Thursday, December 05, 2013


Notes from NEASC

Yesterday I gave a brief discussion at the NEASC conference in Boston, thinking it would be about the potential impact of federal performance funding for community colleges.  In passing, I made the point made here earlier this week that right now, we measure ‘performance’ using proxies, such as graduation or degree completion, but that using competencies offered the possibility of getting closer to measuring actual learning.  I considered it peripheral to the main argument, if interesting in itself.

The q-and-a was devoted almost entirely to the question of competencies.  When the audience grabs a side point and runs with it like that, there’s usually a reason.  I expect to see a lot of movement in this direction, and soon.


Gratifyingly, I also got to meet a few longtime readers in person.  I was especially heartened to meet one who read it for years before deciding to move into a deanship.  Structures matter tremendously, of course, but it’s still helpful to get thoughtful people in the ranks.  


A subsequent panel on social media as a set of teaching tools proved unexpectedly useful.  I went in halfheartedly, expecting to hear about class twitter feeds.  I’m happy to report that I was wrong.  Apparently, the new line of thinking holds that Facebook and Twitter may not be the best ways to include students in discussions, since they perceive classes using those as a sort of intrusion on their properly social space.  Instead, the new keywords are “backchannel” and “interoperability.”

Malcolm Brown, from Educause, focused on the uses of backchannels.  Backchannel communications are appendages to the mainstream social media sites.  I’m just old enough to think of them as MST3K applied to web 2.0.  Chrystal Porter, from Endicott College, did a nice job of showing that social media can get around the “who am I writing this for?” problem.  By giving her students a platform on which outsiders could -- and did -- discover them, social media made it easier for the students to buy in to the overall project.  (Readers of a certain age and training will recall Althusser’s notion of “hailing” in this context.)  Finally, Carrie Saarinen, from a whole bunch of places, identified “Learning Tools Interoperability” as the Next Big Thing.  “Interoperability” refers to educational apps that work across platforms, so they can be accessed from a browser, a facebook page, an LMS, or wherever.  Apparently the “digital divide” discussion is sooo 2010; according to the data they provided, nearly all students have a device with internet access, and the vast majority has two or more.  At this point, the major challenge isn’t so much getting the students online as it is making sure that they can access instructional materials from whichever device or platform they’re using.


Before heading back West, I caught the keynote address by Tony Wagner.  It was a pretty standard pep talk about entrepreneurialism, complete with rolled-up sleeves, wireless mic, and several uses of “the three keys to this…” and “the seven elements of that…”  I’m starting to think of those speeches as a distinct genre.  He even addressed the invention of sticky notes, which I’m pretty sure is required by the motivational speakers’ union.

The talk was entertaining in the way that these talks usually are.  But in going over my notes (actual quote -- “Play, Passion, and Purpose!”), I was reminded of pep talks I used to hear twentysomething years ago about how employers truly value liberal arts grads.  Back then, the talks consisted of warm-glow recollections by late-career CEO’s about times when the skills they learned at college helped them seize an opportunity.  The genre lost steam as it slowly became clear that the CEO’s weren’t addressing those talks to their own HR departments, who hired in the ways that liberal arts grads feared they would.

The new version involves valorizing the heroic Harvard dropouts whose mercurial decisions and unacknowledged social capital enable them to bulldoze anything in their way.  And in this version, as in the previous version, part of me wonders just how true it actually is.

Most new businesses are started by people who are neither highly privileged Ivy League dropouts, nor 22 years old.  Some are, but much of the time, the folks who start something new do it after having spent years doing something established.  They learn lessons, build networks, and figure out where the gaps are; then they strike.  The skills and temperaments involved in that may not lend themselves as well to a rolled-sleeves speech, but they matter.  In other cases, the real value that colleges can add -- and here I have to tip my cap to Tressie McMillan Cottom, who made this point at NACCE -- is in recruiting already-existing entrepreneurs from non-traditional settings and giving them the legal and social capital to take their businesses to the next level.  

I don’t mean any of this as an attack on Wagner; he gave a spirited performance in an increasingly well-worn genre, and the audience seemed to enjoy it.  It’s just to suggest that sometimes the best innovations come from someone like Chrystal Porter who is trying to solve a problem she has identified over years of traditional practice.  Institutions can be anchors, but they can also be safe harbors or launch pads.  The image of the dropout may have changed in the evolution from Timothy Leary to Mark Zuckerberg, but I don’t think either should be widely replicated.  We’d hit diminishing returns almost before we started.

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