Do School Board Elections Matter?

Those of us who work in education, take our children’s and our community’s education seriously, and worry about how our economy will hold up long enough to support us in old age need to take school board elections seriously.

Once in the ballot booth or staring at the early or absentee ballot, the names of school board candidates often look similar making it hard to decide. It’s likely that many just skip this section. In small communities, like the one in which I vote, such elections are often an extension of school itself. Popularity matters. Professional qualifications to be a fiduciary on tens of millions of dollars does not seem to matter as much.

School districts are unusual entities. They are unlike nonprofit and for-profit corporations where the board steers and owns the responsibility for the corporate entity. In those cases, board requirements are often stringent and come with training and a clear understanding of the legal liability held by board members. On the other hand, school boards and corporate boards are similar in that they hire and fire the chief executive officer or superintendent. This is a key role of all boards: measuring and evaluating the chief executive and the people they supervise.

However, unlike nonprofit and for-profit boards, school boards are not held accountable for the product of schools—the performance of their students in school, and hopefully well into the future. States publish school ratings and rankings based on annual tests. Generally, there is little consequence to superintendents or principals if those numbers go down. Only infrequently would a school board work to make sure benchmarks are in place and to a call for an investigation if performance slips.

Yet, people when voting for school board members often judge prospective board members by generalities made about the quality of schools, the size of classrooms, academic and occupational tracks, and hopefully, the equity. In the end, it’s who you know or feel comfortable with, not necessarily about whether all students are given a chance to succeed.

In our small town, we have four board members running for two positions. One is a ten-year incumbent, a doctor. Two are very active and have been for years in the PTO and other school and community activities. Knowledge of the local setting is critical. However, most non-school boards look hard to recruit professionals. Lawyers, accountants, and executives bring a healthy and seasoned counterbalance to those board members who are an extension of the school because of their involvement with the school as parents or as retired teachers or staff.

The message here is that school boards need to be as professional as possible so that measurement and outcomes, fiscal responsibility, strategy, and contingencies are well managed to ensure stability for the schools. That stability is what allows strong leadership, committed teachers, involved parents, and motivated teachers to thrive. It’s not enough to care and contribute. The professionalization of school boards should be a community responsibility

Read More

OER @ 16, “Where are You?”

By Gordon Freedman, President, National Laboratory for Education Transformation.

The purpose of this post is to tease apart the Open Education Resources movement (OER, globally available knowledge in free form), for its own sake, from the intent to improve education and personalize learning (structured education and structured personal learning). While the former is assured by now, the latter has not really begun. New and better teaching and learning models are desperately needed in K12 and higher ed, and OER can be and should be playing a major role. But to do so, the field of learning design, content management and personal analytics needs to embrace better processes for OER creation, use, tracking and re-use. This transformation will need to start with the application of data science to learning content, personal use and education outcomes.

The Leap to OER, Sweet 16

When the OER movement started, it had all the promise of a makeover for the world of learning in an open and free way, like what open source code brought to the world of technology development. Since its inception, OER has taken on an almost global religiosity about its intent and purpose, and its opposition to the for-profit textbook and academic journal publishers. Due to that zeal, some very good and truly great things have happened by freeing knowledge and learning content, shared around the world, unmoored from its traditional anchors in academia and commercial publishing. In many ways, the promise of OER stopped at the doorstep of making a structural difference in education (although it did radically transform academic journal publishing in a quiet and profound way).

There is no question that generous seed-funding and the foresight of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation started OER down the path of making knowledge free and ubiquitous globally. From the Foundation’s kick start in 2002, OER has not let up. Also, in 2002, MIT boldly launched its Open Courseware (OCW) initiative, turning loose its entire faculty’s instructional content to the world. The OCW historic first webpage was an act of higher education machismo. It set the academic bar and issued a clarion call to other institutions.

The other critical lynchpin for OER, also in 2002, was the issuance of the first Creative Commons (CC) open licenses. Like OER itself, these licenses followed the General Public License (GNU) of the Free Software Foundation, and led to a parallel licensing universe for open content. If MIT and Hewlett were the battering ram against the publishing establishment, CC licenses were the tips of the intellectual property (IP) spear.

Stanford faculty member Lawrence Lessig’s tireless efforts to establish a framework for the Creative Commons opened the way for governance in OER and license types for building, or not, on previous works. Again, Hewlett Foundation funding at a sufficient level lubricated the machinery of change.

The Hewlett Foundation, the Melon Foundation, MIT, and the Creative Commons provided a formidable intellectual property challenge to textbooks and academic publishing. Similarly, the robust efforts of the UK Open University’s offering, Open Learn, grew from its beginnings in partnership with the BBC. In 2002 as well, UNESCO held the 1st Global OER Forum, from whence the acronym “OER” was formally adopted.

Where Are We Today 16 Years Later?

What has taken place over the last 16 years is the establishment of a global movement for free learning materials that manifests itself in practically every country on Earth. Open knowledge is flowing, albeit in a self-organizing way. There are many open OER repositories, products, and services that utilize OER, and even the most commercial textbook and academic journal publishers incorporate OER materials. Similarly, a whole field of open textbooks, open learning modules, and OER resource sites abound. And the stepchild of OER, MOOCs, are relatively alive and well as intentionally designed and developed massive open online courses. Now a global standard for open learning, MOOCs have seen impressive commercial, university, and nonprofit investment.

For the small group of players who formed the movement and are still active, it is a rewarding accomplishment to see OER in use worldwide. However, for those devoted to the replacement of textbooks and lowering the costs of learning materials, the OER promise isn’t as bright. Also, there exists a tension between freely putting any type of materials, at varying quality levels, into the public domain—the religion, and those who look to the efficacy of these materials and the evolution of true high-quality learning goods and their effects—the science.

Here, the movement lags behind other OER categories and the publishers. Outside a few well-funded efforts, OER materials are generally not tagged, tracked, or part of an academic community effort to accelerate the quality of education and learning, or even establish a systematic ability to search and retrieve the best of OER globally. There is no global OER repository search, though there have been a number of attempts.

By contrast, in their closed world, publishers move forward with little transparency managing the market testing, development, editorial, marketing, and publishing very carefully. They are matching well developed content to very specific needs in the market. They are experts at this.

OER, to date, is not. There are either a very small number of well-developed implementations or there is open content randomly produced. For education purposes, the publisher developed content may have restrictions on its use and the more random OER content is hit or miss in finding it and determining its quality, utility and past history. So, on one hand you have the lockbox of publisher content and use data, and on the other, you have an array of millions of bits and pieces in the OER ocean.

In both cases, education loses. Education cannot get access to the data locked away in publisher content and assessment use-data. And it can’t make wide use of OER because it is not tied into a system like the publishers’, where quality, authorship, editorial, marketing, and publishing processes know how to find what is most appropriate, apply it for the best effect, store the results, and make it easy to re-use. Even the staunchest proponents of education OER, must hunt and peck to get materials assembled for their own classes. Maybe this is okay, but it does not scale where it is needed most.

There is a battle to produce more and better educated people. This battle needs all the help it can get. If it is not coming from traditional publishing or from the OER movement, where can we can that scalable help come from?

What About the Rest of the Content in the World?

In the 16 years since OER sprang into action, the theory and science of content deployment on the open web, in closed sites and in apps, has advanced as fast as any existing technology-data-processing field. Astoundingly, the five largest companies in the world by market value are Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook. These are largely companies that have services that are tied together using content managed by data science. The same is true of YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the list goes on.

