Debating Pearson’s OpenClass

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Technology and Learning

Did you check out the Pearson's OpenClass booth at EDUCAUSE?   If not, it is worth spending some time on the new OpenClass site www.openclass.com.  

How would you answer the following questions:

1. Where does OpenClass fit into the LMS ecosystem?

2. If you are doing an LMS bake-off, is OpenClass among your main contenders (with Blackboard and Moodle and Canvas and D2L and Sakai)?  Why or why not?

At EDUCAUSE, Adrian Sannier (SVP of Product Pearson Education) gave a terrific presentation as part of a panel called Disruptive Innovation: Current Trends and Future Directions. (You can get the slide deck for the presentations at the EDUCAUSE session site).

It is worth paying attention to what Adrian thinks about the future of the LMS (and higher ed in general) because a) he is a smart guy with a strong iconoclastic streak, and b) Pearson is a big (and becoming bigger) player in the edtech platform, services and content space.

I've been trying to make sense of Pearson's strategy with OpenClass (to answer question #1 above), and listening to what Adrian has to say is one of our best roadmaps to calibrating where Pearson may go. You can check out a short (4 minute) video of Adrian talking about the vision for OpenClass at this link.

A summary of Pearson's OpenClass strategy would go like this:

A. Course development remains predominantly a "craft" exercise – with individual faculty developing their own courses. Most courses, even blended or online courses, are not "born digital" – rather they are translated from a traditional face-to-face classroom setting.

B. In order to achieve both better quality courses and courses that can scale up to more students it is necessary to move to a course development (and teaching and support) method optimized for the digital world. This means team developed courses, with content pulled in from publisher and open source content, and design strategies benefit from pedagogical research (implemented by learning designers) and continuous improvement driven by data.

C. The value proposition of OpenClass is that it lowers the barriers for a school to adopt the platform (as OpenClass is a free cloud based LMS), and moves the conversation towards the value added services for program or course design / re-design that truly impact both quality and coasts. Pearson is developing more capabilities around value-added services (see the EmbanetCompass acquisition), as well as being able to leverage a large services infrastructure and content / simulation library.

OpenClass is an argument that the LMS is the "least important" part of the learning value chain. By making OpenClass free, Pearson is highlighting what attributes really do add value (course design, content, data driven improvements, learner support, etc.) – and is confident that they can deliver value (and revenues) along these dimensions.

Is that about right? How would you improve my analysis of the Pearson OpenClass strategy?

My argument with OpenClass is that I believe that "free" is more powerful than Pearson recognizes. I think a full-service program/course development model (with learning design, content, support etc.) is only one strategy for improving higher education. An important strategy, one that we will see more with a growing number of non-profit / for-profit partnerships.  But only one strategy.  

I think that there is potential in the market for a Gmail / Google Docs version of an LMS. A free, cloud based based learning management system with the potential for robust integration to the campus student information system (SIS).   

What if Pearson had invested in OpenClass in as big a way that Instructure invested in Canvas? What if Pearson had the faith that building a large community of practice, a large number of adopters, could later be effectively monetized around services and content?

Pearson has deep enough pockets necessary to make a long-term investment in a free OpenClass.  

It would, I believe, be necessary to break the OpenClass team off from the main Pearson Education mothership – to give the unit some independence and autonomy. That autonomy would ease the concerns of the higher ed community about adopting a Pearson product.  This could be done without hurting Pearson's long term play of transitioning from a print product to a digital content and services company.   

I think that a more aggressive and independent OpenClass rollout is the right way for Pearson to move forward.

What do you think?

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What’s the “Half-Existence of Understanding?”

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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An interesting question caught my eye recently: what’s the half-life of knowledge, for facts we think we know?  Samuel Arbesman provides an answer in his recent Harvard Business Review article called, “;Be Forewarned: Your Knowledge is Decaying.”

Based on his new book, “;The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything we know has an Expiration Date,” the article first cites knowledge that entire generations accepted as truths that turn out to be false. For example, Pluto is not actually a planet.  He then touches on data that changes slowly over time, requiring us to constantly stay informed.  For example, he shared that, “;A friend of mine, for example, was speaking recently with an older hedge fund manager who began his story with the following: ‘Since we all know that there are 4 billion people on the planet…’” Actually, now there are over 7 billion people on Earth.  There are more examples, from babies to hand-washing practices, in the TEDx video below.

