Students are Not Widgets (& a Must Read Book)

If you haven’t read Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica’s book, Creative Schools, I urge you to click here and buy a copy today. I am not overstating when I say that this is one of the ten most important education books of the last century. Robinson and Aronica highlight a critical issue in our education system, providing one of the clearest and most compelling arguments for why the modern standards movement is leading us and a future generation down a dangerous path. They explain how our industrial metaphor for education is partly to blame. Consider the following quote:

“Education is about living people, not inanimate things. If we think of students as products or data points, we miss understanding how education should be. Products…have no opinion about how they are produced or what happens to them. People do. They have motivations, feelings, circumstances, and talents.”

This critique of the industrial age is certainly nothing new, but Robinson and Aronica breath new life into this line of thinking. When you have a book like that, it doesn’t just provide information, it sparks new ideas and illustrations in the reader, and that is exactly what this book did for me. As I was reading the quote above, it reminded me of a story that further illustrates their point.

Long ago the ordinary way to pick a tomato was for a hand of a person to reach down and grab it from the plant. The human hand is a brilliant creation, sensitive enough to grab the tomato firmly (s0 that it comes off the plant), but not so firmly as to bruise or crush the tomato. The person would carefully place the tomato in the basket or other container, and walk through the field, giving each plant that same care and attention until the tomatoes were harvested. A team of people could efficiently harvest a field of tomatoes in a reasonable amount of time. With the industrial revolution, everything becomes about time and efficiency.

The more tomatoes you can pick in the shortest period while paying the fewest possible workers, the better. Enter the tomato harvester. Technological developments eventually led to machines that could do the task of dozens of workers in a fraction of the time, only there was a problem in some cases. Have you ever had a home-grown tomato and then compared it to one bought in your average grocery store? There is no comparison. The skin, flavor and flesh are qualitatively different. In some cases it is like comparing crackers with cardboard. Why is that? When you create a new technology, sometimes it runs into problems, like the tomato harvester bruising or damaging too many of the tomatoes. While you could adjust the system of tomato picking, another way is to focus on different types of tomatoes. Create or use a new breed of tomato, one that has thicker skin, more rugged, but also happens to have less flavor, hence the difference between many home-grown and store-bought tomatoes. They changed the tomatoes.

You are probably already making the connections to the education system. When we use an industrial metaphor for education, it has a tendency to drive us to the most efficient and scalable solutions. When things don’t work out, it is not the system or machine’s problem. We just need different types of students. So, we try to force students into the desired mold, proving that the system works. If the students don’t fit the system, they are problems.

There is a better way. Students are not widgets.

20 Signs That You Might Be a Cyber-Professor

Every so often, I try to lighten things up on my blog. This is one of those times (so please don’t read too much into these statements). Plenty of people write about how the digital world is changing young people for better or worse. This post is a reflection on how the digital world is changing those of us in academia, creating a new breed of faculty member who is comfortable using the words “tweet” and “peer-reviewed” in the same sentence, sometimes sees the digital world as a place for rich intellectual discourse, and has a global connection of colleagues largely held together by social media and other online networks.  With that in mind, following are twenty signs that you might be a cyber-prof. If 10 or more of these describe you, there is little doubt that you are a cyber professor. Welcome to higher education life in the digital world.

Feel free to add some of your own ideas in the comment area.

