Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Raising my daughter by ten thousand suggestions

My 14 year-old daughter recently dug up a stick-figure drawing she made in kindergarten of herself scaling a smoking volcano. “I want to be a volcanologist”, she wrote, above the brown marker-haired figure in triangle-shaped skirt. That drawing, she remembers, set me into weeks of investigation about how one becomes a volcanologist--studying admissions policies at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, pulling up PBS films about Katia and Maurice Krafft, emailing Philip Kyle at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory in Antarctica, and Darcy Bevens at the Center for Study of Active Volcanoes at University of Hawaii at Hilo. We watched, played, read and talked to folks about volcanoes until, not long after, she announced that she no longer wants to be volcanologist.

That was 9 years and about ten thousand suggestions ago. As my daughter tells me, sometimes she wishes I was a more ‘normal’ mom. I learned along the way that I could create whole life-stories for my daughter, latch on to briefly-mentioned ideas and cook up must-see, must-try, must-read lists faster than she cared to notice. I learned that suggesting too hard sometimes turned her off completely. A once-fun experiment became a chore, or my insistence on background reading made conversation stilted. The most heartbreaking response she could give me was an indifferent shrug.

OK, so I also learned a few things about suggesting. Suggesting is better in sweetened spoonfuls than inundations. Suggesting doesn’t need to watch her reading over her shoulder. Or to follow-up every time. The silence between suggestions is probably more valuable than the suggestion itself.

Like watching a 2-year-old’s vocabulary tentatively emerge after months of listening, and then explode in complexity, I’m starting to see with my daughter how years of suggesting--people, ideas, careers, dilemmas--is beginning to articulate itself. Like the 6-month old listening to her mother sing, the 9-year old absorbs something from her mother’s suggestions that’s not apparent to either of them at the time. Like a thousand open-ended questions that are only partly answered in words, but move to the front of her mind and seem to build a lens through which she watches the world. Am I here by mistake or intentionally? Is there a metaphysical purpose to my life? When will I know? Are we all living under the same moral framework, or is each one of us building his own? Would that be fair? Is anything fair? How long will I live? What will be the thing that I do that makes a difference? I couldn’t tell that this was happening when she was 7, or 9 or 11. But now I walk up on her and she is curled up with her tablet watching a YouTube lecture about the sanctity of human life. Or making lip balm in a jar from ingredients we found in the market. Or researching municipal strategies to manage street dog populations.

I am on fire with motherly purposefulness, but I’m learning to hold it back to let my daughter emerge. Watching her find herself is a quieter triumph than those explosions of 2-year-old language. But being purposeful, I’m also curious. Are other families suggesting? Are mothers calling around to find experts to talk to their kids? Are fathers messaging article links? Are grandmas talking up internship possibilities with their friends at the gym?

For me, suggesting has become a crusade. But I wonder, is it scalable? Do families by and large entrust suggesting to school teachers and guidance counselors? Can they be coached as better suggesters? Could an algorithm help? Or would a flashy, edtech solution or auto-nudging mobile app do for adolescent self-discovery what 8 hours a day of PBSKids does for sedated 18-month olds in low-quality childcare settings--that is, pretend at doing the right thing, while getting it exactly wrong?

This is just as much a moral challenge as a business problem. Suggesting is not by definition helpful, just as televised speech does not necessarily promote language development, when not coming through an engaged human. Virtuous cycles of suggestion rely on life experience, insight, and connectedness. When done right, suggesting nudges the young person into a hundred not-so-comfortable situations. It prompts thousands of conversations, often with strangers. It drives toward countless unsolvable problems and apparent dead-ends. It’s as exhausting as it is stimulating. It’s time consuming, needs the time of close family and friends, and can’t be easily priced, because there’s no apparent payoff. When we try to tell ourselves that it could be massively scaled and replicated, we find out bad-suggesting looks like: mechanical, inert, rooted in default-settings and biases, one-size-fits-all, that just keeps hammering away.

How could I plant the seeds of healthy suggesting in families with pre-teens and teens? I’m excited to see what BreakAway Learning can do to help teens and their parents feel more comfortable about exploratory learning, to put it out there completely free, and see if it can drive a change in behavior. But I know the limits of what a website can do. Good suggesting comes from strong communities and strong families. And those aren’t scalable.

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.