Free Higher Education Is What the People Want | From the Bell Tower

But can it actually work?
Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA -- Library Journal, 3/18/2010

Free, according to Chris Anderson, is the new model for how business will work in the future.

Could free, as in absolutely no cost to the student, ever work for higher education? No one knows for sure, but at least one innovator is a believer. Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur, is the founder of the University of the People (UotP), the world's first global, tuition-free online university.

There are countries where higher education is free to the students and their families, but not really. Taxes far higher than our own, such as those added to gasoline (as in the Scandinavian countries) or other essentials are what really fund the salaries and materials required to support colleges and universities. Reshef’s institution really is free because, in essence, all the resources are provided free by their creators. The courses, the technology infrastructure, the registration process, virtually everything it takes to deliver higher education, is free. But will it work?

A year later
When I first learned about the UotP I had to admit being skeptical. Those of us who work in higher education know how expensive it is to produce learning and scholarship. If the academic world is profoundly challenged to create a sustainable free, open access scholarly publishing system—which everyone acknowledges must be financially supported by someone or some organization somewhere along the knowledge production chain—then how can we possibly devise a working system of free higher education?

Talk about a wicked problem. It is an overwhelming and perhaps impossible task to be sure, but perhaps that is what drives Reshef to conquer it. Why bother? To bring higher education to the people of the world whose own countries either have no higher education system or one that is in utter shambles.

Now that the first year of operation for the University of the People is coming to a close, what are the future prospects for this incredible venture?

Gaining traction
To date the UotP has admitted 380 from 50 countries out of nearly 3000 that applied. How does it work? According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, “The University of the People relies on free syllabuses and learning materials from open courseware projects from institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It currently offers only two programs, business administration and computer science, and employs only five paid instructors. Those instructors administer courses designed by a corps of faculty volunteers numbering about 800, by Reshef’s count. Those professors put together courses using open courseware.”

A small amount of revenue is earned in the form of nominal student fees for exams and admissions. According to Reshef it will take nearly 15,000 students to make UotP viable.

One other small thing would help to make UotP a viable institution of higher education: actual degrees. As described in this article from BusinessWeek, while it does have students on track to earn two and four-year degrees in the two existing programs, “no degrees will be granted until the university obtains proper authorization from relevant authorities…. Obtaining accreditation is a top priority for the school, says Reshef, noting that the school is incorporated in Pasadena, Calif., making it easier for the school to work with American accreditation agencies.”

Where are academic libraries in the free equation?
For-profit, online higher education firms have already proven that a brick & mortar library is no longer a necessity, even to achieve accreditation. As long as the institution can demonstrate it offers students access to some sort of commercial information resources, possibly with toll-free help from a virtual librarian, it’s sufficient for the accreditors. It’s widely accepted that online learners just tap the Internet or local libraries when they need to complete a research paper. That’s exactly what the creators of the UotP must be counting on when it comes to library services.

It’s hard to imagine any institution calling itself a school—especially one of higher learning—when it has not even one physical book to offer its students. But we find ourselves in a boldly different world of learning, where books and libraries no longer carry the symbolic weight they once did. The absence of traditional libraries and learning materials from free universities will hardly slow down the growth of the UotP and other experiments in free higher education.

Supporting a worthy cause
Given that UotP promotes and delivers higher education to those who have no other options, there are distinct parallels with the open access and open education movements—both efforts to provide educational materials to those who otherwise have little chance to access them. This is an institution that will never have a budget for expensive books and journals and profession librarians to manage them. Perhaps those of us who already have these resources should examine ways in which we can use them to support the students at UotP. For example, we could allow students from UotP to receive a higher level of support through our virtual reference services. Our interlibrary loan networks could award the UotP’s of the world via some sort of “partner” status allowing its students to receive free article delivery.

Its impact on the market of traditional providers of higher education is infinitesimally minute, so UotP presents no threat—today. But free higher education is a powerful idea, and would be irresistible to many. The question is whether free higher education is an idea that actually works. With just one year at this scale, it is too soon to tell.

Digital Natives Politically Active? Not So Fast

Lauren Barack -- School Library Journal, 3/15/2010 8:52:00 AM

Are so-called digital natives more engaged in cultural and political causes? Experts are questioning whether the innate facility young people have with technology has truly translated into more thoughtful participation in the political arena—or whether the idea of what being politically involved means is actually changing.

