Thursday, July 31, 2014

Important People: Allen Tough

Generally, when I read a book or a paper about management or education, I have to make notes and work to remember what I am reading. But in the case of Alan Tough's book, “The Adult’s Learning
Projects,” it explained a part of my experience that I had thought, to that point, was simply an observation and a philosophy that I held.

Tough, who recently died from ALS, was a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. His career-long research into adult learning projects has changed the knowledge base for lifelong learning and explains, now that we are web centric, the potential of the digital dimension and the post-traditional world.

In the early years of the Community College of Vermont, we began assessing experiential learning for academic credit. It was controversial, but we believed that if a person already knew something that could count towards a degree, we should not make them learn it again. Still and all, as radical as we thought we were, we were going to be the focus of the students’ learning, offering courses towards the degree. And then Alan Tough’s book turned my life, and point of view, upside down.

Tough proved that the average adult engages in 8-10 learning projects every year, consuming more than 700 hours of new material annually or 12 hours a week. He defined a process for their learning projects which took them from problem identification, to research of resources, to the actual learning, and concluded with a determination that the learning was complete for the problem identified. And, startlingly, he discovered that most people “forgot” what they had learned over time, remembering only when he employed recall exercises. Recalling “tacit” knowledge and making it tangible had a striking impact on his subjects.

After I read the book, I called Alan Tough and the next week I drove to Toronto and visited with him for several hours. Tough’s theory and findings about adult learning projects, deepened over the years by additional research, explained to me what I was seeing in our students, the lifelong learners who were coming to Community College of Vermont.  This validated the assessment of prior experiential learning as a practice and gave me a lens through which to analyze learning programs and systems throughout my career, i.e. Are the learning programs learning-friendly and adult-friendly, or not?

The point here is not that all this learning is at a post-secondary level and should be counted for academic recognition. The point is that we are all natural learners, that we learn continually, that the learning changes us, and that an educational institution which could harness that natural impulse and help people remember what they already knew would be extremely valuable to them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life-Changing Encounters: Harvey Scribner

When I attended the Master of Arts in Teaching program (MAT) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there was a one year internship component. For a variety of reasons that I will discuss in later blog entries, I had already decided that I did not want to teach in a traditional classroom. And as I searched for acceptable alternatives, I found a dandy in my home state of Vermont.

Vermont had a new Commissioner of Education, Harvey Scribner, who had developed and passed a radical school reform plan called “The Vermont Design for Education.” The Vermont Design was controversial because it advocated for less structured educational experiences in the K-12 sector, similar to a program structure called the “Leicester School” method in England. Although it decentralized the actual planning to the local school district level, traditionalists were, nonetheless, outraged at the recommended departure from the norm. Though many districts never implemented the Vermont Design, several did. And for Scribner, it was a fight worth waging.

I first met Scribner in his office across from the State Capitol building in Montpelier to discuss the Vermont Design and my possible internship. Scribner — a gruff, pipe-smoking, energetic man with a twinkle in his eye — was once a poor kid from Liberty, Maine, who was now committed to the justice of a good education for all. I liked him immediately.

He hired me and I entered into a year-long leadership apprenticeship at the knee of a natural leader. As Scribner traveled Vermont arguing his position, I, as his driver in many instances, kept notes and gave him feedback during the long drives to and from the four corners of the state. On more than one occasion, Harvey would say to me “Peter, getting a leadership position is not enough. It is what you do with it that matters.”

I understood the message immediately. And I saw him model these words daily as he advocated for programs that would serve both under-served and well-off children; chastised the Elks Club for barring minority memberships; led the New York City school system; and mentored a generation of graduate students at U Mass-Amherst's College of Education.

Throughout the years, Harvey Scribner’s influential words have stayed with me.  And as I have gone forward in my career, I have tried to understand the leadership mandate — the opportunity — in each job and meet it head on. It was only in the US Congress, however, that I understood the deeper message: Know what you are willing to lose for.  The flip side of acting out of commitment and values is that you don't always win. There can be a price extracted. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Felt the Earth Move Under My Feet and It wasn’t Carol King Singing

In the last 4-5 years, there have been three events after which I felt the landscape of post-secondary education move beneath my feet. These noteworthy developments heralded and legitimized new assumptions, new rules, and new players.

The first was StraighterLine’s announcement of its initial offering of 40 of the most popular, in demand, lower-division courses in the country at very low prices. Many traditionalists scoffed, writing this off as yet another low-quality nuisance that would be eliminated sooner or later, one way or the other. But the scoffers missed the critical elements that founder Burck Smith and his colleagues had included. Not only had McGraw-Hill — noted for quality course development work — developed all of the StraighterLine courses, but the American Council for Education (ACE) had reviewed them and recommended them for the award of academic credit. As a result, StraighterLine could offer low-cost courses recommended for credit to individual learners without any accreditation or certification oversight, thus vastly improving the chances of students transferring to accredited schools with StraighterLine credit. This new pathway to approved learning was a big deal.

The second was when MIT and Harvard announced a joint venture in MOOCs called “edX.” As a charter member of the MIT Open CourseWare Advisory Board, I had watched the Open Education Resources movement grow dramatically since 2001. But it always seemed to be a back room event, not commanding front page attention from the education and regular press. But the arrival of edX signaled a new era in which elite institutions were getting into the global open courseware game with MOOCs and certificates. Instantly, free and open online courses — massive or not — were legitimized and heralded in policy forums as well as the press. It is hard to overstate the legitimizing effect that this event had for encouraging new forms of delivering course content and learning assessments as well as for online learning overall.

