“Once upon a time…” Telling stories in the Classroom?

(Second in a continuing series) Sitting and rocking, telling stories to grandchildren and creating new worlds for them is one of my favorite things to do. And in many ways it is identical to what I often do in the university classroom – tell stories that help my students better understand the part of the world we are investigating. I especially enjoy telling my own stories, stories that illustrate and explore and challenge. I enjoy leading my students into the significant decisions I had to make during my career, using the actual outcome as a comparison to the creative (if unpractical) solutions that often are offered. I am honest about the risks that I faced and honest in explaining when my actions failed. Where else can you find an audience that actually enjoys hearing those well-worn stories? It is amazing how often the lessons of the past still are applicable today, just wrapped in different clothes. I also include stories of others, or I make up stories that add real people, real emotions and real world outcomes to an academic issue. And it can be a really fun activity, enhancing the learning even more!

My goal is to present my lessons to my students in a way that is memorable enough for them to remember the content after the exam is passed! It is one thing to be an expert yourself, especially relying upon the more novel uses of technology and other data- driven methods of communicating. But where are the intimacy and the art, the more human approach to communicating that supports creativity and expansion of imaginative solutions? In this new world of education, my classroom time often is competing with all those tabs on the browser and the emails/texting that are built into today’s society.
The real issue? … Our educational system puts a premium on intellectual reasoning at the expense of “remarkability”. But we as mere humans are better served and effected by the remarkable, not the ordinary! So what we call learning often emphasizes memorizing concepts, dates, and data. And because the professional world is comprised mostly of university graduates, we now overemphasize theoretical models at the expense of those that tell stories!

As the advent of Emotional Intelligence and other behavioral theories indicate, it is the symbiosis of data and emotion that makes for an effective resolution to most human problems. The facts about any situation are easy to find and understand, but it is the emotions that come from hearing them in the form of a story is remarkable in a way that facts can never be.
As illustrated by a recent article by CrickCrackClub.com, a story-telling advocacy forum, the following provides a glimpse of the benefits of making stories and storytelling a part of daily class teaching. Some (but not all) of what is proposed may equally be achieved through other activities, however I would make the case for the immediacy, energy, speed, adaptability and sheer fun of oral storytelling.

Enjoyment
Stories engage and entertain: people enjoy listening to stories. Narrative has a timeless appeal to people regardless of age, social background, religion, culture and ethnicity. A good story is like a good joke, and there is a huge imperative to share it, and in this way, pass on the experience. This is how stories and other oral traditions travel.

Familiarity
The oral narrative form is familiar and so represents a useful tool for teaching. It allows the learner to engage with and consider new concepts, ideas and issues without having to deal with an unfamiliar mode of teaching and communication. Narrative based experiences which are responsive to and inclusive of the audience, can make complex ideas manageable and meaningful for students, whether they are listening to stories, or using stories themselves to communicate their understanding or ideas.


Focus and investigate

Stories can be used to focus and investigate. This focus may be on an issue, an artefact, an interaction or connection. A story may relate to a specific epoch or historic event, to a specific geographic area, environment or building, to a theme or to a person. Once the focus is established, then the storytelling and the work surrounding it can be used to investigate this element further.

Visualise and perceive
Stories generate and inspire incredibly imaginative responses in the listener. The language of the story and its delivery stimulates a series of vivid images on the ‘cinema screen’ of the mind’s eye. These images are often enduring and powerful as they are generated from within the individual in direct response to words and descriptions, facial expression and body language used by the storyteller.
Because the audience is not being fed external visual images, the imagination of each individual is free to create its own: drawing not only on the story, but on personal experiences of people and places, social interactions, sites, sounds, smells and sensations, dreams and nightmares.

Images endure in the mind when facts are often forgotten.
Once the listener has experienced their imagination when being told a story, they have a rich resource to draw on when retelling the story themselves, and it is the strength of this visual imagery that often provides an imperative to pass the story on.
Empathise, imagine, interpret and respond
Response to story is immediate and occurs as the narrative is being delivered and received. This response is fired by imagination, empathy with characters and situations, interpretation and visualisation of the narrative and the analogies, metaphors and allegories within it. Narrative involves characters: whether they be children or adults or even strictly ‘human’ these provide a point of reference for empathy.

Explore, describe, enquire and question
Responding to story, through interactions between storyteller and audience; in the exchanges that follow a storytelling session and when retelling a narrative, are processes of exploration, description, enquirya and questioning.
Order, analyse, reflect, compare, connect and make judgments
Exploration, enquiry and questioning can be further developed into a more detailed analysis of, for example, motivation – how and why characters acted and interacted in the way they did; cause and effect and the interconnections between the various elements of the story on a range of scales: both geographic and temporal; literal and metaphoric.

