Skip to content

food fights and thresholds

April 2, 2014

thresholdHigh school diplomas and college degrees suggest that something as incremental as learning can be subdivided by broad markers, that for example, you gradually improve your reading until Dickens makes sense to you, you remember some history and science and a smattering of civics, and then the world attaches to you a high school diploma, while you go on about your learning from there.  Your growing proficiency was gradual and invisible, but its certification is explicit and punctuated.

The implied precision is laughable, this sense that suddenly in your 18th spring, you and everyone else your age – all over the country – have achieved the same thing.  No wonder adolescents are cynical.

The cognitive dissonance rings louder up here in postsecondary, amplified by our gigantic differences in majors, academic calendars, institutional rigor.  Even from the same college, two baccalaureate degrees can mean very different things.  So is there a same thing that they also mean?

This question is coming up now in the California State University, where administrators and faculty are looking for some shared way to determine the right number of academic credits to put into a degree.  In general the faculty pulls toward more units, the administration toward fewer.

The effort is complicated by conflicting senses of how the decision should be shared.  Both sides agree that “faculty own the curriculum,” but neither sees a full role for the other in setting the size of that curriculum.  It’s been a trying discussion, made harder in part because each behaves as if it’s somehow magnanimous to discuss it with the other.

For reasons that are unclear to me, some subjects have defined the bachelor’s degree more expansively than others.  My own undergraduate major was in French literature.  (A safe fallback, in case I couldn’t find a job as a state bureaucrat.)  I blew through the requirements in about three years and took up the slack in arts and other humanities, especially film.  Had I instead taken a bachelor’s in metallurgical engineering or jazz piano, the same credential would have taken almost twice as long.

Ask the pianists and metallurgists why this should be and you get one of two answers, neither of them very satisfying:

a.            because that’s how our profession defines a baccalaureate.  (Yes.  And that’s how the rest of us define a tautology.)

b.            because that’s the minimum learning you need to practice the profession as a graduate.

That second one gets more traction among my colleagues.  My devastating rejoinder:  so what?  Then say the entry level degree for your job is more than a baccalaureate.  Say that to get a job you need a masters, or a doctorate, or something else.  This solution works fine for California’s attorneys, dentists, second-grade teachers, architects, and for that matter college professors.  The big difference:  all of them have a fully credentialed off-ramp after four years of college, while the engineers and pianists do not.

In earlier internecine CSU food fights I’ve thrown some spaghetti, but on this one I’m politely sitting out.  It’s just too hard for me to see both sides, so I can’t participate constructively.

But it does have me wondering whether these degrees are set at the wrong size altogether.  If we leave behind credit hours and go to outcomes, will they need to cover a broader swath than you see with the baccalaureate?  It would be easier for me to tolerate wide differences in time to degree if the degrees really were signifiers of entry-level proficiency, instead of just time served.

1spaghettiwall1But the more I think about it, the more I think we need to count outcomes in smaller units, not bigger ones.

There’s an effort in the California Community Colleges along these lines, called the Threshold Project.  The tacit premise is that it’s hard to say when someone’s done learning a whole domain, but easier to know when they understand just one critical piece of it, a “threshold concept.”  Like a doorway, it’s a visible marker you cross on your way to understanding the rest of the field, with a clear before and after.  (I’m oversimplifying a bit.  Friends who lead the project point out that sometimes students backslide to the pre-understanding side of the doorway.  For the full story see this two-page explication, highly recommended.)

A couple of examples:  as you first learn chemistry and understand that molecules are comprised of atoms, you need to internalize the truth that the combinations follow rules, based on numbers of electrons.  No one gets this instinctively; you have to work at it, and until it makes sense to you, the rest of chemistry never will.  So you balance equations and write out atomic structures, and recognize the same compounds over and over, and eventually you grasp the threshold concept of covalent bonding.  Now — and only now – you can move on to the next one.

Another example comes from my home discipline, screenwriting (not French).  Aspiring screenwriters are often readers, and as fans of fiction they like narrating.  But for most movies the point is to make it look like the story told itself, as if we just happen to be watching people interact in a compelling sequence.  It’s very hard to write that way, and you can’t even begin until you first internalize the truth that movies only look spontaneous, because the narrative is deliberately self-effacing, another threshold concept.

