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Archive for August, 2013

Me and Obama

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(This is a guest blog I wrote for the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education, and it will appear there soon, so this is a sneak preview.)

I took a great deal of interest in President Barack Obama’s speech this last week in upstate New York. It was a major announcement of his reforms for higher education, and he cited a few initiatives that he thought were worth commendation. Among them was “Open SUNY”: a system-wide effort to link the initiatives of the 64 or so institutions to provide degree completion and online learning and PLAR and other benefits resulting from more synergy among the campuses.

To the average Canadian involved in higher education this would look like a mash-up of BC Campus (and similar provincial networks like Contact North), TRU Open Learning (spawn of the old Open Learning Agency and its BC Educational Credit Bank), the BC PLA Network, the Canadian Virtual University, and so on. Which likely explains my tenuous claim that Open SUNY is my legacy of 4 wonderful years at SUNY: I think I was largely responsible, working with others, in planting the seeds and then fleshing out what an agency like Open SUNY could do. Historians of higher education in the US will one day support this claim and will either praise or blame me, or get it all completely wrong.

Obama’s overall concerns are with the rising tuition for higher education, especially in the public sector (while state funding has collapsed of course, thus passing the burden to the student) plus low completion rates (58% of full-time students entering in 2004 graduated with a 4-year degree after 6 years) and high default rates for student loans.

Not surprisingly, most of the higher education business has not responded very nicely. And the critics are likely not impressed with Obama’s list of exemplars of innovation, which focus on competency-based learning, MOOCs (a false step there I think) and so on. My favourites are Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” and Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning.

He also promotes a rating system for colleges that do a good job (according to whatever indicators they come up with) and that are rewarded accordingly. I think the intention is solid, but this is ripe for institutions to game the system, and for sharp divisions to occur between institutions which score well in said game, and others which (for many complex reasons) do not show up so well and which likely need more resources, not less.

I guarantee that these divisions will align with and reinforce the existing social and economic class system. My previous institution, Empire State College, is an amazing place: radical, alternative and innovative, serving those who have all sorts of barriers. But if you start counting its success as you would that of my current institution, KPU, it would look embarrassing. Education (or for that matter, life) is too complicated for a simple scorecard that fails to account for the wide range of communities and learners and their needs.

Others have done a much better job than I can of commenting on all this, and there is the usual mobbing of higher education by those who routinely cite Clayton Christensen (have they not read anything else?) and predict the end of the world as we know it. But I can make a few observations.

  • Open SUNY is still largely imaginary, but the potential is huge. One forgets that New York State alone has close to 20 million people, and, despite the extensive public and private systems, many face the usual barriers that those of us in open, distance and adult learning understand: location, money, previous bad experiences or no family tradition in further education, not wanting (or needing) to start from scratch, not wanting (or needing) to follow precisely pre-determined curricula that may or may not be relevant to their needs and interests.
  • Although I have problems with some of the proposals Obama has come up with, I am once again amazed at the level of engagement and boldness of US politicians as they try to deal with enormous issues. Much as I love Canada and its largely solid higher education system, I simply cannot imagine any Canadian politician, federal or provincial, speaking as eloquently or as forcefully about higher education as does Obama, and I saw the same from state and federal politicians of all stripes. It all supports my overall impression that when the US does something well, it excels, and when it messes up, it does so with terrible impacts. In Canada meanwhile we muddle along with our platitudes and occasional soft criticism, and maybe that is best. However, we have hardly any major radical and alternative educational institutions any more, and although we seem to lead the way sometimes, our innovations get diluted by the rankings game, by elitism, and by the inherent conservatism of Canadian higher education.
  • Having said that, I am encouraged by the work going on in BC right now, and I want KPU to think about suspending the usual rules and paradigms that we have wallowed into and to try some really bold initiatives to better meet the needs of those learners we currently do not reach.


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I recently re-tweeted an announcement that KPU had joined ResearchImpact: a group of Canadian universities dedicated to making research useful, and applicable to real world problems. One of my dedicated followers questioned some of the language used by ResearchImpact, though (to my surprise) did not question why the organization had to forgo the space needed to have its name align with the usual rules of English. It seems very forced to run the words together in an effort to make it hip or different or digitally something.

My follower focussed on the expression Knowledge Mobilization, asking with obvious suspicion what it was supposed to mean. I helpfully gave him a link to a Wikipedia posting, which he (rightly) derided as wiki-fluff that was obviously written by a “knowledge mobilizer”, and, on second reading, I had to agree. Another case of well-intentioned, and essentially simple concepts in both academe and business breeding a whole new language of unnecessary and pompous jargon.

