Need-to-Know News: A Radically Different Transcript in Higher Ed & LinkedIn Launches Personalized Learning Platform

light-bulb-978882_1280The Radical Transcript
For its Spring graduating class, Elon University of North Carolina is launching a radically different student transcript—the Visual Experiential Transcript or Visual EXP.  It’s a significant departure from the traditional. This document aims to provide a holistic snapshot of a student’s undergraduate learning, on and off campus extracurricular activities and leadership experience. All are encapsulated into five domains: internships, research, leadership, service and global education (page 2), in addition to a student’s course work (page 1). So what’s so radical? Student grades aren’t the focus, nor are credit hours.

Elon University’s Two-Page, Visual EXP Transcript

Screenshots (above and below) Elon University’s ‘Visual Experiential Transcript’ launched to its graduating Class of 2016. Transcript development initiative funded by the Lumina Foundation.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-2-18-23-pmElon University’s revision to the traditional transcript is an exercise other higher education institutions may want to consider in the near future. Institutions need to show value of the undergraduate experience; value over and above courses completed and grades earned. This new transcript aligns with what many scholars are calling for in higher education—innovation and transformation. This was the message at the recent ‘International Seminar on Innovation in Higher Education’ held last month. Panelists discussed how higher education institutions need to transform and innovate their traditional practices. One example of transformation is demonstrating the value of an undergraduate education; value not only in terms of value to employers, but the contributions undergraduates can make to their field and to society.

Talking about the fact that it’s not that we are preparing students for a career, but we are adding value to their lives, we are adding to society, we are adding to the corporate sector. We need the metrics at hand, showing the real contribution of higher education to society — International Seminar on Innovation in Higher Education (2016)

Elon’s transcript is an excellent example of transforming traditional practices in academe. Conventional transcripts need an overhaul given the narrow emphasis—grades and credit hours. Stanford University’s registrar went on record last year stating the transcript is “a record of everything the student has forgotten” (Mangan, 2015). Another reason for a revamp is to highlight students’ value to potential employers. Employers want to know more than a student’s GPA. They are increasingly interested in what a student can do, what knowledge and skills a student developed while working through his or her undergraduate education (Davidson, 2016). It’s time for a transcript overhaul and Elon University is a good example of how an institution aligned its transcripts with their core values. Other schools can do the same.

Further Reading:

NEW: Personalized Learning on LinkedIn

Screenshot of LinkedIn’s new Learning Lab interface

Personalized and lifelong learning is an expanding market as evidenced by the rise of MOOCs, offerings of nano degrees, micro masters, and alternative credentials. LinkedIn is getting in the game with a new platform Learning Lab, launched last week. Last year LinkedIn purchased for $1.5 billion (Kosoff, 2015); it’s now the foundation for LinkedIn’s new platform. It consists of a suite of learning videos on a variety of topics, from web development, to digital marketing to leadership. But LinkedIn Learning is adding another layer to the 9000+ videos. It’s developing algorithms with the data they’ve acquired from the millions of LinkedIn members to personalize learning for premium subscribers.

LinkedIn Learning creates personalized recommendations, so learners can efficiently discover which courses are most relevant to their goals or job function. Organizations can use LinkedIn insights to customize multi-course Learning Paths to meet their specific needs. We also provide robust analytics and reporting to help you measure learning effectiveness. – LinkedIn, The Learning Blog (2016)

LinkedIn plans to expand its focus beyond individual subscribers and reach the corporate sector. Businesses will be able to buy subscriptions for employees and customize ‘Learning Paths’—multi course bundle courses targeting a specific skill set. Human resource managers will be able to use LinkedIn’s analytics tools to monitor employees progress, recommend learning paths, as well as look at which courses their employees are engaging with.

With Learning Lab, LinkedIn is going beyond it’s role as a professional networking site to a skill and career development platform. Sound familiar?  Coursera recently launched ‘Coursera for Business‘ , as did Udacity, with Udacity for Business and edX with Professional Certificates. MOOC providers are already tapping into the employee development market with skill specific, just-in-time learning that is available anytime, anywhere. This type of skill development—personalized learning that is accessible and inexpensive is essential for developing skills and preparing a workforce for economies moving towards automation and sectors that are focused on technology and energy. LinkedIn’s new Learning platform might be part of the solution to meet the challenges of delivering just-in-time learning for focused skill development to meet the needs of a new workforce.

