Well, they were the ones who raised education as an issue …

Jeff Dieffenbach

Credit: Photo by Max Fischer from Pexels

Let’s address the elephant (ha!) in the room right up front. My politics lean progressive. But I’ll do my best not to let those politics get in the way of my comments on a June 28, 2021 Boston Globe article entitled, “Generation Z seeks the kind of results that Republicans can bring to the table.

In keeping with the theme of this blog, let me note that my comments aren’t completely out of school–authors John Olds and Samuel Garber raise education as one of four “Es” that young Americans care about: “entrepreneurship, education, the environment, and equality.” While I don’t know where “entrepreneurship” would poll among this demographic, I’d certainly agree with the other three.

On the topic of education, Olds and Garber might consider a trip back to school to brush up on critical thinking, argument, and debate.

For those outside the paywall or unable/unwilling to muster the energy to click through to the article, Olds and Garber begin:

As a generation born into endless foreign wars, tempered by a devastating financial crisis, and coming to maturity during a pandemic, Generation Z has a persistent yearning for any semblance of attention to the issues affecting young Americans. Throughout the past year, we have listened to and learned from our peers on the ground throughout the country and heard their complaints about our current state of politics. Our generation is frustrated that the political system does not care about them. Unfortunately, the byproduct of this sentiment has been a Democratic Party that feigns interest in us in exchange for our votes. The Democrats manipulate young voters with undeliverable promises such as free health care and free education even though these so-called solutions are not free, substantive, or even able to be implemented. The frustration of young Americans is not borne of innate progressivism; it is borne of a lack of choice. Over the past year, we have engaged with members of Generation Z across the country with town halls, grass-roots programming, and social media campaigns through the organization we cofounded: Gen Z Grow Our Platform.

My main objection will be one of asking for evidence, the foundation of making an argument. I won’t tread into the waters of what-about-ism, so I’ll just ask for evidence that the Democratic Party has a monopoly on feigning interesting in exchange for votes, manipulating voters, and the like. Readers interested in learning more might start with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? I’ll certainly agree, however, that young Americans have a lack of choice.

Not that Olds and Garber are looking to conceal their partisanship, but I suspect that I’m not the only one to notice that “Gen Z Grow Our Platform” abbreviates to Gen Z GOP.

Young Americans feel ignored by political power structures. As Democrats pay lip service to their causes, Republicans are seen as antagonists. And through it all, the next generation of American leadership desires a good-faith engagement on the issues they care most about: entrepreneurship, education, the environment, and equality. These four policy areas have Republican-inspired solutions, but the party needs to communicate its position on these ideas and have a conversation around them to properly engage young Americans.

“… have Republican-inspired solutions as well as Democratic ones, but the party needs …” There, fixed it for you.

This generation has a deep desire to innovate and create the businesses of the future [ENTREPRENEURSHIP]. We want to be our own bosses and manage purpose-driven enterprises. Republicans have long supported the free market, but we have failed to share how those policies allow this generation to fulfill their dreams. The conservative movement has an opportunity to own this issue. It’s time to communicate the connection between market systems and personal independence. On policy, Republicans stand with the risk-takers and dreamers, but we must highlight this mission.

Failure noted.

Generation Z is faced with an educational crisis: mountains of student debt and a general feeling that the EDUCATION system does not serve them adequately. Republicans must prioritize solutions that reduce the cost of attending college and prepare students for real life. Republican administrations have long spoken about the value of educational choice and academic freedom. Yet these messages and policies have not translated into narrower achievement gaps or a sense of hope. Republicans must address educational issues proposing real solutions to the issues families face. Conservatives can offer a pedagogy that prepares students for life and for the specific job they intend to hold upon graduation or the businesses they want to build, all while standing for free speech and the advancement of free thought.

Failure noted.

As for addressing student loan debt, that’s an area in which the noise is all made by Democrats.

While Generation Z cares about the health of the natural ENVIRONMENT, many Republicans are continually sandbagged by climate change denial. While Democrats dominate environmental policy discussions with talk of a Green New Deal, Republicans cannot be unengaged. As Democrats posit doom, Republicans cannot offer denial. Generation Z seeks results, and Republicans can bring these to the table. The conservative movement should prioritize free-market solutions to climate change, propose common-sense pathways to a renewable energy future, and give some indication to Generation Z that they care about the global issue of our time. Republicans can put forward solutions that will actually work and be enacted.

Failure noted.

It’s of course not fair to say that Democrats “posit doom”–the Green New Deal is all about positing a future that works. On the topic of the environment, we quickly find ourselves back on education’s turf. Namely, a belief in science.

EQUALITY is an important issue for Generation Z. Whether it be on the basis of religion, gender, race, or sexual orientation, young Americans are keenly aware of the inequalities that persist in our society. If the Republican Party is to be successful, we need to discuss how conservatism must offer equal opportunity in our economy, our workplaces, our communities, and for our families. A Republican Party that values inclusivity of races, voices, and identities is the only GOP that can win the hearts and minds of Generation Z. As cancel culture and “woke” politics pervade the national discourse, Republicans can occupy reasonable ground. Valuing equality of voices — conservative and liberal, traditional and nontraditional — is crucial and common sense.

