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On college costs, and standards

November 4, 2013 Leave a comment

This business about the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is so polarizing as to make your head spin.  It’s a brilliant example of the difference between intention vs. policy, idea vs. implementation, and goal vs. mechanism.  Politicized beyond belief (although since when has public K-12 education not been politicized), the CCSSI is, at its core (ahem), an intentional attempt to identify the kinds of skills and abilities students need in the modern world.

I’m not going to wade into the political elements of the debate, or the apparent deficiencies in the standards model itself, but I am quite fascinated by how the CCSSI views and expresses (implicitly and explicitly) what it thinks higher education is all about.  There’s an emergent view of higher education’s “job”, and I suppose you can only evaluate whether we are “doing our job” if we can all agree on what that job is.  Educating the masses?  Elite education for the few?  Create new knowledge through research? Develop independent thinking skills in our students?  Create entrepreneurs?  Generate wealth?  Service learning?  There’s many more possibilities here…

Read more…

Your value online…

October 14, 2013 2 comments

The idea of a digital identity has emerged over the past few years as a crucial part of our “real” identity.  We’ve got ubiquitous social media, we are constantly connected, and we have a variety of profiles (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) that we use for different purposes.  Most of us do not take a deliberate approach to curating our digital identity, and we don’t really have a strategy for presenting a coherent package of information that expresses a narrative about us in a clear way.  Partly, this is due to the tools that we use:  we use Twitter for short-burst social purposes, while Facebook is both social and (?) more durable, and LinkedIn is the FB for grown-ups looking at a professional network.  Then there’s Instagram and Tumblr and a wide range of other choices.  Moreover, you can now link all these things together, so that each of my tweets immediately appears in my FB timeline.

So, social media has been on my mind lately, quite a bit, as we try to figure out how to leverage our seemingly infinite connectivity in the service of learning and connecting.  Social media means more than Facebook;  it means using the ubiquity of the web to connect, to share, to inform, to consume, and to transmit information.  This includes things like Twitter, but is also includes lots of sharing sites like YouTube.  The point here is that there is simply too much potential in this form of communication to ignore it, or to hope it goes away.  It may not be Facebook, which jumped the shark a few years ago.  But, it will be something.

But there are consequences to the proliferation of social media, and here’s one which has gained alot more attention in the past year or so: your online reputation.  There are lots of stories out there about people leveraging YouTube as a resume circulation tool (remember this guy?), and finding a job through your social network.  But there’s more to the story, and it starts when a prospective employer checks you out on Facebook.  Sure, you’re in a few tagged photos, maybe at homecoming tailgate, and next thing you know, you’re not offered the job.

This sort of thing generally falls into the category of managing your online reputation, and it’s more important than many people think it is.  Take this recent blog post:  it starts by asking about whether to put your Twitter handle on your resume, and ends with the question “what’s your social capital”?

The question here is:  how can higher education help students burnish their online reputation and harvest their own social capital?  What experiences (curricular or otherwise) can we put into place which give students the opportunity to really shape a positive and influential online identity?  In addition to a curriculum portfolio of work, do students need to generate an e-folio summarizing their online writings and activities?

In higher education, we generally ignore this question altogether.  We have other, better things to do than this.  Like teach students in much more traditional ways.  But I do think the broader conversation of how to foster in students an awareness of, and interest in, their online reputation is important.  Students can really leverage a positive reputation as evidence of the “real them”–by this I simply mean the student as an individual, going about their daily lives.  Their online presence can portray them as helpful, collaborative, and wise…or it can portray them as arrogant, unhelpful, and unlikeable.  I think we have both an opportunity and an obligation to help students form an online persona which is both genuine (i.e., really is a true reflection of their values) and helpful in their future prospects.  This is easier said than done, and I will revisit this topic in the future with more specific ideas of how we in higher ed can help.

For now, all I can say is I am fascinated by the potential of badges and other micro credentials, instead of measuring student achievement using the unit of “the class” or the “credit hour”.  We can help students understand the importance of curating their online identity, and we can help them burnish it, by our actions and by considering innovative ways to recognize student achievements.  I’m thinking alot about this and plan to use this space as a sandbox to explore some ideas.  Stay tuned.

What Should Teachers Do, Part 1?