Further Reading:

Image credit: Light bulb, by geralt on Pixabay

Need-to-Know MOOC News: New Business Model for Corporate Learning, Human Graders and Self-Paced Formats


1. MOOCs Scale Up with New Model
The search for a business model may soon be over for major MOOC players such as Coursera and Udacity. Udacity was the first to create partnerships between (mostly tech) companies to cover some of their course development costs. They’ve since moved to offering micro-credentials where students pay for Nanodegrees—focused skill training with a certificate-type credential upon successful completion. Students can also opt to pay even more for personalized services with Nanodegree Plus which includes career support and mock interviews. Coursera has something similar, minus the personalized services, with its ‘Specializations‘. But recently Coursera made another significant move—targeting the corporate sector. Smart. The learning and development market in the United States is vast; according to the 2015 Training Report there was a 14.2% increase in corporate training expenditures bringing the total budget for US companies to 17.6 billion. That’s big. Coursera is aiming to get part of the pie and fill the employee learning gap with “Coursera for Business”.

Screenshot of “Coursera for Business” home page at

Today, we are taking yet another important step in our effort to expand the Coursera learner community. I am excited to announce Coursera for Business, our enterprise platform for workforce development at scale. We see Coursera for Business as a natural extension of our vision, and as a powerful way to help leading companies around the world address the rapidly evolving training and development needs of their employees. (Levine, 2016)

Insight:  Given the size of the corporate employee learning and development market and the need for Coursera to generate revenue, it’s a logical move. More so given a recent study by McKinsey which suggested that companies are struggling to deliver relevant, just-in-time skill-training that fits in with the drive for productivity and need for employee-directed learning. Over 40% of companies surveyed indicated their current capabilities of meeting employee skill gaps are ineffective (Bensen-Armer et al). Coursera is on to something. MOOCs are not ‘free’ to produce or sustain;  partnering with corporations is a win-win for everyone.

2. MOOCs with Human Graders
When students sign up for the edX MOOC, “Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness”, they’ll have the option to have their essays graded by a real person. This was unheard of when MOOCs first came on higher education’s radar in 2012. MOOC critics took issue with the automated and peer-review grading process—this undermined the learning process, comprised student learning according to the most vocal critics. This Fall MIT is experimenting with a new model for MOOCs with this particular course where essays are graded by a graduate assistant of MIT.

….the model is still a work in progress, and that details may change. This time around, MIT is paying one of its philosophy graduate student to serve as a course facilitator. The facilitator will effectively run the MOOC, moderating the discussion forum and grading papers. Hare declined to say how much the facilitator is paid, but added that it is a flat fee and more than what an adjunct instructor is paid to teach a residential course at MIT. (Straumsheim, 2016)

The cost for this MOOC that includes a Verified Certificate and personalized grading is $300, about $200 more than a Verified Certificate for other MOOCs in the same category (Philosophy & Ethics).

Insight: This story is yet another example how MOOCs are bringing awareness to online education, yet this recent development highlights how the MOOC label is misleading and needs to change. Lines are blurring between the many versions of online courses:  1. open and free courses, 2. online courses with a cost and no-credit (as the one in this article), 3. online courses for credit with a fee, and 4. online courses for a fee with conditional credit  (students need to apply to institution to receive MOOC credit upon completion). Students need to be clear on the conditions when signing up for an online course, just as institutions need to be clear on what they are offering.

3. Self-Paced MOOCs on the Rise
September is a big month for MOOCs and September 2016 is shaping up to be the biggest yet; at least since 2013 according to Class Central (Shah, 2016). But the big shift in MOOCs is the self-paced format which allows students to participate in MOOCs on-demand. Yet something is lost—the synergy of students working through the concepts at the same time (synchronous format) leading to discussion forums that fall flat.

Table (above) from “MOOCs no longer massive, still attract millions” (Shah, 2016)

Coursera has a workaround though, offering MOOCs within a cohort system, with courses that start back-to-back (see screenshot below) which allows students to transfer into the next class keeping their course-work intact.

