Monday, June 29, 2009

online, blended, and face-to-face courses

This report: is worth reading. The press coverage ( focuses on the finding that where there is a difference, online classes outdo face-to-face classes.

I've been reading the report, though, and there is a lot more in it worth paying attention to. Here are a few that stand out to me:
1. that blended courses outdo face-to-face only and online (where there is a difference)
2. that the key variable might be time, not the medium of the course--that is, that time on task is the key factor in learning (consistent with all sorts of other studies)
3. that online and blended courses excel in their ability to foster reflection and community (characteristics that are sometimes associated with face-to-face courses)

I'm also intrigued by the report's typology of online courses: expository, active, and interactive (see the table on p. 25) Seems like a smart way to think about all sorts of learning.

See the summary of findings and conclusions on pp. xvi-xvii.


Friday, June 26, 2009

America is falling behind...So what?

Some complaints about schools are as predictable as nightfall. The one that bugs me most is that American schools are falling being schools elsewhere in the world. You've heard it a million times--American students are worse at math than students in all of the OECD countries, or they graduate at a lower rate than students in Greece, or... (fill in the blank). Just look at these search results.

It is true that these reports get some criticism, but mostly on methodological points--the US tries to educate a higher proportion of its students than other nations, for example. But they deserve a different sort of scrutiny.

For me, the frustration with the "America is falling behind" trope is that it is a complaint with no lifting power at the level of schools (really, at any level below federal policy and the world of ed research). I can guarantee that any K-12 or higher ed institution that tries to motivate its students and faculty with the worry that we are falling behind will get nowhere. Why? Because that complaint does not translate into clear action. (And even if it did at one school, that schools improvement will not change America's ranking in the world.) What would a school do? Enter a think-off with a school in Romania?

The problem is that there is no such thing as "America's schools." To say that there is, is to ignore the real world or to express some sort of statist fantasy--that education exists really to raise America's status in the world, or that education is the equivalent of the olympics, judged in some sort of global competition.

If we want to improve education, then we would be well to pay attention to much more local factors--do teachers and administrators know their students? Can the school work with that student as an individual? Are parents engaged? Is the goal of the classroom learning rather than teaching? Are expectations high? Is there a community that supports the school? Do the students, teachers, administrators, and parents share objectives? Are those objectives measurable and measured?

Let Arne Duncan and the cadre of HE researchers worry about whether "we" are "better" than Norway. For those of us involved in education reform, there are other things to worry about.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thinking about demand

In response to a recent post about demand for tech-enabled learning, my friend and colleague Peter Ingle wondered how much demand there is for any sort of schooling--on-line or not--among the demographic groups who are supposed to drive the open learning/tech-enabled education upswing. (His full response is here.)

His post raises two issues for me. First, the "education crisis" is nearly always seen as a problem with schools, or at least with the suppliers of education. But certainly there are characteristics on the demand side that account for the differences in educational attainment between the US and other developed nations. What are they and who is thinking about them?

Second, we need to be much more precise when we talk about demand. There are at least three types of demand in this area: demand for learning, demand for education, and demand for schooling.

Demand for learning, in my mind, is that desire to find out something interesting or useful. It tends to be short-term and idiosyncratic, but also relatively easily met. So, for example, I want to learn about trail running shoes. I go to TrailRunner magazine or IRunFar, read a review, and make a decision. YouTube makes this sort of learning easy, but so do the library, Wikipedia, etc.

Demand for schooling is that desire to attend and graduate from school with some sort of official credential. Public schools, charters, private schools, colleges and universities all try to meet this demand. It is longer-term, and less idiosyncratic since students with the desire for schooling either choose (or are led into) a particular field of study and set of courses. It is also often extrinsically motivated. On-line schools are starting to make some headway here, but they don't differ significantly from physical schools, in that they both provide the same sort of structure--formally designed learning opportunities leading to a credential. I care a lot about school reform, but I have to acknowledge that schooling will always be fraught since students have so many ways to opt out, and since the value of schooling is uncertain to many (Peter's point.)

