Connecting the Fuzzy Dots

Connecting the Fuzzy Dots – Getting People Back to Work

In my past, I have gone from state level workforce agencies to working for the leading Labor Market Information (LMI) firms to the most advanced talent analytics firms. Along the way, I have been able to survey the labor data, skills data, and talent schemes, as well as college career and technical offerings. Yet, I know something is missing in how we source employees, how individuals find work, and how employers build strong enterprises. What follows are a few reflections on the past and thoughts about the future of linking people, training, and jobs.

Addressing “Employee Dropouts”

Dropout culture appears to have jumped the education-employment barrier.

The pandemic led to the worst U.S. recession in history; today millions of people are unemployed. At the same time, millions of people are quitting their jobs, making the labor shortage crisis more acute than ever. In April alone, a record 4 million people quit their jobs according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. But instead of finding ways to retain and up/re-skill their own staff, these employers continue to look outside their four walls for talent that are lower in terms of talent, credentials, and experience than their own, but are ready to offer them significant premiums.

Paradoxically, we all know someone, or actually many, who lost their job due to COVID19.

Education Technology has been booming, but skepticism about the value of learning and education have also been on the rise, along with lower enrollments and retention rates.

Likewise, employers are now more than ever emphasizing employee preferences and exceptional employee experience, however, the tools implemented on those fronts only do lip service to connecting the skills and preferences of the employee to the overall mission of the strategy of the enterprise, and the learning journey is completely divorced from both. From a policy perspective, most of the training programs sponsored by workforce development resources are focused on occupations that were most impacted by the pandemic, or occupations that have completely changed. There has got to be another way. In fact, I have touched on this other way with my own “data fingers.”

Changing the Unit from Occupations to Skill Shapes

Over the last two decades, I have been on a quest for the building blocks for a whole new work paradigm. We need to have a continuous and synthesized dialogue between external labor market information in all its forms (unemployment, employment, employment projections, labor turnover, separations, job demand, labor supply, education, and training) at the skill level.

Employers will need to benchmark their own performance and talent against the industry and quickly detect emerging skills, opportunities, and risks as they are evolving.

They also need to be able to run informed simulation analyses for capitalizing on these risks and opportunities, be able to quickly do scenario analyses, and then operationalize the strategy and plan into transparent options that are visible to the opportunity seeker in a completely connected, social, and optimized opportunity landscape.

Too Many Tools, Too Few Solutions

Throughout my career, I have seen so many tools built claiming to put the opportunity seeker at the center, but these tools were very often akin to blind shooting. I also saw companies spend millions of dollars on consulting enterprises to build strategic workforce plans, but these often turned out to be pretty charts that do not result in concrete changes on the ground. There has got to be another way. The data infrastructure for a new work paradigm already exists, we need to connect the dots and make it happen.

Up Next: Where It All Began. I will share with you the beginning of my journey into workforce development, and how the sheer size and impact of the Great Recession pushed me to put aside all conventional wisdom in labor market information and explore a new, perhaps a little blasphemous, route.

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Yustina Saleh, Ph.D © 2021

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Trust-as-a-Service (TaaS): Blockchain, Education & Beyond


Yesterday, an announcement was made about the Trust Assurance Network, a new company offering trust-as-a-service (TaaS) for education and other ecosystems, moving beyond blockchain for single solutions for record security into securing wider environments on a network basis. This move is likely a signal of things to come in shoring up the Internet and apps everywhere, but where it can start is in the place that is still somewhat removed from the cloud-at-large, higher education and K12. I have helped advise this company, and find what they are doing a good jumping off point for a larger discussion about the epidemic of Internet deceit.

The Internet is so far out of control, and lacking controls, that it is changing our behavior faster than evolution ever could. It is reshaping us, manipulating our brains, and crushing our long-held operating values that make our physical communities coherent and reliable – trust and truth. As a species, it is hard to function when trust and truth are removed as mainstays of the commons.

These Things Would be Illegal in the Real World

Imagine walking on the street brushing by hundreds of people who are actively following you around, leering at you, taking notes as you shop, grabbing your wallet and using your credit cards to make purchases, taking pictures of you the whole time, bumping into your children, sending out emails in your name, showing up in your children’s social media accounts, sending texts to you, your kids, and your elderly parents. At a community level, or in a neighborhood, this would be overwhelming and thoroughly unacceptable and debilitating, and illegal.

Now imagine there are only a few mega-stores in your town. They are low-cost warehouses where you can shop for most of what you want to buy. But each time you stroll down an aisle, suddenly there are monitors flashing images of what you just looked at, deals are being pushed at you to go back and re-consider. Now, imagine you are being hit up and gamed by armies of people who are showing up from around the world who, all of sudden, know you “socially,” who are trying to influence your perceptions of products and candidates. Paid influencers are making you feel insecure so you will follow them. Now, an election is coming, and you are being targeted slyly by the best and most cleverly devious minds on the planet. They are knitting you and others you know into false narratives and fake news and swaying your political reality and closing off opportunities for millions.

Unfortunately, this unintended nightmare described above has come true. Our digital neighborhood is promising, vexing, and a dangerous place. We place our bets and play the odds every time we use a credit card online, use email, search or sign up for something. In the background, we are all being watched. Many are making money from our data. We literally live in the analogy of glass houses and walk around with streaming video following us. Paranoid yet? This problem has no precedent except in fiction such as Orwell’s 1984.

Being on the Web, in it, buying, communicating, socializing, responding is dangerous. Like walking down a dark alley in a big city, you take your chances. And the particularized aspect of the Web, apps, is even trickier. Once you download one, a whole universe now lives on your cellphone which is essentially capable of spying on you in multiple ways. Whomever wants to is now in your pocket, handbag or hand. Very scary.

When Being Slow is a Virtue, Virtually

As the world on the Web and in apps quickly migrates away from the institutional and cultural anchors that once held society together, there are few places that on their face can be considered truthful and trust-worthy. Places that seem safe and still anchored in a more concrete past of values and practice are rare. But one sector comes to mind, education.

Ironically, because higher ed and K12 are staid, dinosaur-slow to change, and using older versions of software that cannot as easily be data-mined as full cloud systems, it stands one or two clicks removed from the data-mining bots. But that does not mean it is secure.

Quite the contrary, most campus systems and school districts can easily be hacked. They just aren’t at the same rate and with the same visibility as other systems. But they can be and when they are, it does not make the news.

Where higher education is playing a role with trust and truth is thinking about how to securely and flexibly manage student credentials. This is occurring in some school settings as well.

There are three motivations for this move: a) securing students’ records digitally in a standardized way, b) making them available with permissions to third parties like employers, and c) allowing students to transcribe all their learning records and associated experiences such as internships and apprenticeships.

First Mover, Credentials

There are numerous conversations occurring and have been evolving over years at Arizona State University, higher education standards body IMS Global and PESC (Post-Secondary Electronics Standards Council), with current and former higher education registrars AACRAO (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers), and the large uber-standards schema effort run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s T-3 Innovations Network. Then there are historic companies such as Parchment and newcomers like Greenlight Credentials who are actively working this space. The traditional student information systems (SIS) suppliers maybe contemplating such moves, but are far behind in rethinking their solutions with broader service-oriented architectures.

Blockchain, which for many is still a mysterious technology, is simply a way to secure records in a distributed manner and keep track and record many forms of transactions, interactions, communications, or most anything you would do on the Web and in apps that distributed ledgers can help with. It became an obvious first-mover for student records. This beginning could lead the way toward more secure and accountable records in education and on the Web in general for individuals. We all need this. As we have painfully learned, it is not just about online burglary and hacking only, it is about out and out fraud and mimicry to the point no one knows who or what to trust.

But applying blockchain ledgers to student records, while the rest of the campus and the myriad of technologies in education are at risk in a sea of technology solutions, is like applying a band aid to a much larger illness. As we saw in the higher education admissions scandals, systems are vulnerable. By addressing the student records side, which is highly laudable, there now needs to be a much larger conversation about maintaining campuses as trust and truth fortresses. Their futures depend on it.

Beyond Credentials, Trust-Across-the-Campus

Any education system that involves a student on one hand and campus programs, numerous record interactions, financial transactions, or campus tracking of students on the other hand will eventually need to be locked into trust systems. There are two reasons for this. One is risk management. Two is more efficiently and less expensively managing marketing, student success tracking, and alumni relations.

In the future, it will be inconceivable that a campus or school district would run a Student Information System (SIS), Customer Relations Management system (CRM), manage compliance records, official communications with students, and alumni systems outside of a more singular trust system. That trust system will need to assign a single identity to each student. Each student will then manage their data and interactions from their self-sovereign identity accounts.

