How technology can help save the liberal arts (essay)

A rash of articles proclaiming the death of the humanities has been dominating the higher education press for the last couple years. Whether it’s The New York Times, The New Republic or The Atlantic, the core narrative seems to be that liberal arts education will be disrupted by technology, it’s just a question of time, and resistance is futile.  But I am convinced that not only is the “death of the humanities at the hands of technology” being wildly exaggerated, it’s directionally wrong.

This month on Inside Higher Ed, William Major wrote an essay, “Close the Business Schools/Save the Humanities”.  I loved it for its provocative frame, and because I’m a strong proponent of the humanities. But it positioned business and humanities as an either/or proposition, and it doesn’t have to be so.  

If John Adams were alive today, he might revise his famous quote:

I [will start with the] study politics and war... then mathematics and philosophy… [then] natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture [in order to give myself a right] to study painting, poetry, music.

What would take generations in Adams’s day can be done in a single lifetime today because of technology.

Full disclosure: I was Clay Christensen’s research assistant at Harvard Business School, and am now CEO of a Silicon Valley-based technology company that sells a Learning Relationship Management product to schools and companies.

Perhaps the above might be considered three strikes against me in a debate on the humanities -- perhaps I’m already out in the minds of many readers, but I hope not. Please hear me out.

I think that technology will actually enhance liberal arts education, and eventually lead to a renaissance in the humanities, from literature to philosophy, music, history, and rhetoric. Not only will technology improve the learning experience, it will dramatically increase the number of students engaging in liberal education by broadening consumption of the humanities from school-age students alone to a global market of 7 billion people.

It might be overstating the case to say that this will happen, but it can happen if those of us who care about the humanities act to make it so. To do so, we need to accept one hard fact and make two important strategic moves.

The hard fact is that despite its importance, economic value is the wrong way to think about  the liberal arts -- and the sooner we accept that reality, the sooner we can stop arguing for the humanities from a position of weakness and instead move on with a good strategy to save them.

Of course, it should be noted that there is certainly considerable economic value in attending elite and selective colleges, from Colgate to Whittier to Morehouse. The currency of that economic value is the network of alumni, the talent signal that admission to and graduation from such institutions confer, and the friendships formed over years of close association with bright and motivated people. But the economic value accrues regardless of what the people study, whether it is humanities or engineering or business.  

Moreover, the effort to tie the humanities to economic outcomes cheapens the non-economic value of the humanities. Embracing their perceived lack of economic value allows us to be affirmative about the two things that technology can do to save them: (1) supplementing liberal arts with career-focused education and (2) defining the non-economic value of liberal arts so that we can extend its delivery to those who make more vocational choices for college.

Supplementing the liberal arts with career-focused education such as a fifth-year practical master’s degree, micro-credentials, minors and applied experience is critical to their survival. It doesn’t matter whether the supplements are home-grown or built in partnership with companies like Koru or approaches like Udacity’s Nanodegrees.  What matters is that your students see a way both to study what they love and to build a competitive advantage to pursue a meaningful career.  

The right technology can be a major part of conferring that advantage by helping students to figure out their long-term career ambitions, connect with mentors in industry, consume career-oriented content, earn credentials, and do economically valuable work to prove their abilities.

But the true promise of technology to save the liberal arts is precisely its ability to lower the cost of delivery -- and in so doing to allow everyone on earth to partake in a liberal education throughout their lifetime. Students shouldn’t have to choose between philosophy and engineering, music and business, rhetoric and marketing.  And by lowering the costs, you enable increased consumption -- that is the very nature of disruptive innovations.

Given that my education in economics and business leaves me woefully inadequate to the task of defining the non-economic value of liberal arts, I’ll leave that task to John F Kennedy instead, who said:

“[Economic value] does not allow for the health of our children...or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

It is for those things that do make life worthwhile that the liberal arts must be saved.

Gunnar Counselman is the founder and CEO of Fidelis.

AP History Exam Released in Response to Critics

Amid criticism from conservative corners that its new Advanced Placement U.S. history framework downplayed positive concepts, the College Board this week released a practice exam for the course and said it would clarify controversial elements, Education Week reported. In an open letter, David Coleman, College Board president, said he hoped the unprecedented move of releasing an exam to non-certified A.P. teachers would quell concerns that framework neglected or misrepresented important parts of American history.

"People who are worried that AP U.S. history students will not need to study our nation's founders need only take one look at this exam to see that our founders are resonant throughout," Coleman said, noting that the framework was just that, and that local teachers could add to it as they saw fit. He also said that the board soon would released a "clarified" version of the course outline.

