April 26, 2013
I have good news and bad news for anyone who will be looking for a job in the coming years. The good news is that some time in the future, job interviews may go away. Okay, maybe some companies will still do them for the sake of tradition, but they won’t matter all that much.
Which leads me to the bad news–Big Data is more likely to determine if you get a job. Your dazzling smile, charming personality and awesome resume may count for something, but it’s algorithms and predictive analysis that will probably seal your fate.
Here’s why. Enormously powerful computers are beginning to make sense of the massive amounts of data the world now produces, and that allows almost any kind of behavior to be quantified and correlated with other data. Statistics might show, for instance, that people who live 15 miles from work are more likely to quit their jobs within five years. Or that employees with musical skills are particularly well-suited for jobs requiring them to be multilingual. I’m making those up, but they’re not so far-fetched.
Some human resources departments have already started using companies that mine deep reserves of information to shape their hiring decisions. And they’re discovering that when computers mix and match data, conventional wisdom about what kind of person is good in a job doesn’t always hold true.
Run the numbers
Consider the findings of Evolv, a San Francisco company that’s making a name for itself through its data-driven insights. It contends, for instance, that people who fill out online job applications using a browser that they installed themselves on their PCs, such as Chrome or Firefox, perform their jobs better and change jobs less often. You might speculate that this is because the kind of person who downloads a browser other than the one that came with his or her computer, is more proactive, more resourceful.
But Evolv doesn’t speculate. It simply points out that this is what data from more than 30,000 employees strongly suggests. There’s nothing anecdotal about it; it’s based on info gleaned from ten of thousands of workers. And that’s what gives it weight.
“The heart of science is measurement,” Erik Brynjolfsson, of the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., pointed out in a recent New York Times article on what’s become known as work-force science. “We’re seeing a revolution in measurement, and it will revolutionize organizational economics and personnel economics.”
Evolv, which largely has focused its research on hourly employees, has spun from data other strands of of H.R. gold, such as:
- People who have been unemployed for a long time are, once they’re hired again, just as capable and stay on their jobs just as long as people who haven’t been out of work.
- A criminal record has long been a thick black mark for someone in the job market, but Evolv says their statistics show that a criminal background has no bearing on how an employee performs or how long they stick with a job. In fact, it has found that ex-criminals actually make better employees in call centers.
- Based on employee surveys, call center workers who are creative stay around. Those who are inquisitive don’t.
- The most reliable call center employees live near the job, have reliable transportation and use one or more social networks, but not more than four.
- Honesty matters. Data shows that people who prove to be honest on personality tests tend to stay on the job 20 to 30 percent longer than those who don’t.
And how do they gauge honesty? One technique is to ask people if they know simple keyboard shortcuts, such as control-V, which allows you to paste text. Later they’ll be asked to cut and paste text using only the keyboard to see if they were telling the truth.
It’s getting creepy
Data-driven hiring has its flaws, of course. One is that it could result in unintended discrimination against minority or older employees. Minority workers, for example, tend to travel farther to their jobs. And that could create legal problems for a company that steers clear of long-distance employees because statistics show they don’t stay in jobs as long.
Then there’s the matter of what lengths a company will go to gather data on its workers. Where will it draw the line when it comes to tracking employees’ behavior in the name of accumulating data?
“The data-gathering technology, to be sure, raises questions about the limits of worker surveillance,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The New York Times. “The larger problem here is that all these workplace metrics are being collected when you as a worker are essentially behind a one-way mirror.”
That’s a serious issue, but it’s not likely to slow the trend of replacing a boss’ gut reaction with the perceived wisdom of algorithms.
Case in point: Earlier this year eHarmony, the company that’s made its mark in online matchmaking, announced plans to tweak its algorithms and get into the business of hooking up employees and companies.
Big Data is watching
Here are other ways Big Data is having an impact:
- The roads less traveled: Delivery companies like Fedex and UPS are starting to see significant savings by using data analysis to guide drivers to less congested roads to avoid idling in traffic.
