Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?

 


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Education and the Gig Economy

gigI mentioned the Gig Economy to a colleague at a college last week and he said he had never heard of the term. I said that "gig" is a term I associate with musicians who move from job to job, gig to gig. Now, it is being applied to a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. "But it has nothing to do with education," he commented. That got me thinking. Is it affecting education?

A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors. Most discussions of the gig economy talk about job sharing apps like Uber, Instacart and TaskRabbit. There has long been short term, contract and freelance work being done in the labor market. But the type that is being done by college graduates is said to have grown by more than 50% over the last decade.

Jeff Selingo referenced studies that contend that all the net job growth since the Great Recession has been in the gig or contract economy, and that 47% of college-age students did some sort of freelancing work last year, along with 43% of millennials.

My first thought about gig work in higher education is adjuncts. With more and more adjuncts (and fewer full-time faculty) being used in colleges, many adjuncts put together gigs at several schools. If teaching is your only job, that means trying to get three or more classes per semester fall, spring and summer.

I pulled some books off the bookstore shelf this past weekend and looked at what is being written about The Future Workplace ExperienceThe Gig Economy and Thriving in the Gig Economy are examples. 

They talk about dealing with disruption in recruiting and engaging employees A lot of the popular of the media focus is on the low end of the skill spectrum. Less attention is given to college grads and professionals who have chosen this independent employment route.

I found so many different stats on the size of this gig workforce that I hesitate to link to a source. One book says more than a third of Americans are working in the gig economy. That seems high by my own circle of friends and colleagues, but this includes short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments 

I am now officially in retirement - or unretirement as I prefer to say. I have written elsewhere about unretirement and freelance work which is part of the gig economy. I take on teaching, web and instructional design gigs on a very selective basis. I choose things that interest me and allow me the freedom to work when I want to work and from where I want to work.  Sometimes the work comes from traditional places. I did a 6-month gig with a nearby community college that I had worked at full-time in the past. I have two new web clients for whom I am designing sites and e-commerce stores.

But let's return to what this might have to do with education. Higher education as preparation for a job has always been a topic of debate. "It's not job training," is what many professors would say. Employers have always played a large role in the training and professional development of their workers whether they have degrees or not.

In a gig economy, freelancers have to be self-directed in their learning. They need to decide what knowledge they’re missing, where to acquire it, how to fit it in to their day and how to pay for it. The free (as in MOOC and other online opportunities) is very appealing. Do schools that charge tuition and have traditional classes have any appeal to these people?

Certainly, driving for Uber doesn't require a degree, though having some business training in order to be self-employed would be beneficial. But my interest is more with "professional" freelancers. Take as an example, someone who has some college, certification or preferably a degree, that makes them able to promote themselves as an instructional designer or social media manager. I choose those two because I have done both as a freelancer and I know that if I look right now on a jobs site such as Glassdoor I will find hundreds of opportunities for those two areas locally.

Businesses and colleges save resources in terms of benefits, office space and training by employing these people. They also have the ability to contract with experts for specific projects who might be too high-priced to maintain on staff.

For some freelancers I know, a gig economy appeals because it offers them more control over their work-life balance. In that case, they are selecting jobs that they're interested in, rather than entering the gig economy because they are unable to attain employment, and so pick up whatever temporary gigs they can land. The latter is often the case with adjunct faculty. 

To someone mixing together short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments, where would they go to find additional professional development?

Books like The Gig Economy - with its appealing subtitle offer of being "The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want" - is more interested in real-world corporate examples (Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Etsy, TaskRabbit, France's BlaBlaCar, China's Didi Kuaidi, and India's Ola) as crowd-based capitalism.

The freelancer may not be much concerned with emerging blockchain technologies, but she is certainly part of the changing future of work.

The future is always a land of questions: Will we live in a world of empowered entrepreneurs who enjoy professional flexibility and independence? Will these gig economy workers become disenfranchised, laborers jumping from gig to gig, always looking for work and paying heir own health benefits? How will this affect labor unions, self-regulatory organizations, labor law, and a new generation of retirees who have a more limited social safety net? Are long-term careers at one or two companies a thing of the past?

