I used to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography once a year. Now I get to it every two or three years. Each time I read it, something new captures my attention. This time it was an excerpt where Franklin describes the formation and purpose of a learning community called Junto (or the Leather Apron club) in 1727. From this group emerged the idea of a shared library, later the subscription library, as well as the American Philosophical Society. Rather than getting it secondhand, I’ll let Franklin explain Junto to you, and follow it up with a few observations about the implications for life in a digital and increasingly networked world.

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first members were Joseph Breintnal, a copyer of deeds for the scriveners, a good-natur’d, friendly middle-ag’d man, a great lover of poetry, reading all he could meet with, and writing some that was tolerable; very ingenious in many little Nicknackeries, and of sensible conversation.

Thomas Godfrey, a self-taught mathematician, great in his way, and afterward inventor of what is now called Hadley’s Quadrant. But he knew little out of his way, and was not a pleasing companion; as, like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation. He soon left us.

Nicholas Scull, a surveyor, afterwards surveyor-general, who lov’d books, and sometimes made a few verses.

William Parsons, bred a shoemaker, but, loving reading, had acquir’d a considerable share of mathematics, which he first studied with a view to astrology, that he afterwards laught [laughed] at it. He also became surveyor-general.

William Maugridge, a joiner, a most exquisite mechanic, and a solid, sensible man.

Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, and George Webb I have characteriz’d before.

Robert Grace, a young gentleman of some fortune, generous, lively, and witty; a lover of punning and of his friends.

– The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Notice the attributes of this group.

  1. It existed for “mutual improvement.”
  2. It included people from diverse occupations and experiences.
  3. Participation was not limited to people with formal education or credentials (notice the self-taught member).
  4. Each member was required to come with questions (from “any point of view”) on almost any subject (although they focused on “morality, politics, and natural philosophy”).
  5. These discussions were diverse and not limited to the official professions of the participants.
  6. The focus was a search for truth, not to win the argument.
  7. Each person was required to write an essay on a topic of personal choice and interest every three months, and read it to the group for discussion.

As I look at this list, I’m intrigued by many elements.

  • It is question-driven instead of book driven (even though books were an important part of the learning in this group). Notice how that is qualitatively distinct from most schools and classrooms.
  • This was not for a degree or credential. It is for self-improvement, with an eye toward that which also benefits society.
  • This is not about looking good, winning a debate, or earning accolades. It is about the pursuit of truth.
  • This is not driven by writings or lectures. Instead it is truly peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, every member is expected to contribute in substantive ways.
  • It is not teacher-driven.
  • It is not about getting professional development so you are eligible for a raise or promotion.
  • It is about growth and the pursuit of truth.
  • This community empowered members to be active and engaged citizens.
  • This is a vibrant learning community.

I can’t help but think that our world and societies would be better off if they were seasoned with more learners and groups like this. Similarly, I have to think that we can leverage the connections of the digital world to build and nurture such communities.

I follow the news feeds on topics like entrepreneurship and startups, but I focus on news related to the education sector. Recently, a different type of headline caught my attention, What Your Company Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer. I don’t even drink beer, but something caught my attention in the title. The writer explained that craft beer sales increased by 17.2 percent while “overall beer sales” dropped by 1.9 percent. These craft beer makers are not just imitating the practices of the big name beer companies. They show a spirit of cooperation with other craft beer makers,  experiment with beer in new and creative ways, are driven by founders with a true passion for the product, and they are (collectively) looking ahead. As I read these suggested lessons in the article, I couldn’t help but notice how they also apply to those breaking new ground in the education sector, whether it is a new education startup or an innovative school model.

Do More than Imitate the Big Names

Education is full of imitation. In the higher education sector, we have a history of organizations striving to be like Harvard, Stanford or one of the élite schools. In the K-12 sector, we have private schools that often do little more than imitate the practices of the public schools but with a varying levels of exclusivity. Also in the K-12 sector, we see schools constantly striving to do and be what is trendy at the time, sometimes aided by the force of mandates. I’ve also seen University schools of education that talk more about state policies and mandates than any of the current research or cutting edge developments in the field. Among education startups I see some of the most innovative work, but even there we see people wanting to be the next [fill in the blank]. There is nothing wrong with learning from other organizations (I certainly do that all the time), but there is so much need and opportunity in taking the road less traveled in the education sector. The largest organizations are not always the best to imitate, and some truly compelling and promising innovations in the education sector are difficult or unlikely to scale. That isn’t going to captivate venture capitalists, but there are plenty of other workable funding models. This is about more than finding a blue ocean strategy. It is about breaking new ground, exploring new possibilities, and creating new opportunities. As stated by Todd Henry in the Accidental Creative, “Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” If we are going to nurture a craft beer equivalent in the education sector (both with startups and schools), that calls for original work, or at least existing work with some creative twists.