- Have phone, will travel: Scientists in Africa are using data gathered from cell phone usage to track the spread of diseases like malaria by seeing where people travel.
- Big C, meet Big D: The American Society of Clinical Oncology has launched a project to create a massive database of electronic records of cancer cases so doctors can apply analytics to determine how to best treat patients.
Video bonus: Still don’t get the whole Big Data thing. Photographer Rick Smolan shares his epiphany about it.
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April 19, 2013
Question: What’s needed to raise the quality of school teachers in America?
Answer: A bar exam?
So say the head of the country’s most powerful teachers’ union, the governor of New York and the U.S. secretary of education, among others. Their contention is that the only way teachers can truly elevate their profession–and with it the level of public education–is if they follow the lead of doctors, lawyers and engineers and are required to pass a test to prove mastery of their subject matter and how to teach it.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first floated the idea last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival when asked what more could be done in training teachers. Then, late last year, her union put out a report, titled “Raising the Bar,” that pushed the idea further, calling for “a rigorous entry bar for beginning teachers.”
The debate has raged on ever since.
Joining those singing the praises of a tough teacher assessment is Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. Writing on The Atlantic website, he pointed out that pretty much anyone who graduates from college in America today can become a teacher, and that “job security, not teacher excellence, defines the workforce culture.” He also quoted a sobering statistic from McKinsey: The U.S. gets nearly half of its teachers from the bottom third of its college classes.
And just last weekend, in the New York Times, Jal Mehta,an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote that compared to many other fields where quality is maintained by building a body of knowledge and training people in that knowledge, “American education is a failed profession.”
“We let doctors operate, pilots fly and engineeers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.”
So what exactly do the proponents have in mind? For starters, they think any exam would need to focus both on the prospective teacher’s subject and on teaching more generally, particularly the social and emotional aspects of learning. While states would be able to adapt the guidelines, the intent would be to set national certification standards. And, above all, the process would need to be “rigorous.” They say “rigorous” a lot.
AFT’s proposal also recommends that American universities need to get much more selective in accepting students into education programs, that they should require a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average, plus an average score in the top third percentile on college entrance exams. The goal, ultimately, is make teaching a skill to be mastered, and one that requires serious preparation. Said Weingarten: “It’s time to do away with a common rite of passage into the teaching profession—whereby newly minted teachers are tossed the keys to their classrooms, expected to figure things out, and left to see if they and their students sink or swim.”
Of course, not everyone thinks this is such a good idea. Some critics have suggested that it’s a ploy by the teacher’s union to sound high-minded, while actually aiming to protect its current members–who likely wouldn’t have to take the exam–and to justify a sizable bump in salary. Or that it’s really a swipe at programs like Teach for America, which offers a different route to becoming a teacher.
Still others think that focusing so much on a test score doesn’t make sense for a profession so dependent on interpersonal and motivational skills. Jonathan Kozol, author of numerous books on education, including “Letters to a Young Teacher,” makes the point that no test, no matter how refined, could adequately measure what he thinks is a good teacher’s greatest quality, that he or she loves being with students. The only way you can gauge that, he says, is watching them teach.
And Jason Richwine and Lindsey Burke, both of the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, argued recently in The Atlantic that having knowledge and being able to impart it are two different things. They wrote:
“A teacher with a doctorate degree, every certification and license available, and 15 years of experience is no more likely to be a high performer than a teacher with a B.A., the minimal certification, and five years of experience.”
In the end, this discussion often ends up in Finland. It’s the Magic Kingdom of Education, the place the experts talk about when they imagine what American teachers could be. Roughly 40 years ago, the Finnish government concluded that the key to the country’s economic future was a first-class public education system. And the key to that was a system that gave teachers the prestige of doctors.
To even be accepted into a Finnish teacher education program, candidates must be at the top of their class, complete exams on pedagogy, be observed often in clinical settings, and pass a challenging interview. Only about 1 in 10 Finnish applicants are accepted to study to be teachers. And while the U.S. has more than 1,200 universities that train teachers, Finland has only eight. In short, teachers need to earn the right to feel special.
