Candace Thille on Adaptive Learning Companies: Be Careful about Outsourcing Core Services!

Dear Commons Community,

Candace Thille, the founder of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University and now at Stanford University, was featured in an article yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, sounding an alarm about the privatization of adaptive learning and learning analytics services.  She specifically cautioned against companies that are trying to assume control of this market.  As reported in The Chronicle:

“Her concerns boil down to these:

  • Colleges should have more control over this field. Like it or not, she argues, using data to predict student needs and deliver the right material at the right time will become essential. “And a core tenet of any business is that you don’t outsource your core business process,” she notes.
  • Companies aren’t as well equipped to develop and test new teaching algorithms as colleges are. She argues that colleges are the ideal living laboratories for any teaching system because they are home both to the research on learning and the actual teaching. As she puts it, “You have a very quick feedback loop, where the research informs the practice and the practice informs the research.”
  • When companies lead the development of learning software, the decisions those systems make are hidden from professors and colleges. Ms. Thille says companies that won’t share their processes are essentially saying, “Just trust the black box.” To most academics, she says, “That’s alchemy, that’s not science.”

The proprietary “black boxes” are the algorithms that might automatically serve up, say, an extra lesson on quadratic equations when a student’s responses to a quiz indicate that she didn’t quite grasp the concept. Every algorithm, and every decision about what data it will weigh, is also ultimately a pedagogical judgment call. For the companies selling adaptive software, “that’s where the gold is,” says Ms. Thille.

She contends that the demands of the market — with venture capitalists expecting returns 30 times what they’ve invested and companies facing pressure to deliver products priced so they don’t scare away customers — will inhibit innovation rather than foster it, even if the companies have the best intentions.”

She also mentions a recently announced Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Personalized Learning Grant program designed to promote companies developing adaptive service programs:

“For example, in inviting universities to take part in a new $4.6-million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant for the members of a new Personalized Learning Consortium, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities specified that applicants could use only 19 specific products approved by the foundation. All of them are owned by companies. One of them is Acrobatiq; the Gates foundation is also an investor in that company.

The foundation specified those “approved suppliers” for the quality of their products and because they “appear likely to be robust and sustainable for the future” as businesses, according to the request for proposals for the grant.

Travis Reindl, a spokesman for the Gates foundation, said last week that the list was not “the be-all and end-all of the possible providers” for the grantees and that other products could be added even after the winning institutions are selected. at the end of May. Asked specifically about whether open courses from OLI or those Ms. Thille is now creating at Stanford would be allowed, he said, “APLU will provide the updated provider list to the selected institutions. The list is still being developed.”

As for Acrobatiq, he said the foundation was “not in any circumstances” trying to favor that company. “There is no thumb on the scale” for Acrobatiq, he said.”

The academy would be wise to heed Ms. Thille’s advice.




Ted Cruz:  Deport 12 Million Illegal Immigrants!

Dear Commons Community,

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has taken a page from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign playbook, hardening his rhetoric against undocumented immigrants.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

Cruz told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on Monday that yes, should he be elected president, his administration would deport all 12 million undocumented people estimated to be in the U.S. and wouldn’t allow them to return.

“We should enforce the law … federal law requires that anyone here illegally that’s apprehended should be deported,” Cruz said. “Of course” he’d look for undocumented immigrants, he said.

Cruz said America would build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, triple the border force and establish biometric entry systems “so we will know the day someone overstays their visa.” 

Cruz’ comments represent an escalation in rhetoric from a candidate who rejected the notion of a “deportation force” of “jackboots” just last month, and lambasted the idea after it was proposed by GOP front-runner Trump. Cruz in January said such a policy would reflect “a police state,” adding, “That’s not how we enforce the law for any crime.”

Cruz was pressed on the issue Monday by O’Reilly, who asked if he would seek out fictitious Irishman Tommy O’Malley and deport him for overstaying his visa.

“You better believe it,” Cruz said. “Both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio would allow those 12 million people to become U.S. citizens. I will not.”

Sooner or later, Republicans will realize how mean-spirited Cruz is and start abandoning him in droves.


