demographics, part 2

IMG_9845In a post a couple of months back, I pointed out that my home state of California and the whole world are on parallel actuarial tracks.  On both scales, we’re seeing a declining share of the demographic groups well served by current educational practice, and rapid growth in the populations that colleges and universities don’t serve well.  That is, more people are born every day to the ethnicities, countries, and socioeconomic strata for whom earning a degree is less likely.

In the long run this threatens not just our sense of fairness, but also our world’s economic and civic vitality, and its people’s health outcomes, happiness, and ability to get along.

Maybe it’s because I work in education, but it’s hard for me to picture a more urgent problem — especially since solutions to all the other problems we face, with climate, energy, food, and human rights, will come from people who’ve been well educated.

I wish I could say we had an answer in California, since we’ve had such a head start offering college to a diverse populace.  But in fact our answers are patchwork and provisional.  They seem to turn on contextualized learning, reconceptions of education that locate student work in real-world settings to vary the performance cues, surprise the learner, and illuminate proficiency.  You can see in a recent report that our faculty have no shortage of good ideas for making the first two years of college feel integrated and purposeful, but administratively we have very far to go; most of the time when we say learn we mean sit and listen.

My earlier post emphasized the mismatch in pacing:  global demographics are changing quickly, while our higher ed machinery is still organized to serve the old majority.

Yet I’m happy to note that the world seems at least on track to get more of its educational act together, in a few ways.

International_Islamic_University_in_Islamabad,_PakistanReason for hope #1: growing demand. Countries in the developing world are showing record interest in postsecondary education, and they keep inviting U.S. consultants to show how it’s done. Since starting this blog I’ve been to the United Arab Emirates and Kenya on such missions, and my friends are getting flown around too, often to obscure and poor countries. Those cultures have prized learning for a very long time, but it’s a new thing to make universities your marquee infrastructure project.

(I’m not alone in this particular zeal:  see a recent Smithsonian article on how a former California college administrator is leading an American university in Nigeria, and what she believes it can do.)  This makes me hopeful because the learning from such interaction is inevitably two-way.

Reason for hope #2: migration. Most observers think this century’s imbalance in birth rates will be offset by migration, so that developed countries really won’t shrink. In the words of a Rand study, we “will see increasing pressures for migration to the developed world.”  (You think?  It’s been a harrowing few weeks of evidence on that point.)

A Roland-Berger analysis concurs: “International migration will continue . . . with North America and Europe the main destinations for migrants.” But presciently, Rand singled out the U.S. as the developed country best prepared for this:

Japan, which faces the prospect of losing a quarter of its population over the next 25 years, makes little allowance for immigrants. In Europe, any liberalization of immigration policies must involve a multilateral response, and an attendant surrender of sovereignty will be opposed on national sovereignty grounds.

Furthermore, unlike in the United States, citizenship in most European countries and Japan is based on blood (ethnicity) rather than country of birth (nativity). Given the complexity of these issues and the fact that most developed countries have no history of immigration, it is instructive to look at the debate about immigration policy in the United States, where immigrants are currently responsible for about two-thirds of total population growth.

Between the lines, Rand is suggesting that we in the United States might benefit from our head start, if we can just rein in the rhetoric, and figure out how to bring in newcomers fairly, legally, and intentionally.

And combined with the global vogue for higher ed, these are signs we could eventually make up for the shortfall in the world’s production of college grads.

Syrian refugees in Hungary, in an image from The Guardian.
Syrian refugees in Hungary two days ago, in an image from The Guardian.

What do we do in the meantime? Well, the usual but for more reasons.

First, we need to close our dang gaps. Our present diverse population – especially California’s – is teaching us how to educate them, and the rest of the world is counting on us to listen and respond better. Because more are coming – by birth rate, by growing interest in college-going, by migration. And we want them all in college, and then we want them out there, with degrees, pitching in.

