Dark discussions with educators

What do educators fear in 2013?

I’ve meet with thousands of people in higher education over the past year.  Those people include deans, librarians, media specialists, tenure-track professors, CIOs, CFOs, presidents, adjuncts, all kinds of administrative staff, and not enough students. That’s because it’s part of my job to talk with people from colleges, universities, and other cultural heritage institutions, since I’m a higher education speaker, consultant, and facilitator.

Among many, many other things, I’ve been struck by how sad and worried they are.

Gorgeous Alfred U building.That’s what this post is about.  Yes, these people also shared hopes, dreams, positive expectations, and optimistic plans.  But never in my professional life have I heard so much fear coming from educators.

I’m not going to critique these anxieties or situate them against positive alternatives.  Here I would like to share these people’s expressions of anguish.  This post sits with those fears for a while, as the expression goes.

The biggest fear is economic.  There’s little confidence out there in higher education’s business model.  Most people who talked to me described being worried about cuts to their units and campuses.  These are new, additional cuts, coming after more than half of decade of the same.  Some of them see reductions following a drop in incoming students, either because of institutional or demographic reasons; this is especially sharp for tuition-driven schools.  Others describe monies spent on purposes they dislike, or see as inappropriate: athletics, other units, administrators.  People often mention recession; nobody says “recovery” unless they’re being ironic.

Nobody – not one person – anticipated significantly increased financial support from anywhere.

University of San Francisco at night.These economic concerns tie into professional fears.  People from most institutions see professorial tenure declining and adjuncthood on the rise.  Some librarians fear that most people do not understand their value.  Technologists see ever-escalating support needs.  Students, both traditional-age and adult, look upon the job market with dismay.

Nobody speaks of a possible resurgence for tenure.  When I posit a scenario wherein higher ed starts expanding tenure (“The Serpent Devours the Mammal”), they smile and laugh.

Yes, there’s a great deal of technology fear.  Distance learning (usually MOOCs) will destroy face-to-face classes.  Data will dehumanize the college experience.  Lifelong immersion in technology has degraded the Millenial generation.  ebooks will kill The Book.  Technofear is a constant.

People also cite a nervous politics, refreshingly deemphasizing parties and partisanship.  Instead they decry a bipartisan public cynicism about education as a whole.  They worry about state governments.  They fear K-12 is a disaster, sending them ill-prepared students, or that K-12 is good-hearted but being gutted and ditto the results. And they fear the very rich.  Time and again audiences cited the wealthiest, the 1% as having a pernicious influence on education: driving learning towards training, shifting funds to the wrong spots, reshaping policies.

They don’t mention political heroes who will help them.

I’ve left off the names of schools and people because I want to distill and appreciate these fears on their own terms.  Besides, they echoed everywhere I went, across the US and ranging over different institutional types: public libraries, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, state schools.

These aren’t rarely expressed feelings.  The fears arise so often that, as a speaker, I have to take care to reenergize each crowd, lest my talk end as a dirge.  Time and again a melancholy pall settles over a previously sprightly audience.  I don’t know if these thoughts appear in trade journals and public discussion about colleges and universities, but they are vital expressions of American higher education in our time.

Once more, I don’t mean to imply that the .edu sector is universally gloomy.  There are many inspired voices of inspiration.  This post simply identifies a current of fear, respects it, and sets it into the blogosphere for our reflection.

What are you hearing along these lines?  If you’re in this world, what do you fear?

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44 Responses to Dark discussions with educators

  1. To cast my fear in hopeful terms, I hope that the English language is transforming itself so radically right before my eyes that the sea of illiteracy I see rising will soon be meaningless in any terms I would recognize.

    • What kind of linguistic changes do you anticipate, influences from txting?

      • I imagine a new written form where even in academic writing there would be no problem with frags, run-ons, shifts in person, disagreement amongst subjects and verbs, pronouns and their antecedents. I imagine a textified English made richer with all the wtf and omg the writer desires. I imagine an English where in place of a phrase, a bit of video from our common megatext could be inserted in the act of writing–something closer to a multimedia hieroglyphics.

