Thursday, April 22, 2010

The virtual university

This article is from a Leftist source so is a bit starry-eyed but there are some good points in it

Young people worldwide are caught between the spiraling cost of college and an apparently bottomless hunger for it. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), today 150 million students are enrolled in some kind of education beyond high school, a 53 percent increase in less than one decade. With such numbers, there is no foreseeable way enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand.

Meanwhile, here in America, the birthplace of mass higher education, we are stalling in our educational attainment while the rest of the world is roaring ahead. In the U.S., about 30 percent of high school students drop out, and just 56 percent of college freshmen complete their bachelor's degree after six years, 150 percent of the time allotted. Only a little more than a third of Americans end up with any kind of college degree. For more than a century, arguably the world's most educated nation, we've now fallen behind nine others. Unlike citizens of every other rich country except Germany, Americans in their late teens and early 20s are no more educated than older generations.

President Barack Obama clearly understands the problem. In his first address to Congress, he promised, "We will provide the support necessary for all [young Americans] to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Obama has appointed some wonderful advocates for students to the Department of Education. His administration has backed great proposals, like increasing the Pell grant's maximum amount, cutting corporate subsidies out of the student-loan program, simplifying the federal student-aid application process, and raising funding for community colleges. But nothing on the table addresses the underlying issues that make tuition rise or the capacity problems and leaks in the system.

College tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades. Between 1990 and 2008, tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the consumer price index. Raising the Pell grant's maximum doesn't address this underlying problem. Constant transfusions of public money help keep the patient alive but do not stop the bleeding.

What's to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008? At first, I stood with progressives who say the federal government should increase grants and rein in the parasitic student-loan business. But while the student-loan industry has been part of the problem, and more grants are part of the solution, there is more to this story.

The higher-education system has a lot in common with another great challenge our country is confronting: health care. Colleges, like hospitals, have little incentive to conserve resources or compete on price. They can actually gain prestige by raising tuition. They shift costs to students to make up for gaps in state funding and then hand out grant money to the applicants they want the most, not the ones who need the most help. Community colleges dedicated to serving the poorest get a fraction of the public money that goes to flagship state universities.

The fact is, as aspirations toward, and for, higher learning grow, the model of inexorably growing bureaucratic institutions of formal education is under extreme pressure. "Our learning institutions, for the most part, are acting as if the world has not suddenly, irrevocably, cataclysmically, epistemically changed -- and changed precisely in the area of learning," Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg write in their 2009 book The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Universities may be on the brink of a phase change from something monolithic to something more fluid: a sea of smaller, more specialized and diverse institutions offering a greater variety of learning opportunities, a cloud of ideas, texts, and conversations. More than one in five of the nation's 19 million college students took at least one online class by the fall of 2006, according to a study by the Sloan Consortium, but technology hasn't yet changed the prevailing model or brought down costs in higher education as it has for so many other industries.

Princeton economists William Bowen and William Baumol argued in their 1966 book, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, that modernization, mechanization, and efficiency just plain escape certain areas of human endeavor. If you want a proper Beethoven string quartet, you can't cut the cellist, and you can't squeeze in more performances by playing the music faster. Just as there is no substitute for the concert hall experience, the writers argue, there is no substitute for being in the classroom with a professor. Higher education and health care, as well as the arts, are subject to a "cost disease."

Today, live performance is still vibrant and without rival. However, the music aficionado has opportunities that go far beyond what could have been imagined when Beethoven was composing or even when Baumol and Bowen were writing. My husband's grandparents go to a New York City movie theater to watch a live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's Tosca. If I search YouTube for "Beethoven," I can watch 80,800 videos, like of the late Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan conducting the full "Seventh Symphony in A Major." Contemporary composers can record entire symphonies from their bedrooms. Musicians from around the world can collaborate and perform for an audience of millions without ever meeting each other. The marginal cost of distributing a copy of a musical recording around the world has dropped to pretty much zero.

The same is happening in education. Since 2001, a growing movement -- from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and hundreds of other universities worldwide to insurgent bloggers and entrepreneurs barely out of school themselves -- is looking to social media to transform higher education. They're releasing educational content for free to the world and enlisting computers as tutors. Google has scanned and digitized 7 million books. Wikipedia users have created the world's largest encyclopedia. YouTube Edu and iTunes U have made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free.

The face-to-face learning experience, like the live concert experience, remains inimitable. Research shows that, at its best, hybrid learning beats both online-only and classroom-only approaches. Learners can take in and retain more content faster and more easily, form strong mentoring and teamwork relationships, grow into self-directed, creative problem solvers, and publish portfolios of meaningful work that help jobs find them. These innovations hold out the tantalizing possibility of beating the cost disease while meeting the world's demand for higher education.

