Monday, October 31, 2016

Early Indications October 2016: What's Ahead for Higher Education?

First things first: my Robots book was published by MIT Press a couple weeks ago. I worked with a wonderful team there; among other things, the cover art is far better than any other book I’ve done since the millennium. I hope we can team up on another project in the future.

I last wrote about higher education in September 2009, and upon revisiting the piece, it has held up pretty well.

That said, the landscape has shifted dramatically in the intervening years, so in this newsletter I will address the new issues, with some reiteration of past themes. In a nutshell, colleges face a potentially crippling combination of being locked into existing infrastructure-heavy business models in the face of alternative delivery practices, unsustainable cost increases, and extreme mission creep. Trying to be so many things to so many constituencies, using an expensive/inefficient physical plant and headcount under massively bureaucratic management, will fail as online education gets better and better at the same time that student loan debt hits critical mass.

Hypothesis 1: College is unique
College is a unique element of most societies. Using the US model, which is not fully representative but widely emulated, consider:

1) For what other service are there both private and state alternatives from which to choose? Not police forces, drug certification, roads, Cabinet departments, or militaries.

2) In what other transaction does the buyer (and buyer's parents) lay bare their finances before being told how much the service will cost?

3) In what other transaction, especially one costing so much, are yardsticks a) not agreed on and b) difficult to obtain? I know roughly how much my house cost the previous buyer, how its property taxes compare to those of neighboring properties, and even how its electric bill compares to peer properties. Buying a car, I can see some facsimile of dealer invoice price, EPA fuel economy performance, if a used car has been in a collision, and even what parts tend to break at what mileages. Buyers know surprisingly little about such an important investment.

Hypothesis 2: The many missions of a college/university can expand and conflict

College is idiosyncratic in many regards, no more so than in its many and often competing definitions of success. Does a successful college education

- further upward economic mobility?

- teach a graduate a marketable skill for a first job?

- turn a child into an adult?

- prepare a person to ask the enduring questions of the world, its institutions, and oneself?

- teach a graduate how to learn and adapt his/her skills to a changing job market?

- teach a specialized body of knowledge so civil engineers, accountants, and English teachers can join their respective guilds?

- teach general skills that one should possess regardless of occupation, such as financial literacy, critical thinking and writing, and civic/historical awareness?

- endow the graduate with social experiences and friendships that will endure over time?

- teach awareness of and respect for people and traditions different from one's own?

That list, for all its complexity and internal competition, addresses but one university constituency: undergraduate students. There are more players: alumni, corporate research sponsors, state economic development authorities, employees, graduate and professional-school students, farmers and other consumers of agricultural extension expertise, patients at the medical center, fans of the school's football or basketball teams, municipalities paid something similar to property taxes (but not quite), and the makers and buyers of things that universities can help certify, whether meat and dairy products, nurses, or STEM curricula. What is the priority of these many groups? Who sets the pecking order?

Hypothesis 3: Undergraduate education is getting lost in the shuffle
So colleges have seen their scope of activity explode. Rather than try to sort through all the constituencies, let’s return to the erstwhile purpose of college, the undergraduate experience. Richard DeMillo sees higher education from multiple perspectives and currently works at Georgia Tech at a research center for the future of higher education. His recent book, Revolution in Higher Education (MIT Press), is well worth reading. In it, he raises five questions:

1) Does an institution serve the people it is supposed to serve?
2) Are there among a university’s graduates a sufficiently large number of successful and influential alumni to warrant a second look at what is being done to achieve those results?
3) Besides the visible success stories, what happens to most graduates once they get their degrees?
4) What, exactly, do students learn?
5) How important is an institution to the city or region?

Since that last newsletter in 2009, U.S. student loan debt has exploded, in part because of fraudulent or dishonest practices by for-profit colleges that have high rates of loan acceptance, degree non-completion, and loan defaults. Overall, U.S. student loan debt has more than quintupled since 2000: from $250 billion to more than a trillion today. For-profit colleges are heavily over-represented on the list of “leaders” - the University of Phoenix has seen its loans increase 17-fold in that same period.