How is it conceivable that these advances haven’t been visited on the OER community?

The Hewlett Foundation and Stanford, literally a stone’s throw from each other, are the beneficiaries and the generators of a great deal of Silicon Valley success. MIT is arguably at the pinnacle of engineering institutions in the world and is committed deeply to education. Yet, the keys to content kingdom – natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI) – which are the brain children of the best universities or university educations, haven’t picked up the reigns of sorting through what learning resources belong with what education operations for what students toward what careers.

Expedia can knit together pathways for travel from multiple databases in seconds or Zillow can simplify locating a house to buy as it tracks all the houses for sale in the country and their prices and their likely sale prices. This type of data and content work is no longer rocket science.

OER, Where Are You?

OER is not alone in not having moved ahead with precision. The education publishers are not in this brave new world yet either. They don’t have to be because their education publishing models are still opaque and secure from change, largely because OER is a huge, disorganized cottage industry, unlikely to displace the central publishers. The caution in this is that the academic journals business did upset the applecart. And the reigning success of general OER as ubiquitous knowledge distribution globally is now evenly spread across developed and developing nations.

In education OER, there are two shining examples of OER at its best in the education world. OpenStax from Rice University in higher education and the Khan Academy in K12. Each is a gold standard within its domain. OpenStax produces open textbooks that rely on the same diligence of commercial publishers. They can do so because of the ample support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Arnold Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and others. The business model is not yet here for open textbooks. It may never be, and that might be okay. This is subsidized publishing.

The Khan Academy evolved from Sal Khan working out of a closet in his apartment (I took my son to visit him there in the early days). His global operation and K12-focused US efforts are thanks to generous funding from the Gates Foundation and gifts from Silicon Valley icons John Doer and Reed Hastings, who also gives to OpenStax.

These models are great, but they are a long way from being replacements for publishers. They are not the open web of knowledge automatically offering up a way for the bits and pieces to find each other for specific applied purposes or specific learners or jobseekers, at scale.

What Next, OER?

All this is possible, but it requires a second wave of OER research and development. If the creators and funders of OER want to change education at scale in an equitable and effective way, not just spawn learning resources generally and park them repositories not known to most educators, it will require a marrying of what Silicon Valley has wrought with what educators and learners need most.

Gordon Freedman is founder and president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to creating “processing parity” between modern social, consumer, commercial, and financial solutions and apps, and those that are used in education, training, and learning. Freedman was part of the beginning of online learning, education technology, and open content, and in preparing for this post went back and talked to many of pioneers in OER, education technology and the traditional publishers.

NLET is working with data scientists, advance search firms and higher education institutions in experiments aimed at turning learning content into data that can match up learners, content and labor opportunities.

Read More

The Lone Ranger Rides Again at ASU+GSV

The ASU+GSV conference in San Diego—where more than 4,000 people gathered this month from the education, edtech, publishing, venture capital and private equity sectors—is a hard conference to describe to typical education professionals, or to teachers who are on strike in states across the country.

That’s because the conference is mostly about the competition and success of private equity venture capital, about established and rising vendors, angel funders and start-ups—and not directly about success for learners or annual improvements in school performance or bachelor’s degrees production. Rather, the critical measurement for the conference is deal flow, investment and financial ROI.

Conference participants skew white and male, and egos tend to be outsized. The atmosphere is festive. Meanwhile, in the everyday world of schools, colleges and training programs, multitudes of students are struggling, educational institutions are challenged and employers are straining to find or train the workers they need.

Yet each year as the conference grows and deals flow, completion rates and other performance metrics are not rising, and certainly not in proportion to the amount of private, foundation and government capital invested. Why is this?

The reason might be cultural, and calls to mind “the Lone Ranger,” which endured on early TV from 1949 to 1957. American profit and revenue are often attributed to the outsized efforts of strong CEOs, lead financiers and highly-competitive companies. This culture of capital is alive and well in the education market, where solo operators routinely try to beat the odds of financial success. Maybe there are too many Lone Rangers, all focused on landing the big one, getting the pat on the back and moving on.

Without better education and economic outcomes across the socioeconomic frontier, we all lose

—Gordon Freedman

In the U.S., education and training involves a mix of institutions, agencies, foundations, corporations and financial institutions all working independently, each trying to make it. While revenue generation and the nonprofit sector funded by it are indeed exceptional mechanisms, they are not inherently about moving the needle for the millions of Americans who need to succeed by getting a mind-expanding education or skills-expanding training.

Without better education and economic outcomes across the socioeconomic frontier, we all lose. We are already suffering from a lack of new people coming into or being helped into the workforce—a result of poor education and training outcomes. And we are going to experience a devastating demographic shift that will result in a larger proportion of retirees and fewer, less well-educated wage earners. This is a cliff we can go over one-by-one, or we can find ways to collaborate.

In Europe, Russia and Asia, education, training and work exist in a much more holistic system, with greater cooperation among the various participants and more focus on the whole, connected culture of education, training and regional economic success. In those countries and regions, there are key agencies that champion a more-cooperative, human-capital approach driven by organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Union. The OECD is a case in point. The U.S. makes the largest investment in this human capital capacity-building agency, but utilizes its output the least.

We Americans are much more likely to try to innovate our way out of social, economic, education and labor issues. But there is an inherent problem with this strategy, and it is on view at each ASU+GSV gathering.

To make it as an ed tech start-up, to grow into a successful online institution or company or to maintain a dominant position, sales must rise, and do so quickly and constantly. The targets for growth must therefore be the low-hanging fruit, the largest opportunities, and those most ready to buy. That’s business.

Unfortunately, in the world of education, purely commercial targeting cuts out those who need it most: school districts, community colleges, workforce agencies in economically challenged neighborhoods, prisons where most inmates are high-school dropouts, and four-year colleges in economically depressed, or in ethnic and racial depressed communities.

Many in the commercial and lending world feel that foundations and nonprofits, the beneficiaries of excess revenue, can handle the underserved areas, including urban centers, rural outskirts, tribal nations and the rust belt, freeing up the companies to go after the more lucrative and easier markets. But this is not the case. The best of the foundation and nonprofit programs routinely fail to spread deeply into the communities where we need to produce tomorrow’s workforce and strengthen the social fabric. We are yet to mint a nonprofit business model that does this complex, heavy lifting.

Is it possible to compete and cooperate in education markets? Could there be incentives for the Lone Ranger to hang up his spurs and cooperate more broadly and effectively?

Most everyone who attends ASU+GSV does care about educational outcomes, but they also need to get funded, grow and succeed. What could be done to reward cooperation to assist in solving real problems? Is there a type of measurement that could capture outcome performance as well as bottom-line sales and growth rates? Maybe those who report earnings that use a combined index of moving the performance needle as well as financial growth would be perceived as better investments in future deals. Or maybe they can invest a percentage of their growth into substantive research on effectiveness.

Some already do this. But education is not like medicine, where clinical trials and hard evidence are routine. One thing ASU+GSV could easily do is to encourage or incubate impact measures and get the for-profit, nonprofit and foundation communities to help. Imagine the top ten companies or foundations making a real difference in their markets (i.e., institutions producing jobs, products raising completion metrics and startups showing early gains in both). Imagine gathering together the best of the Lone Rangers in sessions where they work with state governments and others to measure impact year-over-year along with financial success, and help state governments heavily invested in raising their human capital scores to promote business growth.

