Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Considering the Voters

This election season, it has been hard not to talk about politics in situations where one normally avoids it.  Recently, I was at an “appreciation dinner” for donors and volunteers.  At my table, we pretty much avoided talking about the individual candidates, but one of the guests could not resist asking, “Why is our country so polarized this election year?”
            There are lots of reasons, of course, but I see three things—three major fault lines where American solidarity has begun to crumble, opening the way for strange politics.
            One of the fault lines is generational.  Over the past few years, Baby Boomers have begun to move past their leadership roles and into retirement.  At the same time, Millennials have arisen as the largest segment of today’s population, ready to take responsibility as the Baby Boomers move out.  It promises to be a messy hand-off of power and responsibility between generations. Millennial democrats were drawn to Senator Bernie Sanders not for his age, but for his ideas—the progressive vision that has faded in the Democratic Party as Congress has become dominated by conservative Republicans.  As the election nears, both major party candidates are early Boomers, born in the 1940s—the oldest candidates for President ever—and unable to communicate a vision that will attract Millennials; thus, many of them are considering a protest vote for Gary Johnson, another Boomer, born in 1953.  The 2020 election should give Millennials their first opportunity to put their own candidate forward; meanwhile, the generation gap gapes open, with none of the candidates really making a coherent case to the emerging majority age group.
            A second fault line is class.  Over the past decade, we have seen the progressive isolation of the American working class—who I will define as men and women who work in manual labor and skilled industrial jobs that do not require college degrees.  This group of Americans has had a difficult time in the United States since the Great Recession of 2007-08.   For years, leading up to the economic downturn, the working class had been largely ignored by both Democrats and Republicans.  We saw the power of labor unions begin to fail.  We saw government increasingly under the sway of big corporations and moneyed interests, including the Supreme Court’s decision that business interests can fund political campaigns as if they were individual citizens.  At the same time, we saw the rise of a new, global information economy that has shaken old assumptions about work and community.  Historically, the Democratic party had been the party of organized labor.  Historically, the Republican Party was the party of small business, including farmers.  However, by 2007, those constituencies often felt abandoned. 
            A third fault line is race and culture.  In 2008—at the height of the recession—we elected our first African-American President.  The working class, already struggling and having increasingly to compete with newer immigrants from Asia and Latin America, now felt abandoned.  The Republican Party determined to totally isolate President Obama.  The “Tea Party” arm within the GOP got started.  Legislative paralysis set in, and the working class, with no one backing them, paid the price.
            Someone recently noted that, this year, the political dividing line is not between the right and the left.  Instead, the divisions cut across these economic, class, and racial fault lines.   The challenge for everyone—in and out of government—is to avoid an earthquake.  In 2017, the new President, the new Congress, and the States will need to set aside the “do nothing” tactics of the last eight years and work together to address the issues facing working Americans.  And, they will need to do so in a way that avoids the traps set by corporate interests—Second Amendment scares, for instance—and that engages working class Americans in decisions about how best to meet today’s challenges.  For instance, while working people do need some federal support, they have also made it clear that they want to protect their individual freedoms.  Finding the balance will require open discussion, increased understanding, and compromise.  It is time to work together.
            Several issues stand out as potential winners in this environment:
·      Tax Reform – Very clearly, our tax system is unbalanced in favor of very wealthy citizens.  Reducing income taxes—state and federal—for working class citizens makes sense at two levels.  First, it leaves them with more net in their paychecks.  Second, it begins to recognize the importance of workers in creating a positive, productive dynamic in the new economy.
·      Wage Reform – We need a minimum wage that allows full-time front-line workers to make a living from their work.  This is fundamental in a democracy. 
·      Free Higher Education – Democrats have proposed making some level of higher education free to students.  This is a natural extension of free elementary and secondary education—a product of the industrial revolution—that recognizes the need for a more educated frontline workforce.  I have elsewhere proposed that we complement this by promoting a year of public service, so that young people make a contribution to their community—and learn about the nature of work—as part of their common educational experience.  Regardless, if the nation needs a better educated frontline workforce in order to compete globally, we need to ensure that young workers have access to education.
            These are examples of initiatives that would empower the working class and help them regain their footing in the new global information society.  It may be one of the most important domestic issues for the new President.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Learning Communities

