Lower Education

Toby (not his real name) flunked a graduate course I taught last year. He failed the in-class assignment (a mid-term essay exam) as well as the out-of-class assignments (a couple of case analyses and a take-home exam). Reviewing Toby’s work was excruciating; extracting coherence from his paragraphs was a futile exercise, even with repeated readings. Theoretical analysis in his writing was virtually nonexistent. Put simply, this was an academic train wreck.

As I interacted with Toby over the course of the term, I kept asking myself, “How did this pleasant young man ever manage to obtain an undergraduate degree?” He certainly had one, awarded by a regionally accredited institution (not mine). And how did he get into yet another institution (my institution, but not my program) to pursue a master’s degree?

Welcome to the world of Lower Education. Toby’s case may be extreme, but it underscores a fundamental reality that shapes a major segment of higher education in the United States: Colleges cannot survive without students, so colleges that have a difficult time competing for the “best” students compete for the “next best” ones. And colleges that have trouble securing the “next best” students focus on the “next-next best” ones, and on and on and on, until a point is reached where the word “best” is no longer relevant. When this occurs, students who are not prepared to be in college, and certainly not prepared to be in graduate school, end up in our classrooms.

This is not startling news. It’s a rare college or university that does not have an academic remediation/triage center of some kind on campus, where an enormous amount of time is spent teaching students skills they should have learned in high school. To be sure, many of these unprepared students drop out of college before graduation, but a significant percentage do make it to the finish line. Some of the latter will have indeed earned their degree through great effort and what they’ve learned from us. But others will have muddled through without displaying the skills we should require of all students. My 35 years of university experience tell me that in these cases faculty collusion is often a contributing factor.

What is the nature of this collusion? In far too many instances, little is required of students in terms of the quality and quantity of their academic work, little is produced, and the little produced is, to put it mildly, graded generously. Some might argue that the mind-numbing proportions of A’s we often see these days, along with the relative scarcity of low grades, is a reflection of more effective teaching strategies being employed by professors, coupled with a growing population of bright students committed to academic excellence. Unfortunately, this uplifting scenario strikes me as much less persuasive than one that implicates factors such as transactional/contract grading (“5 article reviews equal an A, 4 equals a B,” etc.), faculty who wish to avoid arguing with increasingly aggressive students about grades, faculty who believe that awarding high grades generates positive student evaluations, faculty who express their philosophical opposition to grading by giving high grades, and the growing percentage of courses taught by part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members who might see the assigning of a conspicuous number of low grades as a threat to their being re-hired.

One of the most pernicious consequences of this state of affairs is cynicism toward higher education among those most directly responsible for delivering higher education -- the faculty. Research suggests that one of the most powerful sources of motivation for outstanding employee performance is goal/value internalization. This occurs when espoused organizational goals and values are “owned” by organizational members, who then strive to achieve the goals and live up to the values in their work. Colleges and universities have traditionally been in a privileged position with respect to drawing upon this type of motivation, given their educational mission. The beliefs associated with this mission can include a sizable chunk of myth, but as societal myths go, the ones embraced by higher education (e.g., the ability of research, knowledge, and analytical skill to enhance the public good) tend to have high social value.

In the current zeitgeist, however, many faculty are dismayed to see the provision of educational credentials trumping the actual provision of education. (Fifty might not be the new forty, but the master’s degree is certainly the new bachelor’s.) This perception is enhanced by a proliferation of curriculum-delivery formats (weekend courses, accelerated and online programs, etc.) whose pedagogical soundness often receives much less attention than the ability of the formats to penetrate untapped educational markets. It is difficult for a strong commitment to academic integrity to thrive in such environments.

Faculty who are distressed over all of this should not wait for presidents, provosts and deans to rescue higher education from itself. Moreover, regional accrediting bodies, despite their growing emphasis on outcomes assessment, do not typically focus on courses, programs and admissions standards in a way that allows them to adequately address these issues. For the most part it is faculty who teach the classes, design and implement curricula, and, at least at the graduate level, establish admissions policies for programs. What should faculty do? I offer three modest suggestions:

  • At the departmental level, work to develop a culture where expectations for student performance are high. When faculty members believe that teaching challenging courses is “the way we do things here,” they are less likely to offer non-challenging ones.
  • Advocate throughout the institution for the centrality of academic quality to policy making, program development, and program implementation. The question “What are we doing to ensure that X embodies a commitment to academic excellence?” should never be left implicit.
  • Create opportunities for faculty and administrators to come together in small groups to explore the issues raised by Lower Education. These two constituencies need to find a way to collaborate more effectively, and the mutual stereotyping that frequently characterizes their relationship represents a major obstacle. If we want our conversations relevant to Lower Education to change, let’s experiment with changing the structure within which some of those conversations take place.

