Monday, February 18, 2019

What if consumers demanded the unbundling of the 4yr undergraduate degree?

The 4-year, single-institution-loyal, core-curriculum driven undergraduate degree is a bundled product. If it were a cable/telephone/data package, or a new car/warranty/service package, or an all-inclusive cruise ship vacation,
we’d be quicker to call it what it is. We’d be poking around the edges, asking ‘Why would I want this?’ and ‘I could do without that,’ and ‘How much if drop all of these things?’ In short, we’d each pick it apart and demand product and pricing according to our own interests.

But for decades now — and particularly the past decade, when Udemy, Udacity, edX, Coursera, MasterClass, SkillShare, Praxis, KhanAcademy, Preply, and a wide range of other free and fee-based, online and blended offerings crowd into this space — we accept as a given that this bundle must exist.

Progressives that call for lower costs, debt forgiveness, or outright socialization of tertiary education unwittingly cement this bundled product in place. They aim for equity and access, but frame it according to a rigid product design — SATs, admissions committees and fees, large and growing administrations, time-consuming core curricula, institution-specific degrees — that benefits the incumbent college industry more than the rising student. Looking to northern Europe is a good indication of how the socialization of costs applies further standardization to tertiary learning, deterministic testing, inflexible prerequisites, and set-in-stone curricula.

I think it’s imperative — before the next U.S. presidential election cycle — that young people, industry leaders, public figures, economists, and learning experts come together to voice a demand for something else:

UnbundleUnbrand: The overdue demand to unpack the undergraduate degree.
  1. We are a group of economists, neuroscientists, high-tech employers, and public figures.
  2. We are watching with anxiety the volume of American student loans at $1.5 trillion, 11% of which in default, 14% in forbearance, with predictions of 40% in default by 2023.
  3. American young people are chasing the false promises of knowledge, skills, and career acceleration from institutions that foremost seek to bundle and brand, that hike tuitions absorbing nearly all federal debt subsidy, that entice young people into levels of debt that are costing households more, and lasting more years than any generation has witnessed before.
  4. American high schools are chasing graduation rates and rates of placement in 4-year universities, also false promises to communities that place statistical improvement-at-any-price ahead of the real interests and needs of young people.
  5. American employers are slow to refine talent identification systems to acknowledge smart, hard-working, skilled candidates on the basis of their demonstrated learning and results. Undergraduate degrees are too often used as a baseline metric for eligibility when there is almost no correlation of knowledge or skills attained to the obtaining of the degree, nor to the demands of many careers.
  6. Meantime, the proliferation of online courseware, gameware, tutorials, face-to-face and blended learning models, subscription-based, and pay-per-use content continues, but is underused by our teenagers. The promise of individualized learning is limited not by technology or logistics, but by the social imagination, that still sees teens moving through set schedules and an arbitrary, standard hierarchy of 5 or 6 subjects.
  7. We believe that if teens will be encouraged to pursue intensive, individualized learning by making use of already abundant tools, combined with mentoring, internships and real work experience in a more flexible learning environment, the arbitrary urgency to apply and commit to 4-year undergraduate degrees would decline.
  8. Unless and until the simplistic recognition of the so-called undergraduate degree as a measure of education is unbundled, our counterproductive culture of college-readiness is depriving youth of enormous opportunity, while our economy is imperiled by students’ misguided borrowing. The loan crisis may cost America hundreds of billions. The opportunity cost of a decade of young people’s lives spent mechanically going through motions, not exploring their interests, not intrinsically motivated, is unknown.
  9. Given these concerns, we appeal to America’s universities to: 
  • Offer unbundled, a-la-carte course enrollment to anyone, anywhere, anytime
  • Stop differentiating price or credential value for “full-time”, “for credit”, versus a-la-carte students
  • Accept in any course any interested student, irrespective of prior degree attainment, or based on performance in online prerequisite study that is open to anyone
  • Enable click-to-buy or free courses, such that enrollment is quick and simple, and prices are transparent
  • Dismiss the admissions committee and eliminate the cumbersome admissions process, including fee-based standardized test-taking, essay-submission, and racial and ethnic identification
  • Offer courses in a greater variety of durations, frequency and times of year, to break down the rigidity of continuing learning

10. We appeal to America’s leading employers to:
  • Eliminate the “highest level of education attained”, simplistic human resources drop-down menu;
  • Revise human resource systems to recognize the wide range of relevant, competitive learning and experience that prospective job candidates can attain alternative to an undergraduate degree;
  • Stop differentiating salaries for the same work based on a candidate’s having or not having an undergraduate degree.
11.  We trust in the intrinsic curiosity and rebellious spirit of our youth that when these artificial constraints are removed, our youth will naturally diversify their efforts across a much broader range of subjects, problems, work and study modalities fitting to their interests and needs. With responsible guidance and supervision of family, community and state, these diverse learning approaches will enable a more motivated and productive young population, fitting a modern economy and free society.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Woe is my department! Downsizing universities try to build a public sob-story, but students aren’t missing-out, they’re migrating!


When you get no claps on Medium, or your Udemy course gets 6 buyers and one star, there isn’t half the tantrumming you’re gonna hear from an associate professor who didn’t get tenure. From the headlines of higher-ed journals that mourn the downsizing and budget rationalization of colleges coping with declining enrollments, declining selection of humanities majors, and declining interest in foreign language study, it would seem we are a sad, regressing society. Doleful professors of obscure art genres and literature are looking for work, woeful foreign language departments are closing their doors. Alas, youth don’t appreciate humanities and the wide world of languages. 

Cut the crap, academia!

Has anybody checked out the meteoric rise of Duolingo, that built a US$700 million business providing the basics of foreign language learning without charging users? Or Preply, the Ukrainian start-up that links aspiring students--mainly foreign language learners--with low-cost conversational partners and tutors around the world?

If it’s art appreciation you’re after, there’s a wide range of course and short-tutorial options from Artsy to Sootheby’s Institute to MoMA Research and Learning, not to mention college-style courseware on edX and Coursera. If it’s making art or craft or music, there’s SkillShare, MyBluPrint, New York Institute of Photography, and so many resource and lesson sites like Mutopia Project, Art of Composing, and JustinGuitar.

And of course, you would have to be crawling out from under a rock right now not to have found better lectures on just about any author, artist, or ancient civilization on YouTube (e.g., the most popular sort to the top) than the particular adjunct lecturer who’s teaching the particular course on your campus during the times you’re available this semester, and which satisfies your pre-req. See what I’m getting at?

It’s not necessarily the collapse of civilization that is foretold by declining enrollments in undergraduate humanities classes. It’s the emergence of better alternatives. But universities and students aren’t looking at this the same way. A deeper client engagement might be a place to start…

Why does the undergrad humanities student believe that she is sitting in your class?
  • * Her parents and teachers said she should do this.
  • # She’s looking for a group to fit into.
  • # She’s postponing tough decisions about her life.
  • # She feels better when her work is organized into neat steps that lead to a concrete endpoint.
  • # She works harder when she has a definite schedule and deadlines.
  • She hopes she’ll see something inspirational that could become a business model for her work.
  • She wants to build a brand for herself, narrow-in on a market niche where she can add value 
  • She wants to find people who will believe in her, build a client network, create a blog, offer free webinars, get invited to fairs and exhibits, raise money on Patreon, and create some kind of FB marketing strategy. 
  • She wants to make money. 
Stop and ask yourself which of these objectives is really served by your university class. I have put a * next to the one I think is uniquely served by universities. I put a # next to ones that are served by BOTH universities and other learning resources.

OK, so why does the instructor think she is in his class?
  • He has unique knowledge and skills.
  • * These knowledge and skills will be important to completing a degree.
  • # These things should be valued by society in general. 
  • * These things satisfy a university pre-req.
  • The skills he imparts will be vital to her career pursuits. 
Now I don’t mean to hurt feelings, but only to point to market signals. Anyone who gives a lecture on Dostoevsky is competing with a whole YouTube genre, YaleOCW, and numerous threads on GoodReads, among other resources. Maybe he is really trying, but as the number and modalities of learning resources proliferate, if his presentation is not really AWESOME, then she is compromising by sitting in his class. And do I need to go into the disconnect between college classes and career pursuits? What are we left with, then? As any professor (including Bryan Caplan) will attest whose students gleefully fled the scene when he ran 11-minutes late, most college classes exist on the rationale of core curriculum requirements and the bundled 4-year, 120-credit-hour degree. Meantime, the rapidly expanding market of shared notes and hired essay-writers, creating quick-wins for firms like OneClass, StuDocu, and Stuvia, is emblematic of the cynicism inherent in this whole process.

