The Unhidden Curriculum


This is today’s presentation to the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, happening in Atlanta.

The title relates to a persistent challenge with higher education: getting our best practices to reach those students who most stand to benefit. Students with high cultural capital – for example, the confidence that comes with comfy socio-economic status, or parents who went to college – seem to know without being told that they can drop in on faculty during office hours, or suggest an independent research project.

By contrast, more vulnerable populations either don’t know or opt out. We shouldn’t be surprised, since such options are seldom part of degree requirements, or even heavily promoted, making them a kind of hidden curriculum.

New Student Orientation NSO Freshmen Class attends the Cal State Dominguez Hills orientation on the north lawn outside James L. Welch Hall and the Loker Student union

CSU Dominguez Hills is hoping to unhide it with our development of a Comprehensive Learner Record. We are part of a national project co-led by AACRAO (college registrars) and NASPA (professionals in student affairs), to bring more of the student’s non-course experiences into the official account of what they did.

We want to shine some institutionally validated daylight on these other experiences – like meaningful on-campus employment, or participation in a research-themed learning community – that can give even skeptical students and families firsthand reassurance that college learning is relevant, practical, and worth the effort.

It’s a lot of work, but pretty flipping exciting.

I was joined in this presentation by a dream-team of cross-divisional colleagues: Registrar Tara Hardee, Melissa Norrbom of Student Life, and Alana Olschwang, who leads our new office of University Effectiveness, Planning, and Analytics.

You can see our slides and get the gist by clicking on the image at the top of this post, which is the title frame from our presentation.

Image credits: CSU Dominguez Hills




I’ve been thinking lately about the hazards of standardization, an odd worry for an administrator.

I think for most of history, the way we regularize our interactions has been led by advances in technology, and largely to the good. A quick slide show:


Writing standardized interaction with strangers.

Printing with movable type regularized spelling.
Early radio scene.preview_2

Broadcasting standardizes pronunciation.

The story might leave off there, with the fading of regional accents and odd orthography, except for the work of our own generation – regularizing data.

Within specializations and technical fields this has been going on for a very long time. Jargon is bad for writing but good for insiders who just need a shared shorthand.

Our specialized data management got a nudge toward precision in the 1980s, as we started moving our correspondence onto floppy disks, and our records into spreadsheets.


But the real impetus came a decade later, when we started connecting all those computers together. The internet and its cloud are prompting us to link records we didn’t used to.

So now my refrigerator, smoke alarm, and Fitbit want to understand each other, as do entire professional fields. The language of accounting, for example, needs to mesh with the language of healthcare in new and nuanced ways. Making that work means inviting different professionals to explain their jobs to each other, and agree on definitions.

Higher ed is in the thick of such data governance, sacrificing some local discretion to make ourselves clearer and more meaningful to each other, and to our stakeholders.

CSUDH Staff and faculty Alumni event

I have a personal interest in high-impact practices, the largely local and untranscripted college experiences like learning communities, undergraduate research, and mentoring relationships that seem best for completion rates, equity, and deep learning. These different practices have some properties in common, in particular putting students into situations that emulate non-school settings, and resist obvious right answers. They provide practice in applying and recombining what’s learned in traditional courses. Students of all backgrounds seem to sense the value, and the relevance.

Precisely because they’re locally defined and untranscripted, they’ve been ideal spaces for innovation. They give educators unusual freedom to customize their work to the learner.

For the same reason, we have had a hard time making them count for additional faculty workload, or for transfer credit. Selective private institutions have had more success, but as soon as you go for large scale and portability, the blips leave the radar.

So these practices remain wonderful but mostly invisible, especially to those who most stand to benefit. Another drawback, this one for us on the inside: despite ten years of effort, we have been slow to shore up the promising but mostly indirect research evidence for their effectiveness.

I’ve been wondering if this isn’t a problem of data governance. We can’t all count what we can’t all see, and seeing together means describing together.

Not that we haven’t had abundant help. Large, national associations like AAC&U, the National Association of System Heads, and NILOA have all taken a closer look, added to the research, and given us cues to putting the thinking into our daily work. Even George Kuh himself, the groundbreaking researcher who came up with the framework, gave us a follow-up list of Eight Key Elements that describe any high-impact practice.

But we in administration are still a long way from consistently operationalizing what we need to. High-Impact Practices cry out for some clear, very broadly shareable understanding of what they are and aren’t, with markers as nimble and unambiguous as movable type.

In the spirit of good data governance, I think getting there will depend on involving additional people, and groups. In the last year I’ve gotten involved in a pair of unrelated projects that together could help us bring Kuh’s thinking to others in the business of higher ed.