The third event took place just recently in mid-June when Starbucks and Arizona State University (ASU) announced a major contract/partnership to educate Starbucks’ associates thru ASU’s online BA programs. This was great branding for Starbucks, sending the message that they believe making it a great place to work means strong financial support for all employees’ education. How long before there are Starbucks seminars where people discuss Plato while sipping latte across the country? It was also great for ASU, further illuminating President Crow’s vision for the 21st century university he has been developing for more than a decade.

In each of these examples, the breakthrough, the moving of the earth, is not to be found in the contracts’ fine print, or even the educational/employment assumptions that underlie them. The breakthrough is that these things happened at all. With StraighterLine, edX, and now Starbucks/ASU, we have concrete examples of a new legitimate assumption for ways that colleges and employers can work together to improve the lives of their workers/learners. Now that the door is open to massive workforce learning plans, there will be more and more with ever-newer models and modalities for delivery.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A PISA for Higher Education: The OECD Disruption

In a deliberate and thoughtful article in The Upshot (a New York Times blog) Kevin Carey has once and for all defined the costs and consequences associated with the way we “rank” colleges in the United States and globally. Using first-time data from new OECD research called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), Carey builds a careful analysis that exposes a glaring and dangerous problem with the way we determine quality in higher education.

Carey’s main point is that unlike K-12, where we are compared internationally on what our students actually know and are able to do (PISA Report from OECD), in higher education we rank colleges and universities based on perceived status. Whether it is the US News and World Report rankings, or President Obama himself in his State of the Union message, the reference to US higher education as “the best in the world” refers to our top institutions, not the entire enterprise. Carey goes on to point out that our relatively poor performance with regards to adult learners (up to age 29) has dire economic and social implications as we look towards an increasingly competitive global marketplace in the years ahead.

He is quite right. But this OECD disruption underscores another big problem as well. Yes, like the fearsome Wizard of Oz being unmasked as the little man behind the curtain, we are brought down to earth with this data. But stopping there brings up the next issue: the OECD research exposes the fact that we do not currently have good data or appropriate comparisons among institutional types and sectors that fully represent the diversity within our student populations and the extent to which we succeed with them.

The proposals for college rankings that we have seen either perpetuate the old “Wizard of Oz” approach or fail to assess college and learner performance by institutional category or learners’ risk factors to achieve an “apples to apples” comparison. In fact, they penalize institutions that serve marginalized and low-income learners — the very people with which we need to have more success.

That failure, in turn, leads to the deeper and more significant inability to know how effective our institutions are and what it will take to improve their effectiveness with the students they are electing to serve.

Instead of a reasoned discussion about improvement, we continue to be treated to a spectacle that more closely approximates a mud-wrestling match with multiple teams. Thank you OECD and Kevin Carey for framing the reasons why the discussion about quality in American higher education needs to be re-framed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The DoE’s Regulatory Double Standard: Who’s Next?

This Week @Inside Higher Ed is a superb new weekly radio show hosted by Inside Higher Education with IHE founder Doug Lederman and moderator Casey Green as regular participants. On Friday, June 27th, invited guests William Durdan and Ann Kirschner contributed to a very thoughtful discussion about the Corinthian closure.

Two new and extremely important implications of the closure came through to me as I listened to the conversation (linked here for your convenience). The first was the issue of a demonstrable double standard being exercised by the Department of Education (DoE) which has singled out, almost entirely, the for-profit sector for separate and unequal regulatory treatment. You see it with Gainful employment and 90:10 rules and it is proposed once again in the treatment of VA benefits as non-government money — Never mind that a benefit is earned and ought to be used at the discretion of its owner.

But the act of closing one institution poses another question: Are there other institutions with similarly dire problems that should be closed? The discussants raised the current example of City College of San Francisco, the bankrupt and perennially unstable community college in San Francisco that is on governance, financial, and regulatory life-support.  Yet after years of public discussion and failed rescue attempts, the DoE has not suggested that the college should be closed. Would they dare use the argument that there wouldn’t be anywhere else for those students to go? If they did, that would be further evidence of a double standard. There are many private institutions that would be ready to step in.

The second implication is more of a political and contextual observation. There was, as I heard it, a general consensus that the DoE was not going to stop this wrong-headed approach of trying to regulate its way to quality (see my earlier post “You Can’t Regulate Your Way to Excellence”). Indeed, the consensus on This Week seemed to indicate that, increasingly, non-profit institutions ranging from community colleges to private colleges are worried that the department’s overreach with institutions that are part of the Association of Private Schools, Colleges, and Universities (APSCU) will now be extended to them, beginning with rankings, extending to new state regulatory mandates, and finally including the regulatory regimes listed above. I have heard this concern at meetings, in hushed whispers or over a drink after the meeting was adjourned. But as with the issue of an operating double standard discussed above, I have never heard it discussed in a public forum as accepted truth by mainstream leaders in higher education. Now, beginning with this broadcast, the issue is in the mainstream. As the double standard is extended to include more types of institutions, who will be next?