That “Janitor With a Degree” Study

From USA Today:

Nearly half of working Americans with college degrees are in jobs for which they’re overqualified, a new study out Monday suggests.

The study, released by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the trend is likely to continue for newly minted college graduates over the next decade.

Vedder, whose study is based on 2010 Labor Department data, says the problem is the stock of college graduates in the workforce (41.7 million) in 2010 was larger than the number of jobs requiring a college degree (28.6 million).

That, he says, helps explain why 15% of taxi drivers in 2010 had bachelor’s degrees vs. 1% in 1970. Among retail sales clerks, 25% had a bachelor’s degree in 2010. Less than 5% did in 1970.

So let’s start with the obvious, since maybe one day an enterprising reporter will actually bother to see where the funding for this non-profit entity comes from instead of blithely recycling the language from their press release. Here’s a blurb from The American Independent on CCAP that summarizes the situation pretty well:

The entity behind CCAP is an Arlington, Va.-based organization called Donors Trust Inc., a nonprofit that, acting as a conduit and steward, specializes in funding conservative causes based on the intent of donors, who remain one step removed from the recipients of their donations.

Progressive blog Crooks and Liars spotlighted Donors Trust in April, calling it “a tax-deductible slush fund. If a donor or foundation wants to put money toward a project and doesn’t want it to be a direct gift reportable to the IRS, all they do is give it to Donors Trust.”

If you go to the Donor’s Trust page, it’s pretty clear that you’re donating to get the sort of results that would support defunding education. Here’s the about page:

It is all too common for philanthropic capital (especially from foundations) to stray from the original donor’s wishes and the free market principles that made their philanthropy possible in the first place. As an antidote to this drift, DonorsTrust was established as a 501(c)(3) public charity to ensure the intent of donors who are dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise. As such, DonorsTrust provides an innovative charitable vehicle for donors who wish to safeguard their charitable intent to fund organizations that undergird America’s founding principles.

And here’s what they say about CCAP:

Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). Conventional wisdom holds that America is under-invested in higher education and that students do not have enough access to colleges and universities. The solution advanced by the proponents of this claim is greater government expenditures on higher education. Based on preliminary research, CCAP believes that the opposite is true, and that we are perhaps over-invested in higher education. This research study addresses this deficiency and forms the foundation for later research on how to make higher education less dependent on government subsidies.

So, one would imagine that instead of blandly referring to CCAP as a nonprofit organization we’d refer to them as a “libertarian think tank” funded by the Koch brothers and others (although really, who knows who funds them?). Given the funding and intent of the organization, the chance of CCAP finding that we are undereducated is approximately zero. The chance of them finding we are overeducated nears 100%. That seems important to note.

As for the study, there’s so much unaccounted for in this Vedder study that it’s near to useless. First, the idea that a job that doesn’t require a degree doesn’t benefit from one is weird. My job doesn’t require a PhD. I have a Masters and I do fine. But if I had a PhD I’d make substantially more. I might also be more effective. The same is true for most jobs.

For jobs where it isn’t, there’s usually an underlying story. The United States and Canada, for example, both have a large number of immigrants who come to this country and drive cabs to make a living.  Many of those immigrants have degrees acquired in their native country.  Here’s some actual data from Canada on this:

“Taxi driving was the main job for 255 doctorate or medicine and related degree holders – 200 of which were immigrants. A further 6,040 taxi drivers (12.0%) held a bachelor’s or master’s degree the majority of them (80.7%) being immigrants. Among all immigrant taxi drivers, 20.2% have bachelor’s degree or better; more than 4 times the rate for Canadian-born taxi drivers (4.8%).”

So in Canada, at least, a stunning 12% of cab drivers have bachelor’s degrees or better — but the amount of Canadian-born college educated taxi drivers is a much less shocking 4.8%. Part of the increase since 1970 that Vedder cites is certainly due to the increase in foreign-born taxi drivers, which in 1970 comprised only 8% of American taxi drivers.

This is classic Vedder, unfortunately. Have an intern go into a public database, do a few simple math calculations, account for nothing, call it a “study” (even though it is published and reviewed nowhere). Make sure you choose a year (here 2010, the depths of the recession) that is atypical, and don’t account for that either. Ignore compositional effects, and for your soundbites choose professions (such as cab driver) that are disproportionately impacted by other factors. In short, juice every statistic to get maximum impact, issue a press release about it, and wait for the coverage to roll in.

And the surprising thing is it is just that easy. It gets published, blindly, again and again.

Are we over-educated? Maybe. We are certainly underemployed at this point in time, due to the recession and sluggish growth. A careful study that set out to find out the truth could probably shed some light on the relationship between degrees and the work people end up doing. This is not that study, and it should be the job of reporters to tell you that.

