Teaching

Rejecting the for/against dichotomy about online learning (essay)

An article in these pages last week, "We Are Not Luddites," by Brooks Kohler, argues that being skeptical of online learning does not make one a Luddite.

Very well, then. I think most academics would agree. If his article had gone on to critique the tendency of tech folks to alienate skeptics of online learning by labeling them backward or hopelessly outdated, I would have been on board.

But Kohler takes a curious turn when he writes that liberal arts instructors who welcome online learning are in a state of “technological hypnosis.” Students, according to Kohler, are in a “fixative trance.” Apparently digital technology is a dangling medallion swinging back and forth, and we are all getting very, very sleepy.

Kohler goes on to describe a “pathetically sad” scene in which “a classroom could be reduced to a rectangle (sic) screen on a distant wall, or thought to be comparable to that of a interior space where a qualified human stands as the moderator before eyes that are watching.” Online learning to Kohler is inherently dystopian, akin to Orwell’s 1984, while the face-to-face classroom is, in contrast, natural and human.

This conversation calls to mind Plato’s Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Socrates laments the technology of writing because he fears it will diminish memory skills if Athenian citizens no longer have to memorize and practice oral discourse.

Worse yet, writing is inferior to speech, according to Socrates, because we can’t argue with a piece of paper like a living person; writing only has the appearance of wisdom, not wisdom itself.

Frankly, I’m not interested in reinforcing such a strict for/against dichotomy when discussing online learning and new digital technologies.  I think such binary thinking is part of the problem.

I teach face-to-face, online, and blended sections of composition at a small rural state university and I see strengths and limitations in all three approaches. My online classes look nothing like Kohler’s panoptic nightmare. Or, at least, I hope they do not -- now that I think of it, perhaps students calling me Big Brother isn’t a term of endearment after all.

Kohler does not take kindly to being called a Luddite, yet he suggests teachers and students working hard to make online learning rigorous, academic and accessible are hypnotized dupes attracted to shiny surfaces and entranced by blinking lights. Worse yet, he charges that online learning encourages contingent academic labor and the demise of tenure-track positions when in fact this erosion has been a decades-long process with roots extending long before online learning.

Notice I’ve been using the term “online learning” and not “MOOCs,” the latter against which I harbor a much deeper skepticism, but that’s a story for another time. I highlight this distinction because a sleight of hand occurs when Kohler begins his article by discussing MOOCs only to substitute that digital phenomenon with a more generalized “online learning” later in the same paragraph.

I’m not just splitting hairs. MOOCs and online learning are too often conflated. They are, of course, not the same thing. Suggesting otherwise is merely shoving stuffing into a straw man. The problems of MOOCs do not automatically extend to online learning in general.

A similar game of three-card monte is performed when Kohler uses a generalized “technology” when he really means new digital technologies. This slippage leads to historical and theoretical quandaries.

For example, when Kohler chortles “as if a pen and pad were inherently inferior” he fails to recognize that pen and paper are technologies, and that writing itself is a technology, as Walter Ong famously argued. Conflating new digital technologies that facilitate online learning with technology in general results in a fixed, narrow, and uncomplicated definition of technology.

Again, this isn’t academic hair-splitting. Such a distinction is helpful because it leads our dialogue away from dystopic visions and forces us to confront the fact that even analog technology like Kohler’s “pen and pad” shape how and what we learn.

Because teachers believe that online learning can be a worthwhile experience does not mean that we are hypnotized, nor does it mean that we are chasing fads and abandoning “literature and writing” and a “fine attention to detail,” as Kohler claims.

Instead of charging one another as either entranced by new technologies or a Luddite, we should be cultivating dialogue, criticism and best practices to make online education better.

We should also pay more attention to issues of race, class and access when it comes to online learning. And we should be building space and time into our online courses for students to reflect on their own skepticism and concerns with digital learning. Including students in this dialogue is essential.

I too am skeptical of online learning. However, this skepticism does not lead me away from online teaching, but toward it. I want to make it better. I believe it’s our duty to make it better. Drawing broad caricatures of online teachers and students only reinforces the importance of not devolving into a strict for/against dichotomy in our dialogue.

John F. Raucci Jr. is an assistant professor of English at Frostburg State University.

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Essay on changing ideas of time, space and learning in higher ed

In the 1966-67 TV series “It’s About Time,” two astronauts travel back in time and visit with some cave people (including the 20th-century character actress Imogene Coca), and then some of the cave people travel forward in time to the 20th century. Both the astronauts and the cave people learn things in usual, and unusual, places and times. Similarly, there is increasing recognition in higher education that students today can learn anywhere, any time. So whether or not you are old enough to remember this sitcom, you may be aware that learning in today’s institutions of higher education is becoming more independent of the dimensions of time and space.

Where, when, and how learning takes place in higher education is going through significant changes. These changes are for the great benefit of students, but they also have consequences for our institutions of higher education, consequences that reach far beyond the classroom itself. These consequences reach into, not just the area of technology, but the areas of governance, labor practice, and policy.

First, higher education’s increasing independence from time and space is coupled with an increasing emphasis on learning outcomes — that it is what you learn, not where or when you learn it — that matters. You could learn while you are a matriculated student in a Tuesday/ Thursday 10-11:20 a.m. course in your local community college, or you could learn on occasional Saturday afternoons while you are sitting on the beach. The important thing is that you learn. Further, if what is important is the actual learning outcomes, it is essential to be able to tell whether those outcomes have been achieved.

A focus on outcomes is not new in higher education. Nevertheless, American higher education has historically focused largely on the mechanisms that produce outcomes, and not so much on the outcomes themselves. Thus state, regional, and professional accreditors require colleges and universities to demonstrate that they have qualified faculty, appropriate syllabi, and the proper numbers of class hours — all examples of assumed inputs to good outcomes — rather than requiring the institutions to demonstrate that their students know what they should in order to receive their degrees. The most commonly mentioned outcome is graduation, as part of what is known as the college completion agenda.

