Teaching

Essay on how federal government could promote college teaching

Higher education policy experts, philanthropists and private foundations have lately rallied around a public agenda for postsecondary institutions to do a better job of educating students. Even our fractious political parties can agree on this, at least, but they rarely agree on how to do it.

Still, it seems that important people are finally realizing that the laurels of America’s postsecondary past are withering on the vine and that second-order change will be necessary if we are to keep up with our industrialized peers. Between the drumbeat from Measuring Up and the chord struck by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, a theme of what ails higher education is emerging. Joining the chorus are those -- among others with the power or resources to do make a difference -- from Barack Obama to Rick Perry, from the Lumina and Gates Foundations to the governors bringing you Western Governors University.

Their plan goes something like this: We need to produce more college graduates. To do this, we must find more efficient, effective ways of teaching a larger, poorer, more diverse population of students. Then, we need to measure whether what we are doing is actually preparing students for the world and the new economy. Given their capacity and broad access, community and state colleges (and, perhaps, some open and online correlates) will be the locus of reform.

Absent from this equation — and from much of the prescriptive dialogue, in fact — are two of the most important influences on the behavior of the academy: research and the faculty. Since World War II, the academy’s tools of reward and recognition have been pushing faculty individually and universities collectively toward ever more research-intensive activities.

And there lies the incongruity: foundations, policymakers, and executive officers are pushing down a reform agenda that requires faculty at the bottom to be more committed to better teaching, advising, counseling, and assessment. Yet all of the impulses in the academy’s DNA are driving faculty and the institutions they serve away from teaching and into ever more grant-seeking and research activities. Clayton Christensen describes this "up-market drive" as "intoxicating" to those behind the wheel.

Mission creep, as it has come to be known, presents problems for the public agenda. Most advocates agree that the nation’s degree productivity goals must include investment focused on student success, not research aims, with resources directed toward lower-division instruction and student services. After all, per-capita costs are substantially higher at research-active institutions than at their broad-access counterparts “down-market” who are the linchpin of meaningful improvements to degree attainment rates. Furthermore, when research enters the budgetary ring, objective, merit-driven formulae for state and federal appropriations get sucker-punched by campaigning legislators, influential boosters, and college lobbyists.

Attempts to decouple the teaching and research functions of the university — most recently and contentiously at the University of Texas System — are perceived by faculty and administrators as threats to academic freedom, autonomy, and institutions’ best efforts to find new sources of revenue in a period of divestment from public higher education. Some higher education coordinating boards have the teeth to prevent public colleges from drifting into research territory, but with these few (and arguable) exceptions, most top-down policy prescriptions compete with the foxhole realities facing broad access colleges. The rule of this fiscal jungle trumps white paper finger-wagging at these institutions over their pursuit of prestige and treasure.

Though some would blame (and tear down) tenure for the academy’s resistance to change, I see the lever, as Ernest Boyer did 20 years ago, not in tenure per se but in the body of evidence expected in the departmental tenure portfolio. Boyer’s alternative model, which rewards efforts to study and improve teaching models and practices toward better learning outcomes, has not changed the status quo much in the face of the massive funds promised by traditional research structures such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Another factor to consider is that so many of the people who teach in the comprehensive and regional colleges were trained in research universities, whose culture pervades all types of institutions. Without a plan that acknowledges the outsized influence of NIH and NSF and the research-driven culture of the academy, colleges and faculty who see such grant-stuffed carrots within their reach will simply ignore their masters' sticks.

What we need, in fact, are more carrots. By joining this research apparatus, a new organization dedicated to initiating and supporting scholarship in teaching and learning would act not against but on the familiar, basic instincts of colleges and, more importantly, the faculty. Trading on the coin of the realm, this analog to NIH and NSF could put the scientific research of pedagogy into favorable consideration in tenure dossiers. On the basis of a merit-based peer review process, a single “R01” grant from this public foundation — and the recognition that follows the faculty who wins it — will do more to encourage faculty behavior in support of the public agenda than all the exhortations, goals, and policies that those outside of the academy have mustered.

It would take an act of this contentious Congress to create such a "National Pedagogy Foundation," but its mission is politically sustainable. The now-defunct Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the NSF’s education directorate offer lawmakers some cover of precedent. Both science research and education have historically enjoyed bipartisan support and have largely weathered federal budget cuts during the recent economic downturn. Congress would empower this new agency to encourage and develop a national policy for the promotion of research in the pedagogical sciences and to evaluate the teaching programs undertaken by other agencies of the federal government. In a constitutional convention attended by experts in education, cognition, human development, technology, philanthropy and change, stakeholders would draft a plan for the organizational structure and activities necessary to take on higher education’s 21st -entury challenges.

Among these activities would be, naturally, a merit-based peer review grant program to fund "basic science" research in education and evidence-based teaching and learning innovations with significant potential for extendable impact. One division might provide seed support for the design, construction, and study of new facilities that use active learning environments, integrate innovative teaching technologies, and accommodate individual differences among students. Perhaps a separate division would develop capacity and expertise in the assessment of student outcomes and the systemic adoption of pedagogical innovations and effective intervention strategies. Another branch would be useful for assisting institutions in the implementation process, lest good research on teaching and learning go ignored. The work of this foundation would be organized with due sensitivity to differences among disciplines, modes of learning, and instructional levels (e.g., remediation, introductory courses, advanced courses).