Failure noted.

The cancel culture extremes of the left are admittedly a reaction too far. But they are by far not the perspective of the left as a whole.

These four issue areas are the keys to success. Republicans and conservatives have the solutions, but we must talk about them. The defining feature of Republicanism can be a devotion to positive change for the next generation, or it can be a preoccupation with the past. As Gen Z Grow Our Platform refocuses its energy on these important issues, we intend to show Generation Z that the American right can meet them where they are and deliver real progress. John Olds is the executive director and Samuel Garber is the executive vice president of Gen Z Grow Our Platform.

If the American right can meet young Americans where they are and deliver real results, I’d be thrilled. America should aspire to a vibrant two-party system. We’re only one party away.

The article’s subtitle echoes the point above: “But the party needs to engage the next generation of leaders in good faith.”


Ignorance is bliss?

Jeff Dieffenbach

[Credit: Student Loan Hero]

Fordham political science professor Nicholas Tampio’s Boston Globe opinion piece, “How much do English majors make? Don’t ask” (PDF), wouldn’t rate a passing grade in any college course I’ve ever taken.

Professor Tampio eventually gets around to an interesting line of thought (more on that below), but not until he’s weakened his credibility beyond repair. His central argument is that students in higher education shouldn’t know anything about the earnings that result from their selection of university and major, lest they be steered away from by some measures worthy but less lucrative professions. Perhaps he’s due for a re-read of the mission statement of the very university where he plies his craft?

Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, is committed to the discovery of Wisdom and the transmission of Learning, through research and through undergraduate, graduate and professional education of the highest quality. Guided by its Catholic and Jesuit traditions, Fordham fosters the intellectual, moral and religious development of its students and prepares them for leadership in a global society.


“Discovery of wisdom” indeed.

In an ideal world, people would be free to follow their educational passions. And if that education were free, likely more would. But as Student Loan Hero reports, Americans owe $1.7 trillion-with-a-T in student loan debt, almost $740B more than they owe on credit card debt.

A freshman matriculating at Fordham in the fall of 2021 faces a tuition, fees, room, and board bill of over $80,000. Is professor Tampio really suggesting that these student should know less about the implications of their higher education decisions than they do about their choice of mobile phone?

I’d take issue with professor Tampio’s stance were he an objective observer. But he’s not–assuming that his Fordham compensation reflects a significant portion of his income, the self-interest is blinding.

Professor Tampio’s opinion piece comes in response to a bipartisan group of US Senators backing the College Transparency Act (CTA), which would ensure that

students, families, policymakers, institutions, and employers have access to accurate, timely, and high-quality information to answer critical questions about college access, affordability, completion, workforce outcomes, and equity.

Sounds reasonable to me. Professor Tampio continues …

Professor Tampio: "Unfortunately, the College Transparency Act could reshape how students, families, policymakers, and the public view the purposes of higher education."


Professor Tampio: "The system would publicize only some outputs of college — especially how much money students make — and not, for instance, surveys of graduates’ satisfaction. This would have the effect of nudging students and families into viewing college as being primarily about making money."

I’d love to see measures such as satisfaction be added to what the CTA proposes to collect and report. But I wouldn’t let the absence of such measures stand in the way of passing the CTA.

Professor Tampio: "American higher education’s commitment to academic freedom means that professors get to choose what to teach and research, and students have options about majors and courses."

Why shouldn’t students have access to information to inform their selection from among those options?

Professor Tampio: "Do we really want central planners to set up a system that leads students to think more about their anticipated income?"

The CTA is hardly suggesting the creation of “central planners”–rather, it’s suggesting a source of data not unlike that collected by the Department of Education or the Department of Labor to inform wise decision-making.

Professor Tampio: "Does anybody doubt that engineering graduates earn more than comparative literature graduates, at least shortly after graduation? Most students already have a decent idea about what they will be able to do with their degrees."

Professor Tampio asserts without evidence that “most students already have a decent idea about what they will be able to do with their degrees. Unless he’s defining “decent idea” so abstractly as to be without use, I see no support for this claim.

Professor Tampio: The College Transparency Act could lay the foundation for the government to eventually refuse to pay for programs with modest student economic outcomes.

Here, finally, professor Tampio has an interesting point. Data collected as part of the College Transparency Act could be used by the federal government or by state governments to choose how and where to direct funding in support of higher education.

Do we want government making this type of decision? That is, directing funding toward institutions and majors that demonstrate good outcomes? We do. But the debate here is worth having, unlike the debate on whether to collect the data and inform students and families.

May I have my attention, please?

Jeff Dieffenbach

[credit: Fast Company March 2016 – anti-distraction helmet]

As the Fast Company article at the link in the caption above spells out, distraction’s assault on attention is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s long history makes it no less an assault, however.

Maybe the “everything’s available at a click” essence of digital isn’t the culprit. Maybe attention has never really been my thing. Maybe my attention challenges fall well within the norm. Maybe it’s just that the way I perceive my attention fails to live up to my attention ideals.

Of late, I’ve been fighting back. And gaining ground. So I’ll tell you about it … just as soon as I’m done checking out this new cycling video my friend Slacked me.

