Students need a physical space on campus to debate controversial issues (essay)

Many people have argued that the recent student protests at colleges and universities across the country primarily involve free speech issues. For their part, the protesters disagree, arguing that the issues they seek to address are racism, exclusivity and bigotry in all its forms -- from fecal swastikas smeared on bathroom walls to racial slurs and microaggressions.

Whatever your position is on this dispute, the one thing that has become clear is that this is an opportunity to improve the way college students debate complicated issues. The conflicts highlight that something is missing on college campuses: a designated physical space for planned discussions, led by students, about controversial topics -- those that spark heated disagreement and possibly even revulsion.

I am a minority student at Williams College, and I recently had to deal with such a controversial issue, when Uncomfortable Learning, a student group of which I am co-president, tried to bring Suzanne Venker, an antifeminist social critic, to the college. Consequently, I received a torrent of ad hominem attacks. Among other things, peers called me a misogynist and men’s rights activist who was endorsing hate speech. In the end, we had to cancel the event for fear that it might get out of control and perhaps even endanger the speaker.

Yet confronting ideas that we oppose -- whether from a speaker who is brought to the campus, a senior administrator or a classmate -- is what higher education should be all about. There is a difference between Suzanne Venker and, to take an extreme example, Adolf Hitler, and to pretend otherwise undermines the principles this country was founded on. It is vitally important to create a separate area for free debate so that students who are interested can respectfully and constructively work through their understanding of sensitive issues and how to deal with them -- without being called aimless hate mongers.

Such a space is rarely available now on American campuses. Most classes in the humanities and social sciences are either lectures, seminars or a combination of the two. In each case, teachers create the course syllabi and generally set the agenda. Outside of the classroom, in dining halls, dorms and other places on a campus, students talk about various subjects. But the dining hall is a place for eating, just as a dorm is a place for living. Neither location is intended for planned discussions, for students to explore and discuss the ideas they hold.

This space I envision would serve several important purposes:

  • It would give students a forum in which to clarify the issues that challenge them the most and why.
  • Students could discuss the content of competing arguments on heated issues like gun rights, abortion, immigration and affirmative action.
  • Students could discuss how best to respond to unwelcome ideas and offensive speech, even hate speech. After all, one person’s offensive idea is another person’s viewpoint.

In those respects, creating a separate space for planned discussion of controversial issues is both a way for students to engage with each other about uncomfortable ideas and to prepare each other to have conversations about any number of sensitive issues outside of that designated space.

Openly discussing controversial topics and unpleasant ideas is important because doing so can help students gain a deeper understanding of views with which they vehemently disagree. Take for example, the use of the n-word. Many African-Americans consider it decided beyond any reasonable doubt that the n-word should never be used by white people. From that perspective, white people debating the 1991 Central Michigan University case presented in Randall L. Kennedy’s article “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’? … And Other Considerations” would be seen as abusive and denigrating and thus of no intellectual value.

While I am sympathetic to that point of view, I disagree with it. While some people interpret controversial comments to be attacking or devaluing of them personally, in fact many of those instances, like the use of the n-word, merit hearing opinions from all sides. Too often, certain unpleasant ideas are understood as having already been debated and conclusively decided upon. The space that I’ve described would give students who are interested an opportunity to have these kinds of discussions.

In particular, this space would be created by students who are enthusiastic about the idea of critically engaging with each other about the urgent issues of our time, even if they hold conflicting opinions. While they would be encouraged to defend any position they support, the discussion would ideally be driven by the participants’ shared desire to gain a deeper understanding of complicated issues.

Ground Rules

To create this space, students should work with their administration to designate a place on campus where such planned discussions can occur. Once a group of students takes it upon themselves to lead this effort, they should establish important ground rules for the discussions, perhaps with the guidance of a professor or other neutral party. Ground rules are necessary to prevent ad hominem attacks and baseless claims from detracting from constructive dialogue. For example, it should be stipulated that, in the designated space, no student is allowed to attack the character of another for putting forth a controversial or even noxious argument. While there is no way of ensuring that these discussions do not engender fear of threats of physical violence, a ground rule must be established that explicitly prohibits such threats. In the extreme event that a student threatens or exercises physical violence, the administration should be notified immediately.