Embrace a Spirit of Cooperation with Others Education Startups and Innovative School Startups

Years ago, when I conducted a study of the ten traits of leaders in innovative schools, this is something that stood out instantly. It didn’t take a formal study to see that these people loved to share and collaborate. They were often quick to help others who wanted to do something similar. They embraced a spirit of openness, recognizing that they were in this for something more important than patent and financial profit. This doesn’t mean that they ignored the importance of financial or competitive realities, but it does mean that they were driven by a vision that, regardless of the finances and competition, led them to lend a helping hand, share, cooperate and nurture a broader community around their work. We see this in innovative charters, magnet schools, private schools, amid certain groups like democratic and PBL schools, and elsewhere. I’d love to see this expand.

Experimenting with Education in New and Creative Ways

The article pointed out the interesting experiments coming from craft beer makers. You can find chocolate beer, hot pepper beer, oyster, key lime, peanut butter, banana and a hundred other flavors. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a widespread market for an oyster stout, maybe not for any oyster beverage. Yet, amid these experiments are some truly promising discoveries. That same thing is true in the “craft education” marketplace. As I’ve written before, I do not advocate thoughtless experimentation on children. Yet, given that the product, service or environment meets some of the basics (although even that is debatable), there is ample room to experiment, especially when we invite the learner(s) into the experimentation, making it part of the learning experience.

Passion-Driven Work

I don’t want to confuse emotion with passion. While some definitions of the word focus on emotion, I think of it more in terms of the conviction and drive. What I’m thinking of here goes far beyond a specific personality type. This is about the extent to which people truly care about what they are doing and why it matters.  They are “true believers” and while there are many challenges, they find joy in their work, and they are driven to be a difference-maker. In the education sector, I contend that work must be driven, in some way, by a desire to do something of significance, that ultimately and genuinely benefits learners. I sometimes call this the “Mr. Rogers Mindset” and it consider it a non-negotiable educational innovators.

Looking Ahead

Tradition has its benefits, but as traditions become more established, there can be a resistance to ongoing exploration of how to respond or adapt to what is new. The author of the article on craft beer explains that this looking ahead and openness to embracing the new is more welcome and open  among craft beer makers than the broader beer industry. It is the same for educational innovators. This means working through or moving behind cliché statements about new developments. I still find people who assume that using technology is somehow less personal. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There are others who resist any number of developments because they have an opinion about it, but they have not truly investigated the affordances and limitations. Looking ahead is not about adopting every new development or buzz word, but it is about keeping our eyes open, being really curious, and allowing ourselves to explore them without having our minds made up before we begin.

The “craft beer” equal in education is alive and well. We see it in new education startups, open source projects, new school starts and restarts, even in those areas with long traditions like publishing and higher education. These are movements not trying to become the next [fill in the blank], driven by leaders with a passion for their product or service, cooperative, forward thinking, and experimenting in interesting and sometimes unusual ways. Many of these are unlikely to ever become mainstream in education, but that is not always the point. They meet needs of a niche audience and they support of vision of education that is not fixed, one that realizes variety of options is a far better direction to universal standardization.

Dear Mr. President,

I’m writing regarding your recent announcement about a forthcoming proposed plan for making the first two years of college free in the United States. I realize that this is a startling concept for some, troubling for others, and that it will face many challenges from opponents. I understand that it may be unlikely to get the necessary support to move forward on a national level. It has only been days since the announcement and I’ve already ready dozens of critiques, some with good and important insights that might help to strengthen the proposal and assist us in making progress toward free and universal education. I also realize that making a public statement like this from the President of the United States has power and influence, even if the idea makes no progress on a national level. Your statement brought an important issue and opportunity to the public square. Even by giving attention to the idea and a comparable state-level program like the Tennessee Promise, you have challenged us as a nation to consider how we can be bold and committed to making progress toward increased access and opportunity to higher education and the jobs that require training beyond high school. I also recognize that, while your statements were about a specific idea, the spirit of such a proposal goes well beyond two free years of college. Thank you for the challenge. I would like help, and here are five ways that I will do so.