Elite higher education institutions, at the top end of the prestige, exclusion, and cost factors, are suffering breeches of trust which have called into question the reliability of entrance to our most exclusive institutions. On the other end of the spectrum, where demand is a fraction of what it is at the most elite institutions, another set of problems exist. Students who are not attending college or those who are dropping in larger numbers. No amount of secure digital transcripts by themselves will help either of these situations.

The creation of secure digital records in a trust-worthy ecosystem is a must. The conversation should begin now to move beyond securing learner records and beyond the portability of transcripts to employers or further education. Those records are only one of the spectrum of problems to be addressed. The rest have to do with the campus-at-large and the multitude of solutions it runs.

Why should campus leaders care? For one, trust-across-the-campus reduces the risk for campuses from scandal or the daunting task of maintaining so many different solutions and log ins without error. And, more fundamentally, it enables much richer and more meaningful data to be collected from each student and available to each student. Their interactions, transactions, and communications available from their single identity account (with their permission) takes the place of inferring student needs and behavior from multiple disconnected systems and student success solutions, which are are largely institutional spyware.

A Trust Layer in the Enterprise Ecosystem

Ecosystem trust as a network concept is just emerging. Instead of huddling on separate blockchain life rafts in dangerous Internet waters, there should be more uniform ways, on campus and off, to secure the whole of each student in their relationship within the institutions we rely upon to be the last bastion of truth and trust.

Having had its Wild West days, the Web and apps now need to be part of the next level of applied genius, securing the Web and the restoration of new forms of truth and trust. Likely the will and the dollars are here now to secure what has led the current digital reality to be so very different than the grounded one. Web 3.0 holds out a trusted digital life. New types of digital “trust players” might become common.

But we need to start with islands of security that already exist. Is it is possible to begin this era where these islands naturally occur, in education? Remember, the Web emerged from higher education in the first place.



Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. 

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Unleash the Chatbots! AI for Retention


“Once I realized how big of a problem student retention is in the US, ignoring it and not attempting to solve it was not an option for me.”Claudia Recchi, CEO and co-fonder, EdSights (

What follows is an intriguing look at a technology being developed by recent graduates focused on the very problem they identified and struggled with as undergrads.

It is clear that there is a problem on campus with direct communication between students and an array of services they may not know about, or may not know them. This problem isn’t being addressed by common campus technology.

For a sister duo originally from Rome, Claudia and Carolina Recchi, who encountered many daily information obstacles in the American universities they attended, it became an act of technology and big data faith to “craft” a solution that addressed how young people operate—and also how campuses are trying to reach and retain students, but not sufficiently succeeding.

The result, EdSights, is a start-up with a mission to provide an AI-enhanced direct digital lifeline between students and various aspects of the campus. At its core, EdSights runs an AI-powered Chatbot that is constantly interacting with students based on their data and their interactions.

“Have you seen your academic advisor yet?” the Chatbot might ask. Or, “Do you feel like you belong at your university?” Students are answering, and at high rates. Chat is in their wheelhouse, where the campus systems and offices might not be.

“Part of our job is to be that intermediary between students and universities,” says EdSights co-founder Carolina Recchi. “We collect information from students by engaging them over text messaging and translate it into something that is useful and actionable for the university”.

How Does it Work?

The text message chatbot engages with students throughout the year and asks them questions about their college experience. When it determines that students could use specific help, it connects them to corresponding on-campus resources, like the financial aid office or the career center. While it engages with thousands of students, the chatbot simultaneously clusters students who share common struggles and brings them to the attention of university staff. When appropriate, it also suggests specific next steps that administrators can take to help students overcome these struggles.


Growing up in their native Rome, Claudia and Carolina had dreams of studying in the U.S. Carolina had an interest in big data, and Claudia in high tech. Carolina received a BA in business from Babson. Claudia received her degree in statistics and information systems from Georgetown.

“Because we come from a different country, we viewed US higher education as outsiders. Our college experience was our first time living in the US, so there were a lot of things that we were not accustomed to,” Carolina explains.

Their encounter with U.S. higher ed raised many questions and motivated their quest to build a student lifeline that was dialogue-based and understood what students encounter on campus. They started with a free campus app to facilitate feedback to faculty called ClassPulse. It scaled so quickly, they realized there was a market for a larger solution that wrote the student directly into the campus context, outside of the bureaucratic maze and big campus tech.

“It became apparent to us that while colleges were investing so much in student support resources, students were not really given a voice, and reaching out to the right people for help at school was surprisingly intimidating and hard,” says Carolina.

The Grand Campus-Student Disconnect

They wondered, where is the counterpart to the apps that predominate in consumer commerce, social media, and modern employment? Could there be a solution, or a new class of solutions, that are modern, simple, and elegant in uniting student and campus, based on Chatbot dialogue?

Student are quite different than they were when most faculty and administrators started their careers. With every passing month, information, social interactions, and apps’ culture puts a greater distance between the formal campus bureaucracy and young adults and working adults.

This chasm, the one campus administrations call retention, could actually be seen as a tension between the culture, lives and expectations of students who are dynamic and fluid, and the traditional campus structure that is organized into separate departments.

Administrative departments and academic programs are largely separate silos that may be better organized today than a decade ago, but they not modern by outside standards.
There may be an excess of hubris, or a lack of reflection, in how campuses operate and what they expect from student behavior on campus and online.

Students are often the last people to be considered in the equation of how campuses operate. It’s surprising that they are not the first consideration. This may be a case of technology over-build. Programmatic and departmental offices and large campus technology systems are far from being student user-friendly.

Too Big, Too Out of Touch?

One early campus adopter chose to test EdSights because they felt their campus was not being heard in the ed tech world at large.

“There are so many companies now vying for the higher education technology space. The companies attempt to be all things for higher education—in one package,” says Bernard Franklin, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Life, Mount St. Mary’s University.

“Our university has had many different platforms to perform very different functions. But those platforms were not talking to each other.”

The missing link for the Recchi sisters was a question that is rarely on the minds of campus administrators: “Do we have a primary line of communication with our students?” And, if this question is even asked, it is followed by, “Who would be the rightful owner of that dialog on campus be?”

The technology solutions used by campuses are largely niche software designed to fortify and reinforce the already hugely isolated administrative silos. Campuses are bureaucracies. Each department—whether it is academic, registrar, advising, career counseling, student services, student success, food service, housing—are separate fiefdoms. Each has its own technology or data systems. There are few solutions that can bridge these gaps for students, or provide feedback from the students to the multiple campus departments.

Missouri Western State University was looking for a way to more deeply engage with their students in real time.

“From my experience, most retention solutions employ more of a big data approach, analyzing years of institutional data to build predictive models for each student. While I definitely see the benefit of that method,” says Dr. Paul Orscheln, Associate Vice President, Enrollment Management and Retention at Missouri Western State University.

“I believe assessing a student’s risk levels in real-time and directly involving them in the conversation is a much more personal and relevant way to identify what exactly they are struggling with right now, and to provide immediate interventions.”

Spyware Versus Student Dialogue

For most modern, non-education, solutions on the web and in apps, the user is in a front row seat. Whereas, the technology and data solutions on campus are simply the outgrowth of early technology or even paper and pen systems that belong to each office or department. Examples: The Registrar’s Office (now the student information system, SIS), the classroom and program schedule, assignments and grades (now the learning management system, LMS), and academic advising and career counseling (now in customer relationship management solutions, CRM) are large-scale solutions, not oriented to the student. These systems are not about dialogue, they are central campus control systems.

To get a picture of what is happening with student success monitoring, there is a class of student success solutions that sits on top of the already cumbersome academic tech silos. The student success office does not really cut across the campus functions to get directly to students. Rather, it draws from the student information (SIS) and learning management solutions (LMS) and simply reports on classroom attendance, grades, and academic engagement indicators.

“Those solutions are largely focused on grades, assignments and attendance and not the non-cognitive dimensions of student life,” says Claudia Recchi.

A more radical interpretation would look at student success solutions as a form of institutional spyware that picks up the student data trail and reports it to faculty and administrators and then creates a range of nudges, dashboards, and warnings for students. This is not a back-and-forth with each individual student that would give those students a sense of belonging, and the campus direct knowledge of students’ needs.

It is data analysis minus the actual student interaction – student at a distance.

Verifying the Approach

Education technologies come and go. Some stay longer. Few are rooted in research.

“Before we had our own data to analyze we had to look at existing student success and retention research to really understand which areas to ask students questions on,” says Carolina. “We had to research which questions are most predictive of student success and retention, and what micro barriers impact a student’s ability to succeed.”