Comprehensive Learner RecordsThis is a joint project of the national associations of registrars and student affairs professionals, teaming up to get more of the significant, outside-of-courses student experiences onto the visible transcript. The project has been running for several years, but my university was only recently accepted into it, as part of the second cohort. I think it’s one of our best shots at clarifying the real value of college learning, and while we’re at it, the High-Impact Practices that most contribute to it.

High-Impact Practices in the States. This grass-roots consortium of mostly public colleges and universities will be meeting for the second time this February, with Western Kentucky University hosting. The recently-released draft program is exciting evidence of a field still making important, foundational distinctions about what matters, and what doesn’t.

I see these two communities of practice, and I swear it looks like they’re aiming at the same spot from different origins. We may be participating in one of those pivotal moments of widespread culture change, and consolidation.

But if so – and this is my concern – then I hope to God we get it right. Genuine learning is messier than good business processes, and getting one to reflect the other will require some fudging and judgment calls.


Whatever standardization these groups adopt could be with us for a while, and, once in place, as hard to change as spelling or pronunciation.

Image credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art,, WTIP, PicClick, CSU Dominguez Hills,

the center of the universe, part two



The first post in this set looked at how NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is coping with the knowledge explosion, a kind of Big Bang as noteworthy as the one that made everywhere the center of the universe in the first place.

Along the way NASA, and the rest of us in the knowledge biz, will face a profound problem of perspective.

The challenge: as we learn more and faster, the importance of indexing it grows. We need to label our findings meaningfully, so we can find and build on them later. But our taxonomies have a poor track record for resembling reality; instead, they tend to reproduce our relationship to it at the time, in ways we recognize only with hindsight. These days there aren’t many science classes dividing the material world into fire, water, air and earth, or history courses sorted into “western” and “other.”

The students on our campuses now will have fewer moorings than we had, when we thought life was exclusively the earth’s, and gender was binary, and the climate was permanent. I honestly don’t know how we can better prepare today’s students for a world where human scales of distance, time, and importance are disintegrating beneath their feet.

How will our heirs continue pushing our understanding outside of our own heads, when our heads remain the only way into our minds? How will they find a new center?

I think of people in my life – ones I know, or just know of – who seem above average at stepping beyond their own perspectives. They seem to have picked up some ability in either political interaction – what our curriculum calls “civic engagement” – or storytelling. So I’ll jot those down in this post and the third in this series, notes on where this re-centering problem seems to leave off.

methanogen-vis197321Mind you, these two responses aren’t going to help us think like the ooze inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or visualize higher dimensions, against the day we live elsewhere. They’re more like finger exercises, scales we practice on the kitchen table while we wait for the Steinway to come along.

But the fact is that the diversity among us is a resource, and our ability to navigate it productively makes for good practice.


Last month the brand new advisory board of Bringing Theory to Practice met in Baltimore, Maryland. The project has been thriving for a decade and a half, and just said goodbye to founding director Don Harward, succeeded by my friend David Scobey.

If his name rings a bell, you may have seen his seminal 2012 essay, “A Copernican Moment: on the Revolutions in Higher Education,” the first chapter in Transforming Undergraduate Education. It includes this:

The problem is not that the “official” paradigm of undergraduate education is constricting yet effective; it is that the paradigm is constricting and exhausted. Higher education is not in stasis but in crisis; and what is needed is not an alarm clock to awaken the slumbering academy from its dogmatic slumber, but rather a star chart by which to navigate an uncertain future. We are in Kuhn’s “revolutionary” moment when a new paradigm – a new institutional and epistemological regime for organizational practices and educational communities – feels necessary and imminent yet inchoate and up for grabs. It is a Copernican moment.


David Scobey, Director of Bringing Theory to Practice


From the context you can see that he means his title to apply to higher ed generally, but I have a different, more personal association with David and this phrase. Several years ago he and I were plenary speakers at the same conference. I spoke first, about learning as a driver of persistence and graduation – the idea that humans evolved to enjoy the buzz of intellectual growth, and if we can just take advantage of that, and make college rigorous and engaging enough, then we’ll see fewer dropouts. I called it “The Student Centered Curriculum.”

When David went on later, he said some very kind things about my presentation, but then went on to challenge – courteously and constructively – the whole idea that our students needed any more indication from us that they are at the center of anything. The world already presents us with plenty of long-tail marketing, echo-chamber news, and social media that combine to exaggerate our own importance, putting each of us at the center of a personal universe. He said one of the most important goals of college may in fact be a de-centering of the student, helping us see ourselves not as the middle of anything, but as what we are – crucial pieces of integrated networks, whose other pieces are just as vital.

