Unilateral Disarmament

ICBMRelated to my recent posts on the harsh realities of financial aid and freemium pricing in higher education, National Public Radio broadcast an interview this morning with Neil Theobald, president of Temple University, and Donal O’Shea, president of the New College of Florida. Both men say that the arms race in student amenities on college campuses is unsustainable. Some schools are pulling out of race because “the worry about cost [among potential students and their parents] is outstripping the desire for . . . huge facilities and things like that.”

Freemium Education For All

Try For FreeEarlier this year, Thomas Edison State College (TESC) in New Jersey partnered with Saylor to offer an online associate’s degree program in business administration. TESC’s Open Course Option allows students to obtain the degree in as little as a year for just $4,000. According to Marc Singer, vice provost of TESC’s Center for the Assessment of Learning, “we’ve made [Saylor’s] students aware that if they’ve completed . . . one of those courses in business that Saylor offers, it’s very likely they’re prepared to pass a college-level assessment we ourselves administer.”

The partnership is part of Saylor’s Credit Aligned Courses initiative, where students get free content but TESC and other schools charge for credit-bearing exams that can lead to a degree. There are other arrangements that achieve the same ends. Assessment can be subcontracted out to a privately-run in-person testing center. Or the content provider can oversee the whole process in-house by verifying users’ identities — and so we see Coursera’s Signature Track and Udacity’s recent announcement that it will start charging a fee for course certificates.

All of these situations represent freemium education. In the freemium model, a product is given away on the expectation that some customers will be willing to pay a premium for a version that has greater value-added. The marginal cost of adding more users for web-based content providers is essentially zero, so why not charge nothing for the basic product if doing so creates a massive customer base? The strategy has worked quite well for Dropbox and Evernote.

Alfred P. Sloan created the ladder of success for General Motors with Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac. Each brand was associated with a particular customer experience, was priced differently, and captured a distinct market segment.  In contrast, universities have historically supplied only the Cadillac version of an education — the four-year bachelor’s degree. People who only wanted a Chevrolet were mostly shut out of the market, until now.

It is inevitable that producers that have monopolized a market with an artificially high barrier to entry will fall victim to freemium pricing. The gap between the four-year college experience that has a $100,000 price tag and the $99 certification from Coursera is not going to remain unfilled forever. A tiered pricing system that captures customers with varying degrees of price sensitivity is going to form. Just like coffee drinkers can go to Starbucks and select from a variety of products that range from the small basic coffee for $1.79 to a super-sized double latte for $5.00, people seeking an education are going to migrate to whatever gives them a choice in how much they have to spend.


The Personal Touch

Personal TouchTwo recent news items argue that how professors teach matters more than what they teach. First, the New York Times has profiled ten wildly popular courses at different universities around the USA, including one on cultural anthropology where students participate in an interesting simulation. Enrollment in these courses ranges from a dozen to over a thousand students, pointing out that classes don’t have to be small to be effective — they just have to be taught in a way that gets students interested in learning.

Second, Inside Higher Ed discusses the research of Christopher G. Takacs and Daniel F. Chambliss. Their work suggests that an inspiring professor in an introductory course influences a student’s choice of major more than disciplinary content.

If only doctoral programs and the tenure process took the above processes into account . . .

Restless Natives

Dr. Susherwood, man of international intrigue, is now dealing with jet lag and blood rain, so I’ll start off the month . . .

Lord of FliesAs I wrote in my last post on the subject, universities are reluctant to abandon the traditional narrative of higher education. The narrative defines what students should learn and how they should learn it. On one hand faculty and administrators dismiss new modes of learning as not meeting the standards of academe, and on the other they try to shoe horn these new modes into the existing institutional framework. Ultimately, to paraphrase something that Clay Shirky reputedly said, universities want to preserve the problem to which they have been the solution. This strategy will eventually fail for a few interrelated reasons.

First, the population seeking to learn what universities have historically provided has changed significantly. Only a minority of students at the undergraduate level participate in the four-year, full-time, residential college experience. Those who do cost universities more in support services and financial aid, because they come from families with fewer economic resources. So-called adult students — those more than twenty-four years old — are often less interested in learning for learning’s sake than in occupational advancement. They care more about learning only what is just good enough for a bump in salary. Enrollment in online education has exploded, but it often simply replicates the  stale and exclusionary curricula found on physical campuses. In sum, universities are relying on systems developed centuries ago to compete against each other in a shrinking market.

Second, digital technology is changing how readers read and watchers watch, so there is no reason to assume that it won’t affect how learners learn. The once-dominant players in print, audio, and video media industries used to regard online production and distribution as inconsequential to their core businesses. They assumed that few people would buy or read a book that they couldn’t physically hold in their own hands, and that no one would want to watch video on a tiny screen in disjointed five minute segments.

