A Project Begins

A colleague today said how amazing the young people in her program are, how they almost don’t understand what some of the antinomies that vexed our generation were even about.  We mused that maybe they’d realize some of the human aspirations that had eluded us.  This potential, I think, poses an immense challenge to those of us who continue to collect paychecks for being this generation’s teachers.

One can hear some voices saying “we don’t need you to teach us anything” and certainly some of our colleagues advocate the laissez-faire response. Some folks might have read Tim Kreidermarch’s March 2018 op-ed, “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us,” as advocating a stand -back-and-let-them-at-it approach, but I don’t think we get to do this as educators. As often as I’ve heard resistance to, and dismissal of, the educational status quo, every signal I’ve ever received from my students is captioned “teach me something, damn it.”

But what?  Another tired defense of the liberal arts won’t do.  Our education turned out to be a good fit for getting to the end of the last century and starting this one.  The challenge is to formulate the education that will turn out to have been a good fit for the next half-century. Some of it will be different, but not all. And there in the challenge.

And then I read an article in the New York Times about tech wunderkinds growing older (and acknowledging that they were also growing wiser) started me thinking.  These brash disruptors become parents and their perspective shifts. Just wait, I thought, until they have teen agers, experience the death of their own parents, become empty nesters, and on and on.

But no, let’s not wait. Let’s not be like the singer in that old song, “Ooh La La” who said

Poor young grandson, there’s nothing I can say
You’ll have to learn, just like me
And that’s the hardest way, ooh la la.

If we are not going to sit back and wait, what of the “received wisdom” should we be evangelizing?  Most of us academics just pick out our favorites or the parts that advance our careers.  But what would we teach if the criteria were “what do they really need to know about?” And their lives, not ours, depended on the answer.

Design Thinking for Higher Education: A Different Take on “Student-Centered”

In the spirit of eating my own dog food, I started asking what would happen if we brought a design thinking sensibility to higher education.  Really using it.

A main idea in human centered design is that good design emerges from deep understanding of a user’s needs.  This turns out to be a really hard thing to do.  It goes against all the urges of genius.  Almost everyone starts with a solution and then burns cognitive energy to defend and market the idea.  So it goes when I think people should read Moby Dick and then sit down to right out the reasons why. Or when I want to require two semesters of calculus and can present a strong argument as to why.

Now there are problems that can be solved this way.  Sometimes we are so thoroughly familiar with a problem arena (the study of mechanical engineering, say) that confidence in the thing we just know to be the solution may be warranted.

But the world of the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s ain’t like that.  In fact, the world of 2018 and 2019 is not familiar enough either.

So here is the project: study the user; identify her needs; develop criteria for the solution; brainstorm; prototype.

In a sense this will amount to taking seriously and at face value that annoying challenge “how is any of this relevant to what I’m trying to do?” Except for two things: we want to start with the “trying to do” and we don’t want to be limited to “now.” We will use wisdom, dialog, listening, and researching so that we can begin with “a thing you will want to do” (or a hurdle you will face) and then we will dig through our mental archives and find the “this” and then we will figure out how to articulate the relevance in a manner that makes the sale.

Warm Up Exercise

Frankly, I think the project will be too hard.  To break into it I am going to propose a less pure version. In this version each contributor will identify a single work, author, concept, school of thought, finding, or experiment that bears a keen relevance to something our audience are or will be grappling with.  And then we pitch it, maybe TED talk style, as a sort of curricular recommendation.

If done well, this could lead us toward a “student-centered” education worthy of the name.

Why Take a Detour…

…on the road from youth to career?

Another story about “alternatives” to college.  Those of us who toil in the fields of conventional academe don’t much need to worry about direct competition here; our “product” and the one described here are not direct substitutes yet. But the ideologies, if you will, expressed and implied and strange-bed-fellowed here, should give us pause. Some snippets:
  • “‘It is like a university,’ he told me, ‘built by industry.'”
  • “… many disadvantaged students are left at the mercy of unscrupulous degree mills”
  • “Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, Harry J. Holzer of Georgetown University urges states to provide incentives to universities to steer students toward higher-wage occupations”
  • “… the evidence so far suggests that online education may do better in giving low-income students a leg up if it is directly tied to work. And companies, rather than colleges, may be best suited to shape the curriculum.”
  • “It may not offer all the advantages of a liberal arts education, but it could offer a plausible path to young men and women who may not have the time, money or skill to make it through a four-year or even a two-year degree.”
  • “… an alternative approach to the ‘four years and done’ model of higher education, splitting it into chunks that students can take throughout their lives.”
We need to do some hard thinking (and actual investigating) about what “all the advantages of a liberal arts education” really are. It is simply not sufficient to yabber on about “critical thinking” and to be complacently certain that producing graduates who are cultivated sort of like we are is the be all and end all.
And, too, it’s not enough just to be against the “corporatization” or “vocation-alization” of higher education. We really do need to be rethinking curriculum in terms of the question “what kind of education will it turn out, say, 50 years from now to have been a good idea to get?” or “what education will really prepare a young person for the part of the 21st century that you and I won’t be around for?” 

From the New York Times

A Smart Way to Skip College in Pursuit of a Job
Udacity-AT&T ‘NanoDegree’ Offers an Entry-Level Approach to College

Could an online degree earned in six to 12 months bring a revolution to higher education?
This week, AT&T and Udacity, the online education company founded by the Stanford professor and former Google engineering whiz Sebastian Thrun, announced something meant to be very small: the “NanoDegree.”
At first blush, it doesn’t appear like much. For $200 a month, it is intended to teach anyone with a mastery of high school math the kind of basic programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level position at AT&T as a data analyst, iOS applications designer or the like.
Yet this most basic of efforts may offer more than simply adding an online twist to vocational training. It may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream.
Intriguingly, it suggests that the best route to democratizing higher education may require taking it out of college.
“We are trying to widen the pipeline,” said Charlene Lake, an AT&T spokeswoman. “This is designed by business for the specific skills that are needed in business.”
Read more at NYT.com