        Every generation bemoans the bastardization of the English it has known, yet still it transforms and regenerates itself. I’m sure we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

  2. Anna Lohaus says:

    And what you have described so adequately above, is a vicious circle, as one fear propels the next: The economic problem the Institution is having on the administrative level, feeds into the fear on the professional level, where professors focus on research and publications, to thicken their resume – foreshadowing the in their eyes quite possible event of their department’s closure. Resulting of the above, the professor has less time and energy to spend on optimizing the class room experience of the students, and to invest into integrating more technology into their classrooms. The latter, many of them are convinced is at the root of the problem, and will hasten the economic and professional problems.
    The one fear I have, is that the students suffer, and receive a sub optimal education if this vicious circle is not broken.

  3. Fear and long term learning do not play well together. It becomes harder every day to set aside these fears to pursue the calling of learning in higher ed. Many of my colleagues are hunkering down when they need to be stepping up especially those with power in the system. The best lack all conviction…I get the whole slouching towards Jerusalem thing here. I think your post functions as a pivot point where you nail the dark observation to the academic ground, but where does that pivot lead? I look forward to the narrative arc built into your observations here. There are ways to address the fear, to use aikido on it, to transform it in ways both large and small. There really are political leaders out there who we might be able to help us pivot from the darkness. And we need to find folks who disagree with your overall assessment and who say that your darkness is the natural state before the dawn of new and better time. They are out there, too.

    • I have a horde of optimistic ideas, which I’ll gradually lay out.
      But which political leaders do you think are worth approaching?

    • VanessaVaile says:

      Aside from a very few national figures, local may be where we need to look for political leaders. I’m showing my age here, but do remember, “act local, think global.” Educators across systems – K-12, adult, undergraduate, graduate – must build bridges and coalitions between their respective silos, communicate better, coordinate efforts. That included tiers too.

      • One hothouse for creating these leaders is in all the eco-learning niches that great teachers flock to in the summers or in between terms. We call it PD but what it really is is capacity building on many fronts–pedagogical, professional, and personal. I have been involved in one this summer, the Connected Learning MOOC. Vanessa has been involved with that as well. She is one of the political leaders worth approaching. We must acknowledge that political leadership must now be reached through distributive networks. That is the challenge, to realize that we are our own political leaders and that we are building this capacity in ways we never thought of before. Go to the MOOCs to find them, go to the webinars to find them, go to the free online courses to find them, go to twitterchats to find them. Don’t ignore Washington, but don’t bet the farm on them. In fact don’t bet much of anything on them until you have found your distributed leadership network. If you find that, then the darkness will recede. I think the model just might be the citizenry schools of the early civil rights years like Highlander. Maybe.

      • Vanessa, I think you and Terry Elliott (@telliowkuwp) are on to something. This is a time ripe with possibility at the local level, networked globally.

  4. geekymom says:

    The K-12 front is equally depressing–for some. Inner city public schools are suffering everywhere. Like Chicago and other cities, Philly has cut tons of positions. Charter schools abound without proof of their effectiveness. But, they are usually safer and the classes are smaller. The teachers are better paid.

    Out in the suburbs, there are cuts too, but they’re at the margins. The tax base is still strong, so schools survive. There may be no raises, but programs and teachers remain in place. Testing, however, increases, which means that, despite having a good pool of students, those students will not be as prepared for college as their teachers had hoped. If higher ed really wanted to get prepared students, they’d go after the tests–including the AP in some cases. Blasphemy, I know.

    Independent school enrollment is stagnant, mostly because tuition keeps families who might want this option (see issues above) away. But generally, these schools are innovating, incorporating technology, creating new programs, and sometimes dramatically changing how school is done. These schools are a tiny percentage of the total. And they’re also scared for financial reasons, relying, as colleges do, on tuition and fund raising for survival.