In any discipline, as you identify these little comet tails of visible learning a couple of good things happen.  First, faculty can agree on a shared set of assignments – student work samples – that tell anyone in the field whether a student has successfully stepped through a given doorway.  For learning outcomes assessment, ePortfolio construction, and the recognition of credit this is priceless.  And second, administrators can start to see something portable, interchangeable, and akin to currency in higher ed, only more meaningful than a credit hour.

Put our attention there, and disputes over the size of the degree would be on better footing.  We might even holster our spaghetti.

join our band

March 15, 2014

explore_BBBand_P_6_65lrgMy office is hiring a leader for our new project to improve the first two years of college for majors in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Details and an application are available here, from the CSU Office of the Chancellor.  Let’s make music together.  But hurry:  the deadline is soon, and the metronome’s ticking.

file cabinets

March 4, 2014

SanFrancisco1851aMy home state of California clings to its boomtown roots.  Our public sector had some stable funding in the mid-20th century, but it never really took; with Proposition 13 in the late 1970s we capped the stabilizing influence of property taxes, tightening the link between state revenue and income taxes, which are more vulnerable to the business cycle.

As a result, riding the state’s public sector fortunes, as I do, is, uh, exciting.   Two years ago my office was only 2/3 occupied, and we shared stogies and warmed our hands over trashcans.  Now the lights are back on, the copiers are new, and I miss the old railroad songs.  And so help me we are crowded for space – and the recovery is still new.

I look around and wonder, Who are these people?  Got me.  I’ve added some, but on grant money and not the public dime.  I guess if you multiply that position creation over enough of my colleagues, you get a space crunch.  And now we’re wondering where to put the newbies.

On a campus the decision would be easy:  clear out the social gathering places that make education meaningful and engaging and put in a bunch of offices, preferably for promoting student success.  But here there are fewer options:  offices are all we have.

Except for the file rooms.  I’m showing you a picture because even the people who work here seldom see them.IMG_20140301_110708_433

Indulge me:  I’m more paperless than most, and don’t use file cabinets at all.  Partly it’s because I travel so much, and paperless means I can pack whatever I need into a flash drive, or the cloud.

But I don’t see much traffic in our file rooms from others, either, including the ones who stay put.  It’s just a drag to make and label physical folders all the time.

So to me, the way to create some offices would be by putting windows and desks into these rooms, and relegating our old memos to Iron Mountain.  But when I suggested it I just got funny looks.

Still, it got me thinking.  The file cabinet’s emerging obsolescence may be a sign of the changing nature of work, information, and the way we interact to get things done.

When I first worked in offices, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the relationship of one organization to the rest of the world was clearly hub and spoke.  You had the parties you dealt with, and then radiating out from those were the different things you did with them.  Some typical examples:


This construction of relationships implies a worldview, and shares some qualities with 20th century universities and their course catalogs.  It prizes separateness and categorization.  It eschews intermingling, ambiguity, and conflicts of interest.  And it can impede multi-party collaboration.

Yet ours is a century in love with connecting — with ad hoc teams, multinational collaborations, and one-off projects and relationships that defy the tree-branch-twig hierarchy of the file cabinet.

So what I’m wondering:  is the decline of the file cabinet a symptom of this change, or in part responsible for it?

There are precedents in nature for developments working as both a cause and an effect.  For example, paleoanthropologists will tell you that our propensity for language, mental acuity, and dexterity all evolved together, and probably drove each other:  speech and manipulation seem to have improved our thinking at least as much as they were improved by it.

In other words, the tools can catalyze as much as the ideas.  We may forge nimbler alliances when we don’t have to label the folder they’re in.

Something about throwing everything together with metadata and tags is freeing, but I’ll also admit it has its limits.  (I’d be pretty frustrated if L.A.’s Central Library stopped sorting its books.)

But as we rebuild our ways of doing business here in the public sector – as the employees, projects, and paradigms come drifting back into the shanty town – we have an opportunity to leave out an assumption or two.

news from Fullerton

February 17, 2014

DESERT STORMIn a recent article in Harpers, Andrew Cockburn laments weak support for the A-10, an air force jet designed for close maneuvers and precision attack.  Its distinctive feature is the cockpit, through which operators may look before they shoot.

This puts it on the wrong side of technological fashion, which prizes video assist, remote engagement, and planes without pilots.  Cockburn argues that those are all fine but more prone to error – and when you’re laying waste, mistakes are unacceptable.