But, unfortunately graduation does not necessarily mean that a student has learned anything. For graduation to be meaningful it must represent measurable, verifiable achievement of specific learning outcomes, a goal toward which many organizations and institutions are working. For example, according to the Lumina Foundation’s work on the Degree Qualifications Profile, a baccalaureate student in a certain field "defines and explains the boundaries and major sub-fields, styles, and/or practices of that field."

A relatively recent example of more outcome-based focuses is the LEAP initiative of Association of American Colleges and Universities.  LEAP (Liberal Education and American’s Promise) specifies a set of "essential learning outcomes” that every 21st-century college graduate should achieve. For example, “…continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first century challenges by gaining… intellectual and practical skills, including... critical and creative thinking... practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance.”

For many years the City University of New York has worked diligently to turn its focus to learning outputs rather than inputs. One example is CUNY’s Performance Management Process, which began in 1999, and which encourages CUNY colleges to set outcomes goals such as “increase licensing examination pass rates” as opposed to “increase the number of classroom instruction hours for students preparing to take the licensing examination.” The latter may be a perfectly valid activity, but it is not a learning outcome.

A relatively recent example of CUNY’s focus on learning outcomes concerns CUNY’s Pathways initiative, approved by the CUNY Board of Trustees and then-Chancellor Matthew Goldstein in 2011. Designed to smooth transfer for CUNY students, Pathways includes a framework for general education that applies to all 19 undergraduate colleges of CUNY. This framework is defined, not in terms of particular courses that students must take (which would be inputs), but in terms of learning outcomes.

Now that the Pathways project has been essentially completed, with its courses first offered in fall 2013, CUNY students are supposed to achieve certain learning outcomes by virtue of taking the Pathways courses. However, each individual CUNY college determines which specific courses will be offered to achieve these learning outcomes. Thus a student at one college might take a course entitled “Contemporary Asia” to satisfy the world cultures learning outcomes of Pathways, and a student at another college might take a course entitled “World History to 1500.” In both cases, the expectation is that on completion of the course, the student can, for example, “analyze culture, globalization, or global cultural diversity, and describe an event or process from more than one point of view.” Yet, though CUNY has decided to focus on learning outcomes for its general education courses, how to measure those outcomes is still under discussion. Assessing learning outcomes can be much more difficult than checking off inputs, such as the amount of time students spend sitting in class (see this link for an example of how the AAC&U suggests that the learning outcome of critical thinking can be assessed).

CUNY’s focus on learning outcomes for the Pathways general education curriculum directly promotes space-independent learning in that students can take Pathways courses anywhere at CUNY and then receive credit anywhere at CUNY. However, although Pathways enables students to complete their degrees more efficiently, some CUNY faculty have stated that Pathways interferes with the faculty having complete control over the curriculum and decreases educational quality. The CUNY administration has countered that New York State Education Law gives control over the curriculum to the CUNY Board of Trustees, and that the actual curricular content of Pathways has in any case been created and approved by the faculty. The conflict has reached the courts.

More generally, assuming that we can measure outcomes, the focus on outcomes rather than on inputs brings us back to the independence of learning from time and place that is increasingly characterizing higher education. For it is this very focus on outcomes that validates, for example, assessment of prior learning (including learning done outside of a college or university) as a method for determining whether someone has sufficient learning to be certified as having completed a particular course or degree. The American Council on Education standards regarding how to evaluate learning achieved as a result of military service are a good example of how to standardize the assessment of learning outcomes. For example, ACE recommends that people who have served as Coast Guard copilots receive a total of 40 college semester-hour credits in topics such as aviation meteorology, flight physiology, and crew resource management.

Some universities have gone further, explicitly and actively seeking ways to help students proceed very efficiently in accumulating certified achievements. These universities may use traditional classroom-based study only when necessary (see Western Governor’s University’s competency-based education, Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based general studies degree, and Northern Arizona University’s new competency-based education). Such approaches constitute a key component of President Obama’s recent college cost control plan.

Also in the recent news is higher education’s use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Because these courses are free and open to everyone, students can take them at their own convenience, and then, by means of some official assessment, students can be certified as having learned a particular topic and, ultimately, be awarded a degree. However, because of MOOCs’ low completion rates, there are currently many attempts to modify MOOCs (so that they are no longer massive or open) to try to facilitate MOOC students’ completion rates (and thus achievement of the MOOCs’ learning outcomes). For example, Georgia Institute of Technology is structuring a master’s program so that it exposes students to MOOCs that are open and online for all (with the MOOCs serving the traditional roles of lectures and textbooks), but that also provides the Georgia Tech students with individualized tutoring and proctored exams, such that the Georgia Tech students do not experience traditional MOOCs.

Another example of higher education’s increasing focus on outcomes as opposed to space and time involves the unbundling of course learning. In such cases students are first assessed to see what they already know, and then they are instructed only on what they do not know. This is not a new approach, but the current focus on learning outcomes highlights this technique’s usefulness.

The unbundling of learning such that students only need to spend time learning what they already know, assessment of prior learning, and online (particularly asynchronous) learning are all examples of the same goal: Freeing learning from time and space constraints and focusing on learning outcomes.

All of these trends should help students finish their degrees, and finish them faster. However, this degree acceleration will only occur if colleges and universities provide the conditions needed to facilitate this kind of work — enabling students to achieve the desired learning outcomes by whatever path is easiest for them. To do this the college and university infrastructure that supports learning should not be tied to particular times or places. Students should have opportunities to access what they need at any time and in any place — with or without an instructor, and with or without an adviser in physical proximity. Learning tools should be available that are easy to use in different places (i.e., they should be portable and accessible no matter what someone’s abilities), and those learning tools should function in the same way no matter what time it is (i.e., they should be asynchronous).

