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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014

A Hack Education Project

School as "Skills"

Part 3 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series

One of the challenges of pulling together this year-end series is that education technology doesn’t break down neatly into ten separate trends. “The Business of Ed-Tech” bleeds into the politics of ed-tech, for example.

The next few posts in this series really underscore this, as I discuss – broadly – the state of higher education with regards to education technology. It’s hard to extract what happened this year into distinct trends. And it’s hard to only talk about ed-tech. To do so, I fear, would lose much of the context of why education technology has such a powerful influence on the stories we told ourselves about colleges and universities in 2014. (The same applies for K–12, no doubt.)

It would be easy, I suppose, to invoke the decades old “Baumol’s cost disease” – plenty of folks do – to explain the problems that education faces in terms of costs and labor productivity. To frame things this way does make an emphasis on technology somewhat understandable – technology is meant to make things more efficient and less expensive. (Of course, we can debate whether or not it actually accomplishes this and why efficiency would be a goal in learning.)

The rising cost of higher education has been something I’ve been tracking in my year-end posts since 2011 when Peter Thiel famously described all this as a “higher education bubble.” That is, the cost of higher education is overly inflated, and as such college isn’t “worth it.” This is a narrative Silicon Valley likes to tell, and it’s one we continue to see see parroted in a number of high profile venues, including this year’s documentary Ivory Tower.

It’s a story that is experienced by so many people – those of us burdened by student loans, those of us who are un- and underemployed, those of us who thought that if we went to college and got a degree that we’d have access to a better life. It’s a story we were told and we believed. And it’s a story that, in today’s economy, just doesn’t hold true. Some 40 million Americans now have some student loan debt, and the amount of that debt debt continues to climb (and we’re starting to recognize the ripple effect that that has on the economy).

College tuition continues to increase. The pressure to go to college grows as well.

But what does it mean to call higher education “a bubble”? How do we respond – culturally, politically?

You could respond by reading all of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s work. No really, you should do that.

Instead, it seems as though one of the dominant responses involves a change in our expectations about what education is and what education does and what higher education – a credential – means.

Increasingly, education is reframed to be all about “jobs.” Education is about “skills” (particularly “job skills”). It's worth noting, I think, that the startup to raise the most money this year ($135 million), Pluralsight, offers "skills training."

If you listen to the stories that industry tells about education – particularly the tales out of Silicon Valley – we’re in the middle of a major “skills shortage.” Schools aren’t training (the use of that word “training” is key) students correctly or adequately. And so, as the story goes, school must change. They must change to meet the needs of industry.

That’s meant to be the theme of this post: “skills.”

But before I turn to it, I’m going to provide a little more context for the state of higher education today. (Okay, a lot of context.) Much of this doesn’t have to do directly with ed-tech. But it’s context. And it matters.

The Context (i.e., The Link Dump)

Here’s some of what happened this year (primarily in US higher ed):

Accreditation: Some schools received accreditation, and some schools had theirs denied or revoked. Most significantly, perhaps, the battle continued over the City College of San Francisco’s accreditation. (It appears as though the school has won a reprieve and will remain open for at least two more years.)

Admissions and Enrollment: The decline in college enrollment has slowed a bit this year. In practical admissions news: the College Board redesigned the SAT to be more closely aligned with the new Common Core State Standards (the CCSS will get their own post in this series) this year. And the Common Application, which handles a shared application process for some 500 universities, had a lot of technical glitches. Woohoo. Ed-tech.

Affirmative Action: In April, the US Supreme Court decided to uphold a voter-approved ballot measure in Michigan that banned affirmative action in university admissions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a blistering dissent, arguing the court “ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.” A federal appeals court in July upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s consideration of race in admissions.

Affordability: The Obama Administration said it planned to focus on college affordability this year, enlisting First Lady Michelle Obama as part of its push to address the issue. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Despite pledging to do more to address affordability, it appears as though many colleges continue to put the burden of tuition hikes onto the poorest families. (And it’s pretty clear that if you are earning minimum wage, you cannot afford college.)