Have fun
Stories abound with playfulness. They can break the rules that apply to everyday experience and perception, and at the same time can conform to patterns of inevitability. Either way they present opportunities for listeners to engage with the prediction of outcomes. Trickster tales demonstrate cunning at the service of selfishness or for the sake of the common good. Tales of fools emphasize the nature of wisdom, and riddling tales exercise ideas of logic and choice.
Discussion relating to solving the problems faced by characters within such narratives help develop thinking and problem solving skills. The teller can present any situation they wish, while the listener responding to the story is given the opportunity to truly think ‘outside the box’.

Construct meaning, assimilate and apply understanding
Developing understanding leads to the listener and the storyteller, constructing meaning from the narrative and with further support this can be then applied to more familiar situations, contexts and experiences. In this way the meaning of the narrative, however old its source and where and when it is set, can be given contemporary relevance for the individuals hearing, retelling and working with the story here and now.

Accepting, understanding and dealing with change
Stories deal with change. Change is something that everyone, without exception, has to deal with. The changes to the character may be social or economic, or physical, or emotional, as in the awakening of remorse and pity in so many epic heroes.

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Focus and investigate
Stories can be used to focus and investigate. This focus may be on an issue, an artefact, an interaction or connection. A story may relate to a specific epoch or historic event, to a specific geographic area, environment or building, to a theme or to a person. Once the focus is established, then the storytelling and the work surrounding it can be used to investigate this element further.

Visualise and perceive
Stories generate and inspire incredibly imaginative responses in the listener. The language of the story and its delivery stimulates a series of vivid images on the ‘cinema screen’ of the mind’s eye. These images are often enduring and powerful as they are generated from within the individual in direct response to words and descriptions, facial expression and body language used by the storyteller.
Because the audience is not being fed external visual images, the imagination of each individual is free to create its own: drawing not only on the story, but on personal experiences of people and places, social interactions, sites, sounds, smells and sensations, dreams and nightmares.

Images endure in the mind when facts are often forgotten.
Once the listener has experienced their imagination when being told a story, they have a rich resource to draw on when retelling the story themselves, and it is the strength of this visual imagery that often provides an imperative to pass the story on.
Empathise, imagine, interpret and respond
Response to story is immediate and occurs as the narrative is being delivered and received. This response is fired by imagination, empathy with characters and situations, interpretation and visualisation of the narrative and the analogies, metaphors and allegories within it. Narrative involves characters: whether they be children or adults or even strictly ‘human’ these provide a point of reference for empathy.

Explore, describe, enquire and question
Responding to story, through interactions between storyteller and audience; in the exchanges that follow a storytelling session and when retelling a narrative, are processes of exploration, description, enquirya and questioning.
Order, analyse, reflect, compare, connect and make judgments
Exploration, enquiry and questioning can be further developed into a more detailed analysis of, for example, motivation – how and why characters acted and interacted in the way they did; cause and effect and the interconnections between the various elements of the story on a range of scales: both geographic and temporal; literal and metaphoric.

Have fun
Stories abound with playfulness. They can break the rules that apply to everyday experience and perception, and at the same time can conform to patterns of inevitability. Either way they present opportunities for listeners to engage with the prediction of outcomes. Trickster tales demonstrate cunning at the service of selfishness or for the sake of the common good. Tales of fools emphasize the nature of wisdom, and riddling tales exercise ideas of logic and choice.
Discussion relating to solving the problems faced by characters within such narratives help develop thinking and problem solving skills. The teller can present any situation they wish, while the listener responding to the story is given the opportunity to truly think ‘outside the box’.

Construct meaning, assimilate and apply understanding
Developing understanding leads to the listener and the storyteller, constructing meaning from the narrative and with further support this can be then applied to more familiar situations, contexts and experiences. In this way the meaning of the narrative, however old its source and where and when it is set, can be given contemporary relevance for the individuals hearing, retelling and working with the story here and now.

Accepting, understanding and dealing with change
Stories deal with change. Change is something that everyone, without exception, has to deal with. The changes to the character may be social or economic, or physical, or emotional, as in the awakening of remorse and pity in so many epic heroes.

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What do you get when you cross a teacher with an elephant?… A teacher you can never forget!

(First in a continuing series) I love to laugh, especially those big ones where your belly shakes and your eyes tear up. There have been many studies verifying the therapeutic value of laughing in developing well-being and reducing stress. Laughter and humor are basic elements of the human condition, and it has motivated me to think about the role of such a powerful element in the classroom. I know that I use humor all the time in class because it helps me be a better teacher!