March 25, 2013 1 comment

The past few years have seen exciting and inspirational ideas emerging from a variety of sources, all focused on how to make the next generation of Americans productive, happy, efficient, insightful, innovative.  In short, the next great generation of world leaders.  I’ve read a number of books that talk about education writ large, meaning K-12 and higher ed, and in fact life long learning.  The similarities of these books with each other are fairly striking, and they are largely getting at many of the same topics from different angles.  But there are differences too.  Let’s look at some of the recent books on my bookshelf and see what advice they give us.

The Global Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner (2008).  Tony Wagner is co-Director of the Change Leadership Group in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and has been a leading voice in education policy and practice for quite some time.  Despite the ominous subtitle (“Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children needs–and what we can do about it”), the book presents a compelling prescription for what the problem is.  Wagner’s “7 Survival Skills for Teens Today” hit on the key habits of mind that emergent adults need to thrive in the modern economy.  The 7 survival skills are:

  1. critical thinking and problem solving
  2. collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. agility and adaptability
  4. initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. effective oral and written communication
  6. accessing and analyzing information
  7. curiosity and imagination

I don’t think any of these is really a modern skill, one brought on the by the information age, with the possible exception of collaboration across networks (which is often mediated by technology).  I think of these as time-tested skills that had assumed new urgency and importance in today’s uber-competitive world.

A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink (2005).  This book’s subtitle also jabs at the notion of quantitative thinking as the key to mastering the modern world.  “Why right-brainers will rule the future” proclaims the small print on the cover, as it unveils a series of ideas about how the right side of the brain holds the key to unlock the future’s piggy bank of health and wealth.  Pink’s ideas about “high concept, high touch” enterprises (“1. can someone overseas do it cheaper? 2. can a computer do it faster? 3. Is what I’m offering in demand in the age of abundance?”) are certainly the right questions, and I actually like this book a lot.  Pink also present six “senses” for the modern age, which are:

  1. not just function, but also design
  2. not just argument but also story
  3. not just focus but also symphony
  4. not just logic but also empathy
  5. not just seriousness but also play
  6. not just accumulation but also meaning

What I like about this framing is that it starts with actions on the low end of the cognitive taxonomy (gathering, knowing, understanding;  more on this later…) and ends with the high-end cognitive skills (designing, creating, composing, etc.).

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough (2012).  One of my favorite books in the category, this one provides perhaps the most progressive view of how we engage students in authentic learning while simultaneously building character.  This is also the most thoroughly modern book, in the sense that it provides a very accessible review of the currently-hot literature on “grit” and similar non-cognitive factors in success.  The idea is that the traditional cognitive skills (math, reading, and so on) we teach in schools are important, but a more critical task is to cultivate students who possess this non-cognitive strength, can overcome challenges, are resilient in the face of failure, and have that elusive “it” that makes them driven to succeed.  A vast simplification of a subtle and interesting book would focus on the three qualities mentioned in its subtitle:

  1. grit:  perseverance and passion toward long-term goals
  2. curiosity: the drive to learn more about the world
  3. the power of character: resilience in the face of setbacks

This book encapsulates what I believe to be the best thinking about success and failure, and the role that these non-cognitive skills play.  I’ve written about this recently, using data from my own institution to make the point that the input credentials of our students are fairly uniform and very strong.  But once they arrive in my school, their ability to succeed changes.

But what, you say, about the specifics of engineering education.  Glad you asked.

The Engineer of 2020, the National Academy of Engineering (2004).  This book in some ways generated the long line of urgent calls for reform in engineering education, including publications like the Gathering Storm report or the Duderstadt report.  The question it works to address is:  what are the competencies engineers will need in the world of 2020 and beyond?  The answer will not surprise you.  In addition to the basic literacies in mathematics and science, plus discipline-specific expertise, the engineer of 2020 needs:

  1. strong analytical skills
  2. practical ingenuity
  3. creativity
  4. communication skills
  5. business fundamentals
  6. leadership skills
  7. high ethical standards and professionalism
  8. dynamism, agility, resilience, and flexibility
  9. the passion to be a lifelong learner

It is rather striking the entirety of the “traditional” engineering curriculum (math, science, and discipline-specific knowledge) is lumped into a single entry on this list!  Okay, so it’s number 1 on the list.  But still, it’s only one of many important entries.

In part 2 of this, I’m going to engage in some analysis of this information and frame it in the context of learning taxonomies.  Yes, sounds geeky.  But it’s a useful way to synthesize all this into a more concrete understanding.  Stay tuned.