My new book is out

The New Digital Storytelling, revisedI just received print copies of the revised edition of my New Digital Storytelling.  They look very sharp, as well they should.  The designers and publisher did a fine job.

Since the first edition came out in 2011, many things have developed in the digital storytelling world, not to mention the broader technological sphere, so much updating was in order.  Every chapter has new examples, new approaches, and new ideas.  There’s an extra chapter on storytelling with virtual reality, since that topic is both new and deep.  Naturally, tons of footnote URLs have been updated, for those so concerned.

Some of you, dear blog readers, have helped in this process.  So I think people like Sandy Brown Jensen, Linda, Vanessa Vail, Bob, Sue Cornacchia, Howard Rheingold, Brett Boessen, Steven Kaye, Rodney Hargis, Annette S. L. Evans, Mike Wesch, Peter Naegele, Ed Webb, cristobalmalmberg, Andy Havens, Carine, jens, D’Arcy Norman, Chad Bergeron, Diane Convery, jwithers38, lisalebduska, Andrew Connell, and my great co-conspirators Barbara Ganley and Alan Levine.  And above all Joe Lambert and the StoryCenter crew.  And more.

You can order print and ebook editions from the publisher (Praeger), or get print and Kindle copies from Amazon.  Order ’em now!

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Student loans are cramping the American economy: what this could mean

Many people think student loans are a problem for American students in 2017.   The total amount of debt is enormous, a good number of students carry serious loans, some leave school owing money yet lacking academic credentials, etc.  I and others have been enumerating these problems for a while.

Could the negative impact of student loan debt reach even further?  Might the sheer size of $1.4 trillion in debt damage the broader American economy?

The New York Federal Reserve Bank just released a studying arguing that this is the case.  Specifically, a significant number of students now carry enough debt to prevent them from buying homes.  This in turn cramps the housing market and weakens overall national economic growth.

Zachary Bleemer, Meta Brown, Donghoon Lee, Katherine Strair, and Wilbert van der Klaauw (pdf) found that millennials loaded up with increasing debt were less likely to buy houses after leaving college.

the tuition hike and student debt increase… can explain between 11 and 35 percent of the observed approximate eight percentage-point decline in homeownership for 28-to-30-year-olds over 2007-15…

home ownership for 28-30 year olds by NY Fed

Why and how does this happen?  Simply put, debt holders (former students) will be more anxious about adding still more debt.  They might also have a harder time with banks.  “[Y]oung consumers who manage increased college costs by borrowing might be expected to experience decreased mortgage access.”

As a result,

We find that homeownership among 28-year-olds declined steadily from 24.4 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2015, an approximate 0.94% annual decline. We see a similar decline for homeownership at age 29 (0.91% annual) and a slightly smaller decline at age 30 (0.74 annual rate).

In chilly econ-speak:

The costs to the local economy of a shift of the cost of human capital investment onto the current young cohort are estimated to appear… in a more muted participation of the young cohort in the local housing market in years to come.

So that generation is harmed, if we consider home ownership to be a good thing, as many do. Graduates are more likely to live with their parents, and to have weaker savings for their eventual retirement. The broader economy grows more slowly as a result.  Student debt: what can’t it do?

Some interesting extra details:

  • The researchers’ dataset underrepresents student loan holding.  Their population is below the median circa $30K figure: “The mean student debt per capita among 24-year-olds in our sample is $6,715 with a mean of $3,902 in 2003 rising to a mean of $9,603 in 2011.”
  • Their modeling of costs does not include room and board (14).  As Sara Goldrick-Rab points out, this can be a crucial cost.
  • A key take-away: students keep going to college, despite rising prices (20).

Looking ahead, most signs point to student debt continuing to increase.  What does this suggest for the future of higher education?

Opposition to this knock-on effect of debt could play out in several ways.  Perhaps we’ll see major economic players (the real estate sector, at least) asking for debt reduction in some form: pressuring colleges to lower costs, lobbying states for more financial support.  This NY Fed analysis could be additional fodder for public universities lobbying state governments for increasing support – i.e., “please boost state system funding or the economy will suffer.”

