Towards a Dynamic Degree

MOOCs have yet to de-stabilize and/or transform higher education to the degree (pun!) intended by their advocates, but their place in a larger portfolio of educational offerings would probably be made more clear by the kind of ongoing certification or dynamic degrees being suggested by a number of people, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman among them, as reported by [GigaOm][].

The best known of these efforts is Mozilla’s [Open Badges][], but there are others with names like Smarterer and Degreed. While LinkedIn’s approach is social, asking connections to “endorse” each other, Mozilla seems to want to establish a kind of basic architecture for documentation of a skill and who can issue certification in it.

I think it’s a fascinating prospect, but I don’t see it so much as a replacement for the traditional degree but more as a form of supplement, a richer form of continuing education where you get credit not for simply taking a class but for actually learning distinct content or acquiring a distinct skill. It opens up new possibilities for universities to address a wider arrange of topics and issues, but to offer more flexible kinds of programming, universities are going to have a more flexible framework within which faculty can work.

So long as everything remains focused on credit hours, and, *sigh*, increasingly at my institution on the number of butts in seats, then faculty are not going to feel free to develop smaller, more particular forms of engagement. The universities that look to the strategic future and not to the tactical present when business interests have come to dominate how we think about education are the universities that are going to thrive.

[GigaOm]: http://gigaom.com/2013/09/16/linkedins-reid-hoffman-on-education-overhaul-the-degree-not-just-the-instruction/
[Open Badges]: http://openbadges.org

Educational Inequalities

The New York Times has published a commentary about the increasing inequality in the American education system, starting from pre-school and running through university. The piece doesn’t quite strike me as lining everything up as much as I would like. That is, the commentary consists of a series of statistics and tableaus that, more than anything, sketch out various dimensions of inequality, but I could not, by the end, quite pull it altogether. I think the consensus is in that public funding of education has faced a perfectly awful set of convergences: first, the de-funding of education both through strategic moves by conservatives as well as through economic downturns; second, the imposition of a vast array of unfunded mandates which go hand-in-hand with, third, the rise of a management class in education that is more invested in “assessments” and “outcomes” than in anything called “teaching.” Thus, what money still flows into education is increasingly siphoned off into a bureaucracy that spends little actual time with students but is more focused on “keeping teachers in line” which seems to suit the mood of at least some part of the public. (Yup, like education’s ills are all due to mostly average to under-paid people whose ambition in life is to help kids the way their teachers helped them. Terrible thing, cycles of virtue.)

What [Strauss’ commentary][nyt] does well, however, is to capture the complexity of the situation. The fact is, these kinds of situations, products of a large, complex democracy, have a lot of moving parts. (American agriculture and the farm bill also spring to mind as having *wayyy* more moving parts than you might think.) I don’t pretend even to begin to have anything more than a limited understanding, as revealed above.

[nyt]: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/schooling-ourselves-in-an-unequal-america/

Eighth Grader’s Version of a Standardized Test

Even eighth graders get that standardized tests aren’t about their education but really about the bureaucracy’s need to rationalize its existence in the face of increasing interference by politicians. The Washington Post has the story: [“Eighth grader designs standardized test that slams standardized tests.”](http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/04/17/eighth-grader-designs-standardized-test-that-slams-standardized-tests/)

Raising a World Builder

In the car this morning on the way to school I commented to my daughter that the rain had made driving a bit more difficult than usual and that I would have to make sure to keep two hands on the wheel. It was, for me in that moment, simply a metonym for paying attention, and, I confess, a way of letting my daughter know that her dad may not be paying as close attention to our conversation as we both often enjoy. We have, over the years of our morning commute that gets her to school and me to work, enjoyed a wide variety of conversations, and sometimes they run sufficiently wild, especially at her end, that I have to remind her, as a way of reminding myself, that driving is the highest priority.

A little too often my reminder really comes out more as a chide, which I always regret, unless of course she simply performs some conversational judo on it, which she did, by responding, “What if you had three hands?” Her first thought was that I could drive and wave to drivers nearby, but quickly she spun the idea out into a variety of possibilities before settling down into playing a variety of instruments with three hands: there was a three-handed piano piece, then a three-handed guitar melody, and then a three-handed trumpet call. The sounds grew wilder, weirder and her laughter built from giggles to squeals.

