image credit: galleryhip.comPicture life a couple of centuries ago, when the only way to communicate is in person or with a physical letter. If you need to get a message to someone fast you send it by mail; if it’s really urgent you send a guy on a horse. Phishing is prevented by wax seal.

Against this world and these expectations, the telegraph was practically occult. There was something otherworldly about getting intimate, direct contact with someone who wasn’t physically there. (For a really cool account of this, see Haunted Media by Jeffrey Sconce.) The usually female operators were treated as mystics, celebrities of their day.

Fast forward fifty years. In the early 1890s, PowerPoint was still by Magic Lantern. World travelers like Nelly Bly and Mary Kingsley made money by music hall lecture, sharing their experiences in a sequence of illuminated stills.

Against this world and these expectations, people who in 1895 filed into the world’s first movie theater, in Paris, were in for a shock. They took their seats, saw an image of a train, and then it moved toward them. People screamed, and some ran for their lives. A woman fainted.

You can see all 50 seconds of that same movie right here:

What I find interesting about these two stories is how different the experiences are with hindsight. The moving train is anything but convincing – unless you’ve never seen a photograph move before. The blips of telegraphy sound to us like noise, not a disembodied consciousness.

We know pre-verbal infants are learning when they’ve expressed surprise. For example, if we want to know the day they acquire the beginnings of number sense, we hold up three toys, pass them behind a screen, and then show only two coming out the other side. For the newborn it’s all meaningless, but the day comes surprisingly soon when the baby has formed an expectation, defied by the result, and has to stop and stare.

For educators those are all powerful tells of cognitive growth: the society lady fainting in the back of the auditorium, the goose bumps on Morse’s arms, the slack-jawed infant. And all of them are expressing powerful learning experiences not because the event itself was so significant, but because it departed so profoundly from what was already known.

K-12 educators coined the term “scaffolding” for the sequential nature of learning and instruction. In higher ed we try to control the effect by making some courses the prerequisites to others. Before he retired last year, geologist Ed Nuhfer routinely had his students take a knowledge survey at the beginning of each course – sometimes before each class meeting – just to bring their expectations into sharper focus before he tampered with them.

I was reminded of this by a spate of recent articles relating to higher education’s likely future:

They’re mutually reinforcing, but that first one is the biggy: however it looks decades from now, higher education will succeed by approaching learning developmentally.  We’ll overturn the current, highly standardized model of delivery, using technology and big data to customize the learning at scale, calibrating it to where each learner is at entry.

In that world, we shouldn’t be surprised to find mentors and students paired fleetingly and opportunistically, the Uber of Ed.  Behind the scenes, my successors in the bureaucratia will connect such experiences to maximize personal, indelible responses, driven by the learner’s practicality and curiosity.

And surprise.

Melvil Dewey, Albert Munsell, and STEM

dewey-decimal-system-and-books-filed-thereinMelvil Dewey created the Decimal Classification System in use by libraries, the one many of us learned in grade school, and for which the 500s will always be science and the 800s always literature.  He mapped our knowledge in 1876, and since then the terrain has shifted somewhat, and grown a lot.

I was wondering how you’d represent the distortions introduced over time, as some areas of our interest and understanding swell relative to others.  Turns out someone has, using the online catalog of the British Library, and the upshot is the map of quadrilaterals above.  The robust green areas in the upper right are “technology,” for which Melvil originally budgeted 10%, the 600s.  In the last 140 years the tech portion has more than doubled, to 20.86% of our bibliographic bandwidth.

By contrast, it’s been a rough century-plus for philosophy and psychology, the diminutive beige area at the bottom right.  Also originally budgeted at 10% (in this case, the 200s), P&P now weigh in at a paltry 1.56%.  Even pairing them has lost its sense.  (My thanks to Cameron Mence of Melbourne, Australia, who posted this on his blog Subroutine, highly recommended for its other mathematical visualizations and whimsy, as well as some important disclaimers on the methodology behind this image.)