Reaction against the expanded student debt issue could also take the form of cultural criticism.  Some may criticize millennials for harming economic growth, adding yet another way for millennial-bashing to proceed.  In a different way, dismay at the economic impact of student debt could fuel a cultural shift away from the college-for-everyone mindset (blog post coming up on that).

Alternatively, we could see acceptance of student debt appear as growing cultural support for less home ownership: a celebration of rental living, especially in cities, or approval of an expanded family unit.  The latter might tie into other cultural currents, namely how America processes its aging demographics.  Perhaps we’ll see three-generation households valued once more, either by conservatives (a return to strong, traditional families), progressives (increased care for the elderly), or both, in a rare sign of political bipartisanship.

I’d really like to know what the financial sector’s leaders think about this.  Increased debt is usually good for their business, in the form of fees.  Are they seeing a generation switching from housing to college debt?  Is this their preferred business model, or will they lobby for changes?

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Reading _Rainbows End_: part two

What might education look like in the near future?

Rainbows End on my bookshelfLet’s explore by continuing our reading of Vernor Vinge’s 2006 novel Rainbows End.  Last week we read the first nine chapters.  Today we’ll look into the next ten, chapters 10-19.

I’ll begin by sketching out the plot from this section, then add some notes about the world, followed by questions.

(For more information about this online book club reading, click here.)

But first, I wanted to share some good reflections on the novel so far from a reader over on Google+.  There Marc Schnau comments:

My personal highlight was the slowly developing connection between Gu and Orozco. In my opinion, there was a lot of potential. And I didn’t worry about Gu, being some kind of a sociopath (I’m a fan of Grimdark fantasy and some of the main characters … phew).
But over the next chapters, it felt like Vinge didn’t have a clear vision about the course of the story. Is it about human beings, humanity in strange times, a dystopy or some kind of a general critique of society? Or a little of everything without a real focus?
The whole tech-thingy was a bit trend-ignoring: wearables, interactive papers, hot topics in many SF novellas written in the 80s and 90s.
Vinge does mention a problem with online learning as a important factor for the loss of a lively university community, but instead of diving deeper into this, he pays more attention to the problem of virtual augmented vs real life without getting to the point (before I decided to switch to the next book from my virtual shelf).

Marc, carry on!  We enter the local university this week, and in a big way.  Agreed about Gu/Orozco.

  1. Plot

Robert Gu continues learning about the new world.  He gets better at technology.  He connects with more people, including Pakistani Zulfikar Sharif, whom Miri hires to help Robert, and “the Elder Cabal”, a group of university faculty and staff opposed to aspects of new technology and planning a daring act.  We learn that his dead wife, Lena, is actually still alive, having faked her death to get away from Robert; Miri tries to reconnect them.  We learn more about Alice’s work.  And Gu is still mean to people.

A Google-like company is running a Google Books-ish scanning project, Librareome, in the local university’s library.  We tour that library of the future, including an elaborate, fantasy-themed AR environment.

The intelligence plot advances through conversations between the principals.  Rabbit runs several schemes, and we learn a possible identity for him.

2. World notes

Vinge keeps growing the world, pretty energetically.

History: the Chinese tried an early version of You-Gotta-Believe-Me weapons during an occupation of Myanmar, but it didn’t succeed (104-5).  Sharif refers to America as the old world (107) (!).  Chicago was hit by a nuclear weapon five years before the novel’s time (159).  The Palestinian uprising against Israel ended (167).  We learn a little more about a war between China and America, including an attempt to create military-grade artificial intelligence (178-9; 201-2).