1. I will champion open education.

Open education is about removing barriers to education and learning. The digital revolution has thrust us into a world where such a vision is possible and scalable on a global level.  Current funding models in American higher education often make it difficult to imagine free and open educational opportunities, and yet widely supported movements like massive open online courses, open badges, open courseware and open education resources prove the power of shared vision and action in this area. Educational opportunities are more available than any time in history, and much of this has come from a spirit of social entrepreneurship, a concept that can serve us well as we dream of a more open, equitable and humane approaches to education.

2. I will champion making a greater distinction between evidence of what is learned and how it is learned.

As much as I believe that two free years of college is a move in the right direction (despite the fact that it challenges the existing model of higher institutions like the one where I work), I aspire to help un-chain evidence of learning from the academy. Today it is hard for many of us to imagine this possibility, but there is a movement underway that is making important progress in this area. We are a group of people involved with something called open badges, visual and digital symbols of achievements and accomplishments. While the concept of a digital badge is simple, it has tremendous possibilities, some of which we are seeing through hundreds of early applications and innovations, projects in after-school programs to competency-based graduate school, workforce development to support for veterans, professional continuing education to turning entire cities into inter-connected learning networks with a common and shared means of verifying and documenting accomplishments.

I am convinced that it is possible to take a set of standards, like what we see established for given professions, and to design competency-based digital badges that can be issued when people demonstrate that they met each of these standards. How they learn it should not matter. It might come from self-study, participation in open courses, through a local study group, through two free years of college, or through some fee-based course or program. By unbundling the “how” of learning from the credential we open doors to employment for people regardless of the learning pathway. I believe that this fits very will with your vision for two free years of college, but it takes it to a level where we are not just concerned with attendance at an institution. This makes sure that what we are doing is resulting in actual learning that translates into new opportunity in life and qualified candidates for many important jobs.

3. I will champion education that is open and accessible to people regardless of socioeconomic status.

While schooling has yet to prove itself to be a complete equalizer among people, true education has shown itself to crease access and opportunity to people regardless of socioeconomic status. It does not solve all problems of inequity, but it gives people a fighting chance. As such, I am committed to supporting, championing, even helping create programs and models that extend educational opportunity to all people, and doing it in a way that doesn’t give the “good stuff” to the élite and offer a more general or watered-down education to the rest.

4. I will champion education that empowers human agency, the capacity for self-direction, purpose-driven living, and service to others.

I believe in a liberal education for all, liberal in the classical sense, which is about education of a free person. It is the education that treats each person as free, inherently valuable, and capable of agency and self-direction. Such a conviction calls for something greater than more education. It calls for a type of learning that equips, empowers, and nurtures people who do more than follow and comply. It invites people to lives of courage, creativity, personal conviction, and personal responsibility.

Too many people are limited by not having a sense of the possibilities, and I will work to promote education that helps people grow into a sense of purpose and possibility. This comes from people who live and think with agency, but who have the opportunity to benefit from learning experiences that invite them reflect  upon their life’s purpose and calling. As such, I will champion education that invites people into the life of the hero’s journey, one that embraces the opportunity to use one’s distinct gifts, talents and abilities in service to others; and that embraces life as a gift and grand adventure.

5. I will advocate for educational innovation and entrepreneurship that furthers the pursuit of the above four goals.

I commend the vision for two free years of college, and this is a good and important step in the right direction. However, if I understand the spirit of such a proposal, I am convinced that this calls for a reform and re-imagining of education that goes beyond removing the cost of tuition. As such, I am excited about the good and important innovation and entrepreneurship work being done in the public and private sector. I will continue to write and work for a vision of innovation in the education sector that is rooted in a desire for social good and accountability for the impact of one’s products and services. At the same time, I will support and bolster responsible experimentation, thoughtful educational entrepreneurship, and purpose-driven innovation.

I support your proposal, Mr. President…not necessarily every letter of it (I have not yet seen it). Perhaps it is best done by supporting and empowering states to do it. Maybe there is another way. In the end, I am open to many ways of getting at the same thing whether it happens nationally or locally. We can almost always find a workable “how” if only we allow ourselves to be immersed and inspired by a compelling “why.” We have a wonderfully compelling “why” for increased access and opportunity to education. As such, I support and seek to build upon the spirit of your proposal. Thank you for giving such attention to this important topic in education.