There should also be easily available — at any time and in any place — other sorts of supports such as reference material, technology support, tutoring, counseling, colleagues with whom to discuss the material, cocurricular activities, etc. Finally, of course, there must be good assessments of the outcomes and everything must be affordable, not only for the students and their families, but also for the institution and, in the case of public institutions, for taxpayers. Not an easy list to accomplish, by any means, but ongoing technological developments are facilitating institutions of higher education providing all of these types of physical and virtual infrastructure supports.

Providing all of these student supports is not the only change occurring in colleges and universities as a result of the increasing emphasis on learning outcomes and the concomitant decreasing emphasis on time- and space-dependent learning. How an instructor best structures the learning experiences is also changing. Lessons should be different for students engaging in learning activities for 30 minutes whenever their children are napping or have gone to sleep for the night than for students attending a traditional lecture course every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 a.m. Lessons may need to be broken into smaller units with the material presented in a variety of ways, accompanied by optional multiple examples, and with continuous opportunities for learning assessment and feedback. The Khan Academy incorporates just these sorts of elements, which are possible contributors to its apparent significant success.

In other words, if the goal is truly to focus on learning outcomes, and to facilitate reaching those outcomes by whatever mechanisms work best for each individual, then it is necessary to enable all aspects of the learning process to operate independently of time and place. The lessons, assignments, and infrastructure supports for at least some students must be different than they were in the past.

Increasingly, federal, regional, and state regulations are permitting institutions to provide and certify learning that is place- and time-independent. For many years, much of the higher education system has been built around the concept of the credit hour (a similar concept is the Carnegie unit): students in class for a certain amount of time receive a credit. Credits earned by students count toward their degrees and are also the basis for how much tuition is charged, how much financial aid can be obtained, and how much workload credit a faculty member receives. As learning becomes independent of time and place, these uses of a credit hour become difficult, impossible, or irrelevant. Recognizing these consequences, in March 2013, the federal Department of Education issued a letter stating that it will consider giving financial aid based on how much a student has learned, rather than based on time in class. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the originator of the Carnegie unit in 1906, is also exploring ways of students being certified for having learned certain material without the intervening use of Carnegie units.

At the same time, hardware manufacturers and software developers are working intensively to make their devices and applications useful in supporting time- and space-independent learning. All of these developments will enable students to progress in ways that recognize the needs and accomplishments of each individual.

Nevertheless, colleges and universities themselves need to do more than simply measure outcomes and provide infrastructure support. Time- and space-independent learning requires changes in the very foundations of these institutions. If not by number of traditional credit hours taught, how will faculty workload be defined? Will faculty agree that prior learning that is achieved by means other than direct instruction can be just as valid as direct exposure (and often extended direct exposure) to themselves? Put another way, will faculty endorse the view that what is important for students is that they learn widely accepted correct information, obtained by whatever means best enables student progress, rather than information that each faculty member him- or herself specifically provides? Or will most faculty react to the changes in the learning process as did some CUNY faculty regarding the Pathways initiative? Or as did the philosophy faculty at San José State University when their campus administration suggested that their department make use of a MOOC produced outside of San José State University: “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that [this MOOC] solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching the relevant course.” Colleges and universities may have to change many of their labor and governance policies in order to best facilitate the sort of learning described in this piece.

Thus the focus on outcomes, as well as the independence of learning from time and space constraints, is indeed about moving us along on the college completion agenda. However, this work has many additional implications for higher education and its associated industries. Just as in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, higher education may involve lots of seemingly (at least at first) strange people doing strange things in strange places — a complex and difficult journey, but one with highly desirable outcomes.

Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.

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Essay about an experience with a writing assignment that didn't go according to plan

How many weeks does it take to get over a bad semester? Is it like the end of a bad relationship? Too painful to talk about except with one’s closest friend… or with a complete stranger?

You are my stranger.

Kari (I should use her real name but I won’t) had trouble with writing grammatically; she had trouble with phonetics, even. When she typed, she couldn’t see the difference between building and blinding.

When she read her work aloud, she didn’t seem to understand what she herself was saying. As far as she let on, in our office conferences (that I called her in for), she was not in need of our college’s excellent Access-Ability program, though I think she was and I tried to suggest it could be useful for her to find out.

She had never had problems with her writing before, she said. She had always earned Bs in English.

Why did she want to be a journalist, I asked. Yes, she was a journalism student in the last journalism course I will ever teach.

I’m hemming and hawing, because I don’t want to get to the story.

The story is that I was going to fail Kari, even though she tried. I was going to fail Kari because she was a journalism major and she did not have a grasp of writing in English. She had lived in America for 10 years and she was 21. In my experience with first-generation students, those who arrive before age 16 adapt to English very quickly. Kari didn’t have much of an accent; she had grown up in… let’s call it Asia. She lived in Queens -- with two other large families in one house. Her family had the basement apartment, and in the summer all three families liked to hang out in it because it was cooler there. She wrote a “personal” piece about that living arrangement. It was not as clear as I’ve summarized it. I thought that the students should hear and read aloud their own articles; some were terrific, some were bad. When Kari read her piece aloud, she continually stumbled and had long squinting pauses wherein she seemed to be trying to decipher hieroglyphics.

She was, on the other hand, as she claimed, a good listener -- to her fellow students and to guests. She asked visiting writers O.K. questions. The children with learning disabilities that I used to work with had clear and vibrant strengths that sometimes masked their dysfunctions. But in a journalism class, Kari’s dysfunctions were loud and clear almost every day.

I was going to fail her. To my shame or pride (your choice) I had never flunked a student who tried and did all the work. Kari tried and she did most of the work, much more than many of her could-be competent classmates. I appreciated that she attended regularly and was polite and pleasant. I liked her; but she was illiterate. She was not illiterate in that mean way we say when we talk about our distracted students; she was functionally illiterate in the way that someone can be legally blind; she had various perception gaps and fogginesses.

So I was going to flunk Kari, but then, toward the end of the semester, I went to one of my old standby assignments, the observation of a public space. I write down simple emphatic instructions and hand them out; I read the instructions aloud and ask for questions. They say, “I get it, I get it!” And usually they do.