In the decades immediately following World War II, three broadcast networks controlled what people saw on television. In the 1980s, the USA was wired for cable television, and instead of three channels, people could watch hundreds. CNN, HBO, and Fox soon reigned supreme in their respective market segments. Now the country is wired for broadband internet, and the web is a medium in its own right. While legacy media firms can buy audience access, they aren’t designed for the environment that the audience inhabits. Jenna Marbles, with over one billion views on YouTube, can turn on a dime. Paramount can’t. Amazon opens an on-demand e-publishing platform with the slogan “inventory free fulfillment.” Netflix uses a statistical analysis of its customers to design its own content and then stream it back to them. Radio programs like This American Life can skip third-party distribution by contracting independently with radio stations. Or it can bypass the system entirely by streaming directly to subscribers, as World Wrestling Entertainment now does.

Many of the above examples are digitally-native technology companies that produce media, as opposed to media companies using new technology. The former are very lean operations, often with years of experience in doing business online. The latter are trying to graft a new branch onto a very old tree.

Technology companies now also sell learning, but in a fundamentally different manner than universities are using technology. As a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, these education upstarts have quickly figured out how to

“divide the massive higher-education market into segments based on what students want and need, and then create offerings that appeal to only a slice or two of the overall market. Such a lean approach, of not trying to serve everyone, is definitely cheaper, and often better, for meeting student demands.”

ISA 2014: Do Orcs read the course syllabus?

A big hello from the city that spring forgot, Toronto, where the International Studies Association is holding its annual meeting. As I believe I’ve noted at various points, IR isn’t my thing, but the ALPS crew had a great opportunity to be part of a panel on Friday about innovative teaching, so here I am.

I hope to post several times from the event, as thoughts occur. And so it is here.

My first panel this morning is all about using games and fantasy to teach IR, including World of Warcraft, zombies (obviously), film and case study-driven approaches.

The common theme has been one of engagement and even enjoyment: the radically different approaches seem to stimulate students to go that bit further, with commensurate improvements of performance (based on pre/post tests). All good stuff.

At the same time, the tensions that colleagues observe are familiar ones. In particular, institutional necessities tend to impose limits: the need to provide course handbooks with learning objectives ends up being an immovable anchor that is – more often than not – worked around, rather than worked with.

At the same time, colleague after colleague has talked about institutional pressure to innovate pedagogy as a good in of itself. That’s great, but the impression that occurs is that this is a very disjointed and inchoate process: letting a thousand flowers bloom, if you’d like that old vision, albeit without a sense of what will happen with the successful experiments.

And this is the paradox. Innovation cannot be a good in itself: all of us think of instances of change for changes’ sake, and the costs that imposes on all involved. Instead, innovation needs to be for a reason and with an intention, even if that intention isn’t finally realised. But to do that, it requires colleagues to take a chance and trust that improvement is possible, even the path isn’t clear in advance.

That’s particularly true for student-led pedagogies of the kinds we talk about here at ALPS, where we anticipate that students will make unexpected discoveries.

We find ourselves moving towards a new era of pedagogic practice, but that is a conditional process. It’s telling that the participants in the panel tend to only use their pedagogic innovations in limited cases, rather than across the board. We’re all learning to loosen the ties and it’s going to be a fascinating journey.

The Plot Thickens

Burial PlotBeing married to someone who teaches literature and writing for a living, it’s difficult not to notice the importance of narrative. People gravitate to whoever or whatever has the most compelling story — the candidate for statewide political office who turned around a city wracked by unemployment and crime, the neglected homeless puppy shown on the local TV news, and the potato chips that are so good that Jennifer Lawrence, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna eat them.

Recently I ordered a few cast iron cooking pans — big, heavy, millenia-old technology — from Amazon. Total time from click to rip (as in the packaging): three days. Amazon began as an online retailer of books. Now its product is logistics. It can get pretty much any consumer good to a lot of customers faster than anyone else can. That good can be something that has existed for a few thousand years or a few weeks. You want it? You got it. Amazon’s narrative is click and rip.

Compare that to the hardware store in the small town where I spent my childhood. The narrative of this business was familiarity — a locally-owned business close to home. But the selection of pipe, tools, and fasteners was limited. Often what you needed wasn’t on the shelf. It might arrive in the next weekly shipment, but probably not — individually-customized orders didn’t exist. The alternative was to drive an hour to the nearest urban area where the store shelves had a wider variety of products.

Ultimately, the narrative of familiarity was crushed by the narrative of convenience.

