StraighterLine today announced that it is building a "next generation market" for its low-price online offerings, according to a news release. Burck Smith, the founder and CEO, said via e-mail that the new platform would allow students to "build their own course pathways by choosing different elements at varying prices." That could mean choosing between self-paced or professor-led courses, whether or not to use tutoring services or, in the future, selecting courses from other content providers, potentially even other colleges, Smith said.
For now, StraighterLine is adding nine new courses to its 38 self-paced, general education offerings. The provider also said it had received $10 million in private financing to help build the new platform. StraighterLine's courses cost $99 a month, and the American Council of Education recommends that other institutions recognize StraighterLine credits.
After a panel fails to reach consensus, the U.S. Education Department will have a free hand in writing regulations that affect whether students in teacher preparation programs can receive some forms of financial aid.
America faces a crisis in higher learning. Too many college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers. In a metaphorical sense, we are losing our minds. How can this be if American higher education is supposed to be the best in the world?
The core explanation is this: the academy lacks a serious culture of teaching and learning. When students do not learn enough, we must question whether institutions of higher education deliver enough value to justify their costs. Resolving the learning crisis will therefore require fundamental, thoroughgoing changes in our colleges and universities. There must be real change -- change beyond simplistic answers such as reducing costs and improving efficiency -- to improve value.
What is needed is non-incremental change; to make higher learning a reality, we as a nation must undertake a comprehensive review of undergraduate higher education and introduce dramatic reforms in colleges and universities of all types.
Culture -- in higher education, and in our society -- is at the heart of the matter. We have reduced K-12 schooling to basic skill acquisition that effectively leaves most students underprepared for college-level learning. We have bastardized the bachelor’s degree by allowing it to morph into a ticket to a job (though, today, that ticket often doesn’t get you very far). The academy has adopted an increasingly consumer-based ethic that has produced costly and dangerous effects: the expectations and standards of a rigorous liberal education have been displaced by thinly disguised professional or job training curriculums; teaching and learning have been devalued, deprioritized, and replaced by an emphasis on magazine rankings; and increased enrollment, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, and more research grants have replaced learning as the primary touchstone for decision-making.
Teaching is increasingly left to contingent faculty; tenure-track professors have few incentives to spend time with undergraduates, improve their teaching, or measure what their students are learning. Expectations for hard work in college have fallen victim to smorgasbord-style curriculums, large lecture classes, and institutional needs to retain students in order to make the budget. Minimal student effort is rewarded with inflated grades. None of this makes for higher learning, nor does it adequately prepare students for employment or citizenship. We need to rethink the ends and means of higher education.
Reconstituting the Culture of Higher Education
The current culture -- the shared norms, values, standards, expectations and priorities -- of teaching and learning in the academy is not powerful enough to support true higher learning. As a result, students do not experience the kind of integrated, holistic, developmental, rigorous undergraduate education that must exist as an absolute condition for truly transformative higher learning to occur. We do not demand enough (doing that would conflict with consumer friendliness, perhaps); our standards are not high enough (setting them higher creates retention worries); we accept half-hearted work from students who do not insist on enough from themselves and do not know how to ask for more from their teachers (doing otherwise would make college more serious; how could it still be “fun”?). Degrees have become deliverables because we are no longer willing to make students work hard against high standards to earn them.
A weak educational culture creates all the wrong opportunities. Without academic expectations to bring structure to students’ time, too much time is wasted. In the absence of high academic and behavioral expectations, less demanding peer norms become dominant. In the peer culture, time spent on class work, reading, and reflection must be limited; too much of it becomes a stain on a student’s social value. It has become possible -- even likely -- to survive academically, be retained in school, get passing grades and graduate with a baccalaureate despite long-term patterns of alcohol and other substance abuse that are known to damage the formation of new memories and reduce both the capacity and the readiness to learn. The atmosphere of too many residence halls drives serious students out of their own rooms (functionally, their on-campus homes) to study, write, reflect, and think.
Rethinking higher education means reconstituting institutional culture by rigorously identifying, evaluating and challenging the many damaging accommodations that colleges and universities, individually and collectively, have made (and continue to make) to consumer and competitive pressures over the last several decades. What do we mean by “damaging accommodations?”