Culture: there’s Goodenuf English, apparently a basic version of the language, possibly augmented by Spanish and/or pictograms (103). There’s a game called “Egan soccer”, which is, I think, a nod to Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan (155).   Several AR levels are named after Escher and Terry Pratchett (174-5) People can team up virtually into a “joint entity”:

“Partners with complementary strengths and weaknesses. In public you are one, represented by the mobile partner. But what you can do and understand is the best of each of you.” (144)

Information and digital literacy: information quality might be worse than it is now.  “Disinformation is king” complains Tommie (170).  Generational divides based on technological use are deep.  And Terry “Pratchett owns a rather large part of Scotland.” (182)

Ecology: countries or businesses ship icebergs for fresh water (105).

Technology: one character sports “typer rings” (119).  There’s also wired clothing, like an “old” t-shirt which displays digital content (119).  Another character mentions the possibility of “game stripes” within clothing (138), while a third refers to having had to “fry-clean” corrupted clothing (163) and a fourth “flickers” over dinner (190).  The messaging system allows for delayed, scheduled releases, once like a Harry Potter howler (137).

An easy game to play is “synch monster”, when several people each take control of part of a giant stuffed animal (147) (this is also a neat metaphor for different people manipulating Robert Gu).  The local high school has medical sensors which can read people’s emotions (156); cars have multiple cameras, which people can access remotely (181).  Small robots can harass (161).  Augmented reality can be haptic, including touch (172).  Many fans can collaboratively create a shared AR world (181).  Individuals can fly across 3d maps through an “out of body” feature (195).

Buildings can use “stability servos” to move around in response to earthquakes (176).  The federal government has access to a Secure Hardware Environment (SHE).

Librareome project: led by oneMax Huertas, it promises to respect copyright by setting up micropayments to authors (and copyright holders, too?) (132).  Huertas also wants to combine the scans with “all classical knowledge” to create “a single, object-situational database” (166).

Education: “senior issues” is in the elementary or middle school curriculum (138).  Note that Robert Gu despises teaching (149).  We see more multimedia creation (162).  There was a failed attempt to teach directly to the human brain in wartime, “Just in Time Training” (178-9).  There are still final exams (213).

Meta: Gu and Blount sneer at and defend science fiction (128).  Miri describes a connection between two people as “an incredible coincidence” (140).

3. Questions to brood upon

  • Robert Gu “felt a moment of pure joy the first time he managed to type a query on a phantom keyboard and view the Google response floating in the air” (111).  If he’s becoming more tech-fluent, will he lose his more traditionally humanistic skills?
  • So much of the novel teeters on the divide between mind and brain.  The Alfred Gaz plot is about controlling human brains.  The JITT program tried to teach directly into the brain.  People are worried about having the bodies hijacked through software.  Where is this theme headed?
  • Gu refers to Rabbit as “Mysterious Stranger”, presumably referencing Mark Twain’s unfinished novel of the same name.  Should we view the hacker as Satanic?
  • Robert Gu is also showing signs of becoming less vile (feeling bad about his family’s dislike, 183; a hint of guilt, 188; a touch of sympathy, 216), and of changing his skills (gaining “analytical talent”, 186).  How is he as a point of view character at this point?
  • Bob and Alice as an encryption reference makes sense, if Rabbit’s trying to hack them.

What do you think of the book now, two-thirds of the way in?

Next week we finish the novel.  On July 31 I’ll post on chapters 20-epilogue (pages 217-364 of the hardcover edition).

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When colleges switch from the liberal arts to STEM

Some of us have been tracking the recent crisis in American small colleges.  Many of those campuses face declining enrollment because of several factors, including demographic changes and reputational decline. How a small institution respond to and survive these challenges – that has been a strategic question of enormous import to such schools, as well as to all of American higher education.

One strategic response is to downplay the humanities and liberal arts approach in favor of increasing support to STEM and professional fields.  This week has seen several examples, chronicled in the Boston Globe, which I offer here as datapoints for a rising trend.

Merrimack CollegeMerrimack College (3,200 undergrads) is now “stressing health sciences, business, and engineering over humanities…  shifting from the basic liberal arts track to one geared toward degrees with clearer job prospects in the current economy.”