Arbesman also explains that changes to knowledge do have patterns.  He says, “;Overall, there is a shape to how knowledge grows.”   For example, by looking at the changes in data, he describes how the increases in the number of elements in the periodic table “;obeys regularities,” and how, “;even the number of universities over time obeys regularities -; from the medieval period to the modern day.”


Number of Universities Founded in Europe

Source: TEDx video


The Half-Life of Facts: Sam Arbesman at TEDxKC


It seems the only thing we can predict is that knowledge will keep changing. Clearly, using outdated information to support decisions has the potential to create all sorts of problems. Not only does this reminder about ‘knowledge decay’ encourage the personal pursuit of lifelong learning, but there are implications for every industry, including higher education.

Things are shifting relatively slowly in the higher education world, and as Arbesman points out, “;We should be concerned most about facts that change slowly, the facts that change over the course of years or decades or an entire lifetime.”  

How do you keep up with it all?

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Did MOOCs Just Make Landfall? ten Questions to Take into account

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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It seems we may have another big, unpredictable storm close to home -; MOOCs.   They have been getting a lot of press this year, and here's another recent article from the New York Times – "The Year of the MOOC."

Last week Inside Higher Ed announced a partnership between Coursera and Antioch University to license Coursera courses for Antioch degree programs. 

In short, here’s the business model:  Universities such as Duke and the University of Pennsylvania work with Coursera to produce massively open online courses (“MOOCs”) that are offered for free (at least until this point) through Coursera.  Some schools, like Antioch, may decide to license these courses and will pay Coursera a fee to do so.  Coursera will share the gross revenue and net profit from these licensed courses with the universities that produced the content.  The faculty that produced the course will also receive some revenue.  Schools like Antioch will offer these licensed MOOCs to their students, thus giving them access to a wider array of courses and instructors, including “;rock star” faculty from well-known universities.  Because the cost of licensing the content through Coursera will likely be smaller than the cost of hiring these well-known faculty to teach at the licensee school, universities like Antioch that work through Coursera can pass the savings on to students, thus lowering the cost of a degree. 

From the Antioch University website: “;Each Coursera course will be facilitated by an AULA faculty member who will also be enrolled in the course, thereby enabling both frequent interaction between students and instructor and augmentation of the course through supplemental exercises and projects focused on expanding the learning experience.”

Like a storm, the higher education landscape is in a swirl and small pivots may produce large, important changes.  We wonder whether this might be an early pivot . . . and potentially change who is in the path of the storm and who is considered safe -; for now, until the next pivot.  We’ve written about the dismantling of higher education,  potential business models for edX and content creators and distributors, how at least one student perceived his experience in the first MITx MOOC, and the multitude of factors impacting the higher education market right now, but this is something big -; the market just pivoted. 

Rather than try to predict the exact path -; and force -; of this new development in higher ed, we have a few questions that we all might consider as this unfolds:

1.     Will licensing of MOOCs created by highly-respected schools “;crowd out” faculty from the licensee schools?

2.     How might licensee schools feel about their new role as “;facilitators”?

3.     Will licensing MOOCs increase access?  Might organizations licensing the content decide to focus on fee-paying schools and create two tiers of content -; paid and free?

4.     If all schools have access to all of the same MOOCs, how will schools differentiate themselves in the marketplace to attract students?

5.     If different universities license the same course materials, but have different grading standards, how will we compare outcomes across universities?

6.     Might the difference between schools come from the quality of facilitation/support offered by licensee school faculty, rather than the MOOC faculty, since that will become widely available, and perhaps commoditized?

7.     If more schools use the license model, could we eventually end up with a handful of “;top” schools producing the content and a small number of large schools offering the degrees? 

8.     Will Coursera-type companies become the publishers in the new higher education market?

9.     Who decides what content/teachers are “;best”?  Will it become true that courses from Coursera partners will be viewed as “;superior” to courses from other schools because they are frequently licensed?

10.   Will license deals like this drive a wedge into the higher education market, essentially enhancing the star power of the best-known universities and leaving the schools with less-developed brands weaker?