Each student plants herself in a spot that is public to any member of the college community. She only has the class hour to go find the spot and sit herself there and start writing down everything and anything she hears, sees, smells. Objective. She isn’t to stop writing. Usually students like this; they realize they are taking in so many details they usually overlook. They catch actual language. Their hands get tired. I love the assignment. We did that and the next day reviewed our work. Kari’s illiteracy did not get in the way of her ability to accumulate details. It was a fine observation really. It was ungrammatical, but I understood it. Her language seemed at the level of some of my weaker developmental reading and writing students.

A week later, I had them repeat the assignment.

The next meeting I asked them to write about and then talk about the differences between their two observations. One of the students mentioned feeling self-conscious, because someone came up to her and asked her what she was doing. She took down the whole conversation, including, “Hey! You’re writing down what I’m saying!”

We laughed.

Another student, whose dial was always set on “Complaint,” said she felt creepy watching people. I pointed out again that there are cameras everywhere we go; we are continually photographed, filmed and electronically identified by nameless organizations; whereas in this modest assignment, we are only individuals looking at other people.

“That’s stalking, pofessa!”

“When did people-watching become stalking?”

Kari raised her hand. “Professor, I got looked at too.”

“What happened?”

“I was sitting there at the Starbucks and I was writing… and this psychology professor -- I heard someone call to her and say, ‘You’re my psychology professor,’ and that’s how I knew that detail, professor -- ”

“Good!”

“And she kept walking around me and trying to look at my paper. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t do nothing and I just kept writing like you said and she kept coming over and then she went to the doors near the fishes, the fish tanks, and made a phone call on her cell phone -- I wrote that down -- and like a few minutes later a police car came up to the outside doors and the security guys got out and she went to them, and I saw her point at me.”

“What!?”

“And they came by and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and they made me give them my purse and my notes.”

“Oh, my god!”

“See, Professor!” said Complainer. “You got one of us arrested!”

“Then what happened?”

Kari told us they told her to follow them to the security office and then she got interrogated there about why she was writing about the arrangement of chairs and how many people were in line at the coffee stand and who told her to do this? …

“You told them who! You showed them my instructions, right?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I wanted to see what would happen.”

I realized at that moment: So, I’m not going to flunk Kari.

I was astounded by her description of the actions of the campus police and I was delighted with Kari. She was after all a journalist! She couldn’t write, of course, but she was a journalist at heart. I would pass her.

“So what happened?”

She explained to them she was just writing, that it wasn’t their or anybody else’s business.

“You’re making people really paranoid,” the interrogating officer told her.

And they let her go.

“That’s incredible!” I said. I regretted the assignment now, even though it had brought out Kari’s latent journalistic skills; arrested! That was unbelievable! It was a violation of civil rights! Of freedom of speech!

The students were taunting me, “See, see! Your assignments be getting us in trouble!”

I tried to justify it again. “But nothing really happened, finally -- except I’m going to go see the security people.”

“No,” said Kari. “That’s O.K. I still want to see what happens. You can just give me a note that I’m a student in your class so I can get my purse and my ID card back.”

It was just a few weeks after the Boston Marathon tragedy and the officers at our entry-gates were being careful about identification checks again. She needed her card.

I wrote her the note and said, “You sure you don’t want me to go with you to Security? I want to go. I’m really upset about this.”

“No, no. I can handle it. It’s my story, right?” She flashed her big eyes at me and nodded, begging me.

“Yeah, O.K.”

But I was uneasy.

Later that afternoon I went to a meeting and mentioned to a colleague what happened to Kari and she made me repeat the details about the psychology professor ratting out the student; she said the arrest was outrageous and I agreed. “What are you going to do, Bob?”

“I don’t know yet.” Why did I hesitate? Why didn’t I march over to the security office?

After the meeting, I went to my department mailbox and Kari had left her notes from the observation as well as the last draft of her last article.

                                                                                                       ****

What was I going to do?

On the subway home I read her observation notes and got even more outraged at the security officers -- and even more unsettled with myself for not having already confronted them about it. I started reading her article. It was not her article. Every sentence was grammatical. It seemed to be not one but two professional articles stitched together (which I discovered later it was).

All right, she’d get an F.

But meanwhile, her rights had been violated. I couldn’t let that go.

The next day at school, when I asked Kari to see me at the end of class, she came up and I told her I was about to go to the security office. She asked me to please not to; it was her story.

“Yes, that one is,” I agreed. I opened my folder and pulled out her three pages of plagiarism. “But this is not your article.”

“Yes, it is. I gave it to you.”

“But you didn’t write it.”

“I made it.”

“You made it?”

“I researched it. You said to use research.”

“This is not research. This is two articles from the Internet you’ve put together.”

“I put it together. I wrote it.”

“You didn’t write it.”

“The tutor helped me.”

“This is plagiarism, Kari.”

“No.”

“You didn’t write these words and yet at the top of the page you write, ‘By Kari M --.’”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “I see your point.” She nodded. Meeting my eyes, she said, “O.K., so I’m going to fail now?”

“Yes. But I still want to get to the bottom of your run-in with security.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It matters to me.”

But I didn’t go to the security office. I ran into a senior colleague, a former journalist, and told him about Kari’s arrest. I knew by his puzzlement that he thought I should have already gone to security. This was an important matter.

And yet… that plagiarism.

Instead of walking to the security office after my last class of the day, I walked to the subway and sifted the situation through my head: “I’m going to go to the defense of a plagiarizing student …” (she had plagiarized her first article too; I might’ve thought of that earlier, but when it happened, she had convinced me she had only been confused about using sources) “…a double-plagiarizing student who is illiterate and whom I’m going to fail.”