That to me is the real insight of Copernicus, who sparked our understanding of the solar system by moving the Earth out of the center.

The first post in this series lamented our inability to perceive the world from any vantage other than the human one. No matter what strange things the universe holds, and whatever instruments of perception we devise, the last step into our minds is still our senses, and our brains.

We have very few ways to push against that boundary. Clearly one is by leveraging the connection between individuals and the broader society, getting ourselves out of that apparent center. But that can sound hard, and abstract.

The other way, I’ll argue in a later post, lies the way we relate to each other as individuals, and tell stories.

the binary versus the liminal


20180812_130207My wife and I have been spending most of the year housebreaking a puppy. It’s hard to picture a purer exercise in teaching and learning, simply getting a young animal to understand the difference between relieving herself outside and in. I’ll admit that as an education worker I brought to the task some hubris.

But progress with young Chloe has been slow, challenging my faith in the Growth Mindset. We signed up for classes. We used a clicker. We tried to attract, sustain, and then direct her attention. When we saw how poorly she was catching on, we paid for the optional after-school tutoring.

Her performance in one class was so bad they refunded our money. She never did graduate, one more attrition statistic. Yet she exhibits few risk factors: she engaged in no off-campus employment, and does not experience food insecurity. Both her parents attended college. She just won’t learn.

Chloe has led me to this apostasy in part because of her powerful intrinsic motivation. She would like to make us happy. She might even want to keep the floors and carpet in good condition, but to her an important part of that is making them smell like dog pee.

Confounding our exasperation: learning for dogs, as for people, is seldom one-and-done. She has indeed pushed herself through a doggy door to go outside where she’s supposed to. In eight months she’s done this exactly twice, to ecstatic praise from my wife and me. The neighbors thought we were watching a ballgame. But in between these rare triumphs have been very long bouts of pure canine incomprehension.

I know how she feels, having grasped and then lost differential calculus more than once.


In fact, this training debacle has persuaded me that across the species barrier learning is pretty much the same. Maybe what’s equally troubling for me is that, even though Chloe is a vivid reminder that learning is “liminal,” something that has to ebb and flow like a tide before it can really soak in, our colleges and universities pretend otherwise.

So we have curriculum maps that suggest you need to learn English composition only once, in the fall semester of your freshman year. Our transcripts convey a comforting yes/no feature of coursework, as if your passing intermediate German as a sophomore means you’re still fluent when you apply for a job years later.


In other words, Chloe’s learning, like mine, looks hardly at all like higher ed record keeping. She and I may figure out something that’s hard for us, but then we forget it, or fail to apply it in a new but appropriate context. Mastery takes slow, ambiguous, and maddening iteration. One day Chloe can hold eye contact on the cue “watch me,” and the next it’s as if I asked her to derive the tangent of a function.

Our student information systems, silicon based, seek the binary. Meanwhile we learners, the stuff of carbon, resist it. I’m not sure how to make an honest institutional record out of something so nebulous.

Come over sometime and we can talk about it.

But watch your step.

Calculus formulas:


the center of the universe, part one



Late last year I had a long conversation about NASA’s unbridled appetite for knowledge with Caroline Coward, formerly my unindicted co-conspirator at CSU Dominguez Hills. She now heads the library at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

You don’t fling expensive hardware into outer space without a lot of experience and chances to practice, what I’d come here mostly to see. You know, robots and sandboxes. What I didn’t expect was the laboratory’s deliberate, concerted attention to collective learning itself, which has turned out to be the lingering impression from my visit.

Of the many defenses for space exploration, the one I find most compelling is that it hedges our bets for species survival. In 1968 – that hour before the dawn of a human footprint in space – physicist Freeman Dyson justified the enormous cost by observing, “We are too many eggs in too small a basket.”

To get another basket, say, by terraforming a neighboring red rock, we will need to turbocharge human learning – making it easier to develop, share, store, and – crucially – to catalog and retrieve the things we figure out.

She told me JPL used to sort its knowledge by how it was acquired, so to answer a question, you first had to know who asked it before. That’s changing with the reimagining of the JPL Library.


As its supervisor, Caroline oversees staff who serve on an institution-wide committee named “Lessons Learned.” It is tasked with documenting the upshots of JPL mission failures. The supervisor herself serves on an Ontology Working Group that then – dauntingly – categorizes these and other findings by something other than mission name.

This has her working not just on what we know, but also on how it’s shaped, the lobes and topography of all the things we’re discovering, and where they leave off. To describe this task of meta-categorization she uses words like “ontology” and “taxonomy” in ways I hadn’t heard before.

As it moves forward, JPL – and pioneers at the other frontiers of human epistemology – will also be pushing against the idiosyncrasies of our senses.