(The irony of course is that this Knowledge Mobilization wiki cites Wikipedia as a good example of KMb  – as those in the know refer to it –  in action: Wikipedia is a good example of a knowledge mobilization tool. It provides a medium through which knowledge can be built and shared among many users.”)

Now, there are lots of places where technical language is entirely necessary because good old clear and plain English simply will not concisely and precisely convey the same information or meaning. Long ago, when I did research and revealed the structures of interesting compounds, I came up with sentences like this:

“Intermediate products have been isolated from the reaction of (4,4,9,9-tetramethyl-5,8-diazadodecane-2,11-dione dihydrazone )nickel(II) perchlorate with butane-2,3-dione which finally yields the macrocyclic product (3,4,7,9,9,14,14,16-octamethyl-1,2,5,6,10,13-hexaazacyclohexa-deca-2,4,6,16-tetraene)nickel(II) perchlorate , [Ni( omht )] (ClO4)2.

I have made the point before that trying to simplify some concepts, especially in science, can lead to analogies and metaphors that are just misleading or wrong or silly: in some cases, the only language you can effectively use is mathematics. And there are many situations where a coded language allows people to be precise and/or fast (medicine, engineering, emergencies etc.)

But in the case of ResearchImpact (I hate having to keep typing it like that) , which “provides knowledge mobilization services to universities, communities and government agencies”, I was worried at first that it seemed contrived.

Maybe it is all related to the blood sport of getting funding for research from various granting agencies and foundations. You want to sound posh and academic and, yes business like (management gurus have lot to answer for in muddying up the Queen’s English by stating the painfully obvious using fancy jargon…..and don’t give me that old chestnut that Shakespeare was inventive with the language ).

To me, the classification of research is simple: there is pure research, which is research for its own sake i.e.  for satisfying our species’ fundamental imagination and curiosity, and without which we would be sunk. My research was like this: none of my work was intended to have any immediate use: it added to the body of knowledge about certain compounds which may or may not one day be of use. By the way, has a use ever been found for Scandium, or did God, when he made the atoms, create this element to just fill a gap in the Periodic Table? (Yes, it is used in trace amounts in alloys of aluminum for military use, and in some halide lamps, but this all since I investigated an obscure compound, which makes me feel old.)

My favorite structure was this one, and we actually made the suggestion that it might explain the magnetic properties of blue copper proteins:

That is the closest I got to anything that might link to the natural world.

I cannot speak for every other discipline, but I am sure that pure research can be identified in all of them, and it always has value.

I am always worried when the political or populist winds blow in the direction of demanding that everything be immediately useful, or work-place related. So, we get rid of the poets and philosophers and theoretical studies of anything? I don’t think so. Aside from denying each person the opportunity to follow her/his passion (and to try and make a living doing so), you actually shrivel aspects of the economy you are are trying to support, you cut the essential links  between pure and applied research, and we’ll all become drones with no ability to think for ourselves.

Applied research depends heavily on pure research, which in turn inspires new questions for exploration that push on the frontiers of our knowledge and understanding of our universe in all its manifestations.

At KPU, we are more applied than pure (pause for snide remarks), but always try to link the 2, hence the value to us of ResearchImpact and KMb (listen to me, getting with the jargon). Whether it is in studies of sustainable ways to control pests, or food safety, or false memory, or issues in our community, KPU works hard to be relevant.

But this is still a very limiting way to think about research and scholarly work in general, especially in an institution driven by teaching. In Scholarship Reconsidered, one of my heroes, Ernest Boyer, developed what has become (imho) the most useful classification, first of all by using the broader term “scholarship” instead of “research”. He identified 4 types of scholarship which we use at KPU:

  • Discovery: i.e. pure research
  • Application: applied research, focused on a problem or issue
  • Integration: can be pure or applied but connects knowledge from more than one discipline: when you think about it, all but the simplest issues require this, and is one of the goals of KMb
  • Teaching: any time a class or seminar convenes with a teacher, it becomes a laboratory for exploring how people teach and learn: any self-respecting teacher does this all the time, sometimes formally and intentionally (collecting data, sharing results); sometimes informally and intuitively.

And somewhere along the line we added the Scholarship of Creativity: for the fine, performing and literary arts and design especially, with their exhibitions, recordings, performances, publications and various other innovations and products, and it has been argued for inclusion in other disciplines as well.

Regarding the Scholarship of Teaching, the Danish language has overlapping language for teaching and for learning, and, as far as I am concerned you can’t have one without the other. And since research is a way in which faculty themselves learn, the differentiation of teaching versus research versus life itself seems silly.

Plus, of course, one of the key outcomes of our teaching is for our graduates to know how to conduct their research as professionals or as citizens as they question everything….. including the unnecessary use of jargon to describe what we do in higher education.