What is the narrative that colleges and universities tell? In the USA since World War II, the story has been “we provide research expertise for government and industry, train the labor force in the job skills sought by employers, and generate the cultural capital necessary for a functional citizenry.”

Of course only the most prestigious and expensive schools were ever able to simultaneously supply new knowledge, job training, and cultural capital in large amounts. Most schools faced the project manager’s dilemma: everyone wants good quality, immediate availability, and low price, but reality dictates that usually only two of the three are possible at any given moment. People can get good and cheap, but it’s not going to be fast. Or they can go for fast and cheap, but it’s not going to be good. Since research was too expensive for the non-elite schools, they adopted a narrative about the benefits of combining workforce preparation with liberal education. To try to distinguish themselves from each other, they incorporated nostalgia into their narratives to create branded identities — stories about historical missions, athletic contests, and the halcyon days of yore.

How do we know that this kind of narrative is mostly fictional? The USA doesn’t have a national curriculum like France, especially at the post-secondary level. A college or university in the USA is to a certain extent free to offer whatever courses it wants in any subject it wants. But every week thousands of university instructors stand in remarkably-similar classrooms delivering the same information in the same ways. What happens in classroom A is what happens in classroom B, whether classroom B is down the hall, across campus, or in another state. Accepting this narrative means a four to six year commitment of time and money.

Contrast the above with the story that Udacity, Saylor, Udemy, Khan Academy, and edX are telling:

We don’t care where you are. We don’t care if you’re poor. We don’t care if you’re from a minority group whose members attend flagship public universities at only half the rate that they attend any college or university. We don’t care if you already graduated from college. We don’t care if you don’t have the time or energy to commit to a degree program because you work a full-time job. All that we care about is that you want to learn something, and we’ll let you choose what, when, and how you learn.

Obviously this narrative is fundamentally different from that of the vast majority of post-secondary educational institutions in the USA. Yet we now see people evaluating MOOCs and other new avenues for learning in terms of the how they stack up against the narrative of the extant university: Is this the equivalent of a credit hour? Does this count toward a diploma? Is what I can get for free as good as what will cost me thousands of dollars? Logically these questions are the same as asking how much purchasing a cast iron pan from Amazon — click to rip for an incredibly low price without even having to leave home — is like going to a neighborhood hardware store that only sells copper pipe. Iron and copper are both metals, but you can’t cook dinner with a pipe.

The question that people should instead be asking is “Which narrative is more compelling?”

Clay Shirky has a great essay on what happened when the new narrative of Napster collided with the story that the established music industry had relied upon for decades. The music industry disintegrated. According to Shirky, Udacity is the Napster of higher education.

Here’s another analogy: clothing. A few years ago, the retail clothing market aimed at teenagers (coincidentally the same people colleges and universities must recruit to survive) was dominated by three companies —  Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Aeropostale. These three brands captured more than a third of teenage spending on clothing. Now that figure is down to twelve percent. The lost twenty percent segment of the market? It’s now occupied by twenty-five brands, not three. And Aeropostale is hemorrhaging cash and closing stores.

What happened? Yes, the high unemployment rate among teenagers has diminished their discretionary income. And yes, traditional retailers face stiff competition from firms that can respond to changing tastes more quickly, some by selling directly online. But the game changer, as discussed in the Marketplace article linked to above, is the ability of teenagers to use social media technology to easily choose what they wear on an item by item basis. They no longer need a clothing manufacturer to construct a brand for them, they can create their own, just like Napster enabled music listeners to select their favorite songs instead of buying entire albums. And a story that is believed to be unique, because it has been customized by the owner according to the owner’s needs and desires, is quite a compelling one.

New frontiers for simulations: what matters?

In this series of posts (here and here), I have been considering some questions that have struck me as important in the continuing development of simulations as a pedagogy.  This stems from a workshop on simulations in EU Studies that I attended last month.

A key issue that emerged for me at the workshop was one that I had never really considered beforehand, even though it is clearly central to our understanding of the value of simulations in the classroom: What is it that matters in a simulation?

In all the discussions that we have about the benefits of simulations, we point to the value of active learning, of knowledge and skills development, of enhanced self-confidence and of practical application to a learner-led environment. Sounds great.

A bright future for simulations?

But what matters in this?

Put differently, what could we take away and still reap the benefits?

Are simulations a threshold pedagogy – where anything one does is beneficial, regardless of complexity, once a threshold is passed – or a variable one – where the more you do with it, the more you get out?

The question is important because the answer has a direct impact on how we use simulations. If it turns out that anything that involves students playing a role in a scenario produces measurable benefits in learning, then the incentive to do more is much reduced. Conversely, if more complexity adds more value, then we might press on to much grander schemes than we currently conceive of.

