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Recently, The Atlantic published Derek Newton’s “Higher Education Is Not a Mixtape,” in which he argues that – contrary to many popular arguments and articles – higher education is not going the way of the music industry (i.e. people won’t begin shopping for individual professors instead of for universities the way they now shop for individual songs instead of for entire albums). Along the way, Newton makes some compelling points:
Though many universities have not done a great job of keeping up with technological advancements or at keeping costs down, many of the people making arguments for the tech future of higher ed are also personally and financially invested in the companies and technologies necessary to make this future possible. Moreover, the arguments for increased technology and the “unbundling” of higher ed also seem to be missing a basic truth: Unlike music – which listeners buy because of the artist, not the artist’s record label – students “shop for schools, not professors” knowing that their future career success is often tied, at least initially and in part, to the reputation of their university.
However, a simple (and obvious) response to many of Newton’s arguments is: Yes…for now.
As a more recent graduate of an MA program, I well remember just what “distance learning” and “online learning” courses can look like – and it wasn’t pretty. This gets back to Newton’s concession that many schools and degree programs haven’t done a great job of keeping up with the technological times, so that if they do offer online courses and learning opportunities, many of them aren’t yet all that they could be (which means that many students either elect not to use them or view them as a last resort). But this isn’t something that’s likely to last for much longer, and improved distance learning tech could very well lead to an “unbundling” of universities, to a marketplace for professors and courses over entire schools.
Given the constraints of rising tuition rates coupled with the increased number of non-traditional students (e.g. middle-aged and older adults coming back to school for degrees, training, certifications, and so forth), online learning opportunities and distance courses are likely to only increase in number and quality over the next few years. These increases will undoubtedly change the way people view online opportunities and, in turn, how they shop within the industry of higher education generally.
What’s more, many institutions, like Ft. Worth’s TCU for example, now offer comparatively cheap, non-degree opportunities (both online and in-person) to students (traditional and non-traditional alike) who are interested in auditing particular courses rather than in pursuing a full degree. This trend may be evidence that certain demographics are in fact interested in shopping for higher ed opportunities on a professor or course-basis rather than on a university-basis, similar to the trend of buying a $0.99 song rather than a full album.
In my opinion, Newton throws his best possible argument for the traditional college experience under the bus by only barely mentioning it in his final paragraph:
In the current system, it may not be efficient to maintain fine-arts programs, but most people think it’s important to have them. It has long been part of colleges’ mission to expose students to new ideas and disciplines. On campus, even business students, for example, are typically required to study literature and other topics in the humanities. Some may call that inefficient; others call it essential.
As a liberal arts student myself with three degrees, including English and American Studies, I appreciate better than most the difficulties and benefits of pursuing an education that doesn’t directly lead to an obvious, lucrative career path. And there certainly are difficulties – jokes bashing the putative usefulness or wisdom of liberal arts degrees are classic and many professors within these fields do an amazingly poor job of discussing with students just how many career opportunities are (or will be, could be) available to them. Thus, many students either prematurely cross liberal arts programs off their list or graduate from them without a full appreciation of just how flexible and useful they can truly be.
To me, the bashing or general rejection of liberal arts degrees only shows a lack of creativity on part of all involved. A degree in English, after all, doesn’t limit a person to Writer, Teacher, or Unemployed. As Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am Large. I contain Multitudes.” There is more to a student than their degree just as there is more to a degree than its acronym. Education, like life, will – in large part – be what you make of it. Similarly, there are more jobs out there, more possibilities and opportunities than you can ever account for, because they – like the higher ed industry itself – are always changing. And that’s part of what a liberal arts degree is great for: teaching students how to think (for more on this particular point, see David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech) and how to grow with changing times.
Ultimately, I think the future of higher ed falls somewhere in the middle here, in a combination of distance/online and in-person learning, of professor-shopping and university-shopping. As our student bodies change and grow more diverse, so must our learning opportunities. This isn’t a time to throw away all we’ve built in higher ed, but neither is it a time to try stalling change and growth.
*For those who’re interested, here’s the audio of Wallace’s speech:
Further & Related Readings:
- Marisa & John Bowe (editors), Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs (2009) – ***This book is an amazing resource for getting started thinking about all the different kinds of jobs, careers, and work opportunities out there today
- Derek Newton, “Higher Ed is Not a Mixtape,” The Atlantic (January 2015)
- The Project on Student Debt, “Student Debt and the Class of 2012” (December 2013)
- Martin Smith, “What universities have in common with record labels,” Quartz (July 2014)
- Errol Craig Sull, “Student Engagement in the Online Classroom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2013)
- Kelly Field, “Obama Presses for Free Community College and Tax Reform,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2015)
Our Nation’s Report Card for 2013 has been available online for months now, but many Americans don’t even know it exists. Here are the basics:
“The Nation’s Report CardTM informs the public about the academic achievement of elementary and secondary students in the United States. Report cards communicate the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a continuing and nationally representative measure of achievement in various subjects over time.”
If you haven’t already checked out our report card for 2013, go ahead and give it a whirl. This is a terrific tool for learning more about the U.S.’s complicated education system and all the ways it’s bettering and neglecting us. You can check out everything from achievement gaps to report cards specific to certain school subjects to report cards specific to your state (and a ton more!).
For an example, consider their “Results for 2013 NAEP Mathematics and Reading Assessments Are In”:
“Nationally representative samples of more than 376,000 fourth-graders and 341,000 eighth-graders were assessed in either mathematics or reading in 2013. Results are reported for public and private school students in the nation, and for public school students in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Department of Defense schools.”
On top of this assessment, they provide both graphs and written explanation of the data to make the results as clear and understandable as possible.