Demand for education is, to me, the most interesting. It is the longest-term desire, one that goes well beyond the search for information to the search for meaning. It can be met outside of physical or virtual schools, and it doesn't require a diploma as evidence of achievement. But it has the most rigorous, and the most student-driven, intrinsic goals. Its outcomes are the most significant for the life of a person and her/his family, because they touch on a person's conception of self and place in the world. (The School of Life is a school meeting the demand for education.)

It is my sense that schools and open learning folks would do well to find more ways to attend to demand for education, even if it means not driving everyone to graduation. This suggests that schools and open learning ought not consider themselves in a competition. Nor should we think that one should vanquish the other. Both will fail to meet the expanded demand unless they can figure out how to meet the educational needs of the publics they serve. If it is important to the student that the educational desires are accompanied by a diploma, then good. But we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the biggest questions and struggles of life are solved by schooling or learning. They are solved in diverse and complicated ways by people who value and seek education.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The School of Life--the sort of future school I'd like to see

After a dreary morning reading policy reports on the education crisis, thinking about electronic portfolios, and acting like a technocrat, I stumbled onto The School of Life (and a brief article summarizing its goals in Liberal Education.)

Looked at one way it is an effort to reclaim the value of the humanities in a technological and scientific world. But looked at another, it does exactly what ed reformers say works best; it integrates disciplines, ignores seat time for learning, charges affordable prices, and varies its delivery options--providing classes, one-on-one mentoring, oration, meals, etc.

The School of Life seems to be part of a small, and generally unremarked school reform effort made up of schools that don't aim for credentialling or accreditation but instead the creation of healthy people and communities. (Here is another, dedicated to learning about Buddhism.) These schools seem to have humor, humility, and their eye on the key questions of life. More of which we could all use...

Does demographic change = demand for tech-driven education?

Yesterday I participated in a webinar called The Future of Non-Traditional Higher Education in the US (white paper version of the webinar available here.) The presenter, Nick Allen (provost emeritus and university professor at Univ. MD--University College) reiterated a common argument. It goes like this:
  • higher ed faces huge demographic changes--more hispanic, first-generation, immigrant, and adult learners will be seeking higher education than ever before.
  • higher ed in the US won't work for many of them because of cost and poor fit
  • Web 2.0 and open learning initiatives make online or tech enabled education much simpler
  • Therefore, the solution to the educational challenges raised by demographic change is providing tech-driven (as opposed to "bricks and mortar") education.

I agree that demographic and economic trends portend major changes in higher education. And I agree that Web 2.0 and open learning can do a good job of providing online educational opportunities. But I am not sure that the two will meet up. Put another way, I'm not sure that the millions of new degree seekers, be they young Hispanics or baby boomers looking for new careers, will seek that education from the purveyors of Web 2.0 learning.

Two reasons for my skepticism. The first is oft-noted: none of the major new college-bound demographic groups, as a whole, show a predilection for or success at tech-driven ed. (This of course does not hold true for individual members of these groups, and may change in the future.)

The second is that Web 2.0 and open learning folks, in my view, haven't thought about their efforts in a way that will engage those groups of students.

Among the insights of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is that social change is driven by people playing certain roles. Mavens provide expertise, salesmen convince people to join movements for social change, and connectors build the social networks that unite mavens and salesmen on one hand, with potential joiners on the other.

The tech and open learning movements aren't thinking about themselves as part of a social movement. So they use mavens to share information in the hopes that education-seekers will find them.

If I was trying to engage potential college-goers in Web 2.0 education I would be looking for the connectors--people with on-the-ground influence and networks among members of the targeted demographic groups. And I would find ways to get my product--education--into the hands of real people so they could use it for real needs. Planning a party? Here is a way to use open learning sources to make it better. Facing a business problem? Here are cases to help you think about it. Have broader educational needs? Maybe UMUC (or any of the hundreds of other options) can work for you.

Doing it this way accomplishes two things: it meets people where they are, and it doesn't assume that huge swaths of human society will flock to open learning because of its technological cool.

