The Road Back to Higher Education

In 2012, I left Higher Education to work in the software world. It was bittersweet, because I had finished a Ph.D. on Higher Education Leadership only one year before I left. My decision to leave was a hard one, but I couldn’t see an effective solution path to change learning within traditional higher education. I studied effort after effort to make changes within departments, institutions, and systems, only to see that potential innovations to higher education rarely moved the needle very far from the traditional steady-state.

Maria at PhD Graduation

A proud graduate, but disheartened by the decreasing funding for higher education.

The semester that I finished my Ph.D. was the same one that huge cuts to higher education were announced in several states, most notably in Pennsylvania, where the higher education funding by the state was reduced by 50%.  By 2013, per-student higher education spending was lower than pre-recession levels in 48 states.

From the software world, I have watched as MOOCs, Coding Camps, and Microdegrees have been hyped as the next great thing to disrupt higher education. There’s no doubt that higher ed has been disrupted, though I would say it is more because increased regulation, lower funding, and decreased student enrollments put significant pressure on colleges and universities to increase efficiencies. While innovation like MOOCs show us that there is a tremendous market for learning outside of degree programs, these innovations are not focused at producing more teachers, nurses, or doctors – we still need higher education and traditional degree programs. We just need more affordable ways to get that first degree as well as flexible systems to update post-degree training, and allow quick pivots into other careers as the pool of available jobs shifts.

Finishing up my Ph.D., I knew that our institutions of higher education needed to move faster. Rather than taking years to develop new courses and programs, we needed to find ways to do it in months and without affecting students already in-program. In many degree programs, the curriculum needs to be adapted to the changing world every semester, not every 5-10 years. When I left higher education, I had a plan to learn everything I could about how the software industry uses agile techniques to iterate on solutions and pivot fast. I hoped that one day, I’d find an educational institution that would see the value in this unique learning experience, and take me back so that I could put what I had learned into practice (both from software and leadership). It was a gamble, but I knew that I couldn’t mentally survive at an institution where the pace of change was measured in decades instead of months.

The software industry was an interesting place to learn. It forced me to start thinking about what an agile institution of higher education would look like. What would you “bug” in a college or university? What processes could you refine through iteration? How would you explain the benefits of agile methodology to the stakeholders (faculty, administrators, and students)? Where should an institution be agile and where should it be traditional? This thought experiment has been occupying a processor in my mind, quietly chugging away, producing ideas and working through the implications.

2015-07-20 06.17.58

After a stunning sunrise, I saw this rainbow on my first day of work at WGU. Perhaps it was a sign.

Now I’m excited to announce that I’ve rejoined Higher Education as the Director of Learning Design for Western Governor’s University.  If you’re not familiar with WGU, it is an incredible institution (non-profit and accredited). The degrees are competency based (no grades), the classes are all online, students can begin a program of study any month, learning materials are provided to students at no additional cost, and the tuition is affordable. WGU separates learning, coaching, and assessment into distinct branches of the institution, providing a very unique and flexible structure.

As Director of Learning Design, I am responsible for the design of the student learning experience (from course design to software ease of use). It is an opportunity to help an already innovative institution incorporate agile processes throughout the learning and course design process. I think I’ve landed in the right place and I can’t wait to see what our design team is going to accomplish in the next few years!

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What does Math Teaching look like in 2020?

This is from a presentation today looking at the future of teaching math from a K-12 perspective. Here are my predictions for math teaching at the K-12 level in 2020:

(1) Learning math becomes a team activity, where technology is one of the team members.

(2) Teachers shift from the role of an instructor to the role of a learning coach.

(3) We solve the mobile devices and assessment problem.

(4) Students can move seamlessly between in-person and digital experiences.

(5) Teacher planning periods shift from lesson planning to examining analytics and choosing digital / in-person learning activities.


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Adding Future Proof Skills to Course Syllabii

There are many college-level courses that are required but not beloved by students. Math requirements, in particular, are particularly disliked by most students. I believe that we teach mathematics to help students develop logical thinking, attention to detail, and a method for attacking problems of all types. The subject of mathematics provides a common language and structure to allow the development of these skills. Unfortunately, in our zeal to explain “when we are going to use this” we wander into the dark land of contrived application problems and ridiculous problem constraints. But what if there were another way to frame the value of the skills developed in learning mathematics?

During my last year of teaching, I began to reframe the syllabus in a way that focused on the general skills that would serve students well in the future, rather than the standard answers to “when am I going to use the specific learning objectives of this course?” The six skill categories are: Focus, Explain, Flex, Interact, Analyze, and Learn. They are explained in more detail in the original post: What skills should we be teaching to future-proof an education?

Beginning with an empty template with the skills and more detailed descriptions, I walked through all the activities in each course I taught, and outlined how the course would help my students develop the skills they need to be prepared for future jobs.

You can find the empty template as a Word Doc here: Future-Proof Template for Course Syllabus. It looks something like this for each skill:


Some skills were not covered in the course. If that was the case, I just removed that line of the table.  However, a surprising number of the subskills were covered in every course I did this exercise with.

The syllabus section about the “future-proof” skills begins with a general description of what the students are about to see:

This is a list of the skills we believe will make you a valuable worker even as careers and technology shifts. These skills are not particular to any discipline – they are skills that overlay the content that you learn. To prepare for an uncertain economy, you should strive to practice and improve on the skills listed below. In this class, you will practice and improve on many of these valuable skills. These are outlined below.

Here is an example of the future proof skills applied to a Calculus II course:

Note: You can see the entire Calc II Future Proof Skill list here.