Example graph (the images are much sharper on the official website):
(2013 NAEP assessments)
This data is useful not only for teachers, policymakers, and administrators, but can be useful for students and parents as well. Try using this as a tool to not only engage with your students/children about their personal education (strengths and weaknesses, concerns and goals, etc.), but about what they (your students/kids) might like to see change or improved in their own schools.
Have you or your kids or your teacher friends/colleagues been complaining about certain parts of their education or school system for a while now? Well, there might be some credence to the complaints—and educating yourself with data from the Nation’s Report Card can be a great way to begin making (or learning how to make) substantive change happen at the local level.
If you want to arm your kids with the best knowledge out there, then you ought to do the same for yourself.
A few of the highlights:
- Blending on-site (classroom) learning with distance (technology-based) learning.
- Greater scrutiny of and concern related to student data.
- The renewal of or substantive departure from No Child Left Behind.
- More online and game-based teaching practices.
- The introduction of Kindergarten Entry Assessments (KEAs).
“In 2015, education systems will cut through the clutter and invest the needed resources to develop and administer developmentally appropriate KEAs and thus improve instruction for young children.”
— Rhian Evans Allvin, Executive Director, National Association for the Education of Young Children
Further/Related Reading Suggestions
- Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, The Washington Post, “Standardized Tests Must Measure Up”
- Maanvi Singh, NPR, “Why Emotional Learning May Be As Important As The ABCs”
- Anya Kamenetz, NPR, “What Schools Could Use Instead Of Standardized Tests”
- Claudio Sanchez, NPR, “Six Education Stories To Watch in 2015”
- Education Week, “The National K-12 Testing Landscape”
- Council of Chief State School Officers, “Chief State School Officers and Urban School Leaders Announce Joint Effort to Improve Student Testing”
“Close your eyes for a minute and daydream about a world without bubble tests. Education Week recently reported that some Republican Senate aides are doing more than dreaming — they’re drafting a bill that would eliminate the federal mandate on standardized testing.”
– Anya Kamenetz, NPR
(To read the full Education Week article by Alyson Klein, please see: “GOP Senate Aides Working on Draft ESEA Bill That Could Ditch Annual Testing”)
Ever since the passing of No Child Left Behind, teachers, administrators, parents, students, and policy experts have been working to understand—to definitively know—whether or not it’s done more harm than good (or vice versa). Well, when the issue recently came back before Congress for renewal, Senate Republicans released their new vision for U.S. public education in 2015: Instead of renewing the federal mandate for annual, standardized testing, they “would leave decisions about testing schedules up to states.”
And while The Council of Chief State School Officers, national teachers unions, many traditionally Democratic groups, and many of the country’s largest school districts have come out in favor of reducing or doing away with standardized tests—as NPR’s Anya Kamenetz explains in “What Schools Could Use Instead of Standardized Tests”—what’s still missing from this conversation is what might replace annual standardized tests. To this end, Kamenetz suggests four possible options:
- Sampling: Keep standardized tests, but just reduce the number of them.
- Stealth Assessment: Use software provided by major textbook publishers in order to invisibly monitor and assess children’s learning.
- Multiple Measures: Rather than just test scores, data on everything from graduation rates to demographics to workforce outcomes ought to be collected and considered. Schools could even begin issuing surveys to consider elements like “grit” and “optimism,” or games to help assess a student’s creativity and other higher-order skills.
- Inspections: Perhaps in addition to some or all of the above measures, the government could also create a team of inspectors who function for schools almost the same way that health inspectors function for restaurants. These officials might observe classrooms, examine syllabi, evaluate student projects, and interview students, staff members, and faculty.
(To read Anya Kamenetz’s full article, visit: “What Schools Could Use Instead of Standardized Tests”)
What are your opinions on standardized testing? Do you think we should keep annual exams? If not, what might you suggest in substitute?
Thank you for sharing this, Learning with Alison!
For teachers, professors, and tutors, learning to change tactics when a lesson isn’t working out as planned is an incredibly important skill. This is a challenge that many teachers face in their efforts to best reach and support students.
Having the ability to take extra time to consider a teacher’s points and ask questions in an environment safe from humiliation and fears of shame, is vital for yet often denied many students. Such freedoms not only enable students to better explore a concept and commit said concept to memory, but can also empower students to become more involved in their own learning process and to feel more comfortable actively engaging with future lessons.
Another example of teachers taking such challenges in stride can be found at Georgetown, TX’s Southwestern University. Right now at Southwestern, professors like Dr. Emily Niemeyer (Chemistry) are engaging in what’s known as “Flipping the Classroom”. While Southwestern’s professors still often utilize and appreciate the traditional lecture format, “Flipping the Classroom” is a teaching method founded on learning through practice rather than learning through listening. According to the Southwestern Newsroom,
“While there are many variations of the flipped classroom, the most common one is one in which what used to be classwork (i.e. lectures) is done before students come to class by means of teacher-created videos. And what used to be homework (assigned problems) is now done in class − either with the professor or among the students themselves.”
I am thrilled to see such innovations coming to Southwestern’s classrooms, and can’t wait to hear about their resulting challenges and successes!
What is “Higher Order Thinking” that is all the rage to chat about and to “enforce” (word chosen deliberately) but that many parents and students question is actually taking place?
As educators we read a lot about “asking open-ended questions” – HR personnel would be given the same advice. What then might it mean to truly encourage a student to move beyond the basics and to begin the process of not merely placing an opinion into an essay in the right spot (close to the end of paragraph 1- so the directions tell) but to actually have an opinion beyond -“it was good” or “I didn’t like it”?
Thinking is work- even when the thoughts are pleasurable. Our brains require a form of question response stimulus to actively be engaged, curious and participatory. Long a proponent of enrichment for everyone I was recently asked about how enrichment and gifted education…
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