Expectations Gaps in HS and College

Civic Enterprises has just released a report on the dropout problem in high school. One of the key findings of On the Front Lines of Schools is that while many teachers and principals doubt that all students can take college-prep courses and graduate HS, 2/3 of dropouts say that they would have stuck with school if there had been higher expectations for their performance. Front Lines' authors call this the "expectation gap."

I wonder what that gap might mean for thinking and practice in higher ed. When students aren't retained or fail to graduate college, we rarely attribute it to low expectations. More commonly we imagine that college drop outs are caused by too-high expectations at the college (or financial and other personal challenges).

Would colleges retain more students if expectations (and support) were higher?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What if we talked about restoration instead of transformation?

While I'm raising questions about common HE phrases, let me wonder a bit about the use of "transformation." There is no mystery about why "transformation" is a regular part of HE-speak right now. Everyone recognizes that we are in a period of substantial, accelerated change. "Transformation" is a way of describing that change, and expressing the hopes of higher education. Somehow our classes lead to "transformative learning." Or our campuses undergo transformations. Or we build partnerships that transform communities. Or students have transformative experiences--study abroad, service-learning, etc.

I wonder, though, if the tendency to talk about transformation points HE in particular directions, or perhaps masks the fact that we are failing to point in particular directions. What, for example, does transformation mean? Its usage includes two meanings: rapid, large change; and change from one state to another. So, a campus that transforms itself looks quite different than it did before. And a student who has a transformative experience is fundamentally different from who she was before. But to what end? On the question of ends, transformation is silent (though it sometimes has a liberationist tendency, i.e. "I shed my naivete once I was exposed to ________ and now I know I was wrong about _______")

How would HE be different if instead of seeking transformative change we sought restorative change? A couple of ideas:
1. a key task of change would be to re-assemble some sort of whole--unity among the disciplines, or in the experience of students, or healthy ecosystems of learning, or relationships between campus and community,

2. we would assume that students bring with them lots of skills/talents/interests that we can help them meet, rather than weaknesses that need to be fixed,

3. education would be based in a particular view of human nature--that people are at their core decent, and that one of the tasks of education is to defend and restore that decency,

4. that the main task of a community (be it a campus, a class, or a student group) would be to create the conditions (the ecosystem) in which people and relationships can be restored, and

5. ethical questions rather than those about scale or pace would be the central questions for the organization.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No more "teaching to learning"

For the past decade, the conversation in Higher Ed has been about shifting from a teaching or instruction paradigm (focused on what the professor does) to a learning paradigm (focused on what the student does (or can do)). It has been a powerful conversation, one that has been able to put all sorts of reforms--service-learning, undergraduate research, multicultural education, learning communities, writing across the curriculum, assessment, etc.--under the same umbrella. It is at least possible now to imagine a movement for holistic change in higher education.

I wonder, though, if the language of the shift to learning undermines one key component of higher ed's historic mission in the US--the civic component. Here is my thinking:

1. "Learning" in the new paradigm is potentially as individualistic as it has ever been. I know that learning advocates are constructivists and believe that learning is socially constructed. But that doesn't change the fact that what students do with their learning is personalistic. So, a student does a project in a group that results in powerful learning. Great. But what is the impact on the broader community of that learning? Not sure.

2. A significant thread in the learning literature focuses on students as agents in their own learning. Especially in technologically enabled learning, students learn at their own pace, determine their own goals, etc. Again, the learning is powerful, but all students moving at their own pace undermines the sense of community that can develop if a class is jointly engaged in learning.

3. "Learning" does not have a clear civic vision attached to it. Learning advocates often claim Dewey or Freire and their politics. And most faculty in HE are liberal and so assume that learning has liberal outcomes. But there is almost no civic language out there that focuses on learning and the common good. If anything, the civic language most connected to learning is economic. That is, advocates in the public sphere call for reform in education so that students can more successfully compete in the global marketplace, or owe less when they graduate, etc.

