Structural Thinning: Removing the layers of structure that constrain our students’ potential

When it comes to (higher) education, structure is inherently necessary. It defines resources and commitments, ensures stability, and sets expectations for all who participate. But too much structure is detrimental. For students, it shuts down growth and creativity, and prevents them from benefiting from, and contributing to, the very resources designed to support them. And for educational systems, it prevents them from adapting and being nimble, which ultimately threatens their relevance and viability.

Unfortunately, this is true for experiential learning- the area of education that transports students out of the classroom and into the world through internships, mentored research, global experiences and project-based learning. In an effort to provide students with meaningful opportunities, colleges and universities bury their resources in layers of structure and complexity. To access offerings, students must navigate organizational offices and programs, applications, deadlines, fees and curricular requirements. And if they are fortunate to obtain an opportunity, they must comply with requirements, securing signatures, count hours, and meet stringent expectations.

How ironic that we have managed to suck the life out of the most exciting and expansive type of learning.

So let us begin to remove the excessive layers of structure, starting with opportunities themselves. Keep only what is necessary to ensure value and set students on their way. In our model, we require that experiences are mentored and collaborative, and that they result in something that is meaningful for an identified audience. Mentoring gives students a connection with a faculty or staff member, seeding a relationship that can offer support and encouragement. Collaboration provides students with feedback and challenges them to adapt and integrate as they pursue their goals. And a meaningful contribution stretches students to think beyond themselves, to consider an audience and work to add value through their actions. With these key design components in place, we release all other constraints and open up the universe of possibilities.  

When you begin to view the world through the lens of meaningful projects, amazing things start to happen. The most exciting opportunities begin to emerge from relationships, challenges, and ideas, and all a student needs to get started is a tingle of curiosity, a desire to understand, or a dream of making a difference.

But, without enough structure, how can we support and assess (experiential) learning? What about students who lack the necessary skills or foundation? Don’t we need some level of consistency across experiences to anchor learning and facilitate success? Yes.

As we remove layers of structure that constrain opportunities and experiences, we must add facilitative structure to the process of engagement, supporting students as they work through their projects, and navigate the challenges that they will encounter as they pursue their goals.   

We support student engagement through our PEARL process, helping them Prepare, Engage and Add Value, Reflect and Leverage their experiences toward broader impacts. We guide students through these stages with prompts and exercises, encouraging them to move forward, integrating their experiences with academic and professional goals. And when they reach the end of the process, we award them a Digital Badge, serving as an enduring symbol of their achievement, linking to their final project and communicating their contributions to external audiences. That’s it. No academic credit, no additional costs, and no external deadlines or threats of termination. The experience is theirs to activate and they have unconditional support to help them through.

I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about stuckness, the state that prevents us from flexing and growing as we engage with the world around us. Although this state can be perilous and demoralizing, especially at the system level, at every moment, we have the power to release ourselves by redesigning the very structures that keep us stuck.

The opposite of stuckness is magnificent. It is creative, innovative and inspiring. It is expansive and generative. It is students finding a sense of purpose and direction, seeking out opportunities to grow and challenge themselves, stretching and thriving, adding value and finding their place in a world that needs every drop of their talent. And for our colleges and universities, unstuckness is a renewed sense of commitment to our students and relevance to the world.     

Maybe schools are not a problem, but an opportunity to enhance

A realization that whatever the schools will provide this fall will not be enough…panic. What to do. Enroll our children in private schools. But they will be full, too expensive, and also not enough.

Deep sigh. Addressing the schools directly is no longer an option, at least not at this moment. Too much chaos, complexity, too many variables that cannot be controlled. We either send our children, or we do not. And not is clearly not an option for most.

A return to problem solving. We often frame the problem wrong from the very beginning. Maybe schools are not a problem. Maybe they are not a solution and should not be viewed as such. Maybe they were never supposed to be everything, or even most things, maybe just some things, maybe a base. A base is a starter, a foundation on which you build. If you want an impressive gravy or soup, you use a base, and then add ingredients, a little of this and that until you get depth, flavor, and the layers begin to build.

What if we view formal education as a base- maybe a rich and savory one or fair to middling- but a base nevertheless. Maybe for this year, at least, we accept the foundation that is offered- either in-person or remote, whatever is most comfortable. And then we build.

To build on a base is to enhance. What could that even look like? Dynamic, interactive, alive. Building on curiosity, talents, interests. Stemming from within but connecting with emerging ideas and needs. I know this kind of building. It is high-impact experiential learning. It is my work. It is what I do and create.

How to frame it out? Not too much structure, it will weigh things down. Just enough to allow for clarity and focus, choices and interests to emerge. But it needs integrity, meaning and importance. Something noble that will resonate internally and with the opportunities that swirl around us.

Let’s see. ENHANCE.  Explore challenges, ideas and innovations. Yes, this is always the way to begin, getting close, grounding ourselves in clarity. Natural world. This can be so many things- ecology, conservation, renewable energies, stewarding the resources that are so precious and dear. Hands and heart- using our hands- knitting, crafting, climbing, discovering something we love that brings us joy. Add value. Go ahead, make a difference- give, do or help, and feel your impact, a new kind of power that yearns to be nourished. Numbers and languages. Analyze, break codes, figure it out, cook, measure, translate, speak, sign, understand. Connect and collaborate. Do a project, find a mentor, get input and feedback, translate an idea into action, make something happen and discuss. Envision the possibilities. Feel yourself expand and gaze into the future. Explore career paths, educational programs, new models and paradigms. Where is the world going and what contributions will you make?

You are an ENHANCER, through Reflecting on your growth, you will start to move and see the world differently, the resources and opportunities that surround you, including your school and education. You will see adults ready to share their stories and lessons, communities ready to teach and embrace your gifts, and technology and innovation ready to connect you with possibilities still unknown.