The benefits of a federal research agency to improve teaching and learning extend beyond incentives for faculty to teach and for colleges to reward teaching:

  • This public foundation would put research (and all of its prestige) within the mission of teaching colleges, minus the astronomical capital and maintenance costs associated with science facilities.
  • A deep and sustained commitment of federal financing would burnish the reputation not only of pedagogy as a science and a craft (and not just an all-access playground for dilettantes), but also of schools of education, the perennial second-class citizens of the academy.
  • In its capacity not just to catalyze but to organize the scholarship of teaching, learning, and assessment, this body will become the national clearinghouse of the best instruments, analyses, and dissemination methods, all toward serving evidence-based policy development at the federal, state, and institutional levels.
  • A National Pedagogy Foundation will spur the development of groundbreaking discoveries in educational technologies and cost-efficient processes along with opportunities to foster strategic collaborations with industry through licensing and new venture agreements.

Importantly, a new public foundation for teaching and learning will reclaim the higher education policy territory that state and local governments have ceded to private foundations and philanthropists. As recently described in The New York Times, America’s education policy is heavily influenced by the resources of "policy billionaires" like Bill Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and even Mark Zuckerberg. Their interests in transforming education, though well-meaning, are viewed as either "extraordinarily benevolent or extraordinarily undemocratic" in their co-opting of federal, state, or local agendas. In any event, the direction that teaching and learning will take in this country is increasingly set not by our elected officials, but by wealthy citizens and organizations.

Rather than leave these benefactors to their own aims, this agency can engage potential donors through private-public partnerships. After all, where might a gift of $40 million for teaching and learning make the most difference: dropped in Harvard’s bucket (as was recently done by the Hauser family), or matched by federal appropriations and distributed to merit-worthy experiments at 10, 40 or perhaps 400 institutions where students are in greater need of better teaching?

Finally, for inspiration on how to assemble the human and financial resources to begin this endeavor, we should look to the past. On November 17, 1944, Franklin Roosevelt framed what would be the challenge of the postwar era:

"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life."

These words introduce Vannevar Bush’s Science The Endless Frontier, which set the stage for what would soon become (with some changes to the original) the National Science Foundation, and over six decades of ballooning federal investment in research.

Roosevelt’s words and Bush’s vision provide a blueprint for an apparatus to explore learning, this century’s frontier of the mind. Drafting a new plan is the easy part, but it requires what John Kingdon describes as a "policy entrepreneur," a champion as savvy as Bush was in his time: someone with the ear of the president; with the authority, the influence, or the charisma to convene the right people for a sustained commitment; and with the skill to build support in Congress for a multibillion-dollar program ($7 billion, if we are to match NSF) whose returns might not be realized for years.

Who, then, will get teaching on America’s research agenda? It might be an elder statesman (or stateswoman), a "policy billionaire," or a college president with star power. Whoever it is will have harnessed the intellect and the energy of the people who, ultimately, must do the yeoman’s work of better educating America. By recognizing what really motivates these rational actors, he or she will have the faculty.

Kiernan Mathews is director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Essay on how "The Apprentice" prompted a change in a professor's requirements

Student presentations are a common feature of many courses, but presentation quality varies dramatically. Nearly every student has endured text-heavy PowerPoints read verbatim and doubted the credibility of a presentation’s content. Yet, student presentations are pedagogically important; they provide students with an opportunity to take ownership of an issue and improve their public speaking ability – a valuable, employment-related skill.

Faculty members often urge students to meet for assistance with their presentations, but only the outliers show up. Detailed instructions for producing quality presentations sometimes go unnoticed or ignored. Even dedicated, high-achieving students can miss the mark come presentation day. The end result is a waste of valuable instruction time. Fifteen minutes of ineffective student-to-student instruction multiplied by 25 student presentations equal six-plus person hours of lost learning.

Who is at fault? An episode of “The Apprentice,” which aired fall 2010, provides a possible answer. Donald Trump assigned two teams the same task. One team failed miserably. In the boardroom, Trump showed no mercy to Gene, who had done a poor job presenting, or Wade, the project manager who had selected Gene, but who had failed to verify Gene’s ability to perform this important task.

Each week Trump fires one person. Should Trump fire Gene, the unprepared presenter, or Wade, the project manager who failed to assure quality control procedures? In what was described as a shocking move, Trump fired both men. However, his decision was sound; Gene performed poorly and Wade, who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the show, failed to do his job.

 



What if a student performs like Gene? What should happen if a student provides erroneous, irrelevant, and unimportant information, fails to provide credible references, and is unable to provide answers to basic questions? Who should be "fired" – the student who delivered an unacceptable presentation, the professor who had no advance knowledge of the presentation’s content and allowed it to proceed during class, or both?

