Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Red Balloon: What It Is

On October 29, 2010, Dr. George Mehaffy, (Ph.D. in Education from the University of Texas at Austin) and now Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change at American Association of State Colleges and Universities, came to Fresno State for the FSU "Red Balloon Launch Event." Mehaffy is the parent of Red Balloon, and he travels, speaks, and writes to promote it.

Fresno State has bought in. See the Fresno State Red Balloon Project site:

Fresno State Academics: Red Balloon Project

Mehaffy outlines the problems Red Balloon seeks to confront and the solutions it proposes in a short article: Medieval Models, Agrarian Calendars and 21st Century Imperatives

What follows is my summary, with analysis at a minimum, of what Mehaffy's Red Balloon is all about. Readers who have additional information, please feel free to comment, below.

Mehaffy considers three pressures operating on higher education: declining state allocations; greater expectations about what universities can do to educate people (He cites the Lumina Foundation’s goal that 60% of adults should have “high quality” degrees by 2025 and seems to accept it.); and changes in technology that allow us to “find, aggregate, and use information in new, networked, more powerful ways.” Mehaffy offers the third “pressure,” new technology, as at least a partial solution to the problem of lower allocations and a way to achieve the goal of getting so many people “high quality” degrees.
Mehaffy sees the university as we’ve known it since the 1970s as failing. For instance, the percentage of Americans with college degrees has been at the mid-twenty percent range for 40 years, and he believes we can do much better. It is institutions rather than students which are failing:

We currently lose a substantial number of students who enroll in our four-year institutions. Many academics would simply suggest that students who drop out are unprepared for the academic demands of college. That kind of thinking pervades the academy, found equally in classrooms as well as the institution as a whole. Students who fail, in the view of too many, are simply not prepared, not qualified and subtly, not worthy. It is the old idea of college as a sorting machine.

Mehaffy says we are faced with the following question: “How do we educate more students, to higher levels of learning outcomes, with less money?” Mehaffy acknowledges the replacement of full-time faculty with part-timers as a reality, and seems content with it. Now, he says, we need go further in reducing costs, while educating more people more effectively. We can do this by changing  “the model for the delivery of learning.” Although he doesn’t say so in this article, I think he has internet “delivery” in mind.

            Mehaffy’s answer to the problem is to start with collective wisdom. He says, rightly I believe, that the wisdom of a smart group is greater than its smartest member. Most creative work does have a large element of collaboration. Think of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Tribe of Ben, think tanks of various kinds—they all demonstrate the historic truth of this. Minds thrive in connection with other minds. Mehaffy marshals a lot of evidence to prove a truth which I think is obvious. All of us already work in a highly integrated networks, kept together with professional journals and organizations, and now the internet. The poster child for the Red Balloon project was a $40,000 contest conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the money awarded to a team that could locate 10 red weather balloons placed around the country in plain view. An MIT team was able to do this in short order. This proves we are all connected, so to speak. Mehaffy sees big implications for education in this.

            What applications does new information technology, mainly the internet, have for creating a new model university? Mehaffey asks the following rhetorical questions:

1. How are our universities going to use these new models of knowledge acquisition and application to change the way teachers teach and students learn?
2. How are we helping prepare students to be creators, disseminators, and strategic users of this new knowledge in what is now a deeply networked environment?
3. At the most important level, how are we beginning to deal with the challenge presented by new technologies to traditional, top-down notions of expertise and authority? How can we use the new technologies, and the ways of knowing embedded in them, to challenge and reshape—even reinvent—universities at every level? What long-held assumptions about teaching, learning, and about the role of the professor still have resonance in this age of the Internet? And which assumptions regarding the academic enterprise must be discarded? [My highlight--this is where Mehaffy begins to move toward policy recommendations.]

For Mehaffy, teaching and learning seem to be mainly about the acquisition of information. The old model university had one expert, the teacher, delivering content to non-experts, students. The professor, in Mahaffey’s view, was a monopolist of information, and students went to him or her for access. But today, since content is everywhere, that model is outmoded. 

Mehaffey is clear that the new job of professors will mainly be to design “learning environments” rather than focusing on delivering content. This will necessitate course redesign. In a “content rich environment,” where information is at the touch of a fingertip, faculty should concentrate on creating learning environments where they may spend the majority of their time outside of classrooms, designers of student work which is mainly independent of faculty, working in a support role.

