It’s all about (re)bundling

The incipient University Learning Store is a demonstration of why unbundling is unlikely to be the future of higher education. If I understand the linked InsideHigherEd article correctly, this is an attempt by seven universities to create an ecosystem of non-credit microcredentials (or badges) that takes advantage of the broader capacity of the collaboration. There are substantial barriers to creating such an ecosystem, including the types of bureaucratic problems that Amy Laitinen and Matt Reed have discussed recently around the delay of competency-based education guidance from the feds: how do you construct financial aid systems around something that looks very different from a credit-hour system that is the basis for the current federal financial-aid system?

But despite those barriers, the construction of an ecosystem is how innovative higher education has to proceed — while many Americans have been and remain autodidacts, our history is of educational institutions and educational ecosystems.1 Even when we have independent systems of learning, they often develop ecosystems, what my colleagues James and Elisabeth Gee call nurturing affinity spaces. No matter how many times pundits gabble on about unbundling, in reality people want to be supported in learning, expect to be supported in learning.


  1. For a history of autodidacticism, see Joseph Kett’s The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties. I wonder if any of the authors promoting unbundling have read Kett’s history. []

Hillary Clinton higher-ed initiative as Shrek

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is issuing her complicated anti-college-debt plan today, and the analyses are starting to pop up. It may be useful to think of the plan as operating in several layers:

  • Campaign promise as symbolic politics. Campaigns call out to various constituencies in hopes of attracting support on the basis of various symbolic and real affinities. In this case, the intended message is, I care about your family and am competent to protect your interests. (All serious candidates will try to project this message.) See Patrick Riccards’ comments about one of the locations Clinton will use in talking about the plan, as an example of why the symbolic layer matters.
  • Campaign promise as shiny ob–squirrel! Campaigns can also make promises and issue statements as quasi-events in themselves. I do not think today’s release from the Clinton campaign has this as an intended effect — the package is complicated enough that putting together the pieces probably determined the timing of the release, not as a counterpoint to the Trump spectacle on the GOP side.
  • Campaign promise as a predictor of policy initiatives. John Edwards made health care an issue in 2008, Hillary Clinton proposed individual mandates, and Barack Obama’s response to both of them predicted his pushing through health-care reform in 2010.
  • Campaign promise as predictor of governing patterns.

Of these, the last is most interesting to me vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton.

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A year since Michael Brown’s death

A year ago, Michael Brown’s body was lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, and would continue to lie in the street for several more hours after being shot by police. No one should wonder why Ta-Nehisi Coates uses the vulnerable body as the keystone concept in Between the World and Me–yes, it becomes his atheist counterpoint to the Christian soul. But Michael Brown, Prince Jones, Eric Garner, Christian Taylor and dozens of other unarmed Black men and women–mostly men–have been the victims of police violence in the past few years and decades.

This morning, DeRay McKesson tweeted a beautiful picture of himself, Netta Elzie, and Bree Newsome, three of the most visible new activists coming from the past year’s Black Lives Matter movement. They are making the world a better place. Like Coates, I know the limits of activism–necessary and important, and you do not have to save the whole world to have done the right thing.

More from DeRay McKesson and Kirsten West Savali. Sarah Sparks discusses the teenagers shot by police since Michael Brown’s death.

Validity’s likely irrelevance in personnel processes

My colleague Audrey Amrein-Beardsley is starting a series of blog entries glossing the March special issue of Educational Researcher devoted to value-added or growth measures, specifically the technical qualities vis-a-vis teacher evaluations. In her first entry on the issue today, she argues the following:

[Quoting Doug Harris and Carolyn Herrington:] “The issue is not whether value-added measures are valid but whether they can be used in a way that improves teaching and learning.” [Amrein-Beardsley:] I would strongly argue that validity is a pre-condition to use, as we do not want educators using invalid data to even attempt to improve teaching and learning. I’m actually surprised this statement was published, as so scientifically and pragmatically off-based.

In psychological and educational research, the term validity refers to a basket of substantive warrants for the relevance of research: is a construct or measure predictive of something important, is it highly associated with another important and independently verified construct/measure, does it have merits for particular uses, etc. While researchers sometimes fetishize reliability and validity as terms of art, it is important to understand that the terms simply refer to procedural and substantive warrants for the concept or tool in question.

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Student privacy and social infrastructure

Current debates over student privacy should remind us that infrastructure leaves legacies for decades, including policy and technological infrastructure.1 This weekend, the New York Times published a column by Sue Dynarski about one proposal to change student privacy laws, a proposal that would make it almost impossible to use administrative records for educational research. Dynarski identifies this problem proposal as S. 1341, a bill sponsored by Louisiana Senator David Vitter. Vitter’s bill is one of several in Congress addressing student privacy issues and currently has no co-sponsors–in other words, at the moment it is highly unlikely to become law.2 The provision that worries Dynarski is the requirement for active parental consent for the transfer of any educational records to a third party, and a separate consent process for each such transfer.3

At its core, Dynarski’s argument is that educational research on the effectiveness of programs is too important to wipe away with concerns about privacy. On some issues she is wrong. Dynarski wrote that she knows of no “Target-like” breaches of educational data. She works at the University of Michigan. I am guessing that its servers are under regular attack by hackers as are the servers of many other colleges and universities; there were several publicly-known breaches last year.4 I could also quibble with her claims about the “original purpose” of student data records.5 However, both issues are tangential to the central question of whether it is possible to protect student privacy today and still allow all of the types of educational research Dynarski and I value.

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  1. That is also a theme of a recent Backstory Radio podcast. []
  2. It is not entirely clear who worked with Vitter to draft the bill–from the few websites mentioning the bill and some of the content, possibly the Home School Legal Defense Association and conservative activist Susan Effrem. []
  3. This is the proposed LIMITATIONS ON THIRD PARTY USE section. There is another section that prohibits the use of federal funds for any data matching. That would not prohibit data matching with non-federal funds, but I think it would kill large dataset projects funded by federal grants except where each program is explicitly authorized by language specific to that program. []
  4. Hat tip: Barmak Nassirian. []
  5. The Progressive Era reformers who first collected and published reams of educational data in city school systems thought they were promoting improvement; one could argue they were doing a better job of promoting inequality by class, gender, and race, using data for those ends. []