Last week, the Republican National Committee approved a resolution saying that the framework ignored or misrepresented such topics as the motivations of early American settlers and the U.S. role in World War II, along with important historical figures, including Albert Einstein and Rosa Parks. Supporters of the resolution garnered more than a 1,000 signatures asking the College Board to delay enacting the framework, referred to as "APUSH," by one year.

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Essay about a president taking a course with undergraduates

It’s the start of the spring semester and I walk across campus to my first Beginning Bagpipe class, wondering if I can learn to play an instrument that is so important to my university’s Scottish heritage -- our pipe and drum band plays at every major event. It was the undergraduate pipers who had talked me into taking this class while I was chatting with them before our December commencement.

As soon as I get to class, I realize I am the student professors abhor. I look around and every undergraduate — all 23 of them — has the required book and practice chanter (on which beginners learn to pipe). I have never taken college-level applied music, but rather than finding out what was expected before class or checking the bookstore, I felt like my part was just to show up. How many of our freshman students feel like their responsibility is simply getting themselves to class?

The professor takes attendance; “Julie Wollman,” he calls out, just like I am any other student. I think for a desperate moment that maybe I can take the class undercover, but they all know who I am and I clearly did not come to class prepared. I have no pen to take notes on the syllabus — important information about assignments, the required Facebook page, and upcoming classes. I have not gone to the bookstore.  I hadn’t even considered that I should come to class with the necessary materials or that there would be a book. Like the stereotypical undergraduate, all I brought was my iPhone. I find myself silently voicing a phrase that my younger daughter used frequently, as a teenager, in new situations: “How was I supposed to know...?”

“How was I supposed to know?” In the 25 years since I was a doctoral student, I have rarely had a learning experience — a professional development seminar, a conference, a retreat — where I wasn’t provided with everything I needed before and during the experience or told ahead of time exactly what to bring and even what attire would be appropriate. It strikes me that this direction is much like what our students experience in high school. Why, then, are we so troubled by first-year students who need far more guidance than we think is appropriate for a college student?

Fortunately, the professor is patient and experienced and he has us all playing a simple scale on the chanter before the first class ends. I also learn that each week one beginner will be called up to the front of the circle of chairs and music stands and be asked to play the day’s lesson. Potentially having to be “in the center” and embarrassing myself makes me practice as much as possible during the week before the second class, but I really don’t know if I’m doing it right. Tackling something brand-new makes me feel terribly inept, but we regularly encourage our first-year students to explore new fields without acknowledging the inevitable stress.

Fortunately my professor places each beginner with a more experienced undergraduate mentor; we are to meet weekly in between classes. I have always doubted the value of study groups, but on Sunday I trudge through the snow to the Music Building where I meet my student mentor in one of the second-floor practice rooms — a place on campus I would never otherwise venture to, but I came to understand our music students pretty much live there. Neil, my peer mentor, spends an hour with me, patiently and gently correcting, praising, joking and instructing. All week it has been so hard to get the breathing right, never mind the fingering, but by the time I finish with Neil I feel much better. “Maybe I can do this?” Without Neil’s encouragement and help every week throughout the semester I would have felt incompetent and out-of-place in class, and would have learned far less from my professor. For novices there is great value in building skill and confidence outside of class through peer mentoring and instruction.

Still, I’m really nervous about going to the second class, afraid I’ll be the only one who isn’t any good. I’m not taking it for credit or a grade, but the thought actually crosses my mind that I should skip class; after all, I can offer a good excuse. I am shocked to realize that, 36 years after I started my freshman year of college, being in a simple but challenging class well out of my comfort zone, I am again looking for excuses to miss class. So I go, despite my fear. Before class, waiting for the professor to arrive, I chat with my classmates about how hard it is to breathe right and make a sound come out and I feel less alone in my incompetence.

The professor gives us a full song to play in class number two, even though we haven’t even learned to play the scale well. “What is he thinking??” I know it’s not just me who is challenged because I am no worse than the student he brings to the center of the circle to demonstrate the lesson. I actually feel better after class because I’m not noticeably worse than the other beginners (how perverse to delight in others’ incompetence), but I’m certain they must find it easier than I do. Still, I can now attempt to play a real song! It is a genuine relief to learn that others are challenged by the class, too, and I wonder if we need to spend more time reinforcing for freshmen that they are not alone in finding new skills difficult but that there is a reason we push them to apply the skill early on.