The results?  Students followed closely:

In 2016, more than 30 percent of students graduated with business degrees and about 20 percent finished school with degrees in health services, sciences, and civil engineering. Meanwhile, the popularity of English and general liberal arts degrees has fallen. In 2015, 10 out of 654 students graduated with English degrees, down from 19 just five years before. Even fewer finished with liberal arts degrees: six students, down from 19 in 2010.

Data analytics plays a role:

The effort has become so sophisticated that the college uses an outside consultant and computer algorithms to dole out financial aid, ensuring that students who visit often and want to come to the school get more money, instead of simply offering the biggest scholarships to students with the best grades who are weighing several options.

As does closer relationships with businesses: “Merrimack has worked to convince families that it’s money well-spent, highlighting partnerships with businesses, such as Raytheon Co. and New Balance, where students work and do internships.”

Put another way,

Enrollment at the college has been on the rise for the past five years — climbing by more than 60 percent from about 2,300 students in 2011 to 3,780 students last year — and it plans to welcome its second-largest freshmen class this fall.

That’s “growing enrollment by double digits for several years”, according to “Pranav Sharma, an analyst for Moody’s Investors Services.”  How many schools can claim such a result?

Ninety miles away another campus is implementing a similar strategy:

Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire is eliminating its English and philosophy majors this year in favor of programs such as nursing, business, and sports management.

A critical column in the Hartford Courant expands on this development:

To improve its fiscal situation, Colby-Sawyer hired a consultant to help tweak the school’s business model. The resulting four-point plan recommended that the school stay in place (bucolic setting); target the same market (the broad middle); deliver the same basic product (small classes taught by teaching professors); and change the curriculum from traditional to pragmatic. This plan is comparable to a restaurant choosing to remain in the same location; target the same spenders; feature excellent service and shift the menu from what people are not buying to what people are buying. (emphases added)

Americans have argued about how pragmatic post-secondary education should be since we first built campuses.  This isn’t new.  But the strategic switch away from the humanities and towards health care/STEM is one we need to watch carefully.

How widespread is this strategy?  And how will it rewrite American higher ed?  How many schools are making the opposite moves?

Beyond these two New England examples, I’d like to get better metrics nationwide.  We already have numbers showing the humanities in decline in terms of undergrad majors, and health (including allied health) burgeoning.  We should have more stats on the number of faculty in these departments, number of courses taught, etc.

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Moodle and the next LMS: reflections and more questions

Last week Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle, the world’s leading open source learning management system, joined our Future Trends Forum to discuss the future of that technology.

Someone on the site wrote up an extraordinarily rich report on the session, complete with numerous screen captures.  Bravo!

The full video recording is now available on YouTube:

During the hour Forum participants offered many questions.  Martin tackled a slew of them, yet still more came in.  I’d like to reproduce them here, edited very lightly.  They indicate the richness of today’s unfolding LMS discussion, and help illuminate where things might be headed.

Text question from Ed Finn: OER Game Changer – Moodle Community could separate it from Canvas and Blackboard who keep these types of sharing resources behind a wall.  I see it as similar to the Canvas Commons for resources with a social media component?

Text question from Sonja Strahl: Community question – Will the community you were discussing be available for only those with Moodle as their LMS (for both creation of OER and use of OER)? Or will it be open to everyone, and under Creative Commons license?  

Text question from Richard Wack: Accessibility – Blackboard recently acquired Ally which appears to be a very impressive tool to address accessibility as it pertains to courses. What is the present and future direction by Moodle on this important topic? Thank you. 

Text question from Josh: Anti-LMS – How do you respond to the anti-LMS pedagogy voices, even those who might object to an open-source tool like Moodle?  Does that debate interest you at all?

Text question from Ed Finn: Communication – Just out of curiosity, does Moodle offer social media, text and other communication coordination?  I know that Canvas has a rich development here where you can choose to communicate by email, tweet, text, or app.

Text question from Ed Finn: Versioning – What are your thoughts on different versions of Moodle and sharing between them?  How do you see the community working with multiple versions? 

What are you wondering about Moodle and the LMS, looking ahead?

My thanks to Martin and the Forum community for their generous time and thought.


Posted in education and technology, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

When education doomsayers aren’t grim enough

Recently Inside Higher Ed ran two columns arguing that higher education is in serious trouble.  Their titles proclaimed a very grim analysis: “What Happens If Higher Ed Collapses?” and “The Culling of Higher Ed Begins”.  Both contain useful bits of information and some thoughtful assessments.  Both serve the useful function of shocking people out of complacency. Unfortunately, neither go far enough.  In a sense, they are too optimistic.

Let me be clear.  Doug Lederman and John Warner’s columns are very useful.  I recommend sharing them with colleagues, be they in a library, an academic department, a state legislature, or in the next .edu start-up over in the incubator.  I like what they’ve done.  I just want to add to their analyses, since higher education’s problems are even more extensive and dire than those short pieces had time to address.

To summarize: Lederman notes that “the number of colleges and universities eligible to award federal financial aid to their students fell by 5.6 percent from 2015-16 to 2016-17.”  In other words, the number of institutions has declined.

colleges getting federal aid

Much of that is due to the for-profit boom going bust.

Warner hits a wider range of trends, including rising American criticism of higher ed, rising tuition, declining state support, demographics (yes!), booming student debt, and wage stagnation.  Ultimately, “we’re on an unsustainable path in post-secondary education, and have been for quite some time.”  Warner offers two scenarios:

If I had to guess – and that’s all this is – we’ll be looking at one of two scenarios, either some kind of libertarian dream version of a universal basic income that’s sufficient to at least sustain those without access to upward mobility, or we’re in an even worse dystopia, where the wealthy simply wall themselves off from everyone else a la The Capitol v. the Districts in The Hunger Games.

Taken together, these columns sketch out very dark possibilities for American higher education.

Let me make things worse.  There are other negative forces we need to bear in mind.

  • Rising tuition discount rates.  “Tuition” is indeed higher than it has been, but relatively few students pay full freight.  This means the wealthiest are paying more, progressively… and at some point they might not want to carry the rest.  Moreover, aggressive discounting can lead an institution to actually take in less revenue, which is ultimately unsustainable for many.
  • Rising medical costs.  These keep pushing up compensation for whichever campus people receive health care support, from some faculty to some staff.
  • The likely decline in the number of international students heading to the United States, as a result of Trump.  This will put pressure on our diversity agenda and hit finances.
  • The possibility that we might not think college is for everyone.  Remember, that’s been the thinking since circa 1990, when America committed itself to the knowledge economy.  Yet this belief might not last much longer.  Fears of student debt combined with stories of badly compensated work may drive people away from higher ed.  Real declines in family economic status could render college a long shot rather than a guaranteed good.  Increasing economic segregation might keep lower income high school students away from college; we’ve already seen some evidence of this starting to occur. Other options might appeal, including apprenticeships.  Students who did or would have attended for-profits don’t seem to be moving into the non-profit world. And don’t forget how many jobs are hungry for workers, and don’t really require a 4-year degree: retail, fork lift drivers, home health care aide, etc. (blog post to come on this)
  • Increasing inequality between academic institutions could drive poorer schools out of existence.
  • Pressures on research are heating up as funding becomes less available and professional demands continue to rise.  Will we see an exodus of researchers out of academia, or will university leaders face anew the difficult choice of directing resources to either teaching or research?
  • Political unrest (for example) could drain public funds from universities and/or further sour higher ed’s reputation.
  • Automated tutors could draw would-be students away from campuses, if they work, or are seen to work.

These are all present trends.  I haven’t spoken of black swans.

I also haven’t spoken to optimistic trends.  That’s for another post.


Posted in future of education, scenarios | 12 Comments

Reading _Rainbows End_, part 1

This week our book club starts reading Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.

In this post I’ll introduce the reading (up through chapter 9)*, sketch out the first nine chapters, offer some notes about the world, then ask some questions.

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows EndFor an introduction to our reading, links to some resources, and our reading schedule, click here.  To read other posts on this reading, click here.

1. Introduction

The novel takes place in the near future, a time which resembles our own, albeit with some crucial differences.  Information technology and media have shifted into augmented reality.  Some diseases afflicting us in 2017 have since been cured, like Alzheimer’s.

The story tracks several plot threads, including a main character learning the world after having been removed from it, several education stories, and an espionage plot which might frame out the whole thing.

2. The plot so far

A group of secretive European intelligence officers, led by one Günberk Braun, organize to stop the outbreak of a mysterious virus which could influence people’s minds… a virus which has been cultivated and designed by one of those very same officers, Alfred Gaz.

Robert Gu was a major poet in the past, then declined mentally through Alzheimer’s disease (Rainbows End is the name of the care facility where Robert Gu went).  A new therapy has cured that condition and restored some of his youth, but he has still lost many years and much knowledge, so needs to be schooled in order to re-enter the world.  This means taking classes at the local high school, learning new technology, and getting used to his family, all of which he tends to hate.    His children work in the military and intelligence areas.  And Gu can be very cruel to them and others.

Juan Orozco, a poor and ambitious high school student, receives a paying digital spying job from a mysterious entity (which is ultimately Rabbit).  Fulfilling this gig brings him into connection with Robert Gu, which brings all three plot strands together.

3. About the world

Augmented reality is widespread, accessed largely through contact lenses.  This lets people represent themselves through avatars, and view the world through a variety of interfaces (including old Windows). There are public content layers and some “deadzones.”  AR users can also communicate quickly and in some privacy.  Vinge displays that kind of conversation like so:

Jerry –> Juan: <sm>Hey, where you going?</sm>

There are AR theme parks, including one that’s a riff on Jurassic Park.  AR users can also be hacked and hijacked, apparently.  As Rabbit says about an upcoming trick to play, “Sometimes he will really be me.”

Hardware: television screens – screens in general – seem to be scarce.   Gu uses “browser paper” early on to access the digital world, which many characters disdain as old-fashioned.  Drones deliver packages, hopefully just in time.  Much technology isn’t accessible under the hood, instead being blackboxed as “No user-serviceable parts within”.  Self-driving cars are integrated into the environment.

The digital economy is crucial, and has a response in curriculum:

search and analysis [is] the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living.

Social notes: intergenerational stresses may be heating up, as Bob observes: “The taxpayers are not kind to seniors; old people run too much of the country already.”  People create and live extensively in networks, sometimes called belief circles. there are client relationships called “affiliances.”

Globalization has proceeded more deeply than it has in our time.  Character names show this, with greater mingling of different languages.

Geopolitical stresses continue, including weaponized plagues and terrorism, although some drugs have been legalized.  “There hadn’t been a city lost in more than five years.”  An Indo-European alliance competes with China and the United States.  We also learned of a shadowy digital harassment? protest? hacking? group, the Friends of Privacy.

Education: high schools are still locally funded, and unequally (“Hoover was Fairmont’s unfairly-advantaged rival, a charter school run by the Math Ed Department at SDSU”).  Shop class is back, and vital.  There’s writing or creative writing class, “Creative Composition”, which allows multiple media.  Team-based learning is widespread.

4. Some questions

Bob and Alice – is the family supposed to be an encryption reference?  Does this support the plot where Gaz might hack them?

“In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.”  Is this a position that appeals to you?

Does Fairmont High sound plausible?

How do you cope with Robert Gu being the character closest to the reader, when he’s such a terrible person?

Next week: on to the middle of the novel, chapters 10-19 (pages 103-216 in my hardcover edition).

*Apologies for this post being a day late.  I’ve been caught up leading workshops at a conference.  Thanks to Bob Miller for help.

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