How to support this type of learning? First we must pause to recognize its significance and inherent value.  And then we must begin to build.

Curricular Versatility: Virtual Projects Served 3 Ways

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This summer is testing many things, including the potential of virtual projects.

It is clear that we need curricular versatility more than ever. The idea of leveraging resources and investments in ways that accommodate learners’ individual interests and expectations, as well as institutional goals, is becoming an urgent priority. And although technology provides exciting tools and capacities, we are still constrained by the rigidity of traditional academic courses. Finding models that are nimble, impactful and scalable represents an opportunity for innovation and continued viability.

Prior to the onset of the Pandemic, we, the UB Experiential Learning Network (ELN), created a system to support and catalyze mentored student projects. Through our Project Portal, we design, promote and share projects of all types and focus, while also facilitating student engagement via our digital badge series that follows our PEARL process (prepare, engage and add value, reflect and leverage).

Although we continue to build our portfolio to include mentored research, creative activities, innovation and community engagement, we are finding global initiatives especially popular and versatile. Over the past 10+ years, I have cultivated engagement with partners in the Mara Region of Tanzania, developing collaborative projects that serve as the foundation for our expanding offerings. With the move to online instruction beginning in March, we predicted that once students finished the spring semester and confronted the uncertainties of summer, we would see increased interest in virtual projects, especially those with a global focus.

We are now approximately half way through the summer, and our approach is yielding exciting results.  Of particular interest is the range of distinct applications that feature the same Tanzanian partners and engagement model. Namely, in all iterations, students work through our PEARL process, with identical assignments and reflection activities. Through the modularity of our projects, we are able to customize the delivery to meet specific goals and parameters, offering a uniquely versatile and scalable curricular approach. The three applications and their respective benefits are described below:

Self-Paced Co-curricular Projects

Students can enroll in projects, working individually or in groups. After completing indicated preparatory research and skill development, students work with their mentor to create a project plan, and implement activities in collaboration with global partners. Because the projects are co-curricular, students work at their own pace, and earn a Global Collaboration bade upon successful completion. Students can select from a portfolio of projects or craft a customized project based on their individual interests and skillsets. We also offer opportunities for students to explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on a particular SDG and contextualizing their research through engagement with our Tanzanian partners. See sample projects

Projects Embedded in a Virtual Study Abroad Course

In response to the cancellation of our yearly Tanzania study abroad trip, I will be offering a remote version of the course, visiting the same and connecting with our Tanzanian partners via remote collaborative projects. The course schedule integrates the ELN PEARL process and digital badges, engaging students with partners via teleconferencing and social media. While this virtual version is not intended to replace student travel, it serves as a more accessible and scalable option while complementing and leveraging in-person trips. By engaging students in high-impact projects throughout the semester, they will have the opportunity to apply conceptual learning while connecting their experiences with academic and professional goals. This model for virtual study abroad has generated significant interest as colleges and universities struggle to continue with traditional models and programs   cnbc article  diverse education article

Framing Projects within SDG’s across SUNY system

With the sudden move to on-line instruction in spring 2020, and the resulting disruption to travel-based study abroad experiences, SUNY (State University of New York) leaders were seeking remote learning options for impacted students. Together with a group of SUNY colleagues, convened by SUNY COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning), we designed an innovative course sequence piloted this summer. The program engages students in:

  • Exploration of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Focus on a specific SDG through a selected faculty lens (topical, geographic and/or cultural)
  • Participation in a storytelling module
  • Engagement in a mentored project with a featured global NGO

In this 6-week program, students work through curricular OER (open educational resource) content developed by SUNY faculty focused on specific SDG lenses and storytelling methodologies. They apply their learning through the PEARL process and group projects with global NGOs, including our Tanzanian partners. This model represents a systems-level approach to leveraging individual faculty expertise and global relationships through the creation of OER (open education resources), allowing the material to be repurposed beyond the life of the course, encouraging further innovation around the SDGs and global engagement.

These three variations demonstrate the curricular versatility of mentored projects, and the ability to maximize return on investment through ongoing engagement. It should be noted that in addition to our own investments in our Tanzania projects, our global partners are also leveraging their engagement to build further capacity for their work and communities. Engagement with our students has resulted in significant impacts and new opportunities for external collaboration. This adds an additional facet of versatility, positioning mentored projects as a vehicle for community development and empowerment.

Although we look forward to the return of face-to-face experiential learning activities in the near future, we strongly believe in the potential of virtual projects to catalyze meaningful impacts that are both versatile and scalable in design. It is through challenging ourselves to develop and test these models and their impacts with regard to our students, institutions, and global partners that we fully activate our collective potential.

Self-directed Summer Projects, a Step-by-Step Process

As we immerse ourselves in virtual end-of-year celebrations, finding creative ways to honor our students’ accomplishments and achievements, summer looms large with its uncertainty. With plans for internships, travel, or other structured experiences canceled, and employment unlikely, many are hoping to find meaningful options without the benefit of formal structure or support.

As I promote the value of mentored projects, the appeal is undeniable. The idea of students exploring topics or fields of interest, leveraging online resources, and exploring their own communities and networks leaves many asking where to sign up. But with colleges and universities consumed with COVID-19 related planning, few are offering facilitated support, especially for independent projects or internships. At the UB Experiential Learning Network, we focus entirely on connecting students with meaningful mentored projects, cultivating an ever-expanding portfolio of offerings, while also supporting independent projects developed entirely by students. Regardless of the specific nature of the project, we move students through the various stages of engagement, helping them earn digital badges along the way and encouraging them to take their experiences even further toward deeper impacts.