That a society values liberal arts is as true as its concert ticket-sales, public library usage, museum foot traffic, and digital media subscriptions. And, by the way, all the above services do cope with market tastes, convenience, perceived utility, and price sensitivity. ...All except one. Alas, the university culture. Give us more subsidized debt! Protect the core curriculum!

Don’t worry, humanities bureaucrat! You have a few more months. Graduating high school cohorts have been drinking the college Kool-Aid, and a new cohort is prepping for its PSAT right now. Meantime, you are protesting and digging in your heels and calling your critics illiterate buffoons.

But it’s not just me calling you out, buffoon that I am. You have graduated thousands of today’s bloggers, editorialists, art curators, craft-online-market-makers, freelancers of every stripe. They emerged to a job market that took no notice of the bachelor’s degree, and where anyway they had to build business model, branding, reputation and client-base from scratch. Everywhere are signals that the staid, gerito-cratic corporate careers of our forefathers are vanishing into sepia-tinted memories, giving over to AI and rationalized staffing that prefer the outsourced solution. And what are those “solutions”? They are scrappy, small teams working out of apartments day and night, eating and drinking work, work that transforms as quickly as the clients’ needs change. Ask anyone on that team if he would fund a colleague to get a liberal arts degree. Hell, no!

OK, so I concede that a few fields are not going to change so fast. University professors, for example. They’re pretty rigid when it comes to demanding formal degrees. And then there’s the State. In my recent podcast, I questioned whether President Trump could get up to pee at night and tweet that the Executive Branch doesn’t recognize the undergraduate degree as a meaningful measure of knowledge and capability anymore, and thereby force HR officers in every department and agency under him to re-formulate job qualification matrices more specifically. Well… Not impossible given the precedents he’s already set. Yes, there will be laggards to recognize the irrelevance of the undergraduate degree, and both the slow, inflexible employers and the late-to-learn, Kool-Aid-drunk bachelor-holders will find themselves at a loss.

The disruption is only beginning with humanities departments. Watch what happens to mathematics when large sections of content could be mastered on Khan Academy for free, and then fewer paid courses are needed to reach one's goals. Watch what happens to laboratory science with students shop around for semesters here and there to access best labs and best professors. Watch what happens to finance and entrepreneurship and pre-med and a hundred other subjects where students pick and choose the courses and micro-credentials that work best for them, here and there, mixed with internships and work experience, online and face-to-face. Humanities departments are just the first dominoes to fall in a system that rapidly collapses when users will unbundle and unbrand the 4-year, undergraduate degree.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Social Studies is stuck at the beginning of time, while our tweens are blind to Khashoggi, Crimea, surveillance, and the faltering priority of free expression

If you’ve got a 5th or 6th grader, then you have also printed his Mesopotamia ppt at work, built a model Roman aqueduct in a shoebox, or made a poster about pharaohs, papyrus and the Nile River. My 6th grader is the fourth in line, so I’m getting pretty tired of it, although I can whip one up quickly. But since some of our kids at any given time are pursuing individualized study, I can’t help but notice how different social studies can be.  (These days we are in a small, icy, dark city in the north of Kazakhstan, so I’m sympathetic that time with friends is often more important than real learning. My kids are homeschooling in turns with brick-and-mortar school). 

This past fall my 13-year old daughter and I created social studies around a daily news feed, that sometimes captured her personal interests, and sometimes followed trending articles in politics, international security, and justice. Instead of books, she downloaded the Economist app, we
subscribed to that and Wall Street Journal, she followed Politico, Slate, Huffington Post and RealClear. When an issue seemed to be more than a daily headline but a signal of our changing times-- Russian incursions in the Black Sea, Trump dismissive of Khashoggi murder, tensions in South China Sea, under-reporting of National Climate Assessment-- then we dug up more, followed links and tracked it for several days.

