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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Quality Public Higher Ed: From Udacity to Theory Y

Those who have long claimed that public funding cuts do lower the educational quality of public universities are finally seeing the connection go mainstream. The New York Times made it explicit again in the title of last week's coverage of the ongoing crisis in Caifornia higher ed: "California Cuts Threaten the Status of Universities."  The story's accompanying photo is an image of the kind of factory-style higher ed that everyone from commercial e-learning companies to small-seminar advocates agrees will no longer do.  Simultaneous news came last week that "S.F. City College can't afford all its campuses" suggesting that even the cheapest public ed factories are facing closure.

We dreamed the Cities of Intellect that Ansel Adams photographed (UC Irvine mid-1960s, courtesy of UC Berkeley's On the Same Page project).  We were given, the great majority of us, the factory of commodity skills.
  The piece's author, Jennifer Medina, nicely captures the biggest single strategy shift since the funding crisis re-surfaced in 2009.
University leaders, who had responded typically to earlier budget cuts with assurances that their institutions were still in top form, now are sounding the alarm. In trying to rally support, they openly worry that their schools do not offer the same quality of education as a decade ago.
“I’d be lying if I said what we offer students hasn’t been changed and that there hasn’t been a degradation of the learning environment,” said Timothy White, the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, which has had record growth in recent years. . . .
It's a wonderful thing that senior managers are now on the same page as faculty, students, and staff about the decline of high-quality learning at publics like UC and CSU.

But now what? Where do we go from here?  An obvious starting point is to recover the personalized instruction that has been impossible to maintain during budget cuts in spite of widespread efforts to cut in places other than instruction.  Medina offers the right examples:

While there are more students than ever, the number of academic advisers has dropped to 300, from 500 a few years ago, for more than 18,000 undergraduates. Courses that used to require four writing assignments now demand half that because professors have fewer assistants to help them with grading papers, something other campuses have implemented as well.
There is general agreement on several features of real learning, and one of them is that direct individual feedback is its foundation. Learning is personal, interactive, iterative, and rooted in dynamic relationships and overcoming the resistance of the material.  You won't remember a Wikipedia timeline of major World War II battles but you will remember key moments in the war when they are organized as part of a lecture about "World War II and the culture of defeat" and then, in addition, when you need to write an exam answer or reflective essay that marshalls facts for your own interpretation.  Learning means interaction, context, resistance, immersion, and overcoming, not the reception of broadcast streams: James M. Lang had a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week about how even harder fonts can induce the active effort that makes for deeper learning.

We do know how to make pretty much everybody smarter and more creative. The deeper question is whether as a society we actually want to.

I've argued at book length that we did want to and still should-- that mass creativity is a social and economic good that founded the post-war American middle class and its gradual pushing back of the walls of poverty, exclusion, discrimination, unhappiness and non-fulfillment.  Reducing material suffering and increasing happiness were two sides of the same coin. We all still say we believe in both. The sole means of a broad increase in happiness is mass creativity--the general development of society as a great leap beyond the lavish development of a small elite.

At various times a wide range of society has understood this. Out of the economic crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. generated a kind of human potential movement within management theory. It was an unacknowledged companion to various parallel philosophical, ethical, and political arguments for the just society of happiness and its culture of mass creativity (to use my terms, not theirs).  A landmark text was Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr''s In Search of Excellence, published thirty years ago, which recognized that the U.S. economy was being undermined by failure to use the capabilities of its entire workforce, in contrast to the curatorial example of highly-successful Japanese corporations.

In sorting companies by performance and then tracing the strong ones to their cultivation of "excellence" (as a euphemism for "creativity"), Peters and Waterman recalled an even earlier book, MIT industrial psychologist Douglas McGregor's The Human Side of Enterprise (1960), and used MacGregor's distinction between two conflicting theories of human capability in society.  McGregor, they write,
termed Theory X "the assumption of the mediocrity of the masses.’”  The masses “need to be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment to get them to put forward adequate effort,” McGregor wrote.  Theory Y, by contrast, assumes . . .  that the expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as in play or rest . . . and  the capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population. (95).
Peters and Waterman argued that implementing Theory Y meant replacing coercive pyramidal managerial systems with flat or networked organizations whose strength lay in the ability to tap the collective genius of employees who could develop their abilities in concert with colleagues. Intimate proximity both to the problems to be solved and to the people one solved them with meant for more efficient solutions--more efficient because more creativeand also more pleasurable.  Accounts of Japanese corporate counterparts tied their continuous quality improvement to mutual respect and the slow, continuous development of everyone's talent.

Today, the binary X-Y opposition seems dated and simplistic.  But the broad Theory Y worldview was and remains correct about the ties among deep learning, creative capabilities, economic health, and social development. The historic role of public universities is to support the broad rather than the narrow development of the population. The failure to develop society broadly is increasingly well understood by scholars -- most recently in books like The Spirit Level and Why Nations Fail --as a recipe for economic and political decline.

Human relation's Theory Y persisted uneasily with financial and technological reductionism throughout the dot-com New Economy of the 1990s, which lavished praise on "gold collar" workers and their indispensable human capital.   Theory Y was implicit in fifty years of analysis of the "knowledge industry," from Fritz Machlup and Clark Kerr in the 1950s through Daniel Bell, Alvin Toffler, Robert Reich, and Richard Florida, to name just one typical figure per decade.  Analysis of the "network society" and a dozen related major concepts always pointed in the same direction of a society whose health, happiness, value to itself depends entirely on widely distributed creativity --materially supported at every node and crossroads in the population. 

If Theory Y is so true, why is it in fact rejected by actual educational funding policy, which refuses to pay for active learning for all -- top quality on a mass-inclusive scale?

Much of the answer is that a politically still-dominant American conservatism embodies Theory X.  For example, Charles Murray has built an entire career proclaiming the inferiority of the majority.  He once focused mainly on Black America (The Bell Curve) and now detailing the defects of whites (Coming Apart).   The general public with its chronic cultural deficiencies and skill mismatches are bad social investments who have no rational claim to education's premium brands. Reversing the Lake Wobegon adage, in Theory X America all the children are below average.   They will stay that way.

Another major piece of the answer is the refusal of educational leaders to decide between Theory X and Theory Y -- between minimal or maximum quality for the majority of the population. Instead, public U strategists generally split the difference between the two -- pretty good access to pretty good quality for most regular people, with varying qualifications and confusions about the real point of college in the first place.

In this context, the simplified binary contrast between X and Y has the virtue of forcing a choice one way or the other.  Charles Murray is clear about the Theory X world he lives in. But democratic educators have not positively chosen Theory Y, and then tried to figure out how to fund it.

A major symptom of this problem is the muddled discussion over expanding the role of on-line learning. Advocates generally trumpet ease of distribution of educational materials via the Internet without specifying the quality of the materials or the quality of the impact on their students. 

An example are some recent statements by Sebastian Thrun, the ex-Stanford professor and Google-X technologist turned founder of e-learning start-up Udacity. He describes his on-line burning-bush moment here, and is also covered in good  reporting by Tamar Lewin:
Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.
Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course . . .“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”
What a great trip, but educational Wonderland does not consist of top professors using Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as Star Academies to broadcast lecture content to the global masses with TED-ED production technology.  They can of course do this, especially with the branding of recent entrants like Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Penn, along with Thrun's own Stanford-Google marketing platform.  In the social world, Wonderland would in reality be hardcore Theory Y education, creating the capacity in each individual student regardless of humble background and mediocre portent to pursue truth and projects through their own developed creative capabilities.  The process will not be like Professor Morpheus handing you a pill.

Professor Thrun recently appeared on Warren Olney's KCRW show To the Point, on a segment called "Why is College So Expensive?" and explained correctly that Udacity wouldn't replace college so much as extend it with on-line courses to people that are currently excluded from physical attendance (about 0:28 on).  But he didn't address the question of extending college to any specific educational effect.  Echoing this hollow core, even good coverage by people like Felix Salmon (here and here, on Rob Reich's doubts), focuses on education as easy information travel to other countries via great production values.  The sense of transformative novelty is fueled by the spectacle of a global mass audience coupled with the absurd claim that modern media has not yet come to the existing college classroom (0:33).  But these features, even adding in the inspiring populist politics of the impressive Khan Academy, for example, do not explain specifically how this moves beyond the old Theory X model of passive broadcast learning to the instilling of active, self-determining intellectual skills. 

In terms of one educational metric, completion rates, the Thrun-Norvig course most resembles the subprime for-profit sector.  Of the course's 160,000 enrolled students, 137,000 dropped it before completion.  This is the kind of terrible completion rate one finds among "America's Worst Colleges" that remain under constant investigation for specific recruiting and financial abuses and for an exploitative business model, which produces the highest student debt for the lowest educational return with near-total dependence on public subsidies plus a generous assist from cuts to the low-cost public alternatives. See most recently Floyd Norris's irritated exposé of ITT Educational, and Bill Alpert's piece in Barrons in April, which reports that UC Regent Richard Blum remains ITT Educational's largest single investor.

Free on-line academies like Khan won't continue to inflate the student debt bubble, but they need now to specify high-end populist quality results to go with their quantity of access.

The real barrier to educational quality on the mass public scale is not resistance to innovation but systemic poverty.  Writing on "The Rise of the SuperProfessor," Doug Ganss hits the nail on the head:
People most effective at producing courseware in the future will have complete production studios staffed with video crews, interactive experts, gamification mavens, courseware experience specialists, usability teams, outcome testers, and much more.
Public upgrading depends not on the entrepreneurial will of public U faculty, which exists in abundance, but on access to Hollywood-Silicon infrastructure.  The Stanford-Google-TED complex has this. UC and CSU do not: -now, after 3 years of cuts, less than ever.

It's rather dumb Theory X rich-kid behavior to blame faltering Public U educational results on a lack of innovation rather than on a lack of money.  Money isn't the sufficient but it is the necessary condition to building the big complex project teams that Silicon Valley will now use as a market differentiator, not because it makes for better educational content but because it is their competitive advantage.

If we focus on social development rather than on global revenue streams, it's clear that the TED-ED sector should actively partner with the publics rather than casting them as retros which their courseware production studios are destined to replace.

In turn, public universities should hold the Udacities of the world to Theory Y standards of creative educational outcomes--excellent staging yes, but mass creativity as the actual point.


peter morrison said...

Nice Blog. Thanks for sharing.

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