The Nation: The crisis in higher education

From The Nation:

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future.

But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do.

A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones.

A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.

Disruptive innovation in higher education

From Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares:

Disruptive innovation is the process by which a sector that has previously served only a limited few, because its products and services were complicated, expensive, and inaccessible, is transformed into one whose products and services are simple, affordable, and convenient and serves many no matter their wealth or expertise…

Changing circumstances mandate that we shift the focus of higher education policy away from how to enable more students to afford higher education to how we can make a quality postsecondary education affordable…

The challenge before the country also mandates a new definition of quality from the perspective of students — so that the education is valuable to them and that through it they improve their lives and thus improve the country’s fortunes, too…

Degrees are a proxy for skill attainment, but they are far from a perfect one, as seen in the amount of retraining that employers do as well as the current unemployment figures. Real outcomes and real mastery—as often shown in work portfolios for example—are more important…

It is critical to promote new, autonomous business models that have the freedom to re-imagine higher education. Policymakers should not frame the disruptive players as threats, and instead see them as opportunities to bring affordable education to more people.

What college students want from websites

“Teenagers prefer websites that have dynamic and engaging interactive activities, such as quizzes and games….

However, “college students are much more goal-oriented. They like interactivity only when it serves a purpose and supports their current tasks. At the college level, users make a separation between play and work and don’t require websites to entertain them at all times. Instead, students consider websites as tools. A good site is one that helps them quickly accomplish their goals….

Students often judge sites on how they look. But they usually prefer sites that look clean and simple rather than flashy and busy. One user said that websites should ‘stick to simplicity in design, but not be old-fashioned. Clear menus, not too many flashy or moving things because it can be quite confusing.’…

“Students don’t like to learn new user interface styles. They prefer websites that employ well-known interaction patterns. If a site doesn’t work in the expected manner, most students lose patience and leave rather than try to decode a difficult design….

“Students associate Facebook and similar sites with private discussions, not with corporate marketing. When students want to learn about a company, university, government agency, or non-profit organization they turn to search engines to find that organization’s official website. They don’t look for the organization’s Facebook page…”

A month inside walled gardens

For some time, I’ve been concerned about the loss of creative work inside corporate social networks, so I’ve avoided posting unique text or images into Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

I didn’t want to give away my rights — give away a part of myself — every time I posted in a walled garden. Besides, the manic  stream of trivia whizzes by without much opportunity for contemplation. That’s not social media, it’s oversocial media.

Of course, simply autoposting my microblog content on those services missed opportunities for interaction. So I thought I’d see if thoughtful conversation was possible inside the walled gardens, and whether I could archive those discussions outside on the open Web. About a month ago, I decided to conduct an experiment.

Starting October 22, I began carefully reading the streams, looking for opportunities for meaningful discussion. I checked my TMI filter at the door. I came across some pretty spectacular emotional train wrecks and a few too many updates about cats-in-boxes.

However, I did find people who were willing to take time to craft thoughtful responses and sustain conversation threads. I soon got into some interesting discussions about the election, education, and politics (a few excerpts will follow), and it was really fun and stimulating.

Since I spent a good bit of time crafting well-considered prose, I tried to find software that would capture and preserve my words outside the corporate walls. I didn’t have much luck, except with one attempt: after Twitter deleted 3 years of my entries — and then brought them back (which I discovered was not uncommon) — I did find a PHP script to archive my tweets. However, for Facebook, I had to go old-school: I copied and pasted my comments into Open Office.

Now the month is over. I’m glad Facebook and Twitter sparked my interest in threaded discussions, and I enjoyed participating. However, that content would have been lost — locked up forever in a space where I could not protect it — if I hadn’t worked to save it.

At the beginning of my experiment, I responded to Wired’s debate about the open Web and the closed Web, and, last week, I read Tim Berners-Lee’s case for openness and transparency. I know that the proprietary world of Apple apps and the preferred-bandwidth model of commercial ISPs is more lucrative. I know the pendulum spirals between “information wants to be free” and “information want to be expensive” and I think we come out at a more expansive level most of the time. It’s just that the exclusionary approach makes me nervous.

There was, however, an important side effect from my experiment. While paying more attention to the social media stream, I fully reorganized my Twitter lists to capture my recent research on the idea and experience of learning.

I know the pendulum spirals between “information wants to be free” and “information want to be expensive” and I think we come out at a more expansive level most of the time. It’s just that the exclusionary approach makes me nervous. It still does.

I’d been asking: What is learning, really? What are the powerful ideas and approaches that inspire teachers and students? What can I, myself, learn to bring into my role as a father and as a volunteer in a 2nd-grade public school classroom … a classroom of students who will soon enough be part of the high school class of 2020 and the Elderhostel cohort of 2070? (Or, as Stewart Brand would have it, 02070.)

I followed the tweets of Maine’s first TEDxDirigo held in early October. Through the event’s lead organizer, Adam Burk, I found a multiple-author blog about learning and education called Cooperative Catalyst. I read the passionate posts of  people who have been developing and testing and reconsidering their approaches to learning and education for years. They are mentors, teachers, and learners in the best sense.

So, this was actually the highlight of my experiment. Twitter helped me find an organic collective of caring, intelligent people posting and commenting on a WordPress blog. The stream still works best as a pointing mechanism, but I found the meaningful, valuable space … elsewhere.

Now … I wonder what next month will bring.

Excerpts from the experiment

So, here’s some of what I wrote last month inside the walled gardens. (Just so I don’t lose it.) Unfortunately, I do not have the right to republish both sides of these conversations … and perhaps, really, not my own, either! Let’s just say I’m saving this writing for scholarly research.

Facebook – October 22

Twentieth-century marketing used fear — reinforced insecurity and fear of “others” — and mixed it with a deliberate obfuscation of true risk assessment to get attention to sell product, and 24-hour news programming only exists to fill the space between the commercials.

One sign of hope is that programmed-TV-channel viewership continues to go down for younger people. Do you think college students have more tuned hype filters these days? Are they more skeptical? Looking for research …

Facebook – October 22

I’m starting to feel as if I am in a parallel universe: by the time I learn about the scream-of-the-day (from the echo-chamber land of mass media), the hubbub has already died down.

On the one hand, I am relieved to not waste my energy on unimportant trivia. On the other hand, I feel as if I’ve missed out on something: those water-cooler moments. In the old days, they called it the lowest-common-denominator.

With no programmed TV service (broadcast, cable, satellite) in our house, though, I still feel connected, especially with Hulu and Netflix. But am I experiencing the world in a different way than the breaking-news afficianados? From a civic point of view, is this positive or negative?

Incidentally, I also began an experiment one month ago to participate more in the walled gardens of Facebook and Twitter — in conversations like this one — to see if such dialog was possible, and what I was losing by committing my words to proprietary, corporate social media.

I’m writing a summary, and posting what I wrote in a blog entry, and I hope you’ll give me permission to post both sides of this one…

Chronicle of Higher Education – November 4

Of course, education is more than just a commodity or service relationship.

However, if business and marketing are evolving to focus on all types of mutually-satisfactory exchanges between people, then we need more sophisticated ways to evaluate success in the exchange of knowledge and experience between our schools and our students.

Are we creating valuable, meaningful, and authentic experiences through our whole offering? Experiences that will resonate for a lifetime? Experiences worth the cost of admission?

I think Gilmore & Pine on Authenticity is worth a look …

Facebook – November 4

Evolution continues to crush black-and-white perspectives. They just can’t be sustained, and the last gasp of a failing world view is the loudest just before dying away. “Do not go gentle into that good night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The world is becoming more complex and interrelated, and fear of the unknown devolves to binary thinking: “you’re with us or agin’ us”, “you were born in some other country”, “it’s all a conspiracy,” “they’re out to control us.” We saw such thinking on all sides this time, including vilification of the “Tea Party.”

But evolution continues to crush black-and-white perspectives. They just can’t be sustained, and the last gasp of a failing world view is the loudest just before dying away. “Do not go gentle into that good night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Thomas Frank’s book focused on the midwest, one of the most recent regions to succumb to the fear of “otherness.” If we seek to understand and recognize that fear, we can avoid the same hell.

