Month: January 2014

So much for the All-American football hero

20140130-163946.jpg The NY Post has a story today headlined “Eli, Giants ran fake ‘game worn’ gear scam: lawsuit.
It involves a charge that the squeaky clean quarterback and key personnel in the NY Giants organization colluded to sell jerseys and helmets supposedly worn by him to unsuspecting memorabilia collectors.
Granted the suit was launched by a guy who carries a grudge against the team already, and it was printed in Rupert Murdoch’s rag, but the evidence seems pretty convincing. Collectors began complaining that the items didn’t have the same marks ( scuffs? Dirt streaks?) as were visible in pictures taken during the games in which they were supposedly worn. And then there’s an incriminating email trail where the team’s equipment manager openly discusses the fake gear. Not good.
According to the suit, Manning went along with the ruse because he wanted to keep the original items for himself.
It will be interesting to watch this play out, but the bigger question is, how widespread is this? Memorabilia collecting is a huge industry, so it wouldn’t surprise me to learn of other teams and players doing much the same thing.
Grab the popcorn.

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Defending the liberal arts

Fclear6Fall2102While details of President Obama’s college affordability proposals are not fully known, what is clear is that higher education is going under the microscope to prove its value. Add to that a growing chorus of pundits who believe that a liberal arts education is a waste of time and a relic of the past. But two college presidents argue in a new book that a liberal arts education is, in fact, crucial to not just boosting the economy but to solving many of the world’s problems. “What you have to do is to learn the tools of learning itself,” says Swarthmore College (Pa.)President Rebecca Chopp. “The liberal arts are, in a very real sense, the gold standard for that type of approach.”
Co-edited by Chopp and Daniel Weiss, president of Haverford College (Pa.), Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) brings together a distinguished group of higher ed leaders to define the American liberal arts model, describe the challenges these institutions face, and propose sustainable solutions.

How do you respond to the critics of a liberal education?

Chopp: What these small residential colleges, like the ones we discuss in our book, do is to model a type of undergraduate education that is broadly based. Today, community colleges, state colleges, research universities and some of the for-profits all attempt to model themselves after the kind of education we offer. And what is that? It’s about a type of critical thinking and learning how to learn. It’s about bringing the disciplines together. It’s a problem-based learning approach. We contend that you can’t just learn everything you need to know for your entire life in four years.
Employers are saying they need not just people with technical skills, but people who can think critically, people who know how to work collaboratively. They need fast, agile thinkers who can think deeply and quickly about a topic. So I think there is quite a big disconnect between what people must imagine goes on in undergraduate education at liberal arts colleges and what, in reality, goes on. If you look at our graduation rates and our employment rates, they are the highest in the country.

Weiss: I think there are two issues before us. One is that for a variety of factors well known to all of us, higher education is changing very quickly. The affordability problem, the concern about outcomes, the demographic changes in the student population, the presence of technology in new ways—all of those things are changing everything, so what do we do about that?
The other issue within that mix is that colleges which purvey a liberal arts education represent a very small sector of a system that hasn’t had strong advocacy. The public debate is shifting away from liberal arts because people don’t understand it.

Chopp: I find it interesting that schools from nations around the world—in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Latin America—come to the United States to learn about small liberal arts colleges and liberal arts education. Why? Because it has traditionally been linked to innovation, to critical thinking and to creative thinking. So just as the public in the U.S. has decided that liberal education may be out of date, it is the emerging trend in higher education in other countries.
They want to know about our business models and our administrative practices, and—just as important to the liberal arts approach—they want to learn about philanthropy.

What do they want to know about philanthropy?

Chopp: We have a tradition in this country of supporting institutions like higher education. We have been tremendously philanthropic around higher ed, so schools like Swarthmore and Haverford are able to have endowments that supply financial aid so people who can’t pay our tuition can still attend. In other countries, higher education is often supported only through the government and is therefore available to a select few people, controlled by the government. This notion of a linkage of philanthropy, access and financial aid is of great interest to a great many countries.

You said that people generally don’t understand what liberal education is. How do you change that perception?