Contemplating Lower Education reminds us that faculty members will always face pressures to compromise their academic principles. But explanations of unethical behavior should never be confused with justifications for such behavior. Ultimately, it was the faculty who gave Toby his credential of a bachelor’s degree. They shouldn’t have.

Michael Morris
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Michael Morris is professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, where he directs the master’s program in community psychology. Since 1998 he has served as an evaluator for NEASC, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

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In a flurry of recent exchanges (subject “Writing horse-shoe-of-horse-heading-east Technology”) on the Writing Program Administration (WPA) listserv, scholars in writing studies have argued these points in some theoretical and practical depth. Maja Wilson, from the University of Maine, sums up the argument nicely: "Steve [Krause, of Eastern Michigan University], and others were arguing that to teach writing, you need to teach the tools available now and not teach or allow the tools on their way out (pen, pencil), because if you aren't teaching the tools, you aren't teaching writing. Rich [Haswell, professor emeritus from Texas A&M University], and others argued that, while teaching the use of all those tools can be a good thing, it isn't necessary to teach writing: writing itself transcends the particular tools, so while teaching the tools can be involved in teaching writing, it isn't necessarily the same thing."

I was recently named Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven’s 2011 Outstanding Technological Teacher. While it is a great honor to receive this recognition of my work in teaching with technology, I must admit I was a late bloomer when it comes to utilizing technology in my teaching. Like many of my colleagues who teach writing, I ignored and resisted technology because I simply did not see it as substantially adding any extra learning value for students or for myself. I thought much more like the scholars in the Haswell camp.

But around 2003, colleagues at my former institution, the University of Washington, and I began to ask some serious questions about the value of teaching with technology for student learning. Since then I have been an ardent student — questioning, researching, and experimenting with the value of teaching with technology in my courses and sharing what I’ve learned with colleagues along the way. While the PR discourse surrounding the award has understandably presented the somewhat uncomplicated portrait of a finished exemplary techie teacher product, I’d like to share just a few insights I’ve gathered over the years with fellow Inside Higher Ed readers. I’ll offer some of the shining — as well as not-so-polished — snapshots of a teacher learning tech, in process.

The Ups

While I had used some technology in my writing courses for years, in 2005 I found myself in a position to take advantage of a great opportunity to research, teach and learn with innovative technology. I worked closely with a team of research scientists from the UW Center for Learning and Scholarly Technologies on two studies investigating the effects of transitioning from print to electronic portfolios (ePortfolios) in multiple sections of our first-year composition courses. This project is part of the larger Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (I/NCEPR). You can peruse the impressions — from myself, and from the director of the UW Expository Writing Program, Anis Bawarshi — of our involvement in ePortfolio research here.

In short, our findings suggest: most students take to writing with technology quite well, and those who do not usually benefit from the practice and explicit instruction; instructors and administrators sometimes need just as much help learning about technological choices and options (let alone teaching them) as students; and online writing environments do not magically produce better student writing — or better teaching practices — but can allow for practice with different composing and teaching skills, which can lead to better writing, teaching, and administering depending on the form (for example awareness of audio, visual, and design considerations).

Importantly, this research quickly began to influence and enhance my teaching. I started using ePortfolios in all my writing courses. In every course I use ePortfolios in tandem with specific learning goals/ objectives. Portfolios allow students time to present their best work for the course and opportunities to revisit works in progress in order to critically and rhetorically analyze and revise their own written products and writing process performances. This also allows me, as the instructor, the ability to see each critical and creative move students are making in their attempts to meet the goals of the particular course. I also use the same ePortfolio online platform for my own simple website, including course webpages. That way, I can help students learn the system much more easily via modeling and my own trial and error experiences.

At about this time, I also started teaching in wired computer classrooms. Within about a year I proclaimed myself teaching in the "paperless" writing classroom. I started having students do all their work online: constructing ePortfolios to house and showcase all their work for the course, using online file-sharing spaces to conduct peer review and response on each other’s written work, and collaborating with each other in and out of the classroom with the aid of their computers.

One of the biggest pedagogical effects this approach has had on my teaching is to allow my classroom to become, more than ever, a real artistic writing studio — a place much like an art studio where students work on their writing in small groups and individually, while I circulate the room facilitating and joining in on student discussions of their written works in progress. This creative classroom fluidity is enhanced even further by the laptop-equipped classrooms designed and maintained at Southern Connecticut State University by William Hochman.

