Abelard to Apple

I heard through the blogosphere about DeMillo’s book Abelard to Apple. I checked it out from the library, because, if I’m to be self-employed as an educator, I thought it would be useful to get an institutional view of the education system in the US. The book specifically focuses on higher education, especially the universities in the Middle (neither top tier research, nor bargain community colleges). Below, in an exercise of active reading, I record my impressions of each chapter, and highlight the essential lessons.

If you bother to get through all that distilled wisdom, you should consider reading the book yourself. Throughout the book DeMillo backs up his arguments by citing specific colleges, educators, and institutions that serve as example observations. I’ve only captured that part of the book which was germane to my goals; gathering blurbs that remind me of where education is headed in the next 20 years.


Great Visions to Lure Them On
1 Are You Teaching This Summer? What university professors actually do is shrouded in mystery. Today we have multiversities that serve many interests: government research grants, contracts with corporations, funding comes with strings attached; and internal politics of unequal salaries (humanities vs sciences).
Make use of your time effectively and stay relevant to your source of funding.
2 A World of Subjective Judgments Granting of tenure is a distributed, self-organizing decision-making system difficult to steer with central authority. Tenure insulates faculty from political interference, yet also leads to a faculty-centric culture.
Don’t adopt incentives that will distance you from the market.
3 The Smartest Kid in Class The University picks leadership based on established qualities. Clearly ambitious in good times, good problem solvers in bad times. But strategies that worked well in the past might fail in a new market.
Picking leadership from inside can lead to excessive inward focus.
4 The Twenty-First Century Today, the equivalent of the classroom experience can be got for free online.
Modern Universities are out of touch with commoditized, democratized education.
An Abundance of Choices
5 It Takes a Lot to Get Us Excited.

Private universities have risen the rankings, because they are better able to meet student demands. Public universities are endangered when public funding dries up. Costs between public and private are almost the same. Public funding comes with regulation and bureaucracy, that can hurt more than help. University of Phoenix exists because public institutions don’t provide enough value for low enough cost.
Becoming more selective is the antithesis of broad education, and it’s a path to irrelevance.
6 The Computer in the Cathedral Research universities spend enormous resources to attract faculty and build prestige. The expenditures, such as supercomputers, can be so great that they must be subsidized by government, and do not contribute to student learning.
Focus on building relevant skills in your students.
7 Do No Harm The pursuit of patents and formation of start-up companies to reserve rights to any new technology researched by faculty is a distraction from the dual mission (a) developing new, fundamental knowledge and (b) propagating knowledge to the next generation. The bureaucracy of the licensing office does not have a high return on cost, and its focus on ownership creates an anti-commons of ideas.
Running a side business distracts from the core objective.
8 The Factory During the last century, colleges have grown in size faster than any other sector of the economy (faster than the US itself). This rapid growth led to standardization (heavily influenced by donation funds Rockefeller and Carnegie) accreditation and administration. These agencies are staffed by people that know little of the subjects they regulate, and were formed before a clear idea as to what the university produces and to whom it gives the product had emerged.
Increased regulation is an administrative burden that does not correlate to better student achievement.
9 Disruption Tuition has risen 3x faster than the Consumer Price Index and is used to support research, athletics, community outreach programs, etc. (and is not used on classroom equipment, increase quality of teaching, etc.) State Educational systems are facing tough financial crises that might deter price-sensitive students.
Mission creep can raise costs so that you price yourself out of the market. (Innovators dilemma).
A Better Means of Expressing Their Goals
10 The Value of a University Universities grew out of Medieval disruption, and developed an autonomy of corporation and self-governance to protect itself against outside (church and local political) interference. Faculty-centered guilds became prominent because they were better organized and self-loyal, but they retreat in value and relevance when students have other learning opportunities.
Embrace student governance to stay responsive to your market.
11 Of Majors and Memes Although the hubs are outrageously popular, the spokes of the long tail have significantly lower capital barriers to entry. The long tail is served at very high cost (number of courses and faculty) by making the University a platform for elective education. Tenure, and other faculty-centric focus, leads to core curriculum creep.
Success requires both depth of skills for competence and breadth of knowledge for synthesis and innovation.
12 Threads Naively combining two different fields (to broaden appeal and enrollment) leads to superficiality in both. Solution: create threads of programs designed to complement and intertwine, then let students elect to study a combination of two. Problem: does not scale, and difficult to accreditate knowledge learned and standardize on quality.
Be flexible but maintain structure (resist entropy/chaos).
Abelard to Apple
13 The Stardom of Leonard Susskind Susskind (Stanford) and Lewin (MIT) make their lectures available online. Open University (UK) provides a platform for offering traditional courses online. Less popular offerings still benefit from being a spoke on a large hub: coopetition.
The real source of education is in the interaction and practice, not the foundational materials.
14 Unkept Technological Promises Most educational software is gimmicky and costly, targeted at assisting the instructor in teaching but not the student in learning. In trying to increase classroom efficiency, schools attempt standardize learning outcomes by measuring student performance; but applying the analogy with quality assurance as practiced by manufacturers has the opposite effect.
Don’t become servant to your organizational software.
15 A Substitute for Deep Reflection Jim Groom’s Edupunks and David Wiley’s Flatworld Knowledge are trying to open content, educational platforms, and lower cost. A typical university website is not educationally assistive. UMW very strongly encourages all students to have a blog (and domain name) to continue the development of their online identities.
Use the Web to expand your network of influence and collaboration.
16 The Process-Centered University The well-oiled machine can quickly become out of sync with market demands (efficiently producing an undesired product) and dehumanizes the students, yet remain because of a separate (internal) rating system. Managing individualized interests of students (Threads) can drive costs up.
Build up social capital through a network of relations.
17 Hacking Degrees Accreditation can scale similar to a distributed network of trust; inter-institution credit transfer agreements should suffice. Open content can help provide individualized mix and match of skills and credentials.
Become an essential (trusted, valuable) part of a social (and business) network.
The Long View
18 The Laws of Innovation Innovating schools requires setting clear goals (with metrics) and thinking differently, and not merely optimizing current methods. Big impact research is focused on short-term (immediate results) and long-term (new fields) gains, and ignores the more stable mid-term (incremental improvement).
To really innovate you have to pull together experience and ideas from many different fields.
19 Just Change My Title to “Architect” America stopped building higher education capacity in 1960. Number of students has increased 4X but number and kind of university has not changed. The current design assumed Asian economics as insignificant, and was enshrined before PCs, internet, and commercial air travel. Current economics lead universities in the middle to try and emulate the top tier and so sacrifice diversity (and connection to its community) to attain elite selectivity.
Don’t chase after the elites. Instead, seek to provide value (to your community, and students)
20 Rules for the Twenty-First Century For-profits embrace and extend the market and ignore the traditional rankings. Focus on what differentiates you, establish your own brand (don’t let accreditation bureaucracies define it for you), don’t romanticize your weaknesses, use technology where applicable, be open and inclusive, define your own measures of success, adopt the John Bascom’s New Wisconsin idea.
Remain relevant, and grow market share.