Second – and this is just me talking – we should support more of the half-baked ideas from our colleagues about how to embed liberal learning in unusual settings, like work. We need our students writing everywhere, and not just in freshman comp. We need them quantifying problems on internships and in their communities, not just in workbooks.

Many experiments will fail, but others will teach us how to make GE look less irrelevant, and more like what it is: the source of the expansive and versatile intellectual capacity that drives opportunity and equity.  That’s the defining feature of American higher education.

To the extent there’s truth in advertising, we seem to be what the world needs now.

news from the 19th century


These are tense days at State of Art U.  Over the next two weeks long-running battles will culminate on several fronts, relating to core beliefs about curriculum, learning, and even institutional research.

Suddenly nothing is routine, and every meeting is charged.  And these are mostly open-minded, unselfish educators; when they get this stubborn it usually means they believe giving in will harm students, and at that point compromise is impossible.

The resumption of the academic year adds to the pressure at all levels.  Yesterday my new boss flew last-minute to a distant campus, to mediate what I think of as the Wars of Northern Succession.  He has been on the job for seven weeks.  Today will be the fourth day of class.

Such times call for a bit of perspective, and maybe as a result I’ve been engrossed in Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, about the first quarter-century of the United States.  It’s part of a series I’ve been enjoying over the years, and reading out of order.  (That’s the thing about history; you don’t need spoiler alerts.)

Even in calm times I would find this hard to put down; it’s not escapism so much as immersion in a fascinating, pivotal time.  And it’s beautifully written.  (Click on the cover image above to read more at Amazon.)  Highly recommended.

In case you can’t get to it — say, if you’re too busy excoriating colleagues over the difference between a C- and a C — I’ll thumbnail one bit here.

First, the setup.  Like many of us I have been through the chronology of western civ many times.  In each telling, 18th century neoclassicism is cast in contrast to its successor, romanticism.  The former was austere and rational, the latter mystical and emotional.  Simple, right?  But of course, drenched in hindsight.

What I like when Wood gets to this part is that he doesn’t even mention the Romantics.  He’s so completely absorbed in his story that he sees the contrast only to what came before, as contemporaries did.  And what came before neoclassicism was the clutter of baroque and rococo, something that struck early Americans as decadent, aristocratic.  For them, neoclassicism wasn’t austere, it was just clean.  It was intelligible to the masses.  It was a relief.

Here’s how he explains it:

By the middle of the eighteenth century European and English philosophers were already redirecting the content and form of art away from frivolous and voluptuous private pleasure toward moral education and civic ennoblement.  Infused with dignity and morality and made subservient to some ideological force outside themselves, the arts could become something more than charming ornaments of an idle aristocracy; they could become public agents of reformation and refinement for the whole society.

Isn’t that awesome?  It’s so eloquent, concise, and — steeped as I am in the received counter-narrative of hindsight — refreshing to have this presented the way it felt at the time.

hqdefaultWhich kind of brings me back to the present, and our academic cage fighting.

These are real struggles, and my friends on all sides who feel our students’ lives in their hands are right.  And we’re a big system; this is a lot of lives.

But however fraught our actions feel to us in our fascinating, pivotal time, it’s all lopsided, and past-facing only.

We will be judged differently than how we seem to ourselves, by people who weigh our decisions against what came after as well as before, and know how our stories turn out.

Life after CPEC

Life after CPEC title slideCPEC was the California Postsecondary Education Commission, and its demise in 2011 made us one of the few states without an office to coordinate its public colleges and universities.

Today’s presentation describes what that’s like to my counterparts from other states, as part of the Policy Conference of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

You can download (and freely reuse) my presentation by clicking on the image to the left.  My remarks are available in Notes Page View; for the visuals to make sense you’ll need to use Slide Show.

world map

demographics, part 1

silhouette student

We’re proud in California to be the demographic bellwether for the other states: as we pick up more dialects and ethnicities, so shall they. That affects our work on student success; for us, closing achievement gaps isn’t merely a matter of social justice, but also urgent:  as white people age and die off, those left to carry on will be more diverse than we are.