I’ve made it to the third week and I know I’m practicing as much as any student but when I’m in class it’s hard to perform. I know what to do and I’ve done it at home and in the practice room, but I can’t do it right in front of the professor. I wonder if this will be like the experience of reading professional journals as a beginning graduate student — it’s like a foreign language and then one day it just clicks and you feel like an “insider.” It’s not clicking today, though: my professor gives us a harder song this week, much harder.  As a teacher, I understand what he’s trying to do. As a student, I think he’s crazy.  When I try to practice it later I just can’t do it.

My younger daughter — a real freshman — calls to tell me about struggling with her physics homework and being afraid to go to class because she thinks she’s the only one who will have had trouble with the work. “I know. That’s how I feel about my class, too. The homework is too hard. I can’t do it and he might ask me to play the song in class.” She laughs and reassures me that I’ll be fine.

Trying to be supportive, a colleague notes that the professor wouldn’t fail the president but, just be sure, she suggests I take the class on a pass-fail basis. I think seriously for a few minutes about whether it’s too late to drop the class before I realize that I’m not really registered for it and what kind of a message would that send to the 23 undergraduates in the class? I continue to struggle through the new song but I need help and I’m losing any flicker of confidence I may have had. It would be so much easier to just give it up now and stop pretending I can learn this.

Again, when we meet later in the week, my student mentor saves the day, saying the song I have battled all week was too much for week three and our professor won’t expect us to know it. Instead he photocopies and goes through various scales with me and this soothes my wounded self-confidence. I leave this meeting grateful for the help and moral support and for the fact that I have a “friend” in class, even as I worry that he’s probably mortified that I am his assigned partner.

During weeks four and five I have to travel for meetings in Washington, Harrisburg and then, a few days later, Florida to meet with donors. I have been excused from class but I pack my chanter and practice daily, amazed that I’m not evicted from hotels. On the trip to Florida I’m with my husband and an advancement colleague and they laugh incessantly as I practice in the car while we crisscross the state between donor visits, but I find the extended practice time helps me a lot so I ignore the laughter and press ahead.

Because of these trips I miss two classes and I’m worried about falling behind. But I meet with my mentor on the one day I’m home between trips and then again when I get back and these focused one-hour meetings prove extremely helpful as Neil reviews what I missed and keeps me moving ahead.  He builds my confidence and, hopefully, in some small way I am building his confidence as a teacher. He adjusts to my challenges and is responsive and supportive and always tries to get me one step ahead of the class. He wisely pushes me to not stop but continue to soldier through when I make a mistake. I’m still worried about going back for week six but can’t imagine how worried I’d be without Neil’s help. At the same time, I’m eager to go back because the professor is relaxed and funny but also serious and attentive to each individual. He realizes when we are confused and switches gears to explain or demonstrate in a different way or change the lesson plan entirely. How many of us appreciate the need to adapt to our students’ needs or risk losing them forever after they have missed a class or two?

Near the end of week five I realize that I no longer have trouble with the breathing and that my fingers don’t cramp up any more when I play. Why is it I know how to do things while practicing but then make mistakes in class? In class on Monday I realize that while I can play the notes I need work on the timing, and Neil tries to help with several different strategies. This is another hurdle, like the breathing, that I just need to work through by practicing.  And now, when I have developed a little faith that I can learn this instrument, Neil ups the ante and is paying a little more attention to my fingering technique so I don’t develop bad habits. Progress requires meeting a student where she is and gradually increasing the expectations.

I practice Tuesday but count on lots of time Wednesday through Friday since I have to travel to Harrisburg with a colleague who is driving, so I will practice in the car. It is not until we have been in the car for over an hour that I realize I forgot my chanter. What a sinking feeling. “I’ll fall behind. I’ll never catch up... .”  I am disgusted with myself. At the same time, I feel genuine sympathy for student-athletes, performers, and others who travel frequently and have to remember everything and keep up with classes while on the road.

I am reunited with my chanter on Saturday morning and practice extra over the weekend so that I don’t humiliate myself in class. I meet with Neil on Sunday and he starts me on the next song, just when I’m finally catching on to the last one! Oh, yeah, that’s right — I believe in always stretching students by moving them toward the next challenge. But I don’t want challenge; I want the sweet, elusive taste of mastery.

I’ve made it to the halfway point and I am lucky to meet with Neil on Wednesday before I leave for a brief vacation. First thing I pack is my chanter. I love practicing looking out onto the beach and notice that being relaxed and unhurried compared to my usual routine improves my playing. I even try to play Amazing Grace for fun. Neil has been encouraging me to try playing new songs for fun, but is it fun when you can’t do it?  When I’m relaxed and have time, I actually enjoy it. How can we help our students overcome their stress and achieve this kind of freedom to learn? 