So, higher education meteorologists, what does your weather satellite read? 

Dayna Catropa
Margaret Andrews

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Why I Support an Open Definition of DH

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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College Ready Writing

After I posted my last piece on Who Is Doing DH, I got into an interesting conversation with my colleague/co-conspirator/Twitter-buddy/provocateur-extraordinaire Trent M. Kays about the problems with a “;big-tent” view of digital humanities. Below is that exchange.


[View the story “Is Big-Tent DH a Good Thing?” on Storify]


Trent is working on a post right now expanding on his view, but certainly his view that other academics and scholars (particularly, but not exclusively, in Rhetoric and Composition) have long been doing work that is now being considered digital humanities but have long been unrecognized by their colleagues in English departments and the humanities more generally is accurate and problematic. Roger Whitson acknowledges the blind spot in a recent post, after attending the Computers and Writing conference, as well as being schooled himself on Twitter.

But Roger also gets at, I think, is one of the reasons I contend that DH needs to be open and respectfully appropriate what has been done before (and for a long time):

“But most of these moves [within DH] have done little to change an institutional culture that largely sees preservation, criticism — and probably most importantly reading andwriting as their most fundamental practices. I, too, was swayed when Derrideans made claims that there were no real separations between theory and praxis or between constantive and performative utterances. And yet, what did those arguments actually accomplish except to keep us doing exactly the same thing?”

There needs to be a change in how we do things in the humanities. One of the things that attracted me to DH (other than what I’ve already stated here and here and here) was that there was room to do something different, instead of trying to carve out a small piece of the whatever-has-been-done-before-but-slightly-different. And certainly using technology, even mindfully and critically, can just recreate old patterns in bigger and faster ways. The more popular DH becomes, the more we risk research and work that isn’t innovative, just repetitive (although one could argue if one academic successfully uses a tool to do x to a certain text of body of texts, why it is then “;wrong” to use that same tool and process to do x to a different body of text? Less innovative, perhaps, but if the conclusions are equally insightful and revealing, then why knock it?).

This brings up an important issue that seems to be lurking, and that is the idea of “;innovation” that drives so much of the rhetoric in higher education today. Everything has to be NEW NEW NEW and groundbreaking and innovative; it’s one of the reasons the humanities haven’t faired as well as certain STEM fields (and why other STEM fields haven’t done so well, either). It’s also why DH is attractive -; it will CHANGE the humanities. But if we allow the innovation rhetoric to take over, then we will find ourselves in the cut-throat business (literally) of only seeking what’s new over what is interesting, useful, and insightful.

This is why I think the big tent, or as I call it, the DH collective, is so important. We need people who can do all kinds of different things (innovate, built, create, critique, tweak, and disseminate, among other things). I think anyone who is interested in DH should be welcome into the collective and then be permitted to find their space and their community (or form their own) within the collective. Excluding people because they don’t do x or y recreates the pattern of academia as it stand right now. We might never change what it means to be a humanist, but we can change how higher education operates. That, to me, is the biggest promise DH holds. 

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Friday Fragments

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Confessions of a Community College Dean

The $ 249 chromebook is the best idea I’ve heard all week.  It seems like the chromebook is finally moving from “;proof of concept” to “;something actual people would actually buy.”  Finally, decent size and specs at a community college price.  This could fulfill the promise that netbooks made, but crapped out on, back in 2009.


Minnesota is banning Coursera? Say what you want about MOOCs, but this is catastrophically stupid. 1001 varieties of internet porn?  No problem! But using the web for unauthorized learning?  Scandalous!  

For those who aren’t fans of MOOCs, the way to defeat them is to offer something better.  Relying on state-level protectionism is not going to cut it. Anyone with a VPN can make a mockery of this, and rightly so.  Honestly, when I think about all of the things that people can, and will, do on the internet, following free academic classes is the least of my concerns.


It will surprise nobody that I plan to vote for President Obama, but I have to admit being annoyed at him.  During the second debate, he continued to use “;community colleges” and “;job training centers” interchangeably.  They aren’t.  Community colleges are important job training and workforce development sites, but they’re also — and I use this word deliberately — colleges.   For many students, taking the first two years of a four year degree at a community college is a viable way to get an education while keeping costs down.  Given that student loan burdens are a major issue, it would be nice for someone in public life to connect those dots.


