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  • Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation
    Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation
    by Ben Wildavsky
  • Accountability in American Higher Education (Education Policy)
    Accountability in American Higher Education (Education Policy)
    Palgrave Macmillan
Wednesday
Jan302013

Giving Credit, But Is It Due?

Job listings on Craigslist these days are full of companies looking for young people willing to work for no salary. In New York, internships are available at businesses ranging from advertising agencies in midtown to a “cake studio” in Brooklyn. They want people who are “positive” and “energetic.” And one more thing: they want college students. As one agency looking for an unpaid videographer put it, “PLEASE NOTE: You must be in school and receive school credit in order to join us.”

Why would companies care about college credit? Because employers, students and colleges have all been caught in the complex web of credentialing, job training and financial self-interest that increasingly characterizes American higher education.

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Sunday
Nov042012

Show Me Your Badge


At the end of “Fundamentals of Atomic Force Microscopy,” a short online course offered by Purdue University, students who score at least 60 percent on the final exam will receive an e-mail with a file attached. It will contain a picture of a blue-and-white circle, roughly one inch in diameter, embossed with the stylized image of an atomic force microscope bouncing a laser beam off a cantilever into a photodiode, which is how scientists take photographs and measure the size of very small (nanoscale) things.

The picture is a digital badge, a new type of credential being developed by some of the most prominent businesses and learning organizations in the world, including Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California, the Smithsonian, Intel and Disney-Pixar. The badge movement is being spearheaded by the Mozilla Foundation, best known for inventing the free Firefox Web browser, the choice of nearly one-quarter of all Internet users worldwide.

While they may appear to be just images, digital badges are actually portals that lead to large amounts of information about what their bearers know and can do. They are also being used to improve education itself, by borrowing techniques from video games that keep users playing, until they advance to the next level.

Badges are gaining currency at the same time that a growing number of elite universities have begun offering free or low-cost, noncredit courses to anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to learn. Millions of students have already signed up for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. By developing information-age credentials backed by a wide array of organizations outside the education system, creators of badge programs may be mounting the first serious competition to traditional degrees since college-going became the norm.

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Tuesday
Aug282012

The Siege of Academe

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon on Easter, and I’m standing on a wooden deck in the Corona Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, looking out toward Nob Hill. A man is cooking large slabs of meat on a gas grill as two dozen people mingle with glasses of bourbon and bottles of beer in the cool, damp breeze blowing in off the ocean. All of these people are would-be movers and shakers in American higher education—the historic, world-leading system that constitutes one of this country’s greatest economic assets—but not one of them is an academic. They’re all tech entrepreneurs. Or, as the local vernacular has it, hackers.

Some of them are the kinds of hackers a college dean could love: folks who have come up with ingenious but polite ways to make campus life work better. Standing over there by the case of Jim Beam, for instance, are the founders of OneSchool, a mobile app that helps students navigate college by offering campus maps, course schedules, phone directories, and the like in one interface. The founders are all computer science majors who dropped out of Penn State last semester. I ask the skinniest and geekiest among them how he joined the company. He was first recruited last spring, he says, when his National Merit Scholarship profile mentioned that he likes to design iPhone apps in his spare time. He’s nineteen years old.

But many of the people here are engaged in business pursuits far more revolutionary in their intentions. That preppy-looking guy near the barbecue? He’s launching a company called Degreed, which aims to upend the traditional monopoly that colleges and universities hold over the minting of professional credentials; he wants to use publicly available data like academic rank and grade inflation to standardize the comparative value of different college degrees, then allow people to add information about what they’ve learned outside of college to their baseline degree “score.” It’s the kind of idea that could end up fizzling out before anyone’s really heard of it, or could, just maybe, have huge consequences for the market in credentials. And that woman standing by the tree? She’s the recent graduate of Columbia University who works for a company called Kno, which is aiming to upset the $8 billion textbook industry with cheaper, better, electronic textbooks delivered through tablet computers. And then there’s the guy standing to her right wearing a black fleece zip-up jacket: five days ago, he announced the creation of the Minerva Project, the “first new elite American university in over a century.”

Last August, Marc Andreessen, the man whose Netscape Web browser ignited the original dot-com boom and who is now one of Silicon Valley’s most influential venture capitalists, wrote a much-discussed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. His argument was that “software is eating the world.” At a time of low start-up costs and broadly distributed Internet access that allows for massive economies of scale, software has reached a tipping point that will allow it to disrupt industry after industry, in a dynamic epitomized by the recent collapse of Borders under the giant foot of Amazon. And the next industries up for wholesale transformation by software, Andreessen wrote, are health care and education. That, at least, is where he’s aiming his venture money. And where Andreessen goes, others follow. According to the National Venture Capital Association, investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year. For the huge generator of innovation, technology, and wealth that is Silicon Valley, higher education is a particularly fat target right now.

This hype has happened before, of course. Back in the 1990s, when Andreessen made his first millions, many people confidently predicted that the Internet would render brick-and-mortar universities obsolete. It hasn’t happened yet, in part because colleges are a lot more complicated than retail bookstores. Higher education is a publicly subsidized, heavily regulated, culturally entrenched sector that has stubbornly resisted digital rationalization. But the defenders of the ivy-covered walls have never been more nervous about the Internet threat. In June, a panicked board of directors at the University of Virginia fired (and, after widespread outcry, rehired) their president, in part because they worried she was too slow to move Thomas Jefferson’s university into the digital world.

The ongoing carnage in the newspaper industry provides an object lesson of what can happen when a long-established, information-focused industry’s business model is challenged by low-price competitors online. The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for curing the chronic college cost disease that is driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It may also be an existential threat to institutions that have long played a crucial role in American life.

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Wednesday
Nov232011

The Dissenter

On July 30, 2011, thousands of public school teachers rallied on the southwest corner of the Ellipse, near the White House. Union members mingled with the occasional communist pamphleteer, and, on a temporary stage, a series of activists, students, scholars, and teachers put forward variations on a theme: Standardized tests and corporate interests are ruining public education.

Late in the program, the actor Matt Damon showed up and began chatting amiably with an older, gray-haired woman sitting next to him on the stage. It turned out he wasn’t the only star in attendance. The next speaker “is the torchbearer, the champion for children,” an organizer announced. “Like Britney and Cher and Gaga, in the education world, all you need to say is ‘Diane.’ ”

The gray-haired woman walked to the microphone as the crowd chanted, “Diane! Diane!” “This is a historic day. I’m a historian,” she told them. She spoke for only eight minutes, in short, punchy sentences. “Carrots and sticks are for donkeys.” “Education is a right, not a race.” “Our problem is poverty, not our schools.” When she finished, the crowd began chanting again: “Thank you! Thank you!” 

It was, historically speaking, a strange place for Diane Ravitch to be. There was no indication that, until recently, she had championed many of the policies that were denounced at the rally as tools of racism and oppression. That she had spent years in the inner circle of conservative education policy, advocating for school vouchers, firing incompetent teachers, and shutting down failing schools. Ravitch once assured the public, “Vouchers and charters will not destroy public education. This is an incredible and fantastical fear.” Now she says things like, “Vouchers are a con, intended to destroy public education.”

Improbably, at the end of a four-decade-long career as the nation’s most prominent education historian and a vocal advocate for education reform, Ravitch has emerged as reform’s fiercest critic. Her about-face has made her more famous and influential than she has ever been. Now, pundits, scholars, philanthropists, and education leaders are all asking the same question: What happened to Diane Ravitch? 

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