“Traditionally, we’ve defined political engagement in terms of citizen engagement with their government through, for example, voting behavior,” says Henry Jenkins, Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, by email. “We certainly saw a significant surge in youth participation in the last presidential election, but this may have also set up expectations about change, which have not been borne out by the partisan rancor and the stalemate in Washington, DC, over the past year or so. Young people are as likely to turn to other mechanisms for bringing about social change.”

Data bears out Jenkins’s point that traditional modes of political activism are not what younger people favor. Those who fall between the ages of 18 and 24 are the least likely to use email to contact government officials and least likely to be active online for a civic or political activity, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

But that doesn’t mean young people aren't involved with political causes or those issues that tap into their concerns, such as attempts to restrict their freedom of expression.

Jenkins cites "buycotts"—basically, boycotts conducted through purchasing decisions—as one example of a tactic young people use to express political or social concerns. He also notes that organizations like Invisible Children and the Harry Potter (HP) Alliance have captured young people’s attention online—and harnessed their enthusiasm toward certain goals, such as gathering 2,893 signatures for the Dream for Darfur’s “Switch Over Campaign.”

So digital natives are politically and socially active, but in ways far different from the activism of previous generations.

“These groups tap skills that have developed through their fan or sub-cultural practices and deploy them toward civic causes,” says Jenkins. “We want to better understand what makes groups like the Harry Potter Alliance or Invisible Children so effective at reaching young people who are left cold by more conventional forms of political organizing.”

Governors, state school superintendents propose common academic standards

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Maryland and several other states are pushing rapidly toward adoption of new academic standards proposed Wednesday for English and math, adding momentum to the campaign to establish common expectations for public school students across the country.

The District also is on track to adopt the common standards drafted by experts in a project led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. However, it is possible that Virginia will not join the apparent surge toward approval.

Widespread adoption of common standards would mark a watershed for schools, triggering consequences for curricula, textbooks, testing and teaching. Some critics say common standards amount to a thinly disguised ruse to establish national standards under federal control -- an allegation that state and federal officials deny.

In most places, power to adopt standards rests with state boards of education.

Ohio officials said their board plans to vote June 8. Maryland officials are pondering a possible spring vote. Florida's board is pushing toward action in the summer.

"I think you'll get half of the states by the end of the year [to adopt the proposal], based on what they've said to us," said Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Kentucky last month became the first to adopt the proposal, acting on a late-stage draft before the public release.

In Maine, the legislature holds power of approval. Maine Commissioner of Education Susan A. Gendron said she expects a vote next week that would allow the state to adopt the standards when they are finalized in the spring.

"What is different about mathematics in Maine from California?" Gendron said. "I don't believe there is a difference. You will see far more states adopt the standards than not."

Alaska and Texas are the only two states that declined to join the common standards project when it began last year.

Virginia is part of the project, but state officials have been cautious about changing standards. Asked whether Virginia would consider approving the proposed standards, state Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle said the Board of Education has not discussed doing so.

"Virginia has a successful standards-based reform program -- the Standards of Learning," Pyle said. "Abandoning those standards would be very disruptive to our school divisions, our teachers and our students. We've made all of this progress in the last 15 years under the SOL program. It's not something we're just going to walk away from."

Under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, states are free to set standards and testing systems to rate schools. As a result, benchmarks vary widely in rigor and quality. Experts say many states eased academic requirements to enable schools to meet the law's accountability targets.

To address that issue, and enable academic performance to be judged consistently across the country, the governors and school chiefs are seeking common standards that would have all students ready for college or career after high school. President Obama has encouraged the initiative, but his administration played no role in drafting the blueprint.

Local Authors Can Be Friends

By Susan Froetschel -- Library Journal, 2/15/2010

Public libraries can make a local author feel like a hometown celebrity or a major public nuisance. With total book output up and the rise of self- publishing, local authors are no longer rare in many communities.

These days, authors actively court libraries, and I detected a new hesitancy about local authors this year after publishing my third mystery novel. For each of the three novels, I resided in a different community: Henrico County PL System, Richmond, ordered my first novel, Alaska Gray, and invited me to speak at its 1995 annual meeting. New Haven Free PL, CT, ordered the next book, Interruptions, and asked me to run a mystery workshop.