Beltway Politics: NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Ted Mitchell was confirmed as Under Secretary of Higher Education. Long-time chair of the Senate education committee Senator Tom Harkin retired, with a draft rewrite of the Higher Education Act (which will go nowhere because that’s how Congress works).

Campus Safety: The Department of Education announced investigations into over 50 universities for Title IX violations relating to their failure to address sexual assault on campus. There were a number of high-profile stories of sexual assault (several including high-profile student athletes), along with charges that campus officials consistently fail to respond. The most common response seems to be banning fraternity activities, although there have been moves as well to clarify what counts as consent.

A sad part of the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the US, there were a number of shootings on and near university campuses. In October, video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel her appearance at Utah State University over threats of a mass school shooting and the university’s inability to stop people from bringing concealed weapons to her talk.

Closures: Bryan Alexander chronicled a number of colleges making the “queen sacrifice” – that is, shuttering academic programs and laying off faculty. Several schools announced they would close their doors.

Completion: Although college completion has been a focus of administrators and politicians for a while now, graduation rates are down, and most college students still don’t earn a degree in four years. “More than 31 million people enrolled in college during the last two decades but left without earning a degree or certificate and have not returned to higher education for at least 18 months.”

Debt: Student debt is up 2% from last year, according to a report from the Institute for College Access and Success. Approximately 70% of students graduate with loan debt, and of those, the average debt was $28,400. Graduate students’ debt makes up 40% of all student loan debt. The typical household with student debt pays $160 per month in loan payments.

Fascinating: “Student Debt Grows Faster at Universities With Highest-Paid Leaders, Study Finds.”

But according to a Brookings Institution report issued in June, student loan debt not a problem, prompting Malcolm Harris to point out the thriving “college-cost denial industry” – or as beltway insiders probably call it “think tanks.”

Debt (Relieved): In May, the Chilean artist “Fried Potatoes” removed some $500 million in tuition contracts from the for-profit Universidad del Mar and burned them. “It’s over. You are all free of debt,” he told students. And in September, Rolling Jubilee, an outgrowth of the Occupy Movement, announced that it had purchased and canceled some $4 million in debt from Everest College, part of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges system.

Are We Forgiving Too Much Student-Loan Debt?” asks The Chronicle of Higher Education. Ugh. You trolls. “New Law To Forgive Student Debt For College Graduates Once All Their Dreams Shattered,” says The Onion. That’s more like it.

Finances: Moody’s downgraded various universities’ credit ratings. Miraculously, Ivy League endowments remain strong. Really, really strong.

Immigration Reform: President Obama announced a number of executive orders on immigration that will, among other things allow more young immigrants to stay in the country – something likely to affect both K12 and higher education. Several states announced that they would extend in-state tuition to these “Dreamers.”

Labor: The adjunct crisis continues in higher ed, with a low wage, precarious workforce teaching the majority of college classes. Workers, including adjuncts, voted to unionize at a number of universities, and there were multiple strikes among faculty and graduate students as well.

There were also some high profile firings this year, often involving issues of academic freedom. (I’m going to look at this issue of free speech and academic freedom in more detail in an upcoming post.)

Outsourcing: Tough economic times for a lot of schools somehow translate into boom times for higher ed consultants and higher ed-tech. Priorities, I guess. Or “unbundling” or something. More on “The Business of Ed-Tech” here. I’ll cover MOOCs and other examples of technology outsourcing in the next post in this series.

Protests: Students protested faculty layoffs, tuition fees, services on campus, elections, police violence, commencement speakers, beard bans, and pumpkin festivals (among other things.)

Sports: Several of the most important developments in higher education this year involved student athletes. This spring, the football players at Northwestern University began the process of forming a union – the first effort like it in the history of college sports. The NCAA said the move “serves to undermine the purpose of college: an education.” Riiiiight.

A judge ruled in August that “NCAA rules barring college athletes from sharing in the revenues produced by the use of their names and likenesses violate antitrust law.” The future of “amateur” college sports is certainly in question.