On Cooperative Catalyst – November 3

Thanks to you and your partners, Adam, for bringing TEDxDirigo to life. I agree that introductions to great ideas, coming from the thinkers themselves, can be a significant addition to education at all levels.

Last summer, Fast Company ran an interesting article on that topic by Anya Kamenetz, author of D.I.Y.U.

The responses were informative. I was especially taken with a comment from Open Culture — which I consider to be one of the best curators of free educational videos from around the Web.

They wrote: “Will watching 18 minute lectures – ones that barely scratch the surface of an expert’s knowledge – really teach you much? And when the 18 minutes are over, will the experts stick around and help you become a critical thinker, which is the main undertaking of the modern university after all?”

That gets back to your proposal, as well as the Innovation Lab in Loveland, Colorado. Once a mind is sparked by video presentations of engaging insights, how do we turn that enthusiasm into sustained critical thinking? How do we teach and model techniques for discarding 99% of the trivial information that crosses the oversocial media threshold and for selecting the most meaningful interactions, virtual and in person?

You are right: it’s not about quantitative standards. But effective lifelong learning certainly does require teachers, mentors, task-masters to show us how to develop and use discriminating reason to pay attention to what’s worthwhile.

Fred Sheahan – November 9

The fields of traditional education and online learning are on a collision course, and I think you’re right: one of the greatest sources of friction is the different pace of each.

Although titles are valuable in providing a context for the work, in a field that is changing as quickly as ours, the responsibilities and the titles will change rapidly, too. At the same time, the slower pace of structural change in educational institutions can prevent the nimble decision-making required in this new environment.

The governance process for online communications at a school — from marketing and engagement, to learning and business processes — is an excellent indicator of whether the school is ready to seize the opportunities.

Find out how institutional strategy and online communications are aligned, and how decisions are made, short-term and long-term. Who are the executive sponsors? To what degree are advisors able to advocate for their own constituencies and also understand and support the overall institutional values and identity.

But don’t worry much about the titles themselves. They’ll be different in 6 months.

Fred Sheahan – November 19

Regardless of whether we are “digital natives” or “digital immigrants,” some people are more comfortable with exposing their self-identities publicly than others. I don’t think age matters that much.

I’d like to suggest that we are hard-wired to be social to some degree and hard-wired to be solo to some degree, depending on the individual and the influence of the surrounding culture. Regardless of whether we are “digital natives” or “digital immigrants,” some people are more comfortable with exposing their self-identities publicly than others. (Some prefer contemplation in life over amassing Twitter followers.) I don’t think age matters that much; these traits are, I believe, deeper personality-based preferences.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote about that dance between public and private spaces in New York.  Just as we benefit from those clear distinctions in the real world, so, too, are such boundaries important in our virtual lives. For example, I think the presence of a private virtual space right next to a public space is an apt application of the “creepy treehouse” effect.

However, having grown up in a medium-sized town where you were always seen and being seen, I can certainly remember feeling like I was in a fishbowl and wanting the freedom of urban anonymity. After that exploration, though, I realized what was missing, and chose to return to small city life and the expectation of responsibility that comes along with being seen by people you know all the time. (A friend of my uncle described that experience in an article she wrote about him some time back.)

With the Internet, we have made effortless the ability to try out new identities online without having to go urban, and such virtual promiscuity comes with little cost. Trustworthiness cannot be easily judged. Even “real-name” profiles can’t always be evaluated: “Is that person really who s/he says?” Multiple identities are easily juggled. I think the only real way to verify that an online profile matches a real person is to meet them in meatspace.

I’m not sure that online services are really ready to provide a real small-town experience. Imagine this: a social network that brings together people with very different beliefs, forces them to interact randomly, imposes severe consequences when they behave outside the norm, and makes it very difficult to leave. Some would choose to participate. Many would grow into stronger, yet more compassionate people. Unfortunately, I suspect most would prefer the online echo chambers of self-selected beliefs and believers. Much easier.

But, they might watch for the vicarious thrill.