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company, said, “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine. My kids will have six at the same time.”

The one thing all observers seem to agree on is that the way we work is changing.

Jennifer Lachs writes on opencolleges.edu.au about that changing working world and the possible impact it may have on education. I hadn't thought of it as a gig economy job but of course substitute teachers in K-12 education have long been employed on a freelance basis. The education and training industry is among the top 5 highest demand industries for freelance workers due to the high level of specialization and rise of virtual education.

I know of a dozen or so teachers who do online teaching and tutoring as a way to supplement their income. For decades, professors have done freelance writing and thesis editing and much of that has moved online. My wife and I are currently editing a dissertation via email and shared files along with the occasional phone conference.

The writing center I helped build at a community college has relied on online tutoring for student writing as a way to supplement the face-to-face tutoring. Online appealed to students, but it also offered additional work for some of out part-time tutors and others who added it to the gig list.

Are we preparing students for the gig economy once they graduate? No. 

A friend pointed me at "It’s a Project-Based World" which was a thought leadership campaign by Getting Smart to explore the economic realities of a project-based world. The purpose of the campaign: to promote equity and access to deeper learning outcomes for all students. There are blog posts, podcast interviews, publications, and infographics around the preparation of students, teachers and leaders for a project-based world. The focus there seems to be less on obtaining deeper knowledge, and more on teaching skills that students will need in the modern working world.

Finally, I think that the gig economy will have a greater impact on traditional education than traditional education will have on the gig economy. It accounts for employment growth statistics, but secondary or post-secondary schools don't prepare students for this type of work.

 

Workplace Skills Shifting - Are Colleges Shifting Too?

Jeff Selingo has been writing about higher ed for two decades and lately he has been looking at some of the "big ideas" that colleges and universities should consider. These ideas are through the lens of the changing workplace.

Whether you are talking about automation or the gig economy and the rise of the virtual (what we used to call freelance) worker, the skills required,or at least desired, have changed in two decades.

In the second part of his paper, "The Future of Work," he shows that more than half of jobs expected to require cognitive abilities as part of their core skill set in 2020 do not yet do so or do to only a small extent. 

 

You would think that colleges are always looking at what the workplace want or demands and are changing their courses and programs to offer those things. You would mostly be wrong in that assumption.

Jeff Selingo is the author of three books, the newest of which, There Is Life After College. He is a special advisor and professor of practice at Arizona State University, a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. More at jeffselingo.com

Harvard Partners with 2U for Online Program

Harvard University has perhaps the ultimate university branding in the United States and a multi-billion-dollar endowment and has worked with online course provider edX to offer MOOCs and online courses. But Harvard announced this week that three of its schools would create a new business analytics certificate program with 2U, an online program management company.

I have no real knowledge of 2U https://2u.com and this collaboration between 2U and Harvard caught me by surprise.

Professors at the Harvard Business School, the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the department of statistics in Harvard's main college, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will create a program to teach students how to leverage data and analytics to drive business growth.

Rather than undergrads or grad students, this is aimed at executives in full-time work. It will use 2U’s online platform and will feature live, seminar-style classes with Harvard faculty members.

This is no MOOC. The program will cost around $50,000 for three semesters, with an estimated time requirement of 10 hours per week.

more at https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2017/08/hbs-seas-and-fas-partner-with-2u-inc-to-offer-harvard-business-analytics-program

Defining Personalized Learning

mazeThe term "personalized learning" came up recently in several articles about Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning.”

Their recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) intends to support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs. But they also intend to use a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development. That's a tall order. And not one that has not been attempted before.

In the 40 years I have been an educator, I have heard about personalized learning under terms like individualized instruction, personal learning environment, direct instruction differentiation and even adaptive learning. All refer to efforts to tailor education to meet the different needs of students.

The use of the term "personalized learning" dates back to at least the early 1960s, but definitions still vary and it is still an evolving term. In 2005, Dan Buckley defined two ends of the personalized learning spectrum: "personalization for the learner", in which the teacher tailors the learning, and "personalization by the learner", in which the learner develops skills to tailor his own learning. This spectrum was adopted by the (2006) Microsoft's Practical Guide to Envisioning and Transforming Education and has been updated by Microsoft in other publications.