What is a “typical” college experience today? A mid-range state university, a Western Michigan or Kansas State? Part-time and/or online, whether Phoenix or Southern New Hampshire? The public research powerhouses — Cal Berkeley, Michigan, Texas, et al — teach a lot of students but a) represent a small percentage of total enrollment and b) have distinctive strengths and weaknesses. One thing is certain: the private liberal arts colleges where many members of the media went to school (a Syracuse, a Williams, or an Ivy let’s say) are neither representative nor “average.” A Five Thirty Eight post — “Shut Up About Harvard” — from March is required reading on this topic: many people, but especially those in the media, focus on elite or very good schools because that’s what they saw. But Harvard’s tiny entering class isn’t representative of the larger experience, with its high 4-year graduation rate, lack of athletic scholarships, lack of loan debt (all aid is grants at several Ivies), no part-time students, small numbers of military veterans, etc.  The other big change is the rise of new models for online learning: Udacity, Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy, and others. DeMillo names the perfect storm:

A) More students are starting college than ever before.
B) Fewer students (on a percentage basis) are completing degrees than ever before.
C) College costs are cursed by “Baumol’s disease,” an economic theory positing that many service industries can raise costs without raising productivity. In U.S. universities, labor-related costs (including health care and overall headcount) have risen faster than inflation although most university salaries have not, and a school’s tuition usually reflects this imbalance.
D) Output measures are hard to collect, hard to interpret, and hard for the public to find. Something as simple as “what did a student learn“ is not well understood, especially across heterogeneous populations, and not widely collected. Debt loads, starting salaries, and subsequent education (such as law or business school) are tracked loosely at best, and not at all in many cases, and then not prominently reported to prospective students at many institutions. Do English majors at Florida State do better, employment-wise, than marketing majors at LSU? Few people know, though many have opinions and/or anecdotes.
E) Technological change reshapes entire occupational categories faster than colleges can react. I just saw last week that someone advocated cutting off radiology training in medical schools “because in five years deep learning will have better performance.”

Hypothesis 4: The magnitude and complexity of the challenge dwarfs the caliber of post-graduate leadership and innovation

Thus we have multiple dilemmas facing U.S. universities. Costs keep rising, in part driven by the pursuit of an elusive notion of “prestige,” while tuition increases cannot outrun inflation for very much longer. By taking on so many missions beyond undergraduate education, colleges build bureaucratic fortresses that duplicate effort and impede both efficiency and collaboration. Online learning promises a cure to Baumol’s disease via simultaneous scaling and personalization, but organizational models (including factors such as accreditation) make implementation within traditional brick-and-mortar incentive models problematic. (A case in point: what is an online credit hour if there is no classroom where, in a 3-credit course, people convene TuTh from 9:00-10:30?) University investments in the physical experience double down on dorms, student unions, gyms, and sports programs, ignoring or wishing away the oncoming online locomotive. An emphasis on STEM or even STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) doesn’t prepare students for what startup consultants Burning Glass call hybrid jobs: engineers who need to write proposals, nurses who supervise people, statisticians who need to analyze cultural differences. Political rhetoric notwithstanding, core liberal-arts training does not become irrelevant even as technical and quantitative skills gain in importance.

What’s next? Three questions:

1) Where will university leadership develop the sophistication, foresight, and boldness to reinvent the basic model of research, tenure, teaching, and testing that dates primarily from the 1880s, imported to the U.S. from Germany? 20 years ago, I heard a great parable that makes the point:

Leonardo da Vinci walks into an airplane hangar and sees both a Boeing 747 and an SR-71 Blackbird and cannot believe what happened to his conception of powered flight. Gutenberg sees Adobe Creative Suite, with Photoshop, Illustrator, and the rest of the software, and cannot believe what happened to printing presses. Ben Franklin walks into a modern school building, sees desks in rows, chalk, and blackboards, and says, “hey that’s a classroom.”

Another parable: when asked the purpose of the modern university, University of California president Clark Kerr said "to provide sex for the students, parking for the faculty, and football for the alumni." He said that 50 years ago, and his advice is still pretty widely followed. Who is our generation's Clark Kerr?

2) What alternatives can emerge to the ubiquitous 4-year undergraduate degree, lowering costs, increasing access, and improving performance of the system, including delivering lifelong learning in whatever field a person might work? (Why has 4 years become some sort of magic number, given how little we know of learning mechanisms and outcomes?)

3) Where can we have a serious conversation about the role and purpose of different types of college experience, ranging from education and training (they are two different things) in critical thinking, financial literacy, basic citizenship, Great Western and other cultural traditions, math and science fundamentals, preparation for entrepreneurship, and learning both to think abstractly and solve concrete problems. No education can do all of these well; some should do each of them as a point of distinction, without ignoring all the rest.

For all my passion in this domain, I’m glad I’m not king for a day, charged with slicing the Gordian knot: these are worthy challenges that deserve hard choices, broad participation, and above all, moral courage. Where will we find the people who can lead such a quest?

