Monday, June 16, 2014

Elephants in the Coffee Shop

The announcement today that Starbucks Will Pay For Employees To Complete College (Minnesota Public Radio News) has gotten plenty of coverage, and for good reason. The rising costs of college, the shrinking number of college students who finish or who start and stop, and the "is college worth it?" question needed a fresh, positive component. But is this the answer? 

It's a very nice start. But no. 

However wonderful it is to see a company willing to substantially invest in the education of its employees, especially without any obligation to those employees, this still won't address all the elephants in the coffee shop. 

Instead of looking at what fundamental changes are needed in higher education in order to meet the needs of today's industry and today's college students, this is a solution that allows the stubborn post-secondary education world to continue its outdated, inefficient ways under the mask of money and technology. (Why can't you come?? Is it the money? Starbucks will pay! Is it the access? The classes are online!)

Elephant #1: Who will benefit from this plan? (Part 1)

Obviously, Arizona State University and whatever technology platform they're using will get a healthy increase (Part 2), but who was this plan actually created for? What kind of student will get the best use of a plan like this? The plan dictates that students must be enrolled full-time and be working at least 20 hours a week. That's what we usually picture a college student as, right? Taking classes full-time and working a few shifts during the week? That gets a little more complicated once we start to unwrap who this program was written for. 

This is also the most promising part of the plan: the population of students who followed a career path of entry-level to mid-management now is actually addressed. One of the primary subsets of students this plan was written for are those who are "swirling," or
...working adult students who transfer from institution to institution to accumulate credits for several years without getting a degree.
In all, there are 37 million Americans with some college and no degree. And a large subset of these "swirlers" may be swirling Frappucinos by day. The company says that of its 135,000 U.S. employees, 70 percent are either current or "aspiring" students.
Are we sure we know what it means to be a "working adult student"? Everything?? In my experience, the individuality of a student's life circumstances is only compounded with age.  Last I checked, we were still discussing the basic logistics around collecting data, let alone using it to make any decisions. 

Elephant #2: Who will benefit from this plan? (Part 2)

I can understand if the deal was set up with ASU because of their "highly-ranked online program," but that's an awful lot of eggs to put in one basket. I've written many, many times before about the importance of personal connections in college to a student's success. How well can a student from, well, anywhere but Arizona connect online with ASU? The students who need this opportunity the most are likely the same who will need that personal connection the most. Starbucks has done right to look at what support ASU could offer in this matter, and it would do even better to have a personal rep-type do regular, in-person visits to those students at their places of work. 

Of course, the conspiracy theorist in me can't help but wonder if there's some data-for-students trade happening. MOOCs generate a lot - A LOT - of data. So much that we aren't sure what to make of it all. Or do with it.

Elephant #3: Is a degree the answer?

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an interesting commentary from Jeffrey Selingo titled "The Overworked Bachelor's Degree Needs a Makeover". Although I don't agree with everything he says, he brings up this thought-provoking idea that challenges how we conventionally think about college:
The idea that "college" is one specific place where we spend four years just after high school made sense when we had shorter life expectancies and worked for one employer our entire careers. But given the frequency with which Americans change jobs and careers today, we need access to higher education at various points in our lifetimes, not just for a few years at the age of 18.
To take this further, the frequency with which jobs change dictates a need for continuous education as well. It reminds me of the adage about your new computer becoming out of date before you can even walk out of the store. Trades like electrical construction, automotive repair, and computer networking are at the mercy of the speed of technology upgrades, and this goes double for that education. How could we change the nature of credentials to equip students in a more timely manner? What credentials could we provide that meet this need for ongoing, updated education? Perhaps the idea of a bachelor's is so outdated in some industries that a license, in which renewal would require so many units of continuous education, is more appropriate. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the reality of competency-based education

Elephant #4: Is access truly the problem?

It seems that one of the big perks to this plan is that the classes are all online. This assumes that one of the main reasons why these potential students haven't finished or attended college in the first place is because they can't get to classes. The benefit, of course, is that they will not be held to a fixed schedule at which class is held, but at what cost?

As an educator, I have several issues with online learning. From my own experience, an online class usually rotates through video lecture, discussion board posts, uploaded written assignments, and sometimes a blog post. What's the primary way of delivering content online? Visually, sometimes auditory. My biggest issue with online learning is that it chokes out a lot of the authentic, organic, applied learning that makes new content stick and deeper learning happen. Although there are many, many interactive options available through the Internet and software programs, online classes still work best for text-based subjects. How far can an instructor take a lesson on machining through text? What's more, how much instructional attention does using these tools steal away from the content? I know a math teacher who still hand-writes her tests because it's easier than trying to find the symbols on Microsoft Word. 

It also doesn't allow for much in the way of hidden curriculum, and that has different, much more severe consequences in college than it does in high school. This means that teachers need to assume a lot more about their students - Will they turn this in on time? Do they know I'm serious about this? How are they reacting to this topic? Does this statement make sense? Often, these assumptions also cover the technology platform - How often do they check their messages? Was the TV on while they were writing this response? Do they know how to post? And the scariest assumption of all: Will they get to the level of understanding they need on their own? From the data we do have on MOOCs, nearly half of registrants never engaged with any of the material. Online classes work for students who will go through the material, read a discussion board post, and dig around in their brain to think about what that means and what they could add. How many students will do that without prompting from the teacher? 

While I realize that a traditional classroom doesn't automatically fix these issues, it does seem to be easier to fall into these traps in an online setting. 

This plan is an outwardly noble gesture by Starbucks to positively turn the condition of college education. At its surface, this will surely benefit many students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend college and graduate. Now, let's build on that momentum and see what is needed to make a plan like this beneficial for all students. 

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