A few sitting governors and legislators at the next ASU+GSV would be a welcome sight. They could help answer the question, “Is it possible to win on two fronts in the education marketplace, not just one?”

Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a nonprofit focused on building cross-sector teams to produce better outcomes in the PreK to Work continuum. Freedman was in the edtech and online learning space from 1998 to 2012, when he left his position as vice president of global education strategy for Blackboard, Inc. to establish NLET.

Read More

Can Students and Higher Education Strike a Grand Bargain?

By Gordon Freedman, President, National Laboratory for Education Transformation

Transforming Higher Education Will Require a Grand Bargain

The National Laboratory for Education Transformation,, is dedicated to modernizing critical processes in higher education for both institutions and learners, equally. For this, new assumptions about higher education operations are needed. But is transformation of higher ed actually possible?

A new form of transformation will require restructuring of administration functions, new orientations on higher education teaching, different approaches to technology, and a much deeper understanding of diversity, inclusion, and culture formation. Businesses, service companies, and even government agencies have all changed radically. These transformations required fundamental restructuring, which for some unknown reasons, appears to be off the table in mainline institutions.

What is present in other social, consumer, financial, and cultural transformations is a new type of bargain where end-users (customers, communicators) are on equal footing with the new service itself and all other participants. It is a liberalization of the role of customers and their interactions and standing, which greatly benefits the company or agency in terms of depth of contact and cost of operations. It is easier, and more information flows out of these operations to all the stakeholders. This in turn makes service better, and presumably will result in more revenue or less costly operations, or both.

In higher education, a fundamental readjustment would be necessary to establish two-way commitments, compacts, or contracts—either directly or as guiding principles between institutions and their learners. These agreements are needed to fortify, modernize, and codify this relationship in order to build new cultures of engagement and interaction. In effect, creating organizational transformation aimed at higher levels of success for each party.

Corporations, start-ups, and impact funds organize around need, efficiency, and satisfaction. Higher education institutions of every variety, on the other hand, would find it difficult to reorganize, restructure, or reorient their costly traditional operations and organization by separate offices, departments, programs, and out-of-date technology. Instead, institutions tend to reassign personnel, hire consultants, build grant-funded teams, and rearrange functions within the known structure. This method appears to persist regardless of retention rates.

Until the traditional structure, with its various orientations, programs, culture, and operations, is allowed to be on the table for overall conversations, it will be difficult to orient teaching to keep the new range of students on campus, evolve a new culture of inclusion that is both virtual and physical, and make learning implicit to finding work and participating in society.

Clear Deficiencies Compared to General Culture

The traditional methods of operation on campuses do not address what many see as core deficiencies in the higher education organizational structure. To successfully operate in today’s general culture within the higher education context, the deficiencies need to be called out, examined, and then used as the fodder for transforming the old system.

As an exercise, each of the following proposed core deficiencies rests on the assumption that currently there is an unequal bargain struck between the campus and their students. The institution and the students pay a heavy price for this: For students, a lack of preparation and persistence, and for institutions, difficulty in attracting and keeping students enrolled. Instead of a dichotomy, we need a symbiosis between learner and institution.

What Students Might Need

Contact – A single point of contact with a campus, physically or digitally, that is constantly present.

Interaction – An app to manage the multiple threads of campus activity, including social and off campus activities, to connect students and provide constant interactions.

Planning – Integrated tools that routinely link learning to career potential and outside opportunities.

What Campuses Might Need

Strategy – Retention, completion, and engagement re-thought as integrated “services,” not fix-it solutions or reactive programs.

Training – Constant faculty development to develop adaptive teaching aimed at teaching as a craft along with inclusivity and diversity training.

Outcomes – Economic consequences of programs standardized into the fabric of academic choices.

No Bargain at Present

The current bargain, or contract, is unequal in the sense that each student is required to understand the complex structure of a traditional, higher education institution. Regardless of the student’s background, he/she must adapt to those diverse, traditional systems efficiently, regardless of how well organized the campus and its technology are.

For many students today, campus life is an alien, expensive, confusing, and largely socially disconnected experience that is not focused on employment outcomes.

Campuses are not required to provide a high level of adaptation to today’s students, who are far more diverse than in the past. Institutions are admitting more diverse student bodies, but failing to retain them, a detriment to both student and institution. Failure to adapt to today’s students is an expensive proposition and one that merits a much higher degree of attention, planning, and action. Hand-wringing, technology solutions, and retention efforts are not the answer.

Numerous consultancies, education technologies, and foundation-funded personalization, persistence, and retention programs are in place through grants or contracts that faculty and leadership have championed. The options are varied and tactical. They are not strategic, student involved, or measurable across multiple technologies.

Students, in the programmatic or technology solution change process, are generally treated as recipients of programs, policies, and technology purchases. They are not given adequate say or experimentation that would establish the necessary steps to reach shared end goals for both student and institution, and create the evidence to support the decision to proceed.

How well do such programs put students—either programmatically or technologically, on par or at the same level as the institution that is implementing these programs? 

Are there true, grand bargains being struck between the parties to reach the same goals—graduation, job placement and career trajectory—with the right tools and programs?

While the rhetoric, web and marketing copy, and campus materials tend to put the student first, or speak of personalization, these are complex organizational and behavioral issues that require culture and infrastructure changes. These changes need to reach into all dormitories and classrooms and affect the structure and type of interactions on campus.

Many efforts fall short of their transformational objectives because they do not establish new, operational principles and procedures to govern what should be in today’s society: a two-way compact between student and institution.

Without developing such governing principles, agreements, and fundamental cooperation, it is not clear how improvement in retention, graduation rates, personalization, satisfaction, and placement will be possible.

Social, Digital and Cultural Divides

Built-in divides persist and grow deeper on campuses as more students, and an increase in those from social-economic backgrounds and first generation college-goers, arrive from high school. Yet more college students leave without graduating, or without earning occupational certification. In addition to cost and unclear employment outcomes, many undergraduates who stay or drop out report a sense of isolation and a lack of direction.

Without a clear two-way street to address these issues, it is difficult to establish strategies that will succeed and assist the “whole person” move from academic and career exploration into the management of their time in higher education, and transition to work. Conversely, the institutions are not organized today to optimize managing students as partners, nor is there software or solutions that are commercially or openly available to do so.

A Possible Menu for Discussion

As an exercise, consider a few new ways to think about campus issues.

A New Campus Architecture

Technology on campus used to be a matter of servers and cables. Then it became a strategic part of the campus. Now it is mostly in service of the provost’s office. Unfortunately, it is woefully behind counterparts in business, consumer, commerce, and finance sectors. The CIO’s office could move from a Chief Information Officer to a Chief Innovation Officer. The new CIOs could work on the myriad of problems just like start-ups work on website or business architecture, with an open mind and the idea that the tech and data solutions in the education marketplace might not be what are needed.

Data Science in Support of the Academic and Employment Mission

Data activities are spread all over campus and are mostly looking at disconnected data from various campus programs. While data analysts and the Institutional Research office crunch these data, they are not part of an overall solution that monitors the whole campus and the students in real-time. What is needed are solutions that are focused on problems and trends before they lead to costly overruns or students leaving campus. To bring this about, students will need single apps or methods to deal with the whole campus, giving the campus valuable use-data which is not inferred but actual. It might be wise for campuses to have a chief data science officer who could circulate among all the function on campus and with the students.

