Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Tomorrow is supposed to be a rainy day. The remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole are moving up the coast, promising heavy rain all day. Tonight, however, the approaching fringe of the storm gave us a spectacular sunset. It came on suddenly, as the gray clouds thinned and the sun reflected off them in bright deep pink. As we watched, the sky--not just the western fringe, but most of the sky, gradually turned from pink to gold and then to a deep orange-red as the sun sat. In the east, it gave us an arc of rainbow. It was wonderfully beautiful, and we could do nothing but stand and immerse ourselves in it.

It is good to be reminded that, with all the trouble in the world today, the world itself can still be breathtakingly beautiful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rifkin and Levine: Two Views of the Transformation of Education

NOTE: I also posted this on my Sloan Consortium blog in July 2010.

Today, there are increasingly powerful signs that education is on the verge of being transformed as the Knowledge Society matures and as a generation of digital natives shapes a new social dynamic. This came into sharp focus recently in articles by two veteran public thinkers about education and society—Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The End of Work and founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends, and Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College at Columbia University and currently president of the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation.

In a May 10, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education commentary Jeremy Rifkin wrote about “Empathic Education: The Transformation of Learning in an Interconnected World.” Given the changes happening worldwide, he writes, “Maybe it’s time to ask the question of whether simply becoming economically productive ought to be the primary mission of American education.” He proposes that, instead, educators put more emphasis on “developing students’ innate empathic drives, so that we can prepare the next generation to think and act as part of a global family in a shared biosphere.”

Today, he notes, “New teaching models designed to transform education from a competitive contest to a collaborative and empathic learning experience are emerging as schools and colleges try to reach a generation that has grown up on the Internet and is used to interacting in open social networks where information is shared rather than hoarded.” This is accompanied by a new view of teaching, a shift from the top-down expert-based system to “a distributed and collaborative educational experience designed to instill a sense of the shared nature of knowledge.”

Arthur Levine articulated his own view of transformation in a June 14, 2010, Inside Higher Education article entitled “Digital Students, Industrial-Era Universities.” Levine observes that, while our institutions were designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, our students are now “digital natives” – children of the Information Revolution. While institutions are focused on the process of instruction—defined by semesters—“digital natives are more concerned with the outcomes of education—learning and the mastery of content, achieves in the manner of games” where the issues is not how long one has played but what level one has mastered.

Interestingly, Levine and Rifkin have similar ideas about where this transformation (the over-used notion of a paradigm shift seems perfectly appropriate here) will take higher education. “What must change, “ says Levine, “ . . . is the means by which we educate the digital natives who are and will be sitting in our classrooms—employing calendars, locations, pedagogies, and learning materials consistent with ways our students learn most effectively. It means that the curriculum must meet our students where they are, not where we hope they might be or where we are.” He adds, “. . . higher education must in the years ahead move away from its emphasis on teaching to learning, from its focus on common processes to common outcomes.” Similarly, in Rifkin’s model of distributed and collaborative learning environments, “Learning becomes less about pounding facts into individual students’ brains and more about how to think collaboratively and critically.”

Where will online learning fit into the transformed university? While increasing access will continue to be critical need, it is important that we also emphasize how online learning can help higher education institutions create a new pedagogy for both on-campus and distant students. As Levine notes, “In an information economy, there is no more important social institution than the university in its capacity to fuel our economy, our society and our minds.”

Friday, September 3, 2010

Science, Technology, and Society: General Education for the Information Age

This has been a year of loss for me. Earlier this spring, we lost Marlowe Froke, who founded educational/public television at Penn State and did much to move media into the educational mainstream. Then, John Buck—one of the true teachers at Penn State, who taught English literature to me, my wife, and, most important, my son—died after a long struggle with diabetes. Most recently, Rustum Roy, founder of Penn State’s Materials Research Center and one of the University's great interdisciplinary thinkers, died.

Marlowe, Rustum, and I came together around one of Rustum’s innovations: the inter-disciplinary Science, Technology, and Society Program at Penn State. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were already well into the Information Revolution. Rustum and other visionary faculty realized that higher education needed not only to help people understand the importance of science and technology, but to prepare them as citizens and professionals to deal with the impact of science and technology on society. This required a curriculum—the STS Program—that would bring together scientists, social scientists, and humanists explore the issues. Marlowe and Rustum collaborated to build a partnership among Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University (Pennsylvania’s three state-related public universities) to expand the impact of STS through distance education.

We created several distance education STS courses, each of which included a series of television documentaries, as well as a study guide and text. The first course, “The Behavioral Revolution,” looked at how behavior modification was being used by marketers and social planners to change consumer behavior. Examples in the television series included the use of random free rides to encourage people to use mass transit and, in the new planned community of Columbia, Maryland, the use of bicycle paths and clustered mailboxes to build a sense of village life in the midst of a sprawling suburb.

Another course, “The Finite Earth,” examined the limits to resources—a big issue in the early eighties—and the ethical implications of social policy decisions related to the environment and natural resources. The course introduced the idea of an “ethical community”—the group of people who are affected by a decision and who, as a result, should be at the table when the decision is made.

The STS Program is still very active at Penn State. The fall 2010 semester, for instance, includes 20 STS courses on topics such as “Technology and Human Values,” “Medical and Health Care Ethics,” “Ethics in Science and Engineering,” “Science, Technology, and Human Values,” “Energy and Modern Society,” and “Global Food Strategies: Problems and Prospects for Reducing World Hunger.” Several courses meet general education requirements; these have titles like “Modern Science, Technology, and Human Values” and “The Politics of the Ecological Crisis.” More on the STS Program at Penn State can be found at:

The original vision for STS at some institutions was that it would become fully integrated into the institution’s general education curriculum, not unlike the “Contemporary Civilizations” curriculum at Columbia University in the 1920s or the Great Books program at the University of Chicago in the 1930s. Today, a full generation into the Information Revolution, it is essential that STS be fully mainstreamed. An ideal STS program—Penn State’s curriculum has elements of this—is to include STS courses in the lower division general education curriculum, but also to have capstone STS experiences in key majors.

Just as educational media—in the form of public television—helped to extend access to STS courses in the 1970s and 1980s, the online environment provides an excellent medium not only to extend access but to foster inter-institutional collaborations that will globalize discussions of STS issues.

There is much that we can do to build on the pioneering work of Rustum Roy, Marlowe Froke, and their colleagues at research universities around the nation who were—and continue to be—concerned about Science, Technology, and Society.