As exhilarating as this future sounds for students, there is plenty of anxiety about the transition. "Thinking Big in a Crisis" was the title of a summer 2009 higher-education policy summit in Washington, D.C., featuring representatives from the worlds of journalism and architecture sharing war stories about the scary impact of the Web on existing business models. Later that summer, I attended an Open Education conference in Vancouver titled "Crossing the Chasm." The pace of transformation is uneven. Existing institutions don't want to give up their authority, nor faculty their jobs. Even among early adopters, there's a divide over basic issues: Some see an economic opportunity, while others are eager to spread free education; some want the university to absorb the new information technologies, while others see the digital age absorbing the university.

As a print journalist, I'm all too aware that a cardinal way the Internet has disrupted traditional knowledge industries is through disaggregation or unbundling of services. In the case of a daily newspaper, for example, Craigslist replaced the classifieds, Yahoo! Finance the stock listings, the sports scores, bloggers the op-eds. Newspapers are making shaky attempts to profit from their remaining unique strengths in local and investigative reporting.

Higher education is not just an industry. Still, from students' point of view, colleges do provide a bundle of services. You crack a book or go to lecture and learn about the world. You go to labs or write papers and build a skill set. You form relationships with classmates and teachers and learn about yourself. You get a diploma, and the world can learn about you. Content, skills, socialization, and accreditation.

The Web and allied technologies can make each of these services better, cheaper, more accessible, and even free to the student. Content, whether text, video, audio, or game-based, has progressed the furthest along that path. Interactive teaching algorithms can adapt to your learning style on the fly, allowing you to grasp concepts intuitively and at your own pace. And the Internet hasn't just changed the way we consume information. It has altered the way we interact. Social media can help students and teachers form learning communities. Reputation, assessment, and certification are held jealously as a monopoly by existing institutions, but new tools and models are knocking on that door, too.

"If universities can't find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them," professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written on his blog, "universities will be irrelevant by 2020."

Open content -- also known as open courseware, or open educational resources (OER) -- can mean any use of the Web to share the fruits of faculty time, from curricula to lesson plans to texts to original research. As Wikipedia is to a conventional encyclopedia, open content is to a conventional textbook or lecture hall. Both open-source software and Creative Commons, a nonprofit set up in 2001 to create the intellectual and legal framework to share or remix creative work found online, share intellectual DNA with OER. For example, you can search the photo Web site Flickr for CC-licensed images and use them like stock photos, for free, to illustrate a blog post, so long as you live up to the requirements of the CC license, such as crediting the creator or linking back to the original photo on Flickr.

More than a technical innovation, CC has spread to millions of works in all media and become the focus of what thinkers like Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of the book Remix, term the "copyleft" movement. "What happened was unexpected," says Ahrash Bissell, former director of CCLearn, the educational division of Creative Commons. "We tapped into this social dimension of people who are hungry to be able to stand up and say, 'Yes, I am part of this new and exciting universe of possibility around distributed collaboration and adaptation.'"

Those values -- distributed collaboration and adaptation -- are central to open education. The ball got rolling in 2001 with the OpenCourseWare project at MIT, funded by the Hewlett and Andrew W. Mellon foundations. If you go to MIT's Web site today, you can find the full syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for every one of the 1,900 courses MIT offers, from physics to art history. By the end of 2009, some 65 million current students, aspiring students, alumni, professors, and armchair enthusiasts around the world had checked them out.

"Education has a long, long history of a gift economy around knowledge," says Steve Carson, a director of MIT's project, explaining why the university devotes up to $15,000 per course in development costs from its own budget to put each course online to everyone for free. "That ethos underpins both open-source software and educational sharing." Over 200 institutions in over 30 countries have posted courses online at the OpenCourseWare Consortium under CC licensing. Countries from Kenya to the Netherlands have started their own open courseware repositories. China's Ministry of Education has been funding the release of university courses since 2003; over 10,000 courses are now available for free online, many including video.

These materials have been accumulating for several years now, but most colleges have yet to fully take advantage of them. Students spend an average of $1,000 a year on textbooks, and faculty spend countless hours preparing and updating course materials, which prompts the question: What will it take for colleges to realize the power of free and open resources and use them to cut educational costs?


Britain: Conservative vision for education 'will change schools for the better'

The writer below sees no need for radical change but that probably reflects today's wishy-washy British Conservative thinking

When the Liberal MP WE Forster masterminded the successful passage of the Education Act, 1870, the main opposition to the legislation came from within his own party. He did in fact rely on Conservative support for his measure to become law.

No one would deny that Forster’s eventual Act, introducing primary schooling for most children, was a big step forward. One hundred and 40 years on and as the electoral campaign begins to heat up, the Conservative Party is determined to welcome in a new vision for educational change and to stamp home its message should they be able to gain enough seats in the House of Commons after the next general election.

