Monday, December 23, 2013

Top Ten Ways to Improve K-12 Education?

There has been a lot of discussion online about the need to improve schooling in the United States.  Ultimately, the solution will be found in specific actions.  The question is:  What specific actions are needed?  To get the conversation started, below is a list of ten action items.  I hope this will encourage readers to refine the list—better define some statements, replace others, etc.   What are the top ten things we need to do to improve K-12 education?  Here is a starting point:
1.     Return teaching to professional status—invest in teachers and reward good ones.
2.     Make teacher education programs more robust and demanding, both in terms of content-area study and educational philosophy and process study.
3.     Put teachers in control of the curriculum; de-politicize the curriculum process.
4.     Move away from standardized tests that drive curricula toward too-low norms.
5.     Empower teachers with well-developed teaching resources; better use of technology to share curricular content across schools through open educational resources (OERs), emulating what we did nationally with educational television in the 1960s-1970s. 
6.     Build collaborative relationships between schools and higher education; offer university-based high school courses and dual enrollment courses to ensure that students complete high school ready for college.
7.     Re-emphasize civics education to give students a better understanding of their role as citizens.
8.     Emphasize active learning—inquiry, research, application—rather than just knowledge transfer at all levels.
9.     Build collaborations with local employers for internships and with social service organizations to integrate an expectation of community service into the curriculum.
10.  Ensure a well-defined general education curriculum (history, literature, writing, speaking, civics, arts) to complement a STEM/vocational emphasis.

Monday, November 25, 2013

MOOCs and the Future of Informal University Engagement

One of the highlights of the recent Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning was a keynote address by Daphne Koller of Coursera, one of the major platforms for Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Her presentation focused on the vision of MOOCs as opening access to education for a global audience who may otherwise not be able to learn about a wide range of subjects.  She also described features of Coursera that provide a level of learner engagement that is not discussed much in the media.  An example is the ability of students to review and grade each other’s papers.  Along the way, she emphasized that Coursera’s MOOCs are not designed for college credit, but that they do provide access to learning opportunities.  She noted that, while Coursera had no plans to charge for courses or to grant credit, they were starting to offer learners, for a small fee, the equivalent of a “certificate of completion.”   While Koller didn’t mention it, such a certification could make it easier for students who complete MOOCs to apply their learning through credit for life experience or credit by exam procedures.
            While MOOCs may emerge as primarily a means of globally extending content, there seems to be good reason to think that they may also emerge as a way of creating and sustaining learning communities.   As such, they could be an extremely valuable way to re-envision the Extension mission in a global information society.
            For example, many land grant universities have made a commitment to helping small business operators develop the skills they need to be successful.  This is critical in many communities, where small businesses are major employers.  Historically, this work has been done through occasional workshops and small conferences.  However, in the online environment, we can easily envision an engagement MOOC environment that would include:

·      Video and computer-based OERs that focus on critical small business leadership skills, the latest research in the field, case studies of successful small business innovations, policy studies, etc.
·      Online readings and assignments related to each of the OERs that give students—current and aspiring small business operators—the opportunity to explore the issues in more detail and to apply them to their own situations.
·      Shared review of student responses, providing an opportunity for enrolled students to explore each other’s ideas and share responses, in addition to faculty feedback.
·      An ongoing learning community, allowing small business operators and faculty to share experiences and innovations as they implement ideas gathered during the formal course.

            A similar pattern—publishing of OERs, engagement of learners around the OERs, and structured sharing of experiences and insights among participants—could be applied to other communities historically served by university extension educators.  These include small community governments, police officers, social service providers, agriculture professionals, and a wide range of civil society professionals and community volunteers.  
            In addition, this environment could be used to create new relationships between universities and employers in specific industries in which the university is already engaged through teaching and research.  Engagement MOOCs can be used to maintain contact with recent graduates as they move into jobs in selected industries, for instance, or to translate research findings for industry practitioners.  Historically, such services tended to be organized on a state-by-state basis, through land grant universities.  The online environment supports a much greater opportunity for universities to share expertise across state and even national boundaries, greatly increasing the cost-benefit of producing OERs.   As such, MOOCs become practical opportunities for new and powerful a academic communities across traditional institutional boundaries and to build new relationships between faculty and industries for research, technology transfer, and professional education.
            The MOOC is still a very new concept within the online learning universe (which itself has existed for only two decades).  Early innovators in the MOOC arena tended to focus on extending large undergraduate courses to informal learning communities.  It may well be that, in the final analysis, online learning as it emerged over the past two decades will continue to be the best way to extend formal credit instruction to a global student population, while MOOCs—which have already demonstrated their ability to attract global audiences to informal learning opportunities—will allow higher education institutions to re-envision their nonformal continuing and extension mission to serve the informal learning needs of a constantly expanding community of professionals, civil servants, and community volunteers.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Using MOOCs to Revitalize University Engagement with K-12

A few months back, I posted a piece about the possible role of MOOCs—Massively Open Online Courses—in the public university’s commitment to community engagement.   The piece offered several examples of how the MOOC concept could be used to revitalize community engagement—aka, continuing education, outreach, extension—by creating new kinds of university-community collaborations.  Today, I want to explore one of those ideas in more detail:  the use of the MOOC concept to enhance the K-12 curriculum.
            The idea that I’ll be exploring is not really new.  From the 1960s through the 1980s, public televisions broadcast television programs during daytime hours that were designed for use in K-12 classrooms.  State public television networks collaborated with their state departments of education to coordinate program funding and selection.  Stations then worked through regional networks to acquire programs for in-school use.  With the advent of satellite in the late 1970s, a national marketplace of instructional television emerged, both at the K-12 and higher education level.  From early on, university-based public television stations (and, in Canada, Provincial networks like TV Ontario) were the major producers of in-school television programs.   
            Let me use an old ITV series as an example.  In the 1970s, Penn State Public Broadcasting and the Department of Science Education in the College of Education received funds from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to produce Investigative Science in Elementary Education, a series targeted to students in grades 1-3.  Each week, we broadcast a 15-minute program that teachers would use in their local classrooms.  Each program demonstrated a specific scientific phenomenon for elementary school students.  One looked at how water drops form; another examined wave patterns, etc.  The series was accompanied by a Teacher Guide that suggested classroom activities for each program.
            This was a major part of the first half of my career.   I started as a production assistant at Penn State Public Broadcasting, helping to produce instructional and general audience programs.  Later, as Director of Instructional Media, I was responsible all levels of instructional production and for our relationship with schools in our 29 county broadcast area, including program selection and professional development of teachers.
            This system remained vital through the 1980s, as schools struggled to move the Baby Boomer generation through the K-12 system in the post-Sputnik era.  By the 1990s, though, it was faltering, as the school population declined and as other technologies—videocassette and computer-based instruction—made broadcast obsolete.  Today, that system no longer exists.
            However, the need for higher education to help K-12 has never been greater.  Today, schools are struggling to meet the needs of an information society.  Funding is low and teachers are being laid off or not replaced, with the result that class sizes are again growing at a time when we greatly need to be producing students who can go on to college or to postsecondary training for information-related careers in a globalized economy.  The question is:  How do we do it?
            Engagement MOOCs offer a unique opportunity to revitalize—in fact, revolutionize—this old relationship between public universities and the K-12 sector, without the hugely expensive infrastructure that public television required.  Today, the issues are different than the 1960s, but just as profound.  A generation into the Information Revolution, we find ourselves as a nation, struggling to compete with workers from around the world.  Increasingly, our school graduates need knowledge and skill in science, technology, engineering, math—the STEM arena—in order to find jobs and keep businesses in our communities.  At the same time, we need to prepare our students to live in a more complex, globalized society.  The challenge is to ensure that all teachers, in every school at every level, have the resources they need to keep their students moving toward the goal.
The Model
The identification of the discipline and level to be the focus of the effort should be made in consultation with the K-12 community.  Once a curriculum area and grade level is identified, then a survey of teachers should be conducted to identify the specific topics to be covered.  The question is:  what topics are the most difficult to teach in the school classroom?
            For each topic, the institution would develop a multi-media module.  This could be a video demonstration, a computer simulation, a problem, etc.  Each would be supported by a text-based guide showing teaches how to use the material effectively in the classroom.  The modules become a collection of learning objects/open educational resources that can be used by teachers in a variety of ways and shared with other institutions.
            The modules would be the core of the MOOC.  Teachers wishing to use them in their classrooms would enroll in the MOOC in order to learn how best to integrate them into the curriculum.  The resulting course could be taken as a noncredit experience, resulting in a badge that would go on the teacher’s record.  It might also be taken as part of a credit course.
            Teachers who participate in the MOOC would also be eligible to join other teachers in an ongoing learning community, using the MOOC environment to share ideas about how to use the modules in different settings, expanded teacher guides and curriculum materials, student feedback, etc.  This ongoing engaged teacher community will ensure the continued refinement and improvement of the modules and the teacher-education component of the Engagement MOOC.
            In the end, the MOOC will (1) provide teachers with tested instructional materials to use with their students, (2) ensure that teachers receive professional development so that they can use the materials to best advantage in different teaching situations, and (3) create an ongoing learning community among teachers and university faculty that will sustain the effective use of the materials over time.
            Universities that offer such Engagement MOOCs will need to develop relationships with school districts and, ideally, with their state’s Department of Education coordinate use of the MOOCs.  To be effective in the log run, this model also requires multiple programs that hit key parts of the curriculum.  Ideally, universities would form a consortium to share responsibility for producing these Engagement MOOCs in disciplines and to share the finished products, so that each MOOC reaches well beyond its home state. 
            This is one example of how we can use online learning to engage both teachers and students for educational improvement.  In a future posting, I will explore another engagement model: Using the MOOC model to empower community development in small communities.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Today is election day—an off-year election in which we will vote for local offices--school board members, the mayor, members of the borough council—and for a few regional and statewide positions, from district attorney to state supreme court judge.   These are elections that help define our sense of community.  Because we are still relatively new to our neighborhood, I took a closer look than usual at the voter’s guide and got a lesson in politics and community.

Pennsylvania is one of several states that are known for the impact of Republican gerrymandering—restructuring voting districts to create safe districts where chances that Republicans will be elected and re-elected.   I live in State College, PA.  It is a university town and, I know from the experience of living here for most of the past four decades, more liberal as a community than the farming communities that surround it.   One assumes it would be a relatively safe Democratic district.  So, I was not surprised but still dismayed to see that State College and its suburbs have been redistricted to be in two separate congressional districts.  State College Borough is one corner of a district that largely covers farming areas and small villages ending in Philipsburg—about 24 miles west of State College.  However, the townships that surround State College—where most of the university employees live—are part of another district that extends to the east and that also include small and rural communities dominated by Republicans.  The result is that all State College area residents are in safe Republican districts.  The State College area community has been divided so that we cannot vote as a community.  We have been artificially segregated so that we have no effective vote on statewide and national offices that are defined by districts. 

I am a Democrat and a progressive Democrat at that, although I did once vote for a Republican for President (he lost).   I care about keeping—and ensuring the purity of—our ability as individuals to be effective members of a community and to use government as a tool for helping others in our community live the best life that we can all make for ourselves and our fellow citizens.  The purpose of government in a democracy is to give citizens the means as individuals to ensure that all people have equitable access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Gerrymandering denies individuals the right to be heard in elections.  In this light, gerrymandering should be seen as a fundamentally unpatriotic act.

Gerrymandering, along with closing the government over ideology and threatening to force governmental default, constitutes something that is very dangerous to our democracy.  We tend to be very forgiving in this country.  In this instance, however, we need to work self-consciously and persistently to reclaim true Constitutional government.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Joan Didion's "Democracy"

Over the past few years, I have become a huge fan of Joan Didion.  It started with her last two books--The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights--two powerful memoirs that I think are, in some ways, unique artifacts of her generation of new journalists and, at the same time, examples of the best American writing of any decade.   I then went back and read her earlier "new journalism" work, which I found to have much greater staying power than most of the work of her peers like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson.

Now, I have just finished one of her best novels, Democracy.  Published in 1984, it is set in 1975, in the days and weeks immediately surrounding the American withdrawal from Vietnam.  It is a remarkable piece of fiction, focusing on one woman, Inez Christian Victor, and her small circle of family, in the context of the political and social upheaval of the times.  The book would be memorable for the narrative style alone--Didion first-person narrates it as a journalist writing a novel, which gives her incredible ability to break the rules and focus us on the important issues.  But the story itself and the historical context are powerful in their own right.  Inez Victor and Jack Lovett are memorable characters, as is Billy Dillon, the political pro who constantly chimes in to re-contextualize what is happening.

Beyond that, Democracy speaks to the dynamics of American public and private life in a time of dramatic changes.  There are lessons in it for today.

The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights introduced many readers to her late in her career.  I hope, like me, they go on to discover her for what she is:  a great American writer and social commentator. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tom Friedman's Take on Syria

Same War, Different Country -
This column by Tom Friedman pretty much sums up my sense of the issues facing us in Syria and, generally, in the Middle East.  We need to take a broader view of how to help the people of the Middle East establish a stable political and social society.   In the end, the kind of interventions we've seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya don't seem to solve the underlying issues in these countries--issues that have shaped the lives in the region since before World War I.   Middle Eastern culture demands a different kind of balance among politics, religion, and economics than we have the in West.

We continue to need a strong United Nations--or the equivalent on a regional level at least--to deal with issues like these.  Take away veto power from any one country and let's start solving the underlying problems.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

ICDE Conference Focuses on Global Open and Distance Education

Back in the 1990s, I chaired the ICDE World Conference when it was held at Penn State University in the US.  This fall,  the 25th ICDE World Conference on Open and Distance Learning will be held in Tianjin, China, 16-18 October 2013.  It promises to be one of the best.

Based around the theme of New Strategies for Global Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, the ICDE World Conference this year offers an impressive list of keynote speakers:

Pauline Gonzales-Pose, Chief, Section for Higher Education, UNESCO
Hans d'Orville, Assistant Director-General for Strategic Planning, UNESCO
Asha Kanwar, President & CEO, Commonwealth of Learning
M.S. Vijay Kumar, Senior Associate Dean and Director, Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S.A.
George Siemens, Associate Director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, Athabasca University, Canada
Yang Zhijian, President, The Open University of China
Mpine Makoe, Senior Researcher, Institute for Open and Distance Learning, University of South Africa
Two plenary panel discussions will be held - on open educational resources and study support - with expert discussants representing varied perspectives:

Open educational resources panel:
Rory McGreal, UNESCO/ Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources; Professor, Centre for Distance Education, Athabasca University, Canada
Dr. Nizam, Executive Secretary, Board of Higher Education, Ministry of National Education, Indonesia
Griff Richards, Manager, Technology, Teaching and Learning Resources, African Virtual University
Wayne Mackintosh, Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources; Director of the OER Foundation
Study support panel

Grace Javier Alfonso, Chancellor, University of the Philippines Open University
Alan Tait, Professor of Distance Education and Development, The Open University UK
Weiyuan Zhang, Head and Chief Researcher, Centre for Research in Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, School of Professional and Continuing Education, University of Hong Kong.
Yngve Troye Nordkvelle, Professor, Lillehammer University College, Norway; Chair of the Expert Group on Quality in ICT-supported education, Norway Opening Universities.
Almost 400 papers have been accepted for the conference on themes ranging from the Culture of ODL, to Educational Technology and Assisted Learning.

For more information and registration please see the conference website:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Lesson from Abigail Adams

I'm reading David McCullough's fine John Adams (2001), a biography of our second President.  In it, he describes when Adams was sent to Paris during the Revolution to help negotiate peace.  Adams invited his son, John Quincy Adams, to go with him.  John Quincy was reluctant, wanting instead to prepare for his entry into college.  However, Abigail Adams encouraged him to go, likening his travels to, as McCullough reports it, "a river that increases its volume the farther it flows from its source." (p. 226).  She goes on to tell her son:
These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed.  The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.  Great necessities call out great virtues.  When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman." (ibid.)
 Of course, John Quincy Adams went on to become President himself.

Abigail Adams' advice suggests education itself should actively engage the learner in problems that give the learner experience in "contending with difficulties."  The large, passive lecture--be it in a campus lecture hall or a MOOC--does little to give students the opportunity to experience knowledge directly as a solution to a problem.  Both on campus and online we should encourage a problem-centered, inquiry-oriented approach to instruction that actively engages the student in confronting problems, seeking out information to inform action, and then applying knowledge to solve the problem, in the process identifying principles that can be generalized from the specific problem.

Technology gives us the means to offer this kind of learning at the scale we need in order to properly meet the needs of our students and the society in which they live.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Boomer Music

The other day, I was driving home from the grocery store when the local radio station--which specializes in hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s--announced "Baby, I Need Your Lovin'" by the Four Tops, noting that it dated from 1964.

As I listened to this great oldie ("Baby, I need your lovin', GOT to have all your lovin'") it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I have been listening to the same music for the past half century.   I have some newer favorites--Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, and others who have hit the scene at various mileposts along that 50-year highway--the music from my youth is still just as fresh and full of life as it was when I first heard it.  Maybe more so.

Why, though, is it still being played regularly on the radio?  When I was a boy in the 60s, my mother occasionally listened to old records (she had a good collection of 78s) from the thirties and forties, but I had no recollection of her regularly listening to music from 1915 or even 1925.  I heard a lot of old 1940s swing (Vaughn Monroe was one of her favorites) and the Ink Spots and Eddie Arnold, but nothing as old to her as I hear today on the radio.  I have to think that today's focus on the real oldies is a cultural phenomenon

So, why is there still a mass market for music a half-century old?  One factor, certainly, is that we Baby Boomers are a big generation.  We have market clout, even as we begin to retire.  Is there more than that?  Is the music somehow indicative of a cultural shift that started in the 1960s and gathered steam in the 1970s?  There may be something to that. 

Regardless, I am glad to still be able to hear "my" music out there in public.  Keeps one young and tapping one's toe, glad for car air conditioning so I can keep the windows up and the radio loud.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Investing in Geographic Diversity

Investing in geographic diversity on college campuses - The Washington Post

Writing in the Washington Post, social scientist Danielle Allen argues that colleges should take steps to ensure geographic diversity among its student body.  She notes the distinction between "bonding ties" that connect people of similar backgrounds and "bridging ties" that link people from different "social spaces" and goes on to explain:
Since the 1970s, scholars have been aware that bridging ties are especially powerful for generating knowledge transmission; more recently, scholars have argued that teams and communities that emphasize bridging ties and learn how to communicate across their differences outperform more homogenous teams and communities in the development and deployment of useful knowledge.
 Clearly, colleges have an opportunity to create bridging ties by purposefully mixing students both at the campus level and at the course level.

For those of us involved in online learning, the opportunities to integrate bridging ties into instructional design are even greater.  We can easily build geographic diversity into team assignments, for instance.  Even in cases where we ask students to develop projects within the context of their local job or community, geographically bridged communities can help bring new ideas into the student's local context.

Within our traditional campus curricula, we can use online technologies to bring into our classrooms students from other institutions--whether they be from different parts of our country or from different continents--to ensure a more diverse discussion, creating mutual benefits for the students at both institutions.

Dr. Allen's article is a reminder that, in today's world, the "distances" involved in in distance education are not something just to be overcome, but to be used to create a more powerful learning environment.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hutchins and Dewey: Lessons for Education in a Material Society

An item in the news this week caught my attention.  As the Washington Post reported it,  Apple, now one of the largest corporations in the world, used a series offshore "entities" to avoid paying U.S. taxes on billions of dollars that it earned overseas.  While this kind of thing is fairly common among U.S. corporations, the Apple example was unprecedented because the overseas "entities" had no staff and no physical presence, according to Senate staffers.  Apple responded by saying that it paid all of the taxes due to the U.S., and that what it was doing was perfectly legal.  The real question, both sides seem to agree, is whether it should be legal.  What should be the obligation of a corporation to the society in which it operates?

The debate illustrates a dilemma that has become very visible in today's society:  What is the role of government in a democratic society?  Corporations have become increasingly powerful forces in our governmental processes these days.  The Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations unlimited ability to finance political campaigns is one example.  Apple's ability to legally hide otherwise taxable income from the citizens of the U.S. is another.  There seems to be a growing tension between social responsibility and material greed, a tension that could undermine the basic social contract on which democracy rests.

These are not new tensions.   In April 1941--as Europe was already at war and months before the U.S. joined in--University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins gave a series of lectures that were later collected in a book, Education for Freedom.  He noted the increasing materialism of American society, what he described as the doctrine "that material goods are an end in themselves" (p. 40) and that "the state is valuable if it helps to maximize profits, but is apparently to have little part in economic life beyond this and beyond fulfilling functions which are too big or too unprofitable for private enterprise” (p. 41).   What he said seventy years ago sounds awfully current today.

Hutchins, who had already established himself as an advocate for higher education reform, was alarmed by the broader, moral implications.  He wrote:
The state is not an end in itself, but a means to the virtue and intelligence, that is the happiness, of the citizens. It is held together by justice, through which it cares for the common good.  The common good, in fact, is little but justice most broadly conceived:  peace, order, and an equitable distribution of economic goods. Since the state is charged with responsibility for the common good, and since the production and distribution of material goods are one aspect of the common good, the economic order must be subordinate to the political order (p. 45).
The implication, he said,  is that “every act of every man is a moral act, to be tested by moral, and not by economic, criteria” (p. 46).   The individual's ability to assert moral power is critical, according to Hutchins.  "If we can no nothing about society," he said,  "if we can have only opinion about it, and if one man’s opinion is as good as another’s, then we may decide to get what we irrationally want by the use of irrational means, namely force” (p.31).

The move toward materialism had very direct implications for higher education, in Hutchins' view.   ". . .The aim of education is wisdom and goodness," he wrote, adding, "Studies that do not bring us closer to this goal have no place in a university .  .  . If you deny this proposition, you take the responsibility of asserting that a rational view of the universe and one's role in it is no better than an irrational one or none at all" (p. 26-27).  The implications for the curriculum were clear:  "If, then, we are to have standards of social criticism and social action, and if they are to be anything but emotional standards, they must result from philosophical and historical study and from the habit of straight thinking therein" (p. 29).

Hutchins' solution was an extension of the "Great Books" curriculum that he had proposed for Chicago in the 1930s.  It was that "education be concerned first of all with ideas, with principles, with the abiding and the permanent" (p. 57)--the "cultivation of intellectual virtues" that "can be accomplished through the communication of our intellectual tradition and through training in the intellectual disciplines" (p 60).  The vehicle he proposed was a two-year general education baccalaureate degree emphasizing study of
. . . the great thinkers of the past and present, scientific, historical, and philosophical.  It means a grasp of the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics; reading, writing, and figuring.  It does not, of course, mean the exclusion of contemporary materials.  They should be brought in daily to illustrate, confirm, or deny the ideas held by the writers under discussion" (ibid.).
John Dewey had explored similar terrain in his 1915 book, Democracy and Education, but emphasized the idea that education, while it may use materials from the past, is about the present.   Noting that "an individual can live only in the present," Dewey argued:
The study of past products will not help us understand the present, because the present is not due to the products, but to the life of which they were the products.  A knowledge of the past and its heritage is of great significance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise.  And the mistake of making the records and remains of the past the main material of education is that it cuts the vital connection of present and past, and tends to make the past a rival of the present and the present a more or less futile imitation of the past (p.75).
 "The present, in short," Dewey added, "generates the problems which lead us to search the past for suggestion, and which supplies meaning to what we find when we search" (p. 76).  This led Dewey to a "technical definition" of education:  "It is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience" (ibid.).

What does this look backward mean as we look forward to the future of American higher education?  Two additional quotes from Hutchins may help to set the stage: 
"The American educational system will be engaged in the cultivation of whatever is honored in the United States" (p. 49).  
"The alternatives before us are clear.  Either we must abandon the ideal of freedom or we must educate our people for freedom" (p. 17).
First, it is worth noting that, while some things have not changed, others have.  There are many reasons why education today has become so focused on material benefits--on preparing people for work.  Not the least is that we no longer live in a world of nation states, but instead in a global economy where technology has eliminated many geographic boundaries, so that competition for talent has never been greater.  American society needs a better trained workforce in order to compete for jobs at all levels.  That said, if Hutchins is correct that every act must be judged as a moral act, not an economic act, then we must also prepare our citizens for moral action in the increasingly complex culture in which the new work takes place.  How do we use the lessons of the past to inform present and future actions?  How do we educate people for freedom? 

A first step is to free the general education curriculum from the old discipline-centered "breadth and depth" distribution model that was adopted early in the Industrial Revolution.  Over the decades,  that system has come to be focused more on how the academic community defines itself and less on how the world itself works.

A second step is to replace the "breadth and depth" system with a highly interdisciplinary problem-centered curriculum that brings history, philosophy, and the social and physical sciences to bear on understanding the nature of today's society and the role of the individual in that society.  This curriculum must begin with a clear sense of purpose.  As Dewey suggested, it must use the experiences of the past and contextualize them around current problems to give students the ability to direct the course of their own subsequent experience.

A third step is to incorporate the social and, to use Hutchins' phrase, the moral purpose of the general education curriculum into the professional curriculum.  This can be done through research projects and problem-centered capstone experiences that require students to explore the social and moral implications of their new professional knowledge on the community around them.

For public institutions--land grant universities, state colleges and universities, community colleges--and private institutions that accept state/federal financial aid, the key step is to recognize our continuing obligation not only to individuals and their future employers, but to citizens in general, who have invested, through their taxes, in our mission.  Otherwise, the concerns of Hutchins and Dewey--that democracy will succumb to materialism--may well prove true.


Dewey, John.  Democracy and Education.  New York: The Free Press, 1966.
Hutchins, Robert M. Education for Freedom.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1944.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Smelling a Memory

When I was in high school, back in the mid-1960s, I worked at Little Italy, a family-owned Italian restaurant in what is now Hermitage, Pa.  The restaurant was operated by a mother-daughter team.  Mrs. Combine, her daughter, JoAnne Bishop, and her son-in-law, Richard Bishop.  They had operated the restaurant in the Hickory Plaza for a while and then renovated a larger, stand-alone site on the corner of State Street and Dutch Lane.  I came on at the opening of the new site.  I was around 17 when I started as a busboy and had been promoted to short-order cook by the time I left at the age of 18.

Little Italy was a true family restaurant.   Other members of the Combine family operated restaurants nearby in West Middlesex, and it wasn't unusual for them to gather at Little Italy.  A booth near the kitchen was often occupied by friends and relatives, including the Bishops' young daughter.   As a high school student, it was great to be surrounded by an active and close family.

After I left, I lost touch with the family, although I have always had very fond memories of my days at Little Italy.  Just recently, I happened across an obituary for JoAnne Bishop in the Sharon Herald, our local paper.  It noted that the family had relocated to Las Vegas and that, later in life, JoAnne had authored her own blog--"I Smell a Memory."  Her daughter has since re-posted some of her mother's blog entries at .  In "I Smell a Memory," she recalls favorite holidays with her family and the food that she made to celebrate.  Then, she adds recipes.  It is a wonderful legacy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Making the Most of MOOCs

The idea of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continues to attract attention in the education press and popular media.  As the idea evolves, we gradually are getting a better idea of where MOOCs might fit into the broader online learning environment and, indeed, what role they might play in the transformation of higher education as we adapt to the realities of life in a global information society.   In December, I posted some thoughts on where MOOCs might fit into the Land Grant mission.  Today, I want to look at them from a slightly different perspective.

There is one area where I want to be very clear:  The idea that a single MOOC should replace general education course taught at almost every college/university in the U.S. is misguided, at best.  This has been part of the MOOC discussion since the earliest courses came out.  It is an idea that has been around technology-based education since at least the 1980s, when PBS moved to satellite distribution and Walter Annenberg gave funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create nationally distributed tele-courses, creating the idea that one great course with fantastic video lectures could ensure that every student got a good education in that topic.  But that's not how our educational system works.   We have more than 3,000 institution of higher education in the United States.  While many of them may use the same text to teach "Introduction to Sociology" or "Introduction to World History" or whatever, the strength of the system is that each institution has its own faculty members who teach the course using their own syllabus, each drawing on their own research and experience, and each responding to the individual needs and interests of their students, whether they be on campus or online.  This creates a kind of butterfly effect as students move into different classes and different majors, taking with them the nuances of their own experiences in these courses.   The resulting diversity is one of the strengths of the system.  We don't need--and, indeed, should avoid the homogenization of the curriculum by relying on MOOCs.

So, then, what do we need?   I see three areas where investment in MOOCs might have the greatest payoff for not just for the institutions that offer them, but for society in general.

The first of these I mentioned in my December 2012 posting on MOOCs:  MOOCs provide a powerful new tool for creating learning communities around research and technology transfer.  Over the years, I've seen the importance of academic conferences in disseminating the results of research and creating new discussions among researchers and between researchers and those who benefit from the results of their work.  Two great examples from Penn State's conferencing work in Outreach are (1) a series of conferences that brought together astronomers and statisticians and that eventually resulted in the creation of a new discipline, Astro-Statistics, and (2) the annual autism conference, which brings together a huge community of researchers, practitioners, and autistic children and their families.  MOOCs have great potential to more quickly and more broadly disseminate research findings and to create communities among diverse populations that have an interest in applying research.  It is a potentially powerful tool for academic outreach and engagement.

A second potential role is to build new pathways between higher education and schooling.  Currently in the U.S., about 39 percent of high school graduates go on to college.  The U.S. Department of Education has set a goal of increasing that to 60 percent by 2020--what they estimate the country will need to thrive in the information economy.  To get there, we will need to dramatically increase the percentage of high school students who are prepared to go to college.  MOOCs can help by providing a means by which higher education institutions can share content with high school teachers.  Imagine, for instance, a MOOC on high school chemistry.  Science Education faculty in our universities could develop video and computer-based instructional materials on critical science concepts at all K-12 levels.  These would be made available to teachers via a MOOC that would also contain sample lesson plans and other resources that the teachers would need.  Then, it would also serve as a meeting place where teachers could share their experiences in using the materials, get advice from both higher education faculty and peer teachers, and share materials that they have developed locally to contextualize the materials available via the MOOC.  The result:  a teaching community that would help even small, poor districts ensure that their students have access to high-quality learning.

We did this sort of thing back in the 1970s and 1980s through public television.  Penn State's public TV station worked with Dr. Paul Welliver in the University's College of Education to create "Science for the Seventies," a video series that captured key science concepts for elementary school students.  Dr. Welliver and his colleagues also tried to create a community of teachers who could share lesson plans, etc., but the lack of a medium for exchange made that difficult.  MOOCs offer a very fresh way to create this kind of teaching/sharing community to address important educational needs.

A third potential use of MOOCs relates to the new demographics of our world.  Today, Americans are living well into their 70s and 80s, but still retiring at 65 or earlier.  In his landmark book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin noted that now need to prepare older adults for life after work--ideally, a third act of life where experienced adults can apply their talents and experiences in the social sector,  helping improve life in their communities.   In this arena MOOCs offer an interesting opportunity to bring older adults together with social sector organizations and university faculty to help prepare them for productive after-retirement contributions.  As with the other applications, a key element is not just the transfer of knowledge, but the creation of communities.

I hope these three examples illustrate the true potential of MOOCs as tools for community-building and engagement around research, technology transfer, and cross-sector partnerships.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Won't Give Up

Jason Mraz is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters these days.  It started with "I'm Yours," but his most recent album, Love Is a Four-Letter Word, has some great songs that capture a spirit that I haven't heard in popular music for a long time.

Right now, my favorite is "I Won't Give Up."     I was listening to it this morning--the day after the Boston Marathon bombing--and realized that it pretty much captures how I feel about our country these days.  Our country has become fascinated with violence, greed, and, ultimately, the stubborn ignorance of radical ideology.  These have been with us for many decades, but, today, they have clouded the great light of caring and community that is American democracy at its best.  Still, in the face of this ugliness, as Mraz says, "I won't give up."   

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Finding Courage

Our country's inability to better manage guns is appalling.  A few short months after 20 young people and 6 teachers were killed--and with many gun murders since then, including, most recently, a Texas prosecutor and his wife--our government seems not to have the courage to act.  It is the ultimate failure of a democratic government not to protect the lives of its citizens.

In our society, one must be licensed to drive a car.  One must pass a test to get that license and must renew the license annually in most states.  In addition, all cars must be registered and insured.   Some states also require that each car be inspected regularly to ensure that it is safe to use.  This is done to minimize highway deaths and property destruction caused by cars. 

We should take at least as much care with the public distribution and use of firearms as we do with automobiles:

1.  All gun users should pass a test that demonstrates their ability to use a gun safely and that they are of sound mental condition.  Only then should they be granted a license to use a gun.

2.  That license should be reviewed and renewed periodically, perhaps every two years.

3.  Purchase of a gun should include a background check to be sure that the person has a license and, thus, has the legal right to carry and use a gun.

4.  Guns themselves should be registered and that registration should be renewed every two years.

5.  Sale of a gun should be handled in the same way that the sale of a car is handled:  there is a title to the gun and that title transfers with appropriate review.

The active resistance to any form of government oversight of firearms by the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers is but one example of how corporations and financial interests are undermining democracy today.  The logical result, if left unchecked, will be a new and destructive kind of autocracy.  It is important that we respond not only by advocating for national and state laws to control weapons, but by grassroots changes to the culture of violence in the U.S.  We need to make violence unpopular, the way we made smoking and anti-Semitism racism unpopular.   Let's start by rejecting violence in the media and computer games and by making it clear, as citizens, that assault weapons are not welcome in our homes and neighborhoods.  Let's strengthen sentences for crimes that involve deadly weapons.   Let's not make stars out of criminals and advocates of violence.

Mother Theresa once said that she pitied Americans because, despite all our riches, we are, in her words "poor in spirit."  The strength of American democracy is the balance between the spirit of independence and the spirit of community.  We need to strengthen the bond between the two.  We are not Americans unless we honor the individual in the context of community.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Taxes and a Moral Society

David Blandford, a Penn State colleague and fellow member of our local Torch Club, said something at a Torch Club meeting last year that has stuck with me.  How people feel about taxation, he said, has less to do with the amount that they are taxed and more to do with how those taxes are used.  Tax evasion in 17thcentury Britain, he told the Club, was rooted not in the tax itself, but in the fact that the British government used the taxes to carry on foreign wars that were of no benefit to the average Englishman.   On the other hand, modern Scandinavians are among the most highly taxed citizens on earth, and they are also the happiest, because tax revenues are returned in the form of benefits:  health care, work release for new parents, old age benefits, etc. 
            Americans are currently taxed at a much lower rate than Scandinavians.  In fact, we are taxed at a lower rate today than was the case just a generation ago, before the so-called Reagan Revolution.  And yet, we are among the most unhappy of industrialized nations.  Mother Theresa pitied us, saying that we are poor in spirit.   Why?  Well, one reason may be that, like Britain in the 17th century, we are increasingly disconnected from our government.  We are afloat, unmoored to our sense of citizenship that gives us identity and a sense of social purpose.  Our waste of public resources to support private greed is a symptom of a government that is attending more to business interests than to the needs and interests of its citizens—in short, a government that is failing to do its real job. 
            The recent mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, is another sign of our alienation not just from government but from community.  The tragedy sparked a brief national discussion of gun control, which noted that, among the 23 most industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks first in gun murders.  Why?  I suggest that one reason is that we increasingly are estranged from the communities that used to support us.  We are a nation of immigrants and, unlike the nations from which our ancestors came, our cultural heritage is thin.  Our connection with our geographically defined community is made thinner by globalization.
            Taking a longer view, this disconnect may also be a symptom of a broader change that is overtaking our society as technology and globalization redefine “community” and challenge us to seek a new identity.   I believe that the changes we are now experiencing are much more profound than we tend to recognized.   It think it is safe to posit that not only are we moving from the Industrial Era to a new Information Era, but that we have left Western Civilization behind in the process.  The 20th century, with its two world wars and its ideological Cold War, was the last century of that old world.  The new civilization is just now taking form.  It is being shaped, in part, by technology and globalization, to be sure.  As Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Post-American World, the change is not about the downfall of Western life, but about the “rise of the rest”—a new global culture where power and influence are more distributed and diverse.
            I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’ recent book, The Next American Revolution.  In it, she argues that, in this new world, the challenge is not simply to over-turn the existing power structure, but to revolutionize our interactions with community at all levels.  “We are beginning to understand,” she writes, “that the world is always being made and never finished; that activism can be the journey rather than the arrival; that struggle doesn’t always have to be confrontational but can take the form of reaching out to find common ground with the many ‘others’ in our society who are also seeking ways out from alienation, isolation, privatization, and dehumanization by corporate globalization” (p. 48).
            Boggs quotes Meg Wheatley, who describes the new culture as “this exquisitely connected world” and notes, “Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system” (p. 50).  The implication is that, as individuals, we can help shape the new world from wherever we find ourselves in our society.  This is a powerful new way to think about the dynamics of change in a democratic society. It also describes the paradigm shift in social identity that we are experiencing:  a new social context that encourages individuals in a globalized society to reconnect with community at the local level and, perhaps, with professional and social communities that are not defined by geography.   Revolution, Boggs argues, is the cumulative impact of many, many local actions.  “In other words,” she writes on her own career as an activist, “our revolution had to be for the purpose of accelerating our evolution to a higher plateau of Humanity” (p.70).
            And this is where we have gone wrong in the years that span my adult life and those of many of us Baby Boomers who had such ambitions for our society.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost our passion for “accelerating our evolution to a higher plateau of Humanity” and settled for a kind of comfort that dulls our moral sense.  The rich get rich, but we are all the poorer for it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Sequester and Natural Law

The current budget sequester raises many questions about what America should do reduce our budget deficits and arrive at an ongoing budget scenario that (1) is sustainable in itself and (2) addresses issues that will ensure a healthy and sustainable society for our citizens.   In The Myth of Progress (2006, University Press of New England), Tom Wessels reflects on what the laws of nature can tell us about how we need to care for our societal ecology.  Wessels makes several important points in this concise book:
            First, we need to abandon the linear thinking that has tended to dominate economic theory and practice for the past century.  Linear thinking reflects an industrial approach to the economy:  that the world is like a machine—in which “each part works in a lockstep way with the other parts, so that the system always follows the exact same sequence of interactions between the parts” (p. 6).   In reality, he argues, we live in a nonlinear, complex system that is less predictable because the parts interact in multiple ways, so that the system is much greater than the sum of its parts.  Complex systems, Wessel notes, generate “emergent properties—things that couldn’t be predicted just by examining the parts” (p. 9).  He also notes that complex systems tend to be nested within each other, which helps to maintain system integrity.  
            Second, Wessels argues that, just as natural ecological systems depend on diversity to sustain themselves, our political ecology also benefits from diversity.  “The foundation of sustained progress lies in stable systems that increase diversity through time to resist perturbations” (p. 78).   Systems that lack diversity are more likely to be adversely affected by external changes because they lack means to adjust.  Wessel offers several examples of where the American economy is becoming less diverse and, in the process, less stable:  the rise of industrial farming over smaller family farms, increasing consolidation of the news media under less than two dozen large corporations, and the rise of corporate power that displaces small businesses.  A good example of the last change is Walmart, which has reduced economic diversity by killing small local retailers in communities across the country.
            Third, he notes, “Large-scale change in complex systems never comes from the top down; it always bubbles up from the bottom.  That means that large-scale social, political, and economic change comes from the citizenry, whom elected officials will follow when its collective voice becomes loud enough” (p. 60).
            What does this suggest for how we should deal with the federal deficit and the sequester?  For one, we should be aware of how budget cuts might create unanticipated “feedback loops” within our complex economic and political system.   Across the board cuts could have both positive and negative consequences; either way, we need to be sensitive to the potential for unforeseen consequences.   On one hand, it is essential that there be some discretion about how cuts are made.  On the other, it is important that we use the sequester to make real cuts that result in real change. 
            At the same time, we should use the sequester to eliminate subsidies to activities that work against economic diversity and that create instability.  For instance, this would be a good time to eliminate subsidies to large-scale corporate farming operations and to the oil industry.   We should invest some of the saved funds to support small, family farms and local cooperatives and to support innovation in wind, solar, and other sources of energy in order to diversify our food and energy resources and allow us to be more responsive to climate change and other external threats to stability.  
            I am a firm believer that the final solution will require more than just an across the board cut in expenses.  New revenues should be at least one quarter of the total solution, which assumes closing existing loopholes in federal income taxes.  Beyond that, however, we will need significant cuts, even if the hatchet approach of the sequester can be avoided.   Let’s hope that, in both sides of the process, we keep Wessels’ ideas in mind and find solutions that recognize that our society—and our economy—is a complex, rather than linear, system.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Empower Citizens with Fiscal Cliff Data

Speaker of the House John Boehner said on Sunday, “I don’t think anyone quite understands” how to resolve the current U.S. federal budget crisis.  Well, here’s an idea.
            In his new book, Citizenship:  How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government (Penguin, 2013), Gavin Newsom argues that, in the Information Society, we need to connect citizens to government in new ways, by giving them access to government data so that they can better participate in solving public problems.  The result is more of a bottoms-up than top-down approach to governance.   The problem with today’s federal government is that it is paralyzed by radical ideology and conflicting loyalties.  There is no constructive conversation, making good top-down government decisions almost impossible around important issues.  So, let’s try a bottoms-up approach.
            A first step is to have transparent data.  What, in detail, is the problem?  What, in detail, have the various parties—the Administration, Congressional Republications, Congressional Democrats, various non-governmental interest groups—proposed?   We need to be able to put all of the different solutions side by side with each other and with the budget itself to understand the options.  Then, we—and by “we” I mean the citizenry—need to be able to look at the impact of different options and, perhaps, suggest our own solutions.
            The problem is that we are not, at this point, getting good information, either from government directly or from the news media.   Or, at minimum, dependable information is not easy to find.  Confirming and organizing the data so that people can attempt their own understanding of the problem, evaluate the various solutions that have been proposed, and suggest their own improvements would be a great contribution that any one of the national news outlets could make.  It would go much further toward creating public understanding than the constant point-counterpoint panels of political hacks and hired guns.
            The Fall 2012 update of The Federal Government’s Long-Term Fiscal Outlook makes clear that simple solutions—the kind we’ve been hearing about in the press—are not going to work.  It notes, for example: “Discretionary spending limits alone do not address the fundamental imbalance between estimated revenue and spending, which is driven largely by the aging of the population and rising health care costs” (GAO-13-148SP).  As a public, we need to develop an expectation that the solution will be complex, but that we will need to understand that complexity so that we can evaluate what our elected representatives propose as solutions.  Having the data and some structure for thinking about options—and then being encouraged to delve into the material to find possible solutions—could be very helpful in the long run.
            This would make a great project for CNN or another of the major national news outlets that lays claim to objectivity.  What a way to empower voters to help their government.