Customizing learning in state universities

October 8, 2011

I recently attended a symposium on the future of state universities.  The speakers ranged from internationally reputed policy makers like ex-prime ministers Tony Blair and John Howard to respected scholars like Clay Christensen and individuals that were revolutionizing the way we teach, like Sal Khan and Michael Wesch.

The consensus was that we need to rethink the way we deliver knowledge.  Salman Khan challenged the idea that some students just do not “get” science and math.  Sal’s YouTube videos are now accessed by millions of students world wide.  The key take away from his experience is that when students complete a first level course without comprehending 5% of the material, this builds up over time in successive courses and soon an entire discipline like math or chemistry becomes incomprehensible.  The solution is to attack the 5% lack of comprehension in the first course.  Sal’s videos enable students to go back to parts of the material that are challenging, without the embarrassment of the instructor’s presence.  The enormous data that Sal and his group have collected shows that students learn at a different pace and accommodation of differential rates of learning is the key to improving student success.  If the basic concepts can be mastered outside the classroom, the instructor can devote the time in class to group projects and group simulations.

Clay Christensen juxtaposed the idea that while student learning is best when customized, universities are set up to deliver standardized curricula, in prepackaged modules that everyone takes, and is expected to complete at the same time.  Most industries initially start out with a fully integrated model, supplying all components of the value chain and over time, evolve into a modular structure where different parts of the process are delivered by different providers.  This reduces overhead and allows the industry to offer products at lower prices and increase market access.   Education needs such a  modularization so that teaching and research can be uncoupled when it makes sense.  Christensen sees online and hybrid models of instruction developing to fill in the gaps to modularization in the higher education arena.

Michael Wesch is passionate about student engagement in the learning process.  Learning is a two-way conversation.  Current classroom norms leave the impression that  information is scare, that authority is needed for good information, and that authoritative information is beyond discussion.  We need a more collaborative model.  The online space is not just a delivery model, it is a collaboration space.

The million dollar question in my mind is — how do we customize learning in the context of large state universities that account for 34% of the higher education landscape but are engaged in teaching 76% of the student body?  Send me your suggestions.

What will Houston look like in 2040?

October 7, 2011

Today I attended the Center for Houston’s future’s vision for 2040. What will Houston look like in 2040? The scenarios presented and the conversations that ensued were meant to get the audience thinking. Will we be a vibrant and growing city attracting the most talented workforce? Or will we settle down to be just another city in a world where economic power is distributed across the globe with no single country playing a dominant role?

Today the buzz word is jobs. As the problems of financial institutions unfolded, the ensuing tightening of credit led to hiring freezes and the ensuing uncertainty brought with it low consumer sentiment, which in turn led companies to tighten their belts, and lay off employees. Now we face a situation where more than 9 out of every 100 Americans is out of work. Youth unemployment, (unemployment in the age group 15-24) is 18% in the U.S., which, while it is seemingly high, is lower than 41% in Spain. Nobel Laureate Economist Edmund Phelps notes that today’s job pain is more than just an aftermath of the financial crisis. The natural rate of unemployment (the rate below which, an increase in demand results in inflation) is 7.5% today, which is higher than before. In addition, as another Nobel Laureate economist Spence argues, globalization is the more potent factor in the story of unemployment. The job market in the U.S. today is polarized and will become more so as the pace of globalization and technological change increases. On the one hand we need skilled professionals, knowledge workers, or what Friedman and Mandelbaum describe in That Used to be Us, as people to fill nonroutine and creative jobs. At the other end of the spectrum are the nonroutine, low skilled jobs that do not require advanced degrees or formal education. The layer in between, of jobs requiring routine and repetitive tasks will be automated and move to the lowest cost locations.

How do we retain all the nonroutine, highly skilled jobs and build on these? The answer of course lies in innovation and education. Going forward, the key to being employed will be to be in learning mode on a continuous basis. Graduating with a formal degree is only a beginning. What we really need is a system that facilitates continuous learning. In The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, Lynda Gratton argues that people will need to acquire new skills every few years. What does this mean for our universities and institutes of higher learning? Do we need a new business model for higher education where the innovation is not so much in the product but in the process? Like a just-in-time inventory model that created value for Dell, can we conceive and deliver a just-in-time education model that helps people seek and acquire skills as they need them, customized to their own specific requirements ? How do we build creativity and innovation into the core component of our curriculum and keep invention alive?

Send me your ideas.