The Girl is starting to decipher genre.  We’ve watched a few episodes of “;Gilligan’s Island” over the last few weeks; it’s a gobsmacking nostalgia trip for me, and she enjoys the candy-colored slapstick.  As with the old “;Star Trek” episodes, I have to do some serious deprogramming of the casual sexism, lest she get too much of it, but with enough parental counterpoint, it still seems worthwhile.

After a recent episode, she turned to me and said “;I get it!  Gilligan is like SpongeBob, and the Skipper is like Squidward!”

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but she was basically right. What made it gratifying, though, was that she was able to recognize genre.  The goofy, carefree underling who flusters the voluble but basically harmless boss — that could be Gilligan, or it could be SpongeBob.  

Pretty good for a third grader, I think.


This story made me smile, albeit wistfully. Some public universities are going to their legislatures with a proposition: restore subsidies, and we’ll hold the line on tuition.  

In a more perfect world, legislatures would jump at the deal.  But I have no illusions that the current crop will.  

The great virtue of this strategy is that it connects cause and effect.  (More cynically, it provides a palatable excuse for a university to do what it was going to do anyway.)  I’m a fan of reality-based decisions, so I like the idea of pointing out explicitly that much of the recent spike in tuition increases is a function of cost-shifting, rather than a lack of discipline.  If you want to flatten the spike, stop cost-shifting.

Unfortunately, I can imagine a fairly smart argument from the other side: in the absence of a squeeze, higher education isn’t known for cost discipline.  So I’ll suggest a different idea:

Ask the legislatures to fund experiments.  Make money available, conditional on trying something different.  And I don’t mean yet another workforce program.  I mean something that addresses the underlying cost disease of higher education, something that gets at the credit hour and the various structural issues that push up costs at every institution, regardless of local quirks.  If you want a system fix, pony up resources for people to try some.  

Otherwise, we’ll be stuck in annual games of budgetary chicken, with diminishing returns.  The for-profits are already suffering; if we don’t change, we’ll be next.  And asking the legislature to keep Coursera out of town is not a serious answer.

Inside Higher Ed | Blog U


Time for Action on Copyright Reform!

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Law, Policy — and IT?

Now is the time for action on copyright reform!

In April of 2001 I began working in the position from which I now write, Director of Information Technology Policy at Cornell. As a law student, I had elected to take a course in intellectual property.  Most of my classmates had engineering degrees and were headed for patent law as a career.  I was another "Eng." major, English Literature, and wanted to know why publishers of the J.D. Salinger biography had pulled it before it hit the shelves.  Turns out, the author had included full texts of letters Salinger had written a long-term lover.  The author had access to the letters, but she did not have the copyright in them.  A fair use defense would not have sufficed under the circumstances.  Consequently, the publishers removed the letters before publication.

I graduated in 1995, just as the Internet was emerging as a world-historical phenomenon.  I also had the very good fortune to be married to a research engineer who introduced me early to that world; I can still hear the screech of the modem and feel the excitement of what it meant to be "on-line."  Peter Martin, pioneer law professor at Cornell Law School early introduced us to "search."  Although one could not find the world "technology" in my vita, I was not as improbable of a choice for the role of "Policy Advisor" as I may have seemed.

I still had a great deal to learn, not least in the area of intellectual property.  Let it be said that copyright has gone from the backwaters of a law school curriculum or specialized legal practice to front and center of American and global politics because content is king.  As fantastic as the technology that supports the Internet is, it would not be the world-historical phenomenon if it were not the vehicle for content, communications and commerce.  Moreover, given the intersection of these three areas, it is no wonder that copyright now has intimate connection with foundational legal principles such as free speech and assembly, global markets and foreign relationship, teaching, learning and research world-wide.  That is why copyright law matters to users everywhere.