FCC Looking to Bridge the Digital Divide with Subsidies for Broadband Services!

Dear Commons Community,

It is estimated that about twenty percent of American households do not have broadband services.  In some large urban and small rural areas, the percentage is as high as thirty percent.  The Federal Communication Commission is looking to assist to reduce these percentages by providing subsidies to families who cannot afford broadband service.  The rational is that not having access to broadband is a detriment to school children who increasingly need it for homework and school assignments.  As reported in the New York Times:

“With many educators pushing for students to use resources on the Internet with class work, the federal government is now grappling with a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed Internet at home and an estimated five million families who are without it and who are struggling to keep up.

The challenge is felt across the nation. Some students in Coachella, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala., depend on school buses that have free Wi-Fi to complete their homework. The buses are sometimes parked in residential neighborhoods overnight so that children can connect and continue studying. In cities like Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, where as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband, children crowd libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots.

The divide is driving action at the federal level. Members of the Federal Communications Commission are expected to vote next month on repurposing a roughly $2 billion-a-year phone subsidy program, known as Lifeline, to include subsidies for broadband services in low-income homes.

“This is what I call the homework gap, and it is the cruelest part of the digital divide,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the commission who has pushed to overhaul the Lifeline program.

Ms. Rosenworcel cited research showing that seven in 10 teachers now assign homework that requires web access. Yet one-third of kindergartners through 12th graders in the United States, from low-income and rural households, are unable to go online from home. The Obama administration announced in July its own program to help address the problem, deploying free and affordable broadband into public housing.

The Lifeline plan has drawn strong criticism from the two Republicans among the five F.C.C. commissioners, and from some lawmakers, who say the program, which was introduced in 1985 to bring phone services to low-income families, has been wasteful and was abused.

In 2008, when the commission added subsidies for mobile-phone services to discounts for landlines, some homes started double-billing the program, and the budget for the fund ballooned. Various investigations, including a government review in early 2015, questioned the effectiveness of the phone program and whether the commission had done enough to monitor for abuse.

But advocacy groups for children and minorities have backed the F.C.C. plan, saying it will be important in preventing students from falling further behind their peers.

“For young people, broadband is like the air we breathe,” said James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group known for its reviews and age-based ratings of videos, websites and books that has campaigned for the changes in Lifeline. His organization earns licensing fees from Internet service providers that may stand to gain from the expansion of the F.C.C. program.

“It’s essential for school and future job opportunity,” Mr. Steyer said. “So it is desperately important that we make broadband affordable for low-income families and minorities, because we can’t be a society of haves and have-nots.”

Broadband has indeed become  a lifeline for students to succeed in school.  The FCC should move forward with this initiative.


State and Federal Policymakers Look to Support STEM Students at the Expense of the Liberal Arts!

Dear Commons Community,

STEM is increasingly being seen by policymakers as critical to employment needs both for the present and the future.  Many state and federal policymakers are quick to support education and training initiatives in STEM areas.  This is not a major problem except when these same policymakers decide that to pay for these initiatives, funding should be reduced or eliminated in other liberal arts areas.  The New York Times reviews this issue in a featured article this morning.   Here is an excerpt:

“Frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.

When it comes to dividing the pot of money devoted to higher education, at least 15 states offer some type of bonus or premium for certain high-demand degrees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors, there just will,” Matt Bevin (Rep. Governor of Kentucky), said after announcing his state’s spending plan. “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be, for example.”

What has incensed many educators is not so much the emphasis on work force development but the disdain for the humanities, particularly among Republicans. Several Republicans have portrayed a liberal arts education as an expendable, sometimes frivolous luxury that taxpayers should not be expected to pay for. The Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has called for more welders and fewer philosophers. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida criticized anthropologists, and Mr. McCrory of North Carolina belittled gender studies.

Democrats have, for the most part, avoided denouncing the humanities, but they have argued that education and training should be better aligned with the job market.

The Obama administration, for example, proposed, much to the horror of many in academia, rating the country’s 7,000 colleges and universities not only on measures like completion rates and student loan debt, but also on earnings after graduation. Dozens of states have already moved to performance-based goals that more closely tie a portion of their higher education funding to particular outcomes like degrees earned or courses completed.