    As my own son heads off to college, I’m actually hopeful. He’s going to a scrappy state school with good programs. I think he’s going to get a good education, especially for the price. We need more of that. I think MOOCs are not going to cut it for most students. Blended, maybe, but what I see among my own students and my kids, they want a physical presence. They need the guidance. My son has actually said this a number of times. He knows himself. Faced with a MOOC, he’ll just goof off. I do the same thing. :)

    • Laura, your reply suggests class differences are magnifying across K-12. Is that true?
      And, if so, would that lead to fears in well-off suburbs?

      • geekymom says:

        Yes, though there are schools and teachers trying to mitigate that class difference. The fear in the suburbs is not getting into an Ivy or top-rated fancy-pants college. There’s a sense among some that the state school is not good enough, but getting into and then affording the highly ranked schools makes people nervous.

      • That’s understandable, Geekymom.
        I fear we’re about the see higher education stratify along class lines, following the already deep spread visible in K-12.

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  6. I guess the big fear is that the moral panics turn out not to be moral panics. That with the countervailing force of the university we slide ever closer to a world of trivialities. Maybe that overstates what the universities do, even now. I just know I went into college a bit of a punk, and came out the other side someone who read sonnets for fun, saw public issues in a larger historical frame, and just had this sense of this deep, resonant world going on underneath the surface of things.

    Did college do that, or was it bound to happen with age anyway? Was my experience towards the center of the normal curve, or was it an outlier, even in 1993? I’ve searched the literature for answers to these questions, but I really can’t get a sense. These questions don’t run along the lines of any known experimental variables. They resist operationalization.

    But I’m hardly unique in seeing the university as a mechanism for preserving our cultural memory, or as a rite of passage for too-crude youth. I can’t help but think there’s something to this, and that in fact the massive campaign against education is not as much about expense as about removing the university as a cultural force. I’m unsure if the university preserves the world I love, but it is obvious that those who who like to dismantle that world seek its destruction.

    You asked what I feared, and as I dug into it I realized I don’t fear much. I despair more than fear nowadays, both because much of this seems inevitable, and because I am one of the lucky ones who will land on my feet no matter what happens. Fear necessarily involves some unknown property or quantity, and I quantified the possibilities for this sector long ago.

    So it’s not the implosion itself I fear — it’s that even in it’s infested, degraded state, university enterprise may be far more tied into the society we value than we realize. That’s the unknown variable.

    When I was 17, I said I was not going to college, and proclaimed it proudly. My parish priest asked why I wasn’t going. Father McHugh. I said because I wasn’t interested in doing anything that required a college degree. Oh, he said, it’s not about that. It’s about a broader perspective. You think you know it all, but your world is so small. College will show you that.

    Maybe most kids don’t get that, I don’t know. But as Pete Townshend once said, I’m not a perfectionist, I’m an idealist. I know we don’t always get it right, but I fear what happens when we stop trying.

    • Great response, Mike.
      Say more about that despair. Is it our “slid[ing] ever closer to a world of trivialities”?

    • Anna Lohaus says:

      “Oh, he said, it’s not about that. It’s about a broader perspective. You think you know it all, but your world is so small. College will show you that.”
      I don’t know if a lot of students have the finances for the broader perspective at the traditional colleges at the moment. Access via MOOCs etc. might be the only way they can gain this broader perspective, while joining a profession that does not require a college degree – although the ranks of those are shrinking as the costs of schools keep increasing.
      Excellent points raised though. Very thought provoking.

      • The digital world sometimes offers a broader perspective than the face-to-face one. Think about suburbs, towns, or tight neighborhoods. Or traditional media, most notably tv. The Web gives us windows onto the whole planet.