When we think about our favorite instructors and consider what made them so memorable to us – we might find that many of them were funny?  Teachers who use wit and humor in their classrooms are often seen as more interesting and authentic. Humor can even help to foster the student-teacher relationship, which in turn creates a positive and welcoming classroom environment. When meeting with a new group of students, a well-placed joke or quip can go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the term. The best thing about the use of humor in the classroom is that even if your joke bombs, it still accomplishes the goal of appearing light-hearted – as long as you can laugh at yourself. Self-deprecating humor can be effective in demonstrating that a faculty member is fun and approachable.

Certainly we all enjoy having fun, and my humor, even if bad, does usually increase the fun quotient. But beyond the fun factor, humor can be an effective way to engage students and activate learning. A recent NEA Survey included the following powerful role that humor provides them in the classroom:

  • Create a Comfortable Learning Environment   When teachers share a laugh or a smile with students, they help students feel more comfortable and open to learning. Using humor brings enthusiasm, positive feelings, and optimism to the classroom.“Because I know that a good laugh eases tension, increases creativity, … I will do almost anything to get the class rolling with laughter — voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements, hilarious personal stories (of which I have way too many), ridiculous examples…and I encourage my students to do the same.”  — Kaywin Cottle, Speech Communications teacher (NEA Facebook)
  • Lighten the mood and reduce the tension Even if you’re not naturally funny, you still can lighten things up a bit. “In Health class, we learned the cerebellum is responsible for balance and coordination. When I trip over their backpacks, I might make a joke that my cerebellum is taking a nap.” –Deirdre Sexton (NEA Facebook)
  • Engaging the student  Every teacher’s goal is to be effective in the classroom and help students learn. Educators want their students to be eager and engaged. Humor has the power to fuel that engagement.
  • Maximizes Learning Fire Up Their Brains…. During her research on learning and humor, educator-researcher Mary Kay Morrison looked at brain scans that showed high levels of activity in multiple areas of the brain when humor was used in conversation and instruction. “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom,” says Morrison, author of Using Humor to Maximize Learning. “In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”
  • Being at ease The key thing to remember is to do what’s comfortable for you. Not only will it make you more approachable, it will also help put students more at ease in your classroom.

 I use storytelling as a main part of my classroom delivery, a subject of a later blog posting, but the humor, no matter how corny serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism. I work hard in class to stimulate discussion and interaction, helping students take the risk of expressing their point of view. It is much easier to do so when the mood is inviting and less threatening.

Research also establishes that humor helps individuals cope with stress. It relaxes them. But not all the functions of humor are positive. Humor used divisively or to disparage others weakens group cohesion. Humor has negative impacts when it is used as a means of control. For example, given the power dynamic in the classroom, it is highly inappropriate for instructors to target students by making fun of their ignorance or beliefs.

Not every instructor feels comfortable being funny and I would never suggest they add jokes to their lectures. But you can quote funny stories from other people or use materials that contain humor to accomplish similar advantages. And whatever else you say about humor, whether you agree with me or not, you have to admit that there is nothing like a hearty laugh!

 

Blue Light Special at Farber College

I guess I have been around too long, since I still remember K-Mart’s surprise sales. The loudspeaker would say “Blue Light Special on Aisle 3” and the stampede would be on for a genuine bargain. It was a great promotion for a few years and attracted many customers. It also helped shape the image of the institution. You can imagine my surprise and recollection when I heard the report last week that in the most recent year, schools in higher education collected only 59% of the full tuition/fees for attending. Yes, in the aggregate, higher ed’s discount pricing amounted to a 41% discount. Now that is a Blue Light Special!

My first reaction was a predictable knee-jerk criticism of what I called “Higher Education Socialism”. It seems so obvious – universities continue to raise tuition and fees at relatively high rates, so that those students and their families that had more wealth (or had been more frugal in their savings) would pay full freight and thereby subsidize the poorer students who were unable to afford the high price tags. So the Ivy League schools are able to charge the maximum increase the market will bear and use the extra funds to support the poorer valedictorians. (With an endowment larger than most countries I doubt Harvard really needs the cash!) So we have a neat transfer of wealth that increases opportunities for those in need and is supported by those most able to carry the freight. Depending on your political persuasion you might find this either very pleasing or very disdainful. But it does seem effective. Of course, each year these figures are announced there is a great deal of contentious discussion. One of the most compelling discussions was posed by Jordan Weissman in the Atlantic Magazine of May 12, 2013 in his article “How Colleges Are Selling Out the Poor to Court the Rich.”

I’ll have to admit that I was completely taken back by this story, I guess because of my naivety, but it sounded preposterous. He starts with the proposition that if the government aggregated all the funds it dispenses to students through a variety of loans, tax breaks, grants and other benefits, it could almost pay the entire tuition bill for ALL students in public colleges and universities (approximately $60 Billion). Of course this wouldn’t be very pleasing to the private schools and for-profits of the world, but it is an interesting concept that illustrates the dimensions of the dilemma.