The next day, a non-teaching day that I spent at home, my conscience gnawing at me, my cowardice sitting up straight at my computer, I wrote an angry email to the security director. I should say -- I have to say -- at the last second I cc’ed the dean of the college on it. (I wanted action, Jackson!) The security director responded immediately by email, thanking me for bringing the matter to his attention and saying he would investigate and get back to me as soon as possible.

Two days passed. I let the weekend go by and on Monday morning when I showed up in the department office, my chair greeted me, shaking her head. “Your student? -- Unbelievable, huh?”

“Which part?”

“That she made the whole thing up!”

“She what?”

“You didn’t hear? From the security director? He was pretty upset at you too.”

“Oops.”

“She just wanted not to fail, so she made it up.”

I was blinking in disbelief.

“She confessed, Bob!”

Let me confess, at first I thought that explanation was too simple, that Kari must’ve been bullied into saying she had lied... and lied...  and lied. Oh, yeah.

I winced, retreated to my office with my tail between my legs and emailed an apology to the security director and the dean.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

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Essay suggests liberal arts training relates to skills

The liberal arts are dead, or — at best — dying. That's the theme of story after story in today’s news media.

Professional skills training is in. The STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are in. Practical, vocational higher education is in. The liberal arts are out, relics of a “traditional” way of thinking that has been overtaken by the pressing demands of our dizzyingly complex digital age.

As new students arrived on college campuses this fall, the message many of them heard is that majoring in history, or English, or anthropology is a surefire recipe for a life of irrelevance and poor job prospects. These “conventional” disciplines cannot possibly train students for productive, enriching careers in the high-tech information age whose future is now.

Although this viewpoint is rapidly gaining the status of settled wisdom, it is tragically misguided. It is based on a false dichotomy, namely that the liberal arts and the more vocational, preprofessional, practical disciplines — like, say, computer science — are fundamentally different and opposed. But this misunderstands both the age we’re living in and the challenges we face, not to mention one of the most significant trends in higher education over the last few decades — the evolution of interdisciplinarity.

In essence, this whole debate comes down to skills. The liberal arts are often said by critics to provide little that is of “practical value” in the “real world.” In reality, though, liberal arts curriculums can and do give students skills that are just as professionally useful as those in more “relevant” occupationally specific fields of study.

At my university, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, students this fall can declare a new major called global studies, which integrates courses in 12 liberal arts departments — including economics, geography and environmental systems, history, media and communication studies, and political science — into a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum. Majors are required to study abroad and to achieve fluency in at least one foreign language. By graduation, they will have demonstrated their research, analytical, critical-thinking, and writing skills in a substantial, “capstone” research project. Our students will also do internships with companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies.

Equally important, they will develop “global competence,” which employers in many professions have identified as one of the most desirable, but grossly lacking, sets of skills required of their new employees. Broadly defined, global competence is “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.” Its central elements include knowledge of world affairs — cultural, economic, and political; proficiency in communicating with people in and from other societies, both verbally and in writing; the ability to appreciate multiple perspectives and respect cultural diversity; and the intellectual and psychological flexibility to adapt to unfamiliar and rapidly changing circumstances.

Developing the skills that we hope to instill in UMBC’s global studies majors is an inherently interdisciplinary mission. In a recent New York Times column, Yale professor Nicholas Christakis argues that the social sciences (a subset of the liberal arts) badly trail the natural sciences in generating innovative “institutional structures” that can produce the kind of cutting-edge science necessary for solving some of the world’s most intractable — often intrinsically interdisciplinary — problems. However, he also notes that this is beginning to change, for example, in the form of a new global affairs major at Yale.

Whether it’s global studies at UMBC or global affairs at Yale, these exciting new programs tangibly articulate why talking about liberal arts education versus practical training creates the false perception that these two enterprises are essentially at odds. At UMBC, it's the combination of interdisciplinary liberal arts education; substantial research, writing and analysis; rigorous foreign language training; study abroad; and experiential learning in the form of internships and other applied opportunities that will give students the skills they will need to thrive and “do good” in the 21st century.

The tragedy is that we might blow it. If we continue to present students with a false choice between the liberal arts and “real-world” vocational training, we will produce what social scientists like to call “suboptimal” outcomes. Too many talented, energetic, hard-working students will choose “safe” educational and career paths, and too many truly global problems will go unsolved.

Devin T. Hagerty is a professor of political science and director of global studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

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The Pulse guide to DIY podcasting

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This month's edition of our monthly technology podcast examines how to use podcasts to improve teaching and learning.

Using the World Series to teach students to "show, don't tell" (essay)

Fenway Park, Boston, 7:35 p.m. last Thursday, at the Gate B press credentials window, a full 30 minutes before the scheduled first pitch of Game Two of the 2013 World Series, the Boston Red Sox vs. the St. Louis Cardinals.  I presented my Inside Higher Ed business card and my (valid, by the way) Commonwealth of Massachusetts driver’s license. “I've been assigned to cover the game tonight. May I get a press pass?” I told the man behind the bullet-proof-looking window.  

Heck, the Boston Globe had reported that morning that the Red Sox had credentialed 1,800 journalists for Wednesday’s game, the night before (8-1 Red Sox).  In this newspaper-closing, hard-news starved world, 1,800 journalists in total, on the whole planet?  Then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’ll sell you.

Anyway, I was on a professional development mission. Not for me, for my students, all 13,000 (my last count) of them at Bunker Hill Community College. “Show, don’t tell.”  “Details.  Details.”  “Show, don’t tell.”  “Details.  Details.” 

That’s my daily plea to them these days, as we work through the first drafts of essays to transfer to four-year colleges. I’d read in articles and heard wise educators say that teachers should try their assigned assignments for themselves. So last Thursday, after my early evening transfer-essay session last night, I headed to Fenway, to see what I could show not tell, what details I could find, to write about a some old news everyone already knows -- Cardinals won, 4-2.

Let’s see what I can do for details. Only Bruins fans on the Orange Line, my first train from Community College to North Station. Red Sox hats and red jackets and red sweat shirts and red parkas when I switched over to the Green Line, to Kenmore, Fenway Park. Not a mob. Odd. On regular baseball-season nights, riders just going home must often let a Green Line or two go by before the cars have room for new passengers. 