While our Project Portal is available only to UB students, I am happy to share our model and strategies for transforming summer (or fall) into meaningful projects for all students, regardless of age or background. The most exciting part of this approach is the fact that compelling projects do not require money or privileged access to networks or contacts, but instead depend entirely on students’ willingness to fully commit to Preparation, Engagement and Adding value, Reflection and Leveraging their experiences toward broader impacts. We call this process PEARL and we encourage all students to enjoy its benefits.

But before getting started with a project, and the PEARL framework, students must negotiate two critical tasks that will set them up for success.

  • Design your project

Your project should be inherently meaningful, to you and some external audience that you deem important. In deciding what to work on, focus on the outcome, making sure it is important and worthy of your time and effort, while also aligning with your interests and goals. A good project should stretch you, driving you to seek out new experiences and opportunities that you would not normally pursue, and engage with people, ideas, places and/or organizations in ways that will challenge your understanding and perspective. Your project should fit the parameters of your specific circumstances- namely, do you have a month or an entire semester or year to work on your project? Many students are opting for a Gap Year during the duration of online instruction. Your project can be as ambitious and multi-faceted as you choose to make it, but the initial design should reflect your constraints and expectations from the very beginning. I invite you to browse our available projects to get a sense of scope and framing. Note that most projects are designed to take about a semester, although some can be extended further. I offer some additional suggestions for summer projects at the end of this post, in hopes of getting you started thinking about possible ways to frame your ideas and interests. Remember that in order to sustain your efforts and attention, especially without the threat of grades or assignments, your project needs to be bold and interesting- so allow yourself to get personal and dream big.

  • Find a mentor

Mentors can dramatically affect the impact of a project. Often, colleges and universities pair students with faculty mentors who invite them into their laboratories and research programs, offering support in navigating choices and opportunities. You can enjoy the benefits of a mentor even without a formal placement or affiliation. Simply invite someone whose opinion you respect, someone who has something to offer in relation to your project. Let them know what you are asking- essentially for them to provide guidance, feedback and recommendations along the way, and ultimately vet your final product, providing an endorsement if they are so inclined. Note that you can have multiple mentors, and should seek out individuals who can help you deepen your understanding and leverage your time and efforts. Having mentors can help you follow through with your commitments, not wanting to disappoint them or waste their time. You might identify mentors in your own networks or extended families, but do not be afraid to approach someone in the community or broader field, especially if you have a compelling project and story to draw them in.

Once you have designed your project and secured a mentor, it is time to begin working through the PEARL framework. Take each step seriously and seek feedback and guidance along the way.

  • Prepare

This first step represents an important opportunity for growth and achievement, although few students take it seriously, instead choosing to jump right in. The truth is that we need to ready ourselves for high-impact experiences, establishing a base of context, skills and core understanding. Through my work at the University at Buffalo, I take students to a remote region of northern Tanzania, a place that is jarringly different from Buffalo, New York. Invariably, the students who get most from the trip have a base of knowledge and understanding on which to build. They are able to interpret specific experiences through historical and cultural lenses, building on their understanding to achieve deeper perspective. Similarly, students with basic laboratory skills are better able to immerse themselves in specialized research opportunities, approaching the work with some level of confidence and core competencies on which they can further build. In these ways, preparation sets students up for success and ensures that they will be ready for the opportunities they encounter. In the ELN, we approach preparation through three important steps. Each is necessary and inherently important- so allow yourself to dig in and fully commit to the process.

  • Set your intentions

Imagine yourself at the end of your project, discussing what you accomplished with someone whose opinion you value. When asked what you got from the experience, what will you say? Rather than leaving your learning to chance, it is helpful to set intentions from the very beginning, committing to certain outcomes that are especially important to employers and academic programs and institutions. Take a look at the Career Readiness Skills, which include learning outcomes that employers report lacking in most college graduates. If you are able to demonstrate strengths related to these outcomes, including skills such as collaboration, problem solving, communication, and cultural competence, you will be more compelling as a candidate. You might also review the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics that include outcomes that are of particular interest to academic institutions and liberal arts education. If you embark on your project ready to develop these competencies, you are more likely to find the experience meaningful in supporting your goals. In other words, you will get what you expect.

  • Establish general context

You may choose to do a project related to an area of expertise or instead something entirely new and unexplored. Regardless of your level of experience, it is important to frame your project in a general understanding of its relationship to a broader context. Students often skip this step as well, as they jump into internships, research or other types of experiential learning. In doing so, they fail to establish basic knowledge and skills, ultimately limiting their ability to explore or discuss their experience in compelling and powerful ways. If you are focusing your project on a particular industry or technology, you might begin by exploring the history of innovation, or related or competing discoveries in the field. Before beginning a project with a particular faculty mentor, you might research their body of work, gaining an understanding of their interests and priorities along with their educational and professional background. Spending time developing an understanding of context will help you in many ways, especially when you encounter challenges or disappointments. Rather than quitting a project when things fail to go as planned, you can gain the necessary perspective and identify ways to adapt or better understand the challenges. Before starting a project, allow yourself to get curious and explore the universe surrounding whatever topic you have chosen, noting any areas of interest or surprise that may lead to new insights or areas for further exploration. Here is a tip: If you are not interested in your topic enough to want to explore surrounding context, then you might need to find a different project. Let your curiosity be your guide.

  • Develop specialized skills and knowledge

In addition to general context, many projects call for specialized skills, knowledge or experiences necessary to fully engage and complete the related activities. Rather than be intimidated by learning more, accept the challenge and explore creative ways to obtain access to important opportunities and information. Remember that the internet provides an expansive universe of trainings, professional development, and competence building resources- many completely free and open-access. While official credentials and degrees are valuable, they are not always necessary, especially when projects speak for themselves once executed. You just might find it freeing and enjoyable to explore new skills and areas of development without the need to obtain certification or official endorsement.