Dr. Bernard Bull

Maxwell Failure QuoteI don’t remember where I was reading it, but in some creativity or leadership book that I read over the last year, the author suggested the benefits of taking the time to write an un-resume, a resume that, instead of selling yourself, highlights your failures. This isn’t just about beating ourselves up for opportunities missed, failed attempts, and disappointments. It is about recognizing how we have grown, and how much we can learn from our failures and the pursuit of something seemingly unreasonable aspirations. I decided to take up the challenge and finished it with some rich self-reflections. Here are the highlights, 5 less than flattering moments that I’ve gleaned for lessons, insights and opportunities.

1. Failed to apply to my top 5 colleges.

It isn’t that I was not accepted. I didn’t even have the courage to apply. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had not read an entire book from front to back (unless we are counting Dr. Seuss). I loved learning, had an insatiable curiosity, and craved new experiences and novel ideas. I started high school with no study habits and finished with a few, enough to turn a lower GPA my first couple of years into something presentable. I loved the big ideas and deep questions, but sometimes lacked the discipline and understanding to build a foundation in an area that allowed me to thrive and dig such ideas and questions. I was still recovering from the loss of my father five years earlier. I was convinced that words like “majorly” were indeed words, which set me up for a less than exemplary college application essay. I didn’t read or write very much. I didn’t know how to use a library card catalog (You might need to look this one up if you are under 30). When I was a Freshman in high school, I still had to use a mental pneumonic to remember right from left, and I confused seven or eight items in my multiplication and division tables…but I still loved math. I had no understanding of academic culture and the associated vocabulary. I’d moved among 12 states, which sometimes left me with major gaps in my formative education. I’d move from one school that was behind to another that was moving through the curriculum at a more rapid pace. I knew how to ask provocative, substantive and compelling questions, but I didn’t know how to seek and find answers to them.

Yet, at the end of high school, I was on the verge of becoming addicting to books, reading one a day for almost an entire summer after my first year in college. I read widely, from philosophy to Russian novels, self-help to economics, history to theology, psychology to social criticism…and I loved the history of ideas. In other words, I read much more non-fiction out of school than I did in school. When I thought of the ideal college experience, I wanted to be at Harvard or MIT because I craved a community that had a love for ideas and doing something amazing with those ideas. I wanted to be at a place where I could participate in a rich conversation about the most pressing issues in the world, the greatest opportunities in science, and I wanted to do it with the world leaders in those areas.

I didn’t apply to Harvard, MIT, or another “dream” school. I was afraid. Given my GPA and less then exemplary first ACT score, I thought it best to be realistic. There is a very good chance that I would not have been accepted, and I ended up having a positive experience at a regional liberal arts college. My embarrassment is that I didn’t apply. At the time, I didn’t even know that colleges like Reed existed. I’d never heard of Carleton, Haverford, Swarthmore, or Wesleyan. I had little to no sense of the possibilities. In fact, when Washington University (in St. Louis) expressed interest in me for basketball, I was largely uninterested because I thought it odd to have a school named “Washington” University in Missouri. I did not even know enough to be flattered by the interest.

This was a hard habit to break, avoiding the pursuit of a grand goal because I didn’t want to experience disappointment, but I let fear hold me back far too much. I think about this quote from Steve Jobs, now even more powerful after his passing.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. – 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

I bowed out or never stepped into several exciting opportunities in my formative years (even while I participated in many others). It wasn’t until my early 20s that I discovered the joy of aiming and striving for things, even if I initially thought they were far beyond my reach. That change made all the difference. I learned to (albeit not always or perfectly) learn from failures, and I discovered that it isn’t about succeeding the first time,  but more about persisting and/or trying different paths to the same goals.

2. Earned a 14 on the reading section of the ACT in high school.

I already mentioned that I didn’t read in high school, so when I sat down to take a multiple hour test like the ACT, I didn’t even have the discipline or attention span to read an entire essay. I learned that this doesn’t work well for one’s score. Fortunately, I had a 30+ on at least one other sections, resulting in a cumulative ACT that left me eligible for all the Universities to which I ended up applying. It is funny that a less-than-one-page essay was too long for me at that point in my life. Looking back at that, I’m reminded that the ACT is not an accurate measure of aptitude for everyone. Without test-taking skills, a healthy attention span and similar traits, you can’t demonstrate your aptitude through such an assessment. Fortunately, these are things than can be learned over time. I am proof of that. I went from not being able to make it through an essay to reading Augustine’s Confessionals and Pascal’s Pensees in less than two years. This is why I rejoice in the growing attention to the importance of attributes like grit and focus, and an understanding that these can be learned. Over the years, I’ve learned through personal experience and observation that you can’t be too careful when using labels like smart, gifted or talented as if they are simple genetic traits. Nurture needs more credit. Think of those destructive claims of early researchers that certain races are superior to others, as if life experience were not a factor. It is. Most of us know that now, although not all our educational policies, practices and models have been fully reconsidered in this light.

