Thoughts on Education – 3/28/2012 – Thinking about the future of education

I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here.  So, here we go.

The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant.   I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way:  “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future?  What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studioa reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?”  Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me.  The article also noted:  “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.”  I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well.  At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age.  That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key.  In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.”  Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new.  While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign.  I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.

Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times.  The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education.  What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea.  A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for.  Here are some of them:

  • “a college degree is economically valuable”
  • “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
  • several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
  • “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
  • “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”

That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here.  It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas.  I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver.  I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more.  I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.

Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level.  As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people.  But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage.  As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'”  So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall.  In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes.  As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students:  “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'”  This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively.  I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections.  I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment.  I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.”  That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now.  I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are.  I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students.  Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.

OK.  I think I’m going to call it a night here.  Any reactions?

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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.

3 responses to “Thoughts on Education – 3/28/2012 – Thinking about the future of education”

  1. abtwixt says :

    I like how you’ve pulled these thoughts together: the ideas that people are challenging the value of university education, or at least how university education is given, but that one of the ways that colleges/universities have adapted (online classes) are having certain complications.

    I am not a teacher, but I did spend 6 years getting a Masters [liberal arts] degree that has not opened any doors for me. Conversely, my husband opted out of the college track and is finding this to also close many doors for him.

    I think that much of the problem lies in how we expect our high school juniors/seniors to make very adult decisions (a career) before they really have any experience of being adults. I liked history in high school; I knew that college meant a career; I got a degree in history. I had unrealistic, idealized notions of what I wanted in life. Now I am an admin assistant.

    The way I see the system set up, you have that ONE chance after high school to pick a degree that will truly benefit you. Once you are older and better able to make an informed decision, you have the financial and time burdens of a family and household to run, and finding the time and money for a degree is very difficult. Most people I know who opt for online degrees are doing so solely because it is the cheapest/most time flexible option (I mean this with the utmost respect for your understandably challenging position).

    • Scott Williams says :

      I’m sorry I did not reply to your comment earlier, but this came in just as I took about a month hiatus from blogging. I fully agree with you about the pressure that is on students to have picked a career (degree) so early in their academic career. I interview for my alma mater, and I often find that these high school juniors already seem to have made every decision necessary. I wonder what they need college for at that point, as they seem to have already figured it all out. They certainly will not get any eye-opening experiences unless they put themselves out there. I always value the people that I interview who were like me, with no idea what they are going to do.

      I also see the difference between just out of high school students and students who come into college later. I teach a good mix of both, and I always find the older students to be stronger and to have more open minds about life. However, as you note, they are also inherently less flexible to be able to change the direction of their lives at that point. I wonder if there’s any way we can fix the system to address this problem.

      • abtwixt says :

        Thanks for the reply! I don’t know if this is a proper “fix”, but in the UK they have a sort of dual system of education — one is the traditional University route, and the other is a graduated system of certifications/diplomas that are specific, take far less time to earn, and are offered affordably in local colleges (and government student loans are readily available). Both routes are respected equally.

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