So, does that elevated status of teachers there result in better students? Yes, you could say that. In science, in math, in reading, Finnish students rank first in the world.
Here are other recent innovations in education:
- Never start by trying to learn Chinese: One of the hot trends in higher education is predictive analysis, which evaluates data to help identify students at risk of dropping out and also which course sequences are more likely keep kids in school and which are more likely to make them choose to drop out.
- Even tests can be all about you: A new online portal called Smart Sparrow allows teachers to offer material that’s adapted specifically to a student. For instance, quiz questions can be based on how a student answered the previous question. If he got it right, the next question’s harder, if he got it wrong, it’s easier.
- Do the math: A company called Mango Learning is building a reputation for its mobile apps that teach grade school kids math. They’re interactive games that supposedly can make kids even want to add decimals.
Video bonus: The Young Turks online news show offers its take on what makes Finnish education so special.
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April 15, 2013
Last fall, shoppers outside a Macy’s store in Boston were given a chance to test drive a robot. They were invited, compliments of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to sit at a console and move the machine’s arm the same way surgeons would in an operating room.
And why not? What says cutting-edge medicine more than robotic surgery? Who wouldn’t be impressed with a hospital where robot arms, with all their precision, replace surgeons’ hands?
The surgeons, of course, control the robots on computers where everything is magnified in 3D, but the actual cutting is done by machines. And that means smaller incisions, fewer complications and faster recoveries.
But earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began surveying doctors who use the operating room robots known as the da Vinci Surgical System. The investigation was sparked by a jump in incidents involving da Vinci robots, up to 500 in 2012.
The California company that makes the da Vinci, Intuitive Surgical, says the spike has to do with a change in how incidents are reported, as opposed to problems with its robots. It’s also true that robot surgery is being done a lot more frequently–almost 370,000 procedures were done in the U.S. last year, which is three and a half times as many as in 2008.
And the procedures are getting more complicated. At first, the robots were used primarily for prostate surgeries, then for hysterectomies. Now they’re removing gall bladders, repairing heart valves, shrinking stomachs during weight loss surgery, even handling organ transplants.
Not surprisingly, FDA survey has stirred up a swirl of questions about machine medicine. Have hospitals, in their need to justify the expense of a $1.5 million robot, ratcheted up their use unnecessarily? Has Intuitive Surgical placed enough emphasis on doctors getting supervised training on the machines? And how much training is enough?
It’s not an uncommon scenario for technological innovation. A new product gets marketed aggressively to companies–in this case hospitals–and they respond enthusiastically, at least in part because they don’t want to miss out on the next big thing.
But is newer always better? A study published recently in The Journal of the American Medical Association, compared outcomes in 264,758 women who had either laparoscopic or robotically assisted hysterectomies at 441 different hospitals between 2007 and 2010. Neither method is invasive.
But the researchers found no overall difference in complication rates between the two methods, and no difference in the rates of blood transfusion. The only big difference between the two is the cost–the robotic surgery costs one-third more than laparoscopic surgery.
Then there’s the matter of loosening training standards. When the FDA allowed the da Vinci system to be sold back in 2000, it was under a process called “premarket notification.” By claiming that new devices are similar to others already on the market, manufacturers can be exempted from rigorous trials and tough requirements. In this case, Intuitive Surgical was not formally required to offer training programs for surgeons.
The company did tell the FDA that it planned to require a 70-item exam and a three-day training session for doctors. But, as a recent New York Times article noted, Intuitive changed its policy just two years later. Instead it required surgeons to pass a 10-question online quiz and spend only a day in hands-on training.
So ultimately it’s up to the hospitals to set training standards. But in their rush to embrace the future, they can be tempted to avoid being too demanding. In one 2008 case that has resulted in a lawsuit against Intuitive, a patient suffered serious complications, including impotence and incontinence, while having his prostate gland removed. The surgeon, it turned out, had never done robotic surgery without supervision before.
A researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Martin Makary, who has previously criticized hospitals for overhyping robotic surgery on their websites, has another study coming out soon that suggests that the problems involving da Vinci robots are underreported. “The rapid adoption of robotic surgery,” he contends, “has been done, by and large, without the proper evaluation.”
Dr. David Samadi, Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has a different way of looking at robotic surgery: “A good driver in a Lamborghini is going to win NASCAR. But someone’s who not a a good driver in a Lamborghini…he’s going to flip the car and maybe kill himself.”
Here are some other ways robots are being used in hospitals:
- Down go the mean old germs: Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore have turned to robots to take on the superbugs that have become such a threat of spreading dangerous infections among patients. After a hospital room is sealed, the robots spend the next half hour spraying a mist of hydrogen peroxide over every surface. Other hospitals are taking a a different approach in dealing with nasty bacteria–they’re using robots that zap germs with beams of ultraviolet light.
- And you’ll be able to see your face in the scalpel: GE is developing a robot that will keep the tools of the operating room sterile and organized. Instead of relying on humans doing this by hand–clearly not the most efficient process–the robot, by recognizing unique coding on each piece of equipment, will be able to sort scalpels from clamps from scissors, sterilize them and then deliver everything to the operating room.
- Bedside manner, without the bedside part: Earlier this year the FDA approved a medical robot called RP-VITA, which was developed by iRobot and InTouch Health. The machine moves around the hospital to rooms of patients identified by the doctor. Once in a room, it connects the doctor to the patient or hospital staff through the robot’s video screen.
- The buddy system: Researchers at Columbia University found that the pain ratings of hospitalized children dropped significantly when they interacted with “therapeutic robot companions.”
Video bonus: When da Vinci is good, it’s very, very good. Here’s a video of a surgeon using one to peel a grape.
Video bonus bonus: Okay, admittedly this has nothing to do with robotic surgery, but it’s the hottest robot video on the Web right now–an impressive, yet somewhat creepy demo of Boston Dynamics’ “Petman” in camo gear.
More from Smithsonian.com
April 5, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that last year a record amount of wind power was installed around the planet. The U.S. set a record, too, and, once again, became the world leader in adding new wind power, pushing China into second place for the year.
You’re not alone in being clueless about this. So was I. After all, this is a subject that gets about as much attention as 17-year-cicadas in a off year. What generally passes for energy coverage in the U.S. these days is the relentless cycle of gas-prices-up, gas-prices-down stories and the occasional foray into the natural-gas-fracking-is-a-blessing-or-is-it-a-curse? debate.
Okay, so wind power had a very good year in 2012. But that doesn’t mean that it’s gone mainstream. Hardly. It accounts for only 4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. Plus, a big reason for the spike last year was that companies scrambled to finish projects before a federal tax credit expired at the end of December. (It was renewed as part of the end of the year tax deal, but only for one more year.)
Truth is, wind power still has some familiar challenges, such as the wind’s refusal to blow 24/7 and the not insubstantial death toll inflicted on bird and bat populations by twirling turbine blades–estimated to be hundreds of thousands killed a year. (Although that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions that die from flying into buildings.)
And it has some new ones–”wind turbine syndrome,” for instance. That’s the name that’s been given to the ill effects that some people who live near wind farms have complained about–headaches, dizziness, ear pain, difficulty sleeping. NPR ran a story on it just the other day.
But many scientists and public health experts think the ailment is more psychosomatic than physiological. In fact, a recent study in Australia found that the syndrome was much more prevalent in communities where anti-wind farm groups spread warnings about negative health effects. In short, the research concluded, people were more likely to feel sick if they were told turbines could make them sick.
Lose the spin
That said, the industry could probably use a different approach to capturing the wind, something that didn’t involve huge spinning blades. Which explains why there’s so much interest in an innovation developed at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. It’s a wind turbine that not only has no blades, it has no moving parts, meaning little wear and tear.
It works like this. Instead of generating electrical energy from the mechanical energy of the rotating blades, this device, called a Ewicon (short for Electostatic Wind Energy Converter) skips the whole mechanical energy part.
It comprises a steel frame holding horizontal rows of insulated tubes, each of which has several electrodes and nozzles. The nozzles release positively charged water droplets and they are drawn to the negatively-charged electrodes. But when the wind blows, it creates resistance and that generates energy.
Only a few prototypes have been built so far, but the inventors, Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, think that if their design takes off, it could be a boon to wind power in cities, where massive turbines aren’t an option.
Still another approach is what is known as Windstalk. Again no blades, but in this case, energy is generated by a small forest of more than a thousand narrow, 180-foot-tall poles packed tightly together. Within each hollow, carbon fiber pole, which narrows from base to tip, is a stack of small ceramic disks and between the disks are electrodes.
These discs and electrodes are connected to a cable which runs up the pole. When wind causes the ‘stalks’ to sway, the discs compress, generating a current.
The windstalks have been proposed as one of the sources of energy in Masdar City, the world’s first carbon-neutral and car-free city, being built near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Catching the breeze
Here are five other recent wind power stories. Chances are you haven’t heard them either.
1) And the wind…cries…chowda: It’s been 10 years in the works, but Cape Wind, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., took a big step forward last month when the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ signed a $2 billion agreement with the project’s developers. The plan is to build 130 turbines, each with blades 50 yards long, in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Cape Cod. If it stays on schedule–construction is supposed to begin late this year–Cape Wind could be lighting 100,000 to 200,000 homes by 2015.
2) That “beyond petroleum” thing…just kidding: It wasn’t all that long ago that British Petroleum changed its name to BP and then CEO John Browne made it clear that it stood for “beyond petroleum” and that the company was fully committed to begin shifting to renewable energy. But that was before that messy spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, the one that may cost BP as much as $42 billion. Earlier this week, the company announced that it plans to sell its wind energy interests in the U.S. It has investments in 16 wind farms in nine different states and hopes to earn as much as $3 billion by putting them on the market.
3) That’s because back East anything that big has a video screen: A study done by researchers at Purdue University found that a lot of people in Indiana actually like having wind farms in their communities. More than 80 percent of the people surveyed said they supported wind turbines, even in counties where local governments had opposed them. Some said wind farms gave rural areas a certain charm and one person noted that when friends visited from the East Coast, they couldn’t stop staring at them.
4) The answer, my friend, is bobbin’ in the wind: A new type of wind turbine that floats is being tested off the coast of Japan. Most turbines extend from pylons buried in the seabed, but this model, while anchored to bottom, has a hollow lower core that’s filled with seawater. And that keeps it upright. If it works, this approach could dramatically reduce costs of offshore wind farms.
5) Waste management is so 20th century: And in Italy, law enforcement authorities have seized the assets of a Sicilian businessman suspected of laundering money for the Mafia. The man under investigation, Vito Nicastri, is so big in the renewable energy business in Italy that he’s known as “Lord of the Wind.”
Video bonus: So why do wind turbines have to be so big? Here’s a nice, little video on how a wind farm off the Dutch coast works.
Video bonus bonus: And for a change of pace, here’s a tutorial on how Windstalk would work.
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March 29, 2013
Depending on who you’re listening to, Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, are either the greatest boon to the spread of knowledge since Gutenberg cranked his first press or the biggest threat to learning on campus since the coming of cheap beer.
No question that they are the most disruptive innovation to come out of universities in a very long time, although it’s still too soon to say if that’s “good” disruptive or bad. A quick refresher: Though free online courses, notably through Khan Academy, were already starting to build an audience, the first MOOC by a university professor popped up at Stanford in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun, also head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and his colleague, Peter Norvig, would offer online–and free–their course on artificial intelligence. About 160,000 people around the world signed up.
The following semester Thrun left Stanford–which didn’t particularly like the free part of his grand experiment–and started his own online education service called Udacity. A few months later, two more Stanford computer scientists, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, got venture capital backing to create another online company named Coursera, built around the model of signing up professors from top universities to teach classes. And then last fall, MIT and Harvard anted up, jumping in with a MOOC service they called edX.
A lot of professors who taught in the first wave of MOOCs were effusive about the experience, especially about having the opportunity to reach more than 100,000 people all over the world with just one class. But plenty of others wondered what really had been let out of the bottle, and whether once people got used to the idea of free college courses, how would they feel about the old model, you know, the one involving payment of tens of thousands of dollars.
Views from the front line
So, more than a year has passed since Thrun went to the free side and MOOCs–and the philosophy they promulgate of valuing competency more and time in the classroom less–are clearly gaining momentum.
Last week the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees approved an ambitious program of online education, including MOOCs designed to help students finish their degrees in less time for less money. The week before that, Darrell Steinberg, a leader of California’s State Senate, introduced legislation that would allow students to get full credit for a class by taking a MOOC if he or she was shut out of a course and unable to find a comparable one.
Also, the National Science Foundation has kicked in $200,000 to study a free online course in electronics offered through MIT last year, with the goal of comparing data and feedback from students who took the class online with what was gathered from those who took the same course in a classroom setting.
But a bit of analysis already has been done, in the form of a survey published by The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. More than 100 professors who have taught MOOCs responded to an online questionnaire. Among the highlights of their feedback:
- Almost 80 percent said they think MOOCs are worth all the hype–although the Chronicle did point out that the professors most enthusiastic about the experience were more likely to respond.
- Eighty-six percent said they thought MOOCs would eventually reduce the cost of getting a college degree (45 percent said it would significantly, 41 percent marginally.)
- But 72 percent said they didn’t think free online students should receive full credit from their universities.
The dark side
It is a noble notion, this idea of first-rate professors sharing their wisdom with knowledge-hungry students around the world, playing the role of “sage on the stage,” as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman put it recently.
In practice, it hasn’t been such an idyllic model. The large majority of people who sign up for free online courses are what Phil Hill, an education consultant who has analyzed some of the MOOC data, refers to as “lurkers.” These are people who perhaps watch a video or two, but then drop out–a lot never get beyond registering. Hill says as many as 60 to 80 percent of MOOC students never make it past the second week of a course.
It’s apparently not unusual for as many as 90 percent of those who sign up for a free online class to drop out before they finish it. In one case, a bioelectronics course offered by Duke University through Coursera, only 3 percent of those who registered made it to the final exam.
Proponents of free online classes acknowledge that a lot of people who sign up for MOOCs are more curious than committed, and with neither a financial investment nor the option to earn credit, they don’t feel a compunction to stick it out to the end. More often now, universities are providing certificates to students who finish a course, for a nominal fee, generally under $100.
For professors, a big part of the motivation to teach MOOCs, according to the Chronicle survey, was the sense that mass online education is inevitable and that it would be wise to get ahead of the curve. Many also said they thought the experience made them better teachers.
But some believe the trend doesn’t bode well for many universities, particularly smaller ones and community colleges. Michael Cusumano, a professor of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, sees a troubling parallel with what happened with newspapers. “Free is actually very elitist,” Cusumano wrote recently in the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. The result, he warns, could be a “few, large well-off survivors” and far more casualties.
His worst case scenario is “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry–zero–which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”
Adds Cusumano: “Will two-thirds of the education industry disappear? Maybe not, but maybe! It is hard to believe that we will be better off as a society with only a few remaining megawealthy universities.”
Here are other recent developments in open online learning:
- “Like” us if you’d rather not have a mid-term: The first MOOC service based in the U.K., called Futurelearn, launched in December and will be offering classes later this year. Its CEO says that one day people may congregate around online learning courses the way they now do around Facebook.
- Engineering can be fun! No, really: Brown University has begun offering a free, six-week online course designed to encourage more kids to consider careers in engineering.
- All MOOCs, all the time: And in Rwanda, a non-profit called Generation Rwanda is moving ahead with a creating a “university” for which all of the courses are taught online by professors elsewhere.
Video bonus: Here’s a bit more on MOOCs in a New York Times video report.
More from Smithsonian.com
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