Addressing Implicit Bias through Adaptive Teaching

The provost’s office could be re-oriented to concentrate on the quality of teaching, the nature of addressing implicit bias, and developing methods and measures to adapt to students from many different backgrounds, including those who are entering that are known to already be at risk. To manage this, new methods of training faculty, and inviting faculty to help design what could be called adaptive teaching, a counterpart of adaptive learning or personalization. While the academic program and its integrity is critical, and while many CIOs report into the provost with their array of campus solutions, somehow the quality of the interactions between principal contact point of the institution, faculty, and students is not being systematically addressed.

Grand Bargain, Contracting for Success, Continual Interaction

This is the trickiest and most important, but maybe the easiest. Many schools and some colleges have worked on contracts. But none of this has been done strategically, nor has it found its way into software or apps that would consolidate the various functions, programs, and offices on campus, starting with admissions. This bargain needs to be explicit about what the campus is bringing to the table, and what insurance the campus can provide to ensure that the student gets through and into meaningful work. Students need to clearly understand their tasks and the options for help and guidance. The “grand bargain” could remake the student success offices that are springing up on campuses. In this bargain, students can share their concerns, struggles, and successes.

Continual Options, Immediate Feedback

Isolation and concerns about finance are reported by students as reasons for their stress, or for leaving college. Students and their parents, and most people, live in a culture of constant digital contact, where they are using digital interactions to set up, monitor, and react to face-to-face interactions. What is key here is that contact is continual, contextual, and in the moment. This is part of the general culture, in which all people and their appliances are part of daily life. A campus divided into program offices, academic departments, and rules and procedures do not make for app culture. Whether it is through the student contract or a student navigator, campuses, technology companies and foundations need to help figure out how to align learning and campus culture with culture in general. Maybe students should help design this solution.

Where Will Change Come From?

As always, there will be pioneers, though they are unlikely to affect the bulk of public institutions in the country where most students attend. The likely places for these discussions to happen if possible, is in the official associations in higher education. While there are plenty of programs that major foundations fund that might seem like what is discussed here, there is room for deeper re-architecting. The American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and the League for Innovation in the Community College (League) could elevate such explorations.

Gordon Freedman is president of the West-coast based National Laboratory for Education Transformation, NLET is dedicated to bringing high level resources across sectors to bear on the issues of modernizing education, training and services delivery. NLET carries out its research and development efforts through collaborations with institutions, research institutes, technology and data companies and nonprofits, and pilot sites in K12, community colleges, workforce development, and universities. Freedman is also a Fellow of National University’s Precision Institute.

Read More

Fixing Community Colleges: Aim for the Cloud

By Gordon Freedman, President, National Laboratory for Education Transformation

What is being experienced in everyday life outside of our community college campuses are fundamental, historical shifts that have transformed the organization and operation of American commerce, finance, and medicine through integrated cloud level smart-data enabled technology. Similar technology has also completely transformed consumer behavior, information access, and social interaction in the personally-tailored worlds of shopping, entertainment, and social media found in apps.  The prevailing model outside of educational environment is what could be called integrated cloud services for large numbers of people and personal apps or accounts for every person. This is a critical juncture in history where shared cultural and personal identity have sailed into new waters — except where we really need that power.

Many Hats, Tall Order

If community colleges have an outsized role in the United States, why are they under resourced and behind the times?

Community college are expected to make up for inadequacies in our public schools, prepare students for bachelor’s level education, manage dual- enrolled students in high school or in bachelor’s level college and university courses, train displaced job seekers, enhance skills of the existing workforce, and provide occupational certifications to students who are not in the workforce, already have a bachelor’s degree, or are being retrained.

Each of these roles must be managed according to accreditors and regulators while the community college remains responsive to local and regional employment changes, meets the challenge of helping to build regional economies, interacts with regional high schools and universities, adjusts to state government cost-cutting and policy edicts, and finds and supports learners and job seekers in regions heavily impacted by poverty and racial and ethnic inequality of opportunity.

Each of these is a tall order.  Collectively, they border on the unmanageable from the point of view of efficiency and effectiveness.  This diversity of focus, in combination with ever-increasing public and governmental demands and expectations, are, and have been, a prescription for under-performance, over-expansion of staff, and inherent inefficiencies, all within growing state budget constraints. Furthermore, community colleges and their leaders must endure both near-constant criticism from many quarters and sporadic and welcomed praise from other quarters for their level of effort, occasional innovation, and support for their overall region.

No Time for Deeper Strategy

What leader or board of trustees has the time to rethink the community college at a fundamental social, technical and policy platform level?

The underpinning of getting an associate’s degree or acquiring a set of skills or occupational certification and moving on is no longer a simple undertaking. The noise on the Internet, declining performance in school, and confusion over whether education and training will lead to actual work complicates the picture. There is also the general inability of students, job seekers and families to know where to turn for reliable information about whether a particular community college will make a difference in their lives.

There are no simple websites or apps to guide students and adult learners as there are for commerce, travel, food, or music. There are no statistical or predictive models or ratings that say: go here, study this, and get that job. The more information multiplies on the Web, the more difficult it is to see where the payoffs are for attending community college among the many options at the college and outside the college.

These rapidly changing external dimensions and trends are not the usual issues that community college leadership spends time resolving. Instead, leaders steer their organizations but rarely have had to contend with so many variables outside their control. The variables are multiplying rapidly as are the diverse behaviors of young people in the new economy. The issues in the new economic and labor environment need to be solved for those who consume, or could consume and benefit from, multiple services from community colleges.

This is not a matter of better organization inside the college, but how to organize and connect with the world outside the college. Because of this dichotomy, an information mismatch of large proportions is building.

Learners, students, job seekers, and employers, who are already deep in the information, social, or gig worlds, have a difficult time comprehending the bureaucratic, organizational, and structural aspects of traditional community colleges. The experience can be overwhelming and is generally not aided by campus technology. The community college consumers are asked to adapt to a world from another era.  One filled with buildings, offices, divisions, multiple software systems, and limited centralized websites or apps to help navigate the diversity of options, avoid potential obstacles, and place intelligent bets on education or training that will lead to productive work and careers.

This cultural mismatch raises the question of where effort and allegiances are placed by state funders, national foundations, and state and Federal policymakers.  Should the focus be on the maintenance and incremental improvement of the existing community college organizational structure in order to stem losses, or should the focus be concentrated on beginning the search for better and more fitting models where community colleges truly become critical, real-time participants in the information economy and partners with their students and adult learners?

Reality, outside of education and training, is now mediated by cloud technology, smart data, predictive algorithms and personal recommendations for consumers.  Community colleges, as the utility infielders of education and training, must either enter this world or lose their place in it. The college cannot stand by and hope that everyone in America across the diversity of activities and the range of education barriers will adapt to even the best organized physical or online community colleges, or the technologies that fortify their traditional organizational structures.

The Wrong Technology

Why is it you can buy anything on Amazon personalized across all shopping categories or get anywhere in the world by tapping of a few keys, but you can’t easily navigate education, training, or job options?

The answer is that the technology and data systems used education and training are a more rudimentary form of technology, designed for each function in a specific college but not designed, as commercial systems are, to service a range of needs at one or more institutions as well as interact with other options. The current campus technology is the technology that buyers in community colleges, universities, and school systems are comfortable buying or licensing. It is not the modern technology or data systems on par with commercial, consumer and financial systems.