They turned a veteran researcher. One look at Vincent Tinto’s Google Scholar page will convince the most jaded of a serious academic who has spent a long career deeply analyzing persistence and retention and the drivers that make students stay or go. While Claudia and Carolina were perfecting their Chatbot’s algorithms, Carolina wanted to square what they were doing in technology with an expert who knew the behavioral data.

Tinto agreed to meet and confirmed that their Chatbot could be a “sustainable and scalable way to hear the voices of the students.”

The first campuses using EdSights like what they are seeing. Missouri Western State discusses their experience in a recent Edsights’ Case Study.

“Having access to the EdSights data allowed our University Experience program to rapidly identify students who were struggling to connect to the University. Once identified we were able to reach out to those students on a personal level from a variety of directions,” says Dr. Mike Ducey Chair, First Year Experience.

What’s in a Name

Everyone agrees, personalization is what is needed on campus, at every level. Of course, the campus can name their Edsights’ Chatbot, hold a naming contest, or simply go with their campus mascot.

Look out for Dom the Eagle, WOWzer the Wildcat, Boomer the Bulldog, Bobby the Bearcat and Gus the Gorilla or whatever Chatbot might show up on a campus near you.


Click here for an interview with Dr. Paul Orscheln, Associate Vice President, Enrollment Management and Retention at Missouri Western State University.

Click here for interview with Edsights’ CEO & co-founder Claudia Recchi.

Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. 

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Mix It Up @ CLOSE IT, the “Crossover Conference”​ Santa Fe Oct 15-16



CLOSE IT 2019 provides thought leaders and innovators from across the country with a learning platform to share, exchange, and partner in developing solutions that drive toward economic access and empowerment at scale. Elyse Rosenblum, Principal of Grads of Life.

“I attend CLOSE IT to learn about the world’s most interesting innovations and thinking at the intersection of learning and work. Connie Yowell,” CEO of LRNG and EVP at Southern New Hampshire University.

What makes a conference on learning, working and labor data worth the time, money and travel, while so many of us are starting to fight chronic conference fatigue syndrome?

If you have this syndrome, it’s for a very good reason. The single sector conferences—higher education, HR, workforce, employment, labor data and career and technical education—are stalling because today to get anything done requires crossing-over.

Crossing-over means a new mix of people from across sectors who have a focus on ensuring they stay up with the “shifts” in learning, hiring and work, but are also actually committed to working through a lens of equity and access. These elements as core measurable commitments are not often found on other conference agendas.

The people in the ed-to-work and work-and-learn worlds ultimately have one or two pieces of the puzzle: great training content, great blockchain credential solutions, great tools linking people to open jobs, pathway badging, and great ways to learn while working. However, those pieces don’t function on their own.

Leaving the familiar faces behind and beginning to mix it up in the “ecosystem” between education, HR, workforce, employers and Federal and state agencies, is a dynamic way to become informed beyond what is known and comfortable.

In reality, this is at the heart of true human capital development. Where, by necessity, many moving parts are all geared toward a common end of equitable employment, quality candidate workflow and excellent aligned training options. But where to go to cross-over?

The conference best geared to cross-over is the CLOSE IT (read “close the gap”) conference taking place this year in Santa Fe (Oct 15-16). CLOSE IT is hitting its stride as people wake up to the need to collaborate to deliver their missions. Individuals in different aspects of the ecosystem know they need cross-sector dialogs and information sessions that are complementary to their own work.

LRNG, is powerful platform for life-to-work skills serving Opportunity Youth. LRNG recently merged with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) where Connie Yowell who heads LRNG and is an executive at SNHU. “The best conferences are the best because of the people they attract and the conversations they ignite. CLOSE IT does a uniquely wonderful job of engaging them community in asking the hard questions,” says Yowell.

This year’s list of attendees rivals the famous Star Wars bar scene in the Mos Eisely cantina, with the likes of Amazon Web Service Worldwide Education, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, McDonalds Education, Chobani, the city program managers from Birmingham, Cleveland, Philadelphia and San Diego, with attendance from as faraway as Brazil and Australia.

“I have been to multiple CLOSE ITs and they are stellar. It is a great cross-section of people from around the the country. The sessions and connections are invaluable” says Peter Callstrom, President and CEO, San Diego Workforce Partnership.

In this mix are the foundations that stand by those struggling to find education and work: AARP, TGR Foundations, AT&T, Ford, W. K. Kellogg, Lumina, and Samueli and research thought leaders including the Brookings Institute, Georgetown University, Aspen Institute and the Urban Institute. The list of participating community colleges, community college systems, universities and workforce agencies span the country.

The Grads of Life organization catalyzes market demand for opportunity youth. CLOSE IT is a perfect venue to look at how opportunity youth can more easily be integrated into the workforce. “I look forward to participating in CLOSE IT to share our latest innovations and to learn from my peers about the dynamic work they are leading to shift the future of work in this nation,” says Grads of Life Principal Elyse Rosenbaum.

The surmise is that real action—especially aimed at equity and access—is more than seeing and being seen in the groups you already know. The ASU GSV conference is heavily pitched toward the capital and venture markets, looking for financial angles. Educause continues its mission to keep higher education CIOs well connected in the vendor and technology sector.

But there isn’t a conference that operates to help build a durable chain from school to college, school to work, college to work, or servicing adult learners and employers who are dealing with tight labor markets.

“CLOSE IT offers an opportunity to connect with ideas on the leading-edge for people committed to addressing the needs of others not benefiting from the innovation economy,” says MIT’s Stephanie Couch, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “I go to meet leaders with fresh ideas that fill gaps existing learning opportunities are not designed to address.”

Taking a look at this year’s CLOSE IT agenda for the October 15 and 16 conference, there is an incredible list of participants who are not just attending to hear themselves speak, but to understand what others are doing and how they can work together.

“We have always said 1+1=3, and previous attendees report that lasting relationships and partnerships come out of CLOSE IT each year,” says Jamai Blivin is the CEO of nonprofit Innovate Educate which has produced CLOSE IT for the past seven years.

“What is surprising to me this year,” Blivin says, “is how many C-levels we have attending. Something is different this year, and many of the people attending are bringing their partners in the SHIFT—not just co-workers but funders, partners and implementors to talk about the real nuts and bolts of changing the market together.

Dr. Mary Walshok, Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Programs and Dean of Extension at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) is active across the San Diego basin both with UCSD but also with a range of programs to bring people the training they need to participate in the economy of today.

“Events like CLOSE IT allow people who are committed to enhancing learning across the lifespan in ways that are effective, efficient, and affordable to come together and share ideas and best practices,” says Walshok.

“Even though I’m a senior administrator at one of the world’s leading residential research universities, the sorts of ideas and practices that surface at meetings like CLOSE IT contribute enormously to who we serve with education and how we serve them.”

If you are a company, institution, institute, agency, nonprofit or for-profit with a solution to link parts of the learning-to-work and back-to-training continuum together, this is the right place to be.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. 

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Generational Transmission: Parenting & Partnering for a Better Future


Book Review: “How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results,” Esther Wojcicki, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019

The Power of Reflection

If you have any time to reflect while you are raising your children, thoughts go through your head. Should I have brought these children into this world? Will I do well by them? Will what I do to them now put them in a shrink’s chair in 20 years?

Like Esther Wojcicki, my wife and I raised three successful, interesting, kind, responsible people who differ from Esther’s kids by being boys and being younger. But Esther’s style of parenting, or appropriately setting the stage for the freedom for her children to develop and evolve, was not contained to her three daughters. It has extended to literally thousands of students who passed through her journalism classes and went on to great things, or soaked up her brand of wisdom as they worked on the award-winning newspaper she championed at Palo Alto High School, the Campanile.

And it does not stop there. Esther’s influence on the young cadre of Googlers as the company was forming in her daughter’s garage and during its evolution is legendary. All of this from a woman who grew up in poverty, suffered losses early, and had an unyielding father from the Old World.

So, while I might lay claim to coming up with my own schemes with my wife for co-evolving with our children, my “n” (number) is confined to three, to co-founding a charter school, and counseling friends about learning with their children. Esther’s “n” is huge. All the more reason to listen carefully to Esther as she has been visited by what only serendipity, fearlessness, and exploration can bring you—if you are open to them.

Esther’s track through life, beginning with her own self-construction, leads to five principles that govern raising her kids, managing her classrooms, and imparting to the young Googlers. This is well-captured in a recent but normal day of teaching for Wojcicki, where the boundaries between news, interaction and opportunity often are a blur.