Weiss: We need to develop language and arguments that resonate with the needs and issues that people are concerned with today. There has been a lot written about why liberal education is a time-honored, valuable way of creating a life of meaning and purpose, but those arguments tend to be defensive and written from one academic to another. The public’s concern is, “What’s the best way for my student to get an education that will help him be successful in life?” They see evidence that a liberal education doesn’t equip people for a first job. It’s not going to get them a job as an accountant or a surgeon or whatever, therefore they discount the value of that. They also see that this kind of education tends to be very expensive. I think the way we shift the argument is to make clear what the real aims of education are, and those are the things Rebecca talked about. But we have to do that in language and with evidence—genuine data—that shows that students who do well getting a liberal education have the skills they need to be successful, and are actually accomplishing in life what they want to. The data exists, but it needs to be presented in a way that is more compelling.

How does your book help make that argument?

Weiss: The book is aimed at both the public and at academics. It is intended to show that small liberal arts colleges are completely in the mix when thinking about how to be vibrant and successful even in the face of all these challenges we talked about. There is lots of evidence of innovation in the book, and new ways in which time-honored values are being enacted.

Chopp: We will soon be working on a second book that is very much aimed at the public.

What kind of essays are in the current book, and who contributed to it?

Weiss: The idea was that the book would be authored primarily by sitting presidents of liberal arts colleges, people on the ground who are making decisions right now. Much of what gets written around higher education is by people who are scholars and critics of the industry, but we wanted this book to use the voice of the people who are actually contending with the issues daily. What is the president of Williams College going to do about technology? What does the president of the Mellon Foundation think about the future of liberal arts colleges? The authors speak to these issues in a way that shows the connection between the problems we face and the innovative solutions we are developing.

Chopp: The book came out of a conference we organized around some of the big themes in higher education—finance, costs, the business model, technology, residential education, interdisciplinary knowledge and so on—and the participants agreed to submit their essays for the book. I think what surprised us at the conference, and what comes across in the book, is the amount of tremendous innovation going on in the liberal arts. It’s not as if presidents have to sit around and force it to happen. We are seeing faculty and students and staff doing some incredibly innovative things around the drivers of change in higher ed.

Do you see the current development of online learning as a positive thing for the future of liberals arts colleges?

Chopp: Yes. What we are already seeing is faculty teaching in new ways, and students learning in new ways. There are all sorts of collaborative partnerships. Colleges are sharing courses with other schools around the world. It is transforming how we do what we do, but I don’t think that means that undergraduate liberal education is going away. Not all students will flourish in the context of simply attending MOOCs. In fact, if 2013 was the year of the MOOCs, I think 2014 is the year of sobering reality. Some of the famous professors who are teaching in MOOCs and some of the people who have built business enterprises with MOOCs are saying these courses will never completely replace conventional teaching.

Weiss: I would add that it isn’t about MOOCs per se. There is no question that MOOCs and other technologies will find their way onto our campuses. The question is to what extent will they change or inflect the way colleges and universities do their work now. I think that will vary by institutional type. Very large public universities will probably embrace MOOCs more than small liberal arts college do, but all these institutions, in the next 10 years, will transform themselves around the adaptation of technology because it is such a powerful tool for educational attainment.

Rating resources

Richard-Culatta-web1Last June, President Obama unveiled ConnectED, a five-year initiative designed to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless—and also equip public schools with the tools to make the most of the enhanced connectivity.
“That’s a big deal because only about 20 percent of classrooms right now have broadband,” says Richard Culatta, deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education. “But just getting those kids online and giving them mobile devices doesn’t actually help much. What does help is when you use those devices to give them access to better, more interactive, engaging, high quality digital material that are aligned to college and career-ready standards.”
Culatta spoke about a new online registry designed to help educators easily find the best resources for their needs.

What were you hearing from teachers?
They said the problem is that there are really great resources out there, but they are very hard to find. Likewise, there are a lot of resources that are easy to find but aren’t so great. They were spending far too much time trying to find quality resources aligned to the instructional standards they were trying to teach to kids. There are a lot of sites, but no one was really sharing from one site to another. A teacher in California, for instance, may give a thumbs up to a video on that state’s resource site, but if a teacher pulls up the same video in another state, it won’t have ratings from teachers across the country. That’s silly. Why not share what you know? That’s the whole value of having standards.

What was the answer?
We realized that this was an area that was not being filled, so we launched the Learning Registry at learningregistry.org. It’s an open listing of digital learning content and the standards to which they are aligned. It currently lists close to 400,000 resources and continues to grow.