Now, it may simply be that the civic moment in higher education is past. (Or even more likely, that I am wrong.) But if that mission continues to matter, I'd suggest rethinking the language of reform. In the simplest sense, this means ditching the "teaching to learning" phrase and replacing it with "from consumption to creation." Here is why:

1. A focus on students as creators pushes learning one step further. It is not enough to show that one has "learned" the material, but instead that one can create with it. (I know that learning advocates assume that learning includes creation, but in my experience it rarely demands such a thing. Consider service-learning--too often students learn by taking a place in an already established partnership where they fill a pre-ordained role. Learning for sure, but hardly creation.)

2. Creativity (or production, if you prefer) does have a civic vision attached to it. In fact, it is the civic vision that first animated public schooling in the US. Education exists, in this view, to help people create a life--both in the spiritual sense but also in the economic sense. And that economic self-creation, in turn, animates politics and American culture. Consider Lincoln's call for free labor as the basis of abolition. Slavery was evil, in part, because it made it impossible for slaves to create their lives. But give slaves land and education, and they become free men and women, able to create and required to accept the risk of creation. Today, both Democrats and Republicans are consumption focused. But both the sustainability movement and the economic crisis suggest that we need more producers and fewer consumers--for the health of our local economies and our own spiritual health. (See for example Matthew Crawford's new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft.) So education as an act of creation connects to a deep thread in the American culture.

3. Creativity allows students to plug in to one of the most powerful social movements in the world--open source. "Learners" are encouraged to borrow from open source learning sites--watching lectures from great sages, taking MIT courses in their own homes, etc. But if students are creators, the greater work is not in taking advantage of those resources but instead contributing to them.

4. Creativity re-connects the acts of students and teachers. In the language of teaching to learning, teaching is all about the faculty, learning largely about students. (Think of the implication of these phrases "sage on the stage" and " guide on the side" as evidence of this assumption.) But from the shift from consumption to creation places the onus for education on both faculty and students and expects that they will make similar contributions. As creators, faculty members should harness their best skills--be they as speakers, writers, evaluators, questioners--to the end of creating a great class. Being on the side is fine if it is your best creative position, but if not, don't be there. And as creators students must do the same. So the class has common purposes because it has a common practice--creation.

Ceremony, Community, and Learning

Last night I attended the graduation ceremonies for City Academy, a small, urban charter high school in Salt Lake City. (I'm City Academy's Board Chair.) I couldn't help but compare that event with the graduation ceremonies at Pleasant Grove High School, where my daughter received her diploma a week ago, or those of BYU and Westminster College which I have attended over the years.

CA graduated 18 students. Of that number one was from Brazil, another from Germany, and three others from Latin America. Many had struggled to get to graduation, and all were thrilled to have made it.

I know these things because their advisor spoke about each of the students, and then each student spoke briefly. By the time the event was over, a close listener could begin to suss out the relationships that made their graduation possible. Most spoke of their families, two women spoke about their boyfriends, several mentioned a couple of challenging but inspiring teachers, and every one talked about how much they had appreciated the help of their faculty advisors.

The event was unceremonious by the standards of PGHS, BYU, or Westminster. The talks weren't fully prepared, the microphones squawked often, the refreshments came from home, parents crowded the stage to shoot photos of their kids, children ran around the room. Graduation events at all of the other schools would have limited this sort of stuff. And they would have been loaded with more ceremonial activities.

The relative absence of ceremony and symbol, and the presence of microphone feedback, homemade refreshments, and meandering kids were not a distraction because CA creates relationships that accept all of those things, because all of those things fit in CA's idea of itself.

CA's relationships are due in part to its mission, and to its faculty, and to its remarkable founder Sonia Woodbury. But they are due also to the school's size and the demands that it places on people. CA has to do everything that larger schools do (assessment, theatre, dances, state reports, etc.) and that means that all of the faculty and most of the students are generalists. That makes it possible for them to be connected to each other in varied, powerful ways.

Bigger schools lack those connections. At PGHS the Student Council did many of the things that all students at CA are responsible for. The same general point is true for BYU, which is so large that every task is completed by some small group or individual.