This broad, data-science enabled class of software or cloud services does not yet exist for education and training. But there is no reason why it should not, especially in the community college sector. There should be a national mandate to more efficiently and effectively service the everyday lives of learners, job seekers, faculty, trainers, and administrators.

Current campus software is fractional, singularly serving multiple functions on a campus, but not, as the commercial services do, handling many problems in one system.

For many reasons, generally related to funding or administrative constraints, education buyers and their management tend not to purchase or license technology or data solutions that are fundamentally different from previous generations of those solutions. Education technology and education data systems have been on a long march from spreadsheets, ledgers, and books to software and content on floppies, which then migrated to servers on campus that are now migrating to servers in the “cloud.”

This is not technology progress in terms of solving fundamental problems facing the junction of institutions and today’s society.  It is the migration of the same technology to new systems that are easier to use for administrators or faculty, more lucrative for vendors, and easier to update.  It is simply technology fulfilling traditional functions more efficiently for administrators, not necessarily for “end-users,” who are students, job seekers, faculty and training staff.

There is confusion in how the term “cloud” is used. Each education solution hosted in the cloud is not a true cloud solution like those in the financial, commercial, and consumer sectors. There is a difference between where campus software is hosted and how that software interacts in meaningful ways with many other software systems also hosted in the cloud. This difference ultimately extends to how a cloud service interacts with the users it serves. It is not where the data and technology reside, but what data and technology can do where they reside.

True cloud activity, think Amazon and Expedia, would have their disparate systems lodged in the same cloud, or multiple cloud systems, “talking” to each other and exchanging data seamlessly through common standards — not just through integration APIs.  Similarly, communicating with “end-users” and running calculations based on machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence to improve the entire operation and experience down to each student, could never happen in the world of diverse, disconnected technologies that characterize what is available to community college buyers.

While certain ed tech companies do license solutions to manage the student journey. These are not designed to work with every other system seamlessly or to deliver high-quality information to students who might be enrolled in more than one institution, or get training in one place and academic credit in another. As a rule, vendors of educational software are not in business to fundamentally improve or transform the learning experience and education processes, nor are they measured or incentivized by the efficacy of their products in relationship to other products.

They do not receive openly published, annual ratings from institutions using their software.  While claims will be made that certain solutions can integrate many campus functions, the costs for these services is high and the ability to customize for specific needs of a college or system are low.

Where Does the Student Fit in Choosing Solutions?

The ed tech and admin systems sold to campuses are not made for students specifically, how can that rationally be the case?

Nor do the students pay for access to those systems directly.  They only use the campus or online software as long as they are attending a college or training institution.  They don’t own their accounts as they would with Facebook or LinkedIn.  Unlike the consumer or commercial world, each campus, sometimes each department, may have its own solutions, which a student must log into, but does not control.  Since these systems are not tied together by commonly shared data systems, the impact of the combination of systems on the learning experience is difficult, if not impossible, to measure.  This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that most students receive their education and training from more than one institution.

There are also deeper questions. Can community college leaders be confident that vendors have perfected what colleges and students need in today’s complex and porous world, unmoored from the old ways? Why would choosing among competing vendors seem to be the only way to address the complexity of servicing life on or off campus and between campus and the rest of the world? Planning for technological innovation should be much more than making choices among the status quo options.

Higher education in general and school districts have been led down a dangerous path of buying single function niche solutions that grew up from single function operations that were once physical. It is a game of IT twister to make all these solutions, sign-on’s, apps. and websites work together. And, it is like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene in Disney’s Fantasia. There is an endless stream of solutions carrying water up an endless set of steps. Small start-ups, traditional vendors, foundation-funded solutions, and the large, non-educational commercial players are constantly knocking on the door. This cannot be the only way to re-define community college in the information age and the knowledge economy, especially since these systems are detached from the world of employment and the greater economy and from full student access.

Think Like a Vendor, Act Like a Mentor

Where is the awareness, or deserved outcry or protest from leaders, governance, and legislatures over the issue of limiting choices to what is presently available on the shelf to improve education, training, and job hunting?

There is no question that the larger education technology and data vendors, like the publishers before them, have made billions from higher education, and sunk back millions in marketing and persistent sales staff. Very little of their resources seems to go into research and development or alignment to policy goals. While there is nothing ethically or legally wrong with this product-and-sales-first mentality, it might be a good place to start asking questions: What constitutes a true campus-industry partnership?

The vendor field will get more, not less, crowded over time. Traditional education technology providers will continue to aggressively market their new data and student success solutions.  The litmus test for this evolving marketplace should be the answer to this essential question: Will the array of vendors improve students’ ability to navigate on their own through smartly informed options, keep them motivated and engaged, and allow them to plan their education and training with increased assurance of success in work and career?

Let’s Aim for the Cloud

Could community colleges collectively build out a shared services cloud?

This could become an important project or experiment. It could be a network, like Unizin or the University Innovation Alliance, in the university space. A partnership cloud-based network could be incubated inside the League for Innovation in the Community College. Or a third-party nonprofit could build the working group of contributors from the pilot group of colleges, districts, and systems and funders.

Agreements could be made with key vendors that have technologies that could sit at the center of the combined effort. Similarly, Federal and state agencies that receive compliance data and provide data and services could ride on the cloud experimentally. Certain online programs that could be generally offered on the cloud, and through on-the-ground navigation to programs on campus, could be well-documented. High school students could more easily examine and sign up for dual enrollment courses or begin community college early. Community college students could do the same, dual enrolling in local or remote universities or in training programs not available in the community college.

The idea is that heavily organized institutions, by their very nature, divide rather than unite functions. Institutionalism means managing programs in silos, and with education technology supporting those silos, the silos are not only separate from other silos on campus, but from other organizations, employers, and institutions as well – and from students and adult learners.

The “college cloud” brings the possibility of managing individually the myriad aspects of college existence without limiting options or mashing-up different aspects of learning, education and training. Using the cloud enables different roles — student, family, job seeker, and faculty — to each encounter the institution to their benefit. And the institution, in turn, can duly record these use-data for a better understanding of patterns in their institution.

No Longer Rocket Science

Social-technical transformation isn’t rocket science. It’s a different perspective outside the normal, normative existence of community colleges as “reactors.”  It requires a level of intrigue, care and bravery on the part of community college leadership to push further for the constituencies they are mandated to serve – students and job seekers – instead of constantly letting appeasing the regulators, accreditors, peers and critics rule the day.

The “college cloud” allows a new form of measurement and management that shifts the steering of a single complex organization with multiple programs, offices and relationships, into the building of an integrated regional entity that helps create the future, not react to it.  It follows the well-accepted cloud services and app marketplace that is already mature, just as enterprise technology came to the higher education sector after becoming an established part of the corporate, government, and scientific worlds.

Ultimately, the community college cloud-based network will give legislatures, regulators and accreditors far better data for measuring and managing community colleges as our most valuable education players in elevating our society and economy.

About This Article

The notion of a community college cloud first arose over five years ago in meetings between the California-based National Laboratory for Education Transformation,, a Seattle area community college, a trustee at several of the Washington State community colleges and representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Since that time, the author has written about this concept and socialized it with vendors, cloud operators, community college learners, and the three major community college associations.  The concepts written about here will be formed into a larger paper and effort. Please free to be in touch via LinkedIn.