How does it work?
The best way to describe it is to think of a card catalog in a library. Books exist all over the library, but there is a central catalog that shows you the book title, where it is located and so on. That’s what the Learning Registry does, but with one key difference: Anyone can come in and pull up a “card” and add information to it. They can say, “We used this in class with this particular standard and it worked great.”
Then they put it back in the file. So you create this open digital card catalog, if you will, that everyone can update. You have one place and one easy way to share valuable information about high quality digital learning content.

So it’s a wiki of sorts. What kind of protections are there for the content?
Well, you don’t interact with the actual resource, but the information about the resource. But what you ask is important because you still have a question of quality. How do you know that someone hasn’t pulled out that card and written a bunch of junk on it and stuck it back in? What we’ve done is to allow whoever is using that information in that card catalog to view only people’s comments that they trust.
Let’s say, for example, I’m in California, and we want our teachers to see ratings or standard alignment information that other states have put in. We know Michigan does a really good job of vetting its content and making good alignment decisions, so anytime they’ve put information on one of these cards, we’ll show that to our teachers. But maybe there’s another state that just puts in all kinds of dubious information. Even though they’re adding information in the Learning Registry, we can choose to ignore it and not show it to our teachers. Think of a Twitter feed where you choose who you want to follow.

Who makes those decisions?
It’s up to whoever is implementing a state’s resource website. Illinois is a great example. The state has a Shared Learning Resources site and a team whose job it is to review content and make these decisions. But anyone who has an education site can make the decision of what resources they want to show.

How widespread is the participation?
It’s hard to know because it’s an open system. People don’t have to tell us when they use it. We do know that a number of states are using it—I’ve already mentioned California, Illinois and Michigan. New York is in the process of integrating it, as are a number of others. But it is also open to various organizations and foundations as well. Our hope is that eventually all states, at a minimum, will be participating.

But isn’t there value in knowing who is using it and what they are looking for?
Of course. Just because we don’t know who is using it doesn’t mean we don’t have an active community of people and developers who are giving us feedback and building code and resources. It’s truly an open project, like Linux, where the core developers create and share great content. Anyone is free to use it, but they don’t necessarily know who is using it.

How will the Learning Registry identify gaps in learning materials?
One of the promises of the Learning Registry, as we get more of these resources registered, is that we can run a report that says, here are some standards that have only one or two—or no—resources aligned with them. That can be important for, say, a philanthropic organization that wants to fund the creation of better resources or even for commercial publishers.
We hope to get to the point where we have enough data that we can see not just where there are gaps in the resources, but where teachers across the country have given them low ratings. There may be a whole bunch of resources aligned to dividing fractions, but if everyone thinks they stink, this will let us get better ones in there.

The Common Core standards, as well as things like teaching evolution, are being debated in many states. How do you keep one side or the other from driving the conversation when it comes to commenting on these resources?
That’s a great question. We are not a curation department and we don’t intend to be. We leave that to the people who are making the decisions. You may have somebody who says, “These are resources that we have rated low because they don’t align with our ideological perspectives.” They can publish that in the Learning Registry. That’s totally fine. And if I’m in another state looking for quality resources, I’ll pull that card and I will see those negative comments. But if I also see another five or six comments that rate the resource as high quality, I will check them—going back to the Twitter analogy—and ignore the rest.
If I see a list of resources from PBS for example, and I trust PBS, I am inclined to listen to them. In the same manner, if I see resources from someone I don’t know or don’t trust, I can choose to ignore them. That’s a decision left to the user. We will at least make it possible to share all the information about the resources, but whether it is used is your decision.

How can educators get involved in this?
We want to make it as simple as possible. Teachers can use our tools that are being built on top of existing registries—like free.ed.gov, ilsharedlearning.org and others—to have access to thousands of free, highly rated resources from around the country that are aligned to standards.
My message to people who develop or own sites, like state sites or teacher portals, is to absolutely, please, connect with the Learning Registry. If there are resources that those groups have already identified as high quality, then by all means publish them in the Learning Registry. It’s an easy process. And through their sites, they can now share great resources that other people have identified. You don’t have to go to thousands of different sites just to find the right teaching materials for your class.

Is it transparent on other sites?
We don’t promote the Learning Registry directly. We don’t want it to be a landing page. The whole point is not to create something new, but to be able to go to wherever you already feel comfortable going and connect to the Learning Registry through that favored site. The site owner can identify it as such or not.
I believe this completely changes how we distribute and share quality learning content, which has been a problem we have had for decades, being stuck in the print phase of education. This has great potential for rethinking how we find good quality down the road. DA