Screenshot showing Courera’s new MOOC format that offers cohort-MOOCs more frequently meeting students’ needs for self-paced format

Closing Thoughts
The MOOC concept is transforming online education, yet the new formats are a far cry from the MOOC of 2012 which were Massive Open Online Courses.





“The End of College” is Not Really the END, but The Beginning

“Enrollment in the University of Everywhere will be lifelong, a fundamental aspect of modern living”  — “The End of College”

The End of College by Kevin Carey, 2015, Riverhead Books

The End of College: Creating the future of Learning and the University of Everywhere is not a doomsday book despite the key words in the title “The END”. A more apt title might be “The End of Traditional College”. Its message is how traditional college, with its institution and research-centric paradigm has less to do with student learning and more to do with an admissions process that is out-of-control, institutions that are far-removed from making student learning a priority, and an out-of-date accreditation system focused on the credit-hour. This will change in the next generation. Carey describes how higher education is, and will continue its transformation to the University of Everywhere, driven by student demand and technology innovations.

There is a sliver of doom in Carey’s writing; he warns that institutions that view education technology as a fad, another trend to be waited out, will come to an end. Colleges that remain unchanged today will disappear tomorrow  (pg. 244). Carey’s book echoes the message in Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges by Richard DeMillo published in the pre-MOOC era (2011). Abelard to Apple is more dire, with an explicit warning for colleges and universities of the ‘middle’ (second tier institutions). According to Demillo the majority of higher education institutions are headed for irrelevance and marginalization unless they take action. Demillo like Carey, wrote that technology is the driver of change, the vehicle for education transformation. Demillo went further, describing how the complexity of the higher education system serves as the most significant barrier to innovation and change. Those that don’t (or won’t) change are destined for demise with one exception—the universities in the ‘ivy league’.  Demillo and Carey are in agreement on this point, that the elite schools will be immune, insulated by power and money.

Carey’s book received sharp criticism. Some critics called Carey’s University of Everywhere a utopia of higher education with its education promises of personalized learning, rigorous coursework where students won’t be able  to ‘coast’, where technology makes education better, not easier (pg. 248). Carey’s University of Everywhere also dismantles the idea of public institutions as the fulcrum of higher education (in United States) by suggesting they serve a different purpose: for research—yes, places for life-long learning experiences and collaboration—also yes, but undergraduate education taught primarily by distracted faculty engaging in research—no.

There is not now and there never will be a substitute for the deliberate practice necessary to gain real expertise. The higher-learning organizations of the future will give students the right kids of hard work to do, and they will recognize that work by awarding credible evidence of accomplishment. But they won’t do students’ work for them. What parents can do is to hep their children build the intellectual and emotional tools they will need for the demanding and rewarding tasks. (pg 248)

Matt Reed, one of the book’s critics, suggests in a blog post at Inside Higher Ed that the mission of public university will be comprised with Carey’s suggested model, to the detriment of society. Audrey Watters agrees, stating in “Techno Fantasies” that Carey’s model is deeply flawed, citing the rise of private entities such as MOOC provider Coursera and Udacity as evidence that online education is flawed and that research supporting the effectiveness of technology-driven learning is “paltry” at best.

But the critics miss Carey’s main point. He is not saying MOOCs will replace higher education or that public universities will be obsolete. Nor is he saying technology is the answer to higher education’s woes. He is saying that there will be a shift in the higher education model in the next generation, that brick and mortar institutions will play a different role and information technology is an important part of achieving education goals, but that the system associated with higher education involving accreditation, delivery, admissions, research, access, and cost associated with education, will change because of technology. Just like in any other industry, like medicine or manufacturing, where technology brings about transformation that leads to improvements in quality and lowered costs.

Carey does discuss MOOCs, in fact he describes his experience taking a MOOC on the edX platform. He also discusses Minerva, a new university based on the elite education-model without walls, and new models of accreditation based on digital learning identities. Carey shares these narratives with readers to emphasize the alternatives to a model of education that has changed little over decades, with few improvements in aspects of quality and accessibility. That’s Carey’s main point—the shift to a University of Everywhere will provide more access to education, improve quality and lower costs because of advancements in technology, and a shift in culture, our values and expectations.

