Cents and Sensibility

The cliche is that we live in a time of rapid technological change; in fact, technological inertia is just as important. Textbooks are a prime example. A writing class, for example, can be effectively taught using only the Purdue Online Writing Lab and the Internet. That’s been true for at least five years or more, if not a decade. Yet the textbook industry plods along, almost unchanged.

There are also open source online writing textbooks available, such as “Writing Spaces.” There is no shortage of open source tools of every kind, from word processing to websites. Given the rise in college costs over the last decade, and the (perhaps overstated) death of the printed book, you would think that there would be a tidal wave of schools dropping textbooks. Not so.

It’s not surprising either, given the complex web of self-interest and money that is woven so deeply into the university textbook system. Still, Washington State University seems to have scored a victory for common sense– and the cost of college– by dropping textbooks altogether in favor of what they are calling The Open Course Library. The future is coming along, slowly but surely.

It’s Broke, and It Can’t Be Fixed

If you took a picture of a classroom at the time of the War of 1812, a professor once pointed out to me, it would look roughly the same as a classroom today: teacher in front, a blackboard, students in chairs. Maybe our classrooms have white boards, or some sort of electronic board; perhaps there’s a computer on the podium and a screen that drops down. In any case, the modern classroom has changed far less than, say, transportation over the last two centuries.

Then as now we had grades, yet we know that grades are not good ways to guide learning. Most grades– even if derived from multiple choice testing– are unreliable. Still we continue to have this pre-modern urge to rank and sort in simple, easy to comprehend ways. Grades can be cruel too, which is why we have grade inflation as well as the perennial complaints about grade inflation.
An authentic assessment of learning is a complex portrait not a letter or number.

‘“It’s generally recognized that an A by itself is not very meaningful,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Giving statistical context to assist recipients of a transcript in understanding the grades is definitely helpful.’” (A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean) Context is necessary but not sufficient. Grades are old, worn out technology; they need to be replaced.

Long Live Concentration

Whenever I hear something about the end or the continuing life of reading and writing I always try to remember that the kind of reading and writing matters as much as the quantity. That’s why it’s important to look carefully at the ongoing research into literacy reported in the Washington Post piece, “Teens are still reading for fun, say media specialists.” The details matter.

It’s not that Facebook and phones are bad for literacy– in some cases, they can reinforce creative and critical thinking– but that the sustained attention and concentration required in some kinds of reading and writing– novels, essays, memoir, — is important to the personal and intellectual transformations that are a necessary part of being educated and informed.

This is the sort of common sense pedagogical idea that’s beginning to emerge– or to re-emerge– out of all of the fog surrounding new media technology. In effect, the media doesn’t matter as much as the type of reading and writing, as the Frazier International School in Chicago illustrates. Lots of writing and well paid, supported teachers. Who knew that’s the key to a good school?

Class Dismissed

I was happy to see a new survey/study of student writing practices released this week, called “Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First Year College Students.” It’s always good to have new information, and it’s especially refreshing to see such a wide range of institutions included, ranging from research and Ph.D. granting schools to community colleges. I have to say, though, that I found the initial findings disappointing.

First, there seems to be nothing new here: blogs and web writing are less popular than they were; texting on phones is up; students see academic writing as important, etc. There are a few ideas that might be worth exploring. Why has social networking, for example, had so little impact on students’ appreciation of collaboration? Why do institutions that grant Master’s degrees have more students that write often in so many genres?

Second, the study’s methodology section reproduces the U.S. blindness to class; it mentions gender and ethnicity but not familial income, parental education levels, or other indicators of socio-economic status. They did little to correlate technology use or writing habits with, say, the relative costs of an education at these differing institutions. Given the economic ranger of institutions, and the growing evidence of class divisions in the U.S., it’s a striking omission.

Evolution or Revolution

In 25 or 50 years, when someone or other, most likely a graduate student, writes a history of U.S. Higher Education in our time, the New Faculty Majority “Program for Change: 2010-2030” will have to play a key role. I don’t think it matters if the particulars of the program are achieved or not; its historical importance is its attempt to imagine a new employment system in U.S. higher education using a model developed largely in California and Canada. I think that it’s broad enough to be useful to almost anyone interested in reforming higher education. It’s our, “What is to be Done.”

OK, maybe it’s only our “Port Huron Statement.” Hopefully, in articulating this vision, the NFM has signaled the nadir of the current system. I think the proposed system makes a lot of sense; it touches on all of the key problems. I also think that the comments are as interesting as the document itself, particularly in the way they reflect the left’s current impasse over pragmatism. Obama is the example: is he doing what he can, given current politics, or he is too cowardly or inept to challenge the far right? I think it would be a mistake to let this document fall down that rabbit hole, as many of the comments seem to do.

I don’t have much faith in gradualist reform myself’; if you give administrations enough rope, they will hang you. It’s hard to imagine change without a union movement. Once change is achieved, we need unions to protect it. Still, if there were a union movement then I think this document could easily become a blueprint for contracts that address current inequities. All contract are local, of course, so details would differ. Meanwhile, there’s nothing to stop traditional faculty organizations– Senates, or other associations– from attempting to institutionalize these principals in their own reformish ways.

Education’s Surveillance Arms Race

Paternalism is a hardy perennial in higher education. Perhaps for obvious reasons, once we begin thinking about our students as our children, or, better, as our customers, we stop thinking of them as adult learners. As children, we need a lot of guidance; as adults, we have to learn to set our own agendas and then follow it over an extended period of time. It’s a difficult process and it’s probably always to some extent a matter of trial and error. At key moments, then, we, as teachers, have to just stand back and watch.

That’s why, as the cliche goes, failure is so important. Adult learners need to be independent learners, and independent learning is, well, learned. Some teachers and administrators are as uncomfortable with this idea as any student. If my children fail, I fail; if my customer’s are unhappy, my shareholders are unhappy. So, as a recent article on NPR suggests (University Attendance Scanners Make Some Uneasy), the paternal temptation is to find a technological fix that would save our customers, uh, students, from themselves.

What’s great about young adult learners– and exasperating– is that they follow their creativity down whatever lines seem interesting. So if the universities install scanners that will track attendance for large lectures, we can be sure that students will respond with a hack that allows you to check in from the comfort of your dorm room. As usual, these technological fixes are designed to address problems created by an alienated and alienating form of education. Scale down those lectures and I bet attendance would go up.