In October, news broke of incredible and institutionally-supported academic fraud at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. An investigation found “that more than 3,100 students received ”irregular instruction“ in the department’s ”paper classes,“ which did not meet and required only a single paper for credit. Student athletes were disproportionately represented in the classes, accounting for 47.6 percent of enrollments, while making up just 4 percent of the undergraduate student body.” Heh. And the NCAA says that unions are the threat to students’ education.

While colleges continue to spend an outrageous amount of money on coaches and facilities, there are other indications that “the austerity,” and not just unionization, might change all that.

Student Health and Well-Being: “Food insecurity” was up among college students, with over 121 campuses adding food pantries this year. A Gallup-Purdue study found that few college students have experiences while in school that lead to future well-being. One thing that severely damages student well-being: debt.

Tuition: It’s been an (arbitrary) goal for a while now, but it finally happened: a $10,000 college degree, offered by Southern New Hampshire University’s College. Even better than $10,000 in tuition: free tuition. There were several proposals this year to make the first year or so of (public or regional) college free.

Europe, which has long had free (or very inexpensive) higher education, is starting to raise its fees. (The exception: Germany, which scrapped all tuition fees this year.)

Why is college so expensive? It could be the climbing walls or the recreation centers or the $219,000 conference tables or the chintzy apartments for chancellors. It could be cuts to public funding (although those weren’t as bad this year as in the past). (They’re still pretty grim.)

So, How Do You “Fix” Higher Education?

How do you “fix” all this? More data, says the Obama Administration! A ratings system, says the Obama Administration! Why has no one ever thought of that before?

Oh wait.

Rankings: Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings. Rankings.

(Yes, there’s a difference between “rating” and “ranking.” Two letters.)

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Part of the plan that the Obama Administration has for rating colleges and universities has to do with assessing graduates’ employability. Can they get jobs? Can they pay off their debt?

But this is predicated on some strange idea that employability reflects education and not the economy or the labor market. It’s all wrapped up too in this notion that there’s a problem with the “skills” that college students are obtaining while in school and not the professional development and support that employers offer employees.

For what it’s worth, hiring of college graduates is up, although their salaries remain stagnant. Black college grads have double the unemployment rate. I totally blame higher education. That must be the reason.

I mean, maybe students chose to major in the wrong thing. That’s been a common argument in recent years: students are studying the “liberal arts” and not focusing on majors that offer “real world skills.” President Obama singled out “art history majors” for criticism this year. (He later apologized.) Philosophy majors and English majors are frequently the butt of jokes too. (Tim O'Reilly. Classic major. Jose Ferreira. Philosophy major. George W. Bush. History major. I'll stop there, I think.) In fact, data shows that liberal arts majors actually do just fine in the long run.

But that doesn’t fit this new narrative we're hearing: there’s a skills shortage. Education needs to focus on skills. Skills. Skills.

What is the Purpose of (Higher) Education?

There’s long been a concern that students aren’t learning “the right things” while in school. Mostly, the fear has been that professors or radical campus groups are plotting to change students’ political leanings. (I think it’s noteworthy – or at least really interesting – that Ben Horowitz, partner in the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and investor in ed-tech companies like AltSchool, Learnsprout, and Udacity, is the son of David Horowitz, who’s made a career out of combatting “leftist indoctrination” in academia.)

More recently, the concerns haven’t been about the politics that professor are successfully persuading students to adopt but about the “skills” they’re failing to develop. Students are learning about James Joyce but not about Javascript.

So what do we want higher education to do? What do we expect graduates to be able to do?

And what are employers’ obligations to their employees, particularly via “skills development”?

The partnership between Arizona State University and Starbucks to offer employees of the latter access to free tuition via ASU’s online degree program was unveiled to great fanfare - the promise of “free college tuition," a particularly noteworthy investment since just 25% of its workforce have college degrees and 70% are currently students.

