Thoughts on Education, 1/29/2012

So, today I’m going to look at a number of articles on education.  I am curious to see the thoughts on the state of education today, as well as what people are talking about as far as improvements go.  I’ve saved a bunch of articles on education onto my Evernote recently, so I’m just going to go through them and work on them here.


“A Crucible Moment in Education”

Some thoughts – What do we mean by education?  This article raises the question of rote memorization versus developing actual thinking skills.  We have been slowly emerging from a period of memorization as the highest value of education.  What does it matter whether our students can memorize useless facts and data, when we should be concentrating on making them functioning and independent members of society.  They need to be taught how to think at all levels.  While this article concentrates in on K-12, this is just as true in the realm of higher education.  I have been slowly coming to this realization over time, as I have worked through thinking about what I want my own students to learn.  As the article puts it nicely, what really matters is helping the students “learning how to figure things out for themselves, and learning how important their educated selves are to their communities and the larger society as a whole.”  I have already been working toward removing lecture as my primary role, as that leads to a narrow focus on my own words as law, with little room for students to do work themselves.  I would like to make the education experience much more about the students becoming educated than about me providing education.

“A Critique of the Modern University part I: Education”

Starts with:  “The educational role of universities is supposed to be some combination of enlightenment (moral education and love of knowledge) and human capital growth (economically productive skills and knowledge).”  Then, as he says, the university is failing at both of these.  Says that universities should not be the first place that students even encounter the idea of enlightenment.  It is actually a failure that our students come to us so unprepared and so unable to think.  It is a failure of the system as has come before, and it means that universities are set with a task that students pay a large amount of money for and should be able to find on their own before, even in the free education that they are required to have. as he says, “Bear in mind that no-one is stopping you from reading books or following correspondence/evening classes in your spare time, and many people do so. Linking ‘enlightenment’ so strongly to universities makes it seem an elitist project.”  I struggle with this myself.  What am I offering students?  Why is the point when I am lecturing and discussing topics the first time that people have heard it?  Does this mean that we are failing ourselves?  At what point do we sit down and think about things outside of those that are required?  Yes, part of it is that I am presenting things in a different way than what people have traditionally been taught, but why is that?  Why do we wait so long, and why do we charge people (even at a CC) to learn this?  Plus, as he says, what is the value on it anyway?  How do I convince a student that they are getting value for this?  What value are they getting?  What value is there in a more open mind?

That leads into the second part of the article – what is the value of the education?  Is it just valuable because people get better jobs?  What does that have to do with the skills that I teach them?  Plus, is it just that the people who would go to college are more likely to get a better job anyway?  He has an interesting point here, that what a university really does is expose people to the ideas of a middle-class life.  It has the possibility of raising up people who would not get there otherwise, while consigning those who do not get it to menial, uneducated jobs.  Regardless of fairness, I’m certainly not comfortable with that idea as a formative part of what education is about.  Yet, the simplicity of that model is hard to deny as well.

So, what is the solution.  Ha!  Articles like this provide no solutions, just outline the problems.  Blame is all around – students for not caring, instructors for not caring, professors for not caring, etc.  But what do we care about?  How do I teach to 180 students a semester who could care less about the education they are getting outside of what it means for them getting a better job.  There’s only so much I can do.  Yet, in his mind, this is what I am:  “Professors themselves have almost no professional interest in education and consider students basically a nuisance – a time sink – except for those few who are truly inclined to the life of the scholar and will reproduce the academic establishment into the future. . .  Professors naturally prefer conferencing – hanging out with their intellectual peers – to teaching Bio 101 to hungover Freshmen on Mondays at 9am. And who can blame them?”  We are unresponsive and uncaring to an unresponsive and uncaring student body.  His solution to all of this – some magical restructuring of the entire system that will make education equally available to all and move it away from a postsecondary model.  I read those solutions and think, that sounds good.  But how would you do that?  How would you change the whole system?  Is it worth just trashing it all?  Would my students come to this overhauled education system that promised them enlightenment?  Well, his solution is make sure that practical skills are included as well.  So, now what?  I don’t know

“Free courses may shake universities’ monopoly on credit”

This is a hot topic today, the university education without a university. Getting it through free courses, adding up “credentials” around the web and making a “degree” that employers would value as much as an actual university education.  I think the most interesting comment is :  “I don’t think free is necessarily the key point here. But the fact that there is this innovation around what’s offered by the mainstream system shows that the mainstream system isn’t meeting the demand that exists.  A university degree has become a passport into adult employment, but it doesn’t really fit with what people really need for the rest of their lives. Most of the things you’ve learned are outdated by the time you’re done.”  That again echoes what I have said before, that I need to rethink the way I’m doing things.  The brick-and-mortar, go for four years, live on campus, etc. model is only available to a certain number of students.  Everyone else needs more options, and these free courses can offer that.  But does it mean the same thing?  Is there value to coming in and taking a class versus doing things on your own as you go along?  We are back to the model being broken.  The problem, of course, is that until there is a new model, these courses are “nice” but don’t mean anything.  Great, you took a free course at MIT.  So, where does that go on a resume?  How does it help you get a job.  Does your employer care about it?  I ran into the very same problem.  The only thing that would make me more valuable to my employer is if I got a Ph.D.  That’s it.  I can take all the other things I want – continuing ed, free courses, digital graduate certificates, etc. – but I would pay for it on my own, use up my own time for it, and see no reward whatsoever.

“Online course start-ups offer virtually free college”

Similar idea – the online credential that comes from combining the free options from traditional universities into a “degree”-type thing.  But, nobody takes it or respects it, and I’m sure most people have never even heard of it.  My first thought, but it comes from the universities, so why is the university model broken if the primary alternative is repackaging the university education?

“E-Testing:  The Future is Here”

Ha!  I’m already doing this.  In fact, the primary restriction from me doing it more is the continual resistance from our Testing Center to me sending students there to test.  Think if we had the money and resources to actually put something like this together and create a real e-test that was strong, safe, and hassle-free.

“The fading dream of higher education in the US”

The heart of it:  “In response, higher education has also abandoned the common good. Most in the US now view it solely from a narrowly economic perspective. Vocational training has replaced the liberal arts, while administrators strive to make their campuses engines of economic growth, rather than sites for intellectual experimentation and meaningful cultural encounters. Of course, graduates need to earn a living, but they also need to have a life worth living. And adapting colleges and universities to today’s profit-driven environment imposes financial and educational costs that may simply be too high – for students, for the academy and for that elusive common good.”  So, as usual, everything is doomed.  It’s such a doom-and-gloom field, that you wonder why people even bother.

At it’s heart is this problem – education is getting more expensive.  Salary and benefits are getting more expensive.  Providing the latest building, facilities, sports stadiums, student halls, dorms, landscaping, etc. is more expensive.  At the same time, state and federal funding is dropping off a cliff.  That means the burden is more and more on the students themselves.  They have to pay for it.  And, of course, then they ask more and more what they are getting for their money.  And, as she says, the main people who get blamed for all of this is the faculty – we are elite, out of touch, expensive, and not giving students what they really want.  The assumption is that there’s no value to what we have done to train to be academics, and that what we decide to teach is invalid if it is not tied directly to specific skills.  And, yes, all of those are true.  Yet, we go back to the question of what the purpose of an education is anyway.  Is it to train you in job skills or to educate you.  This is a scary question to ask at a community college, as it is assumed to be more of the former, yet they hire people like me who have the aim of the latter.

She also looks at the other pressures on faculty.  1)  fewer full-timers means more done by fewer people  2) less value on educational background in administration  3)  grade inflation from the pressure of keeping your job by pleasing the students

“Is Sweden’s Classroom-Free School the Future of Learning?”

More relevant to early education, but an interesting look at the limitations of the traditional classroom.  Proposal for non-classroom spaces where independent learning goes on.

“Lectures for a New Year: How Schools Fail Creative Kids”

Ha!  Fail again.  I’m going to watch it later, so I’ll revisit this one.

“Study – Positive Outcomes for Dual Enrollment Students”

Hey!  Positive!  Interesting here that deal enrollment improves the chances both that a student will go to college and that the student will succeed in college.  However, this does not bode well for our current method of doing it:  “the effects were only evident when the dual enrollment classes were taken on college campuses. Students who took dual enrollment classes on high school campuses showed no statistical gains.”

“Doctoral Degrees – The Disposable Academic”

So, a bit sideways related to the issues here.  But it does get at a fundamental problem.  Doctorates train you for research positions that don’t exist anymore.  Instead, people get doctorates in a field with little chance of a research university job, little training for the teaching job they are likely to get, and a lot of time and money spent to get there.  Nothing I don’t know (and haven’t already experienced).

“‘Badges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas”

Back to the idea of an alternative.  A credential can point to actual skills that you earn versus specific degrees.  As it says here, a degree on the wall says that you completed a course of study from a certain place, but it doesn’t say what degrees you have actually earned.  A credential can provide a more direct reference of skill sets earned and distinctions gained.  It can provide a broader look at what education actually is and what it can provide.  But we, again, run into that same problem as before – what real value do they have?  Who recognizes them?  If I were to get one, who would know, who would care, and would it actually get me anything?


About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

2 responses to “Thoughts on Education, 1/29/2012”

  1. William Smith says :

    This is great, Scott (ha! “Great Scott”! I just cracked myself up). We should all be sharing this kind of stuff more. I plan on looking at a couple of these articles today.

    • Scott Williams says :

      Thanks William. I do hope to keep doing this. I’m always reading and accumulating articles, and I found that I often never get around to sitting down and reading them. So, I thought that making it into something where I write, think, and respond to articles would get me to work with them more directly.

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