We mean the allocation of increasing proportions of institutional resources to facilities, personnel, programs and activities that do not directly and significantly contribute to the kind of holistic, developmental and transformative learning that defines higher learning.
We mean the enormous expenditures devoted purely to securing a “better ranking” in the magazine surveys. We mean the progressive reduction in academic, intellectual, and behavioral expectations that has undermined the culture, learning conditions, and civility of so many campus communities.
We mean the kind of thinking that elevates “branding” and “marketing” in importance and priority above educational programs and academic quality as ways to attract students and secure robust enrollments.
We mean the deplorable practice of building attractive new buildings while offering lackluster first- and second-year courses taught primarily by poorly paid and dispirited contingent faculty.
We mean the assumption that retention is just keeping students in school longer, without serious regard for the quality of their learning or their cumulative learning outcomes at graduation.
We mean giving priority to intercollegiate sports programs while support for the success of the great majority of students who are not athletes suffers.
As a society we allow -- in fact, condone -- institutional policies, practices, and systems in higher education that, taken together, make good teaching a heroic act performed by truly dedicated faculty members, rather than the universal expectation and norm across campuses. Similarly, we allow the most regressive features of undergraduate culture to undermine the motivation and desire for intellectual growth of many good students; in many ways, being a serious student is also a heroic act. We allow passivity to dominate students’ already slight engagement with courses and faculty.
Collectively Putting Learning First
The common lament that higher education has become a business, or that it has emerged from its recent struggles having too much “corporate” character, is not the primary issue. The primary problem is that the current culture of colleges and universities no longer puts learning first -- and in most institutions, that culture perpetuates a fear of doing so. Isolated examples to the contrary exist, but are only the exceptions that prove the rule. The leaders of many, if not most, colleges and universities might agree with this assessment of the problem, but would likely argue, with some justice, that no single institution can risk being the only one to change; that restoring attention to the fundamentals, rather than the frills, would put that one institution at serious risk. Indeed, it is true that this is a collective problem, and that action by many schools, supported by a strong national impetus for change, is a necessary condition for success.
In calling for the kind of serious, systemic rethinking that directly and unflinchingly accepts the challenge of improving undergraduate higher education, we are asking for four things; taken together, they demand, and would catalyze, a profound, needed, and overdue cultural change in our colleges and universities.
1. The widespread acceptance and application of a new and better touchstone for decision-making in higher education, linked to a strong framework of essential, core principles. A touchstone is a standard, or criterion, that serves as the basis for judging something; in higher education, that touchstone must be the quality and quantity of learning. A touchstone and a clear conceptual framework link our advocacy for change to a powerful set of ideas, commitments, and principles against which to test current policies, practices, and proposals for reform.
2. A comprehensive re-evaluation of undergraduate education and experience guided by those core principles. This must occur both nationally, as an essential public conversation, and within the walls of institutions of all types, missions, and sizes.
3. The leadership and actual implementation and renewal of undergraduate higher education needs to be led by the academy itself, supported by boards of trustees, higher education professional organizations, and regional accrediting bodies alike. Such rethinking ought to be transparent, informed by public conversation, and enacted through decisions based on the new touchstone, improving the quality and quantity of learning.
4. Learning assessment must become inextricably linked to institutional efficacy. The formative assessment of learning should become an integral part of instruction in courses and other learning experiences of all types, and the summative assessment of learning, at the individual student, course, program, and institution levels should be benchmarked against high, clear, public standards.
Both the process and the results of a serious rethinking of higher education will be more likely to succeed and less likely to cause unwanted harm if that rethinking is generated by an authentic public discussion linked to and supporting cultural change in colleges and universities than if it is imposed by a disappointed, frustrated nation through its legislative and regulatory authority. Levels of dissatisfaction with the priorities and outcomes of higher education among parents, alumni, employers, and elected officials are unlikely to decline absent significant reform.
Cultural problems require cultural solutions, starting with a national conversation about what is wrong, and what is needed, in higher education. The country should reasonably expect higher education to lead this conversation. For real change to occur, discussions about the quality and quantity of learning in higher education and the need for reform must occur at multiple levels, in many places, and over a significant period of time -- most importantly on campuses themselves.
The national conversation provides context, direction, and motive -- but only many intimate and passionate conversations among colleagues in every institution of higher education can ground the discussion enough to give it sufficient power to bring change. Progress will not be made in improving the quality and quantity of learning -- in restoring higher learning to higher education -- unless both the public discussion and the multilayered, multistep processes of change on our campuses occur.
If enough change occurs in enough places, and if our public expectations remain high and consistent, learning may become the touchstone for decision-making; the quality and quantity of learning -- documented by rigorous assessment -- may become both each institution’s greatest concern and the basis for comparisons between various colleges and universities; degrees may once again be earned, not delivered as entitlements; faculties may again focus on learning, rather than instruction, and on learning assessments, rather than credit hours; and every college and university might have the data and information it needs to determine and communicate the value of what it does to prospective students, parents, accrediting organizations, donors, and the public. With these changes, students will be more prepared for the world of work, armed with the most important skills and knowledge, and having graduated with something of real value.
Cultural change from within, across the entire spectrum and expanse of higher education, will be disruptive, and it needs to be. But such change has the unique promise of restoring higher learning in higher education while preserving its extraordinary diversity. Without it, external interventions and demands that will be far more disruptive and far less tolerant of institutional diversity become increasingly likely.
Richard P. Keeling is principal, and Richard H. Hersh is senior consultant, for Keeling & Associates, a higher education consulting practice. They are authors of the recent book, We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), from which this essay is partly excerpted.
Is there any reason for today's academic institutions to encourage the pursuit of answers to seemingly frivolous questions? The opinionated business leader who does not give a darn about your typical liberal arts classes "because they do not prepare today’s students for tomorrow's work force" might snicker knowingly here: Have you seen some of the ridiculous titles of the courses offered by the English / literature / history / (fill in the blank) studies department in the University of So-And-So? Why should any student take "Basketweaving in the Andes during the Peloponnesian Wars"? Just what would anyone gain from such an experience?
Yes, the professor will probably claim that our common global ancestry and the dependence of today’s culture on the classical morals of the era will provide much food for thought and much room for growth for the 18-year-olds who will be sitting through three hours of ancient basketweaving lectures a week. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the industrialist will wave dismissively, but who cares?
Now if our impeccably dressed friend is honest, perhaps he will admit that what he is demanding from those of us who have less (time and money) to spend on trendy outfits because we are busy preparing our lectures and doing our grading and writing our books and presenting our work at professional conferences (of course the latter two are a complete waste of time, our friend would say) is to create for him an army of well-trained, docile and respectful workers, ones who come out of the factory of higher education in time to be immediately recruited by the factory that is the job market. Workers who are faceless in the midst of a sea of millions like themselves, workers who are trained to play by the rules and to respect authority, workers who are cheap and obedient and dispensable.
While the elite will have their prep schools and their private schools and their automatic rights to four years on a heavenly campus playing the sports they like and hanging out with their future CEO friends, the workers that our friend expects us to graduate and dump into his lap are the ones who should NOT learn to ask questions. And stupid or frivolous ones? Those are the worst! Because who knows, maybe they are just making fun of him, asking these trick questions that sound silly but have quick witty answers that he just can’t come up with.… Surely he always hated those trick questions…. What, brain teasers, they were called… Or math…. Whatever.
In these kinds of debates our well-fed (but in tip-top shape thanks to his personal trainer) friend will often find support amidst the faculty teaching in the STEM disciplines. It is not tough to find an engineering professor who smirks at the titles of courses offered by his humanities colleagues, nor is it uncommon for faculty in the pure science disciplines to consider themselves at the core of the curriculum and the foundation of a real education.
My own disciplinary colleagues, the mathematicians, are not completely innocent either. True, many of us view mathematics as a creative art, but many of us also have the illusion that mathematics is the only path to universal truth (now what does that even mean?). Furthermore we believe that the fact that the university mathematics curriculum still follows the same ladder structure that brings student cohorts through the same college algebra-precalculus-calculus sequence that we (and our predecessors and their predecessors and their predecessors, ad infinitum) have grown up with is due, not to our shared lack of creativity or simple inertia, but to the absolute necessity of this order.
This year I took a different path. I volunteered to teach a first-year seminar. A strange path indeed for the rational, linear-thinking mathematician who had taken a whopping two courses in humanities during her own undergraduate studies. The first-year seminar series at my college is a perfect foundation for a deep and engaged liberal arts education. The courses are writing-intensive, most are discussion-oriented seminars, and students are expected through the semester to engage with analytic readings, sophisticated writing experiments, creative arts and aesthetic sentiments. Absolutely marvelous for a humanities scholar. How about me? What would I center my course around?
Not caring to reinvent the wheel, I followed the example of my most daring colleagues and chose a completely frivolous question to guide the semester's activities: "Can Zombies Do Math?" The inclusion of zombies was a clever, pragmatic move on my part. The Humans vs. Zombies game has been an absolute hit on my campus for years now, so I knew that students would find the bloody stench of the gory manifestations of the undead/living dead irresistibly appealing. However the central idea of the course had been simmering in my mind for several years before I even heard of the game.
Mathematics is undeniably a human endeavor, and even though we mathematicians unfortunately do a very poor job of sharing the true nature of mathematics (which integrates a certain comfort with ambiguity and a deep desire for elegant simplicity amidst complex patterns) with the rest of the society who claims to be allergic to matters mathematical. Mathematical practice gracefully integrates a certain comfort with ambiguity and a deep desire for elegant simplicity amidst complex patterns. With all this baggage in the background, I knew that I had to give it a try. I had to try to create a course where students, fresh out of the factory line that is the K-12 education system, now even better buttressed by No Child Left Behind on one side and the Advanced Placement rush on the other, would be exposed to various ideas and experiences about the true nature of mathematics.
Throughout the course my students and I read several books, articles, essays, short stories and poems. We watched movies about zombies and mathematicians. (A partial syllabus for the course may be found here.) There were writing assignments that required students to review novels they were individually assigned, and others that asked them to interview a mathematician to discover what motivated them. The two main essays of the course focused on the two serious questions that were hidden under my frivolous one: What does it mean to be human? What is the true nature of mathematics? The culminating writing assignment for the course was a narrative statement asking students to come back to the course title question and resolve for themselves the puzzle that began the whole trip: Can zombies do math?
On the last class discussion of the semester, Kimberley, the student discussion leader, asked her classmates:
"Now that the course is coming to a close, how would you answer the question 'Can Zombies do Math?' Would you answer it any differently than you would have at the beginning of the semester?"
There was consensus around the room that most of them did not change their gut response to the question, but now they had a more crisp understanding of the path that led them to that answer. Along the way they tackled questions such as what makes us human, what we ostracize as subhuman, other, monstrous, and what, if anything, is a soul. Also through the semester they had the chance to explore ambiguous, wild patterns and strange, undetermined paths in the mathematical universe. But I think what mattered most in the end was summarized best by Kenny’s response to Kimberley’s question:
"Does the purple hippo that I just conceived like to brush his teeth? It depends."
Yes, the course was centered around a frivolous question, but the point my students and I left the semester with is that the answer to any question we can pose depends, always depends on what our basic assumptions are, what we are already inherently implying with our choice of words, tone of voice, and turn of phrase, and what lies inside us as individuals who are reflecting over the question. The minor issue about what makes us human was, of course, a side attraction, which will hopefully allow these keen students of the liberal arts to proceed through the rest of their voyage in college with some carefully examined and deeply felt sentiments about their place in this universe.
Another brief description of the course mentioned here (titled "Humanistic Mathematics: An Oxymoron?") will appear in Diversity & Democracy (Volume 15, Number 2), a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in Spring 2012.
Gizem Karaali is assistant professor of mathematics at Pomona College.
Old Dominion University has ended a policy adopted in 1977 that students had to pass a writing examination to graduate, The Virginian-Pilotreported. The university came to the conclusion that the test wasn't working. The percentage of students who failed the first time they took the test (they were allowed to retake it) stayed the same, at about 25 percent. And professors continued to complain about poor student writing skills. University officials said they were now focusing on embedding writing requirements within the curriculum, an approach they believe may have more impact than a single three-hour test.
Professors at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, want the right to bar laptops from their classrooms, CTV Ottawa News reported. Marcel Turcotte, one of the professors pushing the idea, said of his students: "They are distracted and we are competing with that for their attention.... You see one student who is really not listening, would be watching the video and then it's kind of contagious." A faculty vote is planned for May.