Report: The Future of Undergraduate Education, 2017 

11 Lessons From the History of Higher Ed, Steven Mintz, Inside Higher Education, May 2017

How Community Colleges Changed the Whole Idea of Education in America, Sean Trainor, TIME, October 2015

Comparative State Community College Return on Investment, Christopher Neary, Graduate Thesis, Iowa State University, 2015

Community Colleges in America: A Historical Perspective, Richard L. Drury, Inquiry, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2003

Community Colleges: The History of Community Colleges, The junior college and the research university, The Community College Mission, J. Board, 2003

Community Colleges, Gale Group, 2002

Read More

Can Innovative Companies Supercharge Workforce Development Connections?

Millions of mid-skills jobs are open across the nation. Unfortunately, bringing awareness about these job openings to jobseekers is not easy. Even more difficult is finding approved occupational training that aligns with the specific hiring needs of these employers. Could the powerful CRM and LMS companies like Salesforce and Blackboard provide the necessary information-age linkage?

Today, despite historically low official unemployment rates, there are still six million people unemployed, two million of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24. Youth employment is essentially stalled, and it is at a near standstill for youth impacted by poverty and other socioeconomic determinants.

When unemployment drops, it puts pressure on all sectors of the economy. As demand for employees steadily increases, this need does not automatically pull more young people or unemployed adults into the workforce. Instead, it puts wage pressure on employers by allowing people already employed to argue for higher pay or switch jobs.

This is the new norm that causes wages to rise but does not address the labor shortage. What the country needs now is for new people to enter the labor force who are trained to fill vacancies that otherwise slow down regional and national economic progress.

However, many of the six million open jobs are representative of the new technical economy, which for many is an unfamiliar world made up of skilled and mid-skilled jobs that only recently came into existence. The only way to obtain many of these jobs is to first know about them and second to be trained for them.

Where are the people who could be available for training to fill the new jobs?

They are the longer-term unemployed, people who aged out of previous work, or they are young and new to work. The good news is that many of these jobs do not require a college degree. The bad news is that hardly anyone knows about them, or once a job possibility is located, where does one go to get the specific training that regional employers are looking for?

Two Problems in the Labor Market: Awareness and Alignment

While there is limited public awareness of new forms of skilled and mid-skilled employment, there is even less awareness that the necessary training is often available as close as the nearest community college.

So, how does someone seeking training for a relatively unknown, well-paying, mid-skilled job know where to find that training, and then whether employers have actually approved this training? The answer is they don’t know, and there is no “easy” way to find out. There are official sites and myriads of ads online, but these are awkward mechanisms at best; many are overly bureaucratic and difficult to navigate or understand.

There are no apps for “find new skill-based jobs” or “find appropriate skill-based training” that would link a jobseeker to one of the 1,000 or so community colleges that have occupational programs that may or may not align with employer needs. That’s not to say that community colleges do not work in earnest to make these matches, as do regional job centers. But none of these options is as functional as Facebook.

Employers have the reverse problem. They cannot “easily” find appropriately-trained job candidates, or community colleges and other training organizations that will meet their specific needs in a timely manner. While employers and community colleges do communicate, often that is all they do. There is hardly any data-based technology to bridge the world of jobseekers to the world of training and then to the world of work.

There are plenty of venture-backed start-ups trying make matches between people, training and jobs, and there are plenty of well-funded important foundation projects promoting awareness and preparation for skill-based work. However, most are either small, non-standards based or primarily face-to-face programs not backed by sufficient data and ways to communicate into the popular info-sphere.

The federal government, through the US Department of Labor, attempted to solve the alignment problem with a $1.9 billion program (TAACCCT) aimed at better communication and working relations between community colleges and regional employers. While this has helped, there was no code written or apps produced to help span this chasm. The available work is largely unknown regionally and nationally despite the enormous size of the effort and the number of community colleges and employers involved.

Are Jobseekers, Community Colleges and Employers Stuck in Separate Camps?

There appears to be no easy solution to create tools like those we use in everyday life and work that can make “matches” and “recommendations” linking those seeking work with training and employers who need trained workers.

Our nonprofit, The National Laboratory for Education Transformation (, works tirelessly on this issue, trying to develop imaging software or apps that would provide a digital and social mechanism to bridge these gaps and put people back to work.

Creating new solutions for traditional players in the community college sector and working with HR departments in large employers, or hiring personnel in small employers is a long, drawn-out process involving institutional and organizational transformation.

Are there other ways that could organically link employers with community colleges or other occupational training program providers, and provide a way to attract jobseekers or up-skillers?

It might be the case that there are some very large corporate players who could bridge the education-to-work yawning gap. Two types of technology companies come to mind: those that separately supply both the community colleges and the employers with Customer Relations Management (CRM) solutions and Learning Management System (LMS) solutions.

CRMs help manage relationships in organizations in relationship to productivity. LMSs manage learning progression and connected student services in education and training institutions, and to a limited degree, in employee training.

The market leader in CRM is Salesforce; the market leader in LMS is Both serve employers and colleges, but separately. In the modern world, employers and colleges could easily be linked and benefit a jobseeker or ladder climber in the middle.

Rolling Out the Titans

Last week I attended the Salesforce company’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco with nearly 170,000 others, making it the largest tech conference on Earth.

Salesforce is one of the fastest growing companies in the world. It offers a unique customer relations management cloud service that primarily allows businesses to manage an array of data tracking, from employee activities to managing sales and other aspects of modern companies. Salesforce is 326th on the Fortune 500 list with 25,000 employees, 150,000 customers and quickly growing revenues north of $8 billion annually. Many people reading this post likely work in companies or organizations using Salesforce to chart their personal progress.

Salesforce is a generous employer and company. CEO Mark Benioff is a leader among the Silicon Valley titans in meaningful philanthropy. This extends to education and training where he established a foundation to offer deeply-discounted Salesforce solutions to nonprofits and education institutions through

Early in the company’s history, provided software to education institutions and nonprofits interested in applying CRM technology to better manage the diverse silos on campus or in foundations. Today, there are very robust versions of Salesforce being used to connect all aspects of institutional education, most importantly, to help chart the student journey. Some of the largest brand names in higher education are revolutionizing campus life with Salesforce, including Arizona State and the University of Texas system and virtual providers like the Western Governors University and many more.

Where Salesforce technology could make a profound difference is by bringing their .com and .org institutions together to build the education-to-work linkages. The two divisions of Salesforce — .com and .org — don’t generally cross paths. Yet, Salesforce technology could be used to provide a powerful education-to-work or work-to-education bridge program between regional employers using and regional community college occupational programs using

The “bridge,” or training network, going in one direction would allow employees with an account on both sites to explore training directly related to improving their position in their company or organization. This would encourage the employers and colleges to better align training to employment demand.

Conversely, for unemployed, disconnected youth and returning adult workers, a community college could enroll them in a regional “occupational bridge” where they can view available courses and programs that link to existing open jobs using Behind the scenes, through the occupational bridge, the colleges and employers could be actively aligning training and employment needs.

The same is true for Their solutions are widely used in community colleges for academic and occupational courses, and additionally, for training employees in some of the largest employers. Yet, again, these are separate divisions that do not work hand-in-hand. Could there be a way to facilitate finding work or finding better work by linking the occupational programs delivered on Blackboard with training provided by employers using Blackboard?

Gordon Freedman is President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation ( ), a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit committed to transforming 20th century education and training into 21st century learning. Prior to NLET, Freedman was Vice President of Global Education Strategy for Blackboard, Inc.

Read More

Could Universal Transcripts Help Put More Young People to Work?