But as I read I became more and more persuaded about the dynamics at work here. The additional factors that were added to the discussion were the role of Federal loans and other Federal tax benefits in the mix, combined with the increasing pressure on many colleges to compete for the better students.

Weissman refers to a report released recently by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation on the state of financial aid in higher ed. It documents the “obscene prices some of the poorest undergraduates are asked to pay at hundreds of educational institutions across the country, even as these same schools lavish discounts on the children of wealthier families in order to lure them onto campus.” How so, you may ask?

These mid- and lower tier schools are relying on federal grants to cover the costs of needy students while using their own resources to furnish aid to richer undergrads. “With their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue,” the report continues, “the nation’s public and private four-year colleges and universities are in danger of shutting down what has long been a pathway to the middle class for low-income and working-class students.” The theory was that, in a time of tight state budgets, charging wealthy students exorbitantly would allow them to charge poorer students reasonably. It hasn’t worked out that way. Unlike twenty years ago, the report explains, it is now more common for colleges to hand out aid packages based on “merit” rather than financial need. And “merit” is often a rather nebulous concept. In other words, low-income families are routinely being asked to fork over more than half of their annual income for the privilege of sending their child off to campus for a year, much more than other families.

Of course these institutions continue to stress the Federal loan program for newer students. These schools are accepting government money meant to make college accessible for low-income Americans, yet still charge them extravagantly. Meanwhile, they continue to hand aid off to wealthier students, either because they score higher on the SAT or bring in extra revenue.

The results are big discounts and lower prices for the wealthier students so that the school can be more competitive for the better students as well as increase its “ranking”. The poorer students are paying increasing shares of their income as the school’s aid is shifting elsewhere. No wonder student defaults on Federal loans are so problematic.

What are we left with? For me, the only way to make a difference is to find ways to lower the cost of higher education for all students, regardless of income. Secondly, the Federal loan program must be revamped to include more restrictive rules limiting tuition increases and their linkage with loans amounts. For too long colleges have raised tuition and fees each year to absorb the increasing loan limits. This is the very reason that students now graduate (or worse, drop out) owing large sums they will never repay.

At least Blue Light Specials applied to all customers equally!

STEM vs. STEAM? Preparing Students in the Tech Revolution.

One of the ongoing messages of this blog is the importance of Higher Education in forming the underlying cultural principles of our society. As we explore elements of change and challenge, we see the importance of considered analysis and discussion, a community based problem solving exercise and methods of compromise. In a recent post I discussed the role of Liberal Arts and the Humanities in our educational system and the many broad based skills and learning it contributes to society. In that post I mentioned my daughter, an Urban Designer in Tampa as an example of the importance of liberal arts skills along side technical ones. She recently attended a community event that dealt with the very same issues, and she has agreed to share her thoughts. She is a skillful blogger herself, so I agreed to post an article on her blog. If you are interested, take the opportunity to visit it here!

I was introduced to the STEM vs. STEAM debate this week through an exciting community forum that takes place bi-monthly in Tampa. This month’s “Not Your Average Speakers Series,” hosted by 83 Degrees Media, an online magazine that promotes the economic development of the Tampa metro area, included five local panelests involved in education, technology and the arts locally. With an engaged audience of teachers, business people, and others passionate about education, the discussion (and debate at times) was a thrilling introduction to the challenge of preparing students for the demands of the workplace today.

STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ” If you google STEM, you will see many groups at the national, state, and local level that are dedicated to closing the skills gap in the job market. Over the past decade, STEM jobs have tripled over the number of non STEM jobs. This movement was established and responded quickly with grants, technical assistance, and lobbying legislation to put an emphasis on transforming traditional education.

The America COMPETES Act recognizes the likelihood of the United States’ future inability to compete with foreign countries in STEM. It authorizes funding for NASA, NOAA, National Institute for Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, as well as education grants, fellowships, and training. US companies lobby Congress to allow more foreigners with advanced STEM degrees to have permanent resident status. Even departments like Homeland Security hold their own degree programs in STEM that allow people to remain the country for extended periods because their skills are so in demand.

One of the panelists, Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, is a strong proponent of STEM education and believes that tradition education is failing to engage students anymore, especially males. Additionally, he recognized that only 50% of students graduating from college work in a job where their degree in relevant. He believes we are missing our mark in how we teach our children and how we prepare them for the workforce.

There is no debate that America is not preparing their students enough for the types of expertise that are required as we move through our technology revolution – the debate lies in HOW we prepare our students and WHY.

