Wednesday, July 2, 2014

First Things First

One of my favorite parts of Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is "Habit 3: Put First Things First." I read this book for one of my introductory education classes, and my professor used the demonstration in which there is a large jar and several different sizes of rocks. She first put as many large rocks as could fit, and asked "Is there still room?" We said yes, so she put as many of the next-largest sized rocks as could fit, and asked again if there was still room. She did this all the way until we'd gotten to pouring sand and then water into the jar. 

The first lesson my writing students get is on subjects and verbs because once a writer can pick those out, most of those other pieces (commas, modifiers, verb usage, structure) fall into place. We practice "sentence sifting" - a challenge to students to "sift" a sentence down to the three most important words. 

In other words, take care of the most important things first and the rest will find its place. 
This is a lesson we seem to forget in higher education. 
If we break down higher education to the three most important words, the ideal sift is "Faculty teach students." 

I'm not sure this is the case if we take a look at the hot topics in higher ed. 

Looks more like "College costs money." Apparently, the determining factor in deciding if college is valuable or not is money. Right or wrong, we - collectively - measure something's quality in terms of numbers, and we use money because it's one of the easiest things to quantify and most everybody cares about it. But higher ed runs into dangerous territory when we try to use only numbers to determine quality. According to a recent MPR news article, Minnesota is one of many states who has learned the hard way that the traditional methods we use to predict a student's success, even down to how much money a college spends, apparently don't work as well as we thought. 
Minnesota’s universities are not graduating as many students as they should — and are spending a higher-than-average amount of money to educate them, according to a draft report by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact in Minneapolis...(Emphasis mine)
“Students,” he told them, “are graduating at rates lower than what we’d expect given the types of institutions that we have, the types of students that we serve — especially their level of academic preparedness — and the geographical context of the institutions, such as whether they are urban or rural.”
(Emphasis mine)
Horn also told the officials Minnesota four-year campuses, on average, “are spending more than what we’d expect given the types of degrees that they produce, the disciplines of those degrees, the faculty attributes — proportion of full-time / part-time faculty — and the cost of living.” (Emphasis mine)
What exactly were we measuring when we had these data? A lot of those measures we used to plug into ITTT statements - if a student needed a Pell Grant, if a student needed developmental education - were supposed to help predict the likelihood of a student's success. If a student qualifies for a Pell Grant, the likelihood of that student succeeding is less than that of a student who does not. Apparently, putting more money toward initiatives that may help turn that likelihood upwards didn't work. 

Why is this? When what we use to measure quality and value is dollars, it seems logical that the more dollars we spend, the higher quality we provide and the higher value we become. This is true for many - if not most - businesses, products, services, etc. Not in education. What that money bought didn't address what was really hindering student success. It focused on "College costs money" instead of "Faculty teach students."

If these numbers don't work, what do we measure? What do we really value in higher education? Is the value of higher education rooted in how much it costs the customer student? Defining quality, as any businessman knows, takes some serious philosophical reflection. How do we know what we've got is quality if we can't define what we have? Well, "we don't have a great definition of quality in face-to-face education" says this NPR article. Perhaps, then, we need to start defining what higher education is. 

This NPR article  uses a jazz pianist who teaches a free 10-week online introductory course called Jazz Appreciation as an example of the struggles on online education. The example of teaching something as tactile as music, which seems to be best taught by mentoring, heavily guided practice, and applied practice, calls for a redefinition of what education is:

"Is education content delivery? Is it the same as putting resources online?" asks Audrey Watters, an author and blogger. "We're starting to frame teaching and learning in terms of language we use to talk about the Web and media: 'content delivery platforms' and 'learning management systems.' "
Instead of the oft-maligned "factory model" of education, she says, what you end up with instead is a "cubicle model" — one person with a laptop, shoveling in information.
What exactly are colleges selling? What are students buying? As the purpose for college has moved towards job preparation, have we transformed from the general store to a vending machine? Simply to make it easy to measure and prove ourselves valuable?

This is not to say that numbers and quantifiable data have no place in this discussion. Technology has the potential to improve the quality of higher education because of its ability to gather data. The data debate in higher education is closely related to the quality of online education since technology allows for real-time, heavily-detailed, and constant measurement. For colleges especially, data are, as noted blogger Audrey Watters says, the "oil" of higher education. As noted above, what higher education has traditionally considered "data" - test scores, grades, demographics - isn't enough any more. Technology is sophisticated enough to record and/or recognize variables that might affect or predict success. Even something as simple as being able to see what lines a student is highlighting in an e-textbook would be valuable for me as a reading instructor. And many schools are recognizing this potential for how the data provided by this technology can figure out what an individual student needs to be successful in a timely, cost-effective manner.

In fact, technology can provide what many students in a recent survey by BCG Perspectives report want: "a much greater level of interactivity than current learning environments often provide" (emphasis mine). The survey concluded that there are five types of online learners, the largest percentage of which they name as "Open Minds," named so because they have a lets-see-if-this-is-what-I-want attitude. These learners, could, as summarized by this articlebuy in 100% to the idea of online education "if their online experience meets their high standards and offers benefits beyond those of the traditional classrooms, such as greater interactivity with professors and peers" (emphasis mine). 

According to the NPR article, research points to one element that determines the level of quality in an online class: instructor interaction.
It doesn't have to be face to face. Video chats, phone calls, email and even text messages can all help students stay engaged and motivated. Group work and peer discussions are important too.
It's those doggone personal connections again...

Which suggests that the true value of an education isn't based on how much the tuition is, if you're a laptop campus or not, or even what the student outcomes are. The recent attention given to apprenticeships and career pathways remind us that learning - actual learning - is so much more than simply dispensing information. It's easy to forget that when what colleges "sell" and what we use to measure value and quality become two separate things. What defines the value and the quality is not easily measured in numbers, especially not dollars.

The most frustrating part is that faculty and other support staff know their power, and yet are often unable - or uncalled or unmotivated - to take part in improving the quality. The efforts by the faculty at North Carolina Southwest Community College to increase student retention is a manifestation of that realization. 

We need to take care of the first things first: faculty teach students. Develop any one of those three components, and the numbers will speak for themselves. 

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