The idea of “admission” to college will become an anachronism, because the University of Everywhere will be open to everyone. It won’t in fact, be single place or institution at all. The next generation of students will not waste their teenage years jostling of spot in a tiny number of elitist schools. Their educational experience will come from dozens of organizations, each specializing in different aspects of human learning. (pg 5)

Educators and parents who are eager to learn about the future and possibilities of higher education will find The End of College: Creating the future of Learning and the University of Everywhere insightful and instructive. The book is even more applicable to those who want to be part of the change for the next generation of learning, the beginning of a new paradigm of learning that literally is everywhere.

Next-Generation of Open Education Resources (OER) on User-Friendly, Approachable Platforms

iStock_box7XSmallOpen Education Resources (OER) have been around for some time yet few educators  make use of the thousands of free resources available online, mainly due to barriers that include searchability and quality concerns. This is about to change. The next generation of OER will be on platforms that are user-friendly, intuitive and make finding and sharing Open Education Resources less time-consuming and more approachable.

Open education resources is the term for digitized materials (images, lesson plans, videos, interactive learning objects, articles, even textbooks) that are offered freely and openly to educators, students and self-learners to use and re-use for teaching, learning and research (Hylen, 2006).

Two new platforms, Amazon Inspire and Smithsonian’s Learning Lab, are what I call the ‘next-generation of OER’; they have the potential to overcome the barriers associated with OER and will transform how educators teach. The platforms are the catalyst needed to bring OER mainstream—not only to reduce costs associated with learning tools but to contribute to a different mindset—a mindset where educators seek out digital resources as tools to improve learning experiences and view OER as an opportunity to expand their professional development (Orr, Rimini & van Damme, 2015).

Amazon Inspire to Launch this Fall has revolutionized how we shop with its online marketplace and is bringing the technology to education with a new platform—Amazon Inspire. Inspire is in beta, the testing phase, and is designed for educators to share and find OER. It allows educators to upload, download, review lesson plans, worksheets, lesson resources, and other materials via a platform that functions similarly to It’s currently focused on K-12 education, though my guess is that higher education won’t be far behind; Matt Reed from Inside Higher Ed concurs in a recent article “Amazon OER?” (Reed, 2012).

I’m optimistic about Amazon’s Inspire. When examining barriers to OER educators cite most often, it appears that Amazon’s  Inspire’s features address most. Key barriers include i) timethe time needed to find appropriate resources, ii) technical skills,  not only for accessing OER but contributing to the OER community, iii) concern with quality, and iv) legal concerns; uncertainty about usage rights, educators unfamiliarity with creative commons licenses for instance (Hylen 2006, Mtebe & Rasimo, 2014). Granted, there are other barriers such as institutional policies that need to be addressed for educators to integrate OER successfully, yet overcoming technical barriers will move OER forward (Hodgkinson-Williams, 2010).


Developed in support of the company’s commitment to making digital classrooms a reality, Amazon Inspire, with its rich features such as search, discovery and peer reviews, will provide educators—regardless of funding or location—access to upload and share free digital teaching resources. —Business Wire, June 27, 2016

Platforms with high visibility and robust features including how-to resources will contribute to educators viewing OER as approachable and accessible. Amazon Inspire brings awareness to OER with its high-profile brand. Most educators are likely familiar with Amazon and how it works. Amazon Inspire’s features include:

  • smart-search: enables teachers to explore resources by grade level, state standard or from a particular district
  • simple upload: easy-to-use and intuitive upload interface where educators can drag and drop files and add descriptions and comments
  • ratings feature  [this is especially significant]: It works as an open peer review where users rate a resource and add comments. This feature addresses quality concerns and fulfills a recommendation made by scholars working on OER at the Centre for Education Research and Development at OECD (Hylen, 2006).

There are criticisms from the education community about Amazon Inspire. One is that the format of a ‘marketplace’ associated with a commercial platform such as Amazon, is a detriment to OER. One comment is that a platform that is more conducive to a place where resources can ‘live’ and be adapted, similar to a platform Github for OER for instance, is more appropriate. I respectfully disagree. Moving OER forward needs platforms that are user-friendly with features that educators are familiar with and don’t require an inordinate time to learn. The next-generation of OER platforms, such as Amazon Inspire do just that.