From my experience, requiring students to meet with the professor at least one week prior to their presentations in order to obtain permission to present is an effective method that dramatically improves student presentations and ensures more effective use of instructional time. It can be framed as a business meeting in which the vice president (professor) requests a meeting to review the work of the lead presenter (student) prior to presenting to an important client (the class). This meeting might even be graded. Certainly, a VP would not wait until the big presentation to evaluate the work of the lead presenter.

The purpose of these meetings is not simply to evaluate and approve student work. The meetings provide an opportunity to assist the student inside the "zone of proximal development"; I see what the student is able to do without assistance and what he or she can achieve with assistance.

At the start of each individual meeting I address an e-mail to the student and then add notes, links to videos and articles, and electronic documents archived in desktop folders. Although most undergraduates have grown up in the information age, many of these so-called “digital natives” do not demonstrate the ability to sift through data and identify what is important. Despite having mentioned in class that the founder of Wikipedia discourages academic use of this community-generated encyclopedia, it still appears on slides. Fortunately, each Wiki is left on the cutting room floor.

Determining the credibility of other websites involves asking students, “What do you know about this organization? What is their mission? Who is responsible for the content?” We explore the site to find the answers. Once a source is found to be credible, deciding what information to include is guided by the question, “Knowing that memory is imperfect, what will students retain from your presentation one year later?”  

For presentations in my class, students must carefully select one or more videos and show clips that total five minutes. We discuss the credibility of the video and determine whether it repeats what the student will discuss. Viewing the video is essential. Prior to the adoption of my current policy, a student began to show an inappropriate video during his presentation. The video included profanity, and lacked any apparent educational value. I asked him to pause the video and explain why he chose the video and what we could expect to see. He replied, "I don’t know – I haven’t seen it." Now, before the video’s debut in class, I say, “Tell me about the video. Why did you choose this video and not another?”

During the meeting I ask students to answer the discussion questions they plan to use. Often, the questions are duds and their answers brief. We refine the questions with Bloom’s Taxonomy and higher-ordered learning outcomes in mind and generate discussion questions that are more likely to inspire passionate debate.

After three semesters of observational data, the improvement has been unmistakable, and the early results of an Institutional Review Board-approved study indicate that 84 percent of students agree or strongly agree that the meeting was beneficial and 77 percent agree or strongly agree that the meeting helped them to avoid procrastination. One student who had completed over 70 credit hours wrote, "This was the first required faculty-student meeting I have encountered in my college career. It was highly beneficial…. If there was no meeting, my presentation would have been a major disaster." A graduate wrote, "By setting an earlier 'due date' I avoided throwing together a presentation the night before I actually had to present it." The highest compliment came from a student who blurted out in class, "These are better than many professors’ presentations."

I have found a number of benefits to required meetings with students beyond the improved quality of the presentations themselves. These face-to-face meetings typically leave me with a greater sense of a personal relationship with the student, and I would venture to say the feeling is mutual. Taking the time to meet outside of normal class hours clearly indicates to students that the professor cares. It also gives them a better idea of the rigor that underlies the peer-review process – how their professors’ scholarship thrives on the constructive criticism of others – and how this can ultimately elevate the quality of their own work. Finally, it might be considered a “high-impact practice”  that opens minds and improves retention.  Although there may be no panacea for subpar student presentations, the lesson I learned from "The Apprentice" – that I am at least partially accountable for the quality of student’s presentations – has improved the classes I teach and the quality of my relationships with students.

 

 Christopher A. Hirschler is an assistant professor of health studies at Monmouth University.

La Verne president's transition journal show the importance of acting before getting on campus

La Verne's new leader and her board chair kept journals during her transition, providing insight into a key time in the presidency.

DePauw professor discusses basketball player's arrest, ignites controversy

A DePauw University journalism professor handed out a student's arrest record. The campus is debating whether that's good teaching or just being cruel.

President's class is a lesson for her and students about how the college works

Colorado College’s new president taught a class on the economics of higher education to give students a glimpse at the industry and herself a better understanding of the college.

Essay on lessons students need to learn from Frederick Douglass

In my sophomore literature class, I read a passage aloud from perhaps our best-known slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in which Douglass characterizes the nefarious effects of slavery on his new mistress, Sophia Auld:

The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

But then I stopped and asked, "What does the word commenced mean?" Silence. "What about infernal?" Silence. "Accord?" Embarrassed smiles all around.

In the past I would have given my standard lecture about looking up words instead of relying on something my students call "context clues," which I take to mean anything that prevents them from stopping, briefly, to do it the old-fashioned way. They have told me that they learned about "context clues" from previous teachers. I ask them what the word "context" means. Silence.

Douglass intimates that the worst part about slavery isn't the work or the whippings or the cold or the hunger or even the literal shackles. It's neither the blood nor the rapes. No, it's the compulsory ignorance, the full force of a system that understands slavery can only exist by the deprivation of learning, the absence, as it were, of light.

So I asked them: "What’s it like to be slaves?" I wasn't referring to Douglass, and I think some of them knew it.

As a child Douglass overhears his master, Hugh Auld, tell the naively benevolent Sophia to stop teaching him to read: "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do," Auld tells her. "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world" and "would forever unfit him to be a slave." This is the moment of enlightenment for Douglass as he discovers through serendipity and keen discernment what he had always pondered: "to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man." He resolves to learn to read, reasoning that compulsory ignorance is the tool that keeps him and his fellow slaves in bondage.

