Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Calculating the odds that we'll figure this out...

Many of us remember the dark days before ubiquitous calculators, as well as the uproar when they were being incorporated into mainstream education. "If we let them use calculators, they'll never learn math!" was heard throughout the land (or at least that's how it seemed).  What was once feared has become an important learning tool, required for many junior high and high school courses...and beyond.  We teach students the requisite math skills, teach them how to use the tool, then weave both (the skills and the tool) seamlessly into educational delivery.  Though math aptitude is still a bell-shaped distribution, the assignments being completed with the new tools are far beyond what some of us were able to do in college, given our antiquated tools.  Were the concerns about calculator use unmerited?  Or did they actually help shape a better outcome?

So, what about ubiquitous social media?  From the July 2010 New York Times article about privacy issues, by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen:
Facebook, which surpassed MySpace in 2008 as the largest social-networking site, now has nearly 500 million members, or 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site.  Facebook users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month.  There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring--and permanently storing--the entire archive of Twitter posts since 2006.
The sheer volume of information being generated boggles the mind, as well as wondering who is viewing it.  A University of Southern Indiana doctoral student writes about hearing in her interview that her Facebook profile had been reviewed as part her social media internship application and found more acceptable than another candidate's page with a photo of eight shot glasses surrounding the candidate.  Her question in a social media guest blog seems fair:  "Why are today's students held accountable for not knowing how to use social medial professionally, yet they haven't ever been taught formally?"

We have recruiters and employers checking Facebook pages as part of the hiring process, personal information being shared without any (or with limited) awareness of the immediate loss of control over that information, and permanent records of what we create.  And, for the most part, we are not teaching students basic writing skills nor the proper use of social media tools.  We did far better with the calculators.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Education is the only place where students try so hard not to get what they pay for.

It's a bit long for a title, but Teddi Fishman nailed it with that comment during her recent presentation to our faculty.  Though her topic was academic integrity, she broadened the discourse (as any English professor would, by the way) to inquire whether "cheating" is the problem or a symptom.  And somewhere in the time she spent with us, she made the comment in the subject line.

I've seen steaks returned to kitchens, products returned to stores, service bills disputed, and a host of other examples that demonstrate the expectation of getting what we ordered, purchased, or otherwise paid to receive.  We don't even have to think about the concept of receiving full value for payment.  So, why would it be any different in education?

Once I started thinking about spending thousands of dollars for an education, then thwarting the process at every turn (which, of course, makes no sense...Teddi's point), I realized that we may not all be talking about the same students.  I want to teach students who want to learn.  And some of them do.  But what about the students who are getting exactly what they paid for--a degree?

Somewhere, we--educators, parents, legislators, business leaders, and administrators--have treated education and a college degree as fungible.  It's another variation of means versus ends and it's creating all sorts of unhealthy behavior.  And misinformed decisions. 

Part of our discussion of academic integrity touched on the reality of cheating.  Implicit in the behavior of many students is "Degree now; integrity later."  It becomes a far more interesting discussion when you remind students that the people who may hire them, recommend them, or be their coworkers are the same students with whom they are in classes...the ones watching the cheating.  I'm not sure most students believe that professional communities are virtual small ponds, shrinking daily with technology.  And while fellow students may have limited recourse now, that tends to change dramatically when the classroom becomes the workplace or the community.

If students are paying for education, the alarming declines in academic integrity (increased cheating, plagiarism, free riding) make little sense.  If students are paying for degrees, those same behaviors make much more sense.   But the more difficult question to face is who created the degree-for-pay market...and why.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Our evaluation system is broken

Being the Secretary of Education has to be a difficult job.  But Arne Duncan seems up to the challenge.  And, frankly, I'd love to be on the bus when he visits teachers in our state (as well as in seven other states), because he's not afraid to say the things that need to be said.  From his August 25 remarks at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock, here are my favorite quotes:

  • In just one generation we have fallen from first in the world to 12th in the percentage of young adults with college degrees.
  • As a country we will stop lying to our children and dumbing down standards.
  • Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class -- and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and manages our teachers.
  • Singapore selects prospective teachers from the top third of the class and in Finland only one in ten applicants is accepted into teacher preparation programs. They only pick the very best.
  • The issue of teacher evaluation is especially important today for a number of reasons. First of all, everyone agrees that our evaluation system is broken.
  • (T)he vast majority of teacher colleges in this country are doing a mediocre job at best.
  • As a country we must stop highlighting only ballplayers and rock stars and start highlighting teachers who are our true heroes and role models.
Read the text of the speech, agree or disagree, chalk it up to politics, if you must.  But don't sit on your laurels, ignore the declines in our system, and decide that you can't make a difference.  The very least we can all do is to stay informed.  The most we can do is make conscious decisions to be a constructive force in our own sphere of influence.

I may not make a difference in my state, my country, or the world, but I make a difference to the students who sit in my classes, who ask me to serve as their thesis advisor, and who look to me as a role model for how teachers should teach.  I'm no Arne Duncan, but that's no excuse for overlooking the opportunities I have to make a positive impact in my small corner of the world.  That's my seat on the bus.