3. Never started a research paper more than a few days in advance of the due date throughout high school and the first two years of undergraduate school.

Some teachers required me to put together some notecards and an outline, and that forced me to do something in advance, but in high school I did not know what that had to do with writing the paper. It was a disconnect. I was clueless about using a personal planner or any form of personal project management that would help me figure out how to work on a task that took weeks or months. When I discovered the “magic” of strategic planning, goal setting, and planning in general; it was like I’d been shown a new and unchartered world. Goals were like some irresistible dessert once I learned what they were and what goal setting could do. Then, when I got my first laptop with Outlook calendar, I was delighted with how I could now think about my life and goals over months, years, even longer. This is not to suggest that I no longer procrastinate on anything. I do, but it is now the norm for me to conduct research or find success with projects that takes weeks, months or years of study before even producing any form of written work or formal presentation. Sprints are helpful, but it takes a different mindset and skill set to succeed in a marathon.

I suppose some can read these and conclude that I was a late bloomer. I don’t look at it that way. My life’s path would likely been very different if I had some of the skills listed above earlier in my life. It may also be that I would have never learned some of the lessons from these life experiences. This is not an exercise in excusing our mistakes or avoiding the truth. It is, however, about recognizing that every life experience is an opportunity to learn, and failures are too painful to be wasted. Why not use them to become sometime more, to do something noble, to learn? That is what I value about this exercise in writing an un-resume. It gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves, to be patient with those who are still developing in some of these areas, to not be too quick to label people’s abilities in absolute terms, to reflect on lessons learned, and to mine them for as many insights and opportunities as we can find. As Goethe wrote, “By seeking and blundering we learn.”

I came across a stirring quote from Henri Nouwen that invited me to think about its implications for learning organizations, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” If you don’t know Nouwen, he was an accomplished academic and author of close to 40 books. Nouwen was a Catholic priest who spent two decades teaching first at Notre Dame, then Yale and Harvard divinity schools. His books tell a candid and authentic story of life, faith, struggle, compassion and living in service to others. In 1986 Nouwen moved from the lecture halls of the academy to a community called,L’Arche Daybreak, a living community where people with disabilities are welcome, loved, and nurtured. If you have seven minutes, the following video gives a glimpse into L’Arche from the perspective of a good friend of Nouwen, Jean Vanier. If you don’t have the time, I encourage you to at least watch the first minute or two.

Vanier describes his first experiences leading up to the formation of L’Arche, when he says, “…through his body, through his eyes, he was craving relationship. ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ ‘Will you come back?’ So, everything was around relationship, whereas, with my students in philosophy it was around ideas.” Vanier goes on to explain the experience of meeting people with disabilities who seemed feel as if they were living on this earth “with nobody wanting them.”

In the video, Vanier describes the meaning behind the name, L’Arche, or The Ark. In the story of Noah’s Ark, Noah welcomed the creations from around the world into his ark to save them from the flood. Vanier uses this story to explain that many people with disabilities are washed away in the flood of this world: not given places of freedom, killed before or after birth, placed into institutions. As such, the vision of L’Arche grew out of Vanier initially inviting two men with disabilities to live with him. In essence, L’Arche is a vision for warm, welcome, inviting, liberating community. As I’ve learned about L’Arche over the years, I’ve come to understand it as community that is rich with freedom and compassion, not a condescending hand out understanding of compassion, but one that truly loves and honors the people in this community.

For many young people, next to the home, school is the community in which they will spend the greatest amount of time in their young lives. The formative experiences of living in these communities have a significant and over an extended period, dramatic impact on the way young people view themselves, others, and the world. This is why I persistently argue for school options and choice, because every community teaches a worldview.

As I think about Nouwen’s quote and the community to which he devoted the last decade of his life, it prompts me to wonder about what one participant in my Adventures in Blended Learning MOOC referred to as humane education. I think of that as education that happens in a hospitable, safe community; one that is not only focused on outcomes, tests, and ideas; but that invests in relationships. I am not suggesting that schools take on the greatest social issues of society. That is a broader social and community responsibility. Yet, the nature of the communities in which we learn helps to shape the ways in which we learn to interact with others. This is why I often write with advocacy for self-directed learning and choice. What does it do to a person to spend over a decade in learning communities driven almost exclusively by authority, control, and the highly elevated value of compliance? What are the lessons learned (even if they are not explicitly taught) in such a community?