As various forms of knowledge and skills acquisition multiply, including work, learning, “gigging”, academic, experiential and training, record-keeping becomes ever more difficult for individuals, institutions, and employers. Is it time to seriously consider the notion of a universal transcript: one individual, one record?

For many individuals—learners, students, employees and job seekers—official records, on-the-job experiences, badges and issued credentials are housed all over the place. When it is time to apply for a job, an academic institution or training organization, there is the familiar and often confusing onerous scramble to fill out forms, update resumes and contact a myriad of references (people and organizations).

The same is true for employers and institutions that must verify credentials, work experience, recommendations and other records of individuals applying for work or training.

Is all this busy work necessary? Is it in the best interest of individuals, institutions, and employers? And what about people who do not live inside the culture of practice in education, training or job hunting? Or those whose income, health, unemployment, and zip code place them at a distinct disadvantage?

Jobs Go Unfilled

While the unemployment rate is steadily going down, it is hardly putting a dent in the severe labor shortages in the skilled and semi-skilled job markets. There are roughly six million open jobs in the United States, including many mid-skilled positions that might not require an academic degree, but do require training. This demand is beginning to speed up lateral job moves of existing workers, which drives up wages.

The growing employer demand is not necessarily pulling more unemployed people, and especially unemployed youth, into the workforce.  At this point, the country needs more new people in the workforce, not more people switching jobs.

The U.S. Department of Labor lists more than six million people who are still unemployed, approximately two million of the unemployed are between the ages of 16 and 24, best known as Opportunity Youth. However, according to Opportunity Youth Nation, there are as many 5.5 million Opportunity Youth who are not in school or at work.  The predominate number of these are young people 20 to 24 years old who are chronically disconnected from a job or education. They are disproportionately minorities.

Historically, the aggregate youth sector would be where new employees come from to meet shortages in the labor markets. Yet, according to a 2016 report from the Brookings Institution, across the whole 20 to 24 age spectrum, hiring in this age category is at a five-year low. What are some of the factors inhibiting youth employment at a time of high employer demand?

For one, work has changed quickly and profoundly. Many skilled-based and technical jobs that go unfilled are likely in new or unfamiliar categories of work unknown to most people. For example, CNC machinists in advanced manufacturing or DevOps in network maintenance.

A further complication is there are few places on the Web or in apps to look at what people do in many of these jobs, or where to find training for them. There are no YouTube channels or social media sites that explain many of the unfamiliar jobs and the training to prepare for them.  General awareness and access are issues that need solutions.

How Could a Learner-Owned Universal Transcript Help?

Resumes, education, training, and hiring are separate silos, each with its own set of artifacts. Much of the record keeping is in physical or digital documents or proprietary digital systems that are only slightly digital. Such systems are far from the secure, smart-data operations that could directly link resumes or profiles to jobs, and then automatically help employers and jobseekers find the most appropriate training.

Healthcare has struggled with similar issues. Getting one person’s medical record, prescriptions and health plans on a single, secure record is a struggle that has run afoul of regulations, corporate and bureaucratic indifference, and provider push back. Despite this, there are significant, well-funded, individual medical record systems now. There is even a Federal site mediating most of the issues that arise and providing access to individuals and businesses.

A learning record, or universal transcript, might empower students, families, and job seekers to better manage their learning, training and job-seeking options. Such a smart and connected record could also open channels for services and assistance to find the learner.   There are a few efforts across the country, such as the Michigan Legislature’s consideration of a “Talent Transcript” to document skills-based competencies in addition to standard academic records.  New technologies, such as blockchain, are emerging as ways to verify learning or work held separately, but are verified by institutions or employers.

In the consumer world, we are far down this road. Individual accounts on large mega-sites that manage many formerly disparate activities are now part of life on the Web or in apps. Amazon and Expedia come to mind. One account opens multiple possibilities, and the system generates real-time efficiencies beyond servicing the individual consumer.  These smart systems manage the whole ecosystem of manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and suppliers across the entire economic supply chain.

Why Aren’t Individuals Allowed to Manage Their Own Records?

Why can’t an individual own and control a single transcript of their accomplishments that is secure, data-wise and helps drive down the friction of learning and earning? Conversely, why can’t education institutions, training providers, and employers, with appropriate permissions, utilize such a system to align training and employers better?  Just like in healthcare and medicine, such systems require technology, security and process standards, all of which are very possible today.

And don’t forget the economists, labor statisticians, and policymakers. They need much more precise data to analyze economic performance to carry out forward planning and form policy. On the policy front, we have some difficult issues ahead of us to bring millions of new people into the workforce. Instead of innovation in this critical area, there is a lot of silo-specific activity and myriads of public pronouncements.  They are missing a crucial point. The end-user needs to own and manage his or her own record of learning and earning.

A young person would not be wrong in asking, “Where’s the app?”

Gordon Freedman is President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a West Coast nonprofit devoted to research and development for modern solutions to persistent education and training problems. 

Freedman and Matthew Gee of the University of Chicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy and BrightHive are collaborating on Universal Transcripts concepts and welcome comments.

Read More

A New Class Of Robots Could Actually Help Identify Training And Employment Opportunities

We are entering a brave new and complex world of smart-machines replacing humans. This tension between man and machines is not entirely new, however. The creation of new technologies—from washing machines to assembly line robots—has replaced and displaced human workers for over a century. The difference is that robots and machines can’t truly learn, communicate, or evolve.

Today we are seeing more “intelligent” robots that are capable of using technology to perform traditionally human jobs and tasks. We are becoming part of them and they a part of us. Think about IBM. First Big Blue won at chess and then Watson at Jeopardy. Think about all the single-player games or e-commerce.  Amazon wiped out thousands of bookstores. Expedia helped shutter the travel agency industry. Consider the actual mechanical robots constructing the cars we drive. All of these robots can exchange data in real time about real people.

Companies like LinkedIn,, Glassdoor, and others are finding jobs for those who have appropriate resumes. These systems routinely send out spiders, a form of robot, to scrape the Web of the data in resumes and job listings, and bring them back and link them with individual profiles from applicants. This raises the question: could there be a class of robots designed to help people keep and find jobs that might otherwise be taken by robots? Introducing a new class of robots into the market would allow us to apply theory and extract information about the power of humans paired with robots to help keep humans employable—including building robots, versus the more common scenario of robots replacing humans.

Instead of passively standing by and watching jobs go to automation, especially entry level jobs, there could be a way to fight back by working collaboratively with automation. Consider a class of apps called “butlers,” which are specifically designed to understand job seekers’ strengths, and helps them to either better compete for existing jobs or join into pairings with automation to increase their competitiveness.

The U.S. could become an expert leader at determining the optimum mix of what machines and humans can do independently and together. What can certain mixes and pairings do better than separately, or better than overseas labor, or overseas robots? Perhaps one day there will be human versus robot talent indexes and firms will emerge as agents for robots and human/robot teams. And perhaps hybrid police will emerge who can detect virus-makers before they strike.

Recently, my organization, National Laboratory for Educational Transformation (NLET), began working with a new team of researchers to explore the frontiers of people, training, and job matching by regions. Robot butlers will be needed here for sure, because despite the unemployment numbers going down in general, there are still a persistent seven million unemployed or underemployed people in this country.  There are also a persistent five million open jobs, many of them skill-based or middle-skills jobs that require specific training. The butlers could help identify a range of training opportunities to quickly prepare people for work before the investment is made in replacement robots.