After reading through these steps, it is probably not surprising that preparation can take a long time. But depending on your specific time allowance, you can adapt accordingly. Regardless of the scope of your project, however, preparation is a critical step that should be valued and taken seriously. Share your preparation with your mentor, perhaps synthesizing your work through a report or reflection paper. Take pride in what have already accomplished and get excited for the experiences and learning that lie ahead.

  • Engage and Add Value

This step represents the heart of your project- namely, the execution of a plan toward some outcome that is inherently meaningful. In the ELN, we group Engagement and Adding Value together because doing so makes your efforts more powerful. What will your final product look like and why will it matter?  Here are some general tips to consider as you engage.

  • Start with a project plan and share with you mentor before getting started. The plan should focus on the final product and work backwards, clarifying individual components and steps and setting goals and targets to keep you on track.
  • Identify the beneficiary of your project- even if it is theoretical. Namely, what populations or communities might, or should, be interested in the outcomes? If possible, think about ways to engage them through the process, inviting input while also establishing an audience with whom to share your final product
  • Identify any necessary costs or access critical to the success of the project. If obtaining these resources presents risk or uncertainty, you might need to adapt your plan to ensure viability for success. Many students begin projects that they are unable to complete due to funding issues or lack of access. Set your project up for success by thinking through these details in advance and modifying plans accordingly.
  • Seek frequent input from mentors and peers. Sometimes we get lost in our own work and fail to see alternate paths or possible solutions. It is also helpful to get reassurance and validation along the way.
  • Stay focused on the intended outcomes, resisting the urge to switch projects mid-course or take on something different that might seem more exciting or doable. The ability to persevere is an important skill to develop. But also allow yourself some flexibility to explore alternate paths or solutions as necessary.

When it comes to your final product, make it as impressive as possible and think about the various audiences with whom you will want to share your work. In the ELN, students earn digital badges upon completing their projects, and their work is embedded in the badge itself, serving as an ePortfolio of sorts. Regardless of how you display or share your work, the finished product should be polished and fully executed. Make sure you get the final approval from your mentor along with any endorsements or recommendations they can offer. Also ask if you can stay in touch, securing the benefits of continued communication and support.

  • Reflect

Reflection is just as important as the project itself. The idea of stepping away and thinking about what you have done and learned through various lenses will allow you to access new opportunities for growth and insight. In the ELN, we have a Reflection Badge that walks students through the stages of reflection. First, students revisit their learning intentions that were set during Preparation, noting any surprises, growth, or areas for further development. Next, they watch a video titled, “Telling Compelling Stories about your Experiences and Achievements” that shares a process for connecting projects with an audience of interest, perhaps a potential employer or graduate school. I encourage you to watch the video and reflect on your own experiences as they relate to your professional and academic goals.  After watching the video, students practice talking about their own experiences, recording videos of their own. Students report that this process is quite useful, especially the opportunity to see themselves talking, and making modifications to achieve some level of comfort and proficiency. As explained in the video, narratives can be quite powerful, including those we tell others, but even more importantly, the internal narratives that guide our efforts, especially in the face of adversity or challenge. I hope you will continue to reflect on your project long after it is completed, discovering new insights and opportunities to connect with audiences and experiences that will continue to help you grow and find success.

  • Leverage

We almost always fall short when it comes to leveraging our experiences toward deeper and broader impacts. While we invest heavily in activities that can differentiate us and support our goals, we are quick to move on to the next endeavor as soon as we complete the task at hand. But once you have invested in something important, why not continue to harvest the fruits of your labor? There are so many ways you can continue to build on your project to benefit your own professional growth, or further support your community partner. Where will your project lead you? Will you continue to explore a topic, clarify your career or academic pathways, or perhaps seek out additional opportunities to serve, learn, or contribute? So much of our success and fulfilment stems from the stories we tell about ourselves, and others. Allow your project to impact your story, providing insights, humility, and a sense of curiosity that will lead you in exciting and meaningful directions. Find inspiration in other students’ stories by visiting our stories page and think about adding your own.

I hope this process has been helpful with the design and navigation your own projects. I know the first step of “dreaming up” projects is difficult for most people. It happens to be my favorite part. Here is a short list of project ideas for you to consider and build upon. Remember, virtually anything can be a project- as long as it culminates in something meaningful. So be personal, creative and bold. Make your project count.

  1. Raise seed money for an identified cause through some fundraising activity and then invest in start-ups or organizations with related missions, or perhaps develop and pilot an initiative of your own
  2. Find an organization that you believe in and help promote their efforts or build capacity in some meaningful way
  3. Explore your community through a specific lens and create an app or interactive website to invite engagement from others
  4. Do a deep dive into your family history, interviewing different family members and chronicling important events, developing an interactive archive that future family members can enjoy and learn from
  5. Find an internet-based initiative that is seeking engagement such as open-source mapping, Wikipedia, or a global idea challenge and set some goal for participation or recognition
  6. Learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals and embark on a challenge to change your own behavior or those of others in your community or spheres of influence in support of goals or targets.
  7. Choose a part of the country or world that you want to visit and plan your adventure. Allow yourself to explore the region and build your itinerary including travel details and budget- dream big or be realistic and frugal, use technology to transport yourself and make a travelogue to share your journey with others
  8. Explore the COVID-19 pandemic through a particular lens- education, health, economics, etc…- and identify organizations or models that will help us move forward, or alternately, models that are no longer relevant/effective. Focus your project on ways to innovate, better addressing the needs of communities or the allocation or management of resources.
  9. Dig into access and equity issues. Explore your community through a particular lens of challenge and access. Conduct research, interview those around you to understand specific challenges and inequities. Based on your research, identify solutions and engage others in your ideas and plans.
  10. Find a sense of purpose or passion. age in a structured journey to explore different career paths and areas of study and exploration. Allow yourself to get curious, to read, to talk to people, to immerse yourself in new ideas and sources of information. Learn about yourself and your history, and commit to setting some life intentions and goals that will set you on a path toward fulfillment and success.