But a closer look at the fine print told a different story. It’s not really “free tuition”; it’s a reimbursement program. Starbucks isn’t picking up the tab. ASU is. Also noteworthy: while the ASU Online courses are taught by university professors, the “technical and administrative work that goes into managing ASU Online has been handed over to a private company, Pearson.” Outsourcing. That’s the theme of the next post in this series.

Despite all these drawbacks, I would like to think the publicity about the ASU-Starbucks deal was helpful, because it brought to the forefront discussions about students as workers. One of the problems that we face when addressing “the problems” with higher education and employment is that we tend talk about colleges and college students as though they are monolithic. We have this romantic notion, I think, in our heads of what college “looks like” and what college students “look like” and what they want to do with their degrees. Students aren't workers, for example. They're students! Some call those students who "work," who don’t meet those stereotyped expectations “non-traditional” students, even though the “traditional student” is increasingly a complete fiction (if it was ever anything but that).

Who is actually enrolled in higher ed? What are their needs? 4.8 million college students are parents, for example. How will “unbundling” help or hurt them? What are these students' educational goals? Are their goals to attain "skills"? (And if so, why?)

School as Skills “Bootcamp”

One of my favorite headlines of the year involved the coming “clown shortage.” We aren’t training enough clowns, the NY Daily News warned. The industry is gravely concerned.

I think of that every time I hear someone pronounce that we’re facing a “skills shortage” in this country. Do they mean “clown skills”? I gotta wonder.

Rather than fostering an education system and culture where students love to learn and where their employers are happy to help them gain the specific “skills” they might need for a job or a project, we demand folks commit to a larger “trade” or specialization – and to do so at their own risk, at their own cost. (Why, it’s almost like the tech industry is rehashing the ol' Microsoft certification, wherein the focus of “computer" classes is specialized knowledge in one company’s products rather than a broad understanding and healthy inquiry.) In other words, clown school.

After all, students who love to learn, students who know how to learn, students who know how to ask critical questions and solve problems – that’s sorta what a liberal arts degree could and should be, right? But nah.

Instead this year, we got more “bootcamps” to address the “skills shortage.”

“Learn-to-code” “bootcamps” have grown in popularity in recent years – a reflection of the “learn-to-code” trend and the lure of high-paying jobs in the computer industry.

All it takes is one month to learn what you need to enter the job market. (Bullshit alert: um, no.)

A sign of how the powerful for-profit education industry views this: several of these bootcamp companies were the targets of acquisitions. Dev Bootcamp, for example, was bought by the test prep giant Kaplan. And let's remember: the for-profit higher ed industry has really honed what it means to advertise to vulnerable populations about the need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on certification that promises a job, a better job, "career advancement," skills.

Because none of these bootcamp companies are officially accredited, none of them have to worry about FERPA. And none of them have to worry about financial aid. And none of them have to worry about Title IX or any of the other regulations that govern other institutions. And as they’re outside all of this, unlike their other for-profit brethren, they don’t even have to worry about “gainful employment.”

They can just promise "gainful employment" without worry of regulatory scrutiny about their follow-through.

Incidentally, after much legal wrangling, the US Department of Education released new gainful employment rules this year that would require for-profit and vocational schools to meet certain targets (surrounding employability) in order to maintain access for their students to federal financial aid programs. And once again, the for-profit industry sued in response to block the rules.

Interestingly, at the same time as it promised a ferocious crackdown on for-profit higher education, the Obama Administration has also encouraged MOOCs and bootcamps. In the name of innovation or something. (I'll look more closely at how MOOCs are increasingly about skills training in the next post in this series.)

I would like to think we’ve come to recognize the predatory practices of for-profit universities – how they target military veterans, for example, how they charge more tuition for a degree that is, on the “prestige market,” worth a lot less.

But you invoke that “skills shortage” thing lately, and oh my, we're ready to chuck out everything about accreditation and privacy protections and licensing regulations and affirmative action. Again, it's connected to the ideologies of libertarianism and of innovation and this weird fear that innovation and "free markets" are so fragile that they'll somehow be destroyed by looking out for people rather than profits. (See also: Donald Trump. Anyway…)

So we get the bootcamp. Such interesting choice of language, no? I really do need to write a book on the military and ed-tech.