Democracy depends upon participation and hospitality, upon not simply protecting the “rights” of those who are least capable of defending themselves. I contend that it is also about creating spaces where people have freedom, where they are honored, and their contributions are valued. What happens when students spend years in a school culture dominated by tests and measures, outcomes without regard for community and process, and that celebrates those who meet or exceed established norms and standards while often remaining silent about those who do not fit the mold. Silence can scar as much as insults (as can be attested to by the child begging for a parent’s attention while the parent is zoned out on the laptop or cell phone).

If any of this resonates with you, then what are the implications for how we design learning communities? Is there room for the spirit of L’Arche in our school system? Schools are indeed about learning, but is there value for us to recognize that so much more is learned than what is tested? How can that be a greater part of our conversations about education reform?

This has implications for things like worforce development as well. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by how people bring their past experiences with community to new jobs and communities. I’ve seem people who struggle so much to find joy in the tasks of their work, to be independent in their decisions, to thrive in a context in which they are not told what, when, and/or how to do it. I’ve seen leaders who never or rarely experienced this either, so they think that direct orders, being firm and quick, or being assertive are somehow the critical traits of an effective leader. There is a time for these, but work also takes up large parts of our lives, and as much as making money is an important part of a business, it is possible to create great communities at work, places where people are valued, honored, given space for independence an choice, and invited to flourish. Why not cast a vision for such work places by being intentional about the way we shape our learning organizations, from preschool to high school, undergraduate to graduate studies?

Let’s return to the Nouwen quote, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” A professor of mine years ago exclaimed that, if you are in education, you are in the business of changing and influencing people. I don’t disagree. It is just a matter of how that change takes place. Medical schools certainly need to establish standards of performance for students. The well-being of future patients depends upon it. Yet, even in such a high stakes learning community, isn’t there room for spending as much thought and care in designing experiences where people care and have compassion, a space where people have freedom to change without it being thrust upon them. Again, this is not about letting medical students do whatever they want, but it is a suggestion that there is room for a little Patch Adams in all learning communities.  How much more is this true when we think about K-12 education, community college and technical training, and even professional development and learning in the workplace? As education becomes more focused on data and measures, how can we measure the extent to which our learning communities are hospitable, the extent to which participants are broken or blessed by them?

Are you ready for free higher education in the United States? Today President Obama gave a preview of his upcoming State of the Union address, proposing a plan for a free two years of college for students who are willing to work for it.

This is bold, but it is not entirely new or unprecedented. There are pockets of programs around the United States that offer a route toward free college for 2 or more years. There are state-funded and/or mandated free dual credit (high school and college credit at the same time) programs, some of which allow students to enter college as a sophomore or junior. If we look beyond the United States, we see different examples of free or nearly free higher education solutions in places like Germany, Finland, Sweden, France, and Norway. These are not perfect systems, but they are bold statements about a national commitment to increased access to education. There are also colleges, including private ones, in the United States that have various approaches to providing a free college education.

My mind is racing with the challenges and opportunities. When I watched President Obama’s short video today, I had a strange mix of reactions. In July 2014, I wrote this article after several months of research on the history of universal free education, free higher education in various parts of the world, and experiments with free higher education in pockets within the United States. Amid this research, I became confident that free is in the future of American higher education.

I am excited and hopeful that we can use this to spark a rich national conversation. Toward that end I offer 10  initial thoughts and questions.

1. Private Schools – This might conjure concern for 4-year private institutions, wondering what sort of plan will be proposed and what the implications are for the future of these private organizations. Some elite schools or those with a strong donor base already have a financial model that is less dependent upon tuition. Other private institutions depend almost entirely upon tuition. What would this do to them? It might drive them to close their doors or to explore different approaches ranging from alternate funding models to more graduate or professional programs that will not be included in this early plan. As a University administrator who expected this, I already have pages of notes about exciting ways to respond and thrive even amid a universal free higher education program.

2. How will it be funded? – This will come out soon enough. There have been interesting arguments in the past that the cost of operating the federal financial aid programs for colleges already exceeds the cost of tuition charged at schools. If reducing federal financial aid to fund this effort is in the proposal, that will indeed shake up the models of for-profits and almost every University in the country.

3. Is this treating a symptom or addressing root causes? If this is mainly about workforce development then focusing on 2 free years of college is not, in my opinion, getting at the most important issues. While many employers look at degrees and diplomas as evidence of job preparedness, they do not truly provide such certainty. There are many important conversations and experiments with alternate ways of getting at workforce development issues than simply getting more people with academic credentials. This needs to be part of the conversation. What good is a low-impact but free education? What good is inflexible but free education?