That hazard of distance reminded me of my job.  In the absence of actual classes and students, everything my colleagues and I do in the system office is secondhand, like relying on a TV screen instead of looking up.

In such a context, our original ideas are usually lame.  We do better when we watch for something promising to emerge on a campus, and then spread it around.  Forgetting that is dangerous, and can result in heavy collateral damage.

IMG_20140207_105805_584I recently took a chance to check in at CSU Fullerton.  I was there to meet with Amir Dabirian, head of IT.  He and institutional researcher Ed Sullivan are trying to get systematic about defining certain high-impact practices, to live up to a campus commitment to get them into more of the required curriculum.

In my office we’ve been working on this for a while, since system-level definitions of high-impact practices could help us evaluate their cost effectiveness, and build them into state curriculum.  At a recent staff meeting to discuss this, we doodled a way of laying out the different practices and offices on one axis, against another showing what we expect them to do for students.

So, toward the end of my breakfast with Amir, he hit me with a chart identical to our latest doodle:

Fullerton HIPs grid

Get it?  We would be tracking not just the sponsoring office (e.g. “service learning”) but also what we expect the practice to bring about (e.g. “investment of time and effort”).  This is policy wonk nirvana.  And one of those rare, gratifying moments when the view through the cockpit matches the monitor.

From there I went to a campus-wide meeting on the outcomes of general education, jointly sponsored by Fullerton’s academic senate and its provost.

peter-nwosu-thumbFullerton’s new Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Peter Nwosu, kicked off the meeting with remarks that put what could have felt like a forced march into a context of nobility and purpose.

This blog doesn’t do justice to how moving it was.  Many of the attendees asked him for a copy.  My favorite part was his explicit removal of the turf and resource battles that plague most curriculum discussions:

Today’s dialogue is not about funding. It is about what makes our students unique. What gives us institutional uniqueness is the common experience our students acquire through an essential core of knowledge defined by a robust GE Program, a core of knowledge, which prepares our students to navigate a constantly changing and interdependent global knowledge economy.

And then he threw in this quotation from Warren Goldstein, former chair of the History Department at the University of Hartford:

A liberal arts education, even vaguely defined and “core”-less, is the only intellectual antidote to the overwhelming flood of information and genuine technological change we are experiencing.”

However, “A liberal arts education that works teaches students to read and to reason; to learn something about the range of human expression and experience; to consider the great literature and contending ideas of Western and world civilization; to recognize and construct arguments; and to have a sense of humility about the lives and minds that have gone before. It also makes possible a kind of citizenship without which democracy crumbles.

the limits of rules

January 28, 2014

Dancing with Robots

At last week’s annual meeting of the AAC&U, Frank Levy delivered the closing plenary.  It was a summary of his work in “Dancing with Robots, Human Skills for Computerized Work,” a look at how technology is changing the nature of human life and work, and therefore influencing what we need from education.

I like these observations and draw on them often, describing how robots and computers are acting like other kinds of outsourcing, effectively offshoring high-end administrative jobs to virtual lands.

The key to automation, Levy pointed out, is that a job has to be reducible to rules.  To a computer, playing chess is far easier than walking into a room and finding the chessboard.  (He thinks we’re a long way from the truly self-driving car.)

Those remaining spaces of human judgment – the tasks that require adaptability, nuance, intuition – are also the ones left behind by my own sphere, public policy.  There is simply a point beyond which you can’t write rules, and need to authorize someone to step in and decide.

Levy observed that if you want to keep your job, and win the next one, then you need to exploit our remaining competitive advantages:  discernment, creativity, flexibility.  As Levy put it, “You’re drilling your students on memorizing a set of facts?  Great.  Then they’re going up against Watson.”  But what computers are bad at, so far at least, is rolling with the punches.


There’s another way this picks up where policy leaves off.  A few weeks ago I was meeting with researchers from around California, who are all contributing to an evidence base for changing the state’s general education and transfer.

Despite my best efforts, the researchers kept coming back to the value of faculty meeting regularly to talk across institutional lines, ideally to compare samples of student work, and calibrate their expectations for mid-college learning.

DSC01184This is state-of-the-art higher ed thinking but a public policy nightmare.  The current GE transfer policy runs nearly on autopilot, with questions of course credit essentially outsourced, delegated, or automated.  The result is what Levy predicts:  fast, cheap, and hidebound.