Before the release of her new book, How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019), Esther learned that California’s newly elected governor, Gavin Newsom, was nearby talking to a group of Silicon Valley moguls. By getting through on the phone to one or two to his staff, something only a journalist-mother-teacher might be able to do, an hour later Governor Newsom spontaneously entered her classroom-newsroom for a rare back and forth with her confident, self-governing journalism students.

Parenting Is Not Only About Kids

No matter how we parent, we are affecting what the next generation is to become. In many ways, the quality of parenting determines the quality of society. If we measure our efforts with our children some of us move the needle forward, some of us leave it in the middle, and others, often because of uncontrollable circumstances, allow the needle to falter and move backwards.

At its heart and in its best sense, parenting, mentoring, or co-evolving (my term) with children is an act of inter-generational transmission, and hopefully, transformation for some aspects in the world.

All young people eventually occupy and contribute to a different world from their parents, but they all bring with them the positive, negative, and neutral experience of “being raised.”

For Esther, the daughter of poor Jewish parents who escaped bigotry and the racial inhumanity of Europe, who as a child experienced the crush of urban poverty in the near-ghetto of the Lower East Side and then suffered a father who did not acknowledge the value of his daughter, and further, who had to bear the loss of a little brother, hers is an inauspicious beginning.

A Well-Developed Will

Esther’s detached communication of will is packaged in a warm and friendly wrapper but nonetheless has very distinct behavioral boundaries. This is something to emulate. As a parent, it is hard to draw lines where you know growth will happen for your child in adverse circumstances, but it takes strength not to intervene, unless it is necessary. Esther mastered this line, observing and propagating it constantly and consistently. I am sure had she grown up in the “privilege” others might ascribe to her now, instead of abject poverty and the experience of a sibling’s death, this might not be so easy to practice in her family, with her students, or mentoring early on in what is now an Earth-changing corporation.

In reading the first section of How to Raise Successful People, this will belongs to a little girl who literally reads her way into a new world. This is a stark contrast to what I saw the day I first visited the grown teacher in her Palo Alto High School classroom. As I entered the classroom, or newsroom, nearly a decade ago, I knew nothing of Esther’s background that I later learned from her book. But I knew full well that her daughter was married to the co-founder of Google and Esther and her husband and children could routinely jump on an airliner-sized Google jet and ski in Chile, or meet a head of state or the President. That was enough to make my head spin.

But that did not square with the Esther I experienced in her classroom, and have since come to know, who clearly was not only unaffected by the sudden wealth and prominence, it likely reinforced her already well-formed sense of self and life even more. Esther has lived her life and so has the family in the economy of money, mind, and purpose that she and her husband instilled in their children when they were without much money early in their careers as school teacher and university professor.

As I watched students come and go seemingly helter-skelter, I marveled at what was hard to describe. What was Esther’s relationship to these students? She was not a peer, she was not an authority figure, and she was not acting as the expert. Yet her school’s newspaper won every award possible. Somewhere in this, as I reflect, was a person who has a pretty good sense of what it means to guide from the side, stay out of the middle, and likely learn from each of her students.

For those who have reviewed Esther’s book and spoken of her coming from a place of “privilege,” I would argue that few who have made those comments lived the first half of their lives “without” at the level Esther did, nor put together the will that carried her, her family, and her students forward.

Esther’s book is pure “Esther.” It is a thoughtful, meaningful, and life-filled romp through the special synthesis of personhood, parenthood, and parent-to-students all carried out with iconoclastic emotional control, enthusiasm, and fun-loving. Her book is designed to set the ground for young people to go forward by co-evolving the armor and attitudes they need to succeed.

Three Books in One

How to Raise Successful People is really three books in one, blending (a) what is a compelling biography, (b) a self-help, lesson-filled set of the five pillars (and more) proven by massive experience, and (c) personal commentary with a subtler sense of what it means to be human, to make mistakes, to be honest, and to affect young people at scale to create positive effects in the world. This makes for a readable, but complex read.

There are reviewers who wished that Esther had written a self-help book and step-by-step guide, with less of her own experiences from childhood poverty, to managing a self-governing course for an award-winning journalism program in a wealthy school district, to the Silicon Valley corporate heights. It is not easy for us relate to these experiences.

However, I would argue that the underlying rules of the road or truths that Esther extracted over her entire life are universally valuable and meaningful coming from her unique personal context, which may have allowed her the lenses and reflection to produce them, to look at herself and her subject from a distance.

We need to know Esther’s path and that of her family to evaluate the depth and merit of her Five Commandments. Being a mother is a complicated, emotional-rational, and bittersweet business, and sharing her path is invaluably delivered in this largely biographical book.

Her blend of lived wisdom certainly affected three (her daughters) as described by them in the book’s forward, but also thousands (her students) whose experience is detailed throughout, and maybe to millions (through her mentoring of early Googlers), as the Google “Mother,” now “Google Grandmother.”

Esther’s Five Commandments

The wisdom, common sense, and every day actual examples (hundreds of them), petty and profound, are synthesized by Esther into five pillars: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness, easily remembered by their acronym TRICK.

As a teacher with daughters who now run YouTube (media for the world), 23andme (genetic self-testing for the world), and an accomplished pediatrician on a mission to end childhood obesity worldwide, Esther is both reporting on her life and summing up what she believes are repeatable, well-thought out lessons she has distilled over her 78 years.

Understanding “T.R.I.C.K.” This is the heart of the book, what is to be read and absorbed, what has been extracted and boiled. It is an essential philosophy for the times and it is both deep and carefully crafted and full of unique-to-Esther anecdotes. In our busy world—from the bombardment of media, the social-technical engagement of our children, the adult pre-occupations that come from wealth, the anxiety of parents in the shrinking middle class or the difficulties facing those in poverty—adopting the five pillars is not easy. Each has its challenges, and equally, their rewards.

Trust, for me, in this reading, is that bond between people of any ages that allows lessons to be learned and exchanged, in both directions, without fear of ridicule, reprisal or being singled out.

Respect, which came as a pleasant surprise to me in co-evolving with our children, is that kids are essentially adults minus experience. They are often as smart or smarter that we are, but simply have not lived as much. Getting them to hear that experience about their possible future is not particularly easy.

Independence, Esther may go to extremes in terms of free-range parenting, but letting life happen and watching little people rebound is both hard and ultimately rewarding, she practically invented this as a practice.

Collaboration, here Esther “shines by her own kind of light” (Waylon Jennings’ lyric), she is a master. Pages 191-199 under the subtitle, Children Hear What You Do, Not What You Say, contains 12 enumerated items that I think are the soul of her book.

Kindness, this is the hardest. It is too easy in today’s world to let it slide away, especially when politics has all but worshipped its antithesis. But it feels so good. And kids can feel this difference if they are secure enough to try it out, repeatedly.

Keeping Us From the “Brink”

We are on the brink of many things in this world: unprecedented species extinction, clean air and water that are growing ever more scarce and toxic, continents of plastic waste swirling in the oceans, a denial of science and human contributions to changes in climate, social and racial exclusion, poverty on levels that readers of these words may not be able to comprehend, to the issue of whether women can manage their own bodies or instead are wards of the state.

Finally, there is the slide downward in education and learning that is removing critical judgment from society, just when we need it most, which could have devastating economic, health, political, and well-being consequences.

We are far away now from the post-World War II order and the Cold War competition, left in the wake of rampant wealth creation by the few and growing totalitarian-leaning governments fueled by this wealth with journalism almost on the rails, and new technologies and media distracting us minute by minute.

These issues cannot be tackled—nor can we fight those who willfully ignore them—without soundly raised or co-evolved children who both teach us as parents as we try to build the platform for them to succeed, enjoy, and make a better world. Esther’s unlikely and unexpected contribution to three, thousands, and potentially millions is a call to action not just about evolving with our children, but to managing ourselves as responsible adults trying together, across generations, to navigate an ever-changing, hopefully, better world.

Journalism plays a role here in a big way. Esther may have influenced and helped evolve solid ground for many of her journalism students who have gone on to do good things and become journalists as well, but she has through her career contributed to keeping the light on the truth.

That said, Esther is a very “human” human, quirky, unexpected, and relentless in her belief in free-range and responsible parenting and very clear on reporting on herself as the backdrop to the guidance she has supplied us in How to Raise Success People. I know few people in the world who have influenced so many by essentially being themselves.

Thank you, Esther.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. 

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Bursting the Campus Technology Bubble Where are the Flying Cars?

Where are the Flying Cars?


Welcome to The Campus Technology Bubble

It may well be time to rethink campus technology. “What’s the deal with not knowing what our tuition buys?” This question was asked over a recent Sunday night dinner by a young former University of California student of a long-time, about-to-retire faculty member.