Let these ideas inspire you to create your own projects, to leverage your unique resources and stories to achieve something important and resonant. Now, more than ever, the world needs doers, professionals who can add value, setting meaningful goals, and navigating challenges and uncertainties toward some meaningful outcome. Regardless of your circumstances or the evolving COVID landscape, know that you have what you need to keep moving forward. I implore you to be bold with your projects, to find mentors to support and encourage your work, and to leverage your investments toward bigger and far-reaching impacts. And most of all, have fun- there’s nothing more exciting than pursuing your dreams.

– Mara

Digital Badge Systems and why we Need Them

I am getting an increasing number of calls about digital badges. Colleges and universities, K-12, adult education, and community programs all wanting to explore the promise of this new pedagogical tool.

The interest is exciting and I am always happy to discuss the potential of digital badges. I see them as a powerful design tool- allowing us to clarify our missions and visions, supporting our students in leveraging our resources in working toward their highest potential. I must be compelling in my enthusiasm, or maybe the promise of badges speaks for itself, because by the end of the conversation or presentation, the leaders are usually ready to sign-up for a system of their own, wanting to discuss next steps and a quick path to implementation. This is the point that gets a little awkward as I explain that there is no one to sign up with- certainly not me, and no template or program to follow or purchase.

How to begin? I try to explain that the badge or micro-credential part of the system is actually the easiest. There are online platforms that walk you through the creation of badge icons, which are simply interactive digital files. You brand badges with your organization’s name and information, the respective title of the skill or competence, and the specific expectations and evidence associated with the skill. On the administrative side, the platform allows you to issue or award the badge, sending the file to the student once you approve their evidence.

But the rest is up to you/us- what do we hope the students will do with the opportunities provided, how will they translate these into success or readiness, and how will they communicate their skills and competencies to the world and to the audiences that matter most? These clarifications and the associated mapping work will frame the next stage of our collective evolution, and digital badges already provide the necessary design tools.

With a little time the “how” to build and support badging systems will become less mysterious. As organizations begin to play with these platforms, we will begin to see the possibilities. And as employers begin to endorse certain badges, or emphasize specific skills or competencies or types of evidence, the market will begin to shift in response. Soon, apps and start-ups (or perhaps Amazon?)  will market badges directly to students, allowing them to sample from both formal and informal educational programs and experiences, weaving preparation with projects, accomplishments and endorsements into compelling digital narratives and portfolios of evidence.

In this way, education will eventually flip. But in reality, students are already the designers, with a bounty of resources and opportunities at their disposal. As the keepers or deliverers of these resources, we should embrace opportunities to help our students translate our affordances into success and further opportunity. Yes, in activating the potential of digital badges we will, ourselves, have to stretch and grow, building capacity to connect our own resources with changing opportunities and expectations. How ironic that in figuring out how to create digital badge systems for our students, we would benefit from working toward digital badges of our own.

A Gift for the New Year: Helping your Student Navigate Higher Education

New Years can be a time of great excitement and anticipation but also one of angst and concern. Over this break, I have talked with many parents who are anxious about their children’s journeys at college, or their upcoming transitions into Higher Education. The conversations have reminded me of the countless discussions I’ve had with UB students over the years, trying to put them at ease while helping them clarify their goals and choices. For whatever reason, this type of mentoring seems particularly needed at this time, so I will attempt to offer some general insights and guidance in hopes that it will find and resonate with whomever is in need.

College is not an end in itself but a portal to opportunities and experiences

With so much emphasis placed on getting into the “best” schools, it is no wonder that students feel extreme pressure and also fear and anxiety. Through my experiences with my own children’s high school guidance process, there has been little discussion of how to prepare students to be successful once in college, or more importantly, how to access the resources and opportunities to best support their happiness, mental health and achievement. While gaining admittance to many colleges and universities can be challenging and certainly worthy of focus and celebration, it is by no means the end, but only a beginning. The notion of leveraging the opportunities and experiences that a particular college or university affords, calls for a different type of support, guidance and empowerment. Since many students select colleges and universities from a distance, that is, not necessarily going deep into respective offerings and opportunities, they must orient themselves while at the same time completing demanding coursework and requirements. Moreover, the process of exploration can take time as students begin to discover what they like versus what they thought they liked or wanted to pursue. If parents can see this exploration as an integral part of the college experience, rather than a failing of the student or the institution, students can embrace the journey more fully and often towards better outcomes.

Curiosity and excitement rather than fear

Intentions matter when it comes to education. Students who approach their experiences through the lenses of positivity and confidence fare better across a number of measures. They also show more resilience, persevering over time and experiencing more satisfaction in their accomplishments. In order to reap these benefits, however, confidence must come from a place of authentic interest, vision or a sense of purpose or belief in what is possible or important. The source must be deeper and stronger than simply wanting to achieve, perform, or make one’s parents happy or proud. It needs to be strong enough to guide students through failures, crises and other bumps in the road that invariably creep up during college.  When students are caught up in fear, I try to help them “flip it”, to set some goals that connect with their curiosity and excitement. Helping students see the value of these intentions early on (in fact, as early as possible) will help them develop an internal “sensor” and an ability to make good decisions when they find themselves off course or in a state of dissonance (when their feelings or outcomes conflict with their expectations or plans).