Both MOOCs and Textbooks Will End Up Courseware

From The Chronicle:

Textbook publishers argue that their newest digital products shouldn’t even be called “textbooks.” They’re really software programs built to deliver a mix of text, videos, and homework assignments. But delivering them is just the beginning. No old-school textbook was able to be customized for each student in the classroom. The books never graded the homework. And while they contain sample exam questions, they couldn’t administer the test themselves.

What’s happening right now is that xMOOCs are moving backwards into replicable content from the interaction and assessment pole while textbooks are  are moving forward into interaction and assessment from the replicable content pole.

The end result of this is not necessarily massive classes. It’s broadly used courseware — software that provides much of the skeleton of standard classes the way publisher texts do today. In other words, the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.

This isn’t a trivial shift at all. It marks a shift from the class seen as an event to the class seen as a designed (and somewhat replicable) learning environment. It subverts traditional divisions of labor, and has the potential to radically change what we mean by education.  It will force us to understand the physical classroom as a learning environment as well (albeit a different one) much as the emergence of recorded music created the conception of live music.

But it’s not a new shift, either. It’s been quietly happening for quite a long time now. And after all the talk about first tier schools and massive class sizes burn off, we’ll be left with questions we’ve been asking for quite a long time now: What is courseware? What can it do/not do? What are its implications?

Centralized Course, Distributed Sections (mOOC Clarification)

I’m finally plugging away at a paper  have due for journal submission in a few weeks. It describes the mixable Online Open Course. And while typing it, I realized there is one thing I have never made quite clear here about how it works.

Basically, it’s a centralized MOOC that allows different institutions and informal groups to sign up and run sections. These sections aren’t an abstract entity — they are literally section permissions in the LMS, complete with rights to give announcements to your section, alter submission dates (maybe), and most importantly view your students progress and grades.

The way this would work is this: I work at Keene State. With a faculty member, I put together a course for online delivery, ala xMOOC. We design the course to require work equivalent to about 2.5 Carnegie credit-hours.

A professor at Ball State is teaching a Psychology class that semester. She sees this course is on offer via, and signs up to run a section. Once in, she enrolls her students. Her students get all the mainline communication, activities, and presentations of the course, complete with our Keene State MOOC instructor leading the class. But she also gets the section-based tools I mentioned above — access to student grades, customized announcements and the like. And if someone from Fort Hays or Skyview High School or a university in China or the local bar wants to run a section, they can run one too.

We call these sections subcohorts, and the advantage of many of them is that they may map onto either physical colocation or other existing attributes that promote strong social connection (say, a group connected by blogging). The subcohorts interact with other subcohorts, and form multiple variations of the course, building in a community-engaged project in one case or blogging the hell out of the experience in another. A Community of Practice (CoP) develops around the facilitators of the separate sections, and the individuals in the cohorts share what is essentially a Community of Inquiry (CoI).

I think this is an incredibly powerful idea, and yet I find no one really talking about it in xMOOC-space. The idea that people are infatuated with is to throw everyone into the one massive cohort. Why? Why not this instead? What am I missing?

Here it comes

Kevin Carey, today, in the Chronicle:

Finally, and most important, the Obama administration should expand its vision of what publicly supported higher learning can mean. The MOOC provider Coursera recently announced that it would charge students relatively small sums, on the order of $100, for verified certificates of learning. The marginal cost of making a MOOC available on the Internet is $0, which is why those courses are free to students. By contrast, the marginal cost of assessing student learning, at a MOOC or elsewhere, is more than $0. Authentic, reliable evaluation costs money, and so someone must pay for it. Evaluation is also crucial to granting students college credits that lead to credentials.

Why can’t students use their Pell Grants to pay for MOOCs, even those offered by the world’s most prestigious universities? Because MOOCs are not colleges, traditionally defined. But that definition is an artifact of federal policy. Students can give their federal-aid dollars only to accredited colleges, and existing colleges control the accreditation process. So new colleges, eager for aid dollars, dress themselves up as traditional colleges, with commensurate expense to students, even if that makes no sense in the digital age.

I’ve been talking about this for a while, I know, but the big political impact of MOOCs is likely to be something along these lines. What is and isn’t an institution of higher education in this country right now is pretty bright-line. There’s not all that much room for disagreement.

Government funding for MOOCs would change that. The funding could come at the state level or the federal level.

Is this a good thing? It’s good and bad, in ways we can talk about later. But   this is likely to be the primary political legacy of MOOCs, left for us to deal with long after MOOCs are gone: the number and variety of experiences and certifications that can be funded by government dollars will expand. And once that is true, capitalism will do the rest. As we stated above, it’s a mixed bag for students (and society), but it’s likely a substantial downward pressure on enrollment and tuition for existing institutions. I wonder how many institutions are ready for that?

Between Micropolitics and Martyrdom

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz (2002) / Rich Gibson / CC BY

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz (2002) / Rich Gibson / CC BY

I can’t really add much to the beautiful eulogies for Aaron. Except perhaps one thing.

