Future of the university: closing the opportunity gap

If I could change something in higher education, it will be closing the opportunity gap. This has societal impacts that are way beyond the individual: can improve the quality of life of the population and even the economic development of the country.

Education has been long credited with social mobility; for example, data indicates that those who have been able to enter and complete a four-year degree have a better chance to become middle class[1]. At the same time, social mobility[2] (figure 1) and higher levels of education2 (figure 2) inversely correlates with the levels of income inequality of a country, as the figures below indicate:

Inequality vs Income correlation

Educational scores in math and reading vs income inequality

This is specialty truth in minority communities, where the lack of opportunities enhances a vicious cycle of poverty. However, the current social and economic system rewards exclusion in education: the top-ranked US institutions are the ones that receive the highest per-student public funding is the least diverse ones[3], missing the chance of reducing the opportunity gap through their institutions.

How can this gap be closed? Depends on several factors.  The most obvious solution is first, to present higher education as a possibility to the low-income and minority population, and then financing their education. The financial aspect is a major barrier for those who want to go into higher education, and it creates segregated educational systems were just a few manage to go in, most of them not without a huge debt at the end. After enrollment, however, the next problem in line is completion. The available information reveals an overall 40% dropout rate for undergraduates, with 30% of college freshmen dropping out their first year[4]. This is even worse for community colleges that enroll a majority of less advantaged students, with a 54% dropout rate.

Again, the financial burden is still the main reason, followed by lack of preparation to take on college-grade studies: according to a 2009 National assessment of educational progress (NAEP) in high school seniors, only 38% showed above proficiency in reading, and that drops down to 26% for math[5].

This reveals that the problem is not only rooted in the financial part, but in the school system itself. Better-prepared students in the K-12 system can level up the field from the beginning, then, along with strong financial aid, can effectively elevate the completion rate in higher education across the population. This could also increase diversity and therefore the representativity, creating positive feedback: if somebody who is like me can do it, maybe I can do it as well. Other mechanisms that are already in motion in several universities in the US, is to mentor and guide students to successfully navigate college, especially when they are first-generation or do not have a strong support system.

Several other aspects influence the opportunity gap, such as the “educational deserts”, where colleges are more spread in wealthier areas in the US[6]; or the fact that college might not even be the appropriate path, and therefore technical education can be a way of obtaining skills that will assure a steady/ better income.

The numerous feedbacks between the educational, societal, and economic systems make it difficult to present a unique solution on how to close the opportunity gap. This requires the involvement of several actors, public and private, acting on long-term policies while understanding the needs of a part of the population to whom higher education can be a ticket to a better life.

[1] Bailey, M. J., & Dynarski, S. M. (2011). Gains and gaps: Changing inequality in US college entry and completion (No. w17633). National Bureau of Economic Research

[2] https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/social-mobility-and-education

[3] https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/01/17/three-things-consider-about-increasing-access-higher-education-essay

[4] https://educationdata.org/college-dropout-rates

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/research/higher-education-and-the-opportunity-gap/

[6] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/12/20/access-higher-education-tilts-heavily-toward-urban-areas

Technology And Innovation In Higher Education: The Use Of Social Media

The use of technology in education has to be one of the biggest cultural changes of the last century, impacting the way that we obtain information and how do we process it. Among the several benefits of using technologies in the classroom[1]

  • Access to up-to-date information;
  • Improving the teacher’s performance by using data analytics;
  • The students can acquire new tech skills;
  • Can increase engagement and participation in class by using other tools like online polling platforms (i.e. Menti) especially for those students who don’t want to participate in the usual way, or have disabilities that prevent them from doing so,
  • Dealing quicker and faster with time-consuming tasks, and now they can be automatized, like taking attendance.

The downsides [1] are related to the pace of the lecture themselves: the speed and amount of information shared in a short period might not be properly assimilated by the students, therefore the technology becomes less effective in the learning process. The use in the classroom of laptops and other apps can be distracting as well if there are no restrictions to use them in non-educational activities.