"It is hard to have a southern overseer," Douglass’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in Walden; "it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself." Although Thoreau refers to physical labor that fails the test of self-enlightenment, his larger point applies to my students who, too, seem explicitly bent upon achieving their own contemporary version of metaphysical enslavement. Both Douglass and Thoreau would recognize and lament this mentality, and walk away confused by the disheartening juxtaposition of material affluence and imaginative poverty. And then they would use words to write about it.

It bears asking, though, what such students might be enslaved to, or by. Dangerous ideas? Not likely. The latest in chic outerwear for the fall season? Too late. Without sounding overly prejudicial, it is difficult to conceive of much that would fundamentally threaten their defensive sense of self-assurance, which is often no such thing. What I want to say here is that I am not always sure what I would like to free my students from — figurative slavery notwithstanding — since so many of them seem blissfully happy in their formidable selves. It's freedom to I’m concerned with.

Complicating my bewilderment is that I have no transgenerational ax to grind, knowing as I do that the cry of English professors over their students' supposed failings is pretty standard fare for well over a century at least, and anyway, the topic simply isn’t that interesting before the third beer.

So here's what I want, in part: I want my students to become interesting people — that is, more interesting than they already are. I want to be able to talk to them in 10 years about Frederick Douglass, and if they aren’t into Frederick Douglass I would wish that they have a passion about something, as I think many of them will. Most important, my foremost desire is for them to have the tools to express their passion, whatever that passion may be. One of these tools is vocabulary; the more important other is curiosity.

You have an English professor, a text, and a class. You ideally have the formula for some kind of reimagining of the self, the world, the text — even the professor. And a choice gets made not to make that transformation, not out of any inchoate philosophical positioning (echoing Bartleby the Scrivener’s "I would prefer not to"), but, well, just because. I would prefer not to. Or, more reasonably, the students choose not to out of fear, having failed in their previous attempts, or because the words themselves are another in a long list of obstacles familial, cultural, and structural.

But imagine, too, how Douglass's autobiography would look had he made the same choice not to pay attention to the signs around him. It would look like silence, the kind of silence we used to see on walls in New York City in the early and middle years of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death, a morbid equation that would touch Douglass at his very core and about which, I am certain, he and Thoreau would have much to say.

Thus his communicative power — indeed, any communicative power — is tied inextricably to literal and figurative liberation; it is liberation’s proximate and ultimate precondition. Sadly, many of my students miss the nuances of Douglass’s story because its function as literary text shuts down that act of communication. Think of it: an aesthetic and polemical text — no, a book! — a slave narrative that misses its mark because the author, himself an escaped slave with no formal education, uses words too well. The very words that helped to free Douglass are now the mark of another form of enslavement. I try to encourage my students to think of the profundity of a boy, then a man, who was everywhere unrecognized as a boy or man until his escape, and even then he remained of questionable status. His devotion to learning as a slave in fact allowed him to occupy the space of all those who kept him from such learning. He took power.  

I want my students to take the same power, even if it seems significantly less is at stake. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe it only appears as if nothing other than a letter grade is on the line. If so, that’s exactly where we as educators have failed. We have to find a way to free them and ourselves. Why keep pretending? Why continue the charade? Slavery, as Douglass tells us, affects everyone, including the masters whose tyrannical assumption of power corrupts even the beneficent Sophia Auld. I want my students to free me, too. They can only do this by assuming and wielding the power I would most readily concede. Take it, I want to tell them. Kill me.

William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.

Essay: Do Apple's design tools make it too easy to create textbooks and courses?

Apple recently unveiled its digital book-authoring program, iBooks Author, and I’m scared.

The last three years that I have dedicated to pursuing my Ph.D. in instructional design & technology, which centers on interactive digital text, have given me a new perspective on the delicate balance that is necessary for classroom technologies to be productive and fruitful rather than novel and superficial. The seemingly endless hours that I have spent reading journal articles, writing papers, reading book chapters, taking in lectures, reading conference proceedings, and reading some more, have left me feeling as though I have earned some sort of badge that licenses me to make qualified observations about new educational technologies.

But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary.

I should be ecstatic that a layperson is able to design instructional products with applications that, until recently, required a personal computer programmer to develop. The digital revolution is finally upon us!

Not exactly. I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them. Let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw a well-designed, engaging PowerPoint presentation, where the speaker did not read the words directly off of the slide, verbatim?  This is my point.  We have allowed everyone to become an instructional designer.

This phenomenon is occurring much more broadly. We are encouraging everyone to become an expert on everything. When I feel a swollen lymph node on my 3-year-old daughter’s neck, I don’t immediately call her pediatrician. I consult WebMD. I’m convinced it is a severe case of lymphoma until the pediatrician assures me that her body is just fighting off a cold. He prescribes more vitamin C.

When I hear that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has once again dipped below 10,000, and it is only going to get worse, I jump on to my eTrade account and start selling.  I’m not a stock trader.  I don’t know anything about the stock market.  Nor am I a physician.  So why am I acting like one?  Because anyone can be an expert, and instructional design is no exception.  