Last year, I wrote a piece on “Re-Imagining Continuing Education,” which focused on the need for universities to re-invigorate the continuing education function in order to meet the needs of the dramatically changing communities that we serve.  One thing I suggested was that Continuing Education units could adapt the MOOC concept in order to deliver noncredit services to groups within the community.  Today, I’d like to expand a bit on that idea.
            First, though, we need to get beyond the “MOOC” model as it has emerged.  MOOCs were initially advertised as a way to extend noncredit education to under-served areas.  They became shadows of credit-based online courses.  They also became a business for some.  At any rate, true noncredit Continuing Education programming goes well beyond what the public identifies with a MOOC.  It is time to start from scratch.
Continuing Education can best use online learning technologies in a noncredit environment by creating online “learning communities”—systems that allow universities to maintain an ongoing engagement with a client group through which multiple learning opportunities can be developed.   Learning Communities would have several key elements:
·      The ability for participants to enroll and participate in faculty-led noncredit online courses, research transfer seminars, and training workshops.  Some of these may lead to certificates, “continuing education units,” or badges.
·      Access to open educational resources (OERs) developed by the host institution to provide specific research-based content that users can apply in their local working environment.  These may be small training modules, demonstrations of new processes and procedures, backgrounders on regulation, or academic content that members can use to train local staff.  OERs might include video lectures, process demonstrations, computer models, etc.
·      A social media environment that allows members to interact informally with each other and with academic experts on local issues as they arise and to share experiences in using OERs and applying the content acquired from the Learning Community.
·      A data bank where ideas, discussions, etc., can be stored for later access.
            Each Learning Community would be led by faculty in the sponsoring academic unit and administered by the Continuing Education/Engagement/Extension office.  The institution should assume that the Learning Community’s needs may extend beyond the major discipline around which it is organized; one role of the Continuing Education office, then, would be to help attract other disciplines to the Learning Community when the need arises.  The Continuing Education office would also be in a good position to ensure that successful innovations generated by one Learning Community are shared with others. 
            Learning Communities could benefit any number of professional groups that are geographically dispersed or work in different organizations.  Some examples:
·      School Teachers
·      School Administrators
·      Hospital Professionals
·      Farmers
·      Local Government Professionals, such as Borough Managers, Financial Officers, Police, Firefighers, etc.
·      Elected Officials
·      Tourism Directors
·      Small Business Owners/Operators
·      Specialized Professionals
·      Leaders in Civic Organizations
·      Civic Clubs and Service Organizations
·      Librarians
            While each Learning Community would have a distinctive set of services and programs, all might operate under a similar business model that would have three major components:
·      An annual subscription fee would fund basic operation of the Learning Community.  The fee might apply to the organization or to its members.  For instance, a school district could join a Learning Community, giving a specific number of teachers access in a given year; or the district’s membership might be based on the number of teachers in that district.
·      During the year, the Learning Community would offer a variety of formal noncredit training programs.  An individual registration fee would be required of all participants (either paid by the member organization or directly by the participant).
·      A Learning Community may choose to charge a subscriber to download OERs.
            The goal would be to keep membership fees low, with the understanding that the value of the Learning Community increases with the number of members.
            Ideally, each Learning Community would also have an advisory board that would give members a voice in governance.
            Most institutions involved in Continuing Education/Engagement/Extension have some experience with organizing constituents in order to coordinate services.  In many cases, existing business models could be adjusted to the online environment. 
            The Learning Community model offers new ways for colleges and universities not only to extend their academic expertise into the community, but to create an ongoing two-way relationship between faculty and their constituencies for research and technology transfer—and to identify new areas for future research and development.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