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Early Indications September 2016: Welcome to Dystopia?

If you’re an author with a knack for conjuring up nightmare scenarios, these are in fact the best of times: George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) are absolutely rolling in money and fame. There’s something going on when bleak futures capture national mindshare in books, TV shows, and movies. Look at 1963: with far fewer options, mass audiences converged on distraction. Shows such as Petticoat Junction, Candid Camera, and My Favorite Martian made the top ten, all lagging The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonanza. In 1968, with riots in the streets and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King calling the American ideal into question, Bonanza hung in at #3, behind Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. That Stanley Kubrick was able to confront the madness of nuclear war with the brilliant black comedy of Dr. Strangelove (1964) helps prove the point: dystopias have historically been uncommon cultural touchstones; now they’re everywhere.

Could it be that these cultural artifacts capture our zeitgeist? Whether in the Dark Knight Batman films, The Wire, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos, our most popular entertainments of the past 15 years present a pretty bleak vision, diametrically opposed to new deals, new frontiers, or “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” campaign songs. Along the dystopian line of thinking, it’s easy to find evidence that the world is heading in a very bad direction. A gloomy sample:

*Ocean levels are rising faster than predicted, but the local effects in New York, Miami, the Netherlands, and Bangladesh will all vary considerably. Millions of people will be displaced; where will they go? Norfolk Naval Base will lose acres of land, how fast nobody knows.

*What appears to be the single largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyber-attack was mounted earlier this month using at least 150,000 compromised cameras and other poorly secured Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It’s quite possible our cars, garage-door openers, thermostats, and personal devices can be turned against us.

*Guns kill a lot of people in the U.S. Exactly how many is hard to determine, in part because the gun lobby discourages public health officials from calculating statistics. But whether it is suicides (20,000 a year, or 2/3 of all gun deaths), mass shootings, police violence against citizens, or the average of 82 shootings per week in Chicago alone, the numbers are depressing but apparently acceptable, given the lack of action. One statistic provides food for thought. Despite its wide error range, a Harvard study released earlier this month estimated (a key word) that 7.7 million people (3% of U.S. adults) own half the country’s guns. These “super-owners” collect between 8 and 140 firearms apiece.

*Globally, millions of people are being lifted out of poverty, but in the U.S., tens of millions of middle-class people find their fates stuck or, increasingly, declining. Whether from plant closures, downsizing, inadequate skills, offshoring, or automation’s various effects, people can’t get ahead the way previous generations did. For many, complex reasons, class conflict is showing itself in various ways: racial tensions, protests in places like San Francisco where homelessness and extreme wealth collide, and anti-trade sentiment. Immigration and refugees are super-sensitive issues from Turkey to British Columbia.

*At the same time that Colorado and Washington state are finding benefits of legal marijuana, recreational drugs are killing people. In addition to the violence in Chicago noted above, some of which is drug-related, the toll of opioid drugs is shocking. Especially when heroin is cut with fentanyl, overdoses are swamping local EMS and other responders. Columbus saw 27 in 24 hours, while Cincinnati had to cope with 174 heroin overdoses in 6 days. Huntington, WV had calls for 27 overdoses in under four hours last month. Prescription oxycontin was likely a tragic gateway drug in many of these cases. “Just say no” and a “war” on drugs clearly didn’t work; what’s next?

*On the ethical drug front, meanwhile, we live in scary times. Antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are making hospitalization in any country a frightening proposition. As of 2013, 58,000 babies died of antibiotic-resistant infections in India alone, and in a global age of travel, those bacterial strains are moving elsewhere. An estimated 23,000 people died in the US last year from antibiotic-resistant infections, and just this past May, the CDC reported that a Pennsylvania woman who had not recently traveled out of the country tested positive for the mcr-1 strain of E. coli. This variant resists colistin, widely regarded as the “last resort” antibiotic, though the woman in question _did_ respond to other treatments. Still, the CDC’s language is sobering: “The CDC and federal partners have been hunting for this gene in the U.S. ever since its emergence in China in 2015. . . . The presence of the mcr-1 gene, however, and its ability to share its colistin resistance with other bacteria such as CRE raise the risk that pan-resistant bacteria could develop.”

None of these problems have easy answers; some don’t even have hugely difficult answers. Zeroing in on the technology-related world (thus leaving aside climate change, gun violence, and drug issues for the moment), I see four nasty paradoxes that, taken together, might explain some of how we arrived at a juncture where dystopian fantasies might resonate.