One of the major concerns is the decline in social communication. There is less need to interact verbally with the teacher and the other students, which in turn restricts the development of the so-called soft skills, a key part of human interaction.

The reasons mentioned above, stating why technology can be a friend or a foe in the classroom, are true for all educational levels, but there are other aspects exclusive to Higher Ed that will be mentioned next.

Historically, Colleges and Universities have been experimenting and/or adopting new technologies, faster than other sectors of society. Not all of them made it for long, due to its ever-evolving nature. There are several ways to approach this subject in Higher Ed, but for this entry, I will on one specific topic: the use of social media.

Social media in Higher Ed

A study made by Moran et al (2011) focused on the use of social media among faculty members, finding that around 90% of them used some type of social media in their teaching and/or their professional life. In their study, they were considering Facebook, Twitter, My7space, LinkedIn, SlideShare, and Flickr, in addition to videos found on YouTube and blogs. Since the study was made in a time where TikTok wasn’t even a thing, probably those numbers would switch a bit, and even increased over time, while dropping in others. However, even almost 10 years ago, most of them at least were aware of the types of social media available, which is considerably high regarding the generational factor, where over 80% reported to be aware of at least one of the mentioned above.

That said, the study also found that the use of social media in the classroom is also correspondent with this trend faculty who were frequent users of social media: the higher the use, even for personal reasons, will be also higher the percentage that recommends or include online content.

Regarding the type of tool used, online video was by far the most used, followed by podcasts and blogs, while those websites used for personal purposed were seldom used (like Facebook and Twitter; figure 1, right) The same pattern was observed for the type of assignments using social media (figure 1, left).

Right plot: Faculty class use of social media by site Left plot: Faculty class use of social media for student assignments (taken from Moran et al. 2011.)

Perceptions of the use of social media

Despite the large percentage of use by faculty, there are still some disagreements on their use for teaching. A majority considers that their use takes more time than they are worth (87%), while 80% believe that there is a “lack of integrity of student’s submissions”, and 70% worry about privacy. However, there is a general perception that the use of social media can have a positive impact on their teaching, especially the use of online videos (figure 3).

Faculty opinions on the value of social media for class use (taken from Moran et al. 2011.)

A more recent study (Jacquemin et al., 2014), focused on Twitter usage in the classroom for biology students, showed that it was considered helpful to keep up with the latest information in their discipline, not always available in the books due to the fast-paced nature of global information. At the same time, it was considered less than preferred to encourage discussions among the class participants. Interestingly, undergrads, the more ‘heavier’ users of social media in daily life, were also less prone to want to include social media in the classroom.

Jacquemin et al. (2014)

My two cents

The use of social media in the classroom does not come without its dilemmas. It seems that it is most beneficial when is used as a way to reinforce concepts and ideas or to deepen their understanding beyond the classroom. Social media is always evolving, some of the sites that were talked about in Moran et al. (2011) are no longer a thing nowadays, and probably this blog will not be either in the years to come. Who knows where social media is heading, but I think that this pandemic has become a great opportunity to experiment with online learning on a massive scale, and social media can become a way of engaging and creating community beyond the walls of the classroom.

[1] https://www.futureeducators.org/technology-in-classrooms-pros-cons/

Moran, M., Seaman, J., & Tinti-Kane, H. (2011). Teaching, Learning, and Sharing: How Today’s Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media. Babson Survey Research Group.

Jacquemin, S. J., Smelser, L. K., & Bernot, M. J. (2014). Twitter in the higher education classroom: A student and faculty assessment of use and perception. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(6), 22-27

Open Access journal- Geosciences

According to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)[1], an open-access journal is the one that “(…) uses a funding model that does not charge readers or their institutions for access”, while giving the users the right to “read, download, print, search or link the full texts of these articles”, within the law. To do not charge the readers, the associated costs are paid by the authors, on what is known as the Article Processing Charge (APC). This amount can vary depending on the journal but can go from an $8 to $3,900 (USD), where the lowest prices are charged by journals in developing countries, and the highest from international publishers, most of them in the biomedicine field[2].