From my perspective, I run small, simple games. Partly this is due to limitations on time and space that I can have with my students, but it’s also driven by a desire to create generic scenarios that teach generic lessons about negotiation, without getting too distracted by the fine detail of a major simulation game. I see improvements in my students’ learning and practice, but I am not clear what specifically drives that.

In the context of designing more meaningful evaluations of the impact of simulations, defining the ‘simulation’ part is as important as defining the ‘impact’. Too often, we discuss simulations as if they were all of a piece and comparable in all relevant dimensions, even if they are patently different. Victor’s state of nature game is fundamentally different from a multi-day, multi-centred international recreation of the European Parliament, even if they share elements of play and student-focus.

The difficulty in this is obvious. Simulations are intrinsically flexible and adaptable, which is why those who use them like them so much. The variability of scale and focus lends itself to meeting very different requirements, be they skills- or knowledge-based. But the cost is that the ‘benefit’ is similarly not mono-dimensional.

My interest in skills development is different from someone else’s knowledge enhancement, but both are valid metrics from a simulation. Indeed, two users can use the same simulation in very different ways and produce different learning outcomes and that too is a valid process.

Again, this is not something with an easy resolution, for precisely the reasons outlined. However, if we don’t address it, then we run the twin risks of losing out on the full potential for student learning and of undermining the use of simulations by promoting practice that does not benefit learning.

Coming Attractions

This is the third in a four-part series on the future of higher education in the USA. The first two installments are here and here.

The essay below was written by a chief academic officer at a small private university in the Midwest:

PreviewI am increasingly convinced that higher education is at the front of a massive paradigm shift that is going to leave perhaps only a half of the currently operating, relatively traditional institutions of higher education standing in recognizably their current form in the next twenty years or so.  As an example, look at what’s happening in Georgia with the merger of Augusta State University and the Medical College of Georgia, and of Macon State College and Middle Georgia College.  The merger of Macon and Middle Georgia is relatively appropriate, as they share a basic mission and are fundamentally similar institutions (essentially two-year colleges with, in Macon’s case, some selected baccalaureate programs) but the merger of Augusta State and the Medical College is a laughable abomination—a high-powered medical school merging with a virtually open-access, master’s granting comprehensive university:  how can this possibly make sense?  One of these institutions is going to lose, no doubt.  Similar things are going to happen elsewhere—I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen, for example, in other states that have a lot of small public institutions relatively close together (Wisconsin, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, I’m looking at YOU).

On the private side, schools that can’t make a case on quality and value, and that don’t have big name recognition and/or a huge endowment, are going to go out of business by the dozens.  Several such institutions that I am familiar with are in that predicament already, and some, like Dana College in Nebraska, Lambuth University in Tennessee, and the former College of Santa Fe, are already gone.  At my own institution, which is financially sound and has a relatively good endowment and a reasonable debt profile, our overall budget, net of aid, is about 8.5 percent below where it was five years ago, about half of which is enrollment challenges and the other half reduced endowment income.  Yet until very recently, our faculty have chosen to believe that there’s nothing wrong, that I am making up the argument that our sector is in terrible trouble, and that “we’ve been through tough times before and came out fine and we will again.”

Under the current system, students at relatively obscure and nonselective institutions that still do a good job with undergraduate education have opportunities to broaden their worlds in very significant ways, and have their talents and passions ignited by the happenstance of a great experience in a class they encountered sort of by accident (this is the optimum outcome of a good, intentionally designed general education program, I think).

I know this is true because I work at such a place.  We routinely see students who have, for example, never been on an airplane, emerge after four years as reasonably sophisticated and confident young people who have the tools to do something really good with their lives that they hadn’t even imagined when they got to college. This is the opportunity that is most at peril in the current crisis in higher education in the United States. If you relegate such students to “training,” they’re not going to have nearly so much chance to have that happen.

Remember, the elite colleges for the most part serve the children of the upper-middle class and higher.  These students have already had plenty of opportunity, which is I think why some studies show that “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” if you sample only from highly prepared undergraduates.  They’re going to be fine no matter where they go, and there’s a real argument to be made that in terms of “value added,” elite institutions actually don’t do as well as less-selective places, aside, of course, from the incredible elitist networking you get from those schools.  (I know this, too, because I went to one of them.)

So while I absolutely agree that we’ve gotten ourselves into a mess with the idea that “everyone needs to go to college,” going backwards on that idea without very careful planning and execution is going to take us back to a situation that even more thoroughly instantiates the self-perpetuating elite that for a long time was the characteristic of higher education, particularly in England though certainly to a lesser extent in the United States as well.