I teach at a small university and an even smaller community college in the Southeast. Every semester during my brief five years’ experience, I have been assigned course sections accompanied by a blank Blackboard (or Moodle) shell and told to design a course. Not once have any of my Blackboard (or Moodle) course sites been evaluated, and most have never been viewed by anyone but my students.

The idea that instructors are somehow incapable of violating basic instructional design principles is naive.  What percentage of our nationwide faculty has heard of the split-attention effect, redundancy principle, contiguity principle, cognitive flexibility, or even cognitive load?  Now, instructors are expected to be subject matter experts and instructional designers. The two are not synonymous, and the results can be detrimental to learning. iBooks Author is giving creative license to everyone, with or without instructional design experience.

For instance, iBooks Author touts the ability to embed multiple-choice quizzes into the text, yet the research on inserting lower-level, recall-type adjunct questions in text has been mostly inconclusive since the 1960s. Its effect on comprehension is minimal at best, but its impact on extraneous cognitive load is more likely. A more desirable widget would be to allow the user to interact with the text generatively, that is, by generating unique paraphrases, summaries or analogies.  

Be aware of another thing: if you are going to use iBooks Author to design and develop that bestseller that you have always wanted to write, be prepared to sell it only in the iBookstore. That’s right. By creating your book in the iBooks Author output format, you are entering an exclusive licensing agreement with Apple. Check the fine print.

Let me be clear: I love Apple.  I love admire its pursuit of innovations in educational technology.  In fact, I composed this rant on an iPad.  So, I suppose iBooks Author is not completely negative. It opens the discourse on interactive text in education. But the thought of anyone being able to develop entire textbooks for class use on his or her MacBook worries me. Interactive, customized, and adaptive text should be the next educational technology milestone, but not like this.  

We are all going to continue to embrace and applaud Apple’s newest, sleekest application, because Apple is masterful at luring educators to its sexy designs and technology clique. But we should recognize that iBooks author is not an instructional tool that supports proven ID theory. And as a result, we will continue to build an increasingly accessible virtual world where we can act as professional instructional designers, physicians, and stock traders: with no experience necessary.  

So I will leave you with something to think about: Technology doesn’t make us experts. Let’s recognize that a teacher is not inherently an instructional designer. Let the designers design, and teachers teach. Besides, teachers don’t get paid enough to do both.  

Alan J. Reid is a Ph.D. student in instructional design and teaches English courses at Brunswick Community College and Coastal Carolina University.

Essay: massive online courses not a game changing innovation

Over the past few weeks, the news media has been abuzz over two developments in higher education that some in the chattering class foretell as the beginning of the end of degree programs.

First, MIT announced that it would extend its successful OpenCourseWare initiative and offer certificates to students who complete courses. Like OpenCourseWare, which has provided free access to learning materials from 2,100 courses since 2002 (and which, with more than 100 million unique visitors, has helped launch the open education movement), MITx will allow students to access content for free. But students who wish to receive a certificate will be charged a modest fee for the requisite assessments. The kicker is that the certificate will not be issued under the name MIT.  According to the University:  “MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certificate for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.”

Then, Sebastian Thrun, an adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford who invited the world to attend his fall semester artificial intelligence course and who ended up with 160,000 online students, announced he had decided to stop teaching at Stanford and direct all his teaching activities through Udacity, a start-up he co-founded that will offer online courses from leading professors to millions of students.  Udacity’s first course is on building a search engine and will teach students with no programming experience how to build their own Google in seven weeks. Thrun hopes 500,000 students will enroll. He called the experience of reaching so many students life-changing:  “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again.  I feel there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students.  But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

***

Just as the Web 2.0 boom is recapitulating much of the excitement and extravagance of the dot-com boom, we get the funny sense we’ve seen this movie before.  Take a look at this excerpt from a dot-com era New York Times article with the headline “Boola Boola, E-Commerce Comes to The Quad,” which anticipates Professor Thrun’s announcement by 12 years:

"We always thought our new competition was going to be 'Microsoft University,' " the president of an elite eastern university ruefully remarked to a visitor over dinner recently. ''We were wrong. Our competition is our own faculty.''  Welcome to the ivory tower in the dot.com age, where commerce and competition have set up shop…  Distance learning sells the knowledge inside a professor's head directly to a global on-line audience.  That means that, just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students signed up by the Internet-based educational firm that marketed the course and handles the payments.  ''Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,'' said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School. ''They are doing things like saying, 'This technology allows someone who is used to teaching 100 students to teach a million students.' And they are running numbers and imagining, 'Gee, what if everyone paid $10 to listen to my lecture?' ''

It was a heady time, and many in higher education really believed the hype that brand-name institutions would grow to hundreds of thousands of students and that “rock star” faculty would get rich teaching millions of students online. Twelve years later, the only universities with hundreds of thousands of students are private-sector institutions whose brands were dreamed up by marketers in the past 30 years, and the only educator who has become a rock star through the Internet is in K-12, not higher education (more on him in a moment). So what happened?