4. As such, I continue to believe that some of the most promising social innovations around workforce development will come from beyond the walls of the University, even if we make it free…unless, for course, some of these Universities embrace the spirit of innovation present beyond its walls. Digital badges, nano-degrees, certificate programs tied directly to specific area of demand in one or more companies…these have great promise and there are brilliant, well-resourced, and influential groups actively engaged in conversations and efforts to re-imagine training and routes toward gainful employment.

5. Democracy thrives on human agency. We could make all education from kindergarten through the doctorate free, but without seriously considering the nature of what, how, and why we teach; we will not make progress in creating an American educational system that is about empowering and nurturing human agency. We can produce a good workforce without fostering a wise and informed citizenry.

6. There is a double standard that needs to talked about deeply and openly in our society. Some treat workforce development efforts and trade schools as being for “those” people, while others are given a truly broad and liberal education. The phrase “liberal arts” comes from the idea that such an education was liberating and for the liberated. It is the education of the free, elite, influential, the advantaged. Among that group we invite them to discover their passions and callings, to nurturing global perspectives, delve into the rich intellectual history of the world, to explore the big questions of life. For others, we give them the training needs to get a job. I don’t think the University has the corner on the market of these broader questions in the least, but I really want to explore what it means to give a world-class education that is free and/or accessible to as many people as possible, even as I am very open to defining world-class education in unexpected and unconventional ways.

7. Global competitiveness is so 1980s. Not that I know what rhetoric or narrative will be placed around this proposal, but I hope that it will extend beyond getting a generation better educated so that we can compete in a global economy. I’m not against competition metaphors. They can lead to some positive movements, innovations, and discoveries that benefitted many people. I think we can come up with a better metaphor. Maybe we need to pull out Neil Postman’s proposed metaphors in The End of Education. I think he was writing mostly about k-12 education, but his chapters about alternative metaphors for education serve as helpful discussion starters.

7. Will this help and serve the post-traditional student populations? The key part of the initial video is Obama’s reference to visiting Tennessee. This proposal is very likley to be about amplifying the Tennessee Promise, a program that offers a route to two free years of college for eligible high school students. That likely means that this does little for the majority of college degree seekers. That doesn’t make it bad, but I want to capitalize upon this news to explore the topic more broadly. In this article, I reference an essay that points to the fact that only 15% of those in college are traditional full-time residential students. The rest are what some call post-traditional. They are working, married, with children, adult learners, etc. How will this proposal address the majority of college students? Most of the current experiments in the United States around a free first two years are just targeting high school graduates.

8. There is a divide in college readiness and it is not just about the ability to pay a college bill. We have a problem in the United States with high school dropouts and graduates who do not have basic skills necessary to succeed at the collegiate level. Many of the risk factors extend well beyond the school walls. I am not convinced that this is a teaching effectiveness problem or even a school problem. It is a societal problem. While two free years of college can be an incentive for those who are willing to apply themselves, there are inequities and socio-economic factors that are far more complicated than this. I don’t write this to dismiss the potential benefits and value of President Obama’s proposal. I am intrigued and excited to hear and read more. It is just that I want to use this as a chance to talk about the broader issues. We must know what such a proposal will and will not accomplish. We must not embrace any such plan without clearly understanding the affordances and limitations.

9. This needs to be a candid dialogue that surfaces agendas, fears and concerns. Let’s put them out in the open, not letting them secretively drive agendas that are personal or political. This has implications for people’s jobs and work in higher education. This has implications for different higher education institutions, some will be exhilarated at the potential funding support while others will fear having to close their doors. There will be winners and losers if this plan is implemented. There will be partisan politics. There will fears of the unknown. I am hopeful that we don’t hide these but surface them. This is a chance to be larger than our affiliations and to dream together about new possibilities that can bring about social good and benefit real people.

10. This is a good move. That doens’t mean I will support the plan. I don’t even know what it is yet. Whether his proposed plan happens or not, I commend President Obama for starting the conversation. We need this conversation. If we allow it to be just that, a discussion starter and not just a drive to implement a pre-defined plan, I fear that it will fall short. We need more and more open discourse than we got around the Affordable Care Act. We can do this, but it will take a concerted effort from a critical mass of citizens, educational leaders, politicians, and people in the media (both old and new).