In Defense of Hillary Clinton

I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me.”
That is Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.   Throughout her campaign, she has had to deal with what people see as differences between her public persona and her private self, between public speech and private speech, between public actions and private actions.  It is something that all politicians—in fact, all leaders—find themselves dealing with at one time or another.  But for Hillary Clinton, it is an especially open and onerous issue.
Hillary Clinton is not the only female national political figure who has had to deal with differences between her public persona and her private life.  Think of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Think of Jacqueline Kennedy.  But she is the first woman to be nominated by a major party to be President of the United States, and as such she is being examined on issues that most male candidates never have to face.  Questioning her private versus public persona is one of those issues.  Moreover, she has stepped into this limelight not only with more than five decades of public service behind her (see her website for details), but she is doing so in a time when privacy is very difficult to maintain and when one’s past is always in danger of popping up in the present.  Today’s online environment leaves very little to be truly private.   The 24-hour news channels are always hungry for new material.
This came up at the October 9 televised “town hall” debate, where she was asked about comments she made in private meetings that were leaked to the public in an attempt to discredit her.  She used as an illustration, the scene in the move Lincoln where Abraham Lincoln talked privately about the CSA sending a delegation to Washington to pursue peace while publicly stating that no delegation was in D.C.   His goal:  getting Congressional support for a Constitutional amendment on emancipation before the Civil War ended.

             In a recent New YorkTimes Magazine article Robert Draper notes that, since Bill Clinton’s first loss as a candidate for Governor of Arkansas,  Hillary has built defenses between her private self and her public persona.  He quotes Gay White, the wife of the candidate who defeated Bill Clinton, as saying that, as a result of trying to differentiate her private and public personas, Hillary “has not been able to be an authentic person.”
Well, one might ask, have other Presidents been “authentic” people?   What did the public really know about the “authentic” presidents of the past?  Did we really see the authentic Jack Kennedy when he was elected in 1960?  What about the authentic wheelchair-ridden Franklin Roosevelt?  We tend to focus on whether a public person presents an “authentic” public persona, understanding that some things remain private.  Not so, apparently, for a woman.
           There is another important factor in the case of Hillary Clinton.  Draper notes in his article that, when Bill Clinton first ran for governor, his wife was Hillary Rodham. This Baby Boomer had learned the lesson of the women’s movement and had kept her birth name in marriage.  In fact, much of her early career had been as a social advocate for children and families.  As I have noted in a recent blog posting popular culture has long ago buried the experience of the 1960s.  Today’s young adults enjoy the benefits of the social revolution of the sixties—civil rights, women’s rights, gay/lesbian rights, etc. – but most have no idea what the young social activists of the sixties went through to expand opportunity and rights to all Americans.   I cited Carla Bingham’s comment that, “even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much.”
            After that first defeat, Hillary Rodham changed her name to Hillary Rodham Clinton.  She began to accept that the public passions of the sixties needed to be privatized if she was to achieve public change.  The result is a tension between private passion for improving lives and public position on how that improvement can be effected—a tension heightened by the public’s tendency to be over-concerned about the private personality of the person who, I certainly hope, will become our first female President.
            Hillary Clinton has been a public figure for most of her adult life.  Much of that has been beyond the scope of any elected position.  Instead, she has simply devoted her life to the public good, seeking elected office for herself only in the last 15 or so years.  She stands as perhaps the most qualified candidate for President in many decades.  I hope that, as we move into the final weeks before the election, the American public will focus on her qualifications—her real achievements in public life—as well as her qualities as a person.  She is not just the best alternative to her opponent; she is the best candidate for our times.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Revisiting the Sixties