Here is what is on the Red Balloon Agenda:
1. New Models for Institutional Organization and Design (Academic Affairs-Student - Affairs collaboration, new departmental/college structures, etc.)
2. New Models for Enrollment Management (academic advising, tracking, early warning, predictive modeling, etc.)
3. New Models for Faculty (different kinds of faculty work, the use of part-time faculty, etc.)
4. New Models for Curriculum (degrees limited to 120 hours, interdisciplinary programs, new designs for general education, etc.)
5. New Models for Course Design (reduced seat time, student-centered learning, undergraduate research, project-based learning, etc.)
6. New Models for Instructional Design (new forms of student engagement, use of technology in teaching, distance education, etc.)

This is all vague enough, but to be fair, Red Balloon is an on-going project. The idea is to do the above by collaboration with the campuses involved, over 200, to pool information and come up with ideas that make university professors more effective teachers.

You can get a sense, however, of what Mehaffey means by course redesign, and where this all might be heading, by going to his blog:

Looking at the entry for February 17, 2011,” The Red Balloon Project and Course Redesign,” I got a more explicit sense of where Mehaffey wants to take higher education:

A recent meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education found that on-line instruction is marginally better that face-to-face but that blended courses yield the best results.  That’s not surprising when you think about it.  Learning, after all, is a social activity most of the time.  I think the need for human contact is enormous.  Faculty in face-to-face settings get to respond to confusion or errors, encourage and motivate, and put a human face on the enterprise.  Yet web-enabled portions of a course, when designed well, will allow exploration and individualization that is often not found in a classroom.
What’s intriguing to me is if you take the concept of blended one step further.  Let’s say you build a blended learning course with 50% of the time face-to-face, and 50% web-enabled.  Once you remove a portion of the course from the hands-on control of the faculty member, what’s to prevent several faculty, at the same institution or anywhere in the world, from working together to build a much more powerful learning environment for the online portion, and then sharing the result with the other collaborators?  That does several things, it seems to me.  First, it would harness much greater human talent than one faculty member could provide.  It might create a much more robust, engaging collection of materials and activities.  Furthermore, when a faculty member no longer has to do all of the work of designing and collecting materials, they might be freed up to spend more time with students who need assistance.

What could be wrong with this? Faculty working together, pooling resources, creating the best on-line lectures about Shakespeare's work that money can buy, disseminating them to students as 50% of a Shakespeare course, in a learning environment which is student-centered (though I'm not sure what this would be), and then doing the same throughout the curriculum. Physics, Chemistry, Calculus, Latin, History. We might eliminate much of the faculty, cutting that expense, and educate students better. Quality control could be centralized from Long Beach, in the CSU system, at least with regard to on-line lecture components. Why not do this? Wouldn't it be better for students and taxpayers?

I will respond to that question in a few days. But I will say, for now, that I think Red Balloon is based on false assumptions about information, university teaching, and people. Like all utopian educational schemes, whose ambitions are large scale social engineering (60% of adult Americans with high quality degrees!) it is not just unrealistic, but morally obtuse about human malleability and free will. 

Next Post: Red Balloon: Why It Will Fail

1 comment:

  1. This kind of jumping on the bandwagon of one person's ideas--not fully examined--about education reminds me of the disastrous results of implementing for decades the "whole language idea" (Krashen in CA) or more recently the testing craze. In my 30 years of observing and working under the ever-changing educational trends in this country that come and go every few years, where all previous models are trashed to promote new ones, I am very weary of all these "revolutionary" "research-based" fads being adopted wholesale. Adjustments based on new findings--yes. Those lead to evolutionary changes that are better thought-out, examined, and preserve what is best about the existing models. The U.S., with its capitalist hunger for novelty, is notorious in latching onto new ideas in indiscriminate ways, creating binary hostilities to existing ideas, trashing them, as new ideas are enthroned--in most cases throwing the baby with the bath. Piaget out, Vygotsky in! (combining insights from both is unimaginable) Chomsky out! Deconstruction out! All the time re-inventing the wheel, instead of building up on what's best. I'm reminded of Slavoj Zizek (a Lacanian Marxist philosopher, theorist), a darling of American academia now that the previous generation of European thinkers (Derrida, Lacan, etc) are gone, being asked why he is still using Lacan, since Lacan has outlived his fad here. He was flabbergasted--"I am Lacanian! There is a lot that those theories can teach us."
    And now the Red Balloon and other "initiatives" that will soon be trashed again. The fury and the mire of it all!