The value of negative evidence (when we are able to access it)

From the standpoint of helping us clarify our academic and professional goals, negative evidence is even more powerful than our successes. By negative evidence I mean “when things do not result in the positive outcomes we desire or expect”- I hesitate to use the word “failures” which is the obvious way to think about negative evidence. The notion of failure is so charged, especially in education, that we literally shut down when we feel ourselves in its gravitational pull. Instead, think of negative evidence as disconfirming input. If you try one method of studying and you get a poor grade, then your grade suggests that your method of studying is not effective- at least for that particular course or professor. If you get poor grades across a category of courses, then the pattern of performance may suggest certain weaknesses or challenges or perhaps a lack of fit. The point is that our methods and approaches to interacting with our world aren’t always successful or adequate, especially as the context and expectations around us change. Often we need to modify our approaches, and the more information we get, the better we can adjust and adapt. But the beauty of college is that we can pursue areas of study and work that align with our core interests and strengths. So while students will and should experience challenges that stretch and develop their capacities and toolkits, sometimes patterns of negative evidence suggest problems with “fit” and can provide opportunities for students to pivot and explore other pathways that may be better suited. I find the biggest challenge in helping students access the insights offered by negative evidence is their fear of parents’ judgment, disappointment, or insistence that they pursue a given major or complete their studies on time.

Everything is connected but it can be tricky to see the patterns

Students often find me when they have switched majors multiple times, either formally or in their heads. They share a sense of frustration and even desperation as they try to settle on a major, reporting that they have “tried” a number of options, but can’t seem to settle on the right one. As I listen to them list their pivots, I often hear embarrassment and shame, a sense that they have somehow failed and wasted precious time pursuing the “wrong” pathway. In these situations, my work involves disabusing them of this notion of failure and instead encouraging them to see their various efforts as valuable data points. The notion of trying something is exactly what we want students to do in college. In essence, we want them to become researchers on themselves- trying something based on hypotheses or expectations, and then they see how it goes- reflecting on the results and learning from outcomes, they can make modifications and adjustments toward some increasingly clarified goal or endpoint. The great news is that there are so many different career paths and professional pathways- more than students, and certainly parents, even know. And the fact that new fields of study and innovation are emerging all the time means that professional and academic opportunities are much more abundant than we are led to believe. If students are able to see patterns with regard to their interests (and their boundaries), they can find areas of study and work that align closely with their strengths and passions, setting them up for exciting and fulfilling careers and the ability to flex and pivot as the landscape continues to evolve and change.

You as a mentor

Ideally, the relationship between parent and child evolves as the they get ready to start college or university. As my own children get older, I think of myself more as a mentor, recognizing that their choices are largely their own, and that the best I can do is to help them navigate options and experiences, learning as they go towards finding their place in the world and hopefully living fulfilling and productive lives. Being a mentor is not always easy or natural for everyone, but it is a journey worth taking. Here are some points of conversation or exploration that I utilize in my own interactions with students – and even adults who are contemplating professional growth or change.

Start from what you love

I begin my conversations by asking students when they are their happiest, what activities they most enjoy, what they are really good at, or other types of questions that seek to clarify a point of positivity, excitement or joy. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for some students (and adults) to get there. Sometimes we need to look for “clues”, asking what their parents, siblings, friends or childhood teachers would say about their strengths or talents. However you get there, this place of positivity can be “mined” for valuable details about the why’s and how’s and what’s- why do you love to ………….., how does it make you feel, what is it about that activity or topic that makes you feel that way…..   these insights can be pivotal in developing a sensitivity to “fit” with regard to careers,  academic pathways, and learning experiences that might be worth exploring.   

Explore emerging fields and innovations to see what inspires you

You would be amazed at how many students say they want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers (or virtually any other career) and yet show little or no interest in related stories, topics or articles. To be blunt, you cannot really fake interest- even if your parents expect you to. I find that many students, and adults, aren’t really curious about anything- or rather, haven’t discovered areas of curiosity, often because they are so busy meeting the expectations of their daily lives. With the demands of coursework, jobs and related commitments and social engagements, it is easy to become detached from curiosity and inspiration. Taking time to scan magazines, news sites or blogs is a great way to discover or rediscover your interests, a step that is critical to finding greater fulfillment and inspiration.

Examine your own experiences through this aspirational lens

Once your student gets excited about some field or area of innovation, help them examine their own experiences through that lens, identifying any accomplishments, skills or experiences that are at all related. Students (and adults) often miss authentic experiences that may not be tied to formalized jobs or programs. In the world of experiential learning, authenticity is the gold standard. So even hardships, struggles or negative evidence can be transformed into assets and resources related to academic or professional opportunities. Having a strong foundation on which to build is the best place from which to approach growth and opportunity.

What are the key gaps between your current capacity and where you’d like to be?

Once you have a point of inspiration that connects with your curiosity, passions or sense of purpose, and you can see your core capacities and resources on which you can build, now you can identify gaps and areas for cultivation and growth. Notice that approaching our “deficits” in this way is neither threatening nor demeaning. It is simply recognizing a pathway toward a goal or vision that is inherently meaningful AND possible to achieve. This approach is more likely to encourage risk taking, resilience, and grit while supporting mental health and general wellbeing than the alternative approaches often embraced.

Now look at the systems you have access to

Once you have a general sense of directionality and areas for growth, it is time to revisit the systems you have access to- including college or university. I often say that my own university – and really all US colleges and universities- are like grand buffets, with an amazing array of opportunities, programs and resources all waiting for students to activate. Of course, each college and university has a unique assortment of resources, both in terms of formalized programming and unique culture and setting, with people, places and experiences that can be accessed and leveraged. When we lack a clear sense of purpose or inspiration, we often fail to recognize the full array of opportunities that are available and instead see only the negative, pulling us into “the weeds” and undermining our success, fulfillment or growth.

Developing powerful narratives

Realizing that this post is already way too long, I will end with the importance of developing powerful narratives. Stories are undeniably powerful- both the stories we tell those around us, but also the stories that play out in our heads as we go through life. One of the most exciting things about college is the opportunity to develop powerful and resonant narratives about ourselves that emerge as we meet diverse people and ideas, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and explore and test different career options and ways of life. As we gain insights about ourselves and our place in the world, we can practice talking about who were are and hope to become. Sharing this evolution of ourselves with families, parents and friends, can be exciting when others recognize the vulnerability that comes along and respond with care and support. I can tell you that colleges and universities are full of faculty and staff, like myself, who are ready and eager to help your child navigate this process and leverage the buffet of resources and opportunities that we provide. When I contemplate the future of Higher Education, I am unsure whether our institutions in their current states of abundance will be able to continue to thrive. But I do know that they are a gift to our children, our communities and our world, offering riches beyond what most of our students and parents recognize or understand. In addition to helping our children gain access to Higher Education, we need to help them leverage and navigate the opportunities and resources within. I hope these insights and suggestions are helpful.

A New Version of the Higher Education Game

Dr. Nyaronga (Empire State College) engaging with student in Tanzania (his home country)

Can you feel disruption happening?  I can. Higher Education is changing from within, and it is only the beginning.

In the new version of the game, degrees and credentials are still essential, but no longer sufficient.  Experiences and contributions are the new differentiators, with employers expecting to know and see what candidates have done- what they can and will do, if hired.

Some are already playing the new version of the game, leveraging projects to open doors and access opportunities. They know that projects are undeniably powerful. At their best, they can activate ideas, theories and competencies, allowing students to reflect and demonstrate impact through compelling media and testimonials. Imagine students not just saying they are interested in a profession, but instead demonstrating their commitment, their journey to develop their knowledge and skills, their promise viewed through tangible contributions and products.

This is already happening with our top students- those competing for prestigious fellowships and scholarships. The narratives they weave for applications and interviews demonstrate they are already on their way to becoming change agents- they are safe and worthy investments, having leveraged the opportunities and resources afforded them- not just through their colleges and universities, but their unique lives, challenges, and personal stories.

Individualized experiences are clearly part of the answer. The good news (for us) is that we are still necessary. Universities and colleges offer treasures of expertise and knowledge but also the relationships and connections that undergird the best experiences and opportunities, those that support innovation and growth. The same faculty and staff who lead courses and programs can frame-out experiences that prepare students for emerging fields and systems in need of innovation and change. In addition to instruction, they can be facilitators, mentors and guides, opening up their own academic, professional, and even personal journeys for students to explore and leverage.

But how to actualize these latent resources in ways that elevate students’ access while supporting the continued viability of our educational institutions and systems? This question is quietly (in some cases silently) percolating within Higher Education, with implications that are profound and deeply threatening to the status quo.  

Clearly, the new version of the education game excites me. For it is no longer one of traditional prestige or privilege, but instead access and authenticity. It also deeply challenges our notions of leadership- calling on new skills and competencies that are largely yet to be developed or accepted. For in this new version of the game, leaders must re-imagine and re-engineer our systems, moving us from structural constraints and limitations to catalytic possibilities and growth.

As someone who has long worked to disrupt from within, I can feel the energy of this seismic shift. Students and employers are wanting more, and young faculty are neither afraid nor reluctant to meet the call. As we dip our feet into project-based collaboration, virtual exchange, and other pedagogical innovations that open up our university while connecting students with the world in personal and profound ways, we cannot help wanting and pursuing more.

Yes, the game is definitely changing, and many of us are beyond ready to play.

As our universities deepen investments in experiential learning, we need students who are ready and able to play

Increasingly, I see my University as a vast playground filled with experiences and offerings of vibrant shapes, texture and variety. Our playgrounds call us to create, to fill their spaces and open their walls, inviting in and reaching out as we become more experiential, global and integrative.

While our playground is indeed spectacular, I wish there were more students willing and able to play. Instead, many are too busy; consumed with multiple majors, accelerated programs and matters of importance. Others feel squeezed by competing jobs, responsibilities, and day-to-day obligations; and other students simply lack the curiosity or interest to explore.

I know that many of our students will eventually find their spark, but it often takes time. I am increasingly meeting students who wait until their senior year to explore internships or projects, often creating a “gap year” after graduation in order to gain experience and clarity before applying to graduate school or seeking employment. In the meantime, we all stand ready- developing new programs and opportunities, waiting to support students’ interests, passions, and sense of purpose as they become clearer; waiting to connect them with the world and the world with them. I just wish they would come more ready to play.

But how would they even know about our playground? With two college-aged children of my own, I am all too familiar with the seriousness of college preparation. Taking advanced courses, preparing for standardized tests, competing to get into the best colleges, there is virtually no talk of play or leveraging the bounty of experiences once they arrive on a campus.

When I explain to students all that we have created just for their benefit, they seem surprised and somewhat confused. The idea of finding their purpose through travel, research, internships or mentored projects, seems somehow foreign and perhaps in conflict with the prescribed nature of their formalized curriculum. How do we expect them to conform to expectations and competitive standards, while at the same time stretching and soaring, diving into complexity and embracing challenge and ambiguity?