The currency of higher education is degrees because degrees are the sine qua non of professional, white-collar, high-paying jobs. The difference between not having a degree and having a degree is hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings.  So what happened is that Professor Thrun’s antecedents like Arthur Miller, the Harvard Law professor, found that while they might offer courses, faculty cannot offer degrees.  And their brand-name institutions have continued to prioritize avoiding “confusion” over extending access. Even MIT, the most forward-thinking of the lot, will ensure its new offering cannot possibly be construed as an MIT degree.

The noise emanating from these recent announcements boils down to this:  when the chattering class meets Professor Thrun, it’s love at first sight.  The notion that they might take a Stanford course for free recalls their youthful days at similar elite universities. But of course, these educational romantics already have degrees. And when Udacity begins charging even modest fees for its courses, Professor Thrun may find this group resistant to paying for lifelong learning.

On the other hand, you have the much, much larger group of non-elites who need a degree. The United States, once the global leader in the number of 25-34 year-olds with college degrees, now ranks 12th, while more than half of U.S. employers have trouble filling job openings because they cannot find qualified workers. The outsized importance of the degree itself over the university granting the degree or the faculty member teaching the course is the simplest explanation for the explosion in enrollment at private-sector universities. 

As a result, the notion that certificates or “badges” might displace degrees in any meaningful timeframe is incorrect.  Even in developing economies, where there is truly a hunger for knowledge in any form and where the degree may not yet be as central to the evaluation of prospective employees, the wage premium from a bachelor’s degree is even higher: 124 percent in Mexico, 171 percent in Brazil and 200 percent in China, compared with a mere 62 percent in the U.S. Degrees are definitely not disappearing; they’re not even in decline.

***

There are two important respects, however, in which this movie is different. The first must be credited to the first online “rock star” educator:  Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching a Khan video, you haven’t missed much in the way of the simulations, animations and expensive special effects many dot-com pundits predicted would dominate online learning.  A Khan video is short, just a few minutes, and teaches a single concept.  It does so by showing Khan’s hand on the whiteboard while you hear his narration – an approach that is especially effective for math.  Professor Thrun’s online course builds on Khan’s innovation, and the resulting andragogy is remarkable.

With regard to the more important innovation, here’s what Professor Thrun had to say in his announcement:

We really set up our students for failure.  We don’t help students to become smart.  I started realizing that grades are the failure of the education system.  [When students don’t earn good grades, it means] educators have failed to bring students to A+ levels.  So rather than grading students, my task was to make students successful.  So it couldn’t be about harsh, difficult questions.  We changed the course so the questions were still hard, but students could attempt them multiple times.  And when they finally got them right, they would get their A+.  And it was much better.  That really made me think about the education system as a whole.  Salman Khan has this wonderful story.  When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn to ride a bicycle, you don’t stop learning to ride the bicycle, give the person a D, and then move on to a unicycle.  You keep training them as long as it takes.  And then they can ride a bicycle.  Today, when someone fails, we don’t take time to make them a strong student.  We give them a C or a D, move them to the next class.  Then they’re branded a loser, and they’re set up for failure.  This medium has the potential to change all that.

So when Anant Agarwal, one of the leaders of the MITx effort, notes that “human productivity has gone up dramatically in the past several decades due to the Internet and computing technologies, but amazingly enough the way we do education is not very different from the way we did it a thousand years ago,” the major advance he has in mind is not rock star professors lecturing to millions, but rather that the online medium lends itself perfectly to a competency-based approach. 

The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within. That’s the real Wonderland adventure.  And we don’t need to take a pill to find it.

So have we seen this movie before? Turns out this one’s a sequel. But this is that very rare occasion when the sequel is much better than the original.

Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures Fund.

Essay: How free speech and offensive art can exist on college campuses

A fairly typical art school event: Students submit two- or three-dimensional artwork to fulfill a class assignment, or for a school- or department-wide exhibition. Perhaps less typical: At a West Coast independent art college some years back, with no advance warning, a student killed a chicken in class as his project. As one might guess, this was not a class in animal slaughtering, and the school did its best not to criminalize the student’s action (“Why make a big deal out of it?” the school’s then-president said), but some faculty members did give the student a talking-to.

Tensions over the nature of classroom content can occur in many disciplines, and professors in science, business or humanities courses get little if any training, too, in how to handle difficult situations. But the problem is arguably greatest of all in the fine arts, where a culture of epater la bourgeoisie – shock the middle-class, afflict the comfortable – has existed for 150 or so years. Art is supposed to get people to see the world in new and different ways, but what if that awakening is rude or employs violence or obscenity or blasphemy or something else that may cause offense? It may be assumed that art schools and universities are bastions of free speech and experimentation but, Lord, not in my classroom! 

Art instructors tend to plan for the typical, preparing lessons and critiques, but they sometimes get the atypical, because art students occasionally look to shock/provoke/offend/transgress. Few enough of these instructors receive any pedagogical training, and the little they do learn concerns classroom management, organizing a syllabus, how to grade students and lead discussions. This essay aims to explore the issues that can arise and to suggest ways that institutions and instructors can be better prepared for what can unfold in art classrooms.

