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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Silicon-Valley Tinted Glasses (and MOOCs)

A great deal of Ed Tech (and the VC money that supports the industry) seems to be viewing the world through lenses that are quite different than those of us who have taught students at public institutions. They are building ed tech in their own image, and many of them either dropped out of school and self-taught or attended ivy-league institutions.  The Silicon-Valley view of the problem of education reminds me of Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average) and is based on something like this:

Higher Education: Where all the learners are motivated, everyone has Internet, and the only thing standing between a student and their success is affordable access.

But this isn’t reality. For example, the students we teach at community colleges (4 in 10 college students in the U.S.) were busy with school, work, and family responsibilities. Learning for most was a means to an end, not a side-project or hobby built through self-motivation. Even with daily in-person coaching from instructors, free access to tutoring, and personal encouragement through email, phone calls, and hallway conversations the instructor and institution can rarely coach out motivation where there was none to begin with and the magic MOOC is not likely to either (see San Jose experiment in developmental math as a case in point).  A detailed reading of the CCSSE survey might be worthwhile for Ed Tech companies seeking to build apps to serve the population of “self-motivated” learners.

Let’s tackle Internet next. According to the latest PewResearch study on broadband, only 70% of adults in the U.S. have broadband Internet. Some of those folks are certainly seniors that do not wish to participate on the Internet, but there are two other groups to consider: (1) those with incomes less than $30,000 a year and (2) those who cannot get Broadband even if they want it (mostly rural students who have to live off of very-expensive satellite access if they can even get that).  The FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress report pegs the number of Americans without Broadband access at 19 million. This does not translate to just an area here and there, but involves large swaths of the country that are rural. For example, this map (2011) shows all the rural areas without access in light orange (ignore the beige areas – those are unpopulated). These rural areas are places where families (and students) live, but can’t get Broadband.

Finally, let’s take a look at affordable access. If it were true that the only thing stopping students from learning was the cost, we would have seen a large movement of Freshmen and Sophomores from public 4-year institutions back to community colleges (where the tuition is, on average, half the cost). While community colleges did see an uptick in enrollment during the recession, so did most other public institutions  (see Figure 4 of the NCES enrollment data here). In other words, community colleges were not stealing enrollment back from 4-year colleges because they were more affordable.

The truth is that for many families and students, going away to college is and will continue to be a coming-of-age ritual that is a gateway to adulthood. No MOOC or online learning experience can duplicate the experience of being away from home and being “on your own” for the first time. If we had some alternative to this experience that rose in popularity (GAP years, public service years, etc) then I could see these online experiences becoming a viable alternative. However, the away-from-home college experience is very much a part of our culture and cannot easily be replaced.

With all of that said, I do think that massive online experiences (like MOOCs) can play a valuable role in the education ecosystem, they just need to be redirected:

Alumni Degree Updates: Suppose you graduate with a Biology degree and wish to stay up-to-date in the field. As a non-student non-faculty member, you do not have easy access to journal articles, and the media provides only questionable interpretations of the data. I think most college graduates recognize the benefit of staying up-to-date in their chosen subject area, but doing so on your own is quite difficult. Enter the MOOC and higher education. On every campus in the country, there are professors updating their lectures every year to incorporate the latest research in their field (at least, we hope they are). If the institutions gave the professors additional class release to also teach a MOOC on just the updated material (for a nominal fee), they could provide a great service to their alumni (who would, of course, get it for a discount) and give a super-fun experience to the professor (who would get to teach a bunch of super-motivated students for a change).

Cultural Enrichment Layer: Let’s face it, no matter how hard colleges try, some of them are just not very culturally diverse. To have students experience the perspectives of those from other backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic standings, MOOC providers should consider providing short 4-week courses that add a layer on top of commonly taught courses (like survey psychology, sociology, biology, or nutrition). Students from all over the world could participate together in the 4-week MOOCs with their classmates on campus and gain the perspectives they may not easily have access to otherwise.  I don’t think a small fee (maybe $10) would be unreasonable for students to participate. Kudos to the MOOC providers if they can kick out some of the enrolled student data back to the home-campus professors. That would be worth the $10pp cost to be able to track this participation for a grade contribution.

Subject Area Deep Dive: Professors that teach survey courses (like Majors or Non-Majors Biology) may often wish they had more time to really go in depth on the couple topics that they know students are really interested in, for example: maybe that’s nanotechnology or genetic modification. Deep dives into topics of interest may spark interest (and majors) from students who might not otherwise see the relevance, but alas, there is no time in these courses. Again, I see this as an opportunity for MOOC providers to jump in at opportune times in the school year with “layered on” MOOCs. Perhaps students in the campus-based course could choose from one of three topics to “add-on” during the semester, and get credit in the course for their participation. Again, this requires a data-passback and a sign-up method that connects the student to the right course, but I’ll assume that this is a minor obstacle, especially if it comes with a small fee to participate attached.

Giving students a guided experience in a MOOC (with the social aspect of their on-campus experience) may help to graduate students who are more likely to participate in lifelong learning with MOOCs after college. I think that everyone wins if this is the case.

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NPS and Gamification

Last weekend I visited Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument for a 3-day digital detox. [Yes, believe it or not, I can put away the Interwebs for 3 whole days.]

While hiking in Bryce Canyon, I stumbled across a bit of gamification of the hiking trails called Hike the Hoodoos Challenge.

With all the hype about digital badges and gamification lately, I can’t help but wonder why the NPS doesn’t take this a step further and develop a digital mobile game where you can earn activity badges in all the National Parks and Monuments by hiking the trails. It seems that you could just as easily use QR codes on the signage to “check in” to various trailheads via a mobile app. Better yet, let state parks get in on the action.

Maybe you’d rather just see the pictures though … here’s Bryce Canyon and our hike to the Queen’s Garden.

And here’s Cedar Breaks National Monument (we took the 2-mile hike to Spectra Point/Ramparts Overlook Trail)

Of course, if the NPS did create a mobile app game for hiking (Hiking the National Parks with Zombies?), then I suppose I would have to carry my phone with me, huh? Here I am, sans Internet-enabled digital devices.

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