Her first move displayed the power of divergent thinking, something which has been explored quite a bit over the past few decades in creativity studies, but her next move was to dwell in a particular domain, to immerse herself in a world, and to play with the possibilities there. For the time being, I would like to call that immersive thinking. It is surely related to that kind of thinking that we sometimes call rich mode or right brain thinking, but I am not sure how.1

World-building is like a reflex action for my daughter. From the time she could speak, she spun out stories. She usually enacts the stories, dramatizing them with props and costuming if she is a character or animating a wide variety of objects, some of them more obviously meant for such use and others not. I can’t, for example, count the number of times objects at restaurant tables have come to life and led complex, social lives when adult conversation became uninteresting to her. My wife and I have seen utensils be sisters, salt and pepper shakers be parents, and a tented napkin become a home.

It’s an amazing thing to watch, but as many creative individuals know, such an ability does not come without its penalties. While her school has labeled her a “deep creative,” they really have been unable to come up with a plan on how to make a space within which she can learn and grow to suit her own abilities and interests. Don’t get me wrong: she does well in school, but that’s largely because we have lobbied hard at home for her to adapt to the regimen at school. And so she gets high marks but those marks are regularly accompanied by comments from, well-meaning and really nice, teachers that she does not pay attention as well as she should, that she is “daydreamy” or that “sometimes she just phones it in.”

One could perhaps fault the teachers, but I rarely find individuals are the problem in these circumstances. More often a system is at work. In this case, I think it’s fair to blame a larger educational ideology that has come to rely upon standardized tests as one of its central metrics. In a moment that resembles the classical economics parables about unintended consequences, what we are facing as parents, as the paroxysms of our own child, is an entire educational system which many believe is headed precisely in the wrong direction for what looks like reasonable, well, reasons.

Indeed, an entire cluster of industries have arisen around the wobbling of the educational infrastructure in our country. The technorati favor two flavors that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first flavor is that articulated by Ken Robinson who argues that our schools are stuck in the industrial age, anxiously trying to turn out uniform widgets in a moment where standardization couldn’t be less useful — the assumption being that things are changing more quickly and more predictably than ever. I don’t subscribe fully to this latter notion, but it’s not hard to see that the current context for businesses favors only a few large incumbents with stability, but employment with those incumbents, as two decades of layoffs and jobs moving from one part of the world to another have provied, is not stable. In other words, institutions have stability, but only individuals at the top of those institutions get to enjoy the fruits of that stability.

Outside of those narrow mountaintop retreats, there’s a whole host of changes taking place as industries transform in the face of an amazing amount of computing power. My own industry, higher education, is facing such a transition, but think about even the way manufacturing is changing as building components becomes less about removing metal by mill and lathe work or stamping and cutting but more about “printing” them by building up a part molecule by molecule. Suddenly, economies of scale matter less and sheer imagination matters more. (Well, you’ll still need quite a bit of capital to have such a “printer” at your disposal, but that’s a return to a history we have seen already — i.e., the original printing press!)

We are, we thought, paying the difference between a public school education with two dozen kids in a classroom and a private school education with only a dozen kids in a classroom as a way of giving our daughter’s particular abilities, and inabilities, greater attention. She needs to adjust to the conventions of the world, but as the world itself seeks to explore differences more for the value those differences contribute, we think there is also a place for her differences within any given curriculum. (More on this difference between a teacher-centered and a student-centered pedagogy another time.)

Here’s the short of it: our daughter is a geek.

She has all the classic geek traits: she prefers to be fully immersed in a problem or project or world and she oscillates between wanting external affirmation for her accomplishments and not caring what others think. Most geeks I know are like this. Many of them truly believe they don’t need anyone’s approval, and for a few of them that may very well be true. I also know, speaking as a geek (I think) myself, that, yes, sometimes a nod from someone you respect is not only all you need, but it is something you really want.

A lot of curricula which have high geek probabilities have switched to more project-oriented pedagogies. We are seeing more of it engineering, and it has always been a prominent part of architecture. I’m less sure of it in the sciences, but the sciences have always had really cool laboratories and other kinds of experiences at the upper levels — plus their upper-level ranks thin out and they can spend more time one-on-one with the students. (Some of it comes down to self-selection: people often find the curricula which suits their own learning preferences. More on this later, too.)

But what to do with our little geek, our world builder?

