What do Americans think about higher education? New Public Agenda research

What does the American public think about higher education?

Public Agenda has released some new polling data, and it’s well worth the time of any educator looking into public attitudes, especially for funding.  The results go against some stereotypes, and don’t line up with what academics think are problems and solutions.

To begin with, last month PA found that American belief in the necessity of higher ed for a successful life has declined compared to the past few years.  Indeed, more people think “there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree”.  See how this played out after the 2008 financial crash:


Why?  Partly because of the loan specter and the job market: “46 percent of Americans say college is a questionable investment due to high student loans and limited job opportunities.”

Two more datapoints show serious skepticism about American post-secondary institutions:

  • 69 percent say there are many people who are qualified but lack the opportunity to go to college.

  • 59 percent say colleges today are like most businesses and care mainly about the bottom line.

Access and cynicism.  Is this really how the majority of Americans view their colleges and universities?

There’s more.  Public Agenda followed up with questions about what causes or could solve these problems.  The biggest problems weren’t reductions in state funding, nor even odious “kids these days” finger-wagging at young people.  No, the most popular culprit is… high school:


The solutions we prefer tend to be job-focused.  Read the whole thing for more.

A few thoughts:

  1. Public higher ed is doing a lousy job of convincing Americans to support us, either financially or conceptually.
  2. It’s interesting to contrast faculty who think higher ed is too job-focused with a population that thinks we aren’t job-focused enough.
  3. I’ll say it again.  I’m glad that bashing kids these days (i.e., Boomers acting with a supreme lack of irony awareness) is more smoke than fire.
  4. People would rather blame high schools than families or students for preparation issues.
  5. It’s interesting to compare with this early 2015 Gallup poll or this Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll one from last October.

What do you think?

(thank to George Lorenzo‘s excellent newsletter)

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Genetic engineering, augmented reality, and the extractive economy: starting off _Company Town_

Last week a bunch of you decided to read Company Town in our near-future science fiction online book club.  Here’s a post for talking about the novel’s first third.

Ashby Company TownFirst I’ll offer a quick summary of the plot so far. Next I’ll add observations about Ashby’s world. Last will come miscellaneous literacy critical notes.

I: The story so far

Holding back on spoilers: Go Jung-Hwa is a bodyguard working in a community built on top of an old oil extraction platform ironically named New Arcadia.  She begins as muscle to protect prostitutes, then is hired to protect a very wealthy man’s favorite son, Joel.

Hwa is marked internally and externally by Sturge-Weber Syndrome , which renders her resentful and conventionally unattractive.  She is also unusual in not carrying technological implants, unlike most other people

Daniel Siofra is Hwa’s minder, a corporate functionary and the result of biologically engineering.

II: The world of Company Town

New Arcadia is the titular company town, a community dominated by one major employer and legally part of eastern Canada.  There’s at least some active democracy, if not Infomocracy level, as Ashby tells us that the population once voted on the major decision to build a new platform (160).  Yet the Lynch corporation, which just bought the place, employs Daniel in an “Urban Tactics Department”, where he undemocratically “change[s] the moods of cities” (295).  Lynch may also already own the currency (756): a company town indeed.

It’s a grungy and grim world.  Many characters are poor and unhappy, working by selling their bodies.  There’s a sense of possibilities squandered.  Hwa describes one attractive bit of technology is if “[i]t… came from someone else’s future” (106), because the future they actually live in is sad.  There is some form of social safety net, at least in name, as people have Social Insurance Numbers (673).  Class divides block some people from winning genetic advantages for their children and themselves (1018).

This near-future world offers digital technologies we’ve come to expect from recent science fiction.  People have mobile devices (watches, 31) which they use for photographs, messages, and video, plus being advertised at by canny AIs, Minority Report-style (739).  They see each other through filters which add and subtract content, like a Mind Your Manners layer (112).  Lynch runs a city-wide management software platform, Prefect, which some users can access (814). Haptics are in play (87).  Each person has a “halo” of medical (and maybe other) information (735).

Buildings can be made with “biocrete and healing polymers” (171) or programmable matter (234) and “designed by algorithm” (177).  People can use “nano-mist” to some unclear effect (188).  Botflies has observe people and objects (727).  Self-driving cars are the norm (837, 901).  Fusion power might (still) be just around the corner (1071).

Biological technologies are very powerful.  Engineering children is widespread:

They had the uniform builds of state-sponsored genetic tailoring… (95)

Hwa stared at the uniform perfection of her fellow students.  They were all mainstream: mainstream height, mainstream weight, mainstream ability, mainstream health.  Techically editing skin color or hair texture qualified as a kind of hate crime… (1013)

Most people have implants, called “stimplants” (249). Daniel has “programmable tissues” (262).  Joel has “an antianxiety implant” (1202).

Education seems decent at primary and secondary levels, but college is inaccessible .

“I want to go to university.”

Hwa winced.  “Sounds expensive.” (358)

Zachariah Lynch, Joel’s father and corporate leaders, has a vision of a post-Singularity future attempting to assassinate his son. It’s not clear at this point if he’s delusional or correct, but his explanation of how best to do time travel into the past is interesting (599-635).  Lynch sees the human race as “coming to an end”, mostly due to advances in biological technologies (635); is this apocalyptic fear going to ultimately structure the novel?  Note the reference to Roko’s Basilisk. Continue reading

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Which guests would you like to see on the Future Trends Forum?

We’re been running the Future Trends Forum for almost a year, now (gulp). We’ve had splendid guests.

The question I’m asking now is: who should we invite next?  Which genius or innovator or thought leader or troublemaker should we haul up on the Shindig stage?

Forum discussion: Anya K. and Rachel M.

We do have guests lined up over the next few months. The week after next we’re doing a series of Forum discussions at the EDUCAUSE conference. I’ll post an announcement about that soon. And there are various awesome people slotted in from November through January.

But I’d like to know who else you’d like to see. The comment box is open!

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Bridget Burns on this week’s Future Trends Forum

This week’s Future Trends Forum guest is Bridget Burns, the leader of a fascinating multi-campus project.

Bridget BurnsBurns founded and directs the University Innovation Alliance, a group of public universities striving to expand access and inclusivity.

Washington Monthly named her as one of the 16 most innovative people working in higher education today.  Previously Bridget has been an American Council on Education fellow at Arizona State University in 2013–14.

I plan on asking director Burns about how she sees these institutions expanding access in an era of expanding technology and contacting financing.  What would you like to ask her?

Our session is this Thursday, October 13th, from 2-3 pm EST.  To RSVP ahead of time, or to just jump in at 2, click here.

For more on the Future Trends Forum, including links to notes and recording of previous sessions, click here.

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It’s time to blow up the tv “town meeting” scam

I have plenty of reactions to last night’s presidential debate (quick list here), but wanted to expand on one in particular in this post.

We have to stop doing tv town halls.  We have to stop it now.

Because they aren’t town halls.  They are cheap fictions.  At best they are clumsy simulacra of a foggy dream of a dimly remembered civics fantasy.  At worst they’re shams mocking democracy, Baudrillardian scams trying to convince us that tv “news” is somehow capable of making a nation’s democratic life happen.

Instead, this is what a town meeting looks like:

Town meeting in Lincoln, Vermont, 2008

That’s the town of Lincoln, Vermont, a few miles north of my own town.  The year was 2008.  The moderator (to left, out of frame) was a local politician, a little-known political figure on the national scene, one Bernie Sanders.

(and yes, Norman Rockwell got it right)

You see, in Vermont we still do town meetings.  Every year in March each town’s population gathers to hash out the next year, and even to plan a bit further.  We drive and stomp through the cold to gather in community centers.   “We” means anyone, people you might not normally see, old and young.

In my town the agenda booklet is published weeks in advance, a document crammed with civic information: budgets in microcosmic detail, updates on fire and rescue, road maintenance, animal control, cemetery upkeep, tax payments, tax delinquencies, insurance details, and more.  Half of my town’s booklet is local school information, so that means even more data about budgets, attendance, state support, financing, etc.  It’s a rich, thick description of our town.

Ripton town meeting, 2010

I got there 30 minutes early, and the place was already packed.

The meeting takes hours, and can feel like an endless slog at times.  A moderator presides – gently and elegantly in our town’s case – to keep things running, and to make sure everyone’s heard.  Part of the meeting is kicked off by our selectboard, and the other by our school board.  People ask questions of all kinds, from breathtakingly practical to the broodingly ideological.  Side meetings happen, even outside in the snow.  Tempers can fray, especially if things drag, issues are tense, or the coffee has been chugged.

Face to face, we hash out many aspects of how we’ll live together.

I’ve seen people normally quiet who launch into deep analyses of economics.  I’ve seen a world-changing environmental activist listen intently for hours to his fellow citizens. I’ve watched our state representative explain state political developments in an accessible way, racing from town to town in his district; once I saw him speak nearly in tears about our economic sclerosis.  Parents and teachers describe their experience and desires.  Our very, very introverted fire chief gets epically embarrassed when we applaud his fantastic work. Some folks show up with talmudically marked-up agenda booklets, ready to pounce on all kinds of topics.

It’s a learning experience, always.  People study policies, data, and terms.  I’ve watched people grow into political persons over the years, becoming increasingly confident at speaking and participating.  Some move into positions of local authority, like serving on the school board.  Others cycle off into the population.  I remember my first couple of years, trying to figure out all kinds of topics and questions.  I’ve become a school board member, not to mention the town blogger.

Ripton town meeting from the front

My first time at the front of the room, serving on the school board. Note the tasty pie off to the left.

There aren’t any celebrities or authoritarians.  Everyone gets to talk.  Everyone can be asked questions.  It’s about access to politics, involvement in community life, and the practical details of living together.

This is not what CNN’s “town meetings” are about.

Town meetings are not perfect, of course.  Some number of people show up without having read the necessary documents, a bit like school.  Some folks are too intimidated to speak.  Because it’s Vermont we have crappy internet connectivity, so the meetings occur offline (i.e., no Googling, no reference to web-published government documents).  Some people don’t go to the meetings.  Tempers can run high.  I’ve taken my children to town meetings, and they didn’t get it.  At a larger level, town meetings don’t scale without significant mutation.

But the town meeting is ours.  In a powerful sense it’s us.  We make of it the best we can.  Every single year I attend my faith in practical democracy gets renewed.

This is not CNN.  This is the lived experience of community-based democracy, and it’s obscene to steal the town meeting name from it.

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Our next book club reading: Madeline Ashby, Company Town

Our near-future science fiction book club continues!  Nearly 50 of you voted on our next reading, which is great.

The leading candidates, based on our giant list of near-future sf, were: Madeline Ashby, Company Town; Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age; Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End , Close behind was Andy Weir’s The Martian.  After much mulling, I hereby announce….

Ashby Company TownMadeline Ashby, Company Town (Amazon).  This looks like a fascinating novel about changing bodies, gender roles, economics, and society.

Here’s the official description:

New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd. Hwa is of the few people in her community (which constitutes the whole rig) to forgo bio-engineered enhancements. As such, she’s the last truly organic person left on the rig–making her doubly an outsider, as well as a neglected daughter and bodyguard extraordinaire. Still, her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?

Sounds good?  Grab a copy and start reading!

I’ve got a long plane flight today, and am looking forward to firing up the Kindle up.  I’ll emit a first blog post early next week.

Thanks for all votes and suggestions.  Enjoy diving into another vision of the near future.

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A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology, Part 2

People liked my Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology post so much that I’ll return the favor by offering another installment here.

In fact, my cruel and inhumane post inspired a great deal of creative writing by commentators.  I’ve included many of them here, so please consider this a collective act of acerbic redefinition.  I thank you all for your contributions.


Bierce with friend.

It occurs to me that not every reader knows Ambrose Bierce‘s acidic little book or its imitators.  The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) is a lexicon of critical, sarcastic, and hilarious redefinitions for words in American English.  Here are a few samples:

RECREATION, n. A particular kind of dejection to relieve a general fatigue.

DISTANCE, n. The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.

PROOF, n. Evidence having a shade more of plausibility than of unlikelihood.

WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace. The most menacing political condition is a period of international amity.

Read more and enjoy.  (Also, watch this if you haven’t; he’s a superb short story writer)

Now, on with more educational technology definitions.  I’ve included fine ones submitted by readers in quotation marks and with attributions.  I’ve also cited people who suggested terms for me to curdle.

Active learning , n.  1.The opposite of obedience lessons.

2. The strange idea that learning and learners should not be as passive as the dead.  Like the dead, active learning is a source of wonder and dread to some of the living.  (thanks to Jeremiah Parry-Hill for the nudge)

Analytics, n. pl.  “The use of numbers to confirm existing prejudices, and the design of complex systems to generate these numbers.” (by David Kernohan)

Asynchronous, adj.  The delightful state of being able to engage with someone online without their seeing you, while allowing you to make a sandwich.

Badges, n. pl.   The curious conceit that since nobody likes transcripts or degrees, the best thing to do is to shrink them into children’s sizes that nobody recognizes.  (see Open Badges)

Best practice, n. “An educational approach that someone heard worked well somewhere. See also ‘transformative,’ ‘game changer,’ and ‘disruptive.'” (by Jim Julius)

devil_michael-coghlanBig data. n. pl.  1.When ordinary surveillance just isn’t enough.

2. “the Grail, the white whale, the mother lode, the object of all desire – ‘It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Data'” (Ed Webb).

3. Nostalgia for Skinner boxes.  (tip of the hat to Audrey Watters) (suggested by Laura Gibbs)

Chromebook, n.  “A device that recognizes that the mainframe wasn’t such a bad idea after all.”  (by gmphap1)

Clickers, n.pl.  1. Remotes without control.

2.”Technology for assessing student knowledge, however mostly used for attendance purposes and acknowledging that although they aren’t paying attention, students are able to click a button to give professor the illusion of engagement.” (by Amy)

Cloud, n. 1. A place of terror and dismay, a mysterious digital onslaught, into which we all quietly moved.

2. A “fictitious place where dreams are stored. Once believed to be free and nebulous, now colonized and managed by monsters. See ‘Castle in the Air’.” (by Lisa Lane)

3. A “just other people’s computers”. (pmasson channeling  Free Software Foundation Europe)

Competency-based learning or competency-based education (CBE), n. “The recognition that learning is really about what should be learned and is really learned in a segment of learning.” (by gmphap1)

Counsel, n.  Well paid, well trained in neither education nor technology,  and rules decisively on (and against) both.

Digital rights management (DRM), n. 1. Digital leash.

2. Nostalgia for the Berlin Wall.

3. When the paranoid and misanthropic reach for Kafka to confront human beings actually using technology.

Disruption, n.   1. The God-Emperor of our era, before whom we offer sacrifices and prostration.

2. An “idea that won’t solve a problem that doesn’t need solving, but will create the maximum amount of media coverage whilst not doing so. A way for rich, well-educated, white men to take on the establishment.” (by David Kernohan)

Edupunk, n. “Short-lived subversive concept advocating for learner empowerment and related disorders, quickly and safely contained by deployment of approved technology such as the LMS (q.v.). See also, Connectivism, DS106.” (by Ed Webb)

Failure, n.  1. A temporary practice educators encourage in students, which schools then ruthlessly, publicly, and permanently punish.

2. A temporary practice the wealthy encourage in the young, possibly to increase their desperation. (term suggested by Rolin Moe)

Flipped classroom, n. “The practice of replacing lectures that instructors give to summarize a course’s readings with videos of lectures that summarize a course’s readings.” (by Eric Behrens)

Forum, n. 1. Social Darwinism using 1980s technology.

2. A useful way to learners, teachers, and staff to communicate with each other on their own timelines.  Rarely used except in distance learning.  (suggested by Joe Murphy)

Google Doc, n.  A collaborative web page which anyone can potentially edit; not a wiki.

Innovation, n.  1. The other God-Emperor of the World.

2. A magical word applied to something you’d like to do and get paid for.

3. Recognizing a good idea developed by someone else in the past, and claiming it as emergent. (suggested by Joe Murphy)

iTunesU, n.  1. A graveyard of content.

2. When you really, absolutely want to avoid the web, yet are forced to share content outside the LMS.

Makerspace, n.  “a 2004 computer lab with chairs that roll and a soldering iron.”  (See also Open Lab) (by Robin DeRosa)

“Not a monolith,” colloquial.  A magical phrase applied to a project to summon up more money for it.

“One size fits all,” colloquial.  What we criticize in other people’s projects, and embrace enthusiastically in our own.

Open access in scholarly publication, n.  1. The apocalypse of publishers, scholarly societies, and some professors.

2. “Often abbreviated as OA.  Describes a publishing situation when someone else reaches for the check before you do. Popular in Europe and in STEM publishing. In the US, however, humanities scholars usually claim to have left their wallets at home.” (by Greg Britton)

Open Badges, n.  “A safe gamification strategy for the LMS, rewarding student compliance with digital stickers. Use with care: although they are technically portable, they must *never* be used for useful, transferable recognition of learning, for that way lies the abyss.” (see Badges)  (by Don Presant)

Open Lab, n. “a 2004 computer lab with chairs that roll.”  (See also Makerspace) (by Robin DeRosa)

Powerpoint, n.   1. A popular and low cost narcotic, mysteriously decriminalized.

2.”Powerful tool for keeping ideas within approved boundaries. The only approved presentation technology. The driving force behind the efficiency of the U.S. military, which is to be emulated across education.” (by Ed Webb)

RSS, n.  A free, easily accessed, well documented, and flexible technology that helps people with information overload, source management, and research workflow.  There are many, many applications written that rely on RSS.  Let us never speak of it again. (inspired by Vanessa Vaile)

Synchronous, adj. 1. Describes the terrifying realization that there is another human being online, and that they do not think like you.

2. Describes a venue for public typos.

YouTube, n.  The ideal educational technology: everyone likes and uses it, it’s reliable and free, and neither you nor anyone you know has to support it.

(Bierce painting via Wikipediadevil stencil by Mike Coghlan; thanks to other folks like Steve Taylor for suggestions and japes)

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