CZI now has former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton as the initiative’s president of education. It is encouraging to me that he said “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology. In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting... Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer. Forget about that.”

CZI will direct 99 percent of their Facebook shares (an $45 billion) to causes related to education and science, through a combination of charitable giving and investment.

Being in technology, you would expect Zuckerberg to want to put a lot of the money and efforts into that area. That's what happened with many of the efforts that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made in education.

Adaptive learning - which I don't see as the same thing as personalized learning but some people do -  is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. The technology allocates both the human (teachers, tutors, counselors)  and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs. A lot of computer-aided assessment and responses to questions, tasks and experiences direct the next step for the learner.

Adaptive learning technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, psychology, and brain science. Although this approach is not teacher- or student-centered, it does attempt to transform the learner from passive receptor of information to collaborator in the educational process. Adaptive learning systems have been used in education and also in business training. 

CZI realize this personalized learning will extend over decades. They began in December 2015, shortly after the birth of their first child.

The Initiative has invested in BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app, and Enlearn, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has developed a new adaptive-learning platform. CZI has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a $12 million “venture philanthropy” grant award. 

When I was starting my teaching career in the mid-1970s, the personalization was mostly driven by teachers and rarely used technology. 

But how does this fit into the newest version of the main federal K-12 education law, Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunately, our national plans usually only last for only 4 or 8 years (based on administrations), so we never see a cohort of students go through an educational lifetime. The new law does seem to push states and schools to think about more than standardized-test scores when determining what it means to help students thrive.

Do we need a clear and set definition of personalized learning in order to move forward? How does the CZI idea of educating the "whole child" fit into personalizing learning? 

The Internet As Café

caféI was quite charmed last year when I made my first visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. I had in my mind a Romanticized version of the city and its famed café culture. In my imagination, it was people sipping coffee on sidewalk table and talking about art and literature. When my wife and I went for coffee and dessert at the Café Imperial, it was certainly much grander than anything I had imagined.

We did find those little cafés too, so I was able to embrace my Romantic version of the city. There is also the well-documented role of  the coffeehouse in the Age of Enlightenment. These informal gatherings of people played an important role in innovation in politics, science, literature and religion.

Next year, I hope to visit the Café de Flore which is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris. Located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, it is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele. At one time, those tables overheard conversations from existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,  writer Albert Camus and artist Pablo Picasso.

In science, breakthroughs seem to rarely come from just one person working alone. Innovation and collaboration usually sit at the table together. We are currently in a time when, at least in American politics, collaboration seems nonexistent.

This notion is what caught my attention in an interview I heard with Steven Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From.
He writes about how “stacked platforms” of ideas that allow other people to build on them.  This way of ideas coming together from pieces borrowed from another field or another person and remixing feels very much like what has arisen in our digital age.

One example he gives is the 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. It is an innovative album for that time in its use of samples well before the practice became mainstream. Eno was inspired by the varied voices and music and advertising on New York AM radio which was so different from the straightforward BBC radio he grew up with in England. He thought about repurposing all that talk into music.

We call that “decontextualizing” now – in this case a sound or words taken out of context and put in a new place. But this borrowing and remixing also occurs with ideas in culture, science and technology.

Unfortunately, ideas are not always free to connect with each other. Things like copyright and intellectual property law get in the way. We often silo innovators in proprietary labs or departments and discourage the exchange of ideas.

I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had a Club of Honest Whigs that would meet at the London Coffeehouse, when he was in England and they would hang out and exchange ideas.

Johnson describes these as “liquid networks” – not so much for the coffee, but for the fluidity in the conversation. These informal networks work because they are made up of different kinds of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity is not just necessary as a biological concept but as an intellectual one.

The Internet was built on ideas stacked on top of ideas. A whole lot of code and ideas are underneath this post. At its best, when I write online I am connecting, if only virtually, with other writers, artists and thinkers, and connecting literally through hyperlinks to those ideas.

I know there are “Internet cafés,” but what about Internet as a café?