Talking about a new higher education startup

Last week I was on a podcast discussion about a new higher ed startup.  MissionU offers an interesting mix of apprenticeship, funding, timeline, and ethos.  Jeff Young wrote it up earlier this month, interviewing both myself and my friend Gardner Campbell.

Jeff then invited a crowd to talk about MissionU on the EdSurge podcast.  Gardner and I came in, along with MissionU’s founder, Adam Braun, and Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College.  For an hour we bashed around views and challenges:

The results are pretty complex and interesting.  It’s clear that MissionU strikes a bunch of post-secondary education nerves, from finance (debt, affordability) to politics (the role of for-profits) to the meaning of education.  In other words, talking about this startup triggered conversations going beyond MissionU itself.

At the same time, what Adam is doing is fascinating and ambitious.  So I’m looking forward to having him as a Futures Trends Forum guest next month.

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Rogue approaches to scholarly communication

OSI2016_Martin KalfatovichThis week I’m participating in the Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) conference in the Washington, DC area.   I was active in the first OSI meeting last year, and am looking forward to this one.  Hopefully I’ll tweet events and reflections (#OSI2017).  For today I’d like to share thoughts on one particular issue, and its implications for the future of education.

OSI meetings are based on topical workgroups, each of which addresses a specific aspect of scholarly communication.  Last year I was part of one focused on information overload (and scarcity, or underload); here’s our report.  This year I’m in a new group, one splendidly dedicated to… rogue solutions.

Let me quote from our charge:

What are the impacts of Sci-Hub and other rogue solutions on open access and what is the future of this approach, which may be gaining new mainstream support (noting for instance Wellcome’s recent funding of ResearchGate). What new resources should the scholarly community develop (and how) that would be useful and legal additions to our progress toward open (a new blacklist for instance, or new repositories)? This group will also integrate (to the extent possible) ideas raised by the information overload workgroup from OSI2016.

What are some of these rogue approaches?

Sci-Hub (Wikipedia) is a search engine that hunts for open versions of articles.  Created by Kazakh grad student Alexandra Elbakyan.  Frequently sued, the site changes locations and is multiply mirrored.

LibGen (“Library Genesis) (Wikipedia) is a searchable database for articles.  Also comics, magazines, and paintings, somehow.  Like Sci-Hub it frequently moves and appears in mirrors.

r/Scholar on Reddit is a forum where users post requests for articles and books.

#ICanHazPDF is a Twitter hashtag where users plea for open pdfs of named articles. (I’ve had success w/”ICanHasPDF”, too; old English prof habits die hard.)

Unpaywall is a Google Chrome browser extension that, when pressed, tries to find open versions of articles linked or displayed on a current webpage. Impactstory created it, in part by building a big database of articles from legit sources, available through the oaDOI API. (Nature article)

CanaryHaz is another open access searching Chrome extension.  It requires users to register with the site, which then sets up individual lockers to stash copies.

CanaryHaz and Unpaywall both in use

CanaryHaz appears as the green bar up top. Unpaywall is the green lock icon on the right edge.

The Open Access button is another browser extension, which, when pressed, triggers a search for OA pdfs.

Social media in generalCharlie Rapple shared some fine research at the Scholarly Kitchen concerning how scholars use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. to find and share readings.  I’m fascinated by the way a majority of scholars believe in respecting copyright… and also trade papers.

So why does this matter?

Because the proliferation of rogue solutions points to rising frustration with the scholarly publication and communication ecosystem.  Open access has won over some journals, elicited the creation of others, and inspired new practices from publishers, while traditional (“closed access”, if you like) publishing practices continue.  We’re in a state of massive conflict, and the future of scholarship is in the balance.

Perhaps one or more of these rogues will grow into a widely used service.  Rapple’s study shows that many faculty are keenly interested in sharing and accessing openly. #ICanHazPDF seems widely used, although I don’t have a sense of numbers. We could see one or more evolving into what Balázs Bodó callsshadow libraries” (thanks to commentator Ted). On the other hand, the fate of Sci-Hub and LibGen suggests another outcome, one where these services remain marginal and on the run, like bittorrent file-sharing.

There is also the looming gap between the global north and south, or the developed (rich) and developing (not rich) nations.  The former tend to have far more access to scholarship than the latter.  Addressing this imbalance is one cause for the pro-open movement.  Will global south/developing nations’ faculty, staff, and students start taking up these rogue tools?  Recall that Elbakyan, Sci-Hub’s creator, is from a non-wealthy central Asian state.

Are there other rogue approaches to scholarly communication that you find interesting and/or useful?  What do you make of this whole subfield?

And will I see you at OSI this week?

(OSI2016 photo by Martin Kalfatovich)

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Americans versus the future

IFTF logoFor a country that prides itself on invention and innovation, Americans actually don’t think very much about the future.  That’s the conclusion of a new survey (pdf) by the Institute for the Future (IFTF).

Let me pull out some key findings.

First, our future horizon tends to max out at a five year horizon.  One year or less is a more common framing:

53% of Americans say they rarely or never think about something that might happen, or something they personally might do, at least 30 years from the present. Only 10% think about the far future every day (5%) or several times a week (5%).

Looking 10 years ahead is somewhat less rare—36% rarely or never think about something that might happen at least 10 years in the future, while 17% say they think that far out every day (7%) or several times a week (10%).

Three years is a stretch, but done often enough:

IFTF study_3 years out

Which makes a lot of sense, for the general population, when we think about the variety of strong social and cultural time frames we work within: quarterly economic reports, a three- or four-year (putative) graduation plan.  We can also think of those whose conditions foreclose futures thinking: prisoners, or people in war, or the severely depressed.

Second, age makes a big difference, as younger people are more likely to consider the future than their elders:

In fact, the older people get, the less they think about the future—75% of seniors rarely or never think 30 years out, while 51% rarely or never think 10 years out.

One counterintuitive finding about that demographic: “Having children or grandchildren did not significantly increase future thinking”.

This observation about age and forward thinking is especially meaningful for organizations and fields often led by seniors, like academia.

Third, there seems to be a subset of Americans who actually like to consider things to come:

A minority of Americans are highly future-minded: 17% say they think about the world 30 years out at least once a week; 29% think about the 10-year future at least once a week, and 35% think about the 5-year future at least once a week.

I would love to see IFTF identify the contours and traits of this population.  How many are science fiction readers?  What are breakdowns by gender, race, education, religion?

Fourth, fear is a good motivator for stirring up futures thinking.  Specifically, fear of death:

Among those who reported a brush with mortality, there was a 21% increase in thinking about the 30-year future often, a 25% increase in thinking about the 10-year future often, and a 31% increase in thinking about the 5-year future often…

Analogically, I’ve seen this in my own work.  Generally speaking people who are spooked about their institution’s or organization’s fate tend to be more receptive to forecasting and scenarios.

Let me step back from the study results themselves.  The method suggests the findings are too optimistic (if you value futures thinking), as the survey as done online, and also explicitly identified itself as being about the future.  It’s possible that a broader survey would find Americans thinking even less frequently, and in shorter horizons, about what’s to come.

In isolation, the study evokes comparative questions.  Are Americans less future-oriented than they were before the Trump presidency, or in comparison with, say, the late 20th century?  How would other countries fare when subjected to the same test?  Given the age factor, I’d be curious to compare older and younger populations (say, Japan’s and Kenya’s).

Those are cultural questions.  As Jane McGonigal, one of the study’s leads, observes, there are also some fascinating biological aspects to the ways humans (not just Americans) look ahead.  We tend to think of the future as essentially separated from our present self.  McGonigal points to a study showing that, under fMRI scrutiny, “your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.”

She goes on to argue, and cite other researchers making the same point, that the disconnect drives our present day actions in ways that aren’t necessarily forward-looking.  “Why would you save money for your future self when, to your brain, it feels like you’re just handing away your money to a complete stranger?”  Hence our general unwillingness to engage with a century-long problem like climate change.

Hence future studies and forecasting methods.  We need heuristics and mental structures to prod us out of the present and short-term.

Do you see evidence of this kind of present-ism around you in your work or community?

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Peak electrical power: the US continues to de-industrialize

One fascinating sign of America’s changing technological and economic life appears in this Bloomberg News article.  The United States is making, and using, less electricity than we used to.

That’s a surprise, given the 20th century’s spectacular growth of industry and technology, but the decline is real:

American electricity generation 1949-2016; source USEIA

Justin Fox goes into fine detail, probing different theories, but readers might be asking at this point, “Why does this matter, unless I’m a utilities wonk?”

Several reasons.

First, it points to the continuing deindustrialization of the US, as we shift towards a service and knowledge-based economy.  Factories use a lot of electricity.  Fewer factories and you get this in just a few years:

electricity sales by sector_2001-2016

And seen through another measurement, we can see the decline starting around the 1980s, right when offshoring and financialization began to take off:

electricity per GDP_1949-2016

So this electrical transform shows how America’s economy is changing.  The effects of moving away from industry ripple across our society.

Second, this change shows the importance of new attitudes towards energy: conservation, cost control, and efficiency.  Some of this is about economics.  I think it’s no accident that the last chart above shows a decline starting after the great 1970s oil shock.  And it’s clear that the economy after 2008 took a serious hit, which we really haven’t recovered from – we’re still working through austerity and belt-tightening.  On another level this could indicate progress in environmental thinking, where power waste is less popular than it was before the first Earth Day.

Third, it points to how lame the American economy has been.  As the Bloomberg writer points out,

a grim new economic era dawned in 2000 or 2001 that has been characterized by slow growth, declining labor-force participation and general malaise — all of which tend to depress energy demand…

I would add to that productivity growth’s stalling out, plus the fierce decoupling of worker compensation from business profits. The American economy just isn’t demanding as much as it used to, or should.

Fourth, as a sign of the future, this could hint at what a truly post-industrial economy looks like.  That’s one where we are more focused on digitally-related activity and transportation, and not so much on making stuff.  It’s one where some form of environmental consciousness has spread through daily life.

What does this have to do with education?  As my readers know, changes in the American economy have powerful effects on every bit of schooling from pre-K through graduate programs.  The shift away from manufacturing and towards service and knowledge sectors has already changed curricula.  Economic malaise has squeezed state budgets, and, in part as a result, they contribute less to public colleges and universities.

On a more direct level, a number of campuses have taken steps to change their physical plants to use less power and/or to create their own.  We use digital technologies to collaborate and research, which shifts electrical expenditures away from travel and towards keeping computers humming.

Looking head, will schools become the grounds for new experiments in power, such as wireless transmission or alternative generation sources?

Do you think this decline will keep going, or will new electrical uses hit the grid?

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Two new free college plans and the future of higher education

Last week Bernie Sanders and allies introduced legislation to provide tuition-free public higher education for students in families making less than $125,000 per year.  At the same time New York’s governor announced the Excelsior Scholarship, setting up a similar plan for that state’s college students.  Other states have been exploring related plans.  What’s going on?

Let’s dig into the federal proposal and New York plan, then think about implications.

Both have strong ethical and moral components.  One of the federal law’s sponsors, Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), describes the proposal in such terms:

Profiting from student loans is usury, and we just can’t continue to allow it…

You see, there’s nothing normal about graduating with massive student debt, where you live in fear of predatory debt collectors and wage garnishers even as you are starting to live your life.

There’s nothing normal about not being able to have a family or buy a house because you have spent years trying to pay off your loan and you just can’t take care of anything else.

Or from the Bernie Sanders site:

It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and our future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades.

Both plans are focused on publicly funding tuition for public colleges and universities, including 2- and 4-year programs.  Private schools aren’t on the table, although apparently Cuomo tried and failed to regulate them in his bill.  Graduate programs aren’t considered.

Cuomo Sanders_Politico

Two politicians not usually this close together.

Since both support tuition, they leave open the problem of paying for fees (which can easily escalate, and have often done so) and especially living expenses.  As Sara Goldrick-Rab pointed out, the latter provide a serious obstacle to students, due to a mix of income stagnation and rising costs, plus adult learners’ extra costs.

The NY law offers an interesting exception, in that it allocates $8 million to pay for open education resources (OER).  That’s especially daring politically at a local level, given how many publishers (and lawyers) are based in New York.

Neither plan regulates higher education spending or quality.  One commentator observes,

these plans would do nothing to crack the whip on the schools to improve their quality, or reduce the time to graduate, which has stretched from 4 years to 6.2 years for an undergraduate degree over the past couple of decades.

This is true, and a popular view, but misunderstands higher education. One reason for people taking longer to graduate is that they can’t afford to pay for school, so they take time off to work.  A student enjoying full tuition at a public institution may still be unable to pay fees and other costs, or could face living issues (economic and otherwise) that knock them off the expected schedule.

Current student debt is largely unaffected, although the federal proposal could allow renegotiation of interest rates.  Predatory lending, difficulty in discharging, etc. aren’t in these laws.

The New York law in particular has a series of problems.   Continue reading

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No, technology is not what’s wrong with American air travel

In reading the many reactions to this week’s United Airlines horror story, we should not be surprised to see some blaming technology.  Air travel is, obviously, a very technology-intensive enterprise, from aircraft to the complex support structure of airports, fuel, training, and so on.  As consumers, fliers increasingly experience air travel through digital layers, like using online booking and handheld devices for in-flight work and entertainment.

Technology is an easy fall guy for what’s wrong with American air travel.  Focusing on it lets us ignore other, far more powerful causes.  Technology is also a shiny target, making for fun headlines and clicks.  Foregrounding tech engages both technophobes and tech fiends, as I’ve documented for more than a decade on another blog.

airplane deicing

Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times column today offers a good example of this technology misdirection.  It’s worth reading carefully to tease out ways people misuse technology critique, and how we can instead better understand air travel.  

Manjoo’s thesis is that in many ways, “technology has only fueled the industry’s race to the bottom… [in] customer service”.   Travelers tend to  use technology – mostly web services like Kayak or Expedia, here – to select flights based only on price and timing, so airlines respond accordingly.    “Customer service — that is, how the airline treats you — isn’t often part of the transaction. As a result, airlines have little incentive to reform themselves.”  Therefore the web is to blame for bad service: “Airlines are …  content to feed you ever-worse service for lower prices, because that’s what the web wants.”

For a short column, “How Technology Has Failed to Improve Your Airline Experience” wanders from its thesis pretty frequently.  It wants to blame technology, but slides off to other targets:

What keeps deteriorating are comfort and quality of service for low-end passengers (i.e., most people). Legroom keeps shrinking. Airlines keep tacking on separate fees for amenities we used to consider part of the flight. And customers keep going along with it.

Notably, Manjoo doesn’t blame tech for these reasons, although he could.  For instance, one classic view of technology is that is narcotizes people, turning them into couch potatoes, fake news gobblers, or video-game-obsessed zombies.    He could have argued that today’s traveler is too tech-addled to protest bad service, but sidesteps that thought. 

airplane wheel over cityThe column also offers odd views of air travel reality, like this rosy sketch of the air travel business: “airlines are doing well; profits are up across the globe, despite your annoyance about flying.”  In fact said airlines have razor-thin margins and frequently go bankrupt or merge (hello, American Airlines; how is your digestion?).  Moreover, “profits are up across the globe” isn’t the point, since the article is just about air travel in the States.

To be fair, Manjoo mentions two other reasons for American air travel going wrong.  In his opening paragraph he notes “regulatory failures as well as consolidation, which the authorities have allowed to occur unabated for decades” (see here for a take from 2012).  Yes, those are powerful drivers.  Naturally, they don’t appear again in the piece, because they’re not technology-driven and aren’t shiny objects.  Manjoo also contradicts himself by sometimes seeing tech as not the cause of bad air travel, but just a worsening factor: “the airline industry’s business model… has been accelerated by tech.”  He even comes close to blaming neoliberalism: “What we are witnessing is the basest, ugliest form of tech-abetted, bottom-seeking capitalism”.  These exceptions and contradictions, if pursued, would have led to a very different, and much more useful, article. Continue reading

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Still more campus cuts

April is the cruelest month, and some American colleges and universities are showing their agreement with that sentiment by cutting more staff and faculty.  As my readers know, these new cutters are not alone.

One of the latest examples is the University of Oregon, which is getting rid of some humanities faculty (adjuncts) and staff (mostly IT).

Some details: once more the humanities are hit.  The rationale here is typical, based on quantitative demand: “[UO’s College of Arts and Sciences dean] Marcus… said humanities classes have drawn fewer students in recent years.”

Why are these cuts happening?  You, dear reader, already know the drill by now.  First, university revenue is dropping.  After an uptick in student numbers during the financial crisis, “enrollment has dropped in recent years” and there is “less funding from the state of Oregon”.  Second, campus expenses are growing, namely the “steadily rising cost of employees’ pay and benefits”.  So, overall, “the university has to cut $8.8 million in spending next year to balance its budget”.

There’s another enrollment angle having to do with international students and Trump, too.  As I and others have been saying,

a drop of international student enrollment — brought by changes in the global economy and concerns over President Trump’s attempts to limit travel to the United States from six Muslim-majority countries — have led to lower enrollment in classed offered by the American English Institute.

But wait, there’s more! as the commercial use to say.  Or less, really, or fewer:

The College of Education and other schools at the university, including the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, are also likely to see faculty and staff reductions before the start of the next school year, UO Provost and Senior Vice President Scott Coltrane said.

For another example of American universities struggling with sustainability this month, UMass Boston is firing its chancellor because of similar problems.

[D]espite its new buildings and increased stature, the campus faces a deficit of up to $30 million, declining enrollment, overdue construction projects, and weakening fund-raising, according to UMass officials.

(Finances and enrollment… perhaps I should create an animated gif for that pair, so I don’t have to keep typing it so frequently.)

Faculty and staff who criticize the firing as being racially motivated don’t seem to disagree with the existence of UMB’s financial and enrollment problems.

I hate blogging about this trend.  But it’s a real one.  It doesn’t get enough attention.  And it points to major forces reshaping higher education.

There will be more.

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