  7. Pingback: Education vs Technology – what we fear divides us | All Things Moocable

  8. lauragibbs says:

    I’m passionate about online education as I have been teaching fully online courses (the NON-massive kind) for over ten years at the University of Oklahoma. The students are enthusiastic, eager, excited, and I love teaching these classes more and more with each passing year. My colleagues, though, have remained mostly skeptical or scornful, with the usual culprits of fear (fear of anything new, and fear of technology in particular) along with lack of awareness (they just don’t know how small, interaction-intensive online classes work). Now, though, the MOOCs have made things worse. FAR worse. The president of my university, for the first time in all the years I’ve been at my school, sent out an email about teaching to all instructional faculty, even lowly adjuncts like myself, denouncing MOOCs and singing the praises of classroom education and face-to-face encounters as the be-all and end-all of our work as educators. I did not actually lose my job (although I still keep waiting for the other shoe to drop), but in any case it was the biggest setback to online education at my school that I have seen since I started teaching online in 2002. I am no fan of MOOCs, and have been an outspoken foe of them myself, but my greatest fear is that MOOCs have now poisoned the well of online education … when in fact online education, done creatively, really can offer a great new space for higher education – a space for personalized learning, job-relevant skills, reaching underserved student populations, and on and on.
    Thank you for this blog post and the chance to chime in.

    • I think that if MOOC’s were one thing, then you would be right. But they are not one thing and they are becoming less monolithic every day as folks who use them discover that they need more than one screwdriver in their toolbox. The same argument that you make against MOOCs can and has and is being made against online education, but I think that this is just as one-sided. The world that I see is full of solutions both good and bad to the project of helping others learn. And in the Model T era of MOOCs I think we make a big mistake in believing that black is the only color we can have. If you are a true auto-didact, then xMOOCs are for you. If you play nice with others, then cMOOCs might be for you. There are fast MOOCs and slow MOOCs. The real issue (and one that you address so clearly and effectively) is that the private sector within public universities is winning with the help of the Gates Foundation and the state legislatures. MOOCs are a cudgel to beat folks in line to their agenda. And I agree, the MOOC means do not justify the bottom line ends that these groups intend. We must get universities to justify the use of these tools with real research. If you want to get right down to it, large, cattle call classes are not good for learning either unless they are part of a larger system that breaks them down into smaller seminar style groups or online communities with good facilitation. Is there any rush to get rid of them? Bad learning tools are not intrinsically so, but rather they are bad because they are ill-used. And boy-howdy is there lots of evidence for that.

      • I’m conflicted on this score, Terry Elliott (@telliowkuwp) .
        I agree about some of the politics (which are now bipartisan).
        At the same time I’m acutely aware of the problems of college finance. Besides MOOCs, are there any major innovations in dropping the price of higher education? Too many criticisms of MOOCs urgently call for their status quo to remain, which is problematic.

    • Yikes, Laura, what an awful blow to online work on campus! It must be frustrating (and terrifying) to see your years of passion + learning smacked down like that.
      Good luck. And you’re welcome here any time.

  9. Lisa Durff says:

    To go back to your question ->I fear education (K-20) NOT changing and continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I am of course thinly veiling a famous quote by Einstein. I am ready, have been ready.

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  11. I think VanessaVaile and Terry Elliott are on to something about the importance of local, cross-silo leaders. I find huge amounts of energy in professional development, especially online.

    CFOs like the sound of that, because online is usually cheaper than f2f.

  12. Robert Goldstein says:

    Bryan, how much of this is particular to education, and how much is spillover from general social changes? As our society ages, relative political power changes. We seem to have (or need to have) more resources for pensions, prisons, immigration controls, war on drugs/crime/terror/… and proportionally less for other things. Medicine and Law are not nearly as genteel as they used to be. Music, news reporting, and now education have their business models questioned by technological changes.
    If what we are seeing is related to these much broader forces, we have to consider any hope or response with that context in mind.
    In an article about news reporting, I saw a quote “We don’t need newspapers. We need journalism.” I don’t know how true that is, but journalism is certainly in a transition period where it is hard to see the outcome. My feeling is education is about to enter such a wrenching transition, but it will emerge in a very new form. I just don’t know what that form will be.

    • I think you’re right, Robert. Education is being whipsawed by a variety of larger factors: demographics, economic changes, generational expectations, cultural shifts.
      So some of the fears stem from those elements. Fear of change, fear of losing something precious (a pension, a cultural paradigm, local manufacturing jobs).
      Those of us within education have to rethink many of our assumptions.

      Quite the time to be living through! Now, what to do about it?

      • Robert Goldstein says:

        I like the analogy with white water kayaking. You absolutely can paddle upstream through the rapids, but it takes strength, good equipment, and great skill and agility. The really good kayakers make it look easy because small adjustments at the right time let them catch the currents, ride the waves, and use the flow of the river to their benefit. The less skilled use too much brute force, fight and fail.

        Some of the economic drivers are pretty clear. Education will be delivered for less than $50k/year, and that means we have to find ways to education more students per prof, and support more profs with less staff, since salaries are such a dominant portion of cost. The college “experience” contains a large bundle of services, classroom instruction being just one part. There will be some (or maybe a lot) of disaggregation here. And the publics have to compete with balooning state pensions; they will ultimately lose that battle.

        That said, there will always be a small slice of the market that will pay a bit (or a lot) more for a premium experience, particularly if that premium experience comes with a recognized brand.

        I advise taking a hard look at the market niche you want to be in. Look at the demand, your costs, and your competitors. (I hate to sound so ruthless, and we are non-profits, but we still have to pay the bills.) You don’t have to blindly cut every possible cost (and you should not), but you do have to invest wisely to preserve and improve the truly important parts, and ride the waves.

  13. Shava Nerad says:

    I was a pioneer in computer aided education (1981) and distance education (1990), MOO education (geez, when did MOO-cows list start up…? 1994-1996ish?), and virtual world education (2005ish). I was in the department at MIT who birthed the MIT Open Courseware notion, and I’m an open source kind of gal.

    But MOOCs as implemented have some hazards we need to be aware of that could lead to a new digital divide in a completely different direction than most people might anticipate, depending on how they are institututed. And I’m the original person “blogging” at digitaldivide.org (we didn’t call it blogging back then).

    From my blog, where I responded to The Economist’s interesting article on MOOCs. :

    If MOOCs become the scaling event they look to be, the economy of scale will mean that most students will not be able to afford the collegiality of the campus, with all the intangibles, the contacts, the seriously humanizing life of the mind that attends that experience which is that 80% of the body language of communication to which the actual courses are only 20% of the lexical content of education.

    I find this an incredibly troubling trend not for access to education but for a new divide between poor students and very rich students in years to come.

    https://plus.google.com/101371184407256956306/posts/8FAXbsHZH5h
    discussion there might also be of interest, as the millennials who comment don’t understand at all the value of the cross-generational exposures they get on campus as an asset. Yet, this is often put forward as the real differentiating point between, say, a Harvard MBA and any other MBA, say, as an extreme case.

    So if that is the difference in MBAs what about any other degree?

    And what if we do lose our research capacity — particularly here *before* say other countries due to our excessively wired youth culture?

    I could see this as an issue of national economic disaster unparalleled in any history.

    • I wonder, Shava, if an increasing class divide will hurt America’s research capacity.
      I can see the former happening – it’s already in play.
      But will that harm the finances of Research-I universities? They can still wring serious grant money from governments and corporations.

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  17. Brian,

    That’s a terrific distillation, and it rings true to my experience. I don’t want to diminish these fears or the factors that inspire them. But I’ve always thought college faculty, more so maybe than other staff and administrators, are a uniquely gloomy bunch. It may be because intellectual work is rewarded for identifying problems or for arguing for a more complex understanding of an issue. A seminar table, the basic training ground and proving ground for apprentice faculty, rewards the generating of problems more than solving them.

    Whatever the causes, most people with professional experience off campus have observed how pervasive negative thinking is on campus. In the nonprofit world, we’d call it the difference between asset-based approaches and deficit-based approaches. Some people only see the deficits, and some environments encourage that outlook. Of course, those problems are often real, but it’s also true that you can visit two different youth development programs — both of which are challenged by identical taxpayer and legislative indifference — and find two very different kinds of energy. One may always be looking for the opportunity hidden in those challenges, and the other responds to every invitation for dialogue with “You just don’t understand.”

    And the kind of energy often survives a generational turnover in the individual staff. It gets into the DNA of the organization. I think that’s what has happened with higher education. It’s not an environment that encourages people to look for opportunities.

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  19. That’s a good analogy, Robert. Although it’s easy to see us hurtling towards a waterfall.

    Questions:
    “we have to find ways to education more students per prof”
    Are you thinking of MOOCs, or big lecture classes?

    “support more profs with less staff, since salaries are such a dominant portion of cost.”
    That’s tricky. Government regulations mandate a good proportion of those staff. Others are there for student life, a function many students value highly.

    “the publics have to compete with balooning state pensions; they will ultimately lose that battle.”
    Ouch. So even less state support to come?

    • Robert Goldstein says:

      People do run waterfalls in kayaks, with proper preparation and luck. Even I have done 8 ft. Google for ‘kayak palouse falls’ for a rather extreme example (lucky outcome but scary ride). If you can’t get off the river, better to launch yourself forcefully over the edge to avoid rocks below, and to pencil in bow first rather than land flat to protect the spine.

      Probably not MOOCs in their present form, but certainly aspects of MOOCs as they evolve. I have in mind aspects of manufacturing, which started as artisans making each rifle or glove or shoe individually by hand. Once assembly line techniques were adopted, prices fell although bespoke products were still made for the rich. For a while, we had to accept once-size-fits-all, or maybe choose from a small set of pre-made sizes. Now IT has put customization back in an automated way — you can have a tennis shoe made with your choice of different colors for 7 parts of the shoe, at pretty much mass market prices.

      Obviously education doesn’t lend itself to traditional assembly line techniques. Students are individuals and the process is highly complex. And yet, when we look at the components — identification of content (what to teach), delivery of content (lectures, papers), student effort and actual learning (discussion, homework, writing papers), assessment, and so on — there are opportunities for efficiencies. We need to let the profs spend more time doing the things that computers do poorly (guiding discussions, unsticking students from misconceptions), to perhaps use professional TAs where humans are important (discussions at certain levels, some assessments) and use IT where it can work best.

      In a way, like what medicine is trying to do, with specialists, generalists, physician assistants, nurses of various specialties, physical therapists, pharmacists, and so forth. We have certainly started down this path, but we need to see how we can improve it in our context. And fundamentally recognize that the fuzzy boundary between what IT can do well and what it cannot will shift on a few-year timescale. (Self-driving cars were a complete fantasy not so long ago.)

      I don’t envision one-size-fit-all, since different students have different goals, intellectual preparation and economic resources. But I do see economic pressure at each level. One quick answer, almost glib, to the student services question: Why four years? What if students came to campus for 3 years, and spent a (cheaper) fourth year at a distance? Some schools will maintain current services, but perhaps recruit from a smaller pool. Others will have to change the nature of the service in some way.

      As to state support, higher ed is probably the only state funded program with non-state revenue. If you were a state legislator, what would you do? Understanding that the health of major public universities significantly affects the long term economic health of the state is one battle. Acting on that understanding in the short term is yet another.

      Sorry for the length, but I have to add one point. When people ask “how can we do this?”, they can mean two different things. One, “you’re right, but I don’t see clearly how this can happen”. The other, “I don’t see how this is possible, so it can’t happen.” I presume your questions are the former.

      I don’t see the currents distinctly either, and the river is only mildly choppy although the speed has picked up a bit. There is a dull roar in the distance, details unknown, so I’m craning my neck to see as far ahead as I can.

      • No need to apologize for length, Robert. These are good answers and thoughts (and what a kayaking video!).

        Good point about automation and scaling. One vision of the future is of instructors leading lab and discussion sessions, while the internet provides the rest.

        I hear you about state funding. Consider, too, the powerful lobbies at the state level, and who votes.

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