Smithsonian Learning Lab
Another next-generation OER platform is Smithsonian’s Learning Lab. After several years of testing and revising with input from teachers and other educators, Smithsonian launched its new and improved Learning Lab. The platform appears to go even further than Amazon Inspire with features that allow teachers to create and share with students customized assignments, such as quizzes, using curated resources. Educators can add their own resources to their personal profile, and access Learning Lab’s rich bank of resources that are organized into four categories (image, video, text or learning resource). Resources are drawn from Smithsonian’s 19 museums, and nine research centers.

The platform, though geared to K-12 educators, is open to anyone interested in accessing the museum’s resources.  There are resources applicable to higher education (though the search feature is an issue — details below), and Learning Lab is working with a college in Maryland to explore how faculty can use the platform so they can expand its reach and engage higher education specifically.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 11.39.33 AM
Home page of Smithsonian Learning Lab at

Learning Lab invested considerable effort in making the platform approachable based on feedback received from teachers during the testing phase. The result is the tag line “Discover, Create and Share”.  A smart move. Not only for the ‘create’ aspect as mentioned, but teachers can ‘share’ using a customized link, collections or assignments with students or others via email or on social media.

There are several resources that provide users with how-to help; directions and examples in form of short videos and dedicated a help section for ‘getting started’. I do recommend signing up for an account and then learning by experimenting—trying out the various features, it’s fairly intuitive.

All good; however the down side is the search function. Searches generate resources that aren’t always applicable to the search term;  for example when searching for ‘teaching with technology’ results include all resources that have the words ‘teaching’ and/or ‘technology’ associated with given resources, usually words that are embedded in its description. For example my search revealed the video below on ‘molecular astrophysics’ as the word ‘teaching’ is in the description. However, the search did produce several solid, applicable resources.

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 1.07.09 PM
Screenshot of one of the resources resulting from search ‘teaching with technology’ on Smithsonian Learning Lab. The search function is still a challenge since the categories and descriptions of the resources weren’t written with the intent they would ever  be ‘open’

According to the director of the Learning Lab, they are trying determine methods to improve the search function for users—ideas include  user-generated tagging capabilities and machine image analysis.

I’m optimistic about the future of OER with the next-generation platforms. Not only because of the opportunity to reduce costs associated with learning tools, but for the effect on the mindset of teaching and learning. Educators can be empowered by OER, not only by accessing unique resources from platforms that make is straightforward, but by creating and contributing to the their own development, their students learning, and the education community.

OER Resources for Educators


How & Why to Use Social Media to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments

I recently completed an online workshop through Online Learning Consortium (OLC) “Exploring Hashtags for Learning”.  We learned how to use hashtags, but also strategies to incorporate social media into activities and assignments to engage and involve students in meaningful learning. Following is the assignment I developed  (using Instagram) as part of the workshop, but first I discuss the rationale to answer ‘why’—why use social media in learning activities first place? 

Students Learning

WHY Use Social Media to Support Learning
The next phase in course design, for online and face-to-face, will involve developing methods that integrate tools (e.g. smart phones) and applications (e.g. Twitter or other social media platforms) that students use daily, if not hourly. It’s inevitable if we want to make learning relevant, practical and effective. Not only is learning moving towards a student-centered model but students are now expecting to be contributors to their learning—to be involved in their education by contributing to course content.

Yet I want to emphasize that using social media does not mean that learning is not rigorous. Going forward educators will need to determine how to leverage digital delivery platforms creatively to facilitate learning of course concepts and to foster critical thinking among students of all ages. Research suggests that student involvement leads to higher levels of learning and contributes to outcomes that include persistence, satisfaction, and academic achievement (Astin, 1985; Kruase, 2005). The research was published well before Facebook and Twitter, yet social media by the behaviours it generates, lends itself to involving students in learning when used as a tool, not as technology that teaches.

Instagram_Icon_LargeCourse Assignment
For the workshop assignment in “Exploring Hashtags for Learning” I chose Instagram— mainly because I’ve little familiarity with Instagram in an education context and wanted to determine if it could be applied to foster learning. Instagram is a social media platform where users share images, typically their own pictures taken with their phone, through an Instagram app. Pew research shows that Instagram is the third most popular social media site after Facebook and Twitter, though Instagram has been growing exponentially.

Assignment Details: “Hashtags for Learning” Workshop
Below are the (summarized) directions for the workshop assignment:

“Design a specific example of activity or activities that utilize a hashtag with the purpose to engage your students…Include the following information: What is your learning objective? How does it include engagement? How will it be assessed?”

Though I don’t teach a course currently, I work with faculty to help develop active learning activities designed to engage students, and to ensure it aligns closely with one or more course learning objectives.  To that end, I selected an art history course, which is similar to a course I worked on with a professor last year. Instagram lends itself well to an assignment where pictures can communicate concepts, and the comment feature in Instagram allows students to articulate which concepts are featured in their image and how.

HOW: “Hashtags for Learning” Assignment
Developed for Undergraduate Online Course “ARC112: Art History Survey II”.

Following is the background information on the course, its description, the learning objective the assignment is designed to meet, and a description of the activity.

Course Description: This course offers an introduction to Western art history. It has two primary aims: to learn the skills necessary for visual literacy; and to acquire a broad knowledge of the important themes, movements, and individuals in Western art history. Attention will be given primarily to analysis of the form and content of work of art and to understanding how they fit into a historical context.

Activity Description: Using Instagram students will, through images of sculpture, architecture, paintings or other art forms they encounter in everyday life, identify major art styles and movements. This activity supports one of the learning outcomes of the course that aligns with communication skills: “to include effective development, interpretation and expression of ideas through written, oral and visual communication.”

Students are engaged by actively seeking out art forms in their everyday lives to post to Instagram and by engaging with classmates’ posts and commenting on them, which encourages students to apply course concepts.

Instructions for Students:
Following are the instructions for students. The course hashtag #ARC112;  created specifically for this course. Providing clear, concise instructions for students is critical; doing so encourages students to focus on applying and learning concepts, and not focusing on the technology.

Overview of Activity[for students]:
The purpose of this activity is to apply concepts learned in the course about the movements in Western art studied in this course by analyzing art forms and determining the influence of movements and styles on the artist’s work.

To accomplish this you’ll use Instagram, either your own account (see instructions here to create an account), or you can create an alternate Instagram account for the purpose of this course (see instructions here). You will take photos of art forms that represent or reflect a movement of art studied in this course. You can choose any art forms—sculpture, mural, paintings, street art, collages, etc. encountered in your everyday life which could be in a museum (though not necessary), in a park or public place, on campus, or other place.


  • Post 2 images between week 2 and 5, of a work of art, sculpture, painting, or architectural detail, using the tag #ARC112 that reflect one of the art movements listed below. Each image must represent a different movement and include a caption that describes: the movement the work represents, how the work represents the selected movement, and why you chose it.
  • Post a 3rd image in week 6 with the caption “What am I” in using our class tag #ARC112. The image can be partial image of the art form. The purpose of this activity is to have your classmates identify the art from, and determine which movement or style the art form represents.  Engage with classmates who provide comments: giving hints or suggestions. Reveal the full image in week 8.
  • Respond to 2 or more classmates’ “What am I” images in week 6 and 7 with your guess of what the art form is, the movement or style the artwork represents and how.

This activity is worth 10 points—10% of your course grade.

Art Movements:
Renaissance  •  Baroque •  Romanticism • Realism  • Impressionism  • Post-Impressionism  • Modernism

By searching the web and from my classmates in the workshop I learned of creative and unique ways that educators are using social media for learning.  Yet, the most important factor when integrating any tool is considering the learning objective first, then determining which tool and activity will support learning and engage students.

Further Reading on Social Media and Learning



Book Review: ‘Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite’

This review was first published on another blog I host, “School Over Sports”;  I included the review here because of its applicability to higher education—the ‘system’ that leads to “excellent (but stressed out) sheep” (Deresiewicz, 2014).