After spring break I’m excited to go back to class — I missed it. But Monday morning I forget my chanter and book and don’t have time to turn back and get them before my first meeting. I realize how easy it is to forget materials for class even with the best intentions. The difference for me is that I live on the edge of campus and can get what I left behind if necessary. For commuter students that’s not possible. Again, I am humbled and ashamed that I have ever assumed a student who came to class unprepared just doesn’t care.

The professor has selected several of the songs we composed for homework to use as examples in class and I see that one of the three written on the board is mine. I am uncertain. Will it be used as a good example or a bad one? For once when he asks someone to come up to the front and play this song I cannot avert my eyes, bow my head, and hope he doesn’t notice me. No one else offers to come forward, and it is my song, after all. So up I go and play in front of the class for the first time this semester. I actually learn a lot from this class, which is focused on typical bagpipe music composition. This bit of music theory helps me think about how the songs we’re playing are composed and why and makes reading the music more predictable. Theory really does guide practice and can be helpful to a beginner.

Soon after spring break the course evaluation is administered. I can’t fill one out because I am not registered for the class, but I wish I could. I have so much appreciation for what the professor is doing to push, cajole, and trick us all into doing what we thought we couldn’t.

New this week — playing together. Of course, that’s what pipe band is all about! Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I can’t keep up. “I just need to play a little slower.” I realize later, I just need to practice more so I can play a little faster. I talk to Neil about this challenge and he starts having me play more with him when we meet. Still, I really lost any confidence I had after trying to play with others in class. I realize that what happens in class really impacts how students feel about their ability to succeed. Just a couple of moments of uncertainty or “failure” can shape a student’s approach to class for the rest of the week.

At the same time, I finally feel like I blend into class and can sit with different peers. People are friendly. The importance of this is not lost on me as I think about our freshmen who never make friends or feel like they belong and end up dropping out early in their college careers.

When we meet, Neil introduces me to his new electronic bagpipe that sounds like the real thing. He lets me play it a few times and I love it — I know the fingering and don’t have to worry about breathing, and it actually sounds like I’m playing a real bagpipe. I can do this! I wonder if too often we fail to provide students with the sense of accomplishment necessary to tackle the challenges of another semester ahead; this may be a fundamental reason for attrition.

It’s the night before our last class — the very last day of the spring semester — and I am busy finishing up my reflective journal for the semester, thinking about the “final exam” tomorrow, and wondering why I waited until evening to start working on the final journal entries?!  Maybe because it has been such a busy couple of weeks with the usual whirlwind of end-of-semester events, projects, never-ceasing emails to answer. Maybe because as much as I want the semester to end I’m going to miss class and the forced break from my daily work that comes with having to practice. I wonder what my fellow students are doing and if they too left things until the last minute because other responsibilities crowded out bagpipe homework. Becoming a freshman again has helped me understand them in a new way and has taught me so much about their experience that I’ve decided to teach a freshman seminar in the fall.


Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

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The president learns to play.

Colleges start new academic programs

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Essay calls for an end to apologies about MOOC dropouts

Much to the consternation of my wife, I'm not a big fan of apologies. I'm not interested in hearing public figures apologize. And I don't generally want people to apologize to me: if you've done me wrong, well, just don't do it again. The damage is done and we all need to move on. Even with my kids, I'd rather have them promise to try not to do something again, than apologize for doing it. (Note to parents: The jury is still out on this as a parenting strategy.)

My personal anti-apology bias aside, though, there really is one thing that you absolutely don't need to apologize for: dropping out of my MOOC.

By way of background: I’m currently teaching the second offering of a massive open online course about metadata for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered through Coursera.

One of the concerns heard from faculty, back when MOOCs were a new idea (all of two years ago), was that they couldn’t possibly keep up with the barrage of emails that would result from having thousands of students. But my experience has been that a MOOC actually results in surprisingly few emails, given that my baseline was the email-to-student ratio from my “traditional” classroom courses. Of the emails I receive from students in my MOOC, however, one of the most common types is the apology for dropping out.

In these emails, complete strangers introduce themselves to me, explain that they were taking my MOOC and enjoying it very much, but that they had to drop out. These individuals were always very apologetic, and expressed regret, remorse, and not a little guilt over having to drop the course.

One student had taken on new responsibilities at work. One student’s family life had become too busy to accommodate time for the course. One student was going to be traveling to a remote part of the world with limited Internet access for several weeks in the middle of the course. One student had a parent who died. Work-life balance was invoked by several students. In other words: life intervened, as it does.

The first two or three emails like this that I received, I thought: “Boy, these students really don’t get it. If they’d just dropped out and not said anything, I would never have noticed. They’re fundamentally misunderstanding how MOOCs work.”

And it’s true, I would never have noticed, not with north of 14,000 active students.