Where was I? Oh, right, regaining control over my attention.

I don’t recall exactly when this attention quest captured my, well, attention. But Barbara Oakley’s excellent “Learning How to Learn” self-paced online course on Coursera (free, or with a credential for a nominal fee), co-taught with Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, gave me a great first tool in my attention toolbox.

Namely, the Pomodoro Technique.

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set the “pomodoro” timer (traditionally, to 25 minutes, but vary as works for you)
  3. Work on the task
  4. End work when the timer rings
  5. Take a short 3-5 minute break and then return to step 2
  6. After 4 “pomodoros,” take a longer 15-30 minute break and then return to step 1

I’ve found the Pomodoro Technique to work well, but only within a larger tactical approach that I developed to help me train my attention where I want. They key here is “tactical”–my objective has been to find practical techniques that work for me, not necessarily extend an evidence-based body of work.

To that end, I searched for practical, published, evidence-based approaches, but quickly find myself awash in a sea of articles: “5 steps to pay attention,” “7 easy ways to avoid distraction,” “8 tips and tricks to focusing your mind,” and so on. That’s not to say there isn’t a great resource out there, but I haven’t found it. (Granted, while looking, I may have gotten distracted … if you know of something good, please post in the comments.)

My approach:

  1. Commit to wanting to pay attention to the task at hand. Without this commitment, the shiny objects will win every time.
  2. Appreciate that attention to some tasks, such as participating in a meeting or class, can be really hard to regain once lost. Once you stop following the thread, tuning back in and trying to make sense of what’s going on can be quite difficult, making regaining attention even harder still.
  3. Don’t try to be a superhero. Commit to paying attention for a reasonable amount of time. That duration will likely vary with the nature of the task, the time of day, and other factors. The Pomodoro Technique’s 25 minutes is a good place to start.
  4. Don’t fall prey to thinking that you need to finish a something during your period of attention (another lesson from Learning How to Learn). That kind of “product” thinking will get you in trouble for all but the smallest/most manageable products. Instead, think process in the form of feasible units of time.
  5. Hide distractions. I have my digital life set up that I only get notifications on my phone, and with a couple of exceptions, only visually. So when I’m in attention mode, I turn my phone upside-down so that I don’t see the new message indicators. (Note that research shows that even having a phone in the same room with you, literally turned off and out of sight in a drawer, still creates a distraction–if you can, put your phone and other devices in another room or even on another floor.
  6. Take notes or otherwise practice active, engaged learning. In essence, a note you take is a test you’re giving yourself. Tests have the effect of cementing information in your long term memory. And active learning is shown to be more engaging than passive.
  7. In keeping with taking notes, jot down on a to-do list any unrelated tasks that come to mind. Don’t head off to check the weather, simply note down to check the weather when the task at hand is complete. [source]
  8. Train yourself to pay attention to when you’re starting to lose attention. I quickly developed the meta-awareness to sense when I’m drifting off-task and direct myself back on.
  9. Reward yourself for having stayed on task. The reward isn’t just the break between “Pomodoros.” It doesn’t need to be a cookie, a New England IPA, or cold hard cash. It just needs to be an immediate self-pat on the back to prompt a brief hit of dopamine for accomplishing what you’re trying to accomplish (see 1, above).
  10. Don’t punish yourself for imperfection. You won’t always pay attention when you want to. That’s okay, water over the dam and all that. The only thing that matters is the next attention you pay, not the last one you didn’t.

Is the list above tried-and-true? Well, it works for me. Has it been subjected to a randomized control trial? Certainly not by me.

The list above speaks to tactical steps to help stay on task. More broadly, generally healthy practices will also help with attention. Be well-rested. And well-nourished. Be physically fit. Develop a mindfulness practice (this article references unspecified research citing the attention benefits of meditation). Practice paying attention–doing so leads to a better ability to pay attention [source].

With the tactical approach outlined above, I’ve been paying better attention. And feeling better about myself for doing so. I now think of myself as the kind of person who can pay attention, and that’s a change in mindset that’s making a far bigger difference than I would have thought.

For further reading … interesting and potentially useful articles on attention

(Don’t) Do the Hustle

Jeff Dieffenbach

With apologies to Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony …

In November of 2019, I attended MIT’s third annual “AI and the Work of the Future Congress” congress at the Institute’s iconic Kresge Auditorium.

[credit: Wikipedia Commons]

Imagine the lobby area below not empty as if in pandemic, but buzzing with activity only partially fueled by the morning coffee service.

[credit: MIT Division of Student Life]

Guests excitedly chatted with speakers and each other. Business cards were exchanged, digitally and the old fashioned way. Clusters of people formed, chatted, then morphed into new clusters. The networking energy was such that a few hands were even empty of mobile devices.

In a word, the scene conveyed “hustle.”

The hustle was contagious. Who wouldn’t want to be part of MIT and a topic as future-focused as AI? Who wouldn’t want to be making the rounds, pressing the flesh, connecting, advance their career in some way small or large?

In the moment, it dawned on me that my musing wasn’t just a rhetorical question: who wouldn’t want to be part of the hustle?

In leading companies and universities and other organizations, it may be easy to lose sight of the fact that hustle may not be a ubiquitous trait. In fact, it might not even be a majority trait. Or even a necessary trait to the adding of value.

If true, then, what’s the opposite of hustle? The words that came immediately to mind weren’t of the more positive variety.

Merriam Webster helpfully shares some insight. “Near Antonyms” include “slowness,” “lethargy,” and “inactivity” among numerous others. Not how most people would like to be characterized.

Reading further, I quickly came to “Antonyms” (the adjective “near” having been dropped) … “deliberateness” and “deliberation.” Much more positive than the Near Antonyms.

A vibrant worlds needs hustlers. They invent products. And create companies. And plant the seeds that change the world.

But a vibrant world also needs deliberators. They make products. And staff companies. And nurture the plants that change the world.

We don’t tell grand stories about those who go to work, put in real effort, get a quality job done, and then go home … to families, to friends, to hobbies, to life. But at the median, this is who we are.

It’s a truism to say that the rate of societal change is always increasing. It’s likely, I think, that this rate of change will soon surpass the ability of humans to adapt to and thrive in the face of this change.

Hustlers will resist this inflection point … for a while–it’s the deliberators who will be the first to find themselves in its crosshairs. The key here is “for a while.” For the good of deliberators and hustlers alike, we must strive to be a robust, symbiotic collective rather than a collection of individuals working separately to hustle their way ahead.

Hustlers work well in implicit environments. Deliberators benefit more from explicit structures. Organization and learning leaders must cater to both. For deliberators, that means drawing clear career paths. Recommending specific learning experiences. Making direct connections to coaches and mentors. And rewarding a job well done.

Since writing this post, I came across the writer Tessie McMillan Cottom in a guest spot on an Apr 2021 episode of the Ezra Klein Show (an NYT podcast). In a fall 2020 essay entitled "The Hustle Economy," she makes the point expressed in the sub-title: "inequality—especially racial inequality—is not only produced through the job market but through people’s ability to hustle." Her take on hustle is different than mine, and important in that difference, but as I started to read it, I was expecting (dreading?) that she was going to make my point both earlier and better than I did. Crisis averted.

I’m honored to be a member of the McKinsey-convened Consortium for Learning Innovation (formerly Consortium for Advancing Adult Learning and Development). The CLI enables “rewarding lives and work through distinctive, continuous improvements in adult learning in the workplace.” In the four annual meetings I’ve attended since joining in 2017, and in numerous conversations in between, I’ve been impressed by the primary focus that the impressive collection of CLI members have on the “vulnerable worker,” whether that means someone at risk of or already falling behind because of intrinsic abilities, technology, globalism, … or simply being a deliberator.

Are colleges over-promising?

Jeff Dieffenbach


EdSurge Higher Ed (No. 192 | November 22 2019) posed this question: Are colleges overpromising?

Here’s more context and my response (a version of which was published in No. 193 | November 29 2019):


“If our career aspirations surpass the available opportunities, and our self-perceived talents exceed our actual talents, we are surely destined to be miserable at work, and perhaps this explains the prevalence of low employee engagement ratings despite more and more money being devoted to giving employees a consumer-like experience. The equivalent in the world of love would be if everyone aspired to date movie stars like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie: the result would be an epidemic of single people.”

—Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz, both executives at ManpowerGroup, in an op-ed that argues colleges overpromise and set up unrealistic expectations for students

We’re curious what people think of this argument. Are colleges overpromising? Shouldn’t students aim high?

With the caveat that my experience attending college is now decades in the rear view mirror, and that my visibility into my sons’ much more recent experiences was limited, the short answer to the “Colleges over-promising?” question is no. At least, I don’t see colleges making the explicit, tactical pitch to the effect of “Come to Wonderful U, launch a wonderful career.”

More broadly, though, I think there *IS* a general “in the ether” perception that college is the golden ticket. And historically, that’s been true, at least from a lifetime earnings perspective.

In an era with much less granularity of information, the college degree was for employers the best signal going. It just wasn’t necessarily a very good signal. With at least the potential for much higher resolution around competencies that job candidates offer and that job functions require, we can do better at making an effective match. And that “better” may result in a college degree meaning less than it did in the past.

The new mantra must be “always learning.” It’s not so important where this learning comes from as it is that this learning is integrated with, valued by, and at least partly paid for by work. That no longer needs to mean beginning at age 22 with a degree (and a big stack of debt) in hand. Why not start at age 20? Or 18? And with the mindset that it will come in smaller chunks, just-in-time, and lifelong.

Two stories from the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting

Jeff Dieffenbach

jeff-at-aaas-feb-2019At the Fri MIT reception with TPPers Katie (’16) and Sarah (’18)

At first blush, neither of these stories fits a more formal definition of teaching and learning (the purported domain of this blog). But I learned a lot from both.


I’m down in our nation’s capital for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Science (AAAS). Heading into the opening expo Thu evening, the woman ahead of me asked the staffer if she could enter despite not having a badge yet (registration had just closed for the evening).

The staffer turns to a colleague and asks if it’s okay.

Colleague says to the woman, “Can you at least name a scientist?”

