that the accrediting bodies should be evaluating MOOCs, and 82% believe that these first need to be reviewed internally by the institution’s faculty.

Disrupting the advocates of disruption

Despite its spotlight, online teaching is still nascent. Almost three-quarters of all faculty have never taught online, and a surprising 30% of those say they have never been asked to. Robust distance-learning programs are still a minority activity across the vast array of American academe. From this survey, we learn that only 27% of the schools where these faculty teach even have degree programs offered at a distance, and only another 23% of these institutions provide random online courses. (This likely understates reality since faculty might not be aware of particular online efforts at their institution.

This also raises the definitional question of what constitutes an “online” course or program.) Thus, half of America’s institutions might not even be in the business of online education—yet. Though the prophets of disruption are either premature or perhaps sublimating their own hopes, they may yet prove correct as elearning evolves gradually over the decade ahead. But we should not underestimate the resilience and openness to managed change within America’s faculties. Professors may tinker with the technology and integrate it over time into being better teachers—but perhaps with a speed and subtlety that frustrates those calling for quick and comprehensive solutions.

Thus far, the evidence does not suggest that a significant portion of the student population—especially those in the traditional years of college—want to abandon the on-campus experience altogether in favor of distance learning. The excitement of our times is that students at each successive stage of their higher learning now have choices. Opting for newer modes or opportunities does not mean relinquishing traditional ones. The menu simply has grown.

We are still at an early phase — and the Cassandras will need to be a little more patient for patterns to emerge. Responsible academic leaders, observers and writers will need to temper their enthusiasm that online learning will be the panacea for all that ails academe. The overwhelming majority of America’s faculty have little first- or second-hand familiarity with online teaching.

Until they do, they are less likely to fully recognize its value and virtues. Online teaching is still a minority and marginal component of higher education—though rapidly seeping into the mainstream. As it does, we are likely to see its growing acceptance, along with a more discerning view of the benefits and rich diversity that digital technology provides in reaching and educating an ever-growing segment of the population. When that happens we are also likely to hear far fewer generalizations, even in opinion surveys. We could also see a renewed appreciation of the traditional classroom and residential campus.

Jay A. Halfond is former dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College, on sabbatical before returning as a full-time faculty member at Boston University, and currently the UPCEA Innovation Fellow and Wiley Deltak Faculty Fellow. This originated on the news and opinion Web site of the New England Board of Higher Education (www.nebhe.org), on whose editorial advisory board I served.

Adventures at the Andaz

By ROBERT WHITCOMB (This piece originated at www.cmg625.com).


I wandered down to the Wired (magazine) Data/Life conference here on Nov. 5-6 on the suggestion of a Cambridge Management Group colleague. There was a lot of interesting stuff that can help people understand where health care, health-care economics and health-care technology are going. And, perhaps especially, where health-care capitalism is going; how fitting that the conference was held at the Andaz Hotel, on Wall Street.

There was remarkably little talk about Obamacare or even about Accountable Care Organizations.

Personal- and population-health data, behavior modification and neat new devices were in the spotlight, and the attendees saw them as considerably more important than Obamacare in the long run. The confab was sponsored by Poland Spring (healthy product, except that oil is used to make its water bottles), IBM (whose Watson computer, with its impressive analytics ability, seems to hold considerable promise for improving health care) and Withings, which makes self-monitoring health devices. Such self-monitoring was a big theme (and marketing play) of the conference.

The first major speaker, Rushika Fernandopulle, M.D., set the stage by noting that great challenges in improving the bad (for the Developed World) U.S. health-care system outcomes and the system’s bankrupting costs include boosting primary care and moving from focusing on acute care to chronic care of diseases, especially such lifestyle-related ones as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. As later speakers made clear, new technology and better date are revolutionalizing, by rationalizing, such care already.

Then there was Dr. David Agus, a sort of rock-star (big on TV) cancer doctor and a pioneer in new technologies for personalized health care. The doctor, wearing blue jeans, said it was important to get back to the focus on being able “to die of old age’’ instead of highly preventable diseases. To do this, let’s make far more use of population-health data – think like a climatologist, looking at the earth from above. And let data be your skeptical guide. (Remember when margarine was said to be less bad for you than butter?) And look at the data associated with inactivity -- for instance, that sitting for five hours every day does as much danger to your health as smoking a pack and half a day, he told the crowd.

And, he said, such seemingly small things as going to bed and getting up, and having meals, at the same times of day can be very health-improving. There are real data about this.

Remember, he said, that 50 percent of our health problems are environmental. And read data showing how statins and a baby aspirin cut your risk of heart attack and cancer. (But a later speaker, Dr. David Newman, raised some questions about claims for the routine use of these substances.)

At the same time, Dr. Agus said, some stuff is over-rated or worse, such as taking supplemental doses of Vitamin D. He noted that America spends more on badly or untested supplements than it does on cancer research. Watch the data, with more and more of it available weekly!