Straight-faced and with no recognition that there might be an imperialist connotation to bootcamps in “exotic” locations, we get the promise of a “bootcamp by the beach” even. Here’s Edsurge’s coverage:

In a departure from the 100 hour per week bootcamp model, GoCode aims to holistically prepare its students for both the job and perks of a software engineer. Announced November 4, the eight-week Python bootcamp will take place in an “all-inclusive beach paradise” in Costa Rica. As the self-proclaimed “first travel-focused coding bootcamp” writes, “Learning new skills is tough–might as well do it next to a beach.” So, any free press passes?

Sounds pretty holistic.

Although these companies position themselves as a countermeasure to the high cost of college tuition, bootcamps are far from cheap. The tuition for a six to eight week program runs on average $10,267. One year of in-state tuition at the UO is $9918. (No promises about their CS program though. Go Ducks.)

The promise, of course, of the bootcamp is that once you complete the “training,” you’ll readily land a job in the tech industry – hopefully one that pays six figures. (Sorta like the promise of the whole higher ed narrative, eh?) And while the job placement rates are good, they’re actually not that much higher than having a plain ol’ college degree. Plus again, you can get financial aid for the latter. (To be fair, some scholarships are available for some bootcamps.)

The bootcamp certification – its prestige, its worth – will be an interesting thing to gauge in the coming years. Outside of the tech sector (perhaps), it’s not clear that having a certificate in a particular field is actually that helpful. “Short-term community-college certificates, which have been growing rapidly in popularity as a way to get students quickly and cheaply into jobs, do not, in fact, help most recipients land employment or earn more money,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in November.

But the benefit to students is hardly the point here, is it. The benefit is to this massive industry that furthers a story that you must have a degree and now, increasingly, that you must have “skills.” Best prepared to deliver “skills” are not those old liberal arts colleges. It’s the giant for-profit higher education sector.

The sector’s ability to shape a story is impressive. It does so via advertising. And it does so via lobbying. How will Silicon Valley respond? With advertising and lobbying? Certainly the tech industry been quite vocal about the so-called "skills shortage," something that's barely a mask for its attempts to get more cheap labor.

It will be interesting too to see how Silicon Valley responds to the recent crackdown on programming bootcamps. In January, a number of these companies received warnings from the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education demanding they become compliant with regulations governing vocational training programs. There were similar run-ins with the law in Canada.

The best of these programs will probably comply. They’re actually not in the business of screwing students over. The worst? Well. Like I said, see also: Donald Trump.

It's probably worth pointing out, in the midst of all this talk about the business and the politics and the ideology of ed-tech, that there are problems - cognitively, pedagogically - with the “bootcamp style of learning." That is, they make learning sound too easy; they are too short and don’t offer time for reflection on or re-assimilation of what you’ve learned.

That's the danger too, I'd argue, of a focus on "skills."

Honestly, I think the bigger problems with this whole narrative lie far beyond what you can and cannot learn in a ten-week programming bootcamp. By that, I mean there are structural problems with un- and underemployment. They are problems with education and ed-tech politics and policies that wants to focus on “reskilling” people with specific (proprietary, specialized) skills rather than, from the outset, fostering learning as a skill in and of itself. They are problems with a narrative that wants to associate "skills" with computer usage. There's a problem with a society that cannot recognize that we’ve replaced repetitive, low-paid manual labor with repetitive, low-paid digital labor – and we now want to demand you have a credential for that too.

"Of the top five jobs projected to grow from 2012 to 2022, only one - registered nurse - provides an annual, full-time salary over $22,000." The other top jobs with the biggest growth: personal care aides, retail sales, home health aides, food prep and servers. Hmm, Silicon Valley. Where’s the bootcamp for that? Where's the job placement startup for that? And hmm, higher ed. Where's your college degree for that? Who do we think are going to fill those jobs?

And which of those students are right now the most vulnerable to and the most exploited by both the existing system and by its ever-so-innovative "unbundling"?

First published December 6, 2014.