            A few days ago, I volunteered to help encourage Penn State students to register for the vote.  At the start-up meeting, a young woman next to me asked if I had done this sort of thing before.  I answered that my wife and I had gone door to door to promote George McGovern's candidacy.
            "Oh," she said, and then, "I've never heard of him."
            "It was 1972," I replied.  “He was the anti-war candidate against Nixon.”
            "Oh," she said.  "That was before I was born."
            It reminded me of how little people--of any age--talk about the sixties and seventies these days.  When I was in high school back in the early sixties, what did we watch on television?  To be sure, we had our own generation’s icons; there was Star Trek and Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke.  But we also watched movies on TV and, typically, they were movies from the 1940s.  We knew, from television, a lot about our parents' music, their cultural icons, and, of course, their war.  The sixties, though, are different.  They are, for many young people, an unknown place. 
            It is not just politics, of course.  In those days, politics, Vietnam, civil rights, the Great Society program, the youth movement, sexual liberation, music were all intricately inter-connected.  And, as a result, they are all a mystery to many younger people.
            In her new book, Witness to the Revolution,  Clara Bingham notes that “from the start of the academic year in 1969 until the beginning of classes in September 1970, a youth rebellion shook the nation in ways we may never see again.  It was the crescendo of the sixties, when years of civil disobedience and mass resistance erupted into anarchic violence . . .  And yet, the school year of 1969-70 has gone largely overlooked.” (It was, parenthetically, my senior year in college, when student protests brought an early end to spring term at Penn State.) Bingham notes that, in our cultural memory, there is a “mental jump from ’68 to Watergate” (p. xxvi) and, ultimately, to the Reagan Revolution and the nation’s abrupt turn to the right.  Bingham, who herself was born in 1963, notes that “the turmoil and passion of the 1960s was a hazy memory, and even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much” (p.xxxv).
            That may change next year when PBS broadcasts Ken Burns’ new ten-part documentary series The Vietnam War.  The series, according to Burns' website,   "sheds new light on the military, political, cultural, social, and human dimensions of a tragedy of epic proportions that took the lives of 58,000 Americans and as many as three million Vietnamese, polarized American society as nothing has since the Civil War, fundamentally challenged Americans’ faith in our leaders, our government, and many of our most respected institutions, and called into question the belief in our own exceptionalism."
            It should be an interesting year for conversations across generations.  It will be good to see if we, as a society, are able to have an open discussion not only of the war, but of the cultural, social, and political turmoil that was part of the times—a social conversation that we have largely abandoned since the 1970s.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Lesson from Jane Addams Revisited

I first posted the following item back in 2013, at the beginning of President Obama's second term in office.  I am posting it today for two reasons.  First, it is Jane Addams birthday.  Second, the lessons we can learn from her are as relevant today--if not more so--than they were in 2013:

Back in 1919, at the end of the first World War, Jane Addams published an article called "Americanization" in the Publications of the American Sociological Society.  She focused on the different ways in which the idea of "Americanization" was perceived before the War and after it.  Before the war, she wrote,
"Americanism was then regarded as a great cultural task, and we eagerly sought to invent new instruments and methods with which to undertake it.  We believed that America could be best understood by the immigrants if we ourselves, Americans, made some sort of a connection with their past history and experiences."   
However, after the war, she notes, "there is not doubt that one finds in the United States the same manifestation of the world-wide tendency toward national dogmatism, the exaltation of blind patriotism above intelligent citizenship . . ."

There is a lesson here for our times, when our national politics on almost every front (including, still today, immigration) has become weighed down by dogmatism, leaving us little space to find the middle path that makes democracy work.  As Addams herself noted,
"When we confound doctrines with people, it shows that we understand neither one nor the other.  Many men, not otherwise stupid, when they consider a doctrine detestable, failing to understand that changes can be made only by enlightening people, feel that they suppress the doctrine itself when they denounce and punish its adherents."
 Too often, these days, our elected representatives feel themselves morally bound to adhere strictly to a dogmatic vision, either the one they campaigned on or the one held by the people who funded their elections.  As a result, we have seen a virtual paralysis of government.  American democracy is performed through argument and discussion, but ultimately achieved through negotiation and compromise--finding a common ground on which we can all agree to work together as a community.

As a first step, we need to ask our elected representatives to see their colleagues not as adherents to a different dogma, but as fellow citizens.  In turn, they need to educate the public--and lobbyists--that their job is to advance the total community, not just their partisans.   One place where that job can be engaged is in the news media.  Too often, as has been said before in this blog, the news media serve to reinforce the differences in dogma rather than to help viewers find the middle ground where good policy can be developed.

We just began a new four-year political cycle.  Let's hope that Congress and the Administration can find a middle path and that the news media, rather than simply inviting the dogmatic extremists to butt heads on every issue, will foster a fair analysis that will help everyone educate themselves about what can truly be done to find common ground solutions.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Policy Lessons from "Hillbilly Elegy"