“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life”, William Deresiewicz, 2014. Simon & Schuster

Part of the American Dream for teenagers (and parents) of middle & upper class families is going to a prestigious university, or at least one that ranks highly on U.S. News Best College list. Former professor William Deresiewicz describes the college admissions process as a ‘rat race’ in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Lifea rat race that pushes high-schoolers into relentless pursuit of AP classes, leadership experiences, SAT prep workshops, volunteering ventures, varsity sports, and ‘enriching’ extracurricular experiences. The pursuit doesn’t end in high school; it continues into college which Deresiewicz writes, leaves college students stressed out, burned out and aimless. More concerning and the thesis of the book, is how these pursuits, deemed necessary by the ‘system’ (the college application process and experience), leave college graduates without a sense of self or purpose and clueless about what they want to do after graduating.

“You cannot say to a [college student] ‘find your passion’, most of us do not know how and that is precisely how we arrived at college, by having a passion only for success” — Student, Yale University

Deresiewicz writes about experiences of students at elite universities yet his findings are applicable to middle-class kids attending any suburban high school who want to get into the best university through academic performance or a sports scholarship. I’ve seen this first-hand with my three kids who in high school all went through the arduous, stressful, overwhelming college admissions process. The pressure and expectations, embedded in our school and community culture was clear—do whatever it takes to build your college application so you can get into the most prestigious college possible. Never mind if a lesser-known college would be a better fit—getting into a school with a name is what it’s all about.

Why Excellent ‘Sheep’?
Deresiewicz writes that the system churns out students who are smart, talented, and driven, yet at the same time are anxious, distraught, and lacking in intellectual curiosity. They are all heading in the same direction—herded, like sheep, by the system.

Deresiewicz suggests college kids are like sheep, herded blindly by the system. Photo by Carl Purcell.

Deresiewicz suggests an alternative: he believes college education should prompt thinking — “What is the good life and how should I live it?” He also suggests that college education should be about building character, good citizens and individuals who think independently. Most importantly students should find their vocation—their purpose, or at least be on the path that takes them there.

“Purpose has the virtue of uniting the inner with the outer, the self within he world: what you want to do with what you see as needing to be done. “What moves you – what do you feel connected to? Becoming a lawyer isn’t a purpose. Becoming a lawyer to defend the rights of workers or to prosecute criminals is. Purpose means doing something, not ‘being’ something” (pg 99)

Aimed at high school and college students, the book is not only a must-read for students but for parents. There’s four parts: Part I gives the history of “The System”— how we ended up with this unwieldy college application process and experience. Part II – “Self” speaks to students, outlining what they can do to survive the system, rise above it, while finding a path to self-discovery and purpose. These chapters are helpful, for parents too as they pose questions such as ‘what is college for?’ Questions worthy of consideration.

According to Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, “Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spend using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake in crisis, now knowing why they have worked so hard”… If adults are unaware of this, that’s partly because they’re looking in the wrong direction.   (Pg. 11)

Chapter six “Inventing your Life”  is for students. So how do you find a vocation—your purpose? The million-dollar question—and hough there’s no formula Deresiewicz does a good job with the topic including advice and experiences of college graduates (pg 102).

In Part III, “Schools” Deresiewicz writes about the need for humanities in schools, an education grounded in the liberal arts with ‘Great Books’. He also suggests we need small class sizes with good teachers. Part IV is where Deresiewicz outlines his suggestions for change, how to fix the college application process and curriculum. Though I agree with most of Deresiewicz proposals, he misses the big picture—there needs to be significant change in higher education where the focus should be on educating students (not on research or collegiate sports) within the realm of our global and digital economy, also incorporating liberal arts, small class sizes and courses for students that guide them to finding a path with purpose.

Takeaways for Parents
There are takeaways in Excellent Sheep for students, educators, high school administrators and parents. From a parent’s perspective the book provides instructive if not painful advice. In chapter 3, “The Training” the role parents contribute to the system is clearly described—overbearing, helicopter parents, who orchestrate their child’s life with activities and classes, coddle and boost their self-esteem with praise for every success and accomplishment. Then there are the parents who view their child’s accomplishments as a validation of their own self-worth. The latter is insidiously prevalent in our culture; it’s embedded within TV commercials, bumper stickers, e.g. X university MOM, seminars at high schools, and within outlets afforded through Social Media where we can post about our children’s accomplishments for the world to read.

What  Deresiewicz writes about is a complex problem to fix, but Excellent Sheep is a good starting point. It raises questions to consider that can serve as an opening for bucking the system, or at least for trying to work with the system for the benefit of our children.