In February (yes, I realize it’s now June), I attended the 2012 ELI Annual Conference. It was a great event—very thought provoking in a number of ways. The underlying theme of the conference was the changes facing higher education with a particular emphasis on Learning Analytics.
I was favorably impressed by a number of speakers I had not anticipated liking, primarily because of their affiliations. (See my note below!) That shows my prejudice, and I’m glad it didn’t prevent me from attending those sessions. My particular favorites at the conference were:
- The Bob Heterick Memorial Lecture: Adrian Sannier, “If Not Now, When?”
- Mark Milliron, “An Optimist’s Education and Tech Agenda: Leveraging Technology to Improve Access and Success in Higher Ed”
- Chris Dede, “Transforming Higher Education via Emerging Technologies ”
- Randy Bass, Gardner Campbell, John P. Campbell, and John Fitz, Panel on Learning Analytics: “You Get What You Measure, So What are We Measuring? ”
- Chuck Dzuiban, “Prototypes, Connections and Contracts: Examining Increasingly Complex Learning Environments”
I highly recommend these presentations, which you can view on the accompanying links. [ Note: Both Adrian Sannier and my friend Jim Groom were named among the 12 Tech Innovators in a recent Chronicle article. If you are suspicious of Sannier based on the Chronicle article, consider how the same article portrayed Jim.]
The vast majority of my colleagues in higher education see no reason to change the way we operate, or more precisely the way we teach our students. Most of us generally care about our teaching. But the fact is, very few of us know how well our students are learning. I certainly don’t. I know what feels good to me, but that’s not the same as what students learn. I know what I’m comfortable with. I’ve been lauded as a good teacher throughout my career, but I don’t really know. Very soon, this sort of “evidence” is not going to be acceptable.
Adrian Sannier, in the opening keynote, observed,
These are “the days of miracle and wonder” … except at school.
Think about how our lives have changed in the last few decades, and how our work environment has changed. It’s hard to imagine what it was like before computer networks, cell phones, etc. But the way faculty teach their classes is largely the same as it was 10, 50, or even 100 years ago.
Education is more like a church than commerce. It’s more like an abbey than it is like a factory. I get that. You get that. But increasingly the people we work for don’t get that.
Anyone who has paid attention to higher education has seen that public higher ed faces declining confidence that what we offer justifies the cost to taxpayers. The result is declining support from the state. Additionally, except at the very top schools, there is a latent revolt on the part of parents who are questioning perennial tuition increases whether at public or private universities.
Our system of education is training people for jobs that largely no longer exist, when it should be training people for jobs that haven’t yet been invented. The way many faculty teach is, quite simply, archaic and better ways exist if faculty could be persuaded to adopt them. But there are significant institutional incentives against that.
Here are a few sobering facts. Who are our students? They are not who they used to be. In past generations, we could teach poorly and count on bright students to figure it out for themselves. Or more charitably, we could teach to the best students only, because all our students were the best. We can’t do that anymore.
The students in our classes today are different from those of past generations. The diversity of our current students is nothing short of breathtaking. My point is not to complain about our current students, a popular pastime among faculty, but rather to raise attention. In his session at the ELI, Mark Milliron pointed out:
- The majority of our students are not recent high school graduates aged 18 – 22, that is “traditional” college students;
- The majority are older, often working full time and with a family;
- More than 80% of undergraduates are employed at least part time while going to school; the ideal of students seeing college as their full time vocation is no longer the norm.
- 40% of first year students are underprepared for college;
- 70% of first years at open-access institutions are unprepared.
- Only half of students who start college (and this includes community college) earn a degree.
In short, we need to teach the students we actually have, instead of the ones we’d prefer (or the ones we think we used to have). (A number of speakers at the ELI made this point.) Faculty who do not accept this will remain disappointed.
To be continued…