The requirements for the journals are the same as the paid ones: there has to be a quality control (peer- review with an editorial board), it has to be considered a research journal (reports the results from research), and it is issued periodically (at regular intervals).

Geosciences: a journal about geosciences (indeed)

Using the DOAJ search engine, I typed the most general word related to my field, “geosciences”. This search brought up 119 open access journals, most of them from countries other than the US. I chose, what a surprise, the journal “Geosciences”. It is published in Switzerland, by MDPI AG. It has a CiteScore (2019) of 2.1, which ranks them #79 out of 187 journals on the ‘General Earth and Planetary Sciences’.

Geosciences (ISSN 2076-3263), as its name implies, covers the full range of subdisciplines in the field. Its editorial board comprises a large number of international academics and professionals on each one of those topics, which I think adds value due to the diversity of viewpoints. This also fulfills the idea of being “ an international, peer-reviewed open access journal, which publishes original papers, rapid communications, technical notes and review articles, and discussions about all interdisciplinary aspects of the Earth and Planetary Sciences”.

Geosciences has been part of DOAJ  since October 2013, and it has been active since 2011. It has published 1,701 articles until this date, with 189 articles cited 10 times or more. The more cited papers so far are a clear example of the diversity of topics that it is the main aim of this journal. For my research, I made a quick search and only five papers were shown. Since the coverage of this journal is so broad, I am not surprised. However, it makes it less appealing, to me at least, when it comes to publishing something that I will have to pay for it myself, that it can be easily lost in this large sea of subjects, risking to become irrelevant. If I have to choose an open access journal, I will look into the other options, not mentioned here, that some of the other non-open access journals have, to make your paper open access. Needless to say, this might not happen anytime soon (at least not in a grad student paycheck).

[1] https://doaj.org

[2] Solomon, D. J., & Björk, B. C. (2012). A study of open access journals using article processing charges. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(8), 1485-1495.


Ethics in academia- Under Pressure

The office of Research Integrity is a U.S. government agency focused on the health sector. One of its roles is to detect and investigate research misconduct, such as the reproducibility of scientific research, plagiarism, falsification or fabrication of data (making up data), and so on.

Among all of those, I would imagine that the fabrication of data is probably one of the most difficult to trace. In general, when the results of an experiment are quite fascinating, here is a lot of excitement, and things will probably not be obvious until somebody else will try to reproduce them, or somebody from the same lab speaks up. I can imagine, however, that the pressure that anyone could face when a million-dollar project sinks down, will drive them to act in such a manner, but for how long? The stakes are too high: the possibility of being discredited for life by your colleagues, not being able to receive any funds, losing your job, it doesn’t seem worthy for such a short time of glory, therefore taking this risk seems ridiculous. But it happens.

Let’s take, for example, the case of Erin Potts-Kant (https://businessnc.com/deceit-at-duke-how-fraud-at-a-university-research-lab-prompted-a-112m-fine/) , as a 24-year-old lab technician /research assistance that managed to co-authored 38 research papers with the PI of the Dukes university, Michael Foster, before being accused with falsification of data. When the experiments about the pulmonary effects of inhaling toxic substances in mice were too good to be the truth and hardly replicable, Joe Thomas, one of her lab mates, noticed. Thomas filed a lawsuit against Duke under the federal False Claims, stating that the researches knew about the falsified data and they would still use it to obtain federal funds. This generated a six years-long lawsuit, that ended up with Erin getting arrested, and then fired from Duke, Foster “retiring”, and Duke reaching a settlement with the government of $112.5 million.