When framing topics like Techniques of Integration as a skill like “learning to change your bearings” it is much easier to justify the learning objective to Pharmacy students (let’s face it, they won’t ever use a technique of integration on the job, but most do have to take Calc II).  Pharmacy students will have to be able to determine when a chosen treatment plan is failing, and adjust course to suggest an alternative approach.

So now a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend we reframed the college experience as a way to gain and improve on these types of skills while also gaining subject-matter expertise. Suppose freshmen came into the system with a way to measure their current skill levels in these areas. Students could make goals to improve on specific areas in specific courses (I asked my students to commit to specific improvement goals in each course).  At the end of the semester, students could write a self-evaluation for areas they think they have improved on and ask instructors to “endorse” (or disagree) with the written evaluations. During their college experience, these students could graduate their real, measured, and endorsed abilities into a system like LinkedIn or Degreed.

It’s important for students to gain subject matter expertise in college, but equally important to gain skills that will make them valuable employees and colleagues, and surface those skills to potential employers.  As a fresh graduate entering the workforce, it would be incredibly valuable to be able to provide proof that you can “write so others understand” or examples that show you can “adapt to new situations”  even when they made you uncomfortable. It is my belief that these are the skills that are not being measured and surfaced in higher education.

There are rare examples of schools that provide this type of unique focus at the core of their educational structure (e.g. Alverno College), but a college doesn’t have to be restructured in order to provide this focus. The educational technologies we have today could be adopted to track a students’ successes and failures at improvement on the future proof skills. Each instructor could evaluate their own unique approach to courses to assess which skills might be focused on as the subject-matter is delivered.

An initiative like this would have to be championed at the leadership level by a President, a board, or a Dean of Academics and jointly supported by the faculty. But can you imagine? An entire institution devoted to helping students not only become subject-matter experts, but also to prepare for the employment world of the future? Well, I can dream. It is, after all, a thought experiment.

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The Invasive Valley of Personalization

About 9 months ago, I gave a presentation at the World Future Society Conference called The Promise and Perils of Personalization.

After thinking, reading, discussing, and musing about personalization for about a year, I realized that there is a fine line between useful personalization and creepy personalization. It reminded me of the “uncanny valley” in human robotics. So I plotted the same kind of curves on two axes: Access to Data as the horizontal axis, and Perceived Helpfulness on the vertical axis.  For technology to get vast access to data AND make it past the invasive valley, it would have to be perceived as very high on the perceived helpfulness scale.

I remember the first time I saw Google Now deployed on my phone. It told me that my commute to work would take 16 minutes if I left right now. I had never told Google Now where I worked, I had not told Google Now the route I drove to work, nor had not asked it to calculate my commute time.  While it was slightly creepy that it knew all this information by analyzing my daily patterns, it was also useful, and the trip over the invasive valley was short. Of course, since I now work remotely from home, Google Now thinks I work at the LDS church across the street from my house now. I’m surprised it hasn’t figured out my gym patterns and started reminding me when to leave for yoga.

I think Google Glass is getting a bad rap simply because it is stuck in the invasive valley. The general population really doesn’t see it as providing useful technology for everyday life. Sure, you can snap a picture from your glasses, but if that’s it then you’re just sneaking into the privacy of others. If, en masse, we viewed Google glass as an incredibly helpful tool, I think it would successfully navigate itself up the steep slope to redemption.

Facebook wanders in and out of the invasive valley depending on the news and the latest release cycle of their apps and privacy statements. When the latest Facebook app demanded access to all my texts, I questioned the helpfulness of the feature it claimed to need these things for – account verification for some users. The idea that Facebook would read all my texts simply to add this one feature for some users slid it back down into the invasive valley for me. This feature is not helpful enough to warrant access to all that data.

In describing the “Invasive Valley” of data access and personalization my husband looked at me and said “Forget Big Brother, wait till you meet Big Mother!” and I think that is where we’re headed. Personalization is going to become our new life nagging companion:

Maybe you should walk now? You’ve only got 2,100 steps so far today.

You have symphony tickets on Saturday night, have you made a dinner reservation yet?

I can see that you’ve eaten yogurt for 4 mornings now, should we should add yogurt to your grocery list?

You’ve only gotten an average of 6 hours of sleep a night for 5 nights, I think you should take an early bedtime tonight.

Clearly enough data is being collected about me that Google Now could do any of these (if it had access to my FitBit and Smith’s card). Don’t these all seem like things your mother would remind you of?

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4 Predictions about the Age of Technology-Enhanced Learning

I’ve been thinking about the Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Anyone who can be replaced by a computer should be.” and this led me to do some deep thinking about the consequences of technology for education.

Based on the principles of capitalism and the pressures to educate more students with better results, I arrive at the following four predictions about the marriage between technology and learning.

Please pay attention to the bolded words. They are important.

(1) Learning that involves information transfer will be replaced by technology.

(2) Any repetitive assessment or learning task that can be replicated by a computer will be.

(3)  Any computerized course that is cheaper and results in equal or better learning outcomes¹ for students will be delivered that way.

(4) The only technology that will improve learning outcomes for the majority of students is that the technology that begins to mimic a tutor-student relationship.²

¹Learning outcomes is the results/objectives-oriented part, not the learning experience. I think it will be a long time before technology can provide equal or better learning experiences, nor do we really measure this aspect of learning, though we should.

²Why? See Bloom 2-sigma problem.

What does that leave for the institution and the instructor? I posit that the role of an educator should shift from instructor to learning coach. A learning coach would focus time and energy on communicating, encouraging, monitoring, setting achievable (but challenging) goals, providing accountability to those goals, and guiding learners to see new insights for connecting concepts. In other words, educators should work with technology to (a) eliminate the repetitive tasks and (b) focus on the relationship-oriented things that improve the learning experience.

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