  1. You can list more Twitter chat hash tags from memory than authors of books that you’ve read in the last three months…or it is at least a close match.
  2. You find yourself wondering if academic journals need more pictures or interactivity so that more than a dozen other scholars will read them.
  3. You’ve pondered the fact that you can can have more people read your work if you post it on a blog and send out a Tweet about it than if you get it published in a top peer-reviewed journal.
  4. You describe this “rich and thought-provoking discussion” with a fellow academic and it took place in the comment section of a blog or a Twitter stream.
  5. You find yourself smiling at the phone, Ipad or computer screen as much as you do to people you pass in the hallway at school.
  6. You’ve taken a selfie at an academic conference with a scholar whose work you’ve appreciated over the years.
  7. When giving instructions to students about a paper or project, you’ve comfortably invited the students to, “text me if you get stuck or have any questions.”
  8. You learn more about leading academics in your field by reading their Wikipedia page or profile than by learning about them at meetings and conferences.
  9. You Tweet or update your Facebook status with commentary about the joys and challenges of your students amid grading papers / reviewing student work.
  10. You wonder how you might reach a level of academic accomplishment that warrants you having a Wikipedia page.
  11. You are more concerned about what shows up on RateMyProfessor than the University course evaluation.
  12. You judge coffee shops and lunch locales by the quality and presence of wifi more than the quality of the food and drink.
  13. You celebrate acceptance of a paper, presentation or book proposal with your Twitter connections or Facebook friends before you talk to your colleagues down the hall (or you tell your colleagues down the hall via Twitter or Facebook).
  14. You’ve heard of open peer review, peer-reviewed blogging, or you’re interested in publishing your next peer-reviewed paper with your blogger pseudonym or your Twitter handle.
  15. When your biography is included in conference details, you insist on including your Twitter handle and a link to your blog.
  16. You’ve received inquiries for consulting or speaking through your blog or social media.
  17. You’ve contemplated how you can turn Periscope or Meerkat into a powerful teaching tool, and wonder if you can use the number of hearts received from Periscope in your portfolio for rank and promotion.
  18. You’ve found yourself writing/typing LOL in the sideline of an essay that you are grading.
  19. You’ve experimented with a back channel in a presentation or lecture…or at least you’ve thought about it.
  20. You know how to teach from the beach, and you’re proud of it.


Higher Education in 2030: Get Ready for the #HigherEd #Startup Revolution

Thomas Frey predicted that 50% of colleges would collapse by 2030. Similarly, Clayton Christiansen is quoted as saying that 50% of colleges will not exist in 15 years. Others have made similar claims. Such predictions are based on tracing the impact and likely trajectory of innovations like blended and online learning, open learning, technologies allowing for mass customization and personalization, adapting learning software, and a growing set of alternative pathways to gainful and skilled employment.

I agree that all these trends and more will have a signficant impact on higher education as we know it. There will be more pathways to work, and I have hopes that the liberal arts will be set free from the ivory towers to flourish in open and public spaces and in local communities. The forthcoming innovation of tuition-free community college (and possibly four-year degrees) in large sections of the United States (if not the entire nation) will also shift power and structures in higher education, causing some tuition-driven college models to struggle or fail.

Such changes and innovations will drive colleges and universities to have a much-needed identity crisis, to genuinely grapple with three questions. What is essential about who we are and what we do? What is important about who we are and what we do? And, what is merely present (or largely malleable) about who we are and what we do?

  • The role of the professor will be challenged, as we already see with confusion and debate about the value and future of faculty tenure.
  • The cracks in the aging credit and clock hour systems will become increasingly transparent.
  • Efforts to cling to the letter grade system will suffer under increased scrutiny and increased acceptance of alternatives.
  • Debates about credentials and micro-credentials will expand.
  • Debates about distinctions between training and education will persist, but answers within the Ivory Tower will be inadequate. They must be debated in the public square, open to as many people as possible.
  • The classroom lecture will diminish in value amid growing acceptance of alternative teaching and learning methods.
  • The role of faculty member will be unbundled, rebundled, renamed, and unbundled again; creating entirely new roles that augment or sometimes replace of that traditional teaching faculty.
  • Universities will find it necessary to more fully articulate and defend the societal role of research, which should not be difficult to defend in areas having direct implications for human health and well-being, but might struggle in areas that have less widespread agreement about the value.
  • Entirely new forms of higher education will emerge and there will be growing debate about education versus job training, and there will not be a single winner, because there will be many forms to evolve that reflect one, the other, or both.
  • Enrollment in some traditional institutions will decline as some opt for new forms of education and training.
  • Uniform instruction will be contrasted to personalized learning, and personalized will eventually win; but concepts of learning communities will gain increased traction being an important third way that pulls from both.
  • Unbundled services will continue; with more partnerships, subscription services, agreements, and contracted services becoming a standard and commonplace practice.
  • Big data will will drive more decisions and bring about a new form of administration. In the mid-term, it might seem to drive institutions toward heartless and inhuman calculations about who can and should do what (as in who should be pre-med and who should be a med-tech), but the humanities and positive psychology will curb the direction of these efforts, eventually leading them toward more humane uses. Or, such views will be crushed under number-crunching analysts. The future is uncertain here.
  • The role of the social life, extracurriculars and intercollegiate athletics will gain new levels of scrutiny, celebration and debate; and there will likely be an unbundling of these elements just as we’ve seen with other parts of the academic experience.
  • Current blended and online learning practices will become quickly outdated as new research and technology leads to a reinvention of learning and teaching at a distance.
  • The value of regional accrediting bodies will gain a new level of scrutiny, leading to their diminished role, the development a larger number of them, or more oversight residing in state and federal offices.
  • The debate about preparing skilled workers for some sort of global competition played on the grounds of science, technology, engineering and math will continue to clash with understanding about the power of celebrating nurturing the uniqueness of each person and what they can contribute to the world.

These debates and questions (and many others) will shape and reshape the surviving and thriving higher education institutions of the future. Those schools that refuse to take seriously such questions, unwilling to clarify and communicate their identity, will struggle to survive, and some will close. Yet, I believe that those higher education institutions that face these questions with persistence, depth and the passionate disinterest becoming of a scholar will contribute to a new wave of higher education, one that will thrive and continue to make important contributions to society. The appeal to authority or expertise of professors and higher education institutions, along with rhetoric and emotional appeals will not be enough to stave off the need for deep, honest and (especially important) open reflection about these matters.

Will that mean that only half survive? I think that is too simple of a picture. Many will have extreme makeovers, but will emerge with new life. Some will shrink while others expand. And along that, I am convinced that we will see an entirely new breed of higher education institution- hyper-local, living and learning communities of 100-300; some communities sharing resources across them while maintaining their distinct culture, educational philosophy, and niche contribution (I will be writing more about this in the future). As such, I expect that, by 2030, we might have two to three times as many higher education institutions as we have today, even as there will be more alternatives to the traditional college routes for people. Get ready for the higher education “startup” revolution. They might not all be higher education institutions as we’ve thought of them in the past, but they will be institutions that provide education beyond the secondary level.

12 Ways to Speed Innovation in Online Learning & Competency-based Education

Michael Horn wrote a wonderful summary of his testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the reauthorization of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. He focused on barriers to and opportunities for innovation. At the end of his testimony, Senator Lamar Alexander invited the panel, which included Michael Horn, to speak to specific “regulations that are stunting online, competency-based education.” In response that request, I offer the following twelve specifics. I’ve not referenced specific sections in the Higher Education Reauthorization Act (although I did re-read it in preparation for this post) nor am I mentioning specific regulations or policies from regional accreditors. I am offering twelve specific ways to speed innovation with online learning, CBE, and higher education in general.  These are barriers that come from explicit aspects of the Higher Education Act and some regional accrediting bodies, but they also include softer but just as significant barriers, those that come from the structure and threat of censure. In fact, when I just re-read the Higher Education Authorization Act, I semi-jokingly commented that it can be summarized in a sentence: “Do not innovate…or else; unless you are Western Governor’s University or a nursing program.” There is more to it, so please don’t click away quite yet. In addition, I’ve include elements that are not present in the regulations now, but adding something related to them could prompt a rapid move forward.

I realize that some of these are controversial, but I share them more as I often do as a consultant for an organization. I am not neutral. My convictions show up, but I do offer this as a menu of items. Depending upon your taste, you will opt for some and not others. If your goal is the speed innovation in these areas, here are twelve ways to do it. As with all policy and regulatory innovations, there are affordances and limitations to every shift, and these are no different. I can’t state this too strongly. These suggestions have significant implications. In fact, some might argue that the risk or danger in implementing some of these is too great. I’ll leave that up to others to discuss for now (although I’m always ready for further conversation and work about this).

1. Clock hours and credit hours

There is already plenty of good discussion about the limitations of the existing system. Where HEA and accreditation agencies leave a little room for experimentation, that is limited right now, leaving people nervous about going through the necessary steps to pursue a format that leaves courses, credits, and clock hours behind. The HEA already has a special provision for nursing schools in this regard. Just take that and extend to across all higher education.

By the way, for organizations with athletic programs, there is need for athletic associations to catch up as well, broadening things well beyond GPA, credit hours, etc. There is already some flexibility, but being more explicit about that flexibility, offering it more broadly, will open doors for innovation.

2. The 200+ page complexity of the current Higher Education Authorization Act plus the overall complexity of federal financial aid in general.

I noticed a Tweet yesterday from a frustrated student, noting that the process for financial aid is more complex than any work she actually gets in pursuit of her college degree. That is a sure sign that something is not right. It needs to be simplified and streamlined to encourage innovation in these new areas. Complex regulations do not provide fertile soil for innovation. It scares off many of the small and medium-sized higher education institutions that want to explore the possibilities of these new areas, and rewards the higher education institutions with deep government and regulatory connections, and likely multiple people on staff dedicated to such matters. Scan the list of most of the direct assessment programs that launched early on, and you will see this is the case with the  majority.  This is the exact opposite of the trend in the startup world.

Also consider that I happened to help spearhead one of only a few small to medium private liberal arts colleges with a wide scale online operation that is managed almost entirely by internal teams. Why? It is easier to outsource, especially when the regulations are so complex and things are so uncertain. Complexity in the regulations breeds fear and caution…both of which are the enemy of innovation.

3. The HEA dedicated exceptions for Western Governor’s University

A higher education innovation / initiative supported by a group of governors gets a dedicated section in the Higher Education Authorization Act. How does that establish a level playing field for innovation in online learning and competency-based education. While I understand the reasons (at least a couple of them) for initially including it, it is time to remove special consideration for one initiative and offer the same provisions for all IHEs.

4. Limited definitions of programs and certificates.

Open up the definition to allow for non-credit and other forms of training, and you will see a wealth of innovation develop in these areas.

5. Regional accrediting agency expectations of faculty.

I’m a faculty member and I value the professoriate, but there are new models for both education and training that do not depend upon traditional concepts of instructor or the formal credentials normally expected of those people. As long as students are thriving and learning (and there is evidence of as much), why add limitations by being too explicit in expectations about credentials? This doesn’t just inhibit innovation in online learning and competency-based education. It prevents innovations around interdisciplinary education and interesting experiments in alternative higher education. There are also emerging and existing models that do not depend as much on traditional measures of faculty-student ratios. and there are a growing number of exceptionally gifted people who didn’t go the standard routes to achieve excellence. The current regulations often prevent them from teaching the next generation in higher education.

6. The limitation to 35 institutions for direct assessment.

This should probably go without saying, but limiting the direct assessment “experiment” to 35 is slowing down innovation. Let’s open it up.

7. Discouragement of Micro-Innovations

Some individual departments within Universities would love to invest in designing robust competency-based programs, but it isn’t worth the institutional investment to pilot on individual program levels when the experiment is so limited (as in the 35 mentioned above) and with people wondering how the DOE or their regional accreditation agency will treat their innovation. There are many ways to get at this. At minimum, it would be great to create a provision where a program can gain approval to run a micro-innovation (like a CBE program) with limited restrictions for a 4-5 year time period. You can even limit the enrollment if you want. A single voice on this from the DOE and regional accreditation agencies would make it even more promising.

8. Regulations about governance, organizational structures and partnerships need to be adjusted.

Yes, there are certainly examples of suspect partnerships and arrangements, but the explicit or implicit regulations or policies also prevent potentially promising models from being piloted. Who wants to be the next Tiffin University / Ivy Bridge?

9. Transfer Credits

Accreditors expect institutions to have set policies for transfer credit. That makes sense. There are emerging models, like with CBE and micro-credentials, that make it possible to envision a future route toward a degree as coming from piecing together learning evidence and credentials from multiple institutions over time. Leaving more flexibility for such models would allow for these innovations to emerge more easily. There are not strict regulations about transfer credits right now, but I include it because there seems to be something here that could serve as a powerful lever, especially by expanding transfer credit beyond other regionally accredited IHEs.

10. Expand “Higher Education”

The definition of a higher education institution can be broadened today to include so much more than colleges and Universities. There are new experiments and models already in existence. Some are more holistic educational institutions. Others are more training-oriented or focused on workforce development. Right now there are a limited number of regional or national accrediting agencies that give an organization an opportunity to participate in the federal financial aid program. Broaden that to include more oversight agencies or even a model that allows for the organization of a new external agency for accountability.

11. Provisions for Unbundling

There are models now like PelotonU that are providing the student support and much more while having students enroll in one of several existing online CBE programs at Universities. Create provisions for financial aid available to pay for such additional unbundled services (without their needing a formal partnership with an IHE) and we will see some fascinating experiments emerge.

12. Ease the pathway to starting new higher education institutions.

Even while some have predicted that have the higher education institutions in existence today will not be in the next 15 years, there is a counter to that, one that imagines a future of more IHEs than ever, with a wonderfully diverse collection of niche, boutique and alternative higher education models. If you want more innovation, make it easier for people to enter the higher education space. I will be writing more about this example soon, but Wayfinder Academy is one such example. They are working through the state of Oregon and plan to pursue regional accreditation, but there are others with equally compelling and innovative models of online, CBE and higher education in general that are not opening because of the existing complexity and barriers. Anything that can be done to lower the risk and cost of entry will create a new wave of innovation.