A month after taking this position, I attended my first copyright conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  So many heavy-hitters were there, it remains one of the most exciting professional experiences of my life.  Brought up in academia under the historians Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, I had attended many academic conferences and learned the proper protocol for listening, challenging and discussing ideas.  At the end of James Boyle's talk I threw protocol to the wind and leaped to my feet in applause.  I was not alone.  When the copyright registrar, Mary Beth Peters, opened her talk by explaining how the airlines lost her luggage, we all sympathized.  But as she delved into the unnecessarily complicated intricacies of copyright law one could feel tension rising.  Why was the law so convoluted, and what market factors made it so?  Slowly the politics of copyright began to rise from the legalize.  Like clouds in the sky, I began to see patterns.  The J.D. Salinger debacle was the tip of a very big and powerful iceberg.

My friend and colleague, Pat McClary, associate university counsel for Cornell, attended the conference too.  I don't know why were at the registration desk at the hotel about half way through the conference, but there stood Miriam Nisbit, now the U.S. Archivist, and at the time legislative counsel for the American Library Association.  I had attended her talk and thought her magnificent in every way: how and what she presented, her manner and her politics in perfect pitch.  I complimented her on the talk and she shared that she was receiving a fax that contained final edits of the TEACH Act.  At the risk of revealing my boon-docks origins, I marveled at being that close to something smart and impassioned that would make a difference in our world.

I marvel to this day.  For over ten years now I have been on some aspects of the front lines of where higher education and copyright meet: copyright education for the constituents of our colleges and universities; observer of how the publishing industry has gone after our universities, and the "copyright wars" between students and content owners as DMCA Agent for Cornell University.

As the problems with copyright law became more clear to me, the anomalies that Internet technologies have created in the technology-legal paradigm established with the last Copyright Act promulgated in 1976 (and by virtue of the Berne Treaty, extended internationally), I began to wonder why wouldn't we call for reform?  Inside-the-beltway sages looked at me as if I were literally surrounded by boon-docks weeds.  "No one wants to open that Pandora's box!"  The fear was that content owners — powerful, experienced lobbyists — would take full advantage of the opportunity to weight the scales further in their favor.  So for ten years, I backed away.

Let's jump into the ring!  The ripples of dysfunction that emerge as a result of our fear outweigh the risk.  With infringement so rampant, displacement of blame a dangerous distraction and so much at stake — from fundamental notions of citizenship for youth to the virtual abetting of organized crime that impedes a healthy global economy — we cannot hold back hope.  How much worse can copyright law get?  What do we have to lose, really?  Finally, take a look around, because there is evidence of a bright new day.

Where?  The concept of "transformative uses" that ripples through copyright case law in the last thirty years.   The Georgia Tech decision.  And this week, HathiTrust.  Notice I did not mention Google.  Whereas ten years ago one might have expected that Google would ride into this conundrum on the white horse of reform, the Internet giant has failed to be our knight in shiny armor.  That's okay.  Not only is it a recognition that Google is a publicly traded company and must observe its own fiduciary obligations that will pull it back from white knight action, but higher education is its own white knight.  Producers and consumers, not-for-profit institutions can raise public policy concerns honestly and in the name of the public good.  We are natural leaders in this area.  Let us have the courage to accept the mission.

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Introducing ‘Sounding Board’

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Sounding Board

It’s time.

Over the years, I’ve commented occasionally on specific cases of what I call ethics failure, and others might call scandals. Mostly, I’ve done it when asked by this or another media outlet—and it has sometimes surprised me when something I thought was problematic went unnoticed, or at least unnoticed as an ethical issue. But now it feels to me as if there is a need for extended, visible conversation about ethics and institutional integrity in higher education — in the colleges and universities that make up this opaque industry, and in the larger society that supports and relies on it.  Like 9/11, like the financial collapse, Penn State changed everything.

I think we all feel that in some way. After the news broke of the alleged, now confirmed, child rape at Penn State and the myriad individual and organizational failures that followed, I wrote a commentary for this publication, and then did not send it in. As an observer of institutional behavior, I wanted to see what the reaction was from those involved, both closely and by association. When the verdicts came, I wrote another, and for the same reason did not send it in. I was, I am surprised to say, still waiting. Beyond this, withholding those articles was the beginning of thinking that it was not enough to comment after-the-fact; it feels too much like trying to treat a preventable disease at an advanced stage, like trying to get the proverbial horse back in the barn. I began to feel that, like ethical behavior itself, something more active—and proactive—was needed.  We needed an anticipatory ethics.