I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  It is an amazing book and, I think, and important one.
            I had imagined that Hillbilly Elegy would be a kind of social culture study of the Scots-Irish who came to the U.S. and settled in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia.  However, I was surprised—and then delighted—to see that it was not that.  Instead, it was a very personal memoir by Vance, who grew up as part of a hillbilly clan who had migrated from Kentucky to the steel mill town of Middletown, Ohio.
            What hit me first was Vance’s personal story.  Like him, I grew up in a fractured family without a father and with few male role models, but with a nearby extended family.  My mother, my brother, and I lived with my grandparents in a little one-bedroom house that had been meant as a temporary residence, but which had been the family’s home for a couple of decades already when I was born.   My grandmother’s brothers and sisters had all bought lots up and down the same street when the local farmer decided to sub-divide, so I was rarely out of earshot of a relative.  Down the street was my best friend, whose aunt had married my uncle.  It was all family.   We were also poor—in the midst of an otherwise healthy middle class neighborhood— something we didn’t talk about.  So, it was rewarding to see someone else talk honestly and in detail about growing up in a similarly complex environment.
            Vance, who escaped the poverty of his youth to go to Ohio State and then Yale Law School, gives us an insight into the inner workings of this group of Americans—descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early 1800s and settled in the coal mining area of Kentucky and whose descendants migrated to the coal and steel towns of what is now known as the Rust Belt.   The strong multi-generational family culture, the willingness to fight “outsiders” who threaten that culture, and the traps that tend to keep them from more fully integrating into society are all explored as Vance tells his own story.
            Vance also takes time to analyze the white working class culture.  He notes that the decline of the blue-collar economy has increased cynicism about the position of working people in American society, but that “there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession” (p. 188).   Herein lies one timely lesson of Vance’s memoir.   It is a culture, he observes, that feels increasingly isolated from the core of an American society that has rejected a commitment to its working people.  “If Mamaw’s God was the United States of America,” he writes, “then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion.  The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism has always inspired me, had seemingly vanished” (p. 190).  
Vance asserts that the news media and conservative politicians have encouraged working people to look not to themselves but to government to blame for their inability to succeed in today’s economy.  “There is,” he writes, citing a Pew Economic Mobility Project study, “no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites” (p. 194).
That pessimism is very likely—and ironically—what has drawn working white men and women to the radical right-wing views expressed by Donald Trump and the “alt.right.”  In the mid-twentieth century, labor unions had given steelworkers, miners, and many other occupations a level of financial and social stability that they had never seen.  The very term “redneck” comes from the red bandanas of pro-union coal miners in West Virginia.  The 21st century, however, has seen a weakening of the labor movement as corporations take jobs out of the country in order to avoid reasonable wages for American workers.  Government has chosen not to fight the corporations, leaving workers without support.  While it is very strange that workers would turn to one of the most opportunistic corporate leaders in this election, they clearly hear his pitch, however insincere it may be. 
The question for all of us must be:  how can we provide real opportunities for working people to succeed in the new global information society that has sprung up around us?  This was the message of Bernie Sanders.  Elements of that remain alive in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Politics aside, what should we do?  Some thoughts:
We need to move beyond the current Affordable Care Act to a true national health system that guarantees all citizens access to medical services.  The issue should not be to make health insurance more easily accessible; it should be to make access to health care a right of citizenship.
We need to tax corporations that move jobs overseas or that move corporate operations out of the country in order to avoid taxes.  Corporations that benefit from the American economy must contribute to its health, pure and simple.
We need a minimum wage that allows anyone who works full time to be able to support his/her family.
We need to explore a modern counterpart to the Civilian Conservation Corps to ensure that all Americans have access to work that feeds their families and contributes to the community.  The military must not be the only refuge for people who cannot find employment.  This might also serve as part of a “year of service” expectation for young people between the time they leave school and when they become full-time workers or move on to college.
Finally, we need to make some level of postsecondary education available as a right of all citizens.  This may be a two-year period that would allow someone to gain a license or an associate degree or make a start toward a baccalaureate degree. Today’s economy requires that workers have greater training.  Ensuring that our workforce is prepared for the economy is, ultimately, a national security issue.
These solutions are reminiscent of FDR.  The key, as I read the implications of Hillbilly Elegy, is to empower people rather than put them on the dole.  Underneath it all is the need for government—“of the people, by the people, for the people”—to  respect the needs of citizens rather than cater to corporations.  It is a “build up,” rather than “trickle down” approach to creating a healthy economy.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Free College: Implications for the Curricluum

