Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Crowd-Sourcing America’s Future: A Response to the State of the Union

When President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address earlier this month, he noted that the times called not for a shopping list of proposed legislation and policy.  Instead, he discussed the broad issues that the United States must address in the coming years.  “ . . .what I offer tonight,” the President said, “is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.”  The goals he went on to describe included:
·      Building a sustainable economy.  Opportunities for innovation in this area include closing tax loopholes for businesses, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, improving the connection between high tech businesses and research, supporting entrepreneurs, and building what he described as a “middle class economy.”
·      Focusing on the Environment by ensuring American energy independence and dealing decisively with global climate change.
·      Fixing the immigration system.
·      Rebuilding the American educational system to be effective in the new global information society by reforming job training, guaranteeing access to education, and repositioning K-12 and higher education.
·      Improving the economic position of America’s workforce, by ensuring equal pay for equal work for women, increasing wages, and improving retirement savings.
·      Expanding civic engagement domestically and internationally through expanding voter rights, ending the “permanent war footing” and emphasizing intelligence and diplomacy, promoting international understanding, and improving veteran benefits.

It was pretty clear, even during the speech itself, that it would be difficult for the U.S. government to develop a successful legislative agenda around this—or any other—list of social goals.  For the past six years, the Republican Party has clearly demonstrated that it has no intention of partnering with President Obama on legislative initiatives.  Now that the Republicans control Congress, we can anticipate almost complete stalemate at the top of our government.  

It has also become clear that our federal government is no longer in the hands of the people.  In 1941, Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote this about the national government:
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. 
Today, however, many elected officials too often owe their allegiance not to the voters who they were elected to represent but to the corporations and other moneyed sources that fund their election campaigns.  Robert Reich reports that, in 2012, a record $6.3 billion was spent on Congressional and Presidential campaigns.  The 2016 election is likely to set an even higher record, with most of that money not coming from individual voter donations but from major investments by corporations, interest groups, and the very rich.  The system, quite simply, has lost the moral high ground.

So, what can we do?  If we cannot rely on top-down government to serve the needs of the American people, then we need to work from the bottom up.  How can we crowd-source the development of a legislative and policy agenda to support the critical areas that President Obama laid before the federal government in the State of the Union?

Ideally, consideration of a legislative/policy agenda would begin at the neighborhood level.  People—citizens, voters—would gather, identify one or more of the major areas identified in the State of the Union, and discuss what the government should do to realize the vision for that area.  The results from neighborhood discussions could then be taken to a community discussion and then to a statewide discussion, etc.  At each level, it would be important to have truly representative samplings of the population so that we get a true sense of what the real community believe.  The sampling model of the General Social Survey might provide a good model.  The goal would be to directly involve voters in the process of identifying legislative and policy priorities in specific areas of civic life and taking the results to elected officials who would then be asked to represent the voters wishes in Congress or to tell the voters why they are wrong.

Who would organize such a process?  It would require an organization that can operate effectively at all levels—neighborhood, community, state, national.   It could be managed by the political parties, perhaps, or by an existing civil society organization—the League of Women Voters, the Rotary, etc.—or by a foundation.  The challenge would be to keep big moneyed interests out of the process entirely.   It might take some time for a sustainable process to emerge, but it is worth the effort to re-empower American citizens to guide their democracy.

President Obama closed his speech with a call to action.  And finally,” he said, “let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe, to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.”  Perhaps one of the things we need to do in this era of innovation, is to find new ways to empower citizens to directly participate in their government.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

America's College Promise: A Revolution in the Wings

In the mid-1800s, during the creative rush of the early Industrial Revolution, it became apparent that the United States needed a better educational system.  The innovations of the Industrial Revolution required new kinds of leaders for industrial innovation:  scientists, engineers, and managers, to name a few.  It also needed new kinds of professionals to ensure that the broader society could support an industrialized economy:  social scientists, teachers, and civic leaders, as examples.  At the same time, we needed universities where research was on an equal footing with teaching, so that new knowledge would freely enter into the thinking of new professionals. 
            The result was a revolution in education—one that we take for granted today.  In an era where most universities were church-related or private, our forefathers invented the public university.  This included state universities created by the sale of federal land grants to the states, where research, teaching, and technology transfer in the “mechanical and practical arts” fed innovation in industry while securing  the increased agricultural productivity needed to support immigration and urbanization.  It also included creation of public “normal schools”—teacher colleges, the antecedents of today’s state colleges—that trained the teachers necessary to staff public grade schools and high schools which were seen as a key to assimilating the millions of immigrants who had come to our shores to work in the mines and mills and to ensure that a goodly percentage of them (25% was an early goal) were prepared to go on to college for professional training.  A bit later on, we also created community colleges that could better respond to local workforce needs and feed students to four-year colleges.
            Today, we are in another creative rush as the Information Revolution matures into a global information society, and the question, once again, is how do we prepare the workforce for this new environment?   This time, the question contains another:  how do we as a country compete in an industrial supply chain whose workforce is distributed globally?  Over the past couple of decades, the nation has been pretty much silent on this issue.   Higher education, once seen as a national priority, had lost its place in the public discussion.  Increasingly, it was seen as a private good—preparing individuals to make their livings--rather than a public good that prepared citizens to live and prospect in and with our communities.   As government funding declined, the direct cost to students rose.  Corporations, the most direct beneficiary of an educated workforce, looked the other way, focused more on short-term profit than on long-term investments in their workforce.
            That is now changing.  The Obama Administration has proposed America’s College Promise, a new initiative that would allow responsible students (both traditional-aged and adult) to earn an associate degree or the first two years of a baccalaureate degree at no direct cost to them.  Just as high school graduation—once something students paid for themselves—became a universal expectation early in the 20th century—America’s College Promise is a step toward making a college degree a realistic expectation for tomorrow’s workforce.
            The ACP is not a give-away.  Funding comes with some very real requirements for both students and community colleges:
·      To be eligible, students must attend college at least half-time, recognizing that some students will be working adults.
·      Students must also maintain a 2.5 average and make steady progress toward their degree.
·      Participating community colleges must offer academic programs that are fully transferrable to local public four-year colleges and universities OR offer occupational training programs that are in demand among employers.
·      Colleges must also adopt institutional reforms to improve student persistence and degree completion.
            The federal program will be a partnership with participating State governments.  Federal funding will cover 75% of the community college costs; states will be required to provide matching funds (the specific percentage varying based on the state’s current contributions to its community colleges).
            The America’s College Promise initiative could be a major step in positioning the United States for long-term success in the global information economy.  It will plant the seed of a public expectation that all responsible students should have access to undergraduate education just as they have access to high school graduation.  In the process, it will demonstrate the idea that higher education should be a normal expectation of citizens in a global information society.  In the process, it could very well break the longstanding barriers between high school and college curricula and create new relationships between community colleges and their four-year public colleges and university counterparts.  In the process, it could give four-year colleges and universities a heightened focus on professional education and research.  Its impact may be far reaching, indeed.
            As one might expect, there are many questions to be asked at this early stage in the consideration of the ACP proposal.  One that arose quite early was funding:  how will the federal government pay for this new service?  What other government projects will be scrapped to allow the government to realize the ACP vision?  There are many ways to answer that question.  President Obama suggested one in his 2015 State of the Union message:  close the tax loopholes that currently allow many corporations to avoid paying their due taxes.  Another would be to re-direct funds that are now spent on maintaining our military presence in other countries.  In short, money can be found.
            Another question is how to make the Promise a reality in states that have weak community college systems.  Pennsylvania is a good example of this.  For many years, Pennsylvania’s land grant university—Penn State—has maintained a network of 17 community-focused undergraduate campuses.   Other schools in the State System of Higher Education have done the same.  As a result, while Pennsylvania has 14 community colleges, many potential students live outside the range of a community college.  As America’s College Promise is implemented, this imbalance will need to be taken into account.
            A third question speaks to the supply side of increasing community college graduates:  the need to ensure that enough high school students graduate with the skills they will need in order to go on to higher education.   This may inspire new “dual enrollment” partnerships between high schools and colleges to allow talented high school students to earn both high school credit and college credit, preparing them to move quickly into college while also reducing their total time to degree.
            These are not reasons to abandon America’s College Promise.  They simply are examples of the kinds of issues that will surely arise as folks get down to brass tacks and start to construct the means by which to realize the potential of ACP.  It is an incredibly exciting initiative, one that might just help us build a new public consensus around higher education as a key societal investment in this new economy.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Celebrating UPCEA's Century of Support for University Outreach

This year, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association will present its 100th annual conference.   UPCEA—under one of its earlier names, NUEA—was my very first professional association.  The anniversary has made me think back about it and about the role of professional associations in the working life of professionals in higher education.
            In the late 1970s, I was working for Penn State Public Broadcasting as Director of Viewer Services.  This included a variety of ways in which we tried to get video resources used in the community, including formal courses delivered by broadcast, cable, and several non-broadcast technologies.  One day, the Station Manager, Dave Phillips, dropped by my cubicle to tell me that the NUEA would be holding its national conference in the spring and that, while there, several institutions were hoping to start a new professional community within NUEA to be called the Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization.  He asked that I attend with two goals: (1) to vote for creation of this new division and (2) if possible, to get us involved. 
            I went and found a small group of ten or so colleagues from the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, Edison State College, Empire State College, and the University of Wisconsin, among others.   We did what we needed to do to establish the Division and then hung out together, since little else on the program dealt with our interests.   In those days, NUEA was dominated by traditional continuing education functions.  The major divisions focused on evening programs, conferencing, and business-related programming.   Distance education was represented by the Division of Correspondence Study.  This was a longstanding and very active professional community within NUEA that encouraged members to share course materials across institutions and helped each other proctor exams for students living in their states.  The Division also worked with a commercial publisher to create an annual catalog of correspondence courses available from all member institutions.  Needless to say, they weren’t real interested in having a bunch of TV folks barging in on their sessions!
            The Educational Telecommunications Utilization Division was a new—and separate—community within the continuing education profession.  Many of the individuals and institutions attracted to educational telecommunications had no history in correspondence study.  It was, truly, a new community.  At most institutions, we in educational media were doubly outsiders.  Like our continuing education colleagues, we were not traditional academics—we were professionals who helped traditional academics extend programs beyond campus.  At the same time, though, we were not traditional continuing education people.  While we reported to the same Dean or Vice President, we operated on different financial models, had different relationships with academic colleagues, and different connections with the communities we served.  As a result, we had few colleagues within our institutions with whom we could share ideas and problems and find solutions.
            The new NUEA Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization gave us access to a community of professionals with whom we could share experiences and problems and find good solutions to apply back home.  We became friends and, while we all looked forward to the annual conferences, we communicated with each other throughout the year.  With the advent of satellite delivery, the community grew.  The University of Kentucky led a regional Appalachian Educational Satellite Program in the late 1970s.  Several major engineering schools combined to create the National Technological University, using satellite to deliver graduate engineering programs to workplaces around the country.   Around the same time, PBS shifted to satellite delivery; it created a national system of satellite uplinks and downlinks—combined with the ability of local PTV stations to deliver satellite-distributed programs to homes.  This stimulated production of tele-courses, a national marketplace—the PBS Adult Learning Service—for sharing course materials, and a well-funded resource—the CPB/Annenberg Project—to fund major new national educational media projects.  As a result, continuing education units at many more institutions began offering video-based courses as part of their local services.  The Division of Educational Telecommunications Utilization grew quickly as a result.
            Over the years, NUEA changed its name several times.  It became the National University Continuing Education Association (NUCEA), then the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) and, most recently, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA).  Each change reflected a shift in how continuing education (which has gone through identity crises of its own, moving from Extension to Continuing Education to Outreach to Engagement at some institutions) related to its institutional home and to its community.
            I stayed active with the association throughout my years at Penn State and the University of Maryland University College and, again, when I returned to Penn State in 1994.  I served on the Board, helped to write principles of good practice, and, in my last year at Penn State, chaired the UCEA annual conference in Vancouver.  It was an important professional community throughout my career.   Its importance—and, indeed, the importance of any professional organization in our field, is both personal and institutional.  Participation in UCEA put me into contact with individuals at other institutions who were dealing with very similar change and institutional development issues at their institutions as I was doing at mine.  This was incredibly valuable at a time when innovations with technology-based outreach required that instructional technology leaders take on significant new roles within our institutions, to develop new organizational relationships and new institutional policies, and to help stimulate new internal and external partnerships. 
            When online learning came along in the mid-to-late 1990s, something surprising happened.  New online learning initiatives often were not housed in the Continuing/Distance Education units of institutions.  Instead, it soon became apparent that many different areas of our institutions were innovating with the new information technology utilities at their institutions.  In some cases, individual academic units were taking the lead, offering key degree programs to both on-campus and off-campus clients.  In other cases, the central Information Technology unit had the lead, while other initiatives were centered in the Provost’s office.  The Sloan Foundation responded by bringing together the institutions that it funded through its Asynchronous Learning Networks program.  I had already been involved in educational media for over 15 years when I attended the first meeting of what became the Sloan Consortium (now the Online Learning Consortium), and I was surprised at how few people I knew from my days in video-based distance education. 
            As online learning expanded, many UPCEA member institutions began to offer online courses under leadership of their Outreach/Extension administrative unit.  UPCEA responded by creating a new Center for Online Learning Leadership and Strategy, led by a friend, Ray Schroeder, who I got to know first through the Sloan Consortium.   I think we will see many opportunities for UPCEA and OLC—and our international counterparts—to work together in the years to come.
            Meanwhile, it is truly wonderful to see UPCEA celebrating its centennial.  It demonstrates that, whatever we call it—Continuing Education, Distance Education, Outreach, Engagement, etc.—it is here to stay and will continue to thrive as our institutions innovate to meet the needs of our global information society.  Congratulations to UPCEA for a century of leadership.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Penn State World Campus: #1 Undergraduate Online Campus

Online Degrees | Online Programs | Get a degree Online | US News - US News

US News and World Report has issued its rankings of online degree programs.  I am happy to say that the Penn State World Campus ranks #1 in undergraduate degree programs.  It also ranked fourth in graduate education and graduate information technology programs, fifth in graduate engineering, and 7th in online MBA programs.  Congratulations to all my colleagues at Penn State!