Somewhere back in the 1970s micropolitics emerged as the dominant paradigm of change. As a Generation Xer, it’s really all I’ve ever known. My parents grew up in the civil rights age, where the idea was to get hold of the levers of power and use them. I grew up in the Think Global/Act Local age, where we all try to affect our immediate environs by being slightly better people and somehow this is supposed to lead to a better future.

You can see the massive failure of this Act Local paradigm in environmentalism, which sold us on micropolitics as a solution. We have a population now that busily sorts its trash while we careen towards global apocalypse. And while polluters continue with abandon, even supporting our cute little recycling efforts.

So one problem with micropolitics is that it does not work.

The second problem is that the Rosa Parks’s of the world did not really go away. But when they emerge nowadays, micropolitics is a lousy way to break their fall. We need money in the movement, people to staff it. We need think tanks and lobbyists. We need media people, lawyers. People like Aaron should not have to worry that they will bankrupt themselves or that there is a chance in hell that they will go to jail for 30 years.

The most depressing reaction I have seen to Aaron’s death is the “PDF tribute” — put up your your PDFs of articles! Pay tribute!

Putting up your PDFs will change things about as much as sorting your trash will stave off global warming.

This is not a micropolitical problem. The reason a prosecutor could act with such cruelty is that there is a set of people with hands on the levers of power, and those people reward cruelty in IP cases of this sort.

If you care about this stuff, stop mucking around with sorting trash, and get your hands on the levers. The  conspicuous lack of strong macropolitical institutions creates the hole activists like Aaron fall through. It creates a system that requires we feed it martyrs. We should be looking for ways to address that, not posting the PDFs we should have been posting anyway.


From Sue Jacoby’s Age of  American Unreason:

Reverential images of self-education have been deeply embedded in the American psyche from the colonial period and persist today, in an era characterized by a mania for specialized educational credentials that Emerson could not have imagined. Yet these images have cut two ways in shaping American attitudes toward intellect and education: they combine respect for learning itself with the message that there is something especially virtuous about learning acquired in the absence of a formal structure provided by society. After all, Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod and bifocals without government support for his research, and Abe Lincoln grew up to become president without ever attending a university. That Franklin was a genius and that Lincoln bitterly regretted his lack of systematic formal schooling is left out of the self-congratulatory story of American self-education. Tinged with a moralistic romanticism, the American exaltation of the self-educated man is linked to the iconic notion of rugged individualism and has often been used to refute any idea that education is, for government, an obligation of justice. In this version of American history, Lincoln was a better man, a better American, for having struggled to learn against the grain of his immediate environment. The triumph of the extraordinary self-educated man is transformed into a moral and social lesson: If you want to learn badly enough, no one can stop you, and the community has no special obligation to create conditions that provide support for the intellectual development of its members.

The Odd Failure of Customized Learning

Dan Meyer has a great study from the early days of programmed learning linked from his latest post. This paragraph in it caught my eye:

Benny has used IPI material since the second grade and is familiar with the system and seems to have accepted the responsibility for his own work. He works independently in the classroom, speaking to his teacher only when he wants to take a test, to obtain a new assignment, or when he needs assistance. He initiates these discussions with his teacher. He does not discuss his work with his peers, most of whom are working on different skills. Therefore, individualized instruction for Benny implies self-study within the prescribed limits of IPI mathematics, and there is never any reason for Benny to participate in a discussion with either his teacher or his peers about what he has learned and what his views are about mathematics. Nevertheless Benny has his own views about mathematics — its rules and its answers.

(bolding mine)

This article is from 1973, and one of the points Dan makes is that the system is trivial enough to be gamed (as such systems are now). The bigger point he makes is that we’re not much advanced from this — we keep end up reinventing the wheel here, except it’s a square wheel that didn’t work then, doesn’t work now. And we would know that if Silicon Valley had any interest in the history of pedagogy.

What I find interesting in it personally is the text in it I bolded above. Benny, the student the study is about, has some odd ideas about mathematics, induced by peculiarities of the testing system. But he’ll never know they are odd because the individualized instruction makes discussion with peers impossible.

When you and I read a thing on Monday — say, that distributions can be bimodal — it’s pretty natural to talk about what that means on Tuesday, at which point I may find out that I actually didn’t understand it at all. The teacher says, hey, lets list out some things that might be bimodal — you say heights, because of the male/female thing, and the teacher goes GREAT, you can kind of imagine those two peaks! and I think, wait a second, what? PEAKS? Do you need two peaks? I thought bimodal just meant there were two numbers that were tied for being the most frequent…

It’s really hard to do that if instruction is individualized. By the time a broad discussion can happen, my misconception is pretty firmly set in my mind, and it’s going to take a bit of doing for me to unlearn it….