Two challenges for Ken Robinson

Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to Sir Ken Robinson (now on Twitter) speak in person for the first time. Like many people I’ve watched him on YouTube videos, so this BETT2015 talk was a nice opportunity. And he was very impressive in person: affable, disarming, offering nicely turned phrases, connecting with the audience, full of praise for teachers and learners.
Sir Ken Robinson at BETT 2015
Like many others I appreciated his calls for nurturing creativity, for instructor autonomy, for building up an innovative population to address planetary ecological problems.  These messages resonate with me, not least from my pedagogical practice and devotion to digital storytelling.

And yet as the talk went on two problems occurred to me.  Over time they seemed more like blind spots in Sir Ken’s presentation.  I can’t recall him addressing* either, and so I think they are worth considering.

1. No politics?

Asked what we should do to improve education, Robinson advised us to transform our individual practices.   He cited Gandhi (maybe) about our being the change we want to see in the world. He repeated this advice several times.

Interestingly, Sir Ken did not recommend any social or political activity.  He did not ask us to get involved with a national political party**, or to lobby a state or local government (keep in mind he lives in LA, which just had a spectacular K-12 educational technology fiasco).  He didn’t ask us to influence our professional membership organizations, like goading the MLA to stop supporting the overproduction of PhDs, or working with our unions, should you have access to one.  He didn’t call us to organize by social media, or even to peer up for mutual assistance.    This speech left us with a tend-your-own-garden call to action, quietism instead of collaboration. Continue reading

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Notes from BETT 2015

BETT Show 2015I’m participating in the 2015 BETT conference, or “show”, as the organizers call it.  Here are some observations noted on the fly.

1. Jimbo Wales, Wikipedia’s leader, offered a fascinating and important observation.  I didn’t transcribe it word for word, but here’s the gist.  Formal education is not growing, but is stable; informal education is growing like mad.  Obviously Wales is an interested party, not least because of formal education’s longstanding and often ill-thought-out opposition to Wikipedia.  But if he’s right, that’s a major big-picture observation for 2015.

2. The New Media Consortium released its Scandinavian nations Horizon Report (pdf, wiki).  I’m fascinated by both the commonalities with Europe and the rest of the world, and the differences.

Scandinavian Horizon big chart

3. My first presentation outlined four scenarios for the future of higher education.  It was fun casting the US-centered ones in the European/global context.  Readers will probably be familiar with some of these, but this is the first time I’ve Webbed up this particular quartet: Fall of the Silos, Health Care Nation, Peak Higher Education, and Renaissance.

4. The vendor hall at BETT is enormous, a vast chamber of exhibits.  There were far too many for me to annotate individually (at least while my battery and WiFi are low), but I can note some themes which predominated: robotics, STEM (far more than humanities), an emphasis on primary and secondary education, hardware and networking providers.  A very multinational crowd, too – offhand, I saw vendors and presenters from Russia, Korea, China, the Middle East, southeast Asia, Scandinavia.

More as I get the chance to share.

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Mercyhurst considers a queen sacrifice

Mercyhurst University sealMercyhurst University, a Catholic institution in northwestern Pennsylvania, is preparing to cut academics.  According to a local news report, MU’s president announced he was ready to reduce spending on anything, including academics, which brings this story into queen sacrifice territory.

The outlines are familiar, starting with the cause: a financial shortfall brought about by low enrollment. “Times are changing; demographics are changing; pocketbooks are strained,” observes president Gamble.  The Go Erie account adds: “Mercyhurst’s overall enrollment dropped by about 5 percent across all campuses from 2013 to ’14, to 3,938 in 2014-15.” If Mercyhurst is primarily a regional institution, the northeast’s K-12 decline is clearly a major factor.

In the classic queen sacrifice pattern, certain academic fields appear as culprits, especially the humanities.  President Gamble identified these, which suggests their status as more likely departments to face cuts:

the university’s enrollment is declining primarily in education, arts and humanities and among undeclared majors.

“The current worldview makes people afraid to major in arts and humanities, in which Mercyhurst has always been strong,” according to the minutes’ summary of [president] Gamble’s comments.

Once again the humanities are in the target zone.  Note, too, education, which makes sense if the local/regional K-12 population is shrinking.