Enter STEAM. STEAM stands for “science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.” The objectives of the movement, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is to exemplify how art and design education teaches the “flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from healthcare to urban revitalization to global warming.” Transforming research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM, encouraging integration of art and design in K–20 education, and influencing employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation are immediate objectives of the movement. Included by many STEAM groups is philosophy, history, reading, writing and humanities and they can be incorporated with the arts to increase innovation through education.

Another panelist, Larry Thompson, the president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, is a strong proponent of STEAM stating that “in order to reclaim America’s creativity differentiator, we must be able to provide businesses with a workforce of imaginative employees who will pave the way to a new future in American business.” He believes, as do many, that studying arts teaches critical thinking, creativity, and a deeper understanding of the unquantifiable, all of which are a necessity in the global marketplace. While most would think that a college of art and design would focus on painting, sculpture, and drawing, they would see from the articles in Ringling’s most recent magazine that the school is engaged in preparing their students for the  market place. Fuel for Our Economic Future: Art, Design, and Creativity, Ringling College: Powering the Creative Economy, Smart Business: Think Like and Artist and Give Them What They Are Missing, Fostering Creativity and Innovation with Corporate Structures are all titles of articles written by Ringing faculty and alumni.This is clearly not your traditional arts institution.

Additionally, Wit Ostrenko, the president of the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa emphasizes that creativity is at the heart of the sciences. Walk into the MOSI, and it appears to be like any science center for children, in fact it’s the 8th largest in the country. But the most popular part of the whole complex is the “Idea Zone: Dream It, Make It, Do It,” which will make up half the museum after future expansion. While the lab is based on STEM concepts, Mr. Ostrenko stresses that without creativity, there would be no big ideas.

During the conversation between panelists and audience members, we heard a wide variety of views on the issue through personal anecdotes, based on different belief systems. However, what surprised me most was a sentiment shared by the CEO of a website development company as well as Larry Langebrake, Director of SRI International’s regional marine biology laboratory in St. Petersburg. The CEO of the website development company said that they usually hire people with education in the arts instead of technology because computer science degree holders don’t know how to communicate their ideas or think critically about their work. Mr. Langebrake said that when he is interviewing someone he doesn’t even look at their technical experience or education, he focuses on the candidates ability to communicate their value – and therefore the potential value they will contribute to his company. Both of these high tech companies rely on people with a foundation in liberal arts education.

My journey through education has been discussed previously on this blog in a related post, but let me recap here. I am 29 years old, but it’s only in the last few years that I really hit my stride and found out how to fully incorporate my passions into my career. I am an urban designer and planner who works primarily for a transportation planning and engineering firm in Tampa. I am also a trained architect. All of these disciplines, urban design, urban planning, and especially architecture, require a deep understanding of math and technology. If it weren’t for an early exposure to the arts, however, I never would be in the career I am in today – retrofitting our cities, roads, and infrastructure to accomodate our transforming communities and industries. When given the choice between a technical professional BARCH degree in architecture, or a BA in Architecture, which would allow me to have a stronger foundation in the liberal arts, including minors in psychology and religious studies, I chose the latter. Now, I am a confident professional woman who has beat out the competition because I could write and express my value to my employeer, and felt comfortable doing so.

My sentiment, shared by Larry Thompson, Wit Ostrenko, and Larry Langebrake, was prevalent among members of the audience. However, three more came to the surface regarding the education system. First was testing. A decade long policy change in the federal education system means that a student in public school endures 27 days of testing in a 180 day school year, while a student in private school endures 3. In addition to those 27 days, there are many more that are geared towards preparing for the tests. Through school rankings and funding, current education policy devalues the profession of a teacher and their ability to truly teach.

Additionally, the issue of “siloing” our children at a young age was raised continuously throughout the evening. Public schools that emphasize science, technology, and math for children as young as elementary age are becoming more prevalent as the push for STEM education continues. The fear is that at the youngest age, students are being deprived of a strong liberal arts foundation that could not only narrow their exposure to exploring their natural skill set, but hinder their ability to learn basic communication skills.

Finally, the rising cost of education paired with the competitive job market as a deterrent for college students choosing their major was a topic of conversation. The room fell silent when a young woman explained that she had always wanted to be a film director and had  planned to go to film school. With people in her life telling her over and over again that she would never have a lucrative career and live as a starving artist, she instead enrolled in law school. The recession hit with lawyers suffering greatly. Now she is unemployed with $2o0,000 in debt that she can’t pay – and she instead is starving herself of what she considers her true passion in life.

