Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review of my latest book...

Book Review: Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent

by Alan R. Earls
December 12, 2010

Harnessing America's Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, Peter Smith, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010
In 1970, I was a high school student in a suburban New England town. The invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State had brought spectacular illumination to the end of the academic year and dimmed hopes that the war in Vietnam would soon be over. But optimism and idealism left over from the 1960s still percolated in our midst. That summer, a group of students, aided by a few like-minded parents and educators, came up with the idea of setting up a “free school” in town over the vacation period. Free schools, which at the time were springing up in cities and college towns across the country, were intended to be places where education would finally be democratized; teachers and students would be equals, and the focus would be on real learning rather than meeting pre-established academic standards or simply earning credits. Thanks to several thousand dollars in start-up funding, provided with some reluctance by the school committee, our free school began and flourished, albeit only for an eight-week run, during which we had free use of parts of the high school. It attracted people who had knowledge to share and people, young and old, who wanted to learn. Courses ranged from radio electronics and cooking to rock climbing, foreign languages and simulation games.
Sadly, our free school never managed a second act. By the following summer, idealism had turned to cynicism and the first signs of the decade's economic malaise had begun to make officials more parsimonious and everyone perhaps less experimental. However, having witnessed this wondrous phenomenon, I never entirely let go of the idea that education could be done differently.
Peter Smith, the author of Harnessing America's Wasted Talent, also has had occasion to see education from different vantage points, thanks to a long and varied career in education and politics. Founding president of Community College of Vermont and California State University at Monterey Bay, Smith has also served as Vermont's lieutenant governor and as a Vermont congressman. In recent years, he has authored a slew of books serving up thoughtful critiques of American higher education along with nostrums rooted in his experience.
On a perhaps more controversial note, Smith currently serves as vice president of academic strategies and development at Kaplan University, one of more than a dozen for-profit institutions skewered by investigators of the Government Accountability Office for allegedly deceptive statements made to investigators pretending to be applicants. And for the most part, for-profits are anathema to mainstream educators.
Leaving aside any temptation to shoot the messenger, though, Smith's arguments come across as both persuasive and simple without being simplistic. His central thesis, what he calls his “Law of Thirds” is that higher education has done a generally good job of serving the needs of the “top” one-third of learners who have the means and/or the skills to access and navigate the formal structures of K-12 learning and the college world that follows. However, the remaining two-thirds of learners either never make it out of high school or graduate but do not go on to college. This, he says, is not good enough given that so much job growth is in fields requiring advanced skills.
The cure he proposes is not dismantling higher education, nor does he really fault the higher education “establishment.” Instead, he suggests that higher education is simply “maxed out” and cannot and should not be expected to solve the two-thirds problem by itself. It is what he characterizes as a cottage industry rather than a system—with each school issuing its own currency in the form of academic credits. Still, despite its faults, he is largely content to let much of the higher ed establishment do what it has been doing, often with great success.
What does need to change, he argues, is the notion that only traditional schools, traditional curriculum, traditional classrooms and traditional methods for assessing and awarding credit should remain as the only way to serve up education. Like the American automobile industry, which fattened on cheap petroleum and government subsidized highway and ignored foreign challenges for too long, the education establishment must recognize that change has arrived and a revolution is brewing, Smith writes.
With so many people effectively excluded from the benefits of higher education, with a deep and persistent need for more skilled and capable people in the workforce, and with unlimited quantities of information on the web and communication technologies that have grown ubiquitous and cheap, Smith says America can no longer wait for miracles that will never happen. He points out that the U.S. is the only developed nation where younger workers are less educated than older workers. Therefore, he suggests, educators must devise ways to recognize learning in all its form and engage learners from cradle to grave using more innovative methods and recognizing each individual’s personal learning capabilities.
One of the solutions he proposes is the creation of Colleges of the 21st Century (C21C). Instead of focusing on exclusion—with admission standards as the gate—he says, “For the first time in history, we have the knowledge and the tools available to educate through new designs,” including “emerging information technology.”
C21Cs will, in his vision, thoroughly personalize learning, connecting it to all aspects of life and ensuring the mobility of credit and credentials so no one will be left out of the system. For example, C21Cs would find ways to identify and recognize learning done on the job, in the home and through leisure. The competent and intelligent people that often have crucial positions in our world—albeit without benefit of formal credentials—would be embraced and given opportunities to grow. In the end, he writes, “the new ecology of learning will change forever the balance of power between the learner and his or her learning.”
Smith’s vision of a democratized, wide-ranging and humanized education system is everything an idealist might hope for supplemented by plausible means of implementation that should satisfy the pragmatist. It will be interesting to see how far he gets.
Reviewed by Alan R. Earls, a Boston-area writer.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Access, Innovation and “Colleges for the 21st Century”: Interview with Peter Smith