Butlers could help construct resumes or experience graphs for those who are unlikely to have resumes or be on networking platforms like LinkedIn. They could also help employers read their employment trends as new job demand is forming. This is necessary because those creating occupational training for the rapidly evolving job market cannot make those predictions.

There are also questions of math and economics. To build a robot, either to replace human workers or to support them, how many jobs are created? What will be the ratio of new jobs created to make robots and butlers compared to the jobs eliminated by automation? One thing we do know is that job training in an ever-changing world will require smart training that can empower people to adapt quickly to new types of work. Historically, that task has fallen to community colleges providing such regional training or employers doing it themselves.  Right now neither is working efficiently.

NLET is gathering up interesting players across the country who have tried to work on the more sophisticated pieces of the puzzle, but have had trouble raising the level of funds or grants to do so.  This is a problem of scale. Until an Amazon-size player or a National Science Foundation decides that training people for new kinds of work is as important as consumer sales or genetic research, we may not get the tech-empowered employment solutions that our economy needs.

Gordon Freedman is President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (, a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit committed to transforming 20th century education into 21st century learning.

Read More

Why Higher Education Institutions Need Smarter Cloud Technologies

The Missing Higher Education Marketplace

The economy today produces voluminous digital information and this information fuels market behavior. Prior to the Internet, market information had to be gleaned from filings and other static sources. Today, real-time data is gathered every second from all sorts of transactions and communications between consumers, producers, reporters and investors. There are data points everywhere, all the time, many of them openly available.

Public higher education institutions, by contrast, compete with each other and with private, for-profit, and nonprofit institutions, in a limited market where there is scant information for students to use to make market-wise investments in their education. The job market outcomes (outputs) from most two and four-year public institution degrees are difficult to determine because education and labor data are not tracked or linked.

Higher education simply cannot provide the kind of input-output information that would power market choices. Instead, imperfect rankings, marketing materials, and word of mouth prevail.

If a truly efficient market for higher education did exist, where near perfect information was available to students about true costs and eventual employment outcomes, it is likely that a number of today’s students would not attempt two or four-year college degrees while others would be able to make more informed decisions about their choices. As a result, fewer students would drop out with large debt burdens and no idea how to apply what they learned.

Instead, while more young people attend college than ever before, they drop out at higher rates. Average dropout rates at two-year and four-year public higher education institutions of about 50% indicate that the prevailing methods of achieving educational credentials are not working for the majority of those in this population. It also means that the credentials are not valued enough externally to incentivize completion. Many forward-thinking employers no longer require degrees as a prerequisite for entry-level roles.

Though many learners are opting out or dropping out of higher education, it does not mean that they are not interested in learning, having credentials or the knowledge that formal education provides. Rather, it likely means that there is not enough reliable information about the value of higher education to justify the full-degree education investment, which for most students requires costly long-term loans.

 Debt burdens, lack of direct relevance to the job markets, and a sense of social isolation are the primary reasons for higher education dropouts or non-completion. In response, institutions scramble to spend even more money on new retention and student success software, customer relations management (CRM) solutions, improving campus technical and social facilities, and maintaining costly personnel to track student performance data. However, these campus investments may be further complicating the situation by driving up costs that are passed on to students.

For higher education institutions to produce the type of information to enable better decision-making for students and institutions alike, a new technology and data strategy is required that more closely resembles what exists other industries such as financial services or healthcare.

A Smarter Cloud for Higher Education?

Since the economy today runs on digital information and this information fuels market behavior, makes recommendations for consumers, and provides suppliers with current demand data, why can’t some of this technology and on-the-fly data management enter the higher education space and provide “technology consistency” between learning and working?

The modern capabilities of the Internet include artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, smart apps, end-user profiles and use-data. Could there be a way to harness these for a truly competitive education market that would benefit the learner, help more institutions better focus their programs and remove much institutional inefficiency?

This type of technology – data and vertical integration of suppliers and consumers – has been called an exostructure. This means that the cross-function data processing is integrated in the Cloud, not in individual software solutions that must be separately integrated. It is the power behind multiple purchases on Amazon, management of your mortgage, investments and checking account on Chase, or the coordination of planes, rooms and car rentals for travel on Expedia.

While campuses are using Cloud services to remotely host their singular technology and data solutions, this only changes the server locations and requires third party software to extract data from each separate solution. This does not open up details and data about higher education options to consumers aggregated and analyzed in real-time.

In the US and Canada there are about 5,000 higher education institutions. Each buys expensive niche higher education software and data solutions to help operate their institution and to manage students, faculty and resources. This provisioning is part of each institution’s infrastructure, singular to each campus.

Institutional sub-organizations in higher education are organized under the institution’s presidential leadership and the provost’s academic leadership. This means that each unit – student acquisition, enrollment, academic advising, teaching and learning, career counseling and alumni management – is organized vertically. As a result, they do not easily share information horizontally with the other units or with students.

Further, students are required to log into multiple sites and visit multiple physical offices with no uniform student-driven access to their education experience. Likewise, there are no applications or solutions for students to manage all of their learning, training or experiences across multiple institutions, training providers and work experiences. This means institutions have little knowledge about the totality of their students’ activities.

When employers, government agencies and think tanks complain about spiraling higher education costs, escalating dropout rates, and lack of alignment with employers, much of this can be attributed to the inefficiencies of technology infrastructure silos on campus and the lack of coherent strategies for directly, and completely, interacting with students informed by deeper information and data about their futures.

Infrastructure Needs to Morph

To make an efficient market in higher education emerge, the technology base at the heart of higher education must transform itself through smarter cloud operations or “exostructures” that operate like the other sectors in the economy.

Institutions are not likely to move to exostructures soon, but external services could provide exostructures in ways that will provide better data to students about the outcomes of education choices in the labor markets and have students and alumni provide, in turn, better data back to the institutions about what pays off and what does not over time.

Below are descriptions provided by two very respected consultancies on the cost factors, inefficiencies and confusion of non-integrated campus “infrastructure” versus the benefits of an “exostructure strategy” for higher education.

Infrastructure:  “It’s estimated that colleges and universities will spend between $20B and $25B this year on technology and services, enabling institutions to support faculty, and administration, as well as effectively market, recruit, enroll, instruct, engage, and prepare students and alums. The solutions span many categories, including enrollment management specialists, adaptive learning platforms, retention solutions, online program managers, social engagement networks, crowdsourcing applications, software-defined networks, big data platforms, and enterprise resource planning (ERP).  The market is vast, confusing, and ill-defined.

Exostructure:  Exostructure strategy means acquiring the critical capability of interoperability as a deliberate strategy to integrate the increasing numbers of partnerships, tools and services in the education ecosystem. When done right, an exostructure approach enables institutions to leverage services from the cloud, rather than having to bring them inside the campus walls. The future belongs to exostructure rather than to infrastructure.”


The costs of maintaining current-state infrastructure versus the opportunity posed by exostructure solutions is a conversation that has to be led by higher education leaders—presidents and trustees. And it is likely that a new, dedicated association or institute is needed to manage the delicate dance between creating modern customer-focused institutions using the modern Web and apps, while dealing with the difficult issues of personnel costs, dependence on subsidized student loans, and maintaining academic quality and academic governance. We are at a point where this problem deserves a new kind and level of attention from leaders inside and outside of higher education.

Gordon Freedman is President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (, a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit committed to transforming 20th century education into 21st century learning.

Read More