She wants to do well, but she can’t when the system is rigged to work against the way she thinks, the way she processes information. Let me give an example from recent experience — and it’s not to pick on any one teacher — but it grabbed my imagination and I think it provides a useful contrast:

Our daughter is in the school choir. Every year the choir puts on a musical — last year it was_Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_; this year it is The Wizard of Oz. Every year students have to audition for a role in the play. Now, how do you suppose that audition takes place? Does it come after a few weeks of watching the film version or reading all or parts of the book? Does it come after listening to some of the story’s most famous passages and songs? That is, does it allow an immersive thinker an opportunity to do what they do best, get inside a world and look around, elaborate it, play with it? No, the auditions are songs from some place else, handed out the week or so before the auditions. Students are told to practice the songs, do their best, and decisions will get made.

Now, that approach works if a student is procedurally-driven and understands the necessity, or already desires, adult approval. It doesn’t work at all for the student that needs to live and breathe inside a thing, to get a sense of it, to find their excitement there.

Fundamentally, this comes down to the difference between teachers as the center of a curriculum and students at the center. As a teacher myself, I know I can’t be all things to all students, and in a post to follow, I want to think more about how education might be made better for more kinds of learners than it currently is. In fact, I worry about one recent trend in particular: the rise of the master teacher and what that means for learning differences — here, learning differences are meant much more broadly than they are in the education industry.


  1. The classical conception of the different ways the brain works are that it possesses primarily two modes of operating, linear and rich. The linear mode, popularly known as left brain, works well with language and other sequential kinds of processing. The rich mode, aka the right brain, processes information through patterns. We think of it as intuitive, that years upon years of experience and practice have so layered any sequence with so much richness that it feels somehow magical when we can discern dozens and hundreds of possible steps and can calculate what the best possible next step is based upon those layers. That is, intuition seems to be an example of the two modes operating really well together. 

Capella’s Seven Liberal Arts

From a notebook I kept in 1991, I find *Capella’s Sevel Liberal Arts* inscribed on the first page:

The Facts You Need to Know

  • Music Theory: for singing hymns
  • Geometry: for measuring things
  • Arithmetic: for adding things
  • Astronomy: for knowing what day it is

How to Use the Things You Know

  • Grammar: for getting it right
  • Rhetoric: for putting it in letters
  • Logic: to explain things clearly

An Internet of Possibilities

As someone pointed out recently, the dream of making much of the world’s knowledge available to almost anyone willing to find a way to access it is pretty close to happening. While scholarly and scientific publishing continue to lag behind, [TED Talks](http://ted.com/) and the [Khan Academy](http://www.khanacademy.org/) and [iTunes University](http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/) — and not counting all the individual creators of content (and by content I mean texts and ‘casts of all shapes and sizes — make an amazing amount of information available.

Microsoft Mathematics

> Microsoft Mathematics provides a graphing calculator that plots in 2D and 3D, step-by-step equation solving, and useful tools to help students with math and science studies.

And it’s free. Link (in the heading) is to the download.

Open Courseware Participants

This is just a gentle reminder to everyone interested in open access materials, and in some fashion in open access education, that there is now an easy way to search the expanding offerings: [Open Courseware Search](http://www.ocwsearch.com/). As the site itself notes, the following offerings are searched:

1. School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins (institution:jhsph)
2. MIT (institution:mit)
3. Notre Dame (institution:nd)
4. The Open University UK (institution: openuniversity)
5. Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (institution:politecnicamadrid), Spanish courses
6. Stanford Engineering Everywhere (institution:stanford)
7. Delft University of Technology (institution:tudelft), English and Dutch courses
8. UMass Boston (institution:umass)
9. The University of Tokyo (institution:utokyo), both English and Japanese OCW collections
10. Yale University (institution:yale)

My own university is, I think, moving to a more open model for its course content offerings. I see this as a real opportunity to make available content I have developed to a wider audience. I think the real value of a campus environment is not exclusivity of content but the potential for interaction.

I’m Ready for my Close Up Mr. DeMille

The University of Louisiana has long encouraged faculty to consider distance learning as part of their overall portfolio of course offerings, but there really hasn’t been much of a push, nor much of a plan — so far as I could tell — to really make it happen. With the hiring of a director for distance learning efforts, I am guessing it might be moving forward on that collection of burners that represent any large organization.

That’s good news. [As I noted yesterday](http://johnlaudun.org/20100212-hacking-education/), universities, especially hybrid universities like UL-Lafayette, are going to have to re-establish for themselves and for the public what it is they do and how they go about doing it.