To senior higher education administrators or trustees this question is generally brushed off as fast as their eyes avert when they’re asked about the function, structure, and size of student debt in the U.S. —debt, which funds a portion of every U.S. campus. These are the uncomfortable questions that live alongside declining enrollments, challenges to survival on many campuses, and high first and second year dropout rates.

Now let’s add campus technology to this already overburdened list: we are long overdue for a review of campus technology solutions and how their fractured nature likely contributes to many of the other problems facing colleges and universities across the country.

The technology solutions that operate modern campuses today exist in a bub-ble sealed off from the natural evolution of every day technology everywhere else but on a campus. In fact, the current core technologies on campus are largely antiquated systems that have been modernized but not transformed.

This means solutions that started on ledgers, then migrated to floppies, then to server rooms, and are now in the cloud, are essentially the technologies that today’s students’ grandparents might have known. The need to accommodate shortcomings resulting from the lack of foresight that allows these core systems to evolve past the boundaries of their original roles, even though they are using the latest programming, has led to the emergence and purchase of layers of workarounds, peripheral solutions to address these issues.

In fact, there are solutions reporting on solutions. This has become a very expensive cottage industry. At a time when we should be looking for cheaper and more form-fitting hybrid solutions, we are still trying to soupup old gas guzzlers.

Playing the Technology “Twister” Game

While CIO and academic technology offices spend much of their time stitching together all the sys-tems necessary to service compliance on one hand and being highly reliable on the other, there is no organization, association, or president’s council in our community colleges, state universities, or even at our most selective campuses actively thinking about where the eventual consolidation, innovation, and evolution will come from.

This problem is exacerbated by the confounding fact that all this technology has yet to produce a unified student tool or toolset to manage daily life on campus, to integrate learning with looking forward to the job market, or mining academic paths taken by alumni and correlating them with their current careers and the courses they themselves took as students.

And, instead of servicing students directly, especially in the face of justified concern over their success and retention, multiple systems effectively spy on them and turn the results over to faculty and deans through yet other sets of solutions attached to the core technologies. This is the Twister game of campus technology.

Finally, in today’s world if students are not in the center of their own lives from a technological perspec-tive, it could be argued that the campus does not have a bona fide relationship with them, which likely contributes to the retention and dropout rates. This is not rocket science, and it should not require the creation of yet another instance of Twister. It should instead be the starting point for rebuilding and consolidating the campus tech stack with students in the center.

The Stakes are High

The technology mismatch would be just an “academic” problem if the issues facing higher education as a whole were not so challenging, troubling, and present. But they are. These problems in sum are problems not only for students, for faculty and administrator job security, they are also critical eco-nomic problems regionally and nationally.

Outside the campus tech bubble, the need for relevant, efficient, reliable, and easy-to-use services is what drives general app, technology, and user innovation – which, in turn, drives the economy.

Unless something hinders that process, new services will routinely remake and replace old solutions. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Tesla are remaking transportation. Unfortunately, there is no effective threat or counterbalance to higher education that will cause such a service to materialize. For now, the only threat is made up solely of students voting with their feet by not showing up in the first place or leaving without a degree.

The Barriers to Evolution

The former University of California student mentioned above who asked the logical and-not-so naïve question about what her tuition bought, like many others, lives on consumer, social, and other technologies that far exceed the quality and utility of campus technology. Ditto for faculty and administrators. How long can this gap exist and who will address it?.

It could be argued that the evolution of campus technology is stalled because of four primary factors:

  1. Inertia, Narrow Perspectives, and Fatigue — There is no effective way to stop and start campus technology all over again. The incumbent technologies are needed daily. The switching costs involved in money, time, and changing behavior are immense. Yet, the problems confronting these institutions are potentially life-threatening to their own survival and to cost containment. Why there is not a clamor for more modern technology is a sociological mystery.
  2. Governance, Authority, and Budgets — There is no effective, overall owner of the campus technology plant and equipment. Due to the programmatic, academic governance, and administrative makeup of a campus, decisions on technology and data solutions are distributed to the silos responsible for the technology solution each programmatic or academic units uses and to the gating of faculty committees. Campuses do not have counterparts to corporate CEOs, so there is no single point of mission ownership.
  3. Lock In, Shut-out, and Lack of Dialogue — The incumbent campus technology companies and their investors spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing, wining and dining, and essentially dissing potential game-changing newcomers. Several modern technology companies that started in corporate, government, and healthcare are beginning to see the campus as ripe for disruption. Corporate giants like Salesforce and Workday that manage integrations through modern APIs will eventually prevail, though they are very far from being tuned into the unique nature of campuses.
  4. No Safe Space for Innovation — While many campuses shelter their students from disturbing points of view with “safe spaces,” there is no space in the campus organi-zation to “try before you buy” technology solutions or to set up dialogues between campus users and testers and developers. While it is common to use expert pan-els and focus groups, that is a far cry from deploying pilots and constant feedback.

Technology Anchors

If you wonder why there is no Elon Musk or Uber of education, it is simple. The cost of entry, slow adoption cycles, lack of a forum for discussion, and nowhere to experiment makes it difficult for an all-in-one, student-and-faulty centered solution to rise to prominence. So far, there is also little financial incentive for the private equity, venture, or large corporate funders to under-take this challenge.

Unraveling the Maze

The Student Information System (SIS) is at the heart of the core technology problem on campus. This is the system of record that manages the official enrollment, program, course, grade, and transcript. It is controlled by the campus registrar’s office. Much like your official file you weren’t allowed to see in the old days, the SIS has been modernized, but the functions remain the same.

The tension over credentialing is just starting. Many learners and worker-learners need broader credential solutions. They do not want to chase transcripts across multiple campuses and certificate and badging programs. This problem will grow quickly and could be the lever for change at the student level, from students who learn in more than one place. Complying with one university, community college, or training provider will become old hat and cumbersome. Many institutions and start-ups are looking at how a person can hold multiple credentials in one place.

Not Your Grandmother’s Ledger

What is unfortunate about the SIS is that it should be, in today’s world, a multipurpose student data and identity system. It should be and could be “the” system on campus and it could also easily “talk” via APIs to all the other systems on and off campus. Instead, it is an anvil of a doorstop in the digital era.

It could function as a portal for each student as their access to campus and pre and post campus. It could shuttle and manage data flow through various systems on and off campus. It could securely manage the data a student touches, utilizes, or produces across campus, including their interactions with other departments and their interactions off-campus in the “real world.”

Unfortunately, this is far from the case. Thus, the SIS, like other systems, currently has a range of peripheral systems that can be integrated to do what the SIS could and should do but can’t. In addition, the student success products, which are generally expensive and leave the student out of the center, are mainly used by campuses to manage what is largely a campus-generated problem.

Student success solutions essentially look over the student’s digital shoulder (spy) and report back to the administration how they are doing by their grades, class attendance, and a variety of other factors. A modern SIS could do all these functions and could also include the student centrally in the process. Why administrators don’t learn from the overwhelming social media, sharing sites, consumer appli-cations, and the app culture when examining what it takes to recruit, retain, and graduate students is another unanswered sociological mystery.

Not Your Amazon of Learning

The Learning Management System (LMS) is the other core campus system. This all important solution is the nexus between student, faculty, programs, courses, content, assessments, and grades. Even the best of the LMSs, and there is one that is substantially superior to the others because of its native cloud functionality, are not data-wise.

In today’s consumer and health world, if you have thousands or millions of people doing essential-ly the same thing on a technology platform, they and their interactions are deeply data mined in real time. There is no other way to produce and improve service in an on-going way. Thus, outside the campus tech bubble, natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are doing the heavy lifting by sifting through data and interactions to look for patterns of success and failure, and areas for improvement. These are not done by ancillary add-on services. They are managed in core products designed for extensibility.

In a modern LMS, the LMS would not simply be made up of calendaring, content delivery, test giving, grade-posting, or faculty comments. It would be first and foremost a data reporting system that exam-ined its functions in relationship to the overall success and failure pattern and trend mapping for each student specifically, times all students generally, in class or a program.

And it would do this across many campuses, analyzing content (OER and publisher) and the effectiveness of quizzes, midterm, and high-stake assessments. This data would be invaluable and it would be linked with the cost of services. Instead, at present this core system must rely on a whole class of analytic products that are either up-sells to the core platform or third-party solutions. And the list of addons is growing. Likely many of these will be absorbed in the various LMS companies through acquisition, but not truly integrated into the code base.

What About Employment, a Job, a Career?

If the core tech solutions (SIS, LMS) could have a rich data dialog mediated by modern APIs, aided by or ignoring the supplementary systems, a base of data would then be available from the enrollment and progress of those students (as well as from previous alumni tracks), and these, through the magic of data-matching and data-mining, could connect with labor data and open jobs in whatever region of the country a student might be looking for work.