This illustration of our urge to subdivide proportionally, and its perils, reminded me of a scientific principle behind color.  Most of our senses faithfully convey one-dimensional information to us along a single axis.  So for example, a surface that gets warmer as we touch it feels only warmer, and not also smoother.  Sound that’s higher in pitch strikes our ears as merely higher, and not also as salty.  Not so with color, which is really just differences in wavelength, a simple, single-number variable.  So if we perceive a pure, single-wavelength color of say, green, it looks to us categorically different from the pure, single-wavelength color of red, and we map them as opposites on a color wheel.  But they’re not opposites; in the physics sense, green is just red singing at a higher pitch, and purple sings higher still.

Albert Munsell, a contemporary of Dewey’s, tried to map our sense of color into a three-dimensional space, where the three axes represented hue, saturation, and value, along evenly spaced gradients that matched human perception.  Try as he might, symmetry eluded him.  He thought he would get a sphere, but all he ever got were irregular shapes like this one:


I was recently thinking about Melvil and Albert, while commiserating with a colleague in the CSU Office of the Chancellor about our misguided efforts to improve outcomes in STEM education.  Stay with me.

Albert-munsellA challenge with courses in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is that they are hard to pass.  Defenders of those disciplines will say that’s why successful graduates in those fields are better paid.  Maybe.

I think it’s also possible that, like libraries and paint stores, our 21st century universities are served only partially by early 20th century taxonomies, and their zeal for uniformity.

Melvil_DeweyThat is, it’s possible that the contours of a field like, say, fluid dynamics, just don’t fit comfortably inside three-credit-hour boxes.  What if I can successfully learn the gist of art history in fifteen weeks, but for trigonometry I would do better with, I don’t know, nineteen?  Right now, state university students don’t get that option.  They either figure out trig in fifteen weeks flat, or they take the whole thing over again.

As part of the California State University’s current student success push, well intentioned presidents and provosts are ranking their college deans by pass rates.  Get most of your students through on the first try?  Gold star for the College of Arts and Letters.  Need longer?  Darts and ridicule, and fewer faculty lines, for the College of Subjects That Use Calculus.

I get it, and I’m proud of all we’ve done to prioritize success for all students, in every major.

But I think, at our best, we may be like libraries and overdue for a rebalancing of our categories.  At our worst we’re like Munsell before his tactical retreat from symmetry, and still obstinately hammering our curriculum into a shape that it won’t fit.

Sisyphus and organizational learning

sisyphus at carnegieIn a post last spring I shared an image from the Carnegie Foundation that compares change management to slowly pushing a ball up a hill. It highlights the challenge of making long-term progress toward educational reform within the shorter-term contexts of public policy, grant funding, and the state economy.

A particularly astute reader at Sacramento State commented that state bureaucracies (like, say, the one that employs me) are responsible for much of the gravity opposing Sisyphus. Here’s my favorite part of what he wrote:

When the force moving a ball up a hill is countered by an even stronger force pushing it back, the result is at best inertia. Pretty soon the air gets squeezed out of the ball.

It makes sense for administrators to advise would-be reformers to garner support from their colleagues before trying to make any big change. They know the strategy is ineffective and therefore does not challenge the status quo. They know it is a surefire way to keep things on track according to policies and executive orders.

As the frequent steward and occasional author of those policies and executive orders, I have to ask how responsible I am for that paperwork weighing on him and other reform-minded educators. And the answer is “very.”

I’ve been thinking about it since then, trying to figure out why I’m nonetheless hopeful for change. I chalk it up to a few things:

  1. Temperament. I often find myself on the optimistic end of whatever spectrum of opinion I’m in. Can’t seem to help it. Savvy colleagues have learned to apply a mental discount to my predictions. But this time, swear to God, I think I’m right. We are better positioned for positive change – at least in my setting – than we’ve been for a while. And despite fifty-plus years of effort, state systems of universities haven’t yet extinguished the creativity and passion in the rank and file of higher ed, even here in the big ones. On the contrary, I think we attract it.

So there’s reason number 1 for optimism, optimism itself.


  1.  Our chancellor. True story: presentations our office makes six times a year to the Board of Trustees used to be pretty ragged. About a year ago the big guy couldn’t take it anymore, and instituted agenda rehearsals a few weeks in advance of each meeting, where he and his division heads assemble in our empty auditorium to watch us present what I think of as the rough cut. I have come around to thinking it’s a good idea. The board meetings are better. And internally, we’re less siloed as we learn more about each other’s work.