I explain that achievement and mastery are undeniably important, but are not to be sought in isolation, or as drivers of learning. They are not powerful enough to sustain our interest or commitment over time and challenge. Instead, we must seek inspiration, a sense of curiosity, purpose, a drive to innovate, or a passion to lead- goals that are bold and personal, and will provide us courage and comfort when we need them most. These are the ideas that will inspire us to play.

Perhaps it is our responsibility to introduce learners of all ages to our new playgrounds much sooner, inviting them to engage and explore the benefits for themselves. Maybe we can (should) help the community build experiential learning playgrounds of their own. For if we truly believe that experiences can empower students to take their place in a rapidly changing world, then don’t we need to stretch beyond the constraints of traditional programs and curricula, awakening and leveraging our collective sense of purpose and play?

An Elegant Education System?

I’ve always been drawn to the elegant simplicity of well-designed systems.  Perhaps it’s the certainty of success that grabs me, the notion that the desired outcome will be a foregone conclusion once the design is complete and all components working in concert.  Or maybe it’s the inherent leanness, with no extra parts or unnecessary complexities, the entire system existing for a solitary purpose and functionality.

Nowadays we have endless examples of well-designed systems, especially in the technology domain. In fact, we’ve become so good at building them that we find ourselves providing conveniences and applications that we never even imagined ourselves needing or wanting.  Constrained only by our ability to dream up new functions and outputs, it’s not surprising that many view our capabilities as endless with nothing but potential ahead.

Yet in stark contrast to these elegant and efficient applications are the very systems that underlie and affect our most critical societal functions and needs.  And although a number exist, the most troubling by far is the public education system which impacts virtually every facet of our societal health and wellbeing. The target of seemingly endless criticisms and critiques, the education system as we know it continues to be both broken and incomplete with no indication that any of the component pipes or their respective leaders have the capacity- or intention- to reengineer the pipeline into an elegant system.

But since there is no viable alternative to be found, we must forge ahead with the painful yet critical comparisons between an elegant and well-designed education system and our current approach.  For it is only by envisioning our ideal system and ientifying and clarifying the gaps and failures that we can discover the drivers and levers for change.

I look forward to diving into this design and mapping work in the coming months.  I’ll try to post the products of our efforts as they evolve, but please contact me directly if you’d like to participate.

Please view and share my recent TEDx presentation to learn more about why our pipeline is incomplete in addition to being broken….

http://youtu.be/NpNwz0zk7ns

Dear Superintendent (From Say Yes “Letters to the Superintendent” Book Project)

May 24, 2012

Dear Superintendent,

It is with somewhat conflicted emotions that I welcome you to our schools and community. Like my fellow Buffalonians, I have anticipated your arrival with great hope and urgency and a clear understanding that the future of our youth and city lies largely in your hands. But as I welcome you I must also share a sense of caution and a need to prepare you for the darker side of our community’s embrace. You will find that like other cities across the nation, we too are experiencing a heightened need for accountability and change; a need that has grown over the years into an almost ravenous impatience, making us both fickle and self-destructive, and most desperately in need of leadership.

I pray you recognize that these two emotions- hope and impatience- have a common root; the realization that our children are our most precious resource and a fear that we have irreparably failed them. Of course this fear manifests itself in many forms- activism, policies and panaceas- and many voices, each colored by politics, ideologies, and agendas, all clashing and competing in a cacophony of noise.

But fortunately it is not only fear that binds us. Our community is connected by a bounty of riches that we collectively guard and admire, but have yet to unlock.  And while we celebrate our grand history, world renowned architecture, and cultural assets, few realize that our schools are among our greatest riches, offering treasure more abundant than we know.

You see, Buffalo is in the midst of a most extraordinary experiment, one worthy of the country’s most careful attention.  Today, there are no fewer than five major reform initiatives underway across the district- each supported by federal and/or local investments.  They include the coveted Promise Neighborhood grant modeled after the Harlem Children Zone; Say Yes to Education; Choice Neighborhoods, funded by HUD; a $10 million NSF Math Science Partnership grant; and an initiative on the West Side sponsored by Buffalo State College.  While these programs all share a common focus on student and community supports and evidence-based interventions, they also represent important differences, with each initiative testing a fundamentally different approach to school and neighborhood reform.  And at the center of these diverse approaches firmly stands the Buffalo School District, keepers of the participating schools, students, and their respective data.

Indeed, in no other city across the country is the problem of Urban Education being studied in such a fully developed quasi-experiment. The collective data, if compiled and analyzed within a comprehensive research design, could inform not only our own efforts but the future shape of policy and implementation with implications for districts and students across the country.  It should be noted that in Buffalo these efforts are already underway, with each initiative in varying stages of funding and implementation, with its own management and leadership teams.   All that is missing is a champion to rally us around the work and a process to weave together these disparate approaches into a thoughtful and comprehensive vision.

As Superintendent you will be a primary keeper of this vision, but since it has yet to be created there is still nothing to be kept.  We cannot skip the exercise of defining our beliefs, promises, and expectations. Our vision must be powerful, clear, and shared in a way that is meaningful and real- so real that with time we will all know it, dream it, and begin to make it happen- for our students, ourselves, and for future generations.  Clearly, this exercise and our resulting efforts will not excuse us from external mandates or performance expectations.  But it will provide a more meaningful frame through which to address and interpret related metrics.  If done correctly, this vision and its components will provide the clarity necessary for us to be nimble, deliberate, and collaborative- all signs of a healthy dynamic system able to thrive and sustain itself while adapting within an ever-changing world.

It is indeed an interesting and important time to assume your new role as our Superintendent of Schools.  But as you prepare for the many challenges and opportunities ahead, please know that we are ready for your leadership and eager to contribute our own resources and contributions toward the collective good.

I look forward to meeting you and working together in the months ahead,