While pressing for more data, and pointing to greater patient access to their own personal health data, he also raised the point that constantly watching these data can cause stress…. (Which another new device will monitor?) Which brings up an issue of the whole conference: We’re all supposed to be monitoring ourselves much of the time. Can that get out of control? Will it lead patients to drive doctors and nurses crazy?

It also occurred to me that much of what the conference speakers touted seemed to assume, wrongly, that virtually all Americans can be digital-saavy. In fact, many still don’t have computers and have no idea how to use the Internet. (Going digital is, however, a handy way to lay off more employees and jack up operating profits in the health-care sector and other industries.)

In any case, having much more peer-reviewed data transparency – for medical professionals and patients alike – will be key to improving America’s health outcomes, he suggested.

Then there was David Newman, M.D., of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and editor of the very interesting www.TheNNT.com – a data-based site focused on, among other things, on the need to be wary of such panaceas as statins (which, he noted, can give you diabetes). If one has already shown that he or she has heart disease statins can be helpful, but for those who don’t, it can do more harm than good, he said. (The present writer has “severe arterial disease’’ and recently had a triple bypass after many years of taking statins. He’d like more data himself!)

Dr. Newman lauded Affordable Care Act incentives to encourage more skeptical use of stents. He said they’re overprescribed (because lucrative). Indeed, many folks at the conference cited favorably the ACA’s interest in incentives that encourage cost controls that simultaneously improve outcomes. And a more personalized approach to individuals’ risk is needed. We must learn how to better customize treatment.

Beware, he said, of industry-tainted promotion of certain lucrative drugs and procedures.

All in all, he said “Health care has under-treated those without easy access to the system and over-treated those {affluent and/or with insurance} those with it.’’ And what he called “information asymmetry’’ (Iack of transparency) explains much of the medical and economic failures of America’s system.

Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, spoke of Anderson’s ambitious plan to sharply reduce some major cancers in the next decade through better use of data (such as using IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence) and public education (e.g., reducing sun exposure amongst children to reduce the likelihood of melanoma later). The idea is to be able to reduce the number of people who go to Anderson and instead be able to diagnose and treat from afar through better data use. Physicians and hospital officials should monitor the Anderson plan carefully. Anderson is, after all, the world’s biggest cancer center.

Martin Blazer, M.D., of New York University, for his part, spent most of his time talking about the beneficial uses of bacteria and the overuse of antibiotics, especially in early childhood. We must, he said, restore our internal “eco-system’’. And we must learn more about our “metabolic pathways.’’ Again, Big Data makes this easier.

Then there were the new medical systems being promoted by some businesspeople. Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos, talked up her company’s full-service, very patient-friendly laboratory services for drugstores, with only pin pricks needed to get enough blood for full analysis. Theranos has an agreement with Walgreen’s.

Sean Duffy, for his part, talked up Omada Health, which helps patients at risk of diabetes track their behavior through such things as coaching and digital tracking. And Mike Huang talked up Glow, with its mobile app used to predict a woman’s daily fertility cycle, thus, he says, making it easier for couple to conceive. There’s even a financial-assistance program for those who fail to conceive naturally after 10 months!

Life gets more and more intense.

My favorite was Neurotrack, which, as co-founder Elli Kaplan explained, is developing a cognitive test that can detect the earliest neurological effects of Alzheimer’s, thus allowing patients to act to delay its full onset.

Finally, there are devices, discussed in much detail at the conference, with the hope, of course, that venture capitalists there would bite. The conference reminded a little of a car dealership promoting its new models.

Consider David Icke’s company, MC10, which is developing new flexible electronic devices to be worn externally or internally to help diagnoses and therapy. An interesting one is a device to be worn on a football helmet to monitor concussion danger. Then there’s Jawbone, represented by its vice president for software, Jeremiah Robison, like most of the speakers young (and newly rich). It makes wearable devices and audio devices to, among other things, get people to take walks and go to bed to improve their health. (Orwell for president?)

In other words, we and medical professionals will be tracking ourselves every minute. Self-consciousness raised to new levels.

Several speakers suggested that it’s past time to even let the patients, of all people, know what their procedures will cost ahead of time – in the face of secrecy by many health-care institutions and insurance companies, which will fight such transparency all the way because its means they won’t make as much money. Speakers and attendees saw great promise in getting patients to start asking what medical stuff costs. Such questions will change the course of treatment.

The conference made it clear that more transparency was coming with better and better measurement of health-care outcomes. “You can’t improve what you can’t measure,’’ as David Icke of MC10 remarked to the conference.

With wearable health-monitoring devices, much more data and better ways to monitor and analyze it and heightened consumer participation through social media and other new tools, it’s clear that the revolution in health care – and health-care financing -- can only accelerate. It all almost makes the ACA seem inconsequential.

Meanwhile, a bunch of people might become billionaires based on what they learned at the Andaz conference. They’ll be selling stock up the street at the New York Stock Exchange.