But the particular focus on jobs and earnings — originally limited to vocational programs and community colleges — is gaining momentum.

“There’s a deeper question of what public money should be used for,” said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who runs the Center on Education and the Workforce.”

The issue grows more vehement as funding for public higher education grows tighter.  As the article indicates the issue is not simply to provide incentives for STEM but the fact that some  states are looking to do so at the expense of the liberal arts.  American higher education remains the envy of most other countries in part because of the diversity of its institutions and academic programs.  In addition, career training can leave many graduates with a very narrow focus and little opportunity to appreciate, question, and contribute to the human condition.  Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote to illustrate the point.

Frances Brone, dean of the school of architecture at the University of Oregon, who grew up intensely poor in Montreal, in a recent interview commented:  “There was no way I could go to school and not have an immediate return,” she says. “My parents already thought that my going to school was an opportunity lost.” She went to McGill University and majored in architecture and engineering—technical fields she knew would pay.   Now one of her great regrets in life is not having gotten a broader liberal-arts education. “We talk about people being entrepreneurial, but it’s really about being creative, thoughtful, and critical”.   When she taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, her department surveyed engineering alumni, asking about their education. Graduates who were a year out of college wished they had gotten more technical skills. Those who were five years out wanted more management skills. But alumni who were 10 to 20 years into their careers wanted more cultural literacy, “because they were traveling all over the world, working with cultures they never experienced before,” she says.

Indeed, as lives and livelihoods extend beyond localness, it is the broadly-educated among us who have the tools to understand, adapt, and succeed to new environs, peoples, and cultures.



Clinton Wins Nevada;  Trump Wins South Carolina;  Jeb Bush Out!

Dear Commons Community,

The long awaited Nevada Democratic caucuses and South Carolina Republican primary were held yesterday and the results portend the respective party nominations.  Hillary Clinton won in Nevada and looks like she will march on to the Democratic nomination.  Much to the chagrin of the Republican Party “establishment”,  Donald Trump won handily in South Carolina with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz pretty much  tied for second.   Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Ben Carson were distant from the pack.  Jeb Bush with 7.8 percent of the vote announced last night that he was suspending his candidacy.

Barring any major stumble, the Nevada win leaves Hillary Clinton in the driver’s seat to be the Democratic nominee.  Donald Trump is looking unstoppable but the Republican Party establishment will desperately seek a way to deliver the nomination to Marco Rubio.



New York Times Editorial:  Scott Walker Continues His War on Labor!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times editorial today focuses on Governor Scott Walker and his scorched earth policy regarding state workers in Wisconsin.  His style and policies were completely rejected nationally when he tried to secure the Republican presidential nomination last year, yet he continues his war on labor.  Here is the editorial:

“What’s a politician to do after his ballyhooed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination flames out before the first vote is cast? In the case of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, it means returning home to the anti-labor obsession that got him noticed in the first place — and signing into law, less than two weeks ago, a “reform” plan that promises to gut much of the state’s historic Civil Service system.

Gone are objective Civil Service examinations; instead, as of July, hiring for state jobs will be based on résumés and the impressions they leave on administrators perusing them. Gone, too, is seniority as a bulwark for job protection; administrators will now be able to do layoffs based on subjective evaluations of a worker’s job performance.

New hires who had six months’ probation will now be under a two-year watch in which to please their masters. And should anyone wonder where the power lies in this “streamlined” system, the law centralizes hiring decisions firmly in the governor’s administrative office, with a new system of merit bonuses at the ready.

Patronage, anyone? Mr. Walker hailed the changes as “common sense” efforts to “get the best and brightest in the door and keep them there.” He did not mention energetic toadying as a possible qualification, nor the political cronyism the law so obviously invites.

Wisconsin citizens thought they had abandoned the spoils system and patronage corruption a century ago when Civil Service was championed by Gov. Robert La Follette, the historic progressive who eloquently railed against the very abuses now being resurrected in the Wisconsin statehouse. Here it comes again.