Westminster is on the cusp of moving from CA's model to that of the bigger schools. Our enrollment is larger than ever before, but even more to the point, there is a persistent sense that Westminster needs to strengthen its sense of community (even though that level of community is far stronger than any I've ever seen in higher ed).

I don't know exactly how a school strengthens its sense of community, but if the lessons from graduation mean anything, it is that ceremony for large schools takes the place of community at small schools. The question, then, is how to craft ceremonies that build community, and how to do it in a way that strengthens relationships rather than replacing them with empty symbols and pledges.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Learning from other high cost enterprises

Atul Gawande's piece, "The Cost Conundrum" in the New Yorker is startling. He describes McAllen Texas, one of the poorest, least healthy, and costliest (at least for health care) places in America. The cost isn't due to its distance from major cities, or its unique health challenges, but instead to four other things:
  1. McAllen physicians seem to be particularly entrepreneurial, seeking many ways to make money--through owning buildings, clinics, and stores instead of simply maintaining a practice.
  2. McAllen health care professionals are also particularly non-communicative, meaning that they are unaware of the high costs of health care in their town, unaware of what other physicians are doing, and unaware of the health benefits (or lack thereof) of particular medical actions.
  3. As a result of (1) and (2) above, McAllen physicians recommend far more tests and procedures than their counterparts elsewhere.
  4. As a result of (3), health care costs are unusually high in McAllen.

Physicians in healthier, less expensive places avoid (1) and (2) above, and therefore avoid (3) and (4). Instead they have created ways to share information about cost and treatment, and devote more time to patients as individuals, rather than patients.

The article got me thinking about cost in higher education. Education is one of the only other fields where costs have risen with a pace and force comparable to those in health care. And education, at least in many areas, follows the practices of McAllen physicians. We are entrepreneurial, non-communicative and non-cooperative (especially with colleagues from other institutions), and therefore our goal becomes to recruit and place students in programs (treatments) rather than meeting them where they are. (In addition, their funding streams are coming to look more similar every day, with the federal government paying out large portions of the cost of health care and education.)

Higher education lacks one thing that health care has--a clear measure of health. One of the things that physicians in low-cost high quality towns are certain about is how to help people manage their health. Educators lack this. We don't agree on what educational sickness looks like (is it the absence of a degree? a job? certain facts? certain habits of the mind?), and we don't agree on what educational health looks like.

In the absence of clear measures, can we learn from the story of McAllen? Can we focus on students as individuals with particular needs and desires? Can we shape education to meet those specific needs? Can we cooperate on outcomes and treatments so that we increase educational health and reduce its costs? And can we help students, parents, faculty, donors, legislators, and regulators think this through?

Prison Education

The Utah Legislature has mandated a change in prison education. Over the past few years prisoners could take courses that pointed them towards an Associate's Degree. The legislature changed that focus, and beginning on October prison education will be focused on trade skills (and substantially more expensive for prisoners.)

The move raises all sorts of questions, but perhaps the largest one is about the transformative power of education. Our popular culture is full of films in which inspiring teachers lead marginal students to embrace education and remake their lives (Stand and Deliver being the most famous.) And some prisons offer programs that do provide transformative experiences for prisoners. (See, for example, the Prison Dharma Network and Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship.) These transformative programs tend to focus on religion, though, or at least the power of a religious organization to provide structure and meaning for prisoners.

Defenders of the traditional liberal arts make the transformative claim for their content and approach to education. Utah's prison system, though, seems uninterested in these claims, favoring (in the past) a generic general education, or (in the future) job training. So, several questions:
  • Is transformative education only for non-prisoners?
  • Where does "transformation" lie on the hierarchy of human needs? Is the creation of a sense of self and humanity a luxury that comes after employment, or a necessity, that gives meaning to employment?
  • Does the State of Utah (or any other state) care about transforming the lives of prisoners, if only for practical reasons, ie reducing recidivism?
  • Is the State giving any thought to the prisons as a system, that is as an organization that has to provide a range of options if it hopes to rehabilitate real people?
  • Where are Utah institutions of higher education on this question? Is our rhetoric about the power of education ultimately too expensive to implement?