Peter P. Smith, Ed.D. has a history of driving innovation in higher education that few in the field can match. (Full bio at the bottom of this article.) And he hasn’t stuck to one track; he’s the founding President of the Community College of Vermont, former  Lieutenant Governor of Vermont , university Dean at George Washington U, Founding President at Cal State at Monterey Bay Assistant Director of UNESCO, and now the Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development for Kaplan Higher Education. In 2010, Jossey-Bass published his latest book: Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (2010). (Makes you feel kinda lazy, doesn’t it?)  
KCH: Your work and writing take up the challenge of helping more students attend and complete college. Other well-known professionals in the field have argued, as I’m sure you are aware, that the problem is not that too few students attend higher education, but too many. Thoughts?
PPS: I have three thoughts about this. First, the people making these arguments went to college and graduated, as did their children and relatives. So, my Vermont puckishness would reply, “If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for others who have been marginalized”. If they are arguing that we have not gotten it right for previously marginalized learners, they are correct. But to then default to the “no college for you” position ignores the promise of opportunity that America makes to all as well as the history of American higher education. Second, we know definitively that with additional education comes better health, longer lives, increased voting and civic participation, and increased earnings.  Those are the outcomes that will create a stronger social, civic, and economic fabric in America. Sounds like a good investment to me. Finally, and importantly, we need more learned/skilled people in America, not fewer. The paramount question facing higher education is how we succeed with previously marginalized people to clear standards of quality.
KCH: You’ve long advocated for recognizing learning that occurs outside of colleges – in the workplace, for example. And you also point out in your book that our colleges no longer have a monopoly on information. Give this state of affairs, should our institutions of higher education migrate toward a focus on the evaluation and validation of learning?
PPS: Absolutely. But as I have ruminated on this subject, and watched the behavior of colleges since I published The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America (Anker, 2004,I have drawn two conclusions. First, most will not do it because their faculty-centric orientation makes faculty teaching and curricular control the focus, not assessment. Second, the few who do will tend to make it a boutique-style program, not a “Best Buy” for higher education assessment. So, it will lack reach. By the time I wrote Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2010), I had concluded that we needed new types of institutions in the higher education space, I called them “Colleges for the 21st Century”. And these institutions would operate under a different set of principles and have different characteristics, including comprehensive assessment.
KCH: After dedicating much of your career to the public service within government and state colleges and universities, you’re now at Kaplan University – one of the larger proprietary schools in the U.S. Does the proprietary model offer opportunities for innovation that are not available within non-profit institutions?
PPS: Again, the answer is “absolutely”. One of the main reasons that I chose to work at Kaplan was that I wanted to experience the culture of the “for profit” sector and see if they were any better at embedding and sustaining significant change and continuing innovation.  Although businesses are subject to the same realities of organizational culture as any other organization, they are far more focused on the results, student learning and employment. So, employing teaching and learning practices that are known to be best practices characterizes the culture, not the infighting and autonomy that has come to characterize much of traditional higher education’s behavior. Candidly, however, the accelerating  pace of change outside of established institutions, including proprietary colleges and universities, will require that this sector be extremely nimble, just to keep up. Whether they will be able to do that, or yield to still other new institutions and programs, remains to be seen.
Author: Keith Hampson

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Student Success Strategies

Student Success Strategies

Kaplan Higher Education’s Peter Smith discusses five approaches for enhancing student success.

By John Walda

In the March 2011 issue of Business Officer, NACUBO President and CEO John Walda interviewed Peter Smith, senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education, who discussed the role of for-profit institutions in meeting America's higher education needs. Here they continue their conversation.
JOHN WALDA: What are some important innovations taking place at Kaplan with regard to student success?
PETER SMITH: I can name five approaches we are taking that I think are striking.
 1. Trial period. The first is called the Kaplan Commitment. We decided that until we arrive at an appropriate diagnostic that is predictive of academic success-other than prior educational attainment, which is a pretty good predictor-we will let students enroll for a free five-week introductory period, which is half the length of a term. If at the end of five weeks, they are failing or we feel they aren't going to succeed, we can ask students to leave. Likewise, if they feel they signed up for something that didn't turn out to be what they expected, they can opt out with no academic or financial penalty. This is a model that I think other for-profit and not-for-profit institutions could adopt, especially with regard to serving at-risk students.
 2. Course-level outcomes. A second approach is our commitment to developing learning outcomes at the individual course level. For instance, we can compare what is learned from different instructors across multiple sections of the same course and can track what individual students are learning. From this, we are building a much clearer record of which parts of the curriculum appear to be working well or not working and are developing a continuous improvement process internally to strengthen teaching, course design, course evaluation, and support services-all critical elements in any educational enterprise. The idea is to arrive at a high degree of consistency from course to course to assure a proper level of rigor and quality of content.
 At the same time, we are working to build in sufficient flexibility so that faculty members can teach to their strengths and interpret the curriculum, as long as they incorporate the same core components that will lead to consistent learning outcomes for students. While we're in the early stages of implementation, we've had some very positive results so far.
3. Advanced placement. A third innovation is what we call learning recognition and portability. Any adult learner can assemble all his prior learning, formal and informal, against course equivalencies, and with a third-party independent evaluation can get advanced placement based on a hard analysis of what he already knows and is able to perform. Our longer-term objective with this initiative includes identifying partner colleges to form a consortium so that students have more choices about where they attend. This notion of learning recognition and portability is, I think, hugely important going forward.
4. Adaptive learning. We're also doing some interesting work in cognitive adaptive task analysis, curriculum development, and course design. In the future, we hope to present a customized curriculum that meets students at the place where they need to learn. For instance, if students understand a concept, they can skip what they have already mastered and move on. Conversely, where students don't understand something or run into a problem, additional practice is provided.
5. Dual-purpose skill building. The final example I'll describe has to do with the general education program at Kaplan. We have developed a matrix using our course learning system that indicates overlapping outcomes throughout the curriculum. For instance, a course in psychology might also test a student's critical thinking skills, or an exercise in a criminal justice course might require a written component that assesses writing proficiency. The idea is that you can teach the substance of the course and at the same time evaluate a student's problem-solving or writing skills, for instance.
The extraordinary power of technology allows us to identify skill mastery at multiple levels. Thinking like a historian and writing well are two skills that often go together, but they can also be evaluated separately. This adds depth to the learning experience and gives real power to the learner who might be able to move more quickly through course material because he or she is strengthening multiple skills at the same time.
JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO.