Thursday, December 18, 2014

Next Generation Online Learning: Engaging Communities

This fall, I had the opportunity to participate in the prototype of a new community action project—GeoDeliberations.   The project was organized by faculty in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and funded by the National Science Foundation.  It was adapted from an Oregon initiative that brought together a small panel of community members in a week-long conference to address an important community issue and report recommendations to local elected officials.   GeoDeliberations organizers adapted the original Oregon model, replacing much of the face-to-face meeting time with an interactive online website to facilitate discussion by the citizen panelists.   
            One advantage of the online environment is that it gives all participants an equal opportunity to voice their concerns.  In most face-to-face meetings, a small number of participants do most of the talking, while others listen, take notes, and wait for the vote.   Online, all panelists have equal access.  They can sign in multiple times whenever they wish to read, post, and respond to the postings of other members.  The pilot effort demonstrated the power of the online environment to bring neighbors together around issues and to create citizen-based input into the governmental process.  It also demonstrated the value of public universities using technology to engage and empower the communities they serve.   
            The project also raises an important question for the future:  How do our public universities support faculty engagement in the community through online technology?  At most institutions, online technology was used originally to extend credit courses—and certificate and degree programs—to off-campus populations.  Institutions organized their technology and support services around the needs of credit instruction, both on and off campus.  GeoDeliberations is just one example of how online technology can also be used to engage the community in less formal ways that build on the traditional missions of engaged research, technology transfer, and public engagement.  Two other examples of emerging online engagement are:
·      Open Educational Resources – Extending access to online learning objects and other resources to other educational sectors,such as K-12 school classrooms, business and industry, government, and civil society organizations.
·      Engaged MOOCs—Using the idea of “massively open online courses” to bring together interest groups who otherwise have little ability to meet face-to-face (see my earlier post).
            Over the past twenty years, universities around the world have innovated to extend credit programs to off-campus students through online learning.  In the process, they have proven that higher education can address a key stress point as society adapts to the needs of the Information Revolution: the need for a better-educated workforce.  The challenge for a new generation of university leaders is to provide central support and encouragement for faculty who want to engage with the community to address the multitude of issues facing residents in their roles as citizens, workers, parents, and members of civil society organizations in the years ahead.  The GeoDeliberations project is demonstrating what faculty can achieve by engaging at the neighborhood level.  As this model is refined and expanded, it should be possible to use online technology to bring together panels in many different contexts.  This kind of engagement in this era of rapid and profound societal change is central to the continued vitality of public higher education.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Finding Christmas

            Historically, Christmas season is embedded in the traditions of the old Roman celebration of Saturnalia.  When the Christian church adopted December 25—the birthday of Mithra, the old god of light—as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, it accepted that the key Christian holiday would exist side-by-side with the abandon and debauchery associated with the old holiday.  The impact was so great that, when Puritans left England looking for a purer society in America, they outlawed the old celebration of Christmas.   Eventually, Christmas was re-conceived in America as a holiday focused on family and children, incorporating elements of northern European celebrations.  In England, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” emphasized giving and sharing as Christmas ideals, and our modern ideal of Christmas was born.
            Today, though, the holiday is returning to its Saturnalian roots, but as re-defined by a commercialized society.  Christmas has become less about giving than about spending.  For some years now, retail merchants have pushed the spending season back to Thanksgiving.  “Black Friday” now starts on Thanksgiving Day or, at best, on midnight as Thurday turns to Friday.  Thanksgiving weekend has, in addition to Black Friday, attracted new opportunities to spend:  Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc.   During the holiday season, increasingly, we cease to be Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists; we all become simply consumers.  In the process, the spirit of Christmas—both as a religious celebration and a time to celebrate family and the spirit of giving at the beginning of a new natural cycle—is being overshadowed by commercial greed.   This is a longstanding problem, but it seems to be getting worse these days to the point where the spiritual meaning of the season is barely visible.
            What to do?  I was happy to see that, this year, people pushed back, using social media to encourage folks to enjoy Thanksgiving Day with family and to avoid stores during the Black Friday onslaught.  The fact that people are able to shop online also has had an impact, giving people confidence that they need not rush out to local stores to shop “while supplies last.”   Like many issues in today’s Information Society, the best approach seems to be “crowd-sourcing”—people taking things into their own hands and simply refusing to led around by commercial interests.
            I have very fond memories of Christmas as a family celebration of the warmth and optimism associated with the birth of Christ—and the symbolic assurance that the world will brighten again.  There were presents, to be sure, but it was also a time for family, friends, and neighbors and for quiet reflection.  Let’s not lose these in the face of what has become a mindless commercial Saturnalia.             

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Present Shock" -- Some Implications for Online Learning

In his new book, Present Shock,  Douglas Rushkoff argues that, in an increasingly technology-centric world, we need to take care not to let technology replace natural cycles in our lives.  Over the centuries, we have become to see time as linear and to recognize natural cycles within that linear structure.  Technology, however, creates a world of immediate choices: just as the Internet is global—eliminating geography as a defining factor in our lives—it is “timeless:” everything is available at all times.   Each moment ceases to be a point in the linear progression of time; instead, it becomes an immediate choice.   The implications:
Instead of taking our cues from the central clock tower or the manager with a stopwatch, we carry our personal digital devices with us.  Our daily schedule, dividing work time from time off, is discarded; we are always-on.  Our boss isn’t the guy in the corner office, but a PDA in our pocket.  Our taskmaster is depersonalized and internalized—and even more rigorous than the union busters of yesterday.  There is no safe time.  If we are truly to take time away from the program, we feel we must disconnect altogether and live off the grid,’ as if we were members of a different, predigital era” (p. 85).

            Some of the symptoms of this new environment are a sense that we must act immediately, in the moment, to stimuli presented by our digital tools; we have lost sight of natural rhythms—day versus night, time of month, time of year—that used to guide our actions.  Technology gives us many choices, but the obligation to choose is, as Rushkoff writes, “no choice at all”—“especially when it prevents us from achieving our own sense of flow and rhythm” (p.115).
            In response, we have invented new terms—multi-tasking, information overload, etc.—to describe ways to respond to the constant pressure of digital choices. 
            This is a special challenge for those of us who create online educational environments. Not only are we using digital technology to connect students to information and to a learning community, but we are also creating new environments in which students use the technology to develop their ability to transform information into knowledge and then work together to apply that knowledge to solve problems.  In this environment, in which time is replaced by a world of immediate choices, how do we use the digital environment to create new educational opportunities while helping students develop their ability to thrive in this environment?  Here are some beginning thoughts:

Course Designers and Faculty:
·      Since the online environment has no geographic limits, we should be conscious that our students will be in many different time zones.  Course design should minimize synchronous sessions, which require that some students be online at times when they would otherwise be sleeping or doing other things.  Design should optimize the asynchronous nature of the digital environment and let students determine when, during any 24-hour period, they engage.
·      In a traditional classroom, 15-20 percent of the students actively engage in discussion; the others learn by taking notes.  We need to avoid what Rushkoff calls the “quiz show approach” (p. 125) that rewards the first hand up when a question is asked.   Set a reasonable deadline for response—understanding that students are not all available at the same time—and allow everyone to answer before responding to anyone.
·      Let students know your expectations with regard to timing and rhythm of response and interaction. 
·      Be aware of your own daily rhythms. For instance, it may be that you do your best research in the evenings, that afternoons are the best time for you to analyze ideas, but that you are most articulate in the mornings.  If so, use the evenings to seek out content, afternoons to read what your faculty member and other students have said on a topic, and respond the next morning.  Make the asynchronous nature of the environment work for you.
·      Avoid the idea that you must respond immediately to every stimulus.  Don’t feel the need to be the “first hand up” for every question.  See what other students have to say and then pitch in when you are ready.  Make it a conversation, where you both listen to others and share both your original ideas and your responses.  Don’t feel the need to respond immediately; give yourself the time you need to articulate what you really mean to say; that may mean giving yourself the time to do more research before you respond. 
            While any course is about content—gathering information, validating it as knowledge, and applying knowledge to solve problems—it is also about developing learning styles that, ideally, students can take with them into their professions.  The lesson from Present Shock is that we need to use technology in a way that gives us access to choices, but that also protects our ability to optimize the natural cycles that are part of our physical and cultural DNA.  This is a challenge for course designers, faculty, and students alike.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Creating Conversations: The New Challenge of Engagement in Continuing Higher Education

In his 2005 essay, “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” (in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays), Wendell Berry discusses the tension between urban and rural elements of society in the information age.   Noting that information is not knowledge and that some knowledge is centered on the specific attributes of a particular place, he argues that, “until the information is shaped into knowledge in some particular mind and applied without harm to an actual place, we will not know whether or not it is an asset or how valuable an asset it is.”  What is needed, he writes, is not simply one-way communication—from the university outward—but a conversation that goes back and forth between the center and the periphery.  Such a conversation is, by definition, dynamic:  both parties stand to gain from it.  “There is always the possibility,” Berry notes, “that a conversation, by bringing its participants under one another’s influence, will change them, possibly for the better.”  
            For Berry, the situation calls for a new vision to guide the traditional extension mission of the land grant university:
 . . . I am talking about the need for a two-way communication, a conversation, between a land grant university and the region for which it is responsible.  The idea of the extension service should be applied to the whole institution.  Not just the agricultural extension agents, but also the graduate teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other community servants should be involved.  They should be carrying news from the university out into the region, of course.  But this would be extension in two directions:  They would also be carrying back into the university news of what is happening that works well, what is succeeding according to the best standards, what works locally.  And they should be carrying back criticism also: what is not working, what the university is not doing that it should do, what it is doing that it should do better.

            The extension mission dates back to the 1800s, when the national network of Agricultural Extension Services was established to ensure that the United States had the agricultural production power to sustain urban growth and immigration during the Industrial Revolution.  Then, the vision was of the agricultural researcher working side-by-side with local farmers in their fields—a good match with the “conversation” vision.  However, over the years, a variety of services—and other modes of delivery—have developed around the idea of extending the university, gathered under titles like continuing education, distance education, outreach, research and technology transfer, etc.
            Today, “engagement” may be the best term to describe the many ways our land grant universities can best serve their communities.  These include community-based research and research transfer, offering formal education—from workplace training to undergraduate and graduate degree programs—at times and places convenient to working adults, engaging employers in organizational and technical improvement, partnering with community high schools to improve the curriculum, and the broad set of community-based services that have arisen out of the original agricultural extension mission.
            That said, at many institutions the engagement function is often viewed as a one-way “delivery system” rather than as a means of creating conversations between campus and community.  Moreover, engagement programs are often viewed by academic units as cash cows rather than as part of their central mission.   Its many activities—continuing education and distance education courses, conferences, noncredit workshops, consulting services, etc.—produce new, discretionary revenue for academic units, often through the use of adjunct faculty whose experiences in this arena do little to inform research and teaching within the participating academic unit.
            The problem is made more complex as we move into the global information society, where it is increasingly difficult to define “community.”  For today, let’s assume that “community” means the citizens of the state in which the land grant university operates and the organizations—governments, employers, civil society, etc.—through which these communities function.   Here, the need to create and sustain conversations is, perhaps, more clear.
            How do we create sustained conversations between the university and the communities it serves?  Here are some thoughts:
·      Leadership  The Engagement unit—Continuing Education, Outreach, University Extension, etc.—is often the unit most directly involved in linking the university with multiple communities.  Engagement professionals need to see themselves as ambassadors, looking out into the community to identify needs and within the university to identify resources that meet those needs and then managing the relationship to ensure that a true conversation is developing and that the program evolves as the conversation reveals new opportunities.  This is the ultimate role of Engagement leaders.
·      Needs Assessment  Engagement units have developed strong marketing and market research units to determine the financial potential of university programs.  However, this should be complemented by a needs assessment function that goes into the community and ask the basic questions:  What are your problems?  What are your needs?  What can we do to help?   This is the beginning of the engagement conversation.  A periodic needs assessment process—perhaps one that would drive a rolling three-year plan—will help ensure that Engagement programs not only have a market but that they are addressing vital community needs. 
·      Governance  Engagement professionals must be able to match community need with academic readiness.  This requires that the Engagement unit meet with representatives of all academic units to discuss community needs and opportunities and to ensure that the university is bringing the most appropriate resources to the table.  For many years at Penn State, each new program idea was reviewed by a Coordinating Council consisting of representatives from each of the University’s colleges.  This approval process ensured that interdisciplinary opportunities were addressed and that relevant faculty research was brought to the table.  This kind of review ensures an internal “means assessment” conversation that is the counterpart to the needs assessment.
·      Feedback  For the conversation ideal to work, it is important that faculty who participate in engagement programs provide feedback to their colleagues on what they have learned by engaging with the community and with working adult students.  A formal feedback mechanism is essential, given the large number of adjunct faculty who often teach in these programs but do not participate in other aspects of the academic community.  One thought:  offer an annual competition for faculty to write brief essays about their experiences with students and community organizations.  Publish the best articles online and give recognition to those who have worked to develop a true conversation with students/clients.     
·      Partnerships Once the university has determined need, its responsibility is to provide the best possible academic response.  In the past, response was limited by geography.  However, online technology allows an institution to reach out to other universities and partner with them to deliver programs that best meet local needs.  The Great Plains IDEA project is a great example.  At its best, such partnerships also create new relationships among faculty at participating institutions, opening new doors for collaborative research.
·      Learning Design The “conversation” ideal also operates inside individual courses.  In today’s world, education is not simply information transfer.  It is about guiding students through the process of inquiry, evaluation of information, and application of knowledge to solve problems.  It requires conversations at many levels.  Several models for a conversational learning environment are emerging, including the flipped classroom, in which content normally delivered in a lecture is available out of class so that classroom time can focus on discussion. 
            As we—our institutions, our communities, ourselves as professionals—move further into the global information society, it is important that we build new structures to better serve the needs of our communities and, in the process, to build new kinds of community within our work.  In this effort, engagement professionals may well be on the cutting edge of building productive new conversations between our universities and the many communities we serve.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Note on Online Badges

Over the past few years, postsecondary institutions have expanded their use of online learning.   Originally conceived as a way to extend credit courses and degree programs to off-campus students, online learning is now also being used to articulate and deliver a wide range of noncredit programs.  This, in turn, has led many online learning providers to adopt a new kind of credential—the “badge”—as a way to reward students for successfully completing an online learning course or series of courses.  Badges can serve many purposes, to be sure.  My goal in this posting is to suggest a couple of ideas about the use of badges as a way to formally recognize completion or achievement.
            First, if the badge is to be a viable credential, it is important that the online learning community come to agreement on what constitutes a “badge” in this context.  For many years, continuing education units at our institutions have used an international standard for recognizing noncredit learning:  the Continuing Education Unit or CEU. The CEU is endorsed by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, which  defines a CEU as follows :  “One CEU equals ten contact hours of participation in an organized CE/T experience, delivered under responsible sponsorship, capable direction and qualified instruction.”  The CEU is widely recognized and used by institutions and a variety of professional societies.   Institutions and other providers of online learning badges can ensure acceptability of their credential by tying the badge to this widely accepted measure of noncredit learning.
            Second, it is important that institutions that offer badges formally adopt this credential and keep records of students who have earned them.  It is essential that the institution itself recognize the badge as a credential, so that potential employers, professional societies, and others can confirm that the student has, indeed, earned a badge at that institution.
            We are at a stage in the maturation of online learning where we need to institutionalize innovations that have arisen around institutional experiments with technology-delivered education.  The badge has evolved as a way to recognize online learning.  Now, we ourselves must define and recognize it so that it has lasting value to the student.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Lesson from Frederich Nietzsche

In Tom Wolfe’s 2000 essay collection, Hooking Up, he describes the impact of science on our understanding of human behavior.  He quotes Frederich Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” as one example of how science—and social philosophy—killed our reverence for the unknown.  Wolfe goes on to explore the impact of Nietzsche’s statement on our own culture at the turn of the new millennium.  Writing in 1882 during a time of relative peace in Europe, Nietzsche warned:  “The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries.”   What Nietzsche predicted, Wolfe notes, is that “. . .  the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining” (p. 98).   The reason:
Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason.  As a result, people would loathe not only one another, but themselves.” (ibid.)

            What happened, of course, was the Twentieth Century, a century of two World Wars, revolutions in Russia and China, the Korean War, ideological wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, revolutions and counter-revolutions in Africa and Latin America, not to mention the so-called Cold War.   Turns out Nietzsche was right about that.
            But Nietzsche had a vision for the 21st century, too.  In The Will to Power, he predicted that this century—our century—would see “the total eclipse of all values,” based on the rise of what Wolfe describes as “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods.”  “Nobody,” wrote Nietzsche, “should be surprised when . . . brotherhoods with the aim of robbery and exploitation of the nonbelievers . . . appear the arena of the future.”
            Certainly, the Nazis and Marxists of the 20th century met Nietzsche’s description, but Nietzsche’s vision is very descriptive of what has happened so far in this century.  Al Qaeda (which attacked New York the year after the publication of Wolfe’s essay) is just one example.  In the past few months, we’ve seen the example of ISIS’s “convert or die” attacks in Syria and Iraq, Russian ethic nationalism in the Ukraine, Boko Haram kidnappings of girls in Nigeria, just to name the most obvious examples.  And, we are only fourteen years into this century! 
            According to Nietzsche, we can expect more.  As Wolfe paraphrases Nietzsche, we are entering  “a frantic period of ‘revaluation,’ in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old.”
            So what does this mean for our generation?  If, in the 21st century, ISIS is something we can expect more as typical than as an aberration, what strategies must we develop to maintain our own culture?  
            Well, for one thing, it means that conflicts with “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods” will not be war as our grandparents knew it.  This is not government-versus-government inter-national warfare.  It is likely that no peace treaties, no territorial redistributions, no economic collaborations will settle differences and make our enemies friends and allies.   In fact, while these brotherhoods are often violent, war itself, as we typically think of it, may not be a practical solution.  As the Middle East has demonstrated over the past century of European intervention, the methods of war—invasion, occupation, destruction of community, etc.-- only leave increased bitterness behind.  There is no government to accept defeat, no way for the participants to accept the new “normal” after war.  For that matter, there is no way to judge success. 
            What, then, can we do in the face of ISIS and other nationalistic brotherhoods? 
            First, of course, nations need take action against violence against those who cannot protect themselves.  This is best seen not as “war” in the traditional sense, but police action against nongovernmental criminal organizations.  The goal should be to stop the violence and bring the guilty to justice.  The process may look like war, but we need to have a different mindset about what we are doing.
            While these police actions are needed, there is much more to be done beyond that in order to address the underlying problems.  This requires a true coalition of interested and affected nations and other organizations, committed to a long-term engagement to seek both political and social solutions to the underlying issues that led to radicalism.  It  recognizes that these radical brotherhoods are not driven by territory or commercial gain alone, but by a deep loss of identity—a loss of control over their culture, their religion, and their sense of being part of a self-sustaining community.   This, as Nietzsche wrote, leads to a radical “revaluation” as the groups try to find a new identity.  Without these steps, we will simply see a vicious cycle of police actions with no end in sight. 
            There is a theory of social development called the “expanding communities” model.  It works at both the individual level and the societal level.  The individual level works something like this:  Early on, young people identify most with their immediate family.  As they grow, they begin to identify with a broader community—the neighborhood.  Being a member of a neighborhood becomes their public identity, and the family becomes a more personal, private identity.  As they grow older, youngsters may see their membership in their school as their public identity and privatize their neighborhood identity; then they move on to their profession as their public identity and privatize their identity as alumni.  So it goes.  The same sort of thing works at the societal level, but in broader historical terms that define the individual’s relationship to society itself.  Early in history, individuals identified with their family or tribe.  Over time, they formed villages containing multiple tribes; their tribal membership became a private identity as they became publically members of their village.  Then, perhaps, they identified with their religion, with their country, or with their region, etc.
            The question today for many people—it seems to be a particular problem in the Middle East but also in the Russian ethnic areas of the former Soviet Union—is that civilization change—a combination of colonialism, political revolution, international commerce, and the global information society, to name a few—has taken away their public identity, leaving them with the ghosts of private identities but with nothing else to give them a place in society.  This is the ultimate source of ISIS.
            The challenge, then, is to help all people find an identity that allows them to be productive members of the new global society that has arisen around them but that does not yet include them.  This is a task that requires involvement of many different parties, first, to understand the problem and, second, to seek cultural—and eventually political and economic—solutions.
            The current ISIS phenomenon is a good case.  Over the past two centuries, the culture of the Middle East has been undermined by all sorts of internal and external influences, from Napoleonic invasions to British colonialism to the commercial exploitation of the region’s oil reserves and the creation of a Jewish state, displacing millions of Palestinians.   Prior to Western involvement, the Middle East had achieved a tenuous stability through the overlapping influence of three distinct forces:  several Islamic sects, cultural/ethnic groupings, and political/military realms.  Each had its own area of influence that, often, overlapped with but did not coincide with political borders.  The experience of the past century has upset these balances by putting the emphasis on political/economic boundaries. 
            There is little that the United States or other Western powers can do to address this imbalance on their own.  It requires an open discussion among Middle Eastern states, religious and cultural leaders, economists, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations whose activities have an impact on the issues.  It is a good example of why we need a vibrant United Nations.  We need to accept the reality that we are living, essentially, between civilizations.  Western civilization as many of us understand it ended with the two world wars of the last century.  We are now living in a global economy that is still developing and has yet to take on recognizable form as a civilization.  Nietzsche’s warning is still valid.  We need to find a new standard—a new god, if you will—that will give us a moral compass in these new waters.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Public Media in a Multi-Platform Environment

The October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes an article by Eugenia Williamson, “PBS Self-Destructs” that, for those of us who have a history with public broadcasting and value its role, is troublesome.   
            The article focuses largely on how public television funds major programs, how the sources of funding have changed over the years, and the challenges that producers and the system itself face as funding has migrated from direct federal support to foundations and private donors to corporations.  Williamson argues that funding sources have always been a cause for tension and, in some cases, compromise in production and scheduling decisions.  She notes that “For one brief, shining moment—which occurred before its actual creation—PBS was an uncompromised thing.  It began as a Great Society initiative under the Johnson Administration and, like other public works programs of the era, was conceived as a way to level the effects of poverty and close the education gap.”  (p. 47).  However, over the years, PBS and, by extension, the producers who create programs for national distribution over the system, have had to seek other sources of funds.  Williamson notes,  “ . . . the present state of PBS was almost an inevitability, the result of structural deficiencies and ideological conflicts built in from the very start” (ibid).
            Clearly, the issue of who funds national public television productions and what impact the funding has on editorial decisions (both the short-term editorial impact on an individual project and the long-term impact on strategic thinking and program decisions), is an ongoing concern.  In fact, it has been an ongoing concern for decades.  However, it is critically important that we not take a narrow view of public broadcasting.  PBS is not like commercial networks.  The pressures on funding documentaries that Williamson describes is one part of the public media environment in the United States, but not the total story by any means.
            At this point, I should note that I have a long history in this arena.  I worked for a public television station for almost two decades and, in subsequent positions, worked closely with individual stations and with the PBS Adult Learning Service for another seven years.  I have a perspective that colors how I see issues.
            Williamson notes that the media age of the PBS prime time audience is sixty-two.   That may be true—and certainly, the fund-raising programs targeted at that audience do tend to reinforce the idea.  However, this kind of generalization is a gross misunderstanding of the system’s purpose and structure. While the PBS primetime audience is bigger than many national commercial channels, PBS doesn’t go after a single audience (as commercial stations target the prime “consumer” market segment—people aged 18-35).  Instead, they target programs to a wide spectrum of specialized audiences to meet the needs of specific groups of citizens.  Here, from the PBSwebsite  are some examples:
  • Over the course of a year, nearly 90% of all U.S. television households - and 217 million people - watch PBS. The demographic breakdown of PBS' full-day audience reflects the overall U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, education and income. (Nielsen NPower, 9/24/2012-9/22/2013)
  • In a typical month, 104 million people watch their local PBS stations. (Nielsen NPower, 9/30/2013-10/27/2013)
  • 80% of all kids age two to eight watched PBS during the 2012-'13 season. (Nielsen NPower, 9/24/2012-9/22/2013)
  • PBS had seven of the top 10 programs among mothers of young children in July 2014. (Nielsen NPower, 7/2014)

Local Stations: The Heart of Public Broadcasting
            Another way that public broadcasting differs from commercial broadcasting is that its strength lies greatly in the local station and the connections between individual stations and the communities that they serve.   The nation’s 161 public broadcasting licensees (who together operate 351 local stations) fall into three major categories: 84 are community organizations, 52 are colleges/universities, 20 are state authorities and five are local educational or municipal authorities.   These stations are the true heart of public broadcasting. 
            Originally, many of them were founded in order to extend educational and cultural resources into their communities.  Until the 1990s, many stations devoted their daytime schedules to instructional television programs targeted to the K-12 curriculum.  Every year, station personnel would meet with local school representatives to preview new programs and identify those that met local educational needs.  The station would then acquire broadcast rights and schedule those programs for broadcast during the academic year.  When PBS moved to satellite distribution in the late 1970s, they added an Adult Learning Service and distributed college-level courses that local colleges and universities could license and offer for credit around local broadcasts.
            Today, PBS maintains PBS, a free online collection of educational video modules in science, math, social sciences and English language arts that teachers may download and use in the classroom.  The collection is complemented by PBS Teacherline which provides access to related teacher professional development opportunities.
            This is one example of how public broadcasting’s strategies for serving the community have changed over the years as technologies and needs have changed.  When I first started in public broadcasting at Penn State in the 1960s, we had one channel that served 29 central Pennsylvania counties.  Today, WPSU delivers programs over three channels (one broadcast, two cable).  In addition, it offers three public radio channels with a mix of classical music, news and discussion, and jazz.  And, our community also has access to a cable-based children’s channel—Sprout—from the Children’s Television Workshop, which developed Sesame Street and other children’s programs that are identified with public broadcasting and that includes many of the same children’s programs broadcast on the main public TV channel.  And, even more, there is a PBS application for iPAD that allows viewers to watch full episodes of many nationally delivered programs. 
            Time, changing technology and changing need, as our communities adapt to a new economic and social context, have created both new challenges and new opportunities for how we use media to inform, educate, and enlighten citizens of the communities served by this unique system.  Public broadcasting is better described today as public media, because it uses multiple media delivery systems—continues to be an important way to bring high-quality information and artistic expression to communities and individual citizens. 
            Ultimately, the key to success lies in the links between local communities and their local station, between that station and the national PBS service.  For instance, local stations could work with their local school districts to encourage the use of PBS Learning Media services, testing them against local teacher needs, identifying unmet needs, and encouraging sharing of ideas across school boundaries. 
            Increasingly, there is also a need to create links among stations that have similar missions to collaborate in the development and use of programs).   One example is University Place, a partnership among three university-licensed Public Television stations at Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and Penn State University to develop content in collaboration with stations' affiliated universities, and delivery of content to teachers and other audiences via the web, podcast, video-on-demand, and television broadcast. University Place was funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The project included development of a University Place Content Sharing Portal—a web-based service designed to help stations share, search and retrieve each others' programs.
            In today’s multi-platform environment, public media organizations can be, more than ever, agencies that make the match between community need and media resources, whether for instruction, community development, or cultural expression.  Innovations like University Place and PBS LearningMedia suggest some starting points for the next generation of public broadcasting.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Online Learning and The Pressure On College Recruiters

Scott Jaschik reported in the September 18, 2014, issue of Inside Higher Education that higher education admissions directors are having a tough time meeting their recruiting targets.  Is online learning—now entering its third decade as a force for change in higher education—part of the solution?  Some thoughts:
            The 2014 survey reported in Inside Higher Education noted that admissions directors are focusing on finding more full-time undergraduates (81% of publics and 84% of privates) and minority students (733% or publics, 63% of privates), after which the publics and privates begin to diverge in their goals.   Interestingly, neither public nor privates seem to be particularly interested in attracting part-time undergraduates (40% of publics, 15% of privates), although they are interested in attracting veterans and military personnel (70% and 42%) and first-generation students (71% and 50%).  They are also interested in international students  (53% and 63%) and out-of-state students (60% and 64%), but apparently only if they are full-time.  In short, college admissions officers seem to want to attract the same kinds of students who came to higher education over the past generation and whose full-time presence on campus helped to pay for the dorms, classroom buildings, the grounds, the sports teams, etc.  The question is:  Is this population growing at a rate that will continue to keep the dorms, classrooms, etc., full?
            Meanwhile, online learning has been attracting to our institutions an increasingly large number of students who, for various reasons, cannot drop everything to attend college full-time.  In Grade Change, their 2013 survey of Chief Academic Officers, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman reported that 7.1 million college students have taken at least one online course.  This is an increase of 411,000 over the 2012 findings.  Note that this figure includes all students—full-time, part-time, on-campus, off-campus.  Clearly, online learning continues to have an impact.  Online learning should be part of the strategy in attracting new students in several of the categories that admissions officers identified as being strategic:
            Full-Time Undergraduates   The U.S. Department of Education has noted that most high school graduates who are prepared to go on to college already do so.  Thus, if we want to increase the number of full-time undergraduate students, we need to increase the number of high school students who graduate ready to enter college. Online developmental courses—high school courses offered by higher education institutions—can help high schools ensure that their students develop the skills they need to enter college.  Colleges and universities can also use online courses as dual enrollment courses that give high school students an early opportunity to earn college credit as they earn high school graduation credit.
            Veterans and Military Personnel  Online learning is one of the few ways that service members can maintain progress toward their educational goals as they move from assignment to assignment. Penn State World Campus is one of many online providers who have been recognized as military-friendly institutions.
            First Generation Students  In today’s economy, many first-generation students will come to a decision about higher education once they are already in the workforce.  Moreover, they often lack family support and personal examples that make it easy for them to make the decision to leave home and move to a university campus.  Online learning allows these students to remain at home and to work and be part of their local community while they develop the confidence they need to become successful as full-time students.  A first year of online courses also greatly reduces the total cost of a degree for most students, helping to minimize dropouts due to cost.
            International Students  Online learning is a global phenomenon.  Higher education institutions increasingly are developing partnerships with peer institutions in other countries to offer joint degrees, especially at the graduate level.  U.S. institutions wishing to attract undergraduate international students to their campuses might consider collaborative programs that mix on-line courses with residencies at both institutions or some other mix of experiences to attract international students and to give their own students an international experience.             
            As we enter the third decade of online learning innovation, one thing seems to be clear:  the next generation of innovations should be focused on fully mainstreaming online learning, integrating it into institution-wide strategies to attract and hold students and an institution-wide vision for how the institution can best serve its communities. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Tribute to Penn State Shenango Campus

This fall, the Penn State Shenango Campus  is enrolling its 49th class of first-year students.  That means that 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the campus. 
            The campus opened in 1965, and I started there in the fall of 1966.  During my freshman year, there was no physical campus.  Instead, classes were held at Kennedy Christian High School, which itself was fairly new and had some space to spare.  The nuns were very generous to us college kids, not complaining (at least not to us) when we played cards in the cafeteria, which we used as a kind of student lounge.
            The next year we moved to a campus of our very own in downtown Sharon—an old high school building that dated to the early 1900s.  Like many older buildings in the Shenango Valley, it was built of yellow brick and sat near the riverside.  It was old and a bit creaky, but it was home and gave us big old classrooms with high ceilings and the message that learning was taken seriously here.  It was a great learning environment.  Because the campus was a smallish community, classes were fairly small, and the students got to know the faculty very well. 
            One of the great things about Shenango in those days was the curriculum itself.  We had, in addition to the usual introductory courses, the opportunity to take interdisciplinary general education courses in the humanities, behavioral and social sciences, and physical sciences.  There were two interdisciplinary courses in the humanities series, which explored how the major ideas of Western Civilization evolved, from Lucretius’ The Nature of Things to more modern times.  Given our small classes, there was a lot of discussion, which made the courses great fun.   When I transferred to University Park—where many of the survey courses were taught in lecture halls of 300 or more students with virtually no interaction between students and faculty—I realized just how powerful the Shenango Campus experience had been.
            That second year, I served as editor of the campus newspaper—The Lions Line—and also covered several campus basketball games for our local paper, The Sharon Herald.  I thrived in this environment of smaller classes embedded in a community where I was already at home and where I studied with some old friends from high school along with new classmates, some of whom became lifelong friends. 
            Penn State Shenango was a godsend.  Had it not opened in my junior year of high school, I probably would not have gone to college.  We had no money, and no real expectation that I could afford college.  But I took the SATs anyway, mostly on a dare from my best friend, and when I got high scores some of my high school faculty contacted my mother and explained how I could go to Penn State but live at home and how I could get state scholarships to support the tuition.  I was able to be a full-time student while living at home and working almost full-time at Arby’s, where I was a shift manager.   In those days, Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses offered only the first two years of the baccalaureate degree.  After two years you either transferred to another nearby college or to Penn State’s University Park Campus.  The result was that I got a great education and made friends who transferred to the main campus when I did, so I didn’t have to make that huge transition—living away from home for the first time—entirely by myself. 
            In May 2005, as the campus celebrated its fortieth anniversary, I was invited to give the spring commencement speech at Shenango.  I mentioned the incredible changes that the Information Revolution has wrought in our daily lives, and the fact that the changes will continue, noting:
            For me, at my age, all this is an adventure.  For you, well, it may be pretty normal.  But this idea that technology is changing how you will define your community in the years ahead is well worth thinking about.  All of you have the ability now to carry your communities with you wherever your life’s work will take you.  For some of you—and I hope this is true of a good many—it will allow you to stay right here in Western Pennsylvania and still be citizens of a rich community of colleagues and friends far from here.  Pennsylvania is facing a powerful challenge.  Many of our communities—and the Shenango Valley is a wonderful example—were shaped by the needs of the Industrial Revolution.  The challenge—and it is an immediate challenge for all of us—is to re-envision our communities for this new economy.  We’ll need your leadership here at home or wherever your careers take you, to make that happen.
            Tonight, you have received your degrees from Penn State.  But I think it is important to note that you did “receive” your education. It hasn’t been handed down to you.  Instead, you MADE your education.  You had lots of help from faculty members and other students, but it is YOURS.  In the process, you’ve created a new capacity within yourself to face the changes ahead.  One thing we DO know about the world that the information revolution has created is that, for us—because the world continues to change rapidly—education doesn’t end tonight.  It is a lifelong process.  I wound up getting two more degrees from Penn State as an adult learner.  I hope that, as you move forward you will continue to turn to Penn State for renewal and to help you to reach new goals as you move ahead in your life.

           Over the years, Penn State’s system of Commonwealth Campuses has strengthened the local economies of communities in this most small-town of states, giving us leaders.  As it approaches its 50th anniversary, it is fun to look back, but even better to look ahead to how Penn State Shenango can realize its potential for a new generation.