This form of linkage is logical and needed.

There is one company, Emsi, that is superb at showing where alumni end up in the economy. Their economic tracking solution is largely used to guide community colleges, helping them determine their occupational programs.

What We Need

A core solution, not another ancillary solution, should manage the career “fit” analysis; it should be part of what the modern core system looks like.

Such a solution would change the nature of academic advising and career counseling—not two separate program offices on campus supported by two separate categories of technology solutions.

Academic advising and career counseling are two sides of the same balance sheet and should be deeply linked. Are we getting the picture yet?

The two core systems, SIS and LMS, and their attendant supplementary systems, Student Success and Analytics solutions, should have a healthy minute-by-minute dialogue via common APIs “talking to each other,” just as advising and counseling should. Unfortunately, this is not the case with most of these solutions because they are separate and in many cases aging code bases that are not “data-first” solutions.

These systems should also be free to connect to the outside world, similarly to students cutting class and going outside the campus bubble because their lives no longer stop at the campus gate.

Why doesn’t this happen?

Likely, because vendors are maximizing revenue by limiting options to campuses. They are not required by the state, regulatory agencies, or institutions to deliver optimal well-integrated solutions.

This is perhaps a possibility for legislatures to consider, especially if the vendor earns more than 50% of their revenue from public institutions.

The LMS only knows the student as a number from the SIS. The SIS does not know what the student is doing within the LMS except for what is reported as an official test score or grade. When an advisor looks at a student’s record, they are not looking at rich data, and there is no accompanying “graph” to help them advise well or to connect their advice to the world outside the bubble regarding future work opportunities.

This is most unfortunate because these are giant workarounds to the way technology works elsewhere. There are at least two companies that are now routinely extracting data from all campus systems and can deliver to end points. One of these companies is able to deliver those data to a dashboard that has an imbedded career exploration tool linked to live jobs and labor trend data. This should not be another add-on, but the front and back door students use routinely.

The Cost of Technology Stalemate within the Bubble

It is unlikely, given the distributed nature of management and governance on campus and the inability to think about how everyday personal technology could guide product development, that these problems will be addressed by campuses. If they were, which happens occasionally through consortia, the solutions would need to take into account how modern technology systems operate and factor in how data science linked to identity can deliver on the promise of education as a platform for lifelong learning.

The cost of not looking for overall solutions that acknowledge the learner is clear:

Faster die-off of wonderful liberal arts institutions, the budget squeeze in the public systems, and the eventual push-in to the academic space by the large tech companies with little knowledge of the subtleties that need to be addressed with students and faculty.

What can be done?

It is not too late to form a higher education futures group that pole vaults beyond the technology twister world of integration and standards, mostly driven by the incum-bents, to consolidated systems through modern APIs.

In such a reworking, adapting some of the incumbent campus technologies and the publishers’ con-tent lock-in could produce an actual ecosystem model for technology and data “dialogue,” and better and more universal data-sharing down to the student level and to universal records.

There is no reason in today’s world to have so many technology work arounds or so little consolidated data going to students, faculty, and advisors.

We need consistency from more central cloud based systems that know the students and their interactions and rely on rich APIs rather than on more ancient integrations and standards that are controlled by education technology vendors and publishers.

Campus Three Column “Value Accounting”

At the center of the technology and data twister problem is the fact that all technology and data work on campus is inherently tactical. It is currently about fitting technology solutions to administrative offices and academic departments rather than to a strategic framework to guide campuses at higher level on their whole mission delivery including the centrality of students.

The campus mission is a blend of service, administration, and outcomes, all of which need to live within a budgetary reality that projects attendance realities.

If the focus is on one-off licensing of multiple solutions, times ten, the end service is not likely to fit what is needed to attract and retain students in addition to bringing costs down and servicing regional and national employers.

There should be inherent mission guidance from the president and trustees that gates the fusion of technology and mission to delivery of services and return on investment.


The Central FocusIn column one, Student, all the costs associated with managing that student can be analyzed and reviewed for redundancy, costs, and effectiveness. This column could have an owner on campus.

There has to be an overall equation that starts with students before they come to campus that includes information and counseling during the recruitment period, and then, without a drop off in intensity, con-tinues once the student sets foot on campus (or starts online).

The solutions that are important to students must be bundled from one access, feedback, progress entry, and continuation point. The campus student app can and must evolve to be like apps in the rest of the world. Student isolation is the condition to mitigate.

Also, from a data collection point of view, if the student’s consumption of services is collected in one spot, these data are more reliable and holistic than “spying” on that student or inferring their activity with a variety of student success tools without involving the student directly.


Connecting Students, Faculty & Labor OutcomesIn column two, Administration, all the overhead expenses need to be evaluated for consolidation includ-ing the production of new core technologies that consolidate in the cloud, through APIs, and gauge the connection between the Student and the Outcomes.

Higher education is top heavy and at the same time everyone generally works hard within their program-matic areas. However, like the Student column, the Administrative column is generally managed through ERP solutions (HR, Finance, Payroll, etc.) that manage the campus budget, spending, resource allocations, and analysis. This, again, is just the modern version of old ledgerware. It should be modernized and serve multiple masters via data and API.

The question of the former University of California student who asked where her tuition fees went should have her answer, continually available and updated.

For those who manage campuses, provide governance, state funding, and accreditation, a dedicated ROI category needs to be part of the institutional strategic framework.


Two Way Program & Labor Outcomes DataIn column three, Outcomes, the question of relevance and connection of the institution’s services to students, academic field, and regional economics has be accessible and accounted for. If not now, these will be regulated, unless an institution goes out of business before this can happen.

The question of relevance and where students go is slowly becoming a strategic issue, as it should be. Whether a liberal arts campus is preparing a student with a solid foundation for many careers, or prepar-ing students for certain STEM careers, where those students end up is critical to account for the efficacy of higher education institutions. This needs to be a separate Outcomes column.

Such economic modeling solutions could easily be adapted to orient campuses and their programs, directly support students and advisers, and point to outcomes that are making a difference for alumni and the economy.

Outsiders Heading Inside

At least two large external players are moving into campuses with increasing commitment and expenditures on sales and marketing. There are others as well. These outside companies have several things the incumbents do not.

They are corporate cloud level enterprise systems with rich APIs that manage an actual well-connected ecosystem of sub-services that are not separate integrations.

The problem with huge outside firms coming in is that they are generally ignorant of the history and functions of existing campus solutions doing what they actually do well from a service perspective. These companies generally do not commit to R & D to become a next generation solution. They are largely sales-driven to the point that there are no internal offices trying to model or understand complete campus needs nor to develop the type of thought leadership that could help lead campuses to experiment until they are comfortable in a new world of data.

The most aggressive and directed of these companies are Salesforce and Workday. Their solutions are compelling but to scale in utility, outcomes, and ROI, a lot more will be needed.

Salesforce provides customer relations management solutions (CRM) to 150,000 corporate and government clients globally with annual revenues nearing $10 billion. This scale dwarfs anything in the education space. CRM systems initially tracked salespeople’s sales activity. Today, the company is the underpinning for tracking people-employees, customers, clients—across all their activities in a corporate, health, or government enterprise. In higher education, this means Salesforce wants to own the student journey from recruitment to attendance to alumni. This type of system creates an expensive but reliable overlay on top of multiple campus systems. However, the solution does not remove the mess of incumbent solutions. The company is still a distance away from understanding the nuances of education institutions as a whole or an inclination to learn more, though they service singular functions well.

Workday is a different kind of solution, but akin to Salesforce. The founders of both were at Oracle. In the case of Workday, the PeopleSoft solution was acquired by Oracle. Workday has gone far beyond the roots of PeopleSoft by entering the top end of cloud computing to manage HR and finances across the corporate, health, and government enterprises. At about a fourth the size of Salesforce, Workday has a promising data rich, API driven replacement for the traditional SIS, called “Student,” which it can link to its world class financial and HR solutions. This would allow it in time to calculate the ROI to questions like, “Where did my tuition dollars go?”

The Bottom Line

Notwithstanding the distance these and other solutions outside the bubble have to go, their value propositions are appealing and numerous campuses are looking for outside strategic cloud services alongside their incumbent and aging solutions.

However, without strategic foresight and experimentation there is no guarantee that such systems will change the retention, dropout, relevance, and cost issues.

Larger strategic dialogues are needed. Just making choices in technologies new or old will not fix the problems confronting campuses.

Flying cars might not be here yet, but cars are rapidly evolving. Higher education needs to catch up and evolve to provide the service that is expected by learners, faculty, and employers.


