Friday, November 15, 2013

Crowdsourcing college rating and innovation -- President Obama's affordable college initiative

Department of Education officials, led by Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, were on our campus last week, soliciting input on the president’s College Value and Affordability plan.

There were open forums and a lunch with several faculty and administrators. I was not able to attend the open forums, but was at the lunch.

The Los Angeles Times covered the forums, reporting that the plan met with skepticism about the feasibility of developing an effective rating system. Politico's coverage of the event also focused on the difficulties.

The lunch meeting was similar. Ms. Kanter described their plan and asked for input. While we all favor increased market transparency to help students pick a college, doing so is difficult. Many of the comments were warnings about shortcomings -- unanticipated side-effects of any rating system, differences in student preparation in high school, differences in levels of State support for schools, etc.

A multivariate problem like selecting a college or comparing two colleges does not have a single solution. It is like the proverbial blind men exploring an elephant -- complex and subjective.

But, that does not mean there is nothing for government to do. The role of the government in this case is to gather and publish data, not to analyze it. (Or to be only one of many analysts).

The government should publish data on colleges and outcomes in an open, easily manipulated format. Let the people -- policy experts, teachers, administrators, prospective students and their families -- anyone with an interest -- do their own data analysis and draw their own conclusions. The system should also provide a platform for presenting, sharing and discussing those analyses and conclusions.

Tools for analyzing and visualizing the data should also be provided and it should be possible for a person to document their analysis using these tools in such a manner that others could replicate it, re-run it over time, or modify it. The analysis and visualization toolkit should also be open and, of course, users should be able to analyze and visualize the data using their own tools and methods.

In short, government should publish accurate, open data and let a thousand eyes see it.

The President's plan also addresses educational quality. Their Fact Sheet on President Obama’s Plan to Make College More Affordable, discusses technology-enabled innovation, singling out several examples at elite universities and Coursera.

Coursera and elite universities are developing valuable technology and pedagogy, but, just as I would open the data analysis process, I would have the government promote open innovation in education. There are gifted teachers and innovators in schools, colleges, high schools, design firms, etc. throughout the world. Furthermore, faculty in these schools often have more experience with the sorts of students who cannot afford education today than do those at elite universities.

Can we find ways to include the contributions of those people in the President's program?

For example, MIT, Stanford and Google are collaborating on an open source platform for MOOCs, (MOOC.org). An open, hosted version of that platform would be a valuable resource for faculty and others around the world. Google has the infrastructure – not just connectivity, but services like Google Plus Communities, Hangouts, YouTube and Google Drive – to create that hosted platform. It would be terrific if the Department of Education could work with them to create an open "YouTube for education". (If Google were not willing, the CSU system or others could do it).

There are also many examples of the use of fine-grained, focused modules in education -- most prominently at the Khan Academy. Modular material can take many forms – a short PowerPoint presentation or video demonstration, a thought provoking quote, an anecdote, an image, an animation, a question, an assignment, a simulation, a grading technique, etc. can be effective and of use to others. Every teacher has some such "modules" that could be of use to others. The trick is to make them discoverable. Could the Department of Education create a system for doing that?

High school teachers and others working on Common Core curricula are also a resource for colleges. Dominguez Hills and others spend a lot of time on remediation. We should encourage colleges to discover and incorporate teaching material and insights from those working on the Common Core.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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Update 11/19/2013


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Update 11/25/2013 This article on the forum appeared in our campus publication, Inside Dominguez. It contains several student and faculty comments. -----

Update 11/25/2013

There is a fairly long discussion of this post On Slashdot.