Mr. Walker became a national sensation among conservatives five years ago when he stripped almost all public workers of their collective bargaining rights while using the state budget to eliminate the requirement in force in local communities to pay the prevailing wage to workers on government projects. Back then, he denied having any designs on the Civil Service system. But that changed once he returned from his failed presidential venture and found the Republican Legislature’s retrograde employment measure awaiting his signature.

The governor’s presidential hopes lasted only two months after weak debate performances among the pack of 17 candidates. He may be remembered most for failing to convince people that his anti-labor toughness in surviving a recall vote in Wisconsin was somehow a foreign policy credential for standing up to Islamic terrorists. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he insisted.

The patronage-friendly measure Mr. Walker signed in the name of better government is no more convincing than his presidential campaign. It undermines the welfare not only of the state’s 30,000 workers but of Wisconsin citizens who are losing an important part of their heritage of government fairness.”

Walker and his big money backers are a plague upon the workers in the state of Wisconsin.




Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89!

Harper Lee

Dear Commons Community,

Harper Lee, author of  “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book about racial injustice in a small Alabama town that sold more than 40 million copies and became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American, died yesterday in Monroeville, Ala. She was 89. Hank Conner, a nephew of Ms. Lee’s, said that she died in her sleep at the Meadows, an assisted living facility.  The following is from a New York Times obituary.

“The instant success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the next year, turned Ms. Lee into a literary celebrity, a role she found oppressive and never learned to accept.

“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird,’ ” Ms. Lee told a radio interviewer in 1964. “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement.”

The enormous popularity of the film version of the novel, released in 1962 with Gregory Peck in the starring role of Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, only added to Ms. Lee’s fame and fanned expectations for her next novel….

But for more than half a century a second novel failed to turn up, and Ms. Lee gained a reputation as a literary Garbo, a recluse whose public appearances to accept an award or an honorary degree counted as important news simply because of their rarity. On such occasions she did not speak, other than to say a brief thank you.

Then, in February 2015, long after the reading public had given up on seeing anything more from Ms. Lee, her publisher, Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, dropped a bombshell. It announced plans to publish a manuscript — long thought to be lost and now resurfacing under mysterious circumstances — that Ms. Lee had submitted to her editors in 1957 under the title “Go Set a Watchman.”

May she rest in peace. 




The Wall Street Journal Comments on the Apollo/University of Phoenix Buyout by the Vistria Group!

Dear Commons Group,

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)had an editorial yesterday on the buyout of the University of Phoenix by the Vistria Group.  I posted about this buyout on February 9th (see below).  Here is an excerpt and the conclusion from the WSJ editorial.

“Last June the U.S. Department of Education said it had created an interagency task force to bring more accountability and oversight to for-profit colleges, so it’s hard to believe that at that point Team Obama viewed companies like Apollo as operating with “the highest ethical standards.”

As recently as October the Journal reported that the “Justice Department and the Department of Education are coordinating on ongoing investigations of the University of Phoenix, a government official said Friday, a day after the Defense Department barred the for-profit giant from recruiting on military bases because of alleged recruiting violations.”

Last month the Pentagon took the school off probation so Apollo can again benefit from military subsidies. Mr. Miller tells us, “We believe there is an opportunity to improve student outcomes that distinguishes the University of Phoenix with employers and in the marketplace.”

By the way, the Obama education department will have to approve Vistria’s purchase of Apollo, and we’re told the guidelines for approval are notably vague. What better way to win a regulatory blessing than have a former senior education official like Mr. Miller commune with his old regulatory comrades. Hey, Tony, great to see you; any job for me after, say, Jan. 20, 2017?

Mr. Miller says the University of Phoenix’s “investment in and commitment to” regulatory compliance, “coupled with our commitment to sustain and improve” such practices, “gives us encouragement as we proceed with the regulatory and accreditation approval process.”

To summarize, an Obama pal is the day-to-day boss of a department that succeeds in destroying 90% of the value of a politically targeted company. Then he leaves government, buys the company at a fire-sale price and announces that the problems that attracted so much negative government attention are ending—just in time for a new Administration that might not hate for-profit education as much as this one. Government mediation sure can be a lucrative business model.”