Also – and here’s the relevant part – at these run-throughs I’ve noticed he tries to sniff out and extinguish that public sector tendency toward the defensive, our habit of glossing over bad news. His feeling is that if we try something and fail we should say so. If the news really is good and everything works fine, then we’re probably not risking enough. There’s what could charitably be called ample room for improvement, and we should be in an aggressive learning mode.

I eat this stuff up, and it’s not just me. Many of us find this liberating, and it’s also won attention from foundations, the U.S. Department of Education, and others, who see in us an opportunity to figure out some hard things.

  1. Community psychology. So I looked up the references in that comment to my Sisyphus post, and found this in the New York Times obituary for Seymour Sarason:

He regarded traditional schools and what he called the “encapsulated classroom” as enemies of learning and human potential, sealed off from the larger society around them and crippled by a lack of collaboration among teachers.

000If Sarason was right then the field he helped create, community psychology, is an antidote to the ills of higher ed. So is community engagement and service learning, and group work from students (and for that matter educators) on purposeful projects. Get people together, regularly, informally, and productively, and we can leverage their collective strength.

I take the point that cynics in my position might offer such advice to stonewall, but there’s really no substitute for community organizing.  The key is keeping our eyes open, conducting meaningful and intelligible research as we go, but above all staying in touch with each other.

Living from 1919 to 2010, Sarason got to see the creation of the global virtual community, no panacea but a powerful boost to the tools he promoted.

tibetan-smartphoneAll this puts me in an odd position. One way or another I’m managing that policy archive lashed to my friend’s back, as he struggles to push reform uphill. But that same vantage means I’m in an unusual position to help, negotiating the space between brainy innovators in the field, and a genuinely curious and committed set of stakeholders to report to, including the system boss.

The trick is just figuring out how, before my friends fall downhill.

a new civic engagement?

fruitvale-celphoneThe U.S. Department of Justice recently commissioned an interesting study to help local police departments think through the implications of adopting dashboard and body cameras.  As usual, the hard questions seem less about the technology, and more about how it reflects on us as a society.

It was hard not to think about this over the past weekend, watching Fruitvale Station.  Above to the left you can see a shot from the climactic scene, the protagonists fighting guns with camera phones.

It’s telling that both law enforcement and the community it polices believe public documentation cuts in their favor.  I think they’re both right.  The fact is, everyone’s behavior improves with visibility.  But does that mean it’s a good idea?

As higher ed tries to prepare students for the world they’ll enter, we worry loudest about employment, where technical, entry-level positions are the fastest moving skeet. If we can just aim far enough ahead of the trajectory to get our graduates placed, the feeling goes, then once they move up into management the more durable proficiencies of communication, cross-cultural fluency, and critical thinking will see them through.


Missing from that narrative is recognition that human interaction itself is also changing very fast.  Too often we divide the higher ed mission into “career” and “citizenship,” but if you take away the commodification of labor, then what’s left are just two ways to describe collective, purposeful action with strangers.  And preparing our students for that has a new and faster trajectory all its own.  So far 2015 feels like it’s mostly about this disrupted relationship between the individual and the group.

The Opinion section of this morning’s Los Angeles Times weighs in on police videography, child vaccination, transgender bathrooms, data security, and of course our drought.  Some of these stories reflect perennial tensions, but there’s a new anxiety related to new technologies, and how they undermine the wall between public and private.  Some of the new holes under the fence:

QueVisionSurveillance. This goes beyond dueling cameras for commuters and transit cops.  As you know, the world knows a lot more about you than it did just a few years ago. Educators of a certain age (i.e. mine) tend to worry about this more than our students, who seem okay trading their anonymity for improved service.  And it’s not always about mining an individual’s data:  just letting everyone know how many others are around can improve drive times, health care, and grocery check-outs.

Individual impact.  In a hyper-connected world any one person has more influence on the rest of us than before.  Suddenly a disgruntled NSA contractor, or a pair of alienated brothers from Chechnya, or a depressed co-pilot can change the way millions of people live and think.  Sure, whacky and charismatic individuals have always had an edge, at least since Savonarola.  What’s changing is the barrier to entry:  anyone can play.  Our students know how the new context amplifies individual behavior; ask them about online bullying, or active shooter drills.  As a result, today my mental health is of more rightful interest to you than it used to be.