"Professor Sloane,” a young woman said at the Haymarket stop. A Bunker Hill Community College student from Senegal. “I missed you last week, when I brought my essay back,” she said.  “Well, can I help you now?” I asked.  She pulled the essay out of her bag. “Africa is suffering and crying for a cure,” the draft began. She needs little help from me. (She gave me permission to quote the essay here.)  “What did you learn revising?”  Big, big smile. “This is about me. Only I could have written this.” 

The smile is the test.  When the students smile, we’re on our way to turn the lead (“I want to go to a four-year college to….") into the thick-envelope-with-financial-aid gold for these Pell Grant students (“Africa is suffering and crying for a cure”). 

This woman wants a Ph.D. in microbiology.  She will build medical labs at home in Senegal.  A ten-year-old cousin had died because Senegal has too few labs for simple blood tests. We talked until I switched trains at Copley for a Kenmore train. 

Still no mob on the next train. (Research questions with credible sources.) “Where is everyone?” I asked a Boston Transit Police officer at Kenmore/Fenway Park stop, when I arrived at 7:05 p.m., an hour before the first pitch.  For regular games I’ve been to, the mob just carries you out of Kenmore. “I’ve been here since about 5:00.  It’s been about like this,” the officer told me. “Steady but not the usual mob. I think more people are taking their cars, not the T, to the game.  Remember, at $1,000 a ticket for the World Series, these are not the regular fans here tonight.” (Detail: What did tickets cost?  Find multiple sources.)

“How much?” I asked the first scalper I met on Commonwealth Avenue, at the top of the station stairs. “I’ve got box seats in right field for $500 each,” he said. “What’s the least I could get in for?” I asked the man down the street holding the poster directing us to ticket-broker Ace tickets. “I’d say probably $400,” he said. Where? “The bleachers.” 

Detail for comparison: That’s vs. $47 for a box seat, a dozen rows in from the field between first base and the foul pole, the Pesky Pole at Fenway. (Detail: Named for the late Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky. He hesitated on a throw to home. Enos Slaughter scored, and the Red Sox lost the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against … the St. Louis Cardinals.) That same seat was $100 for the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay. 

Other Validation of Transit Police Officer hypothesis: Later, at Gate B, I saw an elderly couple, Brahmin (takes one to know one), come forth from a shiny black chauffered Town Car. The woman had a cane, and the man had over his arm a plaid lap blanket that I’d expect to see instead across the Charles River at a Harvard/Yale football game.

Turning to “Show, don’t tell.” Tell could be: Red Sox fans like to eat. 

Show: Kettle Korn. BBQ sandwich. Reliable Souvenir Soda. Cheeseburger with fries. Pretzel rods. Peanuts. Italian sausage. Cotton candy. Pizza slice. Gluten-free pizza. Chicken tenders with fries. Cracker Jack. Double cheeseburger. Fenway franks. Monster dogs. Deli sandwich. Soft serve. Fried dough. Lemonade. Bottled water. Gluten-free beer.

Tell: Many different programs were for sale. Show:  “Get your official Red Sox here, with a free Red Sox pennant.” “Official World Series Program here, with Topps World Series Baseball Cards.” “American League Playoff program right here.” 

Show, use time. I’d gone to walk around, outside the park, Wednesday night, too, before I hit on the press pass idea.  Wandering the scene may be as close as I get to a World Series game. My closest call before had been another Thursday --  Thursday, October 12, 1967, the seventh game of the 1967 World Series, the Red Sox against … the Cardinals.  Bob Gibson pitching for the Cardinals against Jim Lonborg for the Red Sox.  (Details? Students, click here.)  My father had ended up with two tickets; he took my brother.  I still think my father should have torn the ticket and given us each half.

Show: Wednesday night, in Santander Bank, corner of Comm Ave. and the bridge across the Mass Pike to Fenway.  Revise, details: corner of Comm Ave and Brookline Avenue, which crosses over the Mass Pike to Fenway Park. Trio out of tune, no tempo. Thursday night in the Santander alcove, a solo trombonist, playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I put a dollar into his hat. 

Walking over the bridge, slowly, a crowd at last, I accepted all free placards. From the Globe: “There can B only one,” flipside: “Let’s Go Red Sox!” From WEEI 93.7 FM:  “K,” flipside “Fear the Beards.”  (Click here for chart of Red Sox beards by player.) From the Seventh Day Adventists, a card to mail in for a FREE Passion story, The Road to Redemption.  Your name and address on one side, with flipside a photo of a baseball on fire, the mailing address for Seventh Day Adventists and a box “Place Your Stamp Here.” 

Sausages?  On Lansdowne Street – the Green Monster backs onto Lansdowne -- I declare a tie between Mike’s, in front of Gate C, and the Sausage Connection, a few yards from Gate E.  Both use perfect 8-inch sub rolls from Piantedosi Bakery in Malden, Mass. I didn’t try, I admit, the Sausage King, the Original Che-Chi’s, the Sausage Guy, or Boston’s Best and Original Sausage.

A tap on my shoulder, on the Green Line Wednesday.  The balding, middle-aged man beside me asked, “You going to the game?”  Just to walk around, I’d said. To buy a Fenway sausage sandwich for my wife to eat watching the game at home.

“You getting sausage? You have to go to our stand. Sausage Connection. We’re the second one on Lansdowne Street. Don’t go to the first one. We’re a dollar cheaper, Best of Boston every year. Peppers and everything. We’ll wrap them up good so you can take it home.  What do you like to drink?  Coke?  No?  We got Sprite then.  I’ll take care of you,” he promised.