Maine college guarantees jobs

“Thomas College in Waterville, Maine is trying to help students land that first job. The liberal arts school guarantees a job to students who are able to keep a certain GPA, among other requirements, within six months of graduating; or else they can come back to Thomas and take classes for free, or have the college pay their student loans for a year….

“Thomas Edwards, provost for Thomas College says the Guaranteed Job Placement program, or GJob, has been in place for about 10 years….

“Edwards says that a liberal arts education is more important than ever, and narrowing in on a field might limit a graduate’s options in an ever-evolving job environment.

Bates College ahead of the curve on Web 2.0 /@GlobeIdeas

Posted by Christopher Shea on September 28, 2010

“Bates College has a striking web page that aggregates links to all sorts of web content produced by Bates alumni.

“Facebook groups, blogs by alumni, LinkedIn groups, Flickr photos — the page runs the gamut.”

(Hat tip: Bryan Alexander, via Dan Cohen.)

Colleges build hubs to track social-media buzz /@chronicle

“Bates College has gone beyond Twitter by aggregating all of its social-media platforms on a single Web page. Its Bates Social site features links to athletics blogs and those by professors, as well as Facebook and LinkedIn groups for alumni, and lists of Twitter accounts from students and clubs. It also allows members of the college community to subscribe to an RSS feed of various Bates-related blogs and add their own social-media content into the mix. Designed during a larger restructuring of the college Web site, Bates Social ‘was developed to provide a tool for both internal use and visitors seeking to connect with Bates people or learn about the college,’ said Bates spokesman Doug Hubley in an e-mail.

“Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, said the Bates site is a simple way for colleges and universities to corral information from social media. ‘So many great technology ideas seem totally obvious when you see them in action,’ Mr. Alexander said. ‘It’s a very basic, simple idea, but those are often the ones that change the world.'”

Gates Foundation’s new learning technology initiative

“This fall the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several partners will announce a new project aimed at harnessing technology to help prepare students for college and get them to graduation. The senior program officer leading that effort is Josh Jarrett, a former software entrepreneur with a Harvard M.B.A. who joined Gates after five years with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company….

“‘What we envision is a multiyear, multiwave program, where every six to 12 months we issue a new set of challenges. And we’ll issue a set of challenges this fall around shared open-core courseware, around learning analytics, around blended learning, and around new, deeper forms of learning and engagement using interactive technologies….’

“‘If in a traditional world my faculty is my primary relationship, and maybe some of the 29 other students in the classroom, technology is starting to afford different types of relationships between the people who were two years ahead of me, who I want to emulate, or people who are professionals out in the community.'”

James Martin on the challenges of the 21st century

Excerpts from James Martin’s 2007 book and documentary (preview | complete). Martin is founder of the Oxford Martin School (previously the 21st Century School).

“At the start of the 21st century, humankind finds itself on a non-sustainable course – a course that, unless it is changed, will lead to catastrophes of awesome consequences. At the same time, we are unlocking formidable new capabilities that could lead to much more exciting lives and glorious civilizations.

“This could be humanity’s last century, or it could be the century in which civilization sets sail towards a far more spectacular future. Decisions that will lead to these wildly different conclusions have to be made soon. They depend upon our being able to understand the options of the 21st century, think logically about our future, and collectively take rational action.

“We live on a small, beautiful and totally isolated planet, but its population is becoming too large, and growing rapidly in its desire to consume products that need resources beyond what the earth can provide. Technology is becoming powerful enough to wreck the planet. We are traveling at breakneck speed into an age of extremes – extremes in wealth and poverty, extremes in technology and the experiments that scientists want to perform, extreme forces of globalism, weapons of mass destruction and terrorists acting in the name of religion. If we are to survive decently, we have to learn how to manage this situation.

“The message of this book is vitally important. We have reached a situation where grand-scale decisions have to be made”

Bypassing higher education due to high costs

The hefty price tag of a college degree has some experts worried that its benefits are fading. “I think it makes less sense for more families than it did five years ago,” says Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who has been studying education issues …

According to the Education Department, between 1997-98 and 2007-08, prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions of higher education rose by 30 percent, and prices at private institutions rose by 23 percent — after adjustments for inflation….

The cost of college is putting the financial screws to an entire generation, say student activists.