Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Articles for June 10, 2015

College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one. (
This is a fabulous, fabulous post written by Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. His main point is that the public forms all perception about higher education as if it is a commodity by focusing on the economic dimension of it; he uses the example of a car. However, "unlike a car, college requires the 'buyer' to do most of the work to obtain its value" (para. 4). He goes on: "...most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television" (para. 5).    

This is what I call flash drive learning: the idea that students pay their money to get information downloaded for immediate application in a job and earn more money. The big picture error is that we're defining a "better life" as having more money. As Dan Pink writes in Drive, money is important to get off the table, but it severely narrows the focus if it is the only goal. On his TED Talk "The Puzzle of Motivation," he uses the well-known Candle Problem, a test of problem solving developed by Karl Duncker in 1945, to show how limited our perspective can be when it's done so by our own cognitive biases.  If students are extrinsically motivated--by the prospects of more money or a degree--instead of intrinsically motivated, they seek out that flash drive learning. When decision-makers are extrinsically motivated, they promote flash drive learning.

And so college is evaluated more by numbers--cost, time, enrollment--and becomes a commodity. Sadly, this view is only exacerbated by the perspectives of students coming out of high schools who have had some kind of accommodation to the regular rules.  As NPR's recognized series of articles on the meaning behind the high school graduation rate has exposed, we can't define "high school diploma" as we used to, but students carry that definition--and everything they used and did to claim it--with them when they enroll in college. The shock that follows the realization that one cannot just pay his/her bill and walk out with a degree is a struggle all too real, and colleges would do well to pay attention to those numbers as well. 

It seems like passing the buck if teachers claim that it's the student's fault for failing or dropping out. What's more, many of the decision-makers "treat colleges as purveyors of goods, students as consumers and degrees as products" (para. 6). Teachers are supposed to be just the machine that places the product on the assembly line. 

The saddest news is that the real value of education beyond high school--a student's confidence, independence, and enrichment--happens for most students whether they begin for that purpose or not, but this isn't recognized in either case. The purpose is not to get a job and make more money; the purpose is to get a job and make more money so that one is able to support oneself, to take pride in one's work, and to hold a place in society. 

Flawed Evaluations (
Keeping on, this piece speaks perfectly to the problem with treating college as a commodity in how higher education evaluates faculty.  Although student feedback is vital in informing classroom decisions, the survey reported in this article suggested that there is an increasingly over-reliance on them. Apart from being very narrow-viewed and that faculty often have no part in what is included, recent research suggests a strong gender bias in these evaluation. What's more, a white paper referenced in the article says that the rate of return suggests these surveys are likely not valid data sources. 

Course evaluations have their place, but it is among other methods of gathering data. Unfortunately, those methods--observation, teaching portfolios, on-campus faculty development centers, mentor programs--get low priority on the budget totem pole. The fact that higher education often relies only on the "consumer" (the student) to provide an evaluation of it refers back to the commodity argument. 

So, consider a summary: most survey responses come from extreme ends of the spectrum; colleges are feeling the pressure to enroll and graduate more and more students; and "high school diploma" does not mean what we thought it meant. If colleges are enrolling more students, a percentage of them are in the three sets of high school graduates discussed by NPR. Those students likely will find the shift to college the most uncomfortable and frustrating, and will likely be on the unhappy end of the spectrum who fills out the surveys. Studies suggest that humans are more sensitive to bad news than good, so those negative comments get more attention than the others. 

In other words, it seems that higher education is using primarily the negative feedback of students who probably came in to college expecting a flash drive education to evaluate its faculty. 

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