Subsequently, the room grew tense when an audience member stated that there wasn’t one person in grad school who hadn’t chosen their masters program based on how much money they would make when they graduated. He believed that for parents to tell their children to “follow their dreams,” despite all else was wrong and unrealistic. Larry Thompson, strongly objected, as did I. I had the great fortune of having parents that told me that I could be the richest person in the world, but if when I went to work every day I didn’t feel as though I was doing what I loved or my work wasn’t an extension of myself that I would indeed have a life of unhappiness. I did follow my dreams, and while the job market has been challenging at times, I have always found a deep satisfaction in knowing that my talents were meeting the demands of the world – and that is something that is priceless.

In fact, the STEM vs. STEAM debate is not as simple as solving the equation of education responding to the job market. It’s a passionate and emotional debate about our children being given the opportunity to fully explore their own identity, talents, and ability to change the world, through learning in the classroom. By taking away that class in creative writing from the future Shakespeare for more time in the lab, or depriving the future Yo-Yo Ma from that cello lesson for math club, we could in fact be depriving our future economy of the talent that it needs to survive.

The STEM vs. STEAM debate will live on. There is no doubt that our education system is not doing the trick. It must be changed to let teachers teach and children to learn, but I would argue there is no reason to hastily dismember the broad and strong education foundation that has served us well until now without being sure of the impact that it will have on our future generation, economy, and ability to compete in the global market.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. She is also the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, a blog about urban design, urban planning, and the built environment. 

Is Higher Ed really all about the jobs?

Every day I come across another article criticizing the Higher Ed community for the inequities in preparing fresh graduates for jobs. Every facet of the education community is facing the same challenge related to its graduates – how to make sure they achieve gainful employment. It seems this is the second shoe falling after the diploma is presented. And I believe it is dreadfully misguided, at least in its minimizing the promise of a liberal arts education and focusing on employment as the only purpose of higher education.

In the propriety school segment, the attacks of the Department of Education are about the massive default on student debt, driven by the failure of such graduates to find “gainful employment”. In traditional schools, student retention is a continual problem, especially as students have given up on their dreams to have a profession of choice. A fast food job or plant worker job is not considered as “gainful employment “even if they bring in a modest wage. A recent survey showed that 41% of jobs taken by recent graduates did not require a college degree. Now all universities have been compelled to expand their job related support and structured guidance on the employment process. More importantly, business and technical degrees are being emphasized and expanded because they are met with much better job prospects than liberal arts programs. Parents and students are just not willing to incur large educational loans unless there is some hope of a resulting job that will provide enough income to pay back the debt while building a household. This is causing many universities to downsize the Humanities Departments and cut back on liberal arts programs.

A few years my family faced a similar dilemma when my daughter had to decide where to attend college and which program would best meet her needs. Although I certainly wanted my daughter to end up with “gainful employment”, I was just as motivated by the desire that she have a broad based, liberal arts foundation to make her a better, more intellectual and thoughtful member of society. We had our focus on the long term goals, not the immediate ones.

My daughter wanted very much to be an architect and make decisions about designing, building and developing properties. She had choices between two kinds of programs: (1) a technical based five-year Bachelor of Architecture program that provided maximum technical coverage (no room for electives), with better job prospects; or (2) a more humanities based Bachelor of Arts degree with significant liberal arts input, although it would require two additional years to be a licensed architect.  She chose the latter program, even though the job prospects were not as robust. That decision was made based upon the value she and my entire family placed on a liberal arts education.

A colleague and strong Humanities advocate, Charles Walker, recently shared with me his view on a liberal arts education in his article included in a University publication at   http://www.phoenix.edu/forward/perspectives/2013/04/5-reasons-to-get-a-degree-in-humanities.html.

As it turns out, the factors addressed there mirrored the thoughtful discussions that my family and I utilized in our own attempts to balance (1) an education that provides a technical, job ready set of skills and knowledge against (2) a well rounded humanities program in the tradition of classic liberal arts education. Although the former technical program would provide better preparation for the first job after college, the second offered greater support for longer term career growth and success. How so?

Critical thinking skills – All the humanities courses require reading in both historical and current texts, exercising critical thought in analysis and understanding. And exercising the mind in one functional area sharpens the mind in every functional area! You develop the skill of learning for yourself, of being able to think for yourself and make considered decisions! Humanities will teach you how to think, which is to say, it will teach you how to live. Decision making and problem solving really are the essence of management responsibility. And this benefit alone makes such an education more practical and useful than any job-specific training ever could.

Cultural Sensitivity – “Students in humanities study a curriculum which covers the breadth of the human experience throughout history,” Walker says, explaining that the material helps “develop an appreciation for other cultures across different races and backgrounds.” A thorough knowledge of a wide range of cultures, organizations, events, philosophies, and possibilities makes the phenomena of life appear more coherent and understandable. This diversity of learning forms a context that is crucial for full understanding and a general knowledge of the world provides that context. How much better will the decision maker be able to succeed in a globalized, technologically expanding business climate?

Ability to Research – Your real education at college will not consist merely of acquiring a giant pile of facts while you are here; it will be in the skill of learning itself. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. When you learn something, your brain remembers how you learned it and sets up new pathways, and if necessary, new categories, to make future learning faster. Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. This means the decisions made will be of higher quality, with greater insight and more human understanding.

And in addition:

Enhancing Creativity – Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding. Those sudden realizations, those solutions seemingly out of nowhere, are really almost always the product of the mind working unconsciously on a problem and using materials stored up through long study and conscious thought. The greater the storehouse of your knowledge, and the wider its range, the more creative you will be. The interactions of diversified knowledge are so subtle and so sophisticated that their results cannot be predicted.

Life, itself, is a whole – Most jobs, most endeavors, really require more knowledge than that of one field. It will help you see and feel your defects and to change yourself, to be a better citizen, spouse, human being. Wisdom is seeing life whole–meaning that every realm of knowledge must be consulted to discover a full truth. Knowledge leads to wise action and to an understanding of human nature.

Liberal arts will bring you happiness – A cultivated mind enjoys itself and the arts. The extensive but increasingly neglected culture of western civilization provides endless material for pleasure and improvement. A deep appreciation of painting or sculpture or literature, of symbolism, wit, figurative language, historical allusion, character and personality, this is open to the mind that can understand and enjoy it. Knowledge makes you smarter and smarter is happier. Recent research has demonstrated that contrary to previous ideas, intelligence can actually increase through study and learning. Educated and intelligent people have, statistically, happier marriages, less loneliness, lower rates of depression and mental illness, and a higher reported degree of satisfaction with life.

My daughter? She entered the Bachelor of Arts in Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. Her first class was not about drawing plans or using computer graphics, or understanding design relationships or strengths of materials. Rather it was devoted to walking through and understanding failing neighborhoods, discerning how they no long provided linkage to the citizens, trying to understand what steps could rebuild a sense of place and belonging that would restore the urban fabric long since missing from the neighborhood. What is the role of place, of connections, in defining our living areas and our civilization?

These are broad questions, worthy of a broad based and culturally rich solution. Now my daughter is an Urban Designer with a transportation and community planning company. Although she regularly uses the architectural skill of her technical education, it is the liberal arts knowledge and insight that allow her to make a real difference in the communities and cities she serves.

In the long run, the power of a strong liberal arts tradition and grounding in the humanities will make our world a better place.

Risky Business: Higher Ed?

With apologies to Tom Cruise and air guitar, I am intrigued by the ongoing disruption in the world of Higher Education and the dramatically changing nature of the risks being taken. As universities of all varieties confront their strategic directions, they are rolling the dice on what the future will bring. The way for the future is unclear and difficult to predict. The recipe for transforming higher education is filled with peril as millions of dollars are being invested in untried processes, methods, modalities, tools and technologies.

It is clear that the disruption recognized by Professor Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School ( see my post of elsewhere on this blog) continues to unfold before us. Who would have anticipated even ten years ago that the tried and true systems of higher education delivery would ever change.? The sprawling physical plants, ever-larger buildings with luxurious appointments and features, were undertaken with complete confidence. More and more amenities were added to support the rising enrollment, even though the tuition was also rising. How could students continue to meet the tuition increases? Well, thanks to the largess of Congress, the student loan program enabled the accumulation of larger indebtedness with low interest rates, which provided the needed capital, along with the generous gifts of wealthy alumni and relatives.

The for-profit sector was on a tear as well. With both an on-line model that addressed the needs of working adults for convenience and also technologic tools that made the massive growth across the country scalable, this segment of higher education also enjoyed dramatic growth. With a substantial lead in the use of the Internet and related tools to deliver educational materials and facilitate interaction, this group seemed well suited to maintain technological leadership. Most of traditional higher education looked on from afar, confident that they were immune from the evolving challenges of digital education. So the non-profit sector cruised with technological leadership, swelling stock prices and the great attraction of college degrees for its target students.

The broader consumer motivation that supported the expanding educational offerings for both traditional and for-profit higher education was the ingrained belief that the best and surest way to advance in life, both intellectually and vocationally, was through a college degree. After all, the unemployment rate for new graduates was low and the lifetime earnings with a degree were significantly greater than non-graduates. Larger numbers of students entered the ranks of university students with the promise of the “good life” through education.

That world has changed.