I went into this reform project hoping participants would rewrite those rules, applying some temporary attention to a moribund status quo, and creating a new and improved structure that would hold us for the next few decades.

What we’re finding is that there’s no such thing.  Instead, the value resides in the sheer work, collaboration, and attention of this project itself.

So what do we do when the grants run out?

Student-Centered Curriculum

January 18, 2014

This is a presentation I’ve made in recent visits to out-of-state institutions and public colleges and universities in California.  You can download a full copy at the link to the right, or email me or leave a reply below to respond.

Student Centered Curriculum.


January 7, 2014

GE boosters like me point out that our graduates will face more careers than we did, and certainly more than our parents and grandparents did.  The new premium on versatility supports our calls for broad learning in the baccalaureate:


We argue that it will be easier for our students to negotiate those new, unpredictable transitions if they leave us knowing how to approach unscripted problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

To that I’d add that we should also be ready with better means of Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA.  We want something more nuanced and authentic than traditional transcript evaluation to see what students already know, and what they still need.

So, generous helpings of general education on the first round, and nimble PLA for the later ones, even if nothing else were changing.

But other things are.

As I write this we’re in year two of an advertising blitz from Prudential Financial called Bring Your Challenges, admired by its peers in the life insurance industry.  It’s characterized by billboards and TV spots chirping that one in three babies born today will live past a hundred, that our own retirement will be of unprecedented duration, health and mental acuity, and that we could all be in for a really long stretch of personal fulfillment.

The purpose of these sunny predictions, of course, is to frighten us into putting more of our assets under Prudential management.  The subtext:  better save a pile of money.

As pieces of rhetoric they deserve the admiration, with a friendly Harvard prof delivering the good news, and visual layouts that present outliers as though they’re averages:

stickersYet for all their manipulation, the messages are essentially true:  we are going to be around longer.  But if history’s any judge, we won’t spend the extra years in idylls of self-realization; we’ll be working.  (A recent report suggests college grads may be likelier than others to delay retirement, since their work tends to be more rewarding and less physically taxing.)

This extension of lifespans and contraction of career-spans will have a compounding effect, as we cram more walks of life into each life:

futureAnd to me, that adds a third item to higher ed’s longevity-related to-do list.  Yeah, we need a muscular GE core, and yeah, we need better PLA.  But we also need to prepare our grads better for something humans haven’t been very good at, and that’s changing our minds.

When you look backward you notice the power of generational shifts.  To take some prominent examples from U.S. history, electing a Tennessee “ruffian” like Andrew Jackson (John Quincy Adams’s characterization) was easier for voters who’d grown up knowing nothing but independence from England.  For their forebears, appearing “presidential” meant hailing from the Virginia and Massachusetts aristocracies.

Likewise, it took four generations after the Emancipation Proclamation for a critical mass of Americans to find segregation and Jim Crow laws intolerable, and another two after that to elect an African-American president.  As long as our lives are relatively short, progress is easier:  this isn’t people changing, so much as a people changing.

In less prominent spheres the experience is similar.  Those who work in higher education may see annual updates to the Mindset List, produced by a pair of professors at Beloit College to show how incoming freshmen view the world.  An excerpt from this year’s list, for the cohort born in 1995:

8. Having a chat has seldom involved talking.

9. Gaga has never been baby talk.

10. They could always get rid of their outdated toys on eBay.

11. They have known only two presidents.

12. Their TV screens keep getting smaller as their parents’ screens grow ever larger.

13. PayPal has replaced a pen pal as a best friend on line.

14. Rites of passage have more to do with having their own cell phone and Skype accounts than with getting a driver’s license and car.

15. The U.S. has always been trying to figure out which side to back in Middle East conflicts.

16. A tablet is no longer something you take in the morning.

The Mindset List, like presidential politics, highlights an upside to the cap on human longevity:  like forest fires, our mortality rejuvenates us.  It gets us out of the messy and difficult work of personal recalibration as times change.

And as we live longer, that escape hatch is shrinking.

Here’s a thought experiment:  think of something culturally abhorrent to you, like polygamy or incest.  Say, routine and profound invasions of your privacy on behalf of public health, or to prevent gun violence.  Then picture living to the age of 120, and finding yourself among descendants for whom such practices are completely acceptable, legally protected, and even celebrated.

It may not be with these examples, but it will happen.  To us maybe, and to our students definitely.

How do we educate for that?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers