I can’t believe we’re going through this again.

In January 2005, Time magazine featured on its cover a photo of a young man in a shirt and dress slacks sitting in a sandbox. The headline: “They Just Won’t Grow Up.”  The article featured the research of one Jeffrey Jensen Arnett,PhD, a developmental psychologist who coined the term “emerging adulthood” to explain these puzzling, infantilized adults.

The cover story of the New York Times Magazine this weekend, already situated snugly at the top of the Most-Emailed List, is a near-exact repeat of this story from 5 years ago, this time asking “What is it About Twenty-Somethings?” Again Arnett is the resident featured expert. The Times’ only innovation, besides the slightly higher quality of the writing and the greater length, is tarting up the article with lots of sexy pictures of 20somethings (“I’m lying on my bed, all angsty! Look down my shirt!”) so readers can lust after them while simultaneously shaking their heads.

While they try on various social science hypotheses to explain this transition the overall tone of both articles is condescending, puzzled, frustrated, mocking. Both take the point of view of the print magazines’ aging readership: your mom, who wants you to get a job and an apartment and get married and give her grandchildren.

As I argued at great length in my book Generation Debt in 2006, and in dozens of articles for the Village Voice, Yahoo!, the New York Times, and the Washington Post dating back to 2004, the overwhelming reasons for this so-called “delayed transition” are economic. College costs 1000% more money than it did 30 years ago, yet it’s required for most living-wage jobs. Young people work longer hours while they’re in school, so it takes them longer to finish. Rent is higher too, and the youth unemployment rate is the highest for any age group. Young people have unprecedented amounts of student loan and credit card debt that persist into their 30s. Getting married, let alone starting a family, is difficult, even inadvisable, when you’re not financially stable.

Even when we as a nation try to remedy Generation Debt’s problems, we do so in a way that extends financial dependency. For example, the recent health care bill included a provision that young adults must be included on their parents’ health care policies until the age of 26. Why not mandate instead that the part-time service employers that overwhelmingly rely on young workers provide access to health care coverage?

There is no mysterious collective 20something malaise. The poor position of our nation’s future workforce is the outgrowth of decades of economic policy–the growth of consumer and national debt and the deterioration of the American job market, the protection of old-people programs like Social Security and Medicare and the faltering of opportunity-creating programs like education and health care for all. Maybe the Times should be talking to its own Paul Krugman, not a psychologist.

Or, if the Times editors wanted to emphasize the cultural and personal experience that emerges from this economic background, why not commission a young writer? Why is an article asking “What’s Up With Twentysomethings?” being written by a  writer who is clearly at least in her 50s? I can think of half a dozen writers in their 20s who’d be great for the job. I’d have been happy to do it myself–I’ll be in my 20s for 3 more weeks.

(crossposted from FastCompany.com)

My story has occasioned a healthy amount of reaction around the web, including from TED and Chris Anderson himself.

First, the snark: Maura at The Awl (a commentary site run by ex-Gawkers) calls the story “breathless” and “smug”. Most of the commentators admit that they enjoy watching TED talks anyway. I batted back with some snark of my own but also tried to answer what i took as her serious point, which was that TED seems just as elitist as the old-line institutions it’s being compared with:

“I actually think we have similar concerns about elitism vs. openness.

My contention is that many of the cool things that TED does spread more widely than the cool things that Harvard does, because of its attitude toward openness and its use of social media.
Harvard has a crappy open courseware site–it’s very difficult to find and view many Harvard lectures online. MIT has the best open courseware site, but even the most-watched video lectures have been watched a few hundred K times, while the most watched TED talks have been viewed over 6 million times.

Lectures are admittedly a small percentage of the benefit offered by either TED or Harvard, but they’re not nothing. The spread of the TEDx platform with over 600 events worldwide offers a way for ever-more people to participate, often for free, in a much closer approximation to the TED experience. I would love to see Harvard & Yale try something like that.”

Open Culture , a cultural blog, took umbrage too: “Will watching 18 minute lectures – ones that barely scratch the surface of an expert’s knowledge – really teach you much? And when the 18 minutes are over, will the experts stick around and help you become a critical thinker, which is the main undertaking of the modern university after all?”

I responded: “I never claimed that watching TED talks=attending Harvard. If you read the article closely, I’m asking if *participating in* TED–and to a lesser but broader extent, TEDx–-confers a lot of the benefits of attending Harvard, albeit in abbreviated (and much cheaper) form. That means talking about the ideas with the presenters, including asking questions; forming relationships with fellow TEDsters; and having TED on your resume, which can open all kinds of doors.

In addition, I’m asking if there’s any way that Harvard and other universities can follow TED’s lead and open up to more people. When a single Harvard lecture has been viewed 5 million + times on YouTube, this goal will be closer to being reached.

TED videos have far more uptake than open courseware from MIT or anywhere else–over 300 million views–not only because the content is more entertaining but because they pay very close attention technically and production wise to what works well on the web.

And, with the TEDx program, TED has “released the platform” so that thousands of people, (over 600 events in the first year) , in countries around the world, are able to participate in something that’s often very very much like TED, and most of the time for free, or else for no more than $100. I would love to see Harvard, Yale, and MIT do that.”

Reihan Salam (who is a friend of mine) at the National Review and Matt Yglesias at the progressive blog Think Progress were less bothered by the piece’s tone per se, and more taken with what it might say about the role of the modern elite university in the 21st century.

“The success of TED doesn’t mean that traditional elite institutions don’t have a place. But it provides a very constructive kind of competition,” Salam wrote. “As TED’s “mindshare” expands, will will hopefully see more efforts like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, if only because elite schools don’t want to lose their relevance and their influence. Eventually, the mission of these schools, with their vast resources, will focus more on the wider public than on their own enrolled students, thus delivering more educational bang-for-the-buck. TED is, in a small but important way, teaching educators how to solve the problem of scalability.”

Not surprisingly, I think this is spot-on. I want to reemphasize what I think TED’s achieved with the TED talk. They’ve proved that there is a robust audience for semi-long form lectures on the web that pique people’s interest in topics like robotics, demography, physics and public health. But don’t ask me, ask the teachers of the Teaching With Ted wiki, an independent, self organized group of educators who use TED talks in their classrooms.

Yglesias argues that universities’ turn toward greater openness won’t happen automatically; we should direct philanthropy toward organizations that truly expand educational opportunity. I’m all for that.

Finally, TED’s Chris Anderson seems to be getting concerned that TED is being accused of overreaching. When the article came out, he Tweeted “Fast Company have just published
a truly amazing feature on #TED. Wow. http://bit.ly/aNOsQH.”

Today, he added, linking to Salam’s and Yglesias’s posts above, “For the record, we don’t for 1 min think “TED is
the new Harvard”! http://bit.ly/arU8Z1 Backlash! http://bit.ly/ciCJEV

Duly noted. Those are Fast Company’s words, not TED’s. But I stand by the comparison, because I think it brings up interesting and provocative questions, and that’s what we’re here for.

So I contributed a free post, adapted from the book, to Forbes magazine’s America’s Best Colleges issue, which I understand is concerned more with value-for-money than other college rankings. Here’s an excerpt:

“The essence of learning is found neither inside nor outside the classroom, neither online nor offline. It’s in the flow from lived experience and practice, to listening, researching, and sharing the fruits of your work with a community and back out to the world again. Now that so much high-quality information is available for free–like the 1,900 courses on MIT Open Courseware–and platforms to allow people to exchange words, images and sound online are exploding in use, many of us are excited about the possibilities of self-organized education that is pared down to this essence, thus affordable, efficient and accessible. But whether or not you attend a traditional university, you will need to trace this path again and again, from experience to theory, from empirical to abstract, from action to reflection, from real to ideal, in order to keep learning throughout your life.

Today there’s a lot of emphasis on getting the best value for money in higher education. This is important. But the most important resource in higher education is free. That’s the motivated learner. That’s you.”

I have a new feature in the September issue of Fast Company which connects with DIY U. I was interested in the idea that TED is creating an education brand that is both OPEN and ELITE.

There are several obvious objections to the Harvard comparison:
-TED doesn’t grant degrees.
However, after speaking to many speakers, attendees, and TED fellows, I feel that association with the big TED conference, in person can confer some of the same benefits as an elite degree. Many participants talked about “having TED on a resume.”
There’s a potential wrinkle here in that the TEDx phenomenon dilutes the brand, not for TED itself but for participants. I spoke to one fellow who was plucked from obscurity to do a TED talk a couple of years ago and while it had great effects on his career, he says that these days when he says he’s done a TED talk people say, “Oh, TED New York? TED DC?” and he has to say, no, the REAL TED.
-TED doesn’t directly sponsor serious research or scholarship. No labs, no libraries.
However, it does connect scholars with donors, directly expanding the resources available for their work; and it gets them massive exposure, indirectly expanding the public’s support for this work. This hinges on the scholars’ ability to make their work vivid and meaningful to laypeople in an 18 minute speech. Should we ask any less of our best and brightest? Is this too trivial a task for a Nobel Prize winner? It shouldn’t be the only way we get resources to researchers because there is important work being done that’s too complicated and boring to be sold in this way, but it’s not a bad question to ask of them.
-TED doesn’t provide LEARNING but simply provides LECTURES.
This is true. Lectures=content and as David Wiley reminds us, content=infrastructure. It’s what you do on top of the infrastructure that counts–the conversations around, before, behind, and online. TED has done a lot to promote and facilitate that, especially by allowing people to adopt the TED structure.
-TED doesn’t pay its faculty!
Hrm. Yes, this is a bit of a problem. Do we want all of the world’s professors to have to operate as intellectual entrepreneurs, pandering for donations or shilling some (ahem) crappy book or another? No! Is there room for a class of really, really good lecturers who make their living in such a way, using free lectures as loss-leaders for the paid in-person appearances? Yes. Charles Dickens, Einstein, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among many thinkers who did not count themselves superior to conducting public lecture tours as a means of supplementing their income.

I’m interested to see what my ed-tech people feel was strong and what was missing from this account.

A strange milestone was marked this week in the history of student loans. The total balance of all outstanding US student loans (given as $730 billion in DIY U, based on OMB estimates) is now estimated by Mark Kantrowitz of Finaid.org at more like $830 billion–$605.6 billion in federally guaranteed student loans, which have interest rates fixed and in some cases interest subsidized by the government, and a further $167.8 billion in private student loans, with interest rates that hover around 18-20%. Furthermore, Kantrowitz says, $300 billion in federal student loan debts have been incurred in the last four years.

This means the total balance of student loans has just surpassed the total balance of credit card debt for the first time in history. Each makes up roughly a third of the money Americans owe, mortgages excluded.

The good news here is that at least since the credit crisis in 2008, credit card debt has been going down slightly. Americans are saving more and spending less.

The bad news of course, is that student loan debt is much more severe than credit card debt, because it can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. That means your only “recourse” if you can’t manage your loans is default and in the case of federal loans, that means being pursued until you die. The federal government can and will seize your tax refunds, Social Security and disability payments until your dying day.

From where I’m sitting the buildup of the national student loan balance looks like a massive betrayal of trust. People have been told for decades that this is “good” debt. In fact it’s really, really bad debt. Increasingly, high unmanageable debt burdens are falling on those least prepared to deal with the stresses and costs of college: the so called “nontraditional” adult working class student who is more and more likely to attend for-profit colleges that cost an average of around $14,000. And 40% and higher of these students are defaulting. (The same students default on their loans at higher rates when they attend for-profits, even controlling for demographics.)