Hence this blog. Sounding Board is a forum for readers to ask questions and seek advice or a third-party perspective on any topic, issue, or problem of ethics, whether one that involves you personally, such as an ethical dilemma or challenge to your personal ethics; one that you confront as an institutional manager or supervisor; observe as an organizational or institutional member; or one that you are just curious about as a participant or interested party in the larger field of higher education. The primary purpose of the blog is to facilitate a conversation around reader questions and reader-raised requests for commentary or perspective, in the process revealing the sometimes unexpected ethical content and complexity of seemingly day-to-day decisions. However, as it seems appropriate, I will comment independently on current events and write posts on particular aspects of ethical reasoning and behavior that I have come to think matter.

Do you have a question or comment that you wish to make anonymously?

Type it here and click Submit.

So here is my formal invitation, to everyone from students and administrators at all levels to policy makers and the public: ask me anything that you are thinking about, perhaps struggling with, related to ethics and integrity in higher education. The reality is that every domain in which decisions and choices are made has ethical content. I personally am very interested in ethical issues related to the conduct and dissemination of research — what I call the ethics of innovation — and in the relationship between integrity and institutional leadership and organizational design; these have been a primary focus of my academic training and teaching, and the latter a focus of my prior professional life in management.  But there are important ethical issues that underlie every aspect of the operations of higher education: tuition and financial aid, teaching and curriculum, fundraising, study abroad, admissions, student life administration, technology and facilities, and, of course, sports. As both a higher education generalist and institutional analyst by training, experience, and inclination, I know that when we start to understand that each of these contributes to the integrity of the whole, we are getting somewhere.

Penn State struck such a chord with me because it was, in the end, about leadership, culture, and decision making at all (including the highest) institutional levels—the very heart and soul of integrity. The leadership vacuum — the deafening silence and inaction in general in the aftermath of this crisis from the institution, the organizations of which Penn State is a member and does business, and from its peers and policy partners — has been strange indeed. Whether from fear, numbness, or uncertainty, from lack of courage or absence of imagination, or from some paralyzing combination, it should be cause for concern to everyone who cares about the soul and future of higher education, about the idea of a university.

Raise a voice. Because taking a public stand is an important skill in ethical problem solving, all comments to this blog should be submitted under your full name; anonymous comments will not be published. However, questions and concerns that you would like to raise as possible topics for the blog may be submitted anonymously and in confidence using the form at the right. I do recognize—have indeed witnessed — that some people have good reason to feel vulnerable if they comment or even question publicly. I will similarly accept anonymous comments via this form and try to incorporate them into a future post.

I look forward to the discussion.

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Imaginative Insights in Considering About Technique

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Earlier this year I had the opportunity to travel to Lithuania to work with the ISM University of Management and Economics on thinking through strategy and how they compete in the global market for management education.  I could do an entire post about the beauty of Vilnius, how gracious everyone there was, or how cool it was that they’re housed in an old monastery and built their newest building on top of the old city walls -; but I won’t.  Rather, I’ll tell you about what impressed me most -; the way they creatively approached developing strategy. 

The school itself focuses on developing innovative managers and they modeled what they expect their students to become throughout the two-day meeting.  The session was structured so that on the first day, participants all viewed, reviewed and discussed a common set of information and the second day they discussed options, debated alternatives, and created a rough outline for how they would move forward.  They followed a lot of best practices throughout the session:

  • Include a diverse set of opinions: Participants included ISM’s president, top management team, a handful of faculty, and me. 
  • Inject fresh insights: They started by asking me to present overall trends in management education and then facilitate a discussion around what’s happening in the sector not only in the Baltic region, but in Europe, the US and Asia to get a sense of how what they’re experiencing is unique to ISM or common across regions.  Lots of slides, lots of discussion and it took a full day. 
  • Listen and discuss:  In this case, many of the more senior people hung back and waited for others to present ideas and data -; and they really listened to what others said.  And no one in the room appeared to be nervous about questioning others’ ideas or disagreeing with their conclusions.  It was done in a spirit of cooperation and good will, and people could disagree without being disagreeable.
  • Understand that there is no “;right” answer.  On the second day discussion turned toward “;what’s next” for ISM and what it would take to get there.  The team envisioned, discussed and debated ambitions, future states, and positioning.  It became clear that there were a lot of alternatives and tradeoffs, but no single right answer.  Some ideas and options, however, were better than others.
  • Understand the tradeoffs and implications of various strategies.  After the above debate, the group coalesced around one desired future state and voted on the four main areas/priorities for achieving this state.  Four emerged quite naturally and they broke into four smaller teams to discuss initiatives, resources, tradeoffs, etc., and then came back to present and discuss ideas. 
  • Keep in mind that progress is not always linear.  It wasn’t.  

So far this sounds like many strategy sessions I’ve been a part of, but what the teams came back with was anything but.  What emerged was some very creative thinking -; one team, for example, summarized their discussion using an equation with variables and consonants to describe their research agenda and desired results.  Another utilized a theatre analogy to describe how to create the motivated team they needed to get closer to their desired future state.  This one, in particular, was impressive -; and you could tell by the knowing smiles that came from easily understanding the analogy and how it would be applied in their situation.

For a school focused on innovation, they certainly demonstrated it in the way they approached this strategy session -; using a facilitated process and making the outcome their own.  Of course the hard work began after the two-day session, and it’s well underway. That’s not the point.  The point is they used a solid process and set of practices to discuss options, debate alternatives, and consider the best path forward. 

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Choosing Up the Twenty

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Confessions of a Community College Dean

Economists aren’t known for being funny on purpose, but this one isn’t bad.. An economist and his grad student are walking across the quad when they spy what looks like a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. The grad student looks at the professor for cues, and notices that the professor is still walking.  The grad student asks “;aren’t you going to pick it up?”  The professor responds “;if it were really a twenty, someone would have picked it up by now.”

In California, there’s a big, fat twenty on the sidewalk, and it’s been there for some time.  I’m not surprised that someone’s picking it up.

With California’s community college system putting literally hundreds of thousands of prospective students on waiting lists, an ambitious for-profit is swooping in to offer an alternative.  UniversityNow, which this piece describes as a “;social venture,” has partnered with Patten University to offer 19 credits’ worth of general education courses at the same per-credit cost the community colleges would have charged. The courses start in early November and run into December, so the “;hook” is that students could get the credits they would have earned anyway, and can get back on track for the spring semester.  Patten is accredited, so the credits are likely to transfer.

I don’t really understand the relationship between UniversityNow and Patten, so I’ll bracket that. Either way, there’s no way Patten is making money on this, in the very short term.  And yes, it’s entirely possible that some students will transfer back to the community colleges in the spring, assuming the community colleges have room for them.  (In light of the tax referendum coming up this November in California, that’s not a given.)  

But I recognize a loss leader when I see one. That’s what this is, and from Patten’s perspective, it’s a pretty good one.  

In retail, a loss leader is an item on which a store takes a loss on purpose. It uses the loss leader to get people in the door, on the theory that once they’re there, they’ll buy more and make up the loss, and more, with other purchases. (The classic example is the convenience store with cheap milk.)  Patten is offering the opening mini-semester at what has to be a loss, in order to get students in the door. Once those students are in, it’s easier to sell them more semesters.

A few thoughts.

First, this would not be even vaguely possible if not for the staggering and chronic imbalance in the academic labor market. The fact that a for-profit can swoop in opportunistically and assemble an entire cohort of classes on short notice is possible only because they can find the faculty to staff those classes. I don’t say that to cast aspersions on Patten’s faculty — as longtime readers know, I started out at a for-profit — but just to face a basic fact.  

Second, the fact that Patten is focusing on the easily transferable gen eds — the evergreens — actually makes the staffing that much easier. Faculty for certain specialized technical programs may be hard to find, but faculty for first-year composition and Intro to Psych aren’t.  

Third, the market space that Patten is looking to fill is entirely an artifact of a perverse funding system in California.  When you charge less than the marginal cost of production, and you don’t even get to keep the money you charge, then the only way to stay within your appropriation is through enrollment caps.  The California community colleges can’t grow their way out of the problem.  For the for-profits, though, growth more than pays for itself.  When one sector experiences growth as a cost, and the other as a benefit, it’s easy to predict where the growth will be.