I received emails like this once or twice a week throughout the duration of the first offering of the eight-week course, and the same is holding true for the second. And while that amounts to a vanishingly small percentage of the students in the course, I’m sad that these particular students dropped out. In part this is because, out of the faceless sea of students, these individuals suddenly emerged with names and life stories and tragedies. But in part it’s because, if it weren't for these life stories and tragedies, I feel certain that these students would have completed the course, and done well in it.

MOOCs are a relatively new development in online teaching and learning, and research on them is still emerging. But a very interesting research agenda is evolving  to articulate a classification of student “engagement trajectories.” This work shows that the largest group of those registering for a MOOC are “no-shows”: people who register for but never login to the course. The smallest group are those who actively participate in and complete the course. There’s also a large group of students who “disengage”: students who start the course, but whose level of engagement (viewing videos, participating in the discussion forums, etc.) decreases throughout the course. Some of these students disengage completely, and can be considered “dropouts.” Some students simply “audit”: watch videos, but don’t participate in the discussion forums or do the assignments. These categories emerge as a result of each individual student’s engagement decisions.

A common (and I believe justified) criticism of MOOCs, and of online courses in general, is that they favor the self-motivated student. Most MOOCs are free, so money is not on the table. Most MOOCs are not for credit, so a grade is not on the table. Most MOOCs are not part of a larger program of study, so graduation is not on the table. The external motivations traditionally embedded in postsecondary education do not, for the most part, apply to MOOCs. And in the absence of external motivations, only the internally motivated will thrive.

And those for whom life did not intervene.

The absence of external motivations is one of the best features of MOOCs. What instructor wouldn’t want a class full of internally motivated students? What student wouldn’t want to be free from grades and tuition, and the pressures that come along with them?

Before I taught my MOOC, I took one as a student: Introduction to Astronomy, taught by Ronen Plesser at Duke University, through Coursera. I stopped doing the homework after week three, because my algebra is, let’s just say, a little rusty and the homework simply became too time-consuming for me. I do not apologize for auditing Dr. Plesser’s course; I got out of it what I wanted, which was eight weeks of intellectual enjoyment. I do not believe that Dr. Plesser needs to apologize for the students that disengaged or audited; every individual student makes their own engagement decisions. And I do not believe that Coursera or any MOOC provider needs to apologize for low completion rates of the MOOCs that they host; the absence of external motivations is one of the best features of MOOCs.

Though I disengaged from the homeworks for Introduction to Astronomy, I watched every video for the course, and I believe that I got a lot out of it. Could I have gotten more out of it? Certainly. Did I get enough out of it to satisfy me? Yes. Given the absence of external motivations, there was no penalty for me to disengage and audit the course. So it’s ironic that in thinking like an instructor while teaching my MOOC, I forgot to think like a student.

Here’s part of what I wrote in reply to these first few students’ emails: “MOOCs aren't graded or for credit, so there's absolutely no penalty for dropping out – you won't fail, you just won't receive a certificate of completion.”

But after receiving a few more emails like this, I realized that I was the one who really didn’t get it. It wasn’t these students who were fundamentally misunderstanding MOOCs, it was me. These students were never in it for the certificate of completion; they were in it for the personal edification. These students weren’t concerned about receiving a failing grade; they felt that they had failed themselves.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these emails from students. But I don’t think so.

You don’t need to apologize for having a life. You don’t need to apologize for getting a new job; congratulations. You don’t need to apologize for your parent dying; my condolences. You don’t need to apologize for traveling to a remote part of the world with limited internet access for several weeks; I’m envious.

So I say unto these students, and all students enrolled in a MOOC: you don't need to apologize for dropping out. If you started a MOOC intending to engage with it, then I, as an educator, have nothing but admiration for you. You started a course for the personal edification, in the absence of the traditional external motivations of postsecondary education. Even if you don’t complete it, I have nothing but admiration for you. I think I speak for all educators everywhere when I say: we wish we had more students like you in our traditional courses.

Jeffrey Pomerantz teaches in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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University and non-college provider team up on credential for student veterans

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Fullbridge gets into the credential business by partnering with Concordia University Chicago on new graduate certificate aimed at veterans of the U.S. military.

Colleges start new programs

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Higher education urged to play more of a role in Common Core

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Colleges and universities need to get involved in the the rollout of the Common Core curriculum, argues a new paper from the New America Foundation.


Colleges start new academic programs

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  • Alabama State University is starting a master's program in social work.
  • Brown University is starting an undergraduate major in contemplative studies.
  • Community College of Allegheny County is starting associate degree and certificate programs in mechatronics technology.


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