Over the past few months, national politicians have begun to propose important changes in our public education system.  Specifically, they have proposed that some aspects of higher education be funded in ways similar to how we fund K-12 schooling.  The Obama Administration, for instance, has proposed that community college education—essentially the first two years of a baccalaureate degree—be funded through tax dollars and made available at no additional cost to the student.  Some have expanded this to suggest that all four years of the undergraduate degree at state colleges and universities shoudl be free to the student.
            This is not as revolutionary an idea as it may sound.  At the beginning of the 20th century, it was not unusual for students to leave school at the end of the 8th grade.  In many cases, students were required to pay tuition to attend high school.   However, recognizing that the skills needed for citizens to succeed in the industrial economy, the U.S. made high school universally available—funded by local property taxes—and, soon after, began to require it.  A high school degree became the minimum qualification for many entry-level jobs.
            Let’s assume, then, that the current call to make at least the first two years of college available free to the student will result in at least half of the baccalaureate degree being available as part of basic citizen education.  Over time, then, most American teenagers will continue past twelfth grade to get a two-year postsecondary education—a technical certification, an associate degree, or the first half of a baccalaureate degree. 
            How might this change how we organize education?  Some thoughts:
There already is a fair amount of overlap between the high school and undergraduate general education curricula. If the majority of high school graduates go on to the first two years of college, we should take a fresh look at what both schools and colleges are teaching and strengthen the curricula.  The curriculum overlap is evident in the number of high school grads who can test out of college general education courses and in the increasingly common practice of “dual enrollment” courses that grant both high school and college credit.  In the short run, it would make sense to build a stronger system to support dual enrollment, reducing both the cost of college and the time to degree.  What we need, as I have noted in an earlier posting, is to organize a system that encourages sharing of courses for dual enrollment and to share open educational resources across institutions.
In the long run, though, the movement of more high school students on to free postsecondary education calls for the field to take a fresh look at the combined high school and college general education curricula to see how they can be streamlined and made more effective.  The history/civics curriculum is a good case in point.   Using my local school district as an example, students study civics and basic economic concepts in eighth grade, world history in ninth and tenth, American history in eleventh, and choose two courses from a list of options (Democracy in Action, Current Issues, Economics, Sociology, and Psychology, along with a list of other courses for advanced students) in twelfth grade.  Then, when they move on to college (using Penn State as an example), they may choose from a wide range of humanities and social/behavioral sciences courses as part of the general education distribution requirement.  The challenge, as increasing numbers of students move directly on to college, will be make the entire scope of this requirement more efficient, but also more coherent.  For instance, it would be essential to ensure that “civics”—citizen education in American history, the Constitution, etc.—be included in the first twelve years, so that students are prepared to become voters when they turn 18.  That said, the need to revisit the structure and continuity of the curriculum applies equally to literature and the humanities, math, the sciences, social sciences, and the arts. 
The mid-twentieth century high school curriculum included required courses in home economics (for the girls) and shop (for the boys).  The assumption, I suspect, was that young people needed to have these practical skills in order to take on their adult roles in the home.   While the old model assumed social roles that were already out of date by the 1960s, we might ask:  what practical skills must students have today to be effective adults, regardless of their vocational/professional choices?  
            In the process, curriculum policy makers might also consider the role of service in universal education.  One implication of the free college movement is that many, if not most, young people will continue their role as students into their adult years.  The new curriculum might consider how to give students the opportunity to explore life options.  Perhaps a year of service—or other kinds of extended practical experiences that get students involved in their communities—should be built into the new curriculum.
            It may be many years before college becomes a societal expectation for most students.  However, we should begin exploring the implications today. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Melting Pot" or "Mosaic"?

A few years ago, I was honored to chair the annual conference of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.  The meeting was to be held in Vancouver, British Columbia.  As a result, the planning committee included colleagues from both Canada and the U.S.  As we talked about the focus of the conference, an interesting distinction arose between how Canadian and U.S. continuing education professionals perceived the population they served.  Americans on the committee used the term “melting pot” to describe how the U.S. understands our immigration-based society.  The Canadians, on the other hand, talked about their equally diverse culture as a “cultural mosaic.”  The different perspectives led to some interesting conversations about the role of continuing higher education in our communities.   
            That distinction has come again into sharp focus in light of the recent killings—by police and against police—in the United States.  After the Dallas, Texas, killing of five police officers former Illinois Congressman—now a radio talk host—Joe Walsh tweeted a warning to President Obama, declaring that “This is now war” and that “Real America is coming after you.”  His tweet was a reminder that much of the cultural turmoil that we are seeing in our politics today can be traced back to the election of our first mixed-race President.  What started with the Tea Party’s pledge to “take back America” and the “birther” campaign against President Obama has contributed to what has emerged as a broad racial and cultural divide, despite the fact that the President is popular among the majority of Americans.
            The problem with the “melting pot” image is that we don’t all melt in at the same rate. In the end, it turns out, those who melted in more quickly see themselves as “real Americans” while others remain, in the eyes of these self-appointed “real” Americans, outsiders.  
The Canadians have it right.  It is better to see our immigration-based society as a mosaic, with each new group bringing unique strengths and cultural characteristics to a community the identity of which lies in the texture, color, and shape of each individual piece, without which the “real” America would be incomplete.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thinking Strategically About the Second Generation of Online Learning

