Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You Don’t Need a Weatherman…..

You Don’t Need a Weatherman…..     
I recently sat in a policy discussion where people were chewing on what the next “moon shot” or “game-changer” in higher education was going to be. While there was general consensus that “moon shots” were over-rated and rarely worked, I was puzzled that there was less consensus about the “game-changer”, which I took it as a form of denial. The next game-changers are already with us and they are both transformative and disruptive. They are the web and web-enabled technology. In plain terms, these game-changers rob the university of its historical function of knowledge creation and dissemination precisely because they lie beyond the university’s reach, embedded in the larger surrounding society. And they simultaneously pierce the access, learning support, and employment guidance functions that the university historically has controlled. For the first time, universities do not control their own futures any more than do publishers and newspapers.
Here’s an example. Anya Kamenetz, whose DIY U, caught so many peoples’ attention, recently published a follow-up work, The Edupunk’sGuide to Certificates. The Guide is organized in a sequence of steps that a self-directed learner can take to understand where they are, how they learn, and how to chart and follow a learning path that they select for themselves. The Guide’s organizational structure rests on dozens of urls, apps, and programs that already exist to support learning and its validation in multiple forms at every step in the self-directed learning process. And soon enough, someone will produce a software version of the Guide and then other versions as well. It is a simple matter to imagine a variety of approaches following this general scenario with varying levels of support, guidance, and control.  
In fact, a working early-stage model of such a platform exists at KNEXT. When self-directed learners access the platform, they can reflect of what they know, what they want to know, and look at simulated degree programs and educational pathways based on where their journey is going to take them. They can also organize all the learning they have done, formal as well as informal, in a portfolio organized to place them clearly on their learning path, standing with their learning history and looking forward to their learning future. And finally, if they want to get a third party assessment of the academic value of their accumulated learning, that is available as well. In short, there is activity across the entire spectrum of learning, from pre-engineered and self-paced to open sourced and self-directed with more conventional models in between. All are enhanced and scalable as never before by the web and web-enabled technology.
What we are verging on with these developments is what I call a new “pedagogy of learning”. While this may seem like a confusion of terms to some (and I readily concede that there may be better language to describe what I see), I see that actual engagement with knowledge – what I know and am able to do and what I want to know and be able to do – and associated reflection and assessment is a teaching-learning strategy in and of itself. If reflection is the process of deducing meaning from broad experience, then the act of planning, implementing, engaging, and evaluating your learning, however you conduct it, is a pedagogical exercise that can be joined and supported by peers and experts alike.
Perhaps most exciting, this approach to learning also prepares the learner for life in the knowledge economy and information society that is so much discussed these days. The actual exercise and activity of learning becomes the personal laboratory for the learner, strengthening their abilities to synthesize and think critically, write and analyze, distinguish reliable from faulty information as an integrated part of their educational journey. It is the ultimate engaged learning experience, done right.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Don’t Need a Weatherman…