Rush to judgment. The corollary to your right to know about me:  almost anyone gets access to the findings.  What I like about that DOJ study is that it focuses less on whether cops should make videos and more on who should be able to see them.  It reminded me of a story last February about the appeal to voyeurs of online court filings. It turns out you can read a lot of salacious gossip about your neighbors, names and addresses and all, so long as someone brings suit.  And note:  these are charges, not convictions.  (A couple of recent high-profile cases show the hazard of this new world.  Maybe Bill Cosby had it coming, but no one is defending the “Rape on Campus” article in Rolling Stone.)  So take note:  if you cross someone with little emotional stability and a vivid enough imagination, you risk becoming a meme, your name a verb.  17th century Salem had better due process.

public-humiliationWe need members of the next generation – and the colleges that teach them– to recognize our new intimacy with strangers, and heightened responsibility to each other.  I can think of three priorities that implies:

1.  Educate for a world of intense interpersonal responsibility.  Our students come to us with first-hand experience in adolescent pack behavior amplified by technology, and fresh scars and muscles to flex.  Curriculum — and maybe more relevantly, co-curriculum — should intentionally develop social skills and sensitivity for the new context.

2.  Emphasize fluency in critical thinking and statistical analysis.  This generation will face tougher questions than ours did about the reasonable use of big data and herd judgment to inform personal opinion.  For most of our majors statistics is an elective course, and critical thinking (the CSU excepted) an invisible throughline, surfaced mostly for accreditors.  The status of both subjects may be due for elevation.

3.  Give equal emphasis to our different paths to creating a greater good.  Market capitalism and participatory democracy are different means to a common utilitarian end, organizing groups of strangers.  Graduates who can discern and adjust the new boundary between public and private will be better people and (often) better employed.  If universities keep presenting employment and citizenship as utterly separate, then we have only ourselves to blame when the public undervalues the latter, and treats starting salary as the only thing worth counting.

autonomy, Imagineering, and the student experience

Here in the big state public universities, transfer and articulation have traditionally trumped coherence. A few experiments around the CSU are trying to remedy that – Associate Degrees for Transfer, or GE pathways on interdisciplinary themes – and restore some connective tissue to what otherwise looks like a random heap of disconnected (but portable!) courses.

Those are promising developments, but to be honest a lot more than our courses need alignment.   In fact, the student who comes to State of the Art U will also encounter residential life, career services, a health center, a food court, a business office, a center for community engagement, and opportunities for undergraduate research.

And that full spectrum of experiences is what prepares our students for life after graduation. This realization is new. A couple of generations ago, most of the explicit educational value resided in courses, and the rest was clearly auxiliary. But in a world of free and ubiquitous content knowledge and heightened demands for teamwork and interpersonal connections, the significance is more evenly distributed. Our grads are likelier than their parents to apply what they learned from student government, or the group presentation in ethnic studies, or from organizing the arts walk fundraiser.

When education is course-centric and your students sedentary, you can imply coherence with catalog copy. Students look up their majors, see a list of courses in ascending order of complexity, and get at least the impression that there’s a purpose here.

That setup wasn’t great but it was good enough, and impressively cheap to maintain. Among its virtues: whole academic departments could consist of people who weren’t on speaking terms.

But now we find ourselves at a disadvantage, when the learning seeps beyond the traditional curriculum and the students move around. In this world creating purpose and coherence demands more than a list of courses: educators (faculty and otherwise) need to talk, routinely and civilly, about how these different experiences will affect students, how they combine to cause learning, and how we know.

Two facets of our current context make that hard:

Presumption of autonomy. People my age and older (a dwindling population, but really when was it not?) experienced college as a succession of soloists. Some of my friends came into the academy precisely for that independence. If we change our expectations now, then some will feel shorted.

Absence of coordinating time. When I was a chair I wrote class schedules, assigning faculty and adjuncts to what they taught and when. The object was to maximize facilities use and options for students. This made it hard for me to serve my other role as chair, calling meetings. There wasn’t a time when everyone was available, and I had only myself to blame.

On that second facet: many departments and some entire universities schedule deliberate fallow periods during the week, to avoid the problem I’d created for myself. But few would say those time slots are put to good use: department meetings are often just rundowns of administrivia like reporting deadlines and the new code for the copy machine.