Woman replies with the best pro move ever, “Me. I’m a scientist. I’m speaking tomorrow morning.” Boom, mic drop.



Sunday morning at the MIT booth gracing the AAAS expo. The conference puts out coffee and tea service to help draw people into the expo area. Being a good environmentalist, I take my tea in one of the mugs and not a paper cup.

My colleague Bob similarly avails himself of the offered caffeine. In a similar mug. But coffee, not tea.

Amazingly, or maybe just oddly, I’ve never had coffee. I mean, never. A single drop had never crossed my lips. (Coffee was always a drink for grown-ups.)

Maybe you can see where this is headed.

Bob puts his mug down next to mine. Or maybe I put mine down next to his. I absent-mindedly reach for my mug and take a sip. But I’m distracted by a conversation Bob’s having with someone from NASA. An actual rocket scientist. Which, the rest of this story demonstrate, I am clearly not.

The distraction’s such that I only subconsciously notice how foul my tea has become. A second sip, though, and my frontal cortex is fully aware. I’m looking not at a crisp brown elixir, but rather, a cream-infused taupe sludge. I’m suave enough not to spit the vile brew all over the NASA scientist, so I swallow, grab my tea, and do a 60 second silentish gargle. That doesn’t quite do it, but two more do and I’m back to normal.

Scarred, but normal.

Back in Boston, I related the story to my sons. My older son, the teacher, sums it up this way, “You had lukewarm coffee. Generic stuff, from the conference food service. And with cream. You really couldn’t have done First Coffee any worse.”

Kid’s not wrong.

What does it mean for a team to learn?

Jeff Dieffenbach

Moose skin boat, Canadian Museum of History

A colleague of mine studies how teams learn, perform, and learn while performing. After a bit of mulling on this topic, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what it meant for a team to learn separate from learning acquired from the individual team members.

I failed to adequately express my confusion and the conversation didn’t really get anywhere before dropping off both of our respective front burners. The question that I should have asked, but only recently formulated, is this: when a team disbands, in what form does team learning continue to exist?

Fast forward a year or two. In the course of the MIT Open Learning Journal Club that I lead with another colleague, we read the excellent Joint interactions in large online knowledge communities: The A3C framework (Jeong et.al. 2017).

The A3C framework posits that when individual interact, they may do so with varying degrees of shared–or unshared–goals, processes, and outcomes. The authors elaborate on four degrees of this sharing, from least to most: attendance, coordination, cooperation, collaboration.

Attending individuals have individual goals, processes, and outcomes. Imagine, for instance, a learner in a massive open online course (MOOC) interested in learning for himself but not in any way invested in the learning of others.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider a symphony. Yes, the individual members may have their own goals, outcomes, and even processes, but in the actual performance of the symphony, those individual wants are subsumed by melding of talents into a single piece of art.

By comparison, coordination and cooperation fall somewhere in between. The distinctions (unimportant for the topic of what team learning means) are illustrated in this table.

The article introduces the term “stigmergy,” the mediation of team interaction via artifacts. By virtue of the existence of an artifact (for instance, a job aid, training manual, or how-to video), it’s not necessary for all team members to participate in all facets of creating the artifact. Rather, they might contribute a specific part of the artifact along the way.

More important, the artifact serves future members of the team, or even members of different teams who subsequently encounter the artifact after the original team has disbanded.

What does it mean for a team to learn? It’s the collection of artifacts (including the documentation of the processes that arrived at those artifacts) created by the team in the course of carrying out its work.

postscript 2019-07-09: In doing some reading on and thinking about the topic, it occured to me that “team learning” goes beyond just artifacts to include the team members themselves, to the extent that they remain available to be asked by others for lessons learned.

VR is for learning, AR is for doing

Jeff Dieffenbach


The promise of augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR, respectively) is nearly unlimited. AR and VR won’t just be for entertainment, however … they’ll likely revolutionize learning.

There’s a tendency to think of AR (overlaying graphics onto a view of the real world) as a precursor to VR (a completely virtual world). For AR, think Google Glass and Pokemon Go. VR, on the other hand, conjures up more sophisticated, fully immersive video games (Fortnite, anyone) and books/movies such as Ready Player One.

When it comes to learning, I see the line between AR and VR differently. At risk of oversimplifying, VR lends itself to “learning before doing.” That is, one might use a VR simulation to practice a task in a safe space, for instance.

AR, on the other hand, promises to shine in the manner of “learning while doing.” Imagine an aircraft engine technician with a maintenance task in front of her. Rather than toggle her attention between a manual or video and the engine itself, she would be better served having an overlay of the engine schematic and the service steps projected onto the engine. In this way, her actions would be guided by the AR “assistant” without the need to disengage from then re-engage with the work at hand.

VR is for learning, AR is for doing.

Before the AI takes our jobs, can it help us learn?

Jeff Dieffenbach


AI in the Service of Learners and Learning

Mired in a problem with no obvious path toward a solution? Fear not, the conventional wisdom says, some combination of blockchain, the Internet of Things, and/or AI will bail you out.

Well, if that problem is learning, or more to the point, hurdles that block learning, AI may indeed help you navigate your way to better understanding. How might this work?

Right up front, let’s tackle the question of privacy that’s inevitably going to arise. To make the ideas that follow a reality, a hypothetical “learnerAI” is going to need to know about you. A LOT about you. For the purpose of this exercise, then, let’s stipulate that you, the learner, have complete awareness and control of your learnerAI. It’s there to HELP you, NOT to report ON you.

To aide your learning, what might your learnerAI need to know about you?

  • Your basic physiological information via biosensors
    • Heart rate, pulse, pupil dilation, galvanic skin response, attention, …
  • Your interests via direct survey
    • Technical topics, operational topics, financial topics, leadership topics, …
  • Your current work via job description and email, text, phone, and web monitoring
    • Roles, projects, tasks, …
  • Your career history via resumes, LinkedIn
    • Roles, projects, tasks, …
  • Your learning history via direct survey, calendars, stored credentials, and more
    • Degrees, programs, courses, conferences, books, articles, webinars, …
  • Your desired career future via direct survey
    • Roles, …
  • Your desired learning future via direct survey
    • Competencies, skills, …

Yes, your learnerAI needs to know a LOT about you.

With that information (and more, no doubt) in place, your learnerAI will be in a position to help you overcome problems at learner, instruction, and/or policy levels (a framework developed by the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative). We’ll address solutions at each of these levels in turn (in blue).


If a learner has the right prior knowledge, motivation, interest, and physiological readiness, he or she will be in a good position to learn. The learner isn’t always in the best position to judge the state of these conditions, however.

The learnerAI can help.

  • Prior knowledge: the learnerAI will use information about the learner’s prior learning experiences to make appropriate matches with content based on the learnerAI’s assessment of the level of that content.
  • Motivation: as used here, motivation reflects external reasons for learning—to earn a credential, receive a promotion, or otherwise further a career. The learnerAI will provide motivating context to the learner by mapping the content of a learning experience to current and future roles of importance to the learner.
  • Interest: in comparison with motivation, interest is intrinsic–typically, a learner either does or does not like a topic, although interest may certainly increase with familiarity and expertise. The learnerAI will draw on learner-expressed interests to match with the content in a learning experience when skill or process (and not content) is the primary learning objective.
  • Physiological readiness: The learner needs to be well-rested, well-fed, otherwise in good physical shape, and as important, in a good mental state. The learnerAI will detect these conditions and align learning experiences with the learner’s physiological receptiveness.


If the instruction has the right content, delivery, and assessment, the odds of effective learning improve.

The learnerAI can help.

  • Content: Content includes the breadth, depth, and accuracy of the subject matter and the production value with which the subject matter is configured. Content may cover knowledge and/or skills. The learnerAI, knowing a lot about what’s relevant to the learner, will uncover content addressing one of three needs: the learner knows that content is needed; the learner’s manager, peer, or subordinate knows that content is needed; and most important, none of the aforementioned parties knows that content is needed.
  • Delivery: Delivery variables include human vs. digital, synchronous vs. asynchronous, duration of learning, user-requested vs. pushed-to-user, and device through which the learning is consumed. The learnerAI will look at past successes and current needs to help deliver content when it’s most valuable. That timing might be in advance of a learning need (“learning before performing”) or in just-in-time fashion at the time of need (“learning while performing”).
  • Assessment: Assessment has to do with the frequency and depth with which the learner is assessed and the formative manner in which the responses are used to guide the next piece of content and delivery. A robust learnerAI will add fidelity and precision to the adaptive-branching inherent in effective “What’s next?” learning. Moreover, the learnerAI will track and record learning, both formal and informal based on the learner’s actions, calendar, and other input.


If the policy has the right law, access, funding, leadership, and measurement, the prospects for effective learning are better still. The learnerAI can help.

  • Law, access, and funding: Laws and regulations must be conducive to learning. Learners must have access to learning. This isn’t access via funding, but rather, access via circumstance. For instance, a job role that isn’t eligible for a particular type of training or isn’t in the right location for that training isn’t helped regardless of how good the training is. Finally, funds have to be available to pay for the learning experience. These funds may be provided by the learner or the provider of instruction. These three areas are included for completeness, but don’t really lend themselves to improvement via AI.
  • Leadership: Leaders of those providing instruction must have a philosophy conducive to/supportive of learning. Here, the learner AI WILL help–it can be tuned, and tune itself, to learning opportunities (content and delivery) in line with executive mission statements and vision and management implementations of those missions and visions.
  • Measurement: Measurement as used here is different from the formative level of assessment guiding the learner’s next instruction. Rather, it addresses the summative level of what learners come to know, how their behaviors change, and what organizational improvements those behavior changes drive. The learnerAI, through its tracking and reporting, will assist learners in demonstrating the value to their employer of the learning they undergo, thereby establishing a case to be made for future learning.


Learners will equip themselves with a learnerAI guide. Ideally, the learner will own this guide the way they own a LinkedIn account–it will not be provided by … and therefore accessible to … the learner’s employer. While learners may still feel pressure to share learnerAI data with employers and especially prospective employers, the learner ownership will mitigate the intrusiveness.

The learner will own, control, and tune the learnerAI to monitor physiology, job descriptions, to-do lists, communications, actions, and more. As a result, the learnerAI will assist with desired, assigned, and unanticipated learning. This learning will be delivered optimally: when the learner is ready to learn and/or when the learning is of the most value. In the background, the learnerAI will record learning for the learner to share when that sharing best benefits the learner.

The case against the case against “The Case Against Education”

the-case-against-educationI beg forgiveness for jumping into the Caplan-Ubell debate uninvited. But it’s such a great topic. And if nothing else, it’s such a great blog post title.

In a recent EdSurge article entitled “Why college is not an employment agency,” Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, takes George Mason University professor of economics Bryan Caplan to task for the latter’s book, “The Case Against Education.”

A caveat: I haven’t yet read Caplan’s book. If I were on balance agreeing with Ubell, I’m not sure that that would be fair. But since I’m on balance agreeing with Caplan.

My comments on Ubell’s article are in indented green below. 

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Why College Is Not an Employment Agency
By Robert Ubell | Feb 6, 2018

A new book makes “The Case Against Education.” It’s decidedly not something to give to a high-school junior looking to get into college.

College is important. It’s important because of its cost. And because of its opportunity cost. Anyone planning to attend college should do so with fully open eyes. I encourage readers to use the comments section of this post to indicate whether they would have done their college experience any differently. I know that I would have. At the time of my application to college, I was fortunate to have sufficient resources both to make the decision and to pay for the decision. And even still, I didn’t make the decision well. Because really, how many 18 year olds have the perspective to make such a decision well.

The author, Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, draws a picture of college as a bleak and miserable place, a Dickensian ordeal, peopled with distracted students, taught by mediocre faculty who, apart from mathematics, science and English, have nothing worth teaching their bored and listless students. In his telling, higher education is all a big, expensive scam—such a dark place that you imagine that students are housed in a prison, not on campus. “The harsh reality,” argues Caplan, “is that most students suffer in school. Nostalgics who paint their education as an intellectual feast are either liars or outliers.”

It’s not clear to me the extent to which Ubell’s description echoes Caplan’s book or caricatures it (I know, I know, I need to give it a read …). If anything, college, at least for many, leans more Hedonistic than it does Dickensian. Are students distracted? Most likely–that’s a worthy problem to address. Are faculty mediocre instructors? It would be more accurate to say that they too often fail to receive training in and be measured on instruction. Is higher education a big, expensive scam? Well, it’s certainly expensive, as is screamed by the US’ nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt (almost twice that of US credit card debt).

Caplan says that a college degree is largely useless, claiming that it does not show that students learned anything useful for their future in the workplace. “We have to admit,” Caplan assures us,” academic success is a great way to get a job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job.”

College degrees are far from useless, but at the same time, they are ripe for improvement. If nothing else, college degrees are a signal to the workplace of effort and completion. They are not, however, a signal of competencies gained.

Companies take it on faith that that a college degree is worth the handsome salaries graduates command; in contrast, dropouts suffer with little to show for their aborted time in school.

Craftily, Caplan pretends to discredit education because it’s a worthless training ground for industry, but his aim is more insidious, making the case for the withdrawal of state support from public education. “Stop throwing good money after bad,” he commands. “Cut education budgets. Shift the financial burden of education from taxpayers to students and their families.”

Here is where I depart from Caplan and side with Ubell. Higher education can be a better “training ground for industry” than it currently is. But in parallel with this improvement, the state should be doing more to support public education, not less [The crazy notion of free college].

Caplan, a conservative libertarian, doesn’t demand the same austerity from private or for-profit schools, but instead, he targets the very place where students from families without means can achieve something and can go on to live decent, fruitful lives. Caplan would deny them that opportunity.

In his argument against the efficacy of education, Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims. But in his unsupported case for privatization, curiously, his armor disappears. Not a single chart or graph is displayed showing the benefits of defunding higher education. That’s because the actual data would undermine his case.

I love Ubell’s turn of this phrase: “Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims.”

The nation has tried for-profit higher education and it failed.

The excellent documentary “Fail State” makes this case in compelling fashion.

“Publicly funded education has an awful track record,” Caplan claims, “wasting hundreds of billions every year.” However, shutting down state education is a disastrous idea, not only for reasons of ensuring equity in education, but also for its long-term effects on the economic health of the country. Universities are among the key driving forces in our thriving state economies—in California, Texas, Florida, New York and elsewhere—where colleges are the vibrant intellectual centers driving research and business development.

While Caplan dismisses the possibility that universities offer society any real economic benefit, data shows otherwise. After studying new data from UNESCO’S World Higher Education Database, covering 15,000 colleges and universities across 78 countries between 1950 and 2010, Anna Valero, a London School of Economics scholar, found that “the expansion of higher education from 1950 onwards was not just the product of growing wealth, it has also helped fuel economic growth around the world.”

Take a look at the 20 finalist cities in Amazon’s search for a second headquarters—universities are located at the heart of nearly every one. “All these places have something in common—nearby reputable universities that can churn out the young and the hopeful straight into Jeff Bezos’s welcoming arms,” observes Chris Matyszczyk, a consultant, in Inc.