But what do the Tories stand for in education? What policies are they unveiling for schools and for the teaching profession? In this article, I will put forward some of the keynote school and teacher policies currently supported by the Conservative Party.

An important starting point for a new Conservative government would be the schools. The Conservative Party would legislate at the outset to open more academies, and radically reform Ofsted, the body in charge of inspecting standards in schools.

Much effort will go towards using the best schools to help the ones that are struggling.

Michael Gove MP, Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, would promote a Bill, to become law by the end of July 2010, leading to the creation of new academies.

The Tories would be able to build on the record of the Labour Government, and they would seemingly enhance the status of the academy and the attractions of combining the best of the public with the best of private provision in the school system.

In a similar vein Kunskapsskolan (translates into English as the ‘knowledge school’), Sweden’s largest supplier of independent schools, provides an important model for change. This scheme envisages that greater choice will be made available to parents, regardless of their income.

Teachers would be given far more freedom to develop innovative practices in the way they teach children and it is evident that vital lessons can be learnt from Sweden and many of the schools in that country.

Cameron and his team believe that schools thrive when they are allowed the freedom to innovate. Academies and schools based on the Kunskapsskolan blueprint could benefit from other freedoms such as the right to shape the curriculum, to exclude disruptive pupils, and to choose the best elements in the private and public sectors. And to enforce their own discipline.

I can’t see much wrong with this kind of approach, but an emphasis must, on this policy, in my view, be placed on the importance of compassion and care and on not forgetting that the poor and deprived deserve more than just lip service and are more often than not in need of special help and consideration.

Cameron himself has been touched by the sad loss of his disabled son, Ivan, who passed at the age of six. Conservative policies designed for disabled children open the door for children in need either to attend mainstream schools or go to special schools. This will avoid the sort of blanket solution that many previous governments have mistakenly pursued.

The Conservatives also aim to replace the leadership of those schools with persistent serious problems. Where Ofsted judges that schools are failing to teach the basics properly, where discipline is absent and where the leadership has failed, they will install leadership teams with a track record of success.

As far as inspection is concerned outstanding schools will too be free from Ofsted inspection. Improvements in discipline are, moreover, a key tenet behind the Tory programme.

Quangos, those organisations or agencies that are financed by a government but that act independently of it, that are wasteful will meet with the full force of Tory venom and I would expect where savings can be made the money would be best spent on helping directly to finance projects in schools that really give a boost to realise as the full potential of school children.

However, root and branch reforms are not always the best way ahead.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the regulatory body for public examinations and publicly funded qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels, is, for instance, one quango ready for the chop, and a degree of understanding might be advised. The QCDA, for instance, has done much work in the area of disability awareness, and success in this area, particularly for the deaf and visually impaired, should not be overlooked.

Yet the QCDA might be stripped of its control to meddle with A-levels, and instead they would be given back to the universities and exam boards. This would reverse decline in the A-level's reputation globally and help bring back the former prestige and status attached to the delivery of the nation’s examinations.

Cameron has been inspired by the passion for their subject shown by teachers across many disciplines and in many different schools and colleges he would like to build the National Curriculum around a basic entitlement to study scientific disciplines in a more rigorous manner: each of the three basic sciences would be given greater depth and detail than at present.

Turning to the teachers – those heroes without whom everything would collapse – what do the Tories have in store for them? Professional status is one dominant value and it definitely appears that the Conservatives are keen to improve the lot of the classroom teacher.

Economic stringency might limit the rewards going into their pockets and it might be hard to give in too liberally to teachers in their demands for substantial pay increases when there are so many additional deserving cases contributing to society and the economy.

Teachers’ academic credentials will no doubt be greater and those with the basic pass degree might find that their options to take up teaching would be limited.

Speaking with Nick Gibb MP, the Shadow Minister for Schools since July 2009, I learnt that he is very sympathetic to causes which help teachers. A Royal College of Teachers established along the lines of the royal colleges in the medical profession sounds an intriguing plan, and is supported in the House of Lords by Baroness Pauline Perry.

For such a reform the Conservatives would be wise to get teachers support first and to continue to consider the role of bodies such as the existing College of Teachers, the world’s oldest surviving teachers’ society, incorporated by Royal Charters in 1849 and 1998.

On the other hand, Cameron has less passion for the General Teaching Council for England, the watchdog of the teaching profession, brought in by New Labour, and similar to the GMC in the medical profession.

I doubt whether Cameron would abolish it but a revised role for this body, might well be in the interests of teachers who are generally reluctant to have their annual fee for membership forcefully extracted from their salary, as has been the case since 2000.

The GTC for England clearly needs to focus on primarily being in charge of teachers’ discipline though with perhaps less stress on naming and shaming those found guilty of misconduct...


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