Now the entire country faces deep recession and high unemployment. There is now a widespread belief that the promises of higher education can no longer be met. Large numbers of graduates are underemployed or unemployed. Students are graduating with loan balances equivalent to home mortgages. The aggregate of such loans now exceed the level of credit card debt. Defaults are larger and growing, with taxpayers footing the bill for the loan losses. The result is perfectly logical, but somehow unanticipated by the higher education community. Students are staying away in droves. The promise of a college degree has been greatly diminished. The prospect of large loan balances upon graduation, with diminished faith in job availability, has significantly reduced both the number of prospective students and the previously engrained confidence in the power of education.

The result? Educational institutions of all kinds are struggling to adopt strategies that will allow them to meet expectations and preferences of this rapidly changing population of potential students. This review and analysis not only requires significant commitment of time, research, experimentation and intellectual capital, it also requires huge capital investment to build, test and alter the methods that are developed. All of this is subject to the risk that all the investment will not succeed at reinvigorating Higher Ed.

This process is vital, demanding and above all, RISKY!

So the first issue that must be addressed in this process is consumer risk. Can the higher education community construct and offer educational models and modalities that reenergize students, that create market demand and a return to the elevated value of higher education? The present group of potential students are very difficult to understand. They are quite comfortable with technology, used to immediate feedback, unabashedly assertive at expressing their desires, sometimes put off by authority and maybe a little entitled. What’s more, these persons are coming along at a time of unprecedented societal change and rejection of many traditional values. How can we reach them?

Traditional higher education institutions have a significant amount of operating risk as well. In Finance this refers to the role of fixed costs in the overall cost structure of the enterprise. The greater the proportion of fixed costs, the greater the losses when volume diminishes. In this regard, most for-profit universities have an advantage in that their costs are more variable in nature – they have leased facilities and equipment, utilize adjunct faculty that can expand or contract with the student population. This does provide a risk advantage for the for-profit sector. Traditional higher education, on the other hand, has very large investments in capital assets, equipment, senior faculty contracts for teaching and research, expensive amenities and many long-term commitments for capital investment.

Any advantage enjoyed by the for-profit schools in the preceding paragraph is greatly exceeded by stock market risk related to the valuation of the university by its investor community. The aggregated level of risk quickly is reflected in the demand for more returns, which results in lower stock market valuation. The for-profit sector has lost millions of dollars in market value as stock prices plummeted over the last few years. The instability has diminished the ability of such schools to access the capital markets and placed them under intense pressure to contain costs and generate profits. This leaves them open to market corrections and economic disruptions, both very risky propositions.

And the growing reliance of all universities on the growing Federal loan program and the massive losses generated by record numbers of default have generated intense governmental scrutiny, which has translated into intense Political Risk. Senator Harkins’ Senate committee has introduced significant structural pressures on the Federal Loan Program and pushed for increased scrutiny and management of such loans. The committee has been especially vocal in its attack of the for-profit sector.

Closely related to this is the increasing review and oversight being exercised by regulatory agencies like the Higher Learning Commission. As bad actors in higher education drew more publicity and public disparagement, the regulatory agencies were criticized for failing their mission and not closely monitoring specific institutions. Congress threatened their very existence and put part of the perceived problem squarely on the shoulders of the regulators. This Regulatory Risk poses immediate and pronounced problems. A recent letter from the HLC has had a direct and material effect on the University of Phoenix as it attempts to deal with the issues raised by the HLC. (See my previous post, “Financial Structure: A Condition of Regulation? “).

Finally, all of Higher Education has to continue to deal with the potential liabilities related to operating vehicles, maintaining real estate, offering public activities and events and generally attending to business as usual. These risks are real and directly related to standards of performance and governance that are recognized in our society. The result is Activity Risk , tort related liability associated with negligence in carrying out the normal operations of the University, from Admissions to Cafeterias to Book Stores to distribution activities.

As can be seen by the foregoing, Higher Education is facing increasing levels of risk. Some of the risks are specific and can be met by insurance and other techniques. Some risks can be addressed by diversification and redesign of processed and methodology. But the greater strategic risk of reforming the nature of Higher Education is much more complex and potentially very expensive. So as various strategies are devised and millions of dollars are committed to new and untried concepts, we will be continually addressing uncertainty and changing demands. Hang on for quite a ride. This is really Risky Business!

“Old School” in the “New School”

I’ll admit it right up front … when it comes to teaching working adults in Higher Education, I am still “Old School” at the core. And however Higher Education changes, I believe we must maintain some “Old School” ideas in the mix!

It is pretty obvious that Higher Education is facing a tsunami of technology change as we attempt to deal with the growing challenges of skyrocketing costs, massive student loan write-offs, inability to match education to jobs and a general decline in the societal appreciation of knowledge for its own sake. (See my earlier post, “Is Education Redefining Itself?” elsewhere on this site). The debate is rising as the experts all weigh in on the various