America is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity, where a son of a Jewish tailor from an impoverished shtetl in Poland—as well as millions of other children from immigrant and other poor families—can go to college and learn “useless” things like poetry and art history, as I did at Brooklyn College, then a free city school. Neither poetry nor art history—a waste of time for Caplan—will get most graduates a job after graduation, but we should be proud of a society that educates its citizens broadly and not just trains them as docile workers.

Many other economists tell us that the solution to the coming crisis in the workplace is more education, not less. As Harry Anthony Patrinos at the World Bank reports, “Post-secondary education graduates are at the lowest risk of losing to automation. Those with high levels of education are less likely to be in automation-prone occupations. ”

But Caplan believes that the university fails completely in preparing students for jobs. His assumption is that higher education is the place where students should gain the skills they need to get them good jobs. But universities are not employment agencies. His mistake is that he confuses procedural with conceptual knowledge.

Here is where my pendulum swings back toward Caplan. While I love the idea of the luxury of spending four (or six, or ten) years in the full embrace of learning, we simply can’t avoid the practical impact of spending a quarter of a million dollars on a college education. For most people, higher education MUST prepare students for careers (which aren’t quite the same thing as jobs).

In my new book, Going Online, I clarify the difference:

“Procedural knowledge means knowing how to manipulate a condition or how to perform a task; for example, how to run a science experiment or solve a mathematical equation. Procedural knowledge is also a measure of our skills, tasks we know how to complete, and techniques we know how to follow. Training is designed to give workers procedural knowledge in order for them to do their jobs effectively. Conceptual knowledge, on the other hand, refers to our ability to appreciate major parts in a system, understand complex relationships, or categorize elements logically. At their best, universities are expected to equip students to excel at conceptual knowledge.”

Ubell’s examples of conceptual knowledge are of equal value to the workplace as his procedural ones.

Caplan smirks about the U.S. higher education dropout rate, arguing that his bored students are voting against college with their feet. “Excruciatingly bored students fill classrooms.” he laments. “Well, ‘fill’ isn’t quite right, because so many don’t bother to show up.”

But students drop out for all sorts of reasons. Boredom may be one, but surely it’s not the principal impediment that drives them away—a suspicious claim Caplan repeats continuously, vilifying students for slumping in their seats with ennui. But the most devastating reason why students drop out is not lethargy, but high tuition.

For most, college is a luxury product, equal to buying a Mercedes every school year at many private schools. One of the most shocking consequences of the steep price of higher education is that some 40 percent of students who actually get accepted don’t even show up because they can’t pay the admission price.

“College is a luxury product.” My point exactly.

Peterson’s college guide says that the number one reason students drop out is because of lack of funds to keep them going. “Many students take out school loans, but that isn’t always enough,” reports Peterson’s Brian Pivik. “Between the costs of classes, books, rent, and just trying to survive, students are more and more learning that while worth it in the long run, the cost of education is high.”

If Caplan’s book was your only guide to what matters in college, you’d never come across ideals that secure a more just and honorable society—that enlighten thoughtful citizens. In the brief section Caplan devotes to “values,” he dismisses them out of hand, claiming that higher education has little or no effect on conveying them to students. You’d conclude that education has no place in democracy. It’s only what you can take to the bank that seems to matter to the author. If you look up “democracy,” “ethics,” and “wisdom” in the index, you won’t find them. None of these ideas on which education has been founded since ancient Greece are even mentioned in passing.

It turns out, however, that education does play a decisive role in our democracy. Nate Silver, the data journalist who founded FiveThirtyEight, calculated the effect of voter education in the last presidential election. Soon after results were in, Silver studied all 981 U.S. counties to see how they voted, sorting the numbers by least and most educated, among other slices of the data, especially income and race. His conclusion? Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump and who wouldn’t.

As an economist, Caplan is surely familiar with “commodification,” a concept at the heart of Karl Marx’s case against Capitalism. Marx theorized that under Capitalism, everything is measured in terms of monetary value, even knowledge. Doubtless, Caplan teaches the concept to his students at George Mason University. In The Case Against Education, Caplan has so thoroughly embraced the idea, he is convinced that hardly anything taught in today’s classrooms has any intrinsic worth. Caplan takes commodification to an absurd extreme—that only skills that can be turned into high-paying jobs after college are of any value. The rest—art, music, history, literature—he deems worthless. If it weren’t so grotesque, it would be funny, more Groucho than Karl.

My fear is that Caplan’s prescription for American higher education will not be laughed off, but will be taken far too seriously. While Caplan believes he is a contrarian, expressing views thoroughly at odds with mainstream thought, regrettably, he is not alone. Jane Karr, former “Education Life” editor of The New York Times, warns that “State funding of public universities is on a track to reach zero in less than 20 years in some states and as soon as six in Colorado and nine in Alaska.”

State legislatures are already way ahead of Caplan, savaging state support for public education, shifting the burden from taxpayers to families—just as Caplan advocates.

Higher education faces three challenges:

1. The learning experience needs to be better aligned with the capabilities that career and life demand.

2. The instruction needs to be improved and measured.

3. The cost to the learner needs to be reduced.

Caplan likely agrees with the first and second, Ubell with the third. I’m on board with all three–these are addressable challenges, not ones from which we should run.