If some students become uncomfortable or offended by other people’s opinions, they should disagree respectfully. And if they feel motivated to do so, they should try to dismantle the argument they find problematic by challenging its fundamental assumptions and exposing its flaws. “Disagreeing respectfully” does not preclude raising one’s voice. Rather, disagreeing respectfully means that, in contention, students must refrain from making ad hominem attacks.

Colleges should encourage this kind of critical engagement because defending one’s position, identifying flaws in arguments we disagree with and effectively communicating differences of opinion are critical life skills. Many careers in business, politics, education and public service involve discussion of complicated issues that often result in heated disagreement. To contribute to such discussions and potentially shape climates of opinion, it is important for students to learn how to have productive conversations about sensitive topics.

Part of the reason for creating this separate area for free debate is so that it is easier for students to have uncomfortable discussions and contentious disagreements respectfully -- without causing emotional harm to others or incurring harassment or intimidation. By making this kind of forum available to students, we provide an opportunity for them to gain experience with sustained argumentation, in which students face the challenge of defending their most sacrosanct ideas against unpleasant, even deeply troubling, opposition and dealing with meaningful yet intense disagreement. While some students may leave these discussions feeling some resentment, sustained, unequivocal dissent and harsh sentiments surround the most pressing issues of our time. To debate these issues, students have to learn how to deal with the feelings that may accompany them.

These discussions are not meant to be formal debates in which opposing sides compete to win. The structure I envision is one that allows conversation to flow freely. Discussion groups, ideally, should be small enough so that students don’t have to raise their hands and wait to be called on to speak. If it happens that 30 people want to be a part of the same discussion, then they can break up into small groups so that everyone has an opportunity to be fully engaged. If a situation occurs in which nine people end up disagreeing with one person, that one person should defend their ideas and debate energetically.

To ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute equally to the conversation, it might be helpful for each group to select a discussion leader. But the conversations could be most productive if those involved determined the structure for them. In that way, students would have the opportunity to play a role in shaping, framing and changing the kinds of conversations they have about controversial topics that interest them. And while all colleges should consider the idea of creating and promoting a space devoted to free debate, how that space looks in practice on individual campuses should be open to development and revision based on the experiences and suggestions of the students who are engaged in it.

Administrators and faculty members at every institution of higher learning should encourage students to see the value of free and open debate, even on issues that some people may think are already settled. Identifying an area for such debate on college campuses will help students learn how to have meaningful and productive conversations about sensitive issues, articulate and defend their opinions effectively, and learn from those with whom they vehemently disagree.

Zachary R. Wood is a sophomore at Williams College majoring in political science and philosophy.

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Author discusses stone soup college social experiment

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It wasn't the Stanford Prison Experiment, but a research project at U of California San Diego quickly created two student societies and plenty of conflict to analyze.

Early glimpse at student achievement at College for America, a competency-based degree provider

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Southern New Hampshire U's College for America releases a promising early snapshot of the general-education learning and skills of students who are enrolled in a new form of competency-based education.

How and why American Council on Education developed the Alternate Credit Project (essay)

Last month the American Council on Education launched the Alternative Credit Project Ecosystem. Through this project, students who successfully complete courses in a pool of 111 low-cost or free lower-division general-education online offerings will have a transparent pathway to determine, prior to transferring, whether certain higher education institutions will accept those alternative credit courses. ACE has engaged 40 colleges, universities and systems that all have a strong commitment to access and attainment and that have agreed to accept a large amount, if not all, of the courses in the pool.

The project is meant to give nontraditional or underserved learners introductory knowledge upon which they can build as they pursue a formal degree or credential. It also aims to encourage greater acceptance of alternative credit recommendations among higher education institutions.

ACE believes it is important that colleges and universities consider and accept such alternative credit courses. Nontraditional students find them useful as low-cost points of re-entry into the higher education system and helpful as they strive to complete a degree program. Institutions have indicated that these types of courses serve as gateways or filters for student success, since nontraditional students who successfully complete such alternative credit courses tend to persist and graduate at higher rates than nontraditional students who have not taken such courses. These courses are thus important for the nation’s postsecondary attainment agenda on several levels.

With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ACE has designed a process to deepen the shared understanding of how to evaluate the quality, content, scope and rigor of courses nonaccredited providers offer. The 25 founding institutions -- an additional 15 joined the project earlier this year -- provided input to ACE on subject areas to include in the project, the development of the course rubric, and the process by which institutions would determine which courses they would accept for transfer credit.

ACE invited seven nonaccredited course providers to join the project and offer the online courses: Ed4Online, edX, JumpCourse, Pearson Learning Solutions, Saylor Academy, Sophia Learning and StraighterLine. These providers submitted more than 160 courses for consideration, and we selected the final pool based on the outcomes of ACE faculty evaluation teams and institutional acceptance rates. Some of the courses that the providers submitted fell outside the scope of the project because they were in non-general education disciplines, such as criminal justice or allied health, and did not receive reviews.

Selecting the Courses

As many higher education institutions and policy makers are discovering, evaluating these types of courses requires somewhat tailored standards to ensure the quality of learning that takes place in a self-paced environment compared to that which goes on in a college classroom. Because ACE has a long history of leading academic quality evaluation processes through previous work evaluating learning that takes place in military and workplace settings, we understand that while the wide array of nontraditional courses share common features, we must also take into account key differences in assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning that take place in different settings.

For example, we would evaluate a training course provided in a military setting somewhat differently than a training course provided in a workplace setting. The types of instruction vary -- and the kinds of assessment also vary -- in these very distinct contexts. Evaluation of alternative credit courses should differ, too, from these types of evaluation -- and the Alternative Credit Project provided us with the opportunity to learn more about the most effective methods for assessing this type of learning.

In studying how best to evaluate these nonaccredited provider courses -- across disciplines such as business, critical thinking and writing, foreign language, humanities, mathematics, natural and physical sciences, and social and behavioral sciences -- we have remained committed to providing an assurance of academic quality based on faculty evaluations that institutions can rely on. ACE does not accredit a course, a company or an institution. Rather, we recommend that a particular course is worthy of credit due to its subject matter, the knowledge a student will gain and how that knowledge aligns with what typically takes place in a formal college class in that subject area.

As with all ACE credit reviews, experienced college and university faculty members have operated as independent teams and carried out rigorous evaluations to assess the content, scope and rigor of each organization’s courses in order to make appropriate recommendations for comparable college credit. These are individuals who are teaching college-level courses at an accredited institution recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and who have been teaching for at least five years.

The faculty reviewers used a newly designed course quality assessment rubric to evaluate the courses that qualified for review. All of the courses that were included in the Alternative Credit Project pool successfully met the rubric standards and were reviewed by faculty evaluators to ensure that the content, scope and rigor of the course aligned with what is expected in a similar course at colleges and universities across the country.

Specifically, the rubric outlined seven mandatory minimum standards for which each course was required to receive either an “effective” or “exemplary” rating in order to be included in the final pool. Those standards are: 1) articulating student expectations, 2) course organization/navigation, 3) course syllabus, 4) course objectives, 5) curriculum alignment, 6) mastery of concepts and 7) assessment criteria.

If a course failed to meet one of the mandatory minimum standards, it did not receive a credit recommendation and was not included in the final pool. If it met those minimum standards, it was evaluated against 11 additional mandatory standards: 1) student support services, 2) course provider policies, 3) functional design, 4) grading standards, 5) learning engagement, 6) active learning, 7) references and resources, 8) student grades, 9) student assessment of learning, 10) learning technology and tools, and 11) technology requirements and aptitude. Nine of those had to be deemed “effective” or “exemplary” for a course to be included in the final pool.

As an example, one course in the area of English Composition was found not to have adequate assessment criteria because a 50-question multiple choice test was used to measure learning rather than the submission of a writing sample. In another example, a humanities course did not provide adequate course organization or navigation for a student, which may contribute to low completion and success rates.

One key difference in the process used to evaluate courses that are part of the Alternative Credit Project compared to a workplace credit review is that a traditional syllabus was required for a nonaccredited provider course to be considered for inclusion in the pool. Since the participating institutions are guaranteeing that they will accept for credit a large number, if not all, of the courses in the pool, they and ACE felt that this portion of a course needed to align more closely with traditional higher education methodology. In some cases, that requirement resulted in submitted courses not receiving a credit recommendation.

