If you are in the D.C. area, I will be to this week.
On Wednesday Jan. 20th, I am at a White House convening to discuss community college research. And on Saturday Jan. 23 I am delivering a morning keynote on e-portfolios and diverse learners at the annual AAC&U conference. I’m super honored on both fronts.
I’ve reached out to some of you to try to meet as I make the rounds. But a few notes on how this all fits together.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Lower Ed, much of the research on for-profit colleges’ place in the highered universe has happened among community college researchers. It remains true that for-profit colleges’ stronghold is in sub-baccalaureate degrees (like certificates and associates degrees). But, I make the case that the big corporate for-profits deliberately expanded into four year, graduate and professional degrees. In fact, much of the corporate for-profit college expansion in the first decade of the 21st century came in what I call upstream degrees. I will be at the White House convening with an ear towards the all-important transition points for vulnerable students who “swirl” in and out of school, cobbling together credits as they go. Those are the transition points where the hundreds of for-profit students I talked to most often met the structural limitations to their degree completion. Some hours didn’t transfer, some test scores weren’t there, some competencies were deemed insufficient, loan limits were reached — these are the problems non-elite students face when they swirl across sectors, from community colleges to for-profits to traditional not-for-profits.
Diverse student populations are also part of the reason I will be at the AAC&U talking about e-portfolios. When I gave my job talk at VCU, my now colleague David Croateu asked me, “what can we learn from for-profits, if anything??” It was a big question and one I was glad he had asked. I don’t like this tendency some of us have to assume that bad students make bad school choices because the schools are bad. As James Rosenbaum once argued (and other rational choice folks like Bill Tierney and Constance Iloh continue to push in some ways, some I think right and others I think less so), the structure of for-profit college enrollment and curricula have some functional utility.
I believe, in my heart of hearts, that public higher education can kick for-profits’ butt any day of the week if we decide that’s the business we want to be in. We are in a better position to leverage the “entrepreneurial state“, or what crass structuralists used to just call the State. We are closer to the innovative technologies that disruption theory claims is the domain of the private sector. We have the legitimacy, collective faith and public mandate to invest in democratic education as well as democratizing technologies. Should we ever decide that this is who we want to be, I believe that public higher education can do it. One thing we can learn from for-profits is how to meet students where they are using every tool available to us to do so.
That ethos is at odds with the standard ed-tech goal of expanding access to educational content to sift for the geniuses in the wild. I don’t want to sift. I want to build.To do that, you have to build, test, and develop tools beyond the Palo Alto demographics.
At VCU we are open to beta testing technologies like google classroom, student blogging, podcasting, etc. In the sociology department we have been exploring using e-portfolios as a pedagogical tool. Technologists rarely think of the social sciences as a good testing ground for such things. As a disciplinary imperative we don’t reduce complexity, we increase it. We celebrate it! And technologies don’t often like complexity. But, see, what if technology isn’t the point and learning is? Wild, I know.
We’re in the early stages of exploring how to implement, assess, and iterate e-portfolios in a diverse student body, in a complexity-loving discipline, at an urban research university. I’ll talk about what we’re learning at AAC&U. Spoilers: the political economy matters to whether e-portfolios become neoliberal datafication of student “brands” or a critical, reflexive tool for meta-cognition. Spoiler: I think our conversation about e-portfolios is more in conversation with old conversations about narrative assessments than with technocratic ideas of democratization.
That’s my week. If the weather holds, let’s have coffee, D.C. folks.