Traditional academics often like to talk trash about for-profits, and there’s certainly no shortage of trash to talk.  But at a really basic level, the for-profits are on the scene that the publics have abandoned. From the perspective of a frustrated would-be student who just wants to get on with life, the choice isn’t between Patten and the local community college. It’s between Patten and no college at all.  In that situation, I wouldn’t blame any student who took the best actually-available option.  In his shoes, I would.

Whether the polity is willing to admit it or not, there remains a need and an expressed demand for mass higher education.  That is just a fact.  If the public sector doesn’t provide it, others will.  

I don’t know if Patten, in particular, will succeed. But if it doesn’t, another one will. Sooner or later, someone will pick up that twenty on the sidewalk.

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Competing with “Free,” Component Two

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Academic News

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Confessions of a Community College Dean

If non-elite colleges and universities want to avoid the fate of travel agencies and film companies, what should they do in the age of free MOOCs?

I’d suggest focusing more clearly on what they can offer that MOOCs can’t.  That means having people around to help students get through the perplexing parts of courses; having advisors who can help students knit together disparate courses into coherent programs; organized tutoring; in-person collaboration and projects; ‘flipped’ classrooms; and specialized facilities.  It absolutely does NOT mean large lecture halls.

In fact, the flipped classroom -; in which the lecture is delivered online, and class time is devoted to doing the work, with a professor available as a resource -; could work beautifully with a MOOC.   Freed from the burden of having to explicate the basics over and over again, on-site faculty could use class time to shore up weak points, pursue deeper understandings of the material, and even have students apply it.  The professor could provide context.

Of course, some pushback is likely.  Faculty who were trained as t.a.’s in grad school might recoil at being put back into that role, with the sage on the stage replaced by the sage on the screen.   Some of that is to be expected, but if the job of the professor is to help the student succeed, then the results will settle the issue.  And to the extent they don’t, the marketplace of tuitions will.

If I’m anywhere close to right, then the role of the non-elite institution will be to level  the educational playing field.  Strong, well-prepared students will do just fine without much help, but most students coming out of the k-12 systems that actually exist don’t fit that mold.  They need structure, and support, and a fair amount of customized, human interaction to be successful.  I know humanists hate this phrase, but that would be the ‘’value-add” of colleges.

Community colleges are actually in a good position to get in front of this shift, if they’re willing.  They already focus on teaching, and they usually have smallish classes anyway.  (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, the undergrad Intro to My Discipline had 300 students.  Here it has 30.)  If community colleges are willing to accept the reality of change -; a major ‘if,’ but still -; they could recast themselves to take full advantage of the new, free resources.  Institutions that rely on 300 student lectures may have a harder time.

Colleges will also have to remember the non-academic side.  My brother recently forwarded me a wonderful description of it, from Cracked.com, of all places:

If even half of what you learn is in the classroom, you're not doing things right. College is also the ultimate self-discovery school, a Brownian personality-builder that bashes you off other people to help you all stop sucking. The most important part of education is learning who you are because no, shut up, you really don't know. Not a clue. And that's awesome! Imagine how terrible the world would be if every 17-year-old was actually right about what's important.

It’s funny because it’s true.  Some of the most important elements of college, for me, happened outside of class.  It’s hard to replicate that in a commuter college, obviously, but all the more important to try.  To the extent that college is reduced to the content of classes, something important is lost.  

Focusing on the student experience may require rethinking some of the more indefensible habits into which some places have fallen.  (Flagship State had 60-minute parking meters outside a building with 75-minute classes.  And yes, the students noticed.)  That’s probably for the best.  

The alternative, I think, is to fall into the well-worn habit of denying the validity of any external change at all, until a succession of Republican governors takes hatchets to higher ed funding, arguing, correctly, that people can get the content of higher education for free.  At which point, the folks who already have the economic and cultural capital to succeed will be fine, and everyone else will fall even farther behind than they already have.  If we take seriously the responsibility to educate people who don’t come from money, we have to take the appeal of MOOCs seriously.  If we don’t drive this train, it’ll run us over.

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