The man, I didn’t get his name, had been shouting into his cell phone from the the Green Line seat.  “I killed four guys, but they could only get me on extortion. Yeah, I’m a Made Man, but I stopped all that. They never gave me my money.  My wife is on the other line. I gotta take it. What’s your name again?” The next conversation was about heroin, methadone, and cappuccino. That’s when he tapped me on the shoulder. 

“I got two tickets, but I’m going to sell them,” he told me.  “You never been to the Series?  I missed the series in ’04 and ’07. I was in the federal penitentiary in Illinois,” he said. We were off the T and walking down Comm Ave. “I know the Sox are going to win. I’ve got $1,000 on it.”  His cell phone rang.  He showed me.  “You know who that is, don’t you?”  I couldn’t see the screen.  “It’s A-Rod’s…” A siren screamed. “A-Rod’s agent,” I think he said.  “Yeah, I’ll be there in two minutes,” he said into the phone. He turned to me, “You got it?  Sausage Connection. Second one on Lansdowne, not the first one. I’ll take care of you.” He was gone. 

In front of the Cask ‘n Flagon on the corner of Brookline and Lansdowne, a young couple – Red Sox jackets and hats – were trying to photograph themselves with a cell phone. I volunteered and took a few shots. Effusive (and sober) thanks. “Would you sell me one of your tickets for $20?” I asked.  No. 

I passed the first sausage cart on Lansdowne. At the second, my new friend was waving his arms declaring something I couldn’t hear to his friends at the stand. I was hungry. But my new friend gave me the two sandwiches and the sodas, for free? Did I want to owe a favor to a guy who’d just told me he had killed four guys? The stories were bluster. I think. Why take the risk?

I stuck to my plan to walk around the Park. Around the corner from Lansdowne, on Ipswich Street, the new Carl Yastrzemski statue, the Ted Williams statue, and the Teammates: Ted Williams, again, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio all had red beards attached. (Detail: True to life, the sculptor had given Dom (the Little Professor) wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Above my head as I kept walking were the retired numbers, 9, 4, 1, 8, 27, 6, 14, and, in blue, 42. (Students: Leave some mystery for the reader to wonder.)  Fenway has loading docks along Van Ness.  A fence kept us on the far side of the street.  It was dark. The flashes of cell phone cameras were popping at one big door. I looked over. A gray-haired man in a white baseball jersey. He turned.  Number “8.”  “Is that Yaz?” I blurted. “Yes,” everyone said. Carl Yastrzemski. (Detail: You have look up the spelling.)  Yaz had played in the ’67 game my brother went to. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct one of the uniform numbers that have been retired.)

Mike’s Sausage?  Well, my new friend wasn’t at the Sausage Connection Thursday night. I bought a sandwich, and saw the Piantedosi bag. Excellent sausage; perfect roll. Wednesday, avoiding owing a favor my new friend, I’d fallen into step alongside a Boston police officer. (Detail: Never stop looking for primary sources.)  “Where would you buy a sausage sandwich?” I asked.  He stopped, turned to me.  He had a circle of four of five stars on the collar of his white shirt. “I don’t eat sausage,” he said.  I guess I looked disappointed. “But you could try Mike’s, in front of Gate C.”  I thanked him.  A tall man by the stand in front of Gate C -- Mike, I learned -- locked me into his gaze. “What can I get you?” No escape; I’m glad I already wanted a sausage. Two sausage sandwiches, wrapped so I could take them home. I paid and put a tip into the jar.

“I think it might have been the Boston chief of police who just told me I had to buy my sandwich here at Mike’s,” I said. “That’s superintendent chief. He was just here. Danny Linsky, Irish by the way. We’re friends. He sent you? Oh, now he’s going to want a piece of the action,” Mike said. “Never mind. Next time we have lunch, I’ll be sure he pays.” 

Oh, at the Gate B press window. The man through the bulletproof window said to me through the microphone, “No, we can’t give you a press pass tonight.”  “Isn’t there someone you could talk to?”  “The deadline for press passes was October 2,” the man said.

As I tell the students applying for transfer: Don’t wait until the last minute.

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter at @WickSloane.

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Essay calls for faculty members to learn how to advise students on non-academic matters

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Faculty members need to learn how to help students grapple with their changing and challenging career prospects, writes Nate Kreuter.
 

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Essay on what to do, as an instructor, when you miss a class

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Rob Weir considers how to handle it, as an instructor, when you can't be there.

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Sustainable scholarship conference highlights the urgency to stay ahead of the curve

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At a conference on sustainable scholarship, faculty members, librarians and publishers take turns to explain why their positions won't be rendered obsolete by technology.

Essay on the impact of adaptive and competency based learning on traditional-age students

Several decades ago – long before the level of technological sophistication we experience today -- I was part of a movement begun by the late Julian Stanley, a psychology professor, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth (CTY) to save academically talented youth from boredom in the schools. The most controversial instrument to rescue them was a pedagogical practice called, rather prosaically, "Diagnostic Testing Followed by Prescriptive Instruction" or, shorthand, “DT>PI.” It was principally applied to the pre-collegiate mathematics curriculum and relied on just a few key assumptions and practices:

1. Students already know something about a subject before they formally study it.

2. Test students before a course begins and then just instruct them on what they don’t know.

3. Test students again when you as the instructor and they as learners believe they have competency in a subject.

4. Move immediately to the next level of instruction.

The DT>PI model was placed in a more generous context with the adaptation of Professor Hal Robertson’s (University of Washington) notion of the Optimal Match. Simply stated, pace and level of instruction should match optimally an individual student’s assessed abilities — with the caveat that those accessing that talent would always try to stretch a student beyond his comfort zone. The Optimal Match theoretically could apply to all students at any level of education.

When I used to speak publicly in a wide variety of settings — at colleges and universities, community colleges, schools, education association meetings, parent gatherings -- about what I thought to be the commonsensical notions of DT>PI and the Optimal Match, the reactions were pronounced and fiercely negative. My colleagues and I were accused of presenting educators with the dissolution of the structured classroom as we knew it then; forcing students unjustifiably to proceed educationally without sufficient instructional guidance; destroying the communal, cooperative imperative of an American education; and, producing social misfits because students would finish academic coursework before the schedule established (rather arbitrarily, I might add) by educational professionals for all students of one age at one time. Parents joined often with educators to decry such imagined alienation and damage to a child’s personality.