I was privileged to participate in the first generation of online learning.  The shift from print and broadcast television to satellite to online delivery was a true revolution in how colleges and universities define distance education and engagement in the 21st century.  Today, as a new cadre of leaders step forward to guide the field into its second generation, I’d like to share some thoughts on where the field might go. 
What follows is not about technology.  I am sure we will continue to see technological advances in the coming decade, as we saw in every decade since the 1960s.  Instead, I want to focus on the larger issue of how the second generation of online learning can contribute to an institution’s traditional mission of community outreach, service, and engagement.   The first generation of online learning made every institution capable of reaching well beyond its physical campus to serve individuals with undergraduate and graduate courses, certificates, and degree programs.  This is now a mature function at many of the pioneering institutions.  However, other aspects of outreach and engagement have suffered.  Noncredit professional development and research and technology transfer, for example, have lost what once was a central position in the outreach mission at many institutions.  The strategic question for the next generation is:  how can the strategic use of online learning revitalize—perhaps even revolutionize – the institution’s engagement with important communities that it serves?   I’ll focus on three kinds of engagement that can be strengthened by online learning.
1.         Supporting K-12 Education
            For three decades during the Cold War—from the 1960s into the 1990s—colleges and universities—especially university public TV licensees—supported K-12 education by creating video lessons at all grade levels that were then broadcast over both university-owned and community-owned public television stations.  At Penn State, for instance, we developed instructional series such as Investigative Science in Elementary Education (ISEE), which offered video demonstrations of various natural phenomena; What’s in the News, a weekly social sciences series for middle grades; and Art for the Day, a series on artistic expression.  We broadcast these and many other series that we acquired from other sources, every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the school year and supported those broadcasts with teacher guides and in-service professional development programs for teachers.  That service faded as nonbroadcast media—videocassette and videodisc, primarily—became easily available for teachers, obviating the need for a centralized distribution system.
            Today, the issue is not the Cold War but technology-driven globalization, which is bringing new social and economic challenges to communities that now have to compete in a global information society that has made it essential for young people to leave high school with skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM disciplines—that they will need in order to move into careers that require these skills.  We can envision several ways in which colleges and universities can use online learning to help K-12 schools address these curricular needs and, in the process, produce graduates who can move on to advanced study in the areas most needed by the new global information economy:
            Dual Enrollment Courses  Online learning makes it relatively easy for high school students to take online courses from a college/university and simultaneously earn both college credit and credit toward high school graduation.  It requires an agreement between the two institutions.  Students benefit by earning advance credit toward their college careers, reducing the time to degree and reducing the overall cost.  Some states provide funds to support the cost of tuition and fees.  The offering college/university benefits by filling vacant “seats” in an online class, by creating a relationship with potential future undergraduates, and by visibly serving the needs of their local communities.
            Curriculum Support through Open Educational Resources  In addition to offering full courses, colleges and universities can support K-12 education by providing curriculum support through OERs—online lectures, demonstrations, simulations, experiments, etc.—much as they did in the days of broadcast instructional TV.  In some cases, these could be excerpted from full courses.  In other cases, faculty (with support from the same instructional media design teams that work with them on full courses) could prepare material that address specific instructional needs at different grade levels.  When done at scale, this kind of effort requires a close working relationship between schools and the university, to identify needs, to evaluate available OERs, and to organize online delivery and support for the final products.  In the days of ITV, production of new materials was often funded by the state Department of Education, while delivery costs were shared by the schools and the originating public TV station.  While online learning has become a source of new revenue for many institutions, this service would be self-supporting but not necessarily a source of net revenue, unless the institution could tap into a national system for distribution of OERs.
2.         Engaging Professionals and Employers  One advantage of online learning is that it allows us to build communities, to bring together people of similar interests across wide geographic areas.  This offers a special opportunity for universities to engage employers to ensure that all employees, regardless of location, have access to professional development opportunities.  This can operate at the state level or nationally and internationally.  It can bring together specialists who otherwise would be too sparsely distributed to be able to justify a traditional classroom activity.  Online learning has already been well used to deliver undergraduate and, especially, postbaccalaureate certificates and degree programs that target dispersed professional specialties in a particular employer or group of employers.  It can also include more targeted services—OERs, TED-type presentations, and webinars that communicate new research findings and technology transfer opportunities, noncredit management or process training, updates on new regulatory policies, etc.   The range of services and delivery modes can be grounded in an agreement between the university and the employer or group.
3.         Promoting Inter-Institutional Collaborations
Both of the initiatives described above can benefit from inter-institutional collaborations.  In fact, institutional cooperation and collaboration may be critical to achieving sustained success.   In the K-12 area, for instance, collaborations that allow one institution to bring to its local schools OER resources from multiple institutions around the country, making it easier for the institution to meet curricular needs across grades and disciplines.  Equally important, working within a network of institutions also will help to reduce cost and duplication of effort, while building quality standards and opening opportunities for collaborative content development, bringing faculty from multiple institutions together to improve the K-12 curriculum and to respond to regional needs.
Inter-institutional collaborations built around the needs of specific professions and/or employers can also provide additional value to both the participating universities and the client organizations.   Such collaborations can help faculty from participating institutions identify opportunities for collaborative research and consulting with the client, as well as opportunities to develop courses that complement those of other institutions, so that a student can work toward a major at one institution and a minor at another.  The opportunities for collaborative teaching, research, and technology transfer targeted to real needs in the profession are significant.
Similarly, multi-national collaboration among universities offering online programs can serve to internationalize the students’ experiences, providing new insights on subject matter, better preparing students to succeed in a global, multi-cultural workplace.  At the same time, employers will come to know that their local university will meet their needs by bringing the best expertise available, not just what is available locally.
Collaboration is not a new idea in our field.  Over the decades there have been several important inter-institutional collaborations around media-based distance education.  Examples include the National Technological University (NTU), the American Distance Education Consortium, the To Educate the People Consortium, etc.  The early days of the online era saw collaborations around the needs of the nuclear power industry and other industry groups.  The Great Plains Inter-Institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) stands as a model for institutional collaboration to improve access to needed disciplines across state lines.  The Worldwide University Network (WUN) is an excellent example of research universities that have come together to collaborate around applied research needs in areas such as climate change, public health, and understanding cultures.  It is not difficult to identify institutions that are innovating in one area or another.   What is missing today, however, is a national organizational infrastructure that encourages and supports innovation by providing policy structures and business models for collaboration.   The K-12 OER environment, for instance, would greatly benefit from national partnerships among producing universities to coordinate access to OERs from different institutions and manage the sharing process.  We need a system that is focused specifically on K-12 curriculum needs and through which we can help teachers identify needs, evaluate materials, share lesson plans and support materials within the community and, perhaps, offer professional development opportunities.  In the days of video, PBS and several regional networks provided that umbrella.  We need to build an infrastructure to support different kinds of collaboration today. 
Developing a Strategy 
A useful first step would be for a foundation or other recognized leadership organization to convene interested institutions to explore the internal and inter-institutional policy, planning, and business issues that must be resolved in order to develop successful collaborations at the national level.  The result would be a community of institutions committed to working together to use our now mature online learning systems to meet the needs of schools and employers at a scale that will open new opportunities for innovation.