1) Automation brings leisure and productivity; robotics threatens to make many job categories obsolete. From radiologists to truck drivers to equity analysts, jobs in every sector are threatened with extinction.The task of making sure technologies of artificial muscle and cognition have widely rather than narrowly shared benefits runs counter to many management truisms regarding shareholder value, return on investment, and optimization.

2) We live in a time of unprecedented connection as most adults on the planet have access to a phone and will soon get smartphones; interpersonal dynamics are often characterized by savagery (at worst) or distractedness. (Google “Palmer Luckey” for a case in point.) Inside families and similar relationships, meanwhile, the psychologist Sherry Turtle argues persuasively that we are failing each other, and especially our kids, when we interact too much with screens and too little with flesh-and-blood humans.

3) The World Wide Web brought vast stores of the world’s cultural and scientific knowledge to masses of people; a frightening amount of public debate is now “post-factual,” with conspiracy theories and plain old ignorance gaining large audiences. Climate science, GMO crops, and vaccinations are but three examples. The assumptions behind the Web have too often failed: access to knowledge by itself cannot counter fads (hello Justin Bieber), longstanding ignorance, or intolerance. Compare the traffic to YouTube or Facebook with that to the Library of Congress, Internet Archive, or even Wikipedia. At some level, maybe people don’t like eating their intellectual vegetables; junk food is too hard to resist.

4) Billions of sensors, smartphones, and cloud computing virtual machines enable an increasingly real-time world, where information flows faster and wider every year; historical context is lacking for many public assertions and private opinions. In September, a Republican party official claimed there was no racism before 2008. For years, only a minority of people have been able to identify in which century the American revolution or Civil War occurred. Nuanced views of Reconstruction or the Gilded Age, hugely formative of and relevant to today, are difficult to find.

Together, these paradoxes add up to a truly dystopian vision at odds with what seemed inevitable just a few years ago. It’s difficult to be optimistic, but to close I’ll suggest some reasons why solutions are so difficult.

*The digital world doesn’t respect traditional organizational boundaries. Examples abound: Russia is said to be meddling in the US election cycle. Certainly the superpowers have influenced local elections in the past, but the thought of major media outlets and voting machines being compromised by a global adversary calls the whole notion of sovereignty into question. Whether it’s in regard to spam, child porn, copyright, compromised hardware at the chipset level, digital privacy, or the handling of video and music streaming, the global, borderless nature of the mobile/digital platforms calls basic facts of jurisdiction, evidence, and recourse into question.

*At the same time that “where” needs to be redefined, so too we must confront what work is. Who does what, how much they are paid or otherwise valued, how they learn the job, what happens when jobs or entire labor markets disappear — none of our current answers can be assumed to hold stable 10 years from now. Education, unemployment and disability benefits, collective bargaining, workplace health and safety (does sitting really “kill” you?), pensions, internships, retirement, job-hunting, and corporate education and training will all assume new shapes. Some of this will be messy; I can’t see anyone getting it all right the first time.

*Technologies of communication and transportation have usually been a double-edged sword. Trade brings benefits to many parties, but smallpox, influenza, and the AIDS virus all crossed oceans on new modes of transport. Given the essentially free, multimedia, borderless nature of digital communications, what equivalent maladies will be given broad distribution, and what will be their consequences?

*In a pluralistic world, what can serve as a moral compass for an individual, a group, a nation, a continent? The teachings of Muhammad, Jesus, Yahweh, Confucius, and the Buddha all have served to guide people over the centuries, but so too have they justified crimes against humanity. We live in a connected world where religious conflict becomes more likely than in eras with less physical mobility. Given global communications and mobility, how is coexistence possible, given increases in both fundamentalism and secularism in many places, and the ongoing tendency for the major religions to splinter internally, often violently? In a post-factual world, people try to claim their own beliefs, but without sufficiently binding notions of a common identity, purpose, or ideology, we are left less with states of free-thinkers than with new sources of conflict — and fewer resources for building group identity.

To be sure, there are many hopeful signals, and plenty of today’s entertainment is mindless diversion not unlike the television hits of the 1960s. That dystopias can find audiences may be more a function of the multitude of distribution options than of national mood. In any event, I do believe the challenges we confront will test moral resolve, institutional flexibility, and intellectual creativity unlike ever before. It may be that meta-questions are in order: rather than asking how we solve internet security or rising ocean levels, we (a tricky word all on its own) need to ask, what are the political forms, grounds of legitimacy, and resources of the institutions we will design to address these new challenges.