This may lead to expanding certain fields, while cutting others:

faculty and administration are working to identify possible areas where reductions and shifting of resources could occur as Mercyhurst tries to reshape its curriculum in the short and long term. [emphases added]

I can’t tell which departments would received increased funding.

There are unusual aspects to Mercyhurst’s potential queen sacrifice. Continue reading

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When states cut public education funding: the problems with _Unmaking Education_

In December I took to social media with a research query: what’s a good historical account of how American states have defunded public higher education?  Helpful people came up with one leading candidate: Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2011; Goodreads).

Newfield_UnmakingthePublicUniIt’s an ambitious and powerful book, deeply researched, and offering a vital, carefully developed account to satisfy my query.  It’s also especially relevant in this year of Ferguson. But its flaws run deep, resulting in a too-narrow vision that ultimately does not sufficiently explain how American states cut funding to public higher education.

First, the thesis and its strengths.  Newfield argues that conservatives launched the culture wars in order to weaken public universities, sapping their public support and enabling their corporatization.  This strategy sought to protect and extend conservative political power, while cutting down to size not only liberal politics but the middle class itself.

To oversimplify somewhat, conservative elites who had been threatened by the postwar rise of the college-educated economic majority have put that majority back in its place.  Their roundabout weapon has been the culture wars on higher education in general, and on progressive cultural trends in the public universities that create and enfranchise the mass middle class.(5)

Already in that passage you can see a strong claim for public higher ed, awarding it a powerful place in shaping American society.   Public universities created the middle class.

Newfield traces this out in extensive detail, starting back in the middle of the 20th century.  Much of Unmaking concerns the ideologies around the culture wars, including careful readings of documents on all sides of those struggles, from the Powell memo (53) to Dinesh D’Souza and Arthur Schlesinger.  We review the 1980s and 1990s battles over PC. We see the culture wars driving privatization of education (177) and the rise of knowledge management (141).

Allied to the culture warriors on the right was, for Newfield, a definition of the economy in terms of knowledge instead of production.  This actually boosts the role of finance in shaping all areas of American life (127).  The middle class ends up losing in this new economy (24), and the working class suffers as well: “the working-class… suffered the first wave of deindustrialization.  Their white collar cousins did little to help them…”(4)

The crux of those culture wars, the main battlefield upon which all of these forces could contest, was race.  “Racial inequality and privatization were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the counterrevolution.” (270)  Unmaking sees conservatives appealing to various forms of white racism, and leading academic restructuring which reduces the economic and social status of whites and hispanics.  Newfield gives a convincing account of how race-based affirmative action’s court defeats led to a reduction in the proportion of blacks and hispanics enrolling in higher education (66).  He sees diversity as a weak fallback position, an unchallenging and ultimately conservative-supporting strategy (chapter 7).  In 2015 as we grapple with rising inequality, declining median income, and fallout from anti-black police brutality, this feels like an especially powerful model.

And yet. Continue reading

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President Obama’s plan for free community college tuition: first thoughts

President Obama has raised the idea of making the first two years of community college free.

What I’d like to do to is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it.

This is a major initiative for American higher education with potentially historic implications.  It’s still only a floated concept at this stage, since a fuller announcement is due later today, and a more formal version expected eleven days from now during the State of the Union speech.  So at this point we can only poke at what’s out there and make some educated guesses.

What is out there now includes Obama’s statement about students “working for it.”  That must refer to this bullet point on the White House blog post:

Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.

I don’t see any mention of mandatory work-study or after college work, so this might be what “working for it” covers.
White House free community college image
Also on the White House post’s bullet point list is this commandment to community college administrations:

Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either 1) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or 2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.

Many American community colleges already do 1+2, as far as I can tell.  Nearly every one I’ve visited is engaged in the improving student outcomes part, too.  So I’m not sure if this represents a major change in the internal workings of community college (but see below).

What can we make of this audacious proposal?  Some thoughts:
SW Tenn. Community College

How will this be financed?  According to the White House blog post,

Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.

What does that mean in dollars?  The White House hasn’t said.  A Bloomberg source thinks five billion per year.  The LA Times estimates “tens of billions of dollars”.  A quick calculation multiplying the White House numbers of 9 million students and $3800 annual tuition yields $34,200,000,000.  USA Today thinks “nearly $70 billion.”

Politically, I’m not sure how this can happen. Continue reading

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Digital storytelling: practice and place

This morning I made another digital story about winter.  It’s called “No More Mrs. Nice Winter”, and although I can’t embed it here, you can just follow that link.  Here’s a sample image from it, also linked:
reflections with trees and snow
I’ve been using Cowbird to tell these stories for a while now (examples), and I wanted to reflect on the experience.

Practically, these little multimedia narratives occur to me as I do things on our homestead.  While I’m chopping wood, building a stone wall, weeding, hauling tree limbs, etc., I’m sometimes moved by images.  Alan Levine has patiently taught me to pay attention to what I see, looking for interesting sights (check out his astonishing photos).  Most of the time I do this without a camera, since, unlike most humans, I don’t have cell phone reception at home and hence don’t carry the phone with me at all times.  When I see something that clicks for me I run inside, grab the Samsung, and race back to capture.  Once that happens, I end up taking other photos.

At the same time words bubble up in my brain.  Phrases try to capture what I felt and saw.  Then I push them together, looking for a narrative arc.  I don’t want to create an impression of something static, but something changing, something under pressure or evolving.  I look for the process, not the point.

Then over to Cowbird, which I commend to everyone.  It’s a dead-easy storytelling tool.  Just upload some images, type, and you’ve got a draft.  Editing is easier still.  It’s a bit like PowerPoint in its simplicity for production.  But I also admire the output.  Cowbird presents images in a lush, immersive way.  They make my photos look better, which they need!  And it’s a Vermont project.

Above all I want to practice what I preach.  I’ve been writing, teaching, and talking about digital storytelling for more than a decade (gulp), and it’s foolish not to actually do the stuff.

Occasionally I move my story-mind away from the homestead.  The impetus for doing so is similar: images that strike me, language surfacing to describe it, a narrative glimmering at the bottom.  For example, this bit about two St. Louis sites came about from being gobsmacked by vistas, then hammered by historical brooding.  I should do more of this, but folks do like hearing about our Vermont homestead.

What do you think of this practice?  Anything else I should be doing with digital stories?

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Future Trends, filthy lucre, and a sustainability experiment

FTTE logoToday I’m launching a sustainability experiment with the Future Trends in Technology and Education report.

Several months ago I surveyed FTTE readers on a number of issues, including how best to sustain the report.  It takes me a number of hours (roughly 35 per month, daily work) to develop and publish each monthly report, and until now I haven’t charged a dime for it, nor sought any other support.  I considered it part of my ongoing research enterprise, a requirment of doing business.  More benefits: I learn a tremendous amount from writing FTTE, and some people learn of my work through it.

Over time, though, that model might not be sustainable.  It does take a lot of time, especially to do it right.  Producing 20,000 words of it per year amounts to a book or two so far.  Some readers asked me to consider various economic options, from paid subscription to advertising.

And yet I believe in the value of free, of contributing to the world openly.  And yet I have bills to pay, and lack institutional support.  And yet…

So, stymied, I asked the FTTE readership for their thoughts, giving them various options to choose from:

  • No change! Keep it free.
  • Pay what you like. This lets subscribers choose to contribute any amount, including nothing – i.e., free.
  • Sponsorships. These would appear as ads in each report.
  • Two tiers. This could be a free report (i.e., what FTTE now is) plus an extra analytical service available for a fee.
  • Donations. These would be encouraged and optional.
  • Subscription. All new FTTE subscribers would pay some price.

The two leading choices were donations and pay what you like, followed by sponsorships.

SH58 Scavenger hunt 101 "Money"So, after much discussion and brooding, I’m implementing those suggestions.  New subscribers can visit the new site ( and choose how much they’d like to pay, from nothing (free) to… whatever they prefer.  Current subscribers can do nothing at all and still receive FTTE, or they can donate there.  Heck, anybody can donate on that page.

Let us see how it goes.  Will people contribute to the upkeep of FTTE?  Will the allure of filthy lucre distort my priorities, driving me into a commercial frenzy (unlikely)?  Will some people demand NPR-style pledge drives and goodies?  The rest of 2015 alone holds the answer.

Once again, thanks to everyone who contributed their thinking on this fraught topic.

(filthy lucre image by igboo)

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