You Don’t Need a Weatherman
As the old Bob Dylan song lyrics told us back in the ‘60’s, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowin’”. And, as I listen in on the policy conversations and read the blogs and chats today about disruptive forces in higher education, I get that feeling all over again. Too many people, good and earnest people, think the future of higher education and change is negotiable. My strong belief, stated bluntly, is that when it comes to disruptive change in American society generally and higher education more specifically, it is not negotiable. Or, referencing Dylan, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.
The denial can be comprehensive. For example, some people ask, somewhat defensively, whether disrupters can meet all of the market’s needs. Respectfully, in an environment when we need to increase the college attainment rate by 75-100% over the next 10 years, that is the wrong question. It will take years for the value proposition behind the traditional model to be significantly compromised. And it will probably never happen completely. Other innovations will allow traditional colleges and universities to adapt and change and survive. Having said that, the challenge of educating those who have been failed by the system to date, will not be met by the traditional sectors and models alone. In short, what got us where we are won’t get us where we need to go.
As new inventions emerge to shape and support learning in unforeseen ways, however, a new balance between old and new will emerge. And the collective impact of these disruptive activities on the academic value proposition among “alternative providers” is impossible to predict. In short, cannot predict the future shape of learning and learning support any more than Justin Morrill could have predicted the shape of land grant universities in America today. I do believe, however, that it is practical and possible to predict that, over the next 10-15 years, good, then better, and then best practices will emerge and be embraced. Quality will be defined and embraced. I also believe that cost/price structures will change while users’ behaviors will continue to evolve based on further IT and software developments in the broad society. Ultimately that is a chilly north wind for the traditional higher education model.
Then comes the tornado. There is a traditional response in the academy to change: hunker down and out-wait it. Hide in the cellar. The problem this time is that the academy, collectively and individually, does not control the change than the family in the storm shelter controls the tornado. So the traditional academic and economic model is not in charge of and does not control in fundamental ways the future in which they will live. This is unprecedented. And the consequences include that “waiting it out” will only lead to a bigger gap between practice and promise down the line. We cannot channel disruption, but if we are adroit and tenacious, we just might be able to surf it the way board riders catch wave after wave.
And finally comes the soft summer breeze. What technology and disruption will give us is unparalleled consistency and personalization in a multi-dimensional and mobile environment. We will be able to customize, adapt, and respond to the expressed needs of learners in a learning-centric environment. On-line seminars and self-paced instructional models will be two of many choices, not the main stream. And consistent learning outcomes will allow multiple forms of pedagogy towards the same end.
As an educator, what excites me about this trend, however unknowable the ultimate “destination” remains, is the potential it contains. The potential, among other things, to combine liberal with career-oriented learning, to integrate knowing a lot about selected areas of knowledge with refined higher order intellectual capacities like team-work, ethical thinking, problem-solving, critical thinking, to focus on learning, not teaching. So, consistency of learning outcomes actually can permit far more comprehensive reflection about what is being learned if we are smart about it.
These are just a few of the myriad possibilities that are available in the emerging “learning” space of high education, enabled by disruptive forces. My core point, however, is that the direction is set, the wind is blowing.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blog - the frog and the scorpion

Blog -  the frog and the scorpion        
There is the old story of the frog and the scorpion. It goes like this. There is a wide river and the scorpion, needing to cross to the other side but not knowing how to swim approaches a very hesitant frog. Will you let me ride on your head as you cross this river?” asks the scorpion. “But why, Mr. Scorpion, should I trust that you won’t sting me when we get to the other side?” asked the frog. “Because”, said the scorpion, I give you my word and also, if there are threats en route, I can scare them away, assuring your safe passage”.
The frog agreed, with some trepidation, to carry the scorpion and they set out. Once or twice along the way, they were approached by a fish or a diving bird of prey, but in both cases the scorpion scared them away. Eventually they neared the other side of the river and, as the frog carried the scorpion out of the water, the scorpion jumped down and promptly stung the frog. Mortally wounded, the frog moaned, “Why did you sting me? We had an agreement.” And the scorpion replied, “Because that’s what scorpions do.”
Granted, the imagery may be a little extreme. But I see that “frog” of higher education being seduced and then stung by the twin foes of performance distortion and academic tradition. This is happening exactly when higher education needs to break free of the damaging aspects of tradition and develop new forms to educate the learners on the 21st century in the numbers, at the levels, and at a price that society and individuals can afford.
In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education innovation section, Richard Vedder blogs about the “scandal” of having between 40-50% of all Pell recipients graduate. And he opines that the more Pell recipients there are in an institution, the lower the graduation rate, thus blithely skipping by a) the whole reason Pell grants were instituted (to provide financial support to poor students needing financial grant assistance) and b) the known fact that children (and adults) from more affluent families do better  and receive higher allocations of resources in higher education than those who are 1st generation college-goers. Furthermore, he ignores the important fact that even some success in higher education without the award of a degree is better than none at all when it comes to economic participation in the society.
In last week’s blog, ………, I discussed at some length the emerging data on what tuition really pays for and the “back room” economics of higher educational institutions that bear, in too many cases, little connection to the actual costs of teaching.
In this case, the “scorpion’s bite” lies in the law of unintended consequences. The tack that Vedder has taken in his recent blog, and the drag of the traditional higher education economic model on the need to provide higher quality, lower cost learning opportunities, is that each points the country, its quality of civic and social life, and its workforce in the wrong direction, towards 2nd class citizenship in an increasingly global and information-driven economy. Even as it is unintended, this sting is, ultimately, just as problematic.
The conversation we need is about quality, effectiveness, and efficiency. Currently that  conversation being driven by, among others, the Gates Foundation with its work in metrics and the Lumina foundation with its Degree Qualifications framework organized around learning outcomes. When those conversations can be merged with the power of the Open Education Resource movement and emerging socially net-worked support services, we will be on a revolutionary cusp of a new education age. Our focus must be forward and upward to success for many more learners with the capacity to succeed.