The latest book, Royal Escape, received the best reviews of the three, and yet Takoma Park Maryland Library and nearby Montgomery County PLs expressed no interest to offers of a free program, nor did they purchase a copy. It's puzzling that 26 miles away in Fairfax, VA, eight branches ordered copies of Royal Escape, steadily checked out throughout the summer, according to WorldCat, and I was invited to speak twice at libraries in Frederick County, MD, about 30 miles away.

The need for policies

Local authorship is a common criterion for library selection, along with demand. To handle the onslaught, more institutions enact local-author policies. For example, the policy of Alamance County PLs, NC,begins on a hopeful note: “The Library wishes to recognize the literary efforts of local authors by including their works in the collection when possible.” But it also discourages debate: “Due to limitations on staff time, we cannot discuss individual titles with authors” and warns, “The Library bears no responsibility for the marketing of the author's work. The Library will not act on the author's behalf as a literary agent, reviewer, proofreader, publisher, editor, publicist or bookseller.”

One can only imagine the demands prompting this list.

Other libraries must fend off author donations. Some, like Prince George's County Memorial Library System, MD, ask that authors submit reviews with potential donations. University City PL, MO, has guidelines for print-on-demand or self-published books: “the library is not under any obligation to add to its collections everything about Missouri,” and “In most cases, the library will not purchase self-published materials that are not reviewed in established review journals.”

Specific rules can limit options. Self-published books, often amateurish, can also be the best available on a local topic, and so Tom Cooper, director of Webster Groves PL, MO, recommends making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Tapping local potential

Innovative libraries find ways to use the growing ranks of local authors as a valuable promotional tool for programming and fundraising, inspiring local readers and writers, or creating new connections. For example:

•Local authors judge writing and bookmark contests sponsored by Catawba County Library System, NC; Friends of the Hull PL, MA, and Hull Garden Club teamed up to present flower arrangements inspired by favorite books, including those by local authors, and sell raffle tickets; and fundraisers in Burlington, VT, and Anaheim, CA, have featured signed books and character names as auction items.
•Libraries co-opt local authors into Big Read programs: Tompkins County PL in Ithaca, NY, relied on author Philipp Meyer for John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath; I led a workshop on Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC.
•Recognizing that local authors are taxpayers, and vocal ones at that, some libraries design programs to kill a lot of birds with one stone. Juneau PLs, AK, hosted the state writer laureate and more than 20 local authors in March. Branches of Cuyahoga County PL, OH, hosted a local-author fair in October, asking that ten percent of any sales go toward a Friends program. In December, Nampa PL Foundation, ID, sponsored a holiday reception for the state author in residence and its annual crop of writers.
An opportunity to connect

In the end, 15 libraries in neighboring counties and beyond tapped me for programs on Royal Escape, though my own did not. A local librarian urged persistence, but, as I suspect most authors would do in similar situations, I simply turned to other locales.

With tight budgets, libraries can set limits and still remain lively, welcoming centers for local readings, workshops, discussions, or Q&A sessions about getting published. All this can be accomplished with some public space, initiative, and not much more publicity than quick mention on a community web site.

Books Beat Kindles

Josie Leavitt - March 15, 2010
Publishers Weekly

Yesterday, I spent seven long hours waiting at JFK Airport, trying to get back home from a quick weekend away in Florida. When faced with so many hours in an airport, I don’t read. I people watch.

I saw more Kindles than I ever have in my life: three. I was curious about these Kindle readers, so I tried to speak with each of them. Only one was interested in talking to me.

I was curious what he was reading and was very surprised to hear he was reading a Louis L’Amour novel. He actually whispered it, telling me, “I would never go to a store to buy this.” He loves his Kindle.I asked if he still went to bookstores and he said somewhat sheepishly, no. This echoes what my family in Florida said, too. I was worried about this, then I looked around the gate area.

The three Kindle readers had stopped reading and were just looking around, as if they needed a break from the screen. All the other book readers, and there must have been about thirty readers at my gate, had their heads down, happily turning pages, fairly oblivious to the chaos around them.

One other thing I didn’t see was anyone recharging their book. Not beholden to the proximity of outlets, the book readers were literally strewn about. (Before folks get mad at me, I understand the battery life of the Kindle is long, but at some point they do need to be recharged.)

Are books dead? Hardly. But it’s clear to me at least, who lives in a very bookstore-friendly state, that the e-reader is creeping into the larger book reading world. The Borders here at the airport even sells preloaded Sony e-readers.

One last quick scan of the gate revealed book readers outnumbering Kindle owners by ten to one. That’s a number I can live with, I think.