And then there was a change in 2013.

There are now two closely related pedagogies -- adaptive learning and competency-based learning -- that are embraced by a growing number in higher education as a viable component of educational reform. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding grants to 18 institutions to experiment with 10 different adaptive learning platforms, and President Obama has expressed support for these innovations and urged easing of regulations to make that possible.

In general, adaptive learning uses data-driven information to design coursework that permits students to proceed educationally at their appropriate pace and level. And competency–based learning allows students to be free of "seat time" and flexibly progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content.

These definitions, when combined, delineate precisely the key components of DT>PI and that of numerous other experiments in self-paced learning over the last few decades. But now, while the naysayers are still out there, an increasing number of for-profits and nonprofits are turning to adaptive and competency-based learning as a component of the next stage of reform in American education.

Why now? Something must have changed in society to accept self-paced, individualized learning when only decades ago it was roundly rejected on pedagogical, ethical and psychological grounds. Those concerns are clearly not as inviolate as they were only years ago. Answering this question might well provide education reformers with insight into what is now possible — even expected -- from students for the learning platforms of the future.

There are at least three reasons why self-paced learning might be more popular now than it was only a few years ago: technological advances, financial exigency and a new self-profile of the learner.

Advances in technology that rely on advances in data mining and data analytics -- predicting future learning behavior by an individual based upon analysis of thousands of earlier learners — permit now a high ability to track, direct, customize, evaluate and advise student learning at instantaneous speeds. What in previous decades seemed to be an impossible task for a teacher or professor to manage in a single course — diverse learning points among students — is at least now technically feasible.

Many institutions are rather intent to find new strategies that will at once reduce their cost of providing an education. Adaptive and competency-based learning are thought to be such "disruptive" opportunities, although how accompanying data-driven, all-knowing and anticipating, high-touch technologies will reduce dramatically both cost and price (tuition) remains elusive.

And, lastly, students have perhaps finally realized the expectation of the self-esteem movement that has dominated instruction in our nation’s schools for several decades. Students might well now believe that they are the center of all activity — to include education — and that they are both the sole focus and the drivers of learning. All instructional effort exists for the purpose of fulfilling their desires.

This "power shift" makes learners, individually — not teachers or professors -- aggregators of knowledge by and for themselves. Any approach to education that places them at the center of learning activity accommodates their perspective on education. Adaptive and competency-based learning accomplish this masterfully. Self-paced, individually adjusted instruction, enhanced by “big data” technologies that guide student progress “lockstep” in a course and beyond, eliminates distracting elements to the individual control of knowledge. Primary among those distractions for students are faculty with their pesky, seemingly inefficient and irrelevant questions.

And thus, in 2013, what was not acceptable several decades ago is now thought a solution to crisis in American education. A combination of new technologies, financial emergency and a shift in who is at the center and in control of learning has caused this to occur.

But all is not settled. The changing circumstances introduce concerns that did not exist decades ago when students were not the arbiters of their own learning, self-paced instruction was not thought to be a solution for all students in American education but only the academically talented and big data did not exist to mine and anticipate every move in student learning.

A defining element of DT>PI was that students must not just study what is the next logical step in a course, but they must through the exhortations of a teacher or professor attempt to go beyond what was thought statistically possible — they must stretch themselves intellectually at every point. Professor Stanley used to constantly quote the line of the poet Robert Browning that one’s reach must always exceed one’s grasp.

Questions remain whether in the absence of a live instructor exhorting a student who is not necessarily academically acute and motivated, students will extend their reach or settle for statistically generated achievement delivered by an electronic adviser (I am referring here to traditional-aged undergraduates, not working adults who are propelled by substantial motivational factors). Such absence of exhortation could be extremely damaging to the majority of American students who often do not naturally attempt to achieve to the levels of which they are capable without personal mentorship.

And one traces in those who are enthralled with "big data" and "data analytics" for solving the maladies of American education a disturbing belief. Student will achieve through data-enhanced technologies the perfectibility of education — perhaps life itself -- by eliminating all resistance, frustration, indecision, trial and error, chance and expenditure of time. For example, Harvard University social scientist and university professor Gary King is quoted in a May 20, 2013 New Yorker article entitled "Laptop U." as saying, “With enough data over a long period, you could crunch inputs and probabilities and tell students, with a high degree of accuracy, exactly which choices and turns to make to get where they wanted to go in life."

And yet, there is growing commentary that it is precisely the absence of frustration, resistance and associated imperfections in a so-called “Me Generation” and its aftermath that is compromising contemporary students' learning and preparation for a life. By educators blithely accepting students’ assertion of self-determination without legitimate maturing experiences (that will include failure and self-doubt) and by arranging learning electronically so that they will make no wrong decisions, they are granting them little ability to deal with inevitable disappointment and frustration in life.

Students are educated without gaining resilience and that is hardly an education of which a nation can be proud or secure, regardless of the utopian promises of the big data enthusiasts. All this reminds me of a call I received decades ago from an entrepreneur who wanted me to comment on his idea of developing a school basketball court that would have the hoop move electronically with the ball so that no student would ever miss a shot and thus, in his words, "suffer humiliation."

So while I am delighted that self-paced education in the form of adaptive and competency-based learning is finally a more generally discussed component of reform in American education, I urge that those advancing it think long and hard about some of the humanly-damaging consequences of learning platforms so perfected by technology that students are offered a Faustian bargain – the comfort of non-resistant and frustration-free learning in exchange for the ultimate loss of a resilience needed for a satisfying life after schooling.


 

William G. Durden is president emeritus and professor of liberal arts at Dickinson College, and operating partner at Sterling Partners, a private equity company.

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