So far our position out front has done us little good.  We face stubborn gaps along ethnic lines in academic preparation, achievement, and completion.

Lately I’ve wondered if the remedy might lie in learning outcomes assessment, of all places.  For decades we’ve placed our student success bets elsewhere, delivering homogenous teaching and curriculum to increasingly heterogeneous students, and adding auxiliary functions or remediation to accommodate difference.  It’s a failed strategy.

Focusing instead on demonstrated learning may better address variations in learning style, culture, and preparation, by letting go of mandated inputs, and giving local educators more discretion to serve local needs.  Get to the agreed finish line however you want, the thinking goes, just get there.

One area of such reform is at the level of individual courses, “redesigned” with technology.  The technique reduces each course to the learning it seeks, then rebuilds the semester with student work meant to develop and highlight those proficiencies from multiple angles – for example by blending real-life science labs with computer simulations.

Gaps are closing, but these are early days. Experience with past efforts suggests that over time and across multiple instructors, practice regresses. In the absence of larger scale reform – an outcomes approach at the level of the degree rather than course – it can feel like digging a hole in dry sand.

At a broader scale, we’re experimenting with bulk articulation of courses bundled into Associate Degrees for Transfer.  In theory, these new roomier containers of credit could house explicitly contextualized, practically motivated experiences – including the traditional list of high-impact practices, but also on-campus employment and others with a paycheck – that transcend individual courses.

Such approaches might be especially beneficial for the likeliest to drop out, by making college look and feel more useful, and less like a four-year hiatus for the affluent. Early results are good, but the programs are in infancy.

So that’s our answer to observers in other states: we’re working on it.

Let’s zoom out a little.

irish voteAs a descendent of Irish Catholics, I was as surprised as anyone when the old country voted overwhelmingly last May to recognize gay marriage.

Amid the commentaries one point stuck with me, that not just same-sex marriage but homosexuality itself remains illegal in most undeveloped countries – a symptom of what we could call the tolerance gap.

That is, along with per capita domestic product and a free press, we can add legal recognition of diversity as one of the symptoms that you’re purple instead of blue:

world map

(This post uses the United Nations division of countries into “Advanced” and “Developing.”)

Before we get even purpler with self praise we should note how far we still have to go.  North Africans in France, say, or immigrants in Japan, would be surprised to learn they inhabit a zone of enlightenment.  And that’s to say nothing of the U.S., where race relations have managed to sink lower since the Irish vote.

But the broad trend seems to hold, that in wealthier countries legalized bigotry is going the way of famine and Ebola.

Educators can claim some credit. For all our failings and conflicted interests, we at least seem to be doing the one thing we agree we should, which is opening minds.  And indeed, there’s a correlation; our best estimate is that people in the purple area are more than three times likelier to hold a college degree:

attainmentThese metrics of education, wealth, and tolerance are related. Smarter people make better choices, which accumulate to make a smarter culture.

And yet – just as we see with California and the other states – globally the demographic trend is to add more of the people who aren’t going to college.

That purple area of developed countries is not only fewer square miles than the blue; it’s also fewer people, and slower population growth.

In fact, the populations in the college-going countries actually shrink between now and the end of this century, while in the countries that go less, the population grows:

population growth

In other words, college seems to work globally the same way it does in California: mostly for a population that’s in the minority, and getting smaller.

This is distressing. The world’s problems going forward – like sustainability and resource distribution and human rights – will be solved only if we can develop more of the human capacity to address them. And on our current trajectory, we’ll instead be developing less of it.

Can California’s experiments with gap-closing and outcomes-learning help?  Maybe, if we keep prioritizing this, and stay connected to those efforts elsewhere.

I see a couple of other reasons for hope, too, but I’ll save them for a later post.


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.