48c64d948c7ba80d019c00c741a74738I had such meetings in mind a few weeks ago, when my wife and I had dinner with a friend from graduate school. He now has one of the coolest jobs ever, producing the rides at Disneyland. No kidding. And by “ride” I don’t mean the strollers: he does the massive, headline-making, highly narrative attractions people have in mind when they decide to go. To Disneyland.

Much of what he told us was in confidence, but this much I can share. It’s all about the meetings. He said that in developing the sequence of discoveries and interactions the guest will encounter during a given ride, international teams meet at least weekly, for years. Connections are made in person and virtually, sometimes early in the morning or late at night to accommodate all the time zones.

Depending on the phase of the project, as many as 140 separate disciplines may be involved. Yes, 140, and yes, he used the word “disciplines” – to cover costumers, designers, audio techs, mechanical engineers, dancers, animators, sculptors, electricians, art directors, meeting in different combinations of maybe a dozen at a time. If these people aren’t working together from the start, you can run into nasty surprises late in the game: plumbing and carpentry don’t line up, or the rider sees a seam.

Like university faculty, these are people with very different persuasions and backgrounds, who need to translate their own vernacular for the sake of their colleagues. The meetings only work – only make sense at all – because attendees share the goal of optimizing the rider experience.

avatar16I will concede that earning a degree in nursing is materially different from riding Star Tours. But listening to my friend the Imagineer made me feel how very much ground higher ed still needs to cover. The last decade or two have seen eye-popping insights into how and why people learn: putting those discoveries to work in any concerted way – optimizing the student experience – would take seismic changes in how we operate. So instead we’re in a world where the math and the econ don’t quite fit together, and student sees the seams.

One challenge is how hard it is for us to schedule such meetings. But really even if we could, I’m not sure we’d know what to do with them.


CSU HIPs Leadership Retreat

CSU HIPs Leadership RetreatThis is the opening presentation from today’s meeting in San Diego for CSU leadership involved in high-impact practices.  We planned it to coincide with and complement the Diversity, Learning, and Student Success conference of the AAC&U.

Right-click on the image here and choose “Save As” to download a copy of the PowerPoint.  You can see the narration in Notes Page view, or the animations in Slide Show.  Feel free to appropriate whatever you like.

line segments

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education, in San Francisco. It was a good meeting for many reasons, but one image in particular has stuck with me:

01 ball at top

Foundation president Anthony Bryk used it to illustrate the kind of patience required for turning hunches into genuine changes at scale, in either behavior or culture. If you want the ball at the top – the end state you’re going for – then the temptation at first is to just put it there. But usually what happens is people reject it as alien, and the ball gets a quick and easy nudge downhill.

What you discover is that really you need to start small, at the bottom. Then as you build support you get other people’s help moving the ball upward, and they even change and improve it along the way. Work like that, and by the time you get to the top there’s no way it’s falling back down.

02 ball in motion

That rang true for many in his audience, who live this stuff. But it also cast a harsh light on our context: we seldom get that much time. In my version of his diagram, that long red hill might last a decade.

In my experience coordinating a string of state universities, the impetus for change has come in one of three flavors:

  • you get a grant (three years to spend it, tops)
  • someone passes a law (to be fully implemented in eighteen months or less)
  • the state economy changes (quick: which half of your programs do you eliminate? or quick: spend $50 million in unexpected revenue before it’s swept!)

This world doesn’t lend itself to the patient rolling of balls.

So then what’s the well-meaning wonk to do? Cause Tony’s right: use that grant or tax windfall to drop a big ball on a hill, and it will not stay there. But walking away from a short-term opportunity is bad management, and in the case of legislation and the economy, not even an option.

I’ve decided the answer is to think of the hill as a sequence of line segments. One segment might be a grant, the next one a law, or the boss’s whim, and so on:

03 segments

The object of the game – maybe the only one – is to know where you are along the hill, and then to take each short term exigency as a chance to edge higher.

As I’ve been picturing that, it’s occurred to me that it’s also not a bad metaphor for the individual lifespan, in the context my friend Alice Perez calls the “long experience of the human family.”

04 lifespan

Really, that’s all we get.