Five quick dark stories about the future of education

This is a tricky month for blogging, as I’m writing in between multiple trips, winter storms, horrendous travel, and a ton of projects all coming together at the same overclocked moment.  But I’ll keep checking into the bloghouse.

For this entry, I’d like to quickly share five recent stories which, for me, have the potential to inflect education’s future.  They cover a wide range of topics, from enrollment to technology to campus governance.  What they have in common is, well – you probably won’t like most of them, depending on your interests.

ITEM: there are signs that the flow of Chinese students to the United States might slow down, or stop.

“Just 10 years ago, the flow of talent was at about seven Chinese students leaving for every one that came back. Now it’s six [students] returning in every seven,” said Wei Yang, president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. “The brain drain is almost over.”

Many American colleges and universities depend on a good number of these students for diversity, for income (they tend to be full pay more than the typical American), and for sheer numbers (remember my posts about enrollment declines).  Keep an eagle eye on this one.

ITEM: the University of Vermont is considering significant cuts.   It’s pretty close to queen sacrifice territory.

UVM union protests proposed faculty cuts

The proposal would eliminate about 40 percent of the college’s part-time faculty, the statement said. Another 20 lecturers could be laid off over the next five years, it said. The college also would not replace the estimated 50 senior professors expected to retire over the next five years, according to United Academics.

Why?  Oh, my dear readers, you know the reason.

“We have a faculty that was sort of built for enrollments we had in 2010,” Falls said. Since then enrollment has decreased by about 17 percent, and while in recent years there have been a slight upswing, enrollment is still below what it was in 2010.

It’s not just overall enrollment, but enrollment in a certain subset of classes:

UVM, like many colleges around the country has seen fewer students interested in liberal arts, said Bill Falls, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The resulting drop in enrollment in Arts and Sciences classes has led to a teacher surplus, and a $4 million budget shortfall.

Note the administration’s response:

The university has not yet adjusted the size of the college’s faculty to reflect declining enrollment, Falls said. UVM administrators are in fact giving the college $2 million per year to allow for wiggle room as the budgets are adjusted…

The college has a student to faculty ratio of about 14 to 1. Falls said he would like to increase the ratio to 16.5 to 1.

So a slow-motion adjustment, a curricular correction.  An acceptance of pedagogical challenges and bad optics (increased teacher-student ratio) because of economics.

Note, too, that the majority of UVM students don’t come from Vermont.

(in full disclosure, my son is a student there)

ITEM: speaking of queen sacrifices, they aren’t always offered in the spirit of full disclosure. University of Wisconsin-Superior senior administrators planned major program cuts without consulting faculty, according to a Chronicle article.

Looked at one way, this is just another move in the old political game between administrators and faculty.  But it also reflects more recent developments, such as the professoriate’s transformation into majority-tenure-track to majority adjunct, with the resulting decline in governance, as well as the ongoing higher ed financial crisis.

(For a related story, compare this development in a controversial California State University system move.) and

ITEM: the Campus Technology conference is no moreThe UBTech conference just absorbed Campus Tech (“[t]he merger of these two conferences under the UBTech banner”) and ended its run of events.

To be clear, I don’t know anything about the business case for these decisions.  There’s very little information out there.  But I do wonder if this is another example of the ed tech professional development world’s contraction.  The New Media Consortium died in December.  NITLE ended some years before that.  And now Campus Tech’s conferences… without any new entities or events arising to take their place.  Overall, is the field shrinking?

ITEM: we might now be in the early stage of an arms race over machine vision.  Let this example explain: “Here, we create the first [AI] adversarial examples designed to fool humans…”

How does this work?

by leveraging recent techniques that transfer adversarial examples from computer vision models with known parameters and architecture to other models with unknown parameters and architecture, and by modifying models to more closely match the initial processing of the human visual system. We find that adversarial examples that strongly transfer across computer vision models influence the classifications made by time-limited human observers.

Some are getting better at creating or having machines create visual content that can pass some levels of inspection.  As others have observed, we could be starting an age whereby more forms of evidence are fakeable and therefore lose public credulity, or are too widely believed, or some combination of the two.

What do these have in common?  I’d like to leave drawing connections between them to the reader.  One to think about, as a starter, is links with China: that nation’s increasing academic heft (first item) and rapidly growing AI skills (last).  I’m expecting some serious anti-Chinese sentiment to arise in the US as a result, tying into other forces.

Taken together, these are examples of major stresses on higher education.  They exert pressure on institutions and people.  How will we respond?

(thanks to George Station for one link)

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9 Responses to Five quick dark stories about the future of education

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    Regarding professional organizations, I wonder if the field is fragmenting. Perhaps travel budgets which used to be spent on big one-size-fits-all conferences are now being going toward conferences/training in various specialties, regional events, or even disciplinary conferences (thinking here primarily of digital humanities).

    Of course, professional development budgets are always an easy thing to cut in a downturn, and a hard thing to restore, so we might be seeing some slow-motion impact from the recession.

  2. Steven Kaye says:

    I can’t speak to education, but I know one challenge in my field is ensuring a decent balance of professionals and vendors at conferences so professionals don’t feel overwhelmed by multiple vendors waiting to pounce and do demos and sales pitches.

    • Joe Murphy says:

      That’s certainly an issue at some edtech and library conferences. It is hard, since the vendors renting booths do keep the registration costs down for the professionals. (And there’s a legitimate issue about the ways different vendors act as community members, or not.)

      It also sets up an information literacy issue in the program. It’s not always easy to tell when a session is really an ad for somebody’s product.

  3. Joe Essid says:

    I think I need a stiff drink. While I too worry what a departure of Chinese students might mean for US higher ed, my greatest fear remains that of Sven Birkerts from The Gutenberg Elegies:

    “My nightmare scenario is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.”

    I live and breathe the liberal arts. I want it to again be the soul of every curriculum. But I don’t think that the “efficient and prosperous information managers” who run many universities want to hear that voice from The Enlightenment.

  4. Pingback: Academics and Digital Technology Tweet Wrap, w/e 03-10-18 - Tech Pubs

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