Hoffman_1KI’m reminded of a fascinating Donald Hoffman essay about this, on the Interface Theory of Perception: our take on the world didn’t evolve to be valid, just to be immediately useful. Our brain makes representations of the environment that make it intelligible to us, and it can be helpful to think of those as like the icons on a computer desktop – a tool for use, rather than an accurate depiction of any underlying truth. There isn’t really a little trashcan inside my laptop; we see in metaphors.

This suggests that applying our brains to longer-term, abstract goals – such as navigating the physical world beyond our own scale – will depend on our somehow overcoming that perceptual shorthand. In many ways, I expect the models we carry in our brains are reaching their use-by dates. As Caroline put it later, “The search for extraterrestrial life is hugely limited in our own perception of what ‘life’ should look like. We have probably been staring at it for decades and still scratching our heads.”

JPL and its ilk have taken on a profound challenge to our experience of the world. The knowledge explosion has made the science of classification and metadata suddenly urgent, and the accuracy of our metaphors relevant to our survival, for the first time. To oversimplify: if we don’t want all our eggs in one basket then we need to know what the other baskets look like, and not just from the eggs’ point of view.

As curators and developers of what we know, universities should take note.


The Carina Nebula, as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A plaque in the JPL mission control room reads “The Center of the Universe.” This is nerd irony: since everything started with the same big bang, everywhere is the center.

Until recently in our history, we thought that center was the earth. Then we made it our minds.

In some critical ways, that center continues to give way, and the irony of the plaque at JPL keeps growing. Two years ago in Nature Mark Wilkinson et al nudged us a bit further from solipsism with a proposed set of principles for scientific data management and stewardship – not for us, but for our computers.

I think our perspective is in for much more of that dislocation in the century or so ahead. If we can prepare our students for that right now, then we owe it to them.

But how? How do we escape our own heads?

I don’t know. But I think we may be able to mine some promising techniques already at hand, in of all things, storytelling and citizenship.

But more on that next time.

news from Montana

curriculum, student success

KOD - Making HIPs Systematic (HIPs MT)

On Thursday I visited the University of Montana Western, making a presentation in connection with their Taking Student Success to Scale project with the National Association of System Heads. You can download a copy by clicking on the image above.

Here’s how the conference program summarizes what I said:

Now more than a decade old, the framework of High-Impact Practices has given educators new ways to describe some of our students’ most powerful learning experiences, including undergraduate research, service learning, and study abroad. But the benefits for equity, persistence, and intellectual development are undercut by uneven participation across different student populations. This presents higher education with a moral imperative: to get more intentional and systematic about how we deliver HIPs.

What would it take to bring HIPs into the open, making their value clear to faculty and students alike? Can we fully convey the benefits to families and supporters who’ve never been to college? Can we justify the additional time and effort to part-time and commuter students? How can we get them into degree requirements, and on transcripts, without reducing them to an empty checklist? The answers aren’t easy, but may be key to our prospects for living up to our own values of social justice, upward mobility, and high quality education.

The blurb downplays my giddiness at being here. First of all, it’s Montana! Famously beautiful, but inconveniently located on a path unbeaten. You have to have a reason to come, and this conference was mine.

rooftopSecond, the University of Montana Western is itself a little awe-inspiring. Students take only one class at a time, three hours a day for 18 days before moving onto the next. It’s the same amount of credit for a semester, but the experience of courses is consecutive instead of concurrent.

Think for a second about what that makes possible. Focus, for one. Strong faculty and cohort relationships for another. In terms of high-impact practices, this schedule makes a few of them considerably easier to fit in: on-site internships and work experience, for example, or bite-sized study abroad, which no longer come at the expense of other courses.

These advantages to access and affordability aren’t trivial: at 1500 students UMW is about one-tenth the size of my own university, CSU Dominguez Hills, but it draws from a similar range of economic and academic backgrounds. With the adoption of their one-at-a-time “block schedule” model, Montana Western saw gains in student persistence and success.

student panel

Students Courtney George, Chris Brown, Tessa Miller, and Emerson Blotz describe the experience of one-at-a-time block schedule courses with panel moderator Mark Krank, one of the founding faculty.

More qualitatively, students and faculty say they like it, and wouldn’t dream of going back to traditional semesters.

And yet: even with this compression and intimacy, Western struggles with some of the same questions as the rest of us: are we sure that the different instances of a given practice, say, internships, are consistent enough to even deserve the same name? How do we know the practice was really high-impact? How much depends on a lucky combination of faculty and student?

It’s hard to tell, but in that drive for deeper educational quality, questioning the inherited structure of semesters and class meetings seems like a good place to start.