In the thick student and faculty handbook at the Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, there are pages devoted to limiting certain types of art speech – graffiti art on public property is “vandalism,” animals must be treated “in a humane manner when used in/as art work,” no setting off fireworks, displaying or using weapons, possession or use of illegal drugs or alcohol, no exposing others to “blood, urine, feces, chemicals or other hazardous materials” – and the prohibitions were recently expanded to include the more nebulous “works that involve physical/emotional stress (potential or real) to the artist and/or audience.”

“You think you’ve covered all the bases and then someone comes up with something new,” said Ray Allen, the college’s provost. One student’s art project was to attach a commentary on sexual abuse by priests on a nearby church door, which led to another addition to the handbook, prohibiting the placement of “artwork” “on Corpus Christi Church or church property.”

The exposure to “blood, urine, feces…” section somewhat applies to the actions of the photography student who invited several men into the school so that she could take pictures of them at the moment of climax, but that prohibition covers only what Allen called the “ejaculants.” The fact that the student brought strange men onto school property was a separate matter. And, of course, where do you include a section on a student not locking himself in a box filled with snow (when he was finally pried out of the box, the student was unconscious and suffering from hypothermia)?

Walking a thin line between encouraging free artistic expression and what Ron Jones, president of the Memphis College of Art, calls “the rights of others not to be exposed to what they do not accept,” is a learned skill, and what one learns may apply only to a particular college, because each may have more or less tolerance of students with a desire to generate outrage. Artists, like so many others, are First Amendment absolutists when it comes to themselves, but in the context of a classroom or a college with a diverse student body or a publicly supported university where some state legislator may use a challenging art exhibit as the basis for a campaign to reduce governmental funding, they may question their moral footing.

At times, for example a student art project may involve, or suggest, violence, such as the performance piece staged at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005 in which an MFA student pulled out of a bag what appeared to be a handgun, loaded it with a single bullet, spun the cylinder and aimed the pistol at his head, pulling the trigger. (The gun failed to discharge, and the student received a talking-to.) At other times, the issue is sexual content, such as the photograph of a male nude by a Savannah College of Art & Design student, which was removed by college administrators from the school’s Open Studio Exhibition in late 2010, because the image was “unacceptable” for a “family event.”

Politics in art also may make people uncomfortable, such as the pair of portraits of former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney framed with actual American flags exhibited at the student gallery by a graduate student at California’s Laguna College of Art & Design in in 2010. “A staff member took offense and complained to the president and development director, who were initially opposed to showing this work,” said Perin Mahler, chair of the college’s Master of Fine Arts program. (After a considerable amount of debate, the portraits were permitted to stay in the show.)

Religion is no easier a subject, as the Brigham Young University alumnus Jon McNaughton found when his painting “One Nation Under God,” depicting Christ holding the U.S. constitution and standing among the nation’s founding fathers, was removed from an exhibition space at the BYU bookstore in the summer of 2010. (One faculty member complained that McNaughton’s artwork should not be displayed unless an alternative liberal painting was also hung, and one of the university’s vice presidents declared himself “uncomfortable” with the presence of “One Nation Under God.”)

There are no rules of the road to help art instructors and college administrators in this realm. History professors (I hope) would know that it would be reprehensible and illegal if a student in a Revolutionary War class brought in a musket and began firing it, but art faculty seem immobilized by the term “freedom of expression.” Maintaining standards and order is not reactionary ("the critics hated the impressionists, too!") but helps students learn larger lessons of propriety.

Throughout a long career, most college studio art instructors will have students who look to test limits of taste and propriety, and some faculty will have these students sooner than others. Some tricks of the trade of teaching are learned on the job, but instructors need to have a firm idea from day one not only about how to educate and guide their students, but how to explore their ideas and materials, “but also to understand that there is a responsibility that goes along with that freedom,” said Kevin Conlon, vice president of academic affairs at the Columbus College of Art and Design. “We have a cultural value at this school that respects tolerance and diversity, and artwork that borders on hate speech requires us as faculty to help students understand the context of what they’re doing.”

He recalled one student who produced a painting that was based on photographs from pornography magazines, “which I knew was going to make many of the women in the class uncomfortable. I sat down with this student and asked him, ‘Why are you doing this? What do you think the effect of these images will be on other people?’ He really hadn’t thought much about it and had nothing to say. I told him, ‘If you can come up with a reason for what you’re doing, we can go forward.’ ”

"Going forward” is a pretty vague concept, but there are ways that potentially offensive student (or faculty or non-faculty, for that matter) artwork may be exhibited in good conscience. There is usually more than one gallery space on campuses in which pieces may be displayed, some more open to the public than others, and school hallways also may be the site of temporary exhibits. Some exhibitions have advisory signs that warn prospective visitors of challenging content, giving them the choice – and making them party to the decision – not to see something. Finally, potentially offensive artwork may be edited out for reasons of space rather than content. Censorship (if we are allowed to use that word) may take place along a continuum.