The education-industrial complex at its ugliest!



U of Phoenix/Apollo Group Being Sold to Private Investment Group with Ties to President Obama and US Dept. of Education!

Pope Francis versus Donald Trump!

Dear Commons Community,

Pope Francis on Wednesday suggested that Donald Trump “is not Christian” because of the harshness of his campaign promises to deport more immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the border.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico.

Yesterday, Donald Trump fired back that Pope Francis’ criticisms were “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” and he contended that the Mexican government had hoodwinked the pope into criticizing him. 

A New York Times article analyzed Trump’s response as follows:

“Politicians rarely rebuke the Vatican so forcefully for fear of alienating Catholic voters, but Mr. Trump has been increasingly aggressive ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where polls show a tightening race and the popular Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, just endorsed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Mr. Trump’s attack on Francis reflected a political calculation that criticizing the pope would not hurt him with conservatives and might even improve his standing in South Carolina and in the Southern-dominated Super Tuesday contests on March 1. Some evangelical denominations in the South and elsewhere take a dim view of the Catholic Church, and many other social conservatives have been critical of Francis over his relatively measured statements about gays, birth control and divorce.

Attacking the pope could energize conservatives who think that Mr. Trump will go to greater lengths to halt illegal immigration than establishment politicians and power brokers like the Holy See, according to political strategists in both parties.

Still, the spectacle of the flamboyant billionaire businessman facing down the global leader of 1.2 billion Catholics was the presidential campaign’s most revealing example of Mr. Trump’s emotional instinct to make punching bags of those who cross him, whether it is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the leaders of longtime allies like Mexico, or the bishop of Rome.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has praised President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Saddam Hussein of Iraq while denouncing Democrats, Republicans and now Pope Francis with his provocative language, reinforcing fears in both parties that a President Trump would destabilize the United States.

“Mr. Trump now adds Pope Francis to his list of people who, after having a policy disagreement, he insults and slurs,” said Russ Schriefer, a veteran Republican strategist and a senior adviser on the presidential campaign of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who dropped out of the Republican race last week.

Asked if Mr. Trump’s comments would affect the South Carolina primary’s outcome, Mr. Schriefer replied, “It may not be reflected in the vote Saturday, but it continues to put his judgment and temperament in question.”

Mr. Trump’s remarks could prove far more damaging to him in heavily Catholic states like New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, all of which have delegate-rich primaries where he is aiming for strong victories. He and his advisers have long seen working-class white voters as a core part of his electoral base, as they were in his successful primary campaign in New Hampshire last week.

But many of these voters are Catholics who, whether they like Francis or not, may blanch at Mr. Trump’s denouncing the pope for advocating the church’s position favoring compassion toward immigrants.

“Trump can take on former presidents, governors, senators, fellow candidates and the media, but I think he should just take a pass on arguing with the pope on what makes a better Christian,” said Edward Rollins, a former political adviser to President Ronald Reagan and other Republicans. “It’s a fight Trump can’t win. And shouldn’t try.

People will be watching the South Carolina primary even more closely tomorrow to see if the mighty Donald is about to fall.



Colleges Abandoning Standardized Testing to Assess Student Learning!

Dear Commons Community,

Here is an excerpt from a short piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing the results of a study indicating that colleges continue to move away from assessing learning outcomes using standardized tests. As reported in the article:

“A report on the survey, “Trends in Learning Outcomes Assessment,” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says that only 38 percent of institutions use standardized national tests of general knowledge. That’s down from nearly 50 percent in 2008.

The results appear to continue a trend in recent years of colleges’ abandoning a stated commitment to standardized tests — such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment — as a way to measure educational quality.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • The percentage of institutions that report having a common set of learning outcomes for all students is up to 85 percent, from 78 percent in 2008.
  • The most commonly reported methods of assessment are rubrics and capstone projects.
  • Twenty-five percent of institutions say they do not assess outcomes in general education but plan to do so.”

This is a step in the right direction and supports much of K-20 education’s movement away from an over reliance on standardized tests to assess learning.