A key to all of this was that we read the news-- or at least the first few paragraphs-- together. I pointed her, and she pointed me, to articles. Sometimes they hung together, of-a-piece, and we talked about that over lunch. Often she skipped around, from allegations against Facebook to U.S. university shout-downs and ‘microaggressions’, from California wildfires to trade wars. We didn’t need to talk about everything. We talked about what interested her.

Another help was that I hired a graduate student of international security studies in Nairobi to WhatsApp twice-weekly with my daughter. We kept a list of article links and passed them to her in advance of the chats. Those scheduled calls created a discipline, which meant my daughter had to get through her news, and had to remember enough to talk about it. It was interesting for me to over-hear her trail of thought as their conversation drifted from one headline to another.

No memorization, no tests, no chronology.

Instead, my daughter’s interaction with social studies was contemporaneous, exploratory, and above all, rooted in conversation. When she asked why the South China Sea is referred to as a “tinderbox,” we found an Infographic mini-lecture together. When she wondered why the U.S. administration has to seem friendly to Saudi Arabia, we found a bunch more articles in Atlantic Monthly. My background implementing development projects with adult education suggests that making learning timely, relevant, social and reinforced through active conversation will make my daughter’s interaction with this information more likely to assimilate into her active thinking about the world around her. But that wasn’t my only goal. More importantly, my daughter wants to consume news. And now she also knows how.

I’m saddened by contrast to watch my 6th grader cynically filling the blanks of his 27-page ditto-packet about ancient Mesopotamia. Fertile crescent. Tigris and Euphrates. Cradle of civilization... He watches “90-Day Fiance” in the background while he fills it out. Having seen this version of social studies so many times, I can’t help feeling that the irrelevant, boring design is intentional.

At school, social studies never gets within 50 years of the present, often not even 500 years. It’s chronological. It has big, bolded words with 3-word definitions next to them. It drills conceptual frameworks (What are the 5 traits of civilization?) to lobotomized kids, who copy phrases from page 34 into the "Critical Thinking" space on page 36. It’s non-controversial. It’s quickly forgotten. It’s so remote that even the teachers struggle to find some way to make it look exciting. (For more depressing views, try joining the FB group, Middle School Social Studies Teachers.)

Chronological learning about society ignores the obvious truth that most of us don’t seek or need a huge background to interact with real-time problems. As Elon Musk said, when building an engine, we don’t stop and study the derivation of the monkey-wrench. We just figure out how to use it. And I can see through my daughter’s experience that she becomes curious around issues like Russian shopping mall fires, American mass-shootings, Hungarian bigotry and Chinese facial-recognition surveillance, and her curiosity drives a backward examination of how these things came about. Her thinking is not in timelines. She is discovering the monkey-wrenches in her own messy way.

The “mastery” (if you speak IB) or content-memorization approach to history short-circuits the tween mind, and prevents this messy discovery process.

Mind-numbingly dull social studies lessons fit into a Hobbesian view about kids and, paradoxically, perpetuate the Hobbesian kid. Kids couldn’t care less. They hate it. They want to eat chips and watch BuzzFeed. So we hold them to their chairs, cram it down their throats (and occasionally dress it up with costumes, food-tasting and dioramas made at 11pm by exhausted working mothers). We threaten and hold the grading system over their heads. Kids comply and memorize, hate every moment, forget, and return to chips and BuzzFeed. This closes the Hobbesian loop. As soon as social studies will end, these persecuted teens will settle into making money, watching cable news-tainment, and continuing not to give a shit about the world.

I’ve written before about the wisdom of political dissidents in their fights--against whatever odds--for self-determination. About the different human value of an hour spent according to one’s own will versus complying to the will of a system. I’ve questioned why education is more Hobbesian than Lockean. Are we afraid of what our kids are made of? Is it unsettling to think of teens skipping over papyrus or the Spanish Inquisition?

For sure, the Hobbesian-programmed kid takes time to discover his productive internal motivations when you take away compulsion and timelines. You have programmed him that way. Learning-to-learn is a process. Tweens need nudges to Politico, to Slate, to the Economist. They need mentors and reminders and some urgency to read.

It takes time, patience, and daily interactions with news to cultivate the civic mind. That’s what social studies should be.