Further, I have taught these paperless writing courses with hundreds of students of all preparation levels and cultural backgrounds. For example, in the basic writing courses I have taught both at UW and here at Southern Connecticut, I have encountered many students who are unfamiliar, and sometimes quite uncomfortable, with negotiating any sort of technology. My technology-infused writing curriculum, I believe, offers students a warm welcome and patient learning process for several important writing-technology skills, including formatting texts, saving and sharing files, and designing simple webpages via their ePortfolios. I have watched students with great tech anxiety become much stronger in their ability to work with technology, witnessing the sense of agency and confidence that all students can gain if they experience an atmosphere conducive to collaboration and sharing, and just the right amount of challenging tasks. One such student, Fallon, started off with all the signs of this anxiety, but she ended up taking enthusiastically to writing with technology. We welcome you to visit her exemplary (though not perfect) ePortfolio with her full permission.

Please feel free to also peruse another, more advanced sample student ePortfolio from a writing-intensive course, English 200W: Writing Context: A Comparative Approach to Written Academic Communication.

Potential Downs (and Ways to Avoid Them)

The enthusiastic embracing of technology, including the idea of the paperless classroom, may strike some readers as quite a lot to consider. The main piece of advice I would give to fellow teachers interested in implementing tech into their teaching is be patient. Murphy’s Law applies to learning and teaching with technology like nothing else. So take it slow and easy. Rather than diving full-tilt into every tech application available, decide on one or two things at a time that you can work into your pedagogy. Always think about what any given piece of technology might add to the quality of your teaching (for example accommodating diverse student learning styles via audio/ visual elements). And always try to develop backup plans in case a given technology does not work.

Talk for just a while with experienced techie-teachers and you will quickly hear all sorts of admonishing stories involving difficulties with slow or inconsistent routing systems, students with varying levels of technological proficiency and savvy, or with students being distracted by Facebook or other online social networks.

Although above I describe how my laptop-equipped classrooms allow for a studio-like artistic environment, students and I have frequently experienced frustrating moments where our online connections get cut right in the middle of some creative activity like trying to post a document online. This has caused me to coach students on ways to back up their work. Flash drives, for example, become invaluable allies because they provide a good way to move documents back and forth from hard drives to online spaces — just in case we lose a connection.

The issue of different levels of student proficiency with tech is another common problem. I’ve often had students — like Fallon above — who had little practical experience with the intricacies of writing and sharing writing online. But this is where the ubiquitous collaborative pedagogy espoused and practiced by writing teachers everywhere helps. Since so much of what we do in my writing classes involves students helping students — as well as themselves — take more responsibility for each other’s writing processes, this same collaborative frame of mind applies to learning to write and share writing in online environments (see my article in Inside Higher Ed on how my peer review process works).

And the issue of students being distracted by social networks like Facebook is a valid concern for any techie teacher. A recent Inside Higher Ed article suggests just how distracting the thrall and temptation to visit online social networking environments in classrooms can be for students. But the article also suggests (and I would agree) that a vigilant teacher can stay on top of the problem of the compulsive web-surfer often simply by watching students' eye movements and gestures. By circulating the room frequently, and training ourselves to be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle eye and hand movements that can belie a Facebook frequenter, we can take steady steps toward keeping students attentive and on task.

Yet one of the more difficult downs to work against involves faculty attitudes toward teaching with technology. One of the things I’ve noticed, at both a huge R1 like UW and a midsize teaching school like Southern Connecticut, is faculty resistance to teaching with technology. I remember, for instance, trying to sell the idea of ePortfolios to a group of writing program administrators and instructors at the UW. I heard every excuse imaginable, including the potential “downs” we discussed above, and others like "I would prefer not to do online commenting because I have always written my comments out by hand. It is much more convenient for me to bring hard copies with me wherever I might go." (Yep, even in the land of Microsoft and Bill Gates.)

For me, it has often been more difficult to persuade colleagues to buy into experimenting with techie teaching and learning than students. And given the fact that I think of myself as coming late to tech-teaching, I really do understand where these sorts of skeptical attitudes come from. But I have also witnessed just how much tech has to offer our students in terms of tools for enhanced learning. The bottom line is that tech is not going away any time soon. For teachers of college writing — at least in first-year composition — the fairly recent edition of a fifth category to the WPA [learning] Outcomes Statement "Composing in Electronic Environments" makes the links between writing, learning, and technology a crucial pedagogical priority.

Still, I believe we should do what we can as teachers of writing to keep the ups and downs of teaching and learning with tech in critical tension. Let’s try to be careful not to get too high or too low on tech, and with luck our colleagues and students will appreciate our sober points of view.

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