One would assume that even the most novice instructor understands that cruelty to animals or humans should not be permitted and that use of bodily fluids or hazardous products creates safety issues that need to be checked, but that’s not a given. Schools look to hire young instructors, because they are expected to form strong connections to students to whom they are closer in age than older, more experienced teachers. “Very often, younger faculty pride themselves on getting their students excited about an art project, and they lose what you would think would be common sense,” Allen said. That photography student at the Maryland Institute College of Art received approval from her young faculty adviser for both allowing the men on campus and their production of semen (that instructor was later reprimanded by the school’s administration on both counts), and the instructor of the student who locked himself in a box of snow and was eventually pulled out unconscious “didn’t have the sense to call 911,” he noted. (Another talking-to.)

What to do about an artwork that is likely to produce strong reactions in those who experience it is a toss-up, which is why schools resort to the less accessible galleries or warning signs. When in doubt, according to William Barrett, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, instructors should bring problems and situations to their department chairs in order to receive guidance and support, which may be necessary in the event that a student’s artwork becomes a matter of significant controversy. Talking-tos are O.K., but they tend to take place after the fact, whereas instructors need to be more alert to what might happen and be ready.

Solutions?

Student artwork that may seem in poor taste or just disgusting has often elicited solutions that are even less appetizing. Many school administrators and faculty will try to talk students out of exhibiting works that are likely to engender controversy. However, from the eyes of a 19- or 22-year-old, this meeting is unlikely to be seen as a value-free discussion; students will see it as a directive from the people who give them grades and on whom they may rely for recommendations to make some change or do something different. Faculty may be worried about their own job security, and administrators may be fearful of criticism from trustees or groups in the community or the press, and their part of the conversation is apt to show that stress.

Buffeted by the calls for almost limitless free speech and the potential black eye that negative publicity over controversial artwork may create, schools and universities tend to establish few rules about what is unacceptable, but many are also reluctant to fully support their students and faculty in the event of complaints over the content of the art. Younger faculty especially may worry about promotions and tenure if their classroom work results in controversy that requires administrators to defend artwork that strikes the public as insulting to one group or another or as offensive to common standards of good taste.

Some schools are offering “artist as citizen” courses that view the role art plays in the general society. Artists must learn to be responsible to the community and culture they live in – so goes the thinking. Again, something is very troubling about this development: Were the purpose of this type of class to broaden the student’s intellectual outlook, there would be no complaint; however, half of the curriculum for art students already consists of liberal arts courses, which should provide that broadening experience. If schools want to offer an elective on art controversies in history or 20th-century art controversies or even art controversies of the past decade, that would be perfectly valid. Where it moves from an analysis of art in the social milieu to how artists are to behave and think about their audience and be sensitive to group members of that audience (which I think these courses are really about), then the educational component is left behind and the political correctness element enters in. In fact, it becomes a course in political correctness.

Then, there is the question of whether some groups are more acceptable to attack or parody than others. One art instructor at a state university proudly spoke to me of her efforts defending to school administrators a woman student whose artwork included a painting of Virgin Mary using a crucifix as a sex toy. I asked her if she would have made as strong a case if the student were male and the imagery was arguably misogynistic or Neo-Nazi. “Absolutely not!” she said. Political correctness meets comparative victimhood.

Other solutions are a toss-up. Making artwork less accessible by exhibiting it in a less public, harder-to-find space skirts the boundaries of censorship, and parental advisory signs about the content of works at the front of an exhibit removes the surprise element from art.

Publicly supported institutions, such as universities, and particularly those located in rural and traditionally conservative areas of the country, are more likely (but not always) the focus of controversy than private and more urban colleges and art schools. Private schools are answerable only to their trustees and immediate community, whereas public institutions additionally may be condemned by citizens’ groups and legislators for spending taxpayer money on blasphemy, homoeroticism, pornography, racism or something else to which they object. Obscenity laws, for which "community standards" establish a legal basis of judgment, have not been applied to schools, and it certainly is not clear who or what the community is: other students, the entire campus, the entire campus plus the surrounding community? For a state-supported institution, the community may be the entire state, plus out-of-state students (and parents), alumni, businesses, foundations and government agencies that provide the operating budget of the school.

Better Solutions?

Students are generally young, generally inexperienced about the world, and it may make sense not to put their work up for display so much. That is not censorship but based on pedagogical theory: Student work should be seen as part of their artistic development, a process and not a product to be exhibited and defended. The effort to get students to rework their pieces and rethink their ideas would be less fraught with anxiety if exhibitions were not part of the issue.

The student’s world is often a circumscribed, cloistered one, existing almost completely within the confines of the school, and the intellectual parameters are defined by teachers and fellow students. The work that is created tends to reflect the culture of the school, because students have a very limited sense of what actually is exhibited and sold in art galleries. It is a good thing for students to be “out of the market” and in an educational setting where they may develop artistic skills, ideas and a sense of process, but they should not become out of touch with how the real world works. Were art students more out in the world – directed there through internships, externships, mentoring relationships with full-time artists, employment in the art world and visits to galleries and museums – they might quickly recognize that simply being provocative carries no weight in the arena that they look to enter.

Daniel Grant is the author of several books published by Allworth Press, including The Business of Being an Artist and The Fine Artist's Career Guide. He has taught at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and has a blog on the arts page of the Huffington Post.
 
 

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