So here’s a seemingly trivial dimension that I think will play a much more significant role than many of us imagine: *production values.* Too many on-line offerings from universities are videos of professors lecturing in a classroom. I am currently enjoying a course on developing apps for the iPhone — gearing up for thinking about the iPad don’t you know. The course is on iTunes University and it’s from Stanford with faculty and guests from Apple. All they did was stick some cameras in a classroom, give the folks up front wireless microphones — which they sometimes have to pass back and forth — and turned them loose.

It’s a great start, but with only a little more effort, we might have something really stunning:

It wouldn’t take much to pull this off: you paint a wall of a classroom white, or black — or even green for cool keyed effects, and then you could work with a professor and a camera. Anything worth a close up, the producer could note as worth coming back to and have the faculty member repeat what they said for a cut to the close-up. With a little practice over a few iterations, I imagine it would become a pretty straightforward affair of when to zoom out to leave room for visuals to appear beside the presenter and when to zoom in.

Hacking Education

In a number of posts I have argued that the nature of higher education is changing and those universities that recognize that fact and tackle how they want to undergo the transformation are the ones that are going to be happier about their future.

One of the things that has worried me is while the super-efficient and super-rich distribution system that the internet offers makes it easy for all nodes to be both producers and consumers, it also makes it easier for nodes that previously only had access to local resources to turn to global ones. Such a reality is clearly one of the driving forces behind a number of universities making a variety of their educational materials available on-line. MIT led the way with its Open Courseware, but Harvard and Stanford have followed. Harvard mandated that all faculty publications must be openly accessible on the university’s own infrastructure, and Stanford has engaged in a number of fascinating enterprises, including the Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) initiative — and let’s not forget iTunes University courses like the one I’m enrolled in on iPhone app development.

These universities and others like them seem to be giving it all away. If education is only about information transfer, then they’ve got nothing left, right? But education isn’t only that. Sure, undergraduate and graduate students do pack a lot into their heads during their matriculation at university, but a good portion of that packing, if universities are doing their job right, is through experiences in thoughtfully structured learning environments.

So, part of what these universities are doing is good old-fashioned advertising and/or marketing, building their brand through both their generosity — and they are being generous, make no mistake about that — as well as clearly articulating for potential students that if you want to be in the presence of knowledge creators and not only get the knowledge but also learn how to create it, then you’ll need to pay tuition and, as a friend of mine once said, “be there to get it.”

Within such a system, there is room between producers and consumers for facilitators, or, as Jeff Jarvis terms it, *consultants*. Here’s Jarvis on on what’s happening:

> In education, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we can maintain our scarcity-based economy: only so chairs to soak in the wisdom of that teacher. It’s a wildly inefficient system — especially in our industrial-age knowledge factories that try to turn out people who memorize the same answer instead of invent new ones.

> Earlier, I’ve speculated about the idea of an educational ecosystem with star professors whose lectures are widely available (as is the case with MIT and Stanford) and who gain value (books, speaking gigs) through being broadly distributed. Then we have local tutors who give us the specialized instruction and consultation we need.

> Thus we have performers and consultants. There is still value in unique performance. We will continue to buy tickets to concerts by stars (but we won’t pay for the Muzak covers of their songs on elevators). We will buy books. We will pay to sit in a movie theater with popcorn. The new competition in the case of media and performance isn’t that someone will make a good-enough version of what we do but that there is more call for the public’s attention.

> [[Jarvis’ post on *The Business Insider*]](http://www.businessinsider.com/stop-selling-scarcity-2-2010-2)

I’m not sure that Jarvis has it entirely right, especially since within his model of the eco-system education is equivalent to media and performance, but I do think that he has the *star* notion right — even though it runs exactly counter to the ideals of the internet.

Jarvis isn’t entirely right because he doesn’t entirely get that the consultant, or facilitator, possesses value over and above his/her audience. In fact, Jarvis is entirely looking the multiple audiences that educators regularly face. It would be great if educators only had to worry about having an audience of committed students seeking to maximize their time to learn. That would be amazing. But that isn’t all educators face. Instead, there is at least one other market to which they report: those stakeholders that require education to *certify* that its output, students, possess some minimum set of knowledge(s) and skill(s).

As anyone in education knows, the certification business has become a race to the bottom in terms of funding: how little do we need to invest in order to get the minimum return? This is much of what lies behind standardized testing and, indeed, the current efforts to “streamline” higher education in Louisiana.