In 1946, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) became the first fully functional digital computer. Built at the University of Pennsylvania Moore School of Electrical Engineering under the direction of J. Presper Eckert, a Moore School elec-trical engineer and John Mauchly, a physicist for the Ballistics Research Laboratory, its first programmers were female, recognized in this link. The Army was proud of its accomplishment as seen in this press release and newsreel.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. 

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Beyond Schooling: Turning Schools into Learning Centers

What’s in a Name?

Schools and school districts are officially legislated and governed as administrative bodies, not learning bodies. Learning, in many ways, is secondary. Could a simple shift in what we call schools lead to dramatic results? If schools were renamed and reoriented as Learning Centers, could their purpose become clearer and more measurable, for many more students?

Schools, school districts, and state school systems are not required to produce spectacular results. Instead, they must comply with state regulations, follow state content and teacher contract guidelines, and perform to annual testing and data compliance standards without breaking laws. Although year-to-year improvement is desired and included in strategic plans, it is not required, enforced, or evaluated (e.g., as grounds for terminating leadership).

Nor is there official achievement goal-setting for which a state holds a school or district accountable, largely because all governance is local. The guiding principle in discharging the K12 administrative responsibility is “best-efforts.” Certainly, bottom limits to school performance and financial integrity do exist; when reached, the state may take control.

Yet, maverick educators and boards that take the initiative are free to make their schools or districts the best they can be: become highly competitive, win awards, and join national rankings. Examples abound of such institutions across the country at all levels of funding, from least to most advantaged. Most of them are managing, measuring, monitoring, and mentoring for outcomes from each and every student.

While rare, there is an intangible mix of chemistry and drive present when a school or district beats the odds and delivers equitable access to high quality education. We revere these schools and districts, but they are outliers—relatively few students and families, out of millions, have such advantages.

Of the nearly 100,000 schools and 13,000 districts in the US, many are burdened in multiple ways and are challenged to simply keep the doors open and lights on. Furthermore, managing staff, students, transportation, and food service often requires a near-Herculean effort given funding, labor, and support constraints.

Schools, a Difference in Kind

Schools and districts differ from other organizations and institutions in this country and from their counterparts globally. School districts are culturally embedded in every community; they literally grew from the ground up across the country. In most other countries against which the U.S. is measured, education is national, designed with clear strategic objectives for all institutions and outcomes for all learners.

Also, unlike other occupational or labor categories, there is no widespread, generally accepted guidance for U.S. schools as agents for the transfer of knowledge and experience to young people. Oddly, there is also no real understanding of why the current curriculum even exists as it does.

Unlike health, medicine, social service delivery, or psychological services, no scientific framework, economic theory, or body of knowledge exists for K12 education. The only official measurements are the blunt, year-end content standards tests and, in highly competitive high schools, external test scores, placement rates in highly selective colleges, and national rankings.

One way to think about meaningful outcome measures would not be in terms of high school grades and placement in higher education, but how many students subsequently complete college, gain employment, or begin a career.

Other professions and fields look to scholarly research and investigation for evaluation based on established standards while considering the shifting nature of each field. This is not the case with schools of education, which focus intensely on producing professional educators; they do not examine the nature or practice of education itself. Nor is the structure of schooling questioned. In every other discipline, if the structure and context is not producing results, alternate structures are explored and old ones replaced.

Instead, schools of education concentrate on the formal structure of grade levels and student grades as well as on maximizing existing staffing and adhering to required subjects and standards. Rarely would they be investigating and arguing for new forms of education even in light of little evidence of improvement in many urban and rural systems across the country.

While schools of education may not be looking beyond the structure of schooling, other academic research disciplines play a role in education and learning. Psychologists, by comparison, study learning in relationship to the brain and surrounding behavioral and psychological conditions that inhibit or promote learning. Sociologists and economists take a wider, social, economic, and demographic view of school environments and sum up statistically the overall progression of students into society and the economy (or, in the bleakest scenario, regression out of society into prison).

Learning science is a promising new field, but has yet to gain widespread acceptance or methods. In sum, no entity owns or studies learning as the primary outcome of education.

When the Best of Status Quo is Not Good Enough

In the absence of a scientific basis for schooling and with no formal requirements for governance beyond local lay boards, the direction of schools and education is largely formed by consensus among those who are willing to contribute to it and those with more self-serving motives. As a result, schooling is governed by committee, not by evidence or enforced best practices.

We would never stand for other public-serving systems, such as health, medicine, social services, tax collection, departments of corrections, or even motor vehicles to be run by lay boards elected by a small percentage of regional voters.

With no scientific input, there are few methods for improving on the status quo systematically. Typically, sides are drawn on issues, arguments tend to have equal weight, and decisions are driven by whatever opinions are put forth that carry the majority. In the best cases, there are agreed upon standards and the school community does its best to attain them.

However, not even the best of the status quo—think top 100 schools or districts in the country—have broken this mold. These out-sized performers continue to be gauged by adherence to state administrative guidelines, state tests, and AP, SAT, and ACT scores.

Administrative State versus the State of Learning

The current framework for American K12 education could be described as an “administrative state,” with all oversight and compliance functions aligned with state-defined performance and expenditure guidelines. However, such compliance by itself has no direct relationship to the measurement and quality of education delivery and the resultant learning and growth of each student, in or beyond school.

Could a learning center concept, rather than schooling, incorporate new measures and procedures while at the same time satisfy the formal and informal requirements of practice in the administrative state? If so, learning centers would move from an administrative-only model to what could be called “a state of learning,” or learning state as the governing principle for K12 education.

If schools and districts became “learning centers,” their outcomes would be easier to measure because the learning center would be based on measurable learning outcomes, not approximate ones, and its delivery methods could have equity and scalability as twin objectives, also measurable, because by design every student would be directly connected in this model.

Unfortunately, the administrative state relies on and promotes “best practices.” This is an aspirational top-down, approximate tool or methodology not meant to be enforced or to reach each student directly. Best practices are amorphous and difficult to measure because they are not tethered to each teacher and each teacher to every student.

In contrast, in the learning center, based on the state of learning model, practice-level activity would be about constant, ubiquitous, and equitable connections, interactions, and communications. The model would be horizontal, not top-down—connecting students, teachers, parents, staff, and administrators while still fulfilling the administrative compliance activities of schools and districts.

Administrative management would be understood to be about compliance and enforcement in general, learning management about guaranteed connections and interactions with all students.

From Administrative Practice to Ubiquitous Connections

Ubiquitous connections mean that everyone is directly involved, and no one is left out of the education and learning equation. This includes all students, teachers, staff, families, and administrators.

Ubiquitous connections also mean connections directly to the learning or content standards, to learning content and small assessments, as well as to state-mandated tests in math, English language arts, and science.

If the connections are established between students, the content standards, and their assignments and assessments, it would be possible to move to a central tenet of the learning center, learning outcomes management. Everything to be learned in a school, by every student as well as those teaching and supporting, could easily boil down to measurable elements.

Unfortunately, the technology and data systems in schools are 100 percent focused on complying with the administrative requirements of the state, not working to ensure every student is equitably serviced. Most of the systems of record in education, such as the student information system (SIS) that records grades, attendance, and emergency contacts, are designed to serve administrators and are not even available to parents and students. The same is true for learning management systems (LMS) and customer relations management solutions (CRM).

These traditional technologies are simply the evolution from grades and attendance in ledgers to floppy discs, to servers in IT shops, and finally to remote servers. Nothing has changed except the location of the files. Other technologies are used for improvement, but they are not tracked and connected to each student’s performance, and the results are not uniformly shared with students and families.

The existing technology solutions merely enhance the administrative-centric controls, as opposed to branching out and servicing each student, teacher, and family as might be expected from modern software.

Thus, the administrative model cannot possibly service every student equitably. In the learning center model, using learning outcomes management, every student, as well as his or her family, is part of the learning, education, and administrative process and allows shared ownership of learning. The technology to do this is certainly available; just take a look at your smart phone.

What Will It Take to “Flip” the School, Not Just the Classroom?

The Learning Center model, within the state of learning framework, measures, manages, monitors and mentors based on learning outcomes management (LOM), which takes every state standard, every student and teacher, and every test, assignment, and project and manages them digitally in a modern system that works with (through APIs), or replaces, the legacy systems of record in the administrative state.

Schools and districts that have already adopted or are committed to Competency Based Education (CBE) are perfect candidates to extend their CBE methods and practices, which are closely allied with outcomes, into more modern outcomes technologies. This could include universal or longitudinal transcripts that manage daily experience as well as wider non-school experiences and certifications.