Other standards against which courses did not pass muster under the rubric include grading standards, course provider policies, technology requirements and aptitude, and learning technology and tools.

In total, seven courses with prior credit recommendations under ACE’s traditional process did not measure up against the rubric and were not included in the final pool. Among them was a JumpCourse Introduction to Sociology course, which Daniel F. Sullivan, president emeritus of St. Lawrence University, recently critiqued in an Inside Higher Ed column. While the Introduction to Sociology course has value, it did not meet the parameters of the Alternative Credit Project rubric because the course learning objectives did not align with what would be found in an Introduction to Sociology course at a regionally accredited institution. In addition, most postsecondary sociology courses today require a written project, which was also missing from this course. However, seven other JumpCourse courses were accepted into the pool.

Lessons for the Future

As we continue a process of continuous improvement based on what we are learning through the Alternative Credit Project and other self-assessment processes, it is possible that some of the courses that currently have credit recommendations may have to meet an updated set of standards the next time they come up for review. In addition, ACE will be evaluating, along with participating institutions, the results for student success in the coming months and years -- both in terms of this pool of courses and also how this work might be adapted to our workplace-credit recommendation processes. That fits with ACE’s commitment to exploring new ways to improve all of our quality assessment methods.

What we have learned so far in applying the new Alternative Credit Project rubric to this pool of courses offered by an array of nonaccredited providers is insightful and promising. For example, we have found that evaluating new kinds of content and methods of delivering instruction to nontraditional students requires refinement of the processes used to evaluate other types of content and instruction more applicable to and aligned with how adult students with some prior college experience learn.

We have also learned that various approaches to online instructional design can each be successful, as long as they all meet certain basic criteria. Finally, we have found there are multiple ways in which students can demonstrate learning in different settings, even using the same modality across those settings -- such as online workplace training versus online alternative credit instruction by nonaccredited providers.

Most of all, we’ve learned that the objective is ambitious but achievable: providing nontraditional learners with additional tools to speed their path to a degree or credential, while giving higher education institutions the quality assurances they need to help those students succeed.

Deborah Seymour is the American Council on Education’s chief academic innovation officer.

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Report: postdocs lose clarity about career goals

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Postdocs in biomedical sciences don't make career options clear, and that may be one reason so many people in these positions lose interest in academic careers, report finds.

CASE and Carnegie Foundation announce professor of the year award winners

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CASE and the Carnegie Foundation announce their annual Professor of the Year Awards, with winners from Illinois, Ohio and Texas.

Study finds extent of key practices adopted at colleges and universities

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Association of American Colleges & Universities analyzes extent to which colleges are embracing policies and programs associated with student learning and completion.

Land-grant university group backs adaptive learning with new grant project

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A public university group is backing adaptive learning, with grants to encourage universities to use the personalized digital courseware across multiple introductory courses.

Groups release principles for improving remedial education

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National organizations and states partner to develop a set of principles to guide reform efforts on remedial education.

Linking Occupational Training and 4-Year Degrees

Many occupation-focused associate degrees and certificates are not designed to lead to bachelor's-degree pathways, according to a new policy report from New America, a think tank.

Those weak links are one reason the going has been slow in the national college completion push, according to Mary Alice McCarthy, the report's author. McCarthy is a senior policy analyst for New America's education policy program, and a former official at the U.S. Labor and Education Departments. She said it is often hard for students who begin college in career and technical education programs at community colleges and for-profits to transfer seamlessly to a four-year degree program.

"A higher education system in which students can start their journey to a four-year degree and beyond with high-quality training in a specific occupation would be a great help to many students, particularly those who cannot afford to delay earning a decent living for four years. But our federal higher education policies, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, limit the ways in which students can get onto bachelor-degree paths," McCarthy wrote in the paper.

"The policies are strongly biased in favor of students who can delay career training until they graduate with a four-year degree and make it difficult to connect academic and career pathways below the bachelor’s degree. The barriers are generated by a combination of outdated conceptions of what a four-year degree must include, the manner (and sequence) in which students must learn those things, and a host of unintended consequences from policy changes made to the Higher Education Act almost 40 years ago."


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