This story developed over 13 years since Potts-Kant first started to work in Foster’s lab in 2006 to the moment that Duke finally was forced to pay reimbursements for the use of federal funds in 2019. There was more than one red flag over time, and Thomas and others were pointing out to them, with little success. The high pressure in academia to produce publishable results, to then obtain grants and other awards as a way of perpetuating scientific research and their jobs, can trigger these less-than-desirable conducts in those with the academic preparation but with few ethical tools and professional integrity.

Mission and vision statements in academia: wishful thinking or true compass

I am going to be honest: from all the things that I read about my school, before and after being accepted, the last thing in my mind was the ‘mission and vision’ page. Every time that I ran into it I completely skipped it. The reason? All of them sound the same, plenty of big words (contribute to society’, ‘excellence’, ’international levels’, etc.), while being highly optimistic about their plans, but adding no quantitative parameters to show that they have a reasonable way of being accomplished. It sounds to me like when a candidate for a beauty pageant would say when asked ‘what do you want to achieve if you win?’ it will probably be ‘world peace’, or something similarly vague and grandiose.

To challenge my overall disbelief when it comes to institutional statements, I did my homework and look up at two very different institutions, in two different countries: Chile and the U.S. Why? Because I spent a fair amount of time in the first one, in the Universidad de Concepcion (UdeC), where I got my professional degree (equivalent to getting a major in Geology and then being professionally certified.) I have to add that in none of those several years, I took the time to look at the mission and vision statements. Never.

Universidad de Concepcion is a hybrid private research institution with state contributions, and the third-oldest overall university in Chile, founded in 1919. Yale University was founded in 1701, and it is the third-oldest higher education institution in the US, and a private research university as well. That is when the similitudes between these two institutions end. Regarding everything else (culture, size, funding, outreach, etc.) there is no comparison point.

To compare them, I made a table just to make it easy for the reader (note that the statements from Universidad de Concepción are translated from the original).

Universidad de Concepción Yale University
Mission The mission of the University of Concepción is the integral and pluralistic formation of people with social responsibility, creativity, critical sense, leadership, and entrepreneurship; the creation, adaptation, and transmission of knowledge, and the creation and cultural diffusion, to effectively contribute to the sustainable human, economic and social development of the Region and the Country. Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. We carry out this mission through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
Key concepts for Mission statement The integral formation of people; the transmission  of knowledge; diffusion of culture, sustainable  development for the region and the Country Outstanding research and scholarship; education of leaders; free exchange of ideas in a diverse community
Vision University with growing national and international recognition for its quality in the training of people and research, development, and innovation, with the capacity to anticipate and adapt to changes in the environment, committed to the culture and development of the Region and the Country. Yale aspires to be the most student-focused research university in the world.  We will achieve that vision through a distinctive commitment among our faculty to teaching, close engagement with students, and by ensuring that all students are prepared and able to take full advantage of their educational programs and of the extraordinary strengths and assets of a preeminent university that is unified, innovative, and accessible.
Key concepts for Vision statement Quality training internationally recognized in research, development, and innovation that adapts to changes in the environment Most student-focused research university in the world by committing to teaching  their students


When reading UdeC, the focus is on a holistic view of the individual, and how its education can have a local and a national impact on economical and social development. Yale has a broader, worldwide outreach, putting the worth into research, and into a  leadership with no specific values. The ‘free discussion’ of the academic community seems to point out to the exchange of the ideas within a particular research problem, but not necessarily about social events or political issues.

The vision statements are different, since UdeC is still positioning as a school with world-class research, and again, the main impact is within the region and the country. Yale has already the international recognition that UdeC aims for, and its focus is again on the individual and how it can get the most of its education while at Yale.

Overall, even in this exercise of going through the statements shows the different scales of both universities, and how the context itself (a developing country vs. one of the biggest economic powers in the world) can also shape the views of its institutions their values by deciding to emphasize societal impact vs the individual. So, I would dare to say that there is more to it than smoke and mirrors when it comes to institutional statements.