The political will to serve all students equally is required to make the transition from schools to learning centers. In the meantime, there is nothing stopping brave and committed teachers, boards, families, employers, app developers, and others from collaborating on inclusive, data-rich models that support the learning process of every student and family.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. 

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Meaningful data about the success of schools is at our fingertips – if only we would compile it.

Schools are many different things.They are that next ring out from home life where community and families bring their children into the world. On the other hand, schools are mandatory attendance institutions that are arms of local, state and federal laws and funding.

And schools and districts play multiple roles: babysitting children during the day so parents can work, providing a vehicle to socialize beyond the family and offering an environment where mind, body and character can develop.

In the best-case scenario, schools challenge students to push beyond their boundaries. In the worst case, they are warehouses that can easily lead to the streets and to jail.

How should we measure schools, and for whom?

Schools generally take a short view. Annual rankings by GPA, test results and percentage of college acceptances are crude measures and poorly reflect the intellectual – and character-building capacity of a school district.

The numbers that shine come to the front: top students, top athletes, stories against the odds. The rest is suppressed: dropouts, drug problems, problems with the law, inequities in delivering services. Still, none of those measures go beyond school itself, without looking at the outcomes.

The state houses lots of data on each of us – where we work, how much money we make and where we attended school and college. This data is rarely organized to show how one district or its schools compare to others based on the long-term outcomes of their students.

Organizing this information to inform local and regional schools and districts would not result in the outing of personal data – it already exists, but could be much better organized. This would be valuable trend data devoid of identifying information and would show us what results our schools and districts are producing.

The National Student Clearinghouse, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, follows students from high school through college. It shares their data with school districts for a hefty price. Most districts do not share it with parents or the community. It is one thing to know if students go off to college, another to know whether they complete it.

In Monterey County, two data-oriented organizations provide useful data. Ed Results, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, is contracted by the state to measure the outcomes of students. They bring the data together from school, community college, university and the California Employment Development Department. Educational Results Partnership can tell us the yield of a school district, community college or university in terms of college completion and employment.

The Monterey County Office of Education and our school districts should get together and look beyond graduation to deliver what all parents hope for: students who succeed in life beyond school.

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California Dreaming: Addressing the Training-to-Work “3-Body Problem”​

By Gordon Freedman

California needs a living, breathing laboratory to experiment and pilot, fail, and try again to solve the three-body training, searching, and hiring problem. This will require stepping out of the well-established comfort zones held by institutions, employers, and foundations to look for common solutions to a common problem across all the sectors in the state.

The Steady-State Economy is Gone

Twenty-five to a hundred years ago, the economy existed in what could be described as a labor, training, and employment steady-state. Early in the 20th Century, physicist Albert Einstein, once a steady-state believer in how the universe operated, created his two relativity theories and physics changed forever.

We now face a similar situation in the world of training, job-seeking, and work. We have transitioned out of a steady-state environment where skilled labor was largely represented by unions who saw to the training and advancement of their members and employers who described their employment needs concretely. While this world sped up between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, the ground was still relatively stable. People knew what the jobs were and what was needed to be qualified.

During that period, schools provided the first cut, sorting students into either future blue-collar workers who would not need a college degree and or future middle-managers and professionals who would need a college pedigree. Now, thanks to the information age and the rapidly accelerating digital and algorithmic era, all these worlds are tumbling in a relativistic free fall.

The Relativistic Economy Defies Prediction

The life of learning, training, and work is now relative; someone could be doing data entry at a medical facility one day and decide the next day to pursue a medical degree.

The number of factors effecting types of work and its volatility or stability can no longer be predicted or tracked accurately. Furthermore, the types of mid-skilled work that are in high demand are generally opaque to jobseekers, hidden from view in the blur of the new economy.

The nature of work has changed so radically that even the line between blue-collar and white-collar work is losing definition, as are pay scales. A person doing high-end programming, classically a blue-collar keyboard job, can make more than a mid-level or first-level senior executive.

Unfortunately, there is no mechanism in the era of hyper-social media to explain the multitude of existing jobs or the training required. The popular conception of the types of jobs that exist is likely a holdover from how baby boomers and their parents thought about traditional occupations.

The largest factor effecting job unpredictability is the rate and type of jobs that are being removed due to automation and artificial intelligence (AI), which, in turn, is creating new types of employment. Add to this the labor and economics reality that unions are at the end of a long retreat in the skilled trades, while, unexpectedly, mid-skill jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree are again expanding rapidly.

Overcoming the “Three-Body Problem”

In the relativistic economy, people, training, and jobs are floating variables that are not defined by data standards or tracked uniformly in one ecosystem or technical solution. And there are no owners, stewards, or guides as there were in the past.

Instead, there are fractional participants who represent one aspect of the employment-training, job-seeking triangle. By contrast, in the consumer, social media, and commercial sectors the various participants in those markets are exposed to each other every second by algorithm and shared benefits. The effects are powerful and scalable.

However, in what can be described as the employment-education-jobseeker “three-body problem,” no such mechanisms have emerged. The three-body problem, also from physics, describes the fact that there is no mathematics that can accurately describe the gravitational interaction of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. Physicists from Isaac Newton to Henri Poincaré struggled unsuccessfully with this mathematical problem.

Likewise, the motions and directions in the employment, training, and jobseeker information space are equally complex, and defy the direct application of algorithms with any accuracy. Technical solutions that could describe and further each of these roles is held back on one side by institutionalism and on the other side by technology and data solutions that struggle with making two predictive calculations well, let alone three.

Achieving a unified solution across the training-searching-employment three-body problem is also impeded by the technology at community colleges, universities, HR departments, and workforce development agencies which, through no fault of their own, is fundamentally “yesterday.”

These technologies and data systems are old, brittle, and cannot interact with each other because their lineage is from ledgers to floppies to servers to remote servers. And, most importantly, they were not made to interact or report to end-users (students, jobseekers, faculty, or HR personnel).

Thus, the legacy programs and projects are nowhere close to being integrated cloud solutions, like the ones that power social, commercial, and consumer apps. Those apps were, and are built, tested, and re-tested from the ground up with users in multiple focus groups.

In higher education learning management and student information systems, just as in employer HR systems, the end-users—students, jobseekers and employees—are almost always the last consideration.

So Goes California, So Goes the Nation

In a large state like California, despite a robust economy and its global economic position, many people are still out of work, or employed but locked into dead-end jobs, while the cost of living is rising. This stagnation hits disproportionally harder on those near or not far above the poverty line, disproportionately impacting the large Latino population and the largely urban African American population.

Thus, intelligently addressing the California education/training-to-work pipeline is an economic and social imperative because it affects everyone in the state. Unfortunately, institutional, agency, and policy solutions alone are not the most effective means for change, inclusion, and public understanding.

There may be mechanisms to adjust for this situation, but they are not going to come directly from the institutions, agencies, or practices that have participated, perhaps unknowingly, in the construction of the social inequalities and economic barriers in the first place.

The use of modern information and data technology tools and solutions to identify training opportunities is desperately needed. Such tools can be married in real-time training with aligned employment opportunities to guide people in need of employment or better employment.

Building a California Laboratory for Training and Jobs

California, because of its global prowess in technology and media, has the native means for such technical transformations, but none of the methods or collaboration powers to carry out such work. To work collaboratively across the commercial and public sectors requires leadership and risk and the recognition and drive for shared results. The state has done it before in other areas.

Within the 114 community colleges, 23 California State University (CSU) campuses, 75 workforce investment boards (WIBs), and myriads of foundations each working on some aspect of the equity barriers to appropriate training for available jobs, there is a lot of untapped potential.

To release this potential will require that new organizations, virtual and data-rich ones, self-organize under mutual leadership to unite the traditional education and training institutions with the economic and change-oriented powerhouses in the California economy.

Until this happens, most individuals in the state who are unemployed or under-employed will continue to confront difficult decisions with imperfect information, no useful overall communication or information channels, and no mechanism to receive streamed opportunities about training and jobs in their social media accounts.

Since there is a lack of reliable, education-labor market data and information in a form that can be consumed on a smart phone and learned about through social media, there is no way to hear about opportunities, study linked training materials, become certified or badged and apply for, or be recommended for work, all in one solution.

Certainly, there is a table big enough in the state to gather all the stakeholders, including those searching for work, with California’s higher education institutions and workforce agencies and have them all interact directly with the iconic California brands in the tech, bio, research, manufacturing, agriculture, and media industries.

A human capital laboratory is what is needed in a state that knows how to innovate. This should not be impossible. We are talking about the California Dream after all.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc. He also was the executive producer of the documentary about physics professor Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.

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