This is starting to look more and more like the mortgage bubble. What was first depicted as an exapansion of opportunity now starts to look like a massive scam perpetrated on the socially disadvantaged . The difference is that while the mortgage bubble was happening, homeownership in the US actually rose to an all time high. Whereas while we were adding $300 billion to our national student loan tab, college attainment among young people actually fell.

Someone with experience in the for-profit college marketing business told me that the same online sales geniuses who used to work for mortgage brokers are now employed by for-profit colleges. Their business is the same: fill out the forms, get the money, consequences be damned. Will we stop them this time?

If you are moved to action, check out the good folks at Student Loan Justice , who advocate restoring bankruptcy protection for all student loans.

So I spoke yesterday by Skype to a graduate education class at Northeastern, and one of the questions was about tenure: the tradition of lifetime job security awarded to certain lucky members of university faculty, for the original purpose of protecting scholars with unpopular opinions.

I’m not sure that I agree that it’s important that I take a prescriptive, rather than a descriptive, approach. But I gave rather a convoluted answer to the class so I thought it would be a good idea to clarify, and then by coincidence a critic asked me to do the same thing this morning, so here goes.

The description of what’s happening with tenure is that it’s on its way out. The American Association of University Professors reported back in 2006 that as far back as 2003, part-time and full-time non-tenure-track positions accounted for 65% of all faculty positions in the US, and part-time positions alone accounted for nearly half the total.  That’s positions, not classroom time–if you look at actual classroom hours the percentage covered by non-tenure-track teachers is probably even higher than that. At community colleges, tenure is rarer still; at for-profits it’s unheard-of, so the future is not looking good for tenure hopefuls.

Before we play a violin for university profs, academic labor is not the only type of labor suffering “casualization.” I wrote extensively in Generation Debt about the general devolution of the American labor market toward “crap jobs.” The trend is away from secure, career-long positions with pensions and toward 401(k)s, diminished health care benefits, and freelance, part-time, and contract work. One in six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, and high long-term unemployment is likely to be the norm for quite some time.

Is this a bad trend? In part. It causes unneccessary suffering and anxiety for those who aren’t used to it. It’s unfair, as wealth gets ever-more concentrated at the top in this country and the middle class and the poor are hung out to dry. I also suspect that it’s inefficient, because when companies under-invest in their employees in this way, they are likely to get less productivity and commitment out of them in return, which means they’re leaving human capital resources on the table.

What should we do about it? Political action, perhaps organizing along the lines of the Freelancers’ Union. But even if it were likely to work, petitioning to return to the old system, for higher education teachers or anyone else, is not the best idea. Health care should be nationalized for the lowest costs and the greatest fairness to all, not provided through employers. For retirement benefits,  Social Security, 401(k)s and personal savings–local governments and private companies probably won’t be able to make good on all their pension promises to employees anyway. And all jobs don’t need to be full-time and lifetime-guaranteed to be good jobs. I think it’s a good thing in general for productivity and the sum total of human happiness for people to be able to work part time, quit if they don’t like it–or be fired if they’re very bad at their job.

That leaves the question of pay. I think salaries should be flatter across the economy, so I believe in both higher taxes and a higher minimum wage. Requiring the vast majority of our college teachers to survive on poverty wages–while it shows remarkable continuity with our earliest colonial history–probably isn’t the best idea if we want to elevate the craft of teaching.

How can college teachers make more money? If we could convince fewer people to get PhDs, it might dry up the supply of adjuncts and thus raise their wages. University teachers might be able to earn more by selling their services directly through platforms like Nixty and Knewton and Namaya. Or they might be able to earn more money by teaching more. BYU-Idaho, which is entirely focused on teaching undergraduates, has raised its faculty salary above industry standard but requires its professors to teach year-round–four credits per semester for 3 semesters. If we actually rated and compared colleges based on how good they are at undergraduate teaching, perhaps we could elevate the status of good professors as well as their pay.