All you need to do is read President Obama’s recent proposals carefully to realize that if anything even remotely like them comes true, things are going to become an order of magnitude worse than they are already.  There are many, many issues at play but if you listen carefully to Obama’s rhetoric about job preparation and graduate salaries, what you’re actually hearing is the sound of the old apprentice system where the elite went to Oxbridge, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and everyone else learned to shoe horses being reimagined for the 21st century.  Obama should know better, but I am convinced neither he nor anyone in his administration has even the slightest idea of how education actually works.  The only consolation is that his opponents actually HATE education, which I don’t think he does—he just doesn’t get it.

I don’t know the administration at readers’ colleges and universities, of course, but I probably have some idea of what’s going on in your state, and I think it’s at least plausible to imagine that your administration in trying to find a way to get you all into a position where you can postpone or prevent truly terrible coming attractions in your sector, whether regional public or non-elite private.  They may not be articulating that argument very well, but unless they’re complete idiots, they are seeing things in the future that they are perhaps trying to prevent—that’s certainly what I’m trying to do here, and I would be greatly appreciative of more help from the faculty.

I feel like I am standing very close to the writing on the wall and may be the only person on the academic side of our operation who can actually read it.  It contains a scary message.  Things are going to change, and they’re going to be worse. Those of us—faculty and administrators—who actually know what we’re talking about need to get together to take as much control of the process as possible, but one thing I can absolutely guarantee is that standing still and resisting based on established traditions and business models is the surest way to imperil an institution’s survival.

In A Theater Near You

The Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education (WICHE) has generated a forecast of public high school graduates to the year 2020, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Clicking on the link will take you to an interactive map that presents two significant trends in U.S. higher education.

First, the northeast quadrant of the USA is producing fewer high school graduates, except for New York and Virginia, where the numbers are flat. New England, which has the greatest density of colleges and universities in the country relative to geographic area, will suffer the greatest decline.

Second, regardless of whether a state has a decreasing or increasing number of high school graduates, the proportion of non-white high school graduates is expanding, sometimes by double digits.

Drive InMany university faculty in the USA are only faintly aware of how they are going to be affected occupationally by these demographic trends. Their job, as they see it, is simply to continue to do exactly what they and their graduate school mentors have done for the last half century.

This attitude is a terrible mistake. I’ve written previously on the havoc that new technologies will probably wreak on the U.S. system of higher education, but let’s ignore technological shifts for a moment and only look at the demographic data. Over the next few decades, the population of high school graduates — like the U.S. population as a whole — will be more culturally diverse, less wealthy in comparison to past generations, and more globally connected. In general, the proportion of any state’s non-white population — and that includes high school graduates — is going to increase, regardless of whether that state’s absolute population increases or decreases.

These demographic changes mean that universities in states with shrinking populations will succeed only if they learn how to compete effectively in areas of the country with growing populations, and that requires making their curricula more responsive to students who have backgrounds, interests, and objectives that are in many cases very different from those of university faculty.

The consequences? Faculty members have to examine the curricula of their employers to ensure that they are well-positioned in a more diverse and more competitive higher education marketplace. The American Association of Colleges & Universities has produced a set of rubrics that can be helpful in doing this — the rubrics can be used to gauge, among other things, how a curriculum measures up in terms of local and global engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, and global learning.

Curriculum Design

It’s always a good day when you get to tell scientists that they are being unscientific.

We are almost at the two year mark in a process of revising our core curriculum, and though it’s like trying to stop a runaway train, I have been asking annoying questions like “Why have a core curriculum?” So far I haven’t received any good answers.

Our current core curriculum is over a decade old and was never comprehensively assessed to see if it was meeting its specified learning Three Stoogesobjectives. The perceived need to replace this curriculum with something else derives from a vague sense of dissatisfaction held by faculty and administrators and the results of a survey of current students. No one has bothered to ask students who transferred out of the university, or students who were admitted but enrolled elsewhere, if the core curriculum played a role in their decisions. No one has paid much attention to alumni either. So from the very beginning there’s been sampling bias.

At this point it looks like we are eagerly replacing one fairly complex system with another complex system, and the components of that new system are completely untested. From my perspective it would be a lot more efficient to iteratively replace bits and pieces and test each change to see if it resulted in a better outcome.

Perhaps more troubling — from both a business and pedagogical perspective — is the mentality that regards students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge that is poured out of a specific set of containers. If students who have to take five courses a semester for eight semesters can’t get a rigorous, diverse, and relevant education without being required to take a certain set of courses, then requiring them to take that set of courses probably isn’t going to solve the problem.