Certification is not where a hybrid university wants to get caught. Once you are simply a certificate issuer, your class enrollments go up, your faculty’s teaching loads go up, and pretty sure you are not sure if you are simply a diploma mill with some real estate. Let me be clear, teaching universities can be amazing places, and some of my happiest colleagues are at teaching colleges and universities. But those are typically private institutions who have made it clear to their audience of students and, in particular, their parents, that facilitation requires either faculty also capable of and engaged in content creation or that it requires, as it does, the seeming luxuries of time and face-to-face interaction, which only comes with smaller class sizes and reasonable teaching loads.

As the major research universities increasingly give away their content, there is going to be enormous pressure on the hybrids — those like my own dear little U — to give up content creation and simply become facilities, quite literally. One need look no further than the recent statements by the Committee to Streamline Higher Education that there can be no more than one major research university in Louisiana. (The statement is left somewhat ambiguous but comments from the committee members reinforce the idea that research is research and everyone else should bow out.)

This is so much foolishness, and it turns the wisdom upon which the internet was built upside down and returns us to the industrial model of the nineteenth century where all raw materials flow into a central factory from which all finished goods flow. The information, and knowledge creation, economy is a distributed one. Not all nodes can or will be equal, but each must be allowed to contribute to the larger network. To rule out a priori their potential production is to cut off the margins, exactly the place where we now know innovation occurs.

Careerism and the Humanities

A recent story in the *New York Times* reveals what all long-time observers of the humanities know already: in the era of careerism, the humanities are a “hard sell.” (The quotation marks are there to emphasize that the irony of using that phrase is quite purposeful.) [Kate Zernike’s story](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03careerism-t.html) profiles a number of universities, one of which is my very own. (The shuttering of the philosophy department is mentioned early in the piece, but there is no further commentary nor mention of UL Lafayette.)

Higher Education in Louisiana

Long time readers of this site know that I rarely comment on political matters. In part, I don’t write about politics because doing so can too often lead to unintended imbroglios that really aren’t how I want to spend my time. And, too, it’s amazing how sensitive people can get about political matters. I pulled a previous version of these on-line notes because one person was offended by one post and wanted to make more of it than there was to make. Again, it’s just not how I want to spend my time.

Nevertheless, no one in the state of Louisiana has been able to ignore the huge budget deficit, the product of the perfect storm of the larger national economic crisis, the drop in oil prices, and the end of the Katrina federal funds. Because of the peculiarity of the Louisiana budget, a peculiarity that seems to suit many legislators, most parts of the budget are protected except for two: public hospitals and higher education. (In a rare moment of something, the arts are actually protected in Louisiana.) As things built to a head in the fall, the state cut 5% out of the higher education budget, which meant that a number of programs that were about to get underway, suddenly disappeared. In the spring, our illustrious governor sent a budget to the legislature that included another 14.5% in cuts to higher education. My assumption was that he was trying to force a re-thinking of the way budget works, to unprotect some areas and make it so higher education and hospitals aren’t always taking the fall for the state’s larger woes.

Worse, another 20% in cuts was proposed for the following year.

During the negotiations, it became increasingly clear that the conventional wisdom among the state-level policy wonks was that higher education itself must be “re-structured” and/or “consolidated.” The governor was remarkably silent on all matters, and really it was the work of a handful of state senators who saved higher education in the state from the worst of it. The end result was that universities and community colleges will absorb a 7% cut, in addition to the 5% cut made mid-year, for a total of 12% for the year.

What finally drew me to write this note was an editorial by Raymond Blanco in today’s _Daily Advertizer_ in which he pointed out that Jim Tucker, speaker of the state House of Representatives, is the largest antagonist to higher education, making a number of menacing comments over the course of the budget negotiations. This is especially troubling since Tucker is, by all accounts, the real power behind the scenes, at least on the Republican side of things. (How much more power he has I leave for others to discover and/or speculate about.)

It’s already the case that faculty working in Louisiana pay a price in terms of their long-term financial stability, given the remarkable difference in benefits between Louisiana and other universities with which I am familiar. I fear for the future of higher education in a climate where one of the most powerful men in the state clearly seeks to diminish what little place higher ed has. I am making absolutely no predictions nor evaluations. Politics is what it is. Louisiana is what it is. Each of us tries, I hope, in our own way to make things better.