Ultimately, if higher education succeeds in becoming more efficient, it will require fewer professors, because labor is the biggest expense in the system. But as David Autor’s work at MIT has shown, the jobs most likely to be eliminated by technology are midlevel clerical-type jobs. More prestigious, higher-paying jobs at the top of the scale can actually be created by increasing use of technology. In a world of increasing “unbundling” of the functions of the university, I could see the former job of the university professor splitting off into curriculum experts (who also have to be very good at the technology); mentors, or learner-experts; researchers; and assessment experts. In a world of increasing reuse and sharing of courseware, a good university should reward its teachers for creating course content that is adaptable, reusable, and reused.

What about academic freedom? I’m confused. I just don’t get it. I’m a journalist. Journalists, if they’re any good, air unpopular opinions all the time. Do they need tenure to protect their jobs, which are usually at for-profit publications that depend on the goodwill of advertisers? Is anyone worried that they get fired occasionally for disturbing the powers that be? It certainly happens. They even get killed sometimes.

164th New York, standing in inspection formation, ca.1863 from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

So prompted by a nonprofit that had some questions for me, I put out a call on Twitter for places to find excellent learning resources online. Chapter 7 of my book includes a resource guide that covers the best known places like MIT Open Courseware, the Open Courseware Consortium, Connexions, OER Commons, ItunesU,
http://academicearth.org/ and Youtube EDU. Here’s a bunch more that didn’t exist when I was writing the book or that I just didn’t know about. Thanks, Twitter folks!

I think what the world may still be waiting for is a centralized repository with a critical mass of users and community features, so that learners and educators can vote up or down, comment or modify the best stuff…and maybe a marketplace of commercial service providers on top of that to sell you a printed/curated/digitally remastered version of the material to meet a specific need, or to connect you with educators, or with assessors that can help you figure out how to get credit for a particular course…ok, I’m dreaming now.

http://einztein.com/ Going into beta testing later this year, a place to find and vote on the best courseware resources online.

http://www.saylor.org/ Just started, but promising:organizing free courseware into academic programs or majors.

http://nixty.com/ Very interesting idea: designed as a platform to help educators create courses around open courseware, and help learners assemble portfolios of courses.

Smithsonian Commons (prototype) http://www.si.edu/commons/prototype/
A nascent attempt to make the nation’s archives freely available to the world.

http://iberry.com/ A small nonprofit maintains this very large open courseware directory for higher learning. Cool community features: anyone can submit or comment on a link. They also have a section on learner support networks built around open courseware.

http://freelearning.ca/ A collaborative initiative of British Columbia’s colleges featuring lots of cool stuff, including a Kayak-like Google search box that combs lots of OER sites for learning resources.

Learning is For Everyone An organization for homeschoolers presents this curated list of resources by subject, from arts to economics and K through adult.

Muskogee Public Schools K-12 Open Ed Wiki Just like it says. A list of resources for K-12.


(history)  http://www.gilderlehrman.org/

A multimedia resources site for teachers on 19th century black history http://www.craftingfreedom.org/. This site follows the lives of nine African-Americans born into slavery in the 19th century, with videos and lesson plans. It happens to be by my aunt, Laurel Sneed. I imagine there may be hundreds on this model, lovingly crafted repositories of resources that are openly available to teachers.

(web design) http://interact.webstandards.org/curriculum/

http://teachingwithted.pbworks.com/ A wiki about teaching with TED.

http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/ New York Times content for teachers.


Around Venezia from Icam on Vimeo.

Video from Openculture.com
http://www.openculture.com/ Clearly a well-edited blog and site bringing a TEDster sensibility to chronicling “the best” cultural & educational media on the web. I am going to bookmark these and would look here for highbrow entertainment as much as for “lifelong learning.” Also! A list of language lessons in various languages. Love!

Got more? Post in the comments!