I’m delighted to start with the third MOOC that I’ve hosted. This one is called Adventures in Blended Learning. The following video explains the main goals of the course.

As I say in the video, one of the goals is to get informed about the possibilities of teaching and learning in the digital age. So, on the first night of the course, Kirsty Plander tweeted the following:

I love these sorts of questions. These are the types of teaching and learning questions that great teachers are constantly asking. A question like this represents awareness of students, the ability to observe and identify challenges to learning, and a desire to explore possibilities that will better meet the needs of each learner. In this case, Kristy poses a classic question about meeting the needs of diverse learners. We all know that students come to our classes with widely different life experiences, levels of confidence about formal learning environments, different levels of background knowledge about the course, different attention spans, different goals and passions, and so much more. Each person is a unique creation, full of potential. If that is true, how to you give some power to the potential in each student?

Some approach this by trying to teach to the middle, thinking this will stretch those who struggle, meet the needs of the majority, and hopefully be enough to not bore the advanced students. Yet, if you’ve taught for a few years, you know that such a strategy doesn’t work especially well. What are our options?

This is where blended learning becomes a promising possibility. As many explain, blended learning allows you to address these sorts of challenges by blending the best of face-to-face teaching and learning with the best of digital learning experiences. Allow me to share one (of many possible ways to design a blended experience to address the situation posted in Kristy’s Tweet above, and I’ll do it with two things that I’ve written quite a bit about over the last year or two: competency-based education and digital badges.

For the sake of time, I’ll just use the Educase explanation of competency-based education for now.

The competency-based education (CBE) approach allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace regardless of environment. This method is tailored to meet different learning abilities and can lead to more efficient student outcomes. – http://www.educause.edu/library/competency-based-education-cbe

Imagine you are teaching an introductory business course. Some students have work experience, they learned quite a bit from their parents, and they are coming to the course with a working knowledge of the basics. Others do not have a clue, but this is the first course, so there are no pre-requisites. So, imagine breaking that introductory course (or just the prerequisites) into a discrete list of competencies. What skills do they need to have upon completion of the course? what skills do they need to thrive in the course in the first place (prerequisites)?

Once you have that list, now imagine creating a simple tutorial or or learning experience associated with that skill. It might include a reading or two, a recorded mini-lecture on the topic, a couple of practices exercises, a couple of case studies or real-life situations that use that skill or concept, an ungraded practice quiz for students to test their knowledge, as well as some advanced applications of the same concept (added as an optional…going deeper element). Finally, you come up with a description of how you would know when a person truly has the understanding and skill that you wanted in the area. You write it out in a specific and measurable list of criteria.

All this goes into an online learning module. There is a different module for each core concept. When students come to the course, they complete some sort of pre-test to see what they do or don’t know, what skills that do or don’t have. That pre-test should include measures for each of the modules built online. This could be done pretty easily using any number of online quiz/test tools. The result will give the student a list of areas to work on for the course. If a student performs well, they might be guided to a set of more advanced tutorials or just more advanced applications of the same basic concepts. If the student did not do as well, the list of suggested modules are included. Students can progress through completion of the modules and demonstration of their growing competency on a personalized, self-paced basis (or, perhaps certain skills must be demonstrated by the end of week 2 or 3 of the course). When a student completes the module, a digital badge is issued (here are some options for creating badges, or some LMSs like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard have them built-in). The badge is evidence that students met the criteria. You can even set the badges up in levels. You need to complete all 8 level 1 badges to gain access to the 5 level two badges…you get the idea.

This may sound like a ton of work to prepare. It is, but it doesn’t have to be all done at once. In fact, you could involve a group of students in helping create some of these modules as practice tools for themselves and learning modules for future classes. Refining and improving the modules could even be a challenge/task for students who perform well on the pre-tests.

There are so many ways to get at a challenge like Kristy described, but I see this one as especially promising. In fact,  it would not be hard to co-create it with a team of faculty at several schools, sharing their resources with one another. It would be a great way to divide the labor and make it more doable. Or, if one is not ready for that option, the instructor can just start small. Start with 3-5 of the most important skills or the areas where the most students enter a class with deficiencies.

What do you think? Would this potentially help address the challenge posed by Kristy? What are the benefits and downsides to such a practice? What other strategies might you consider? Can you think of how we might blend learning across face-to-face and online instruction to help address it?

Even as I’m finishing this article, I’m thinking about how to approach it in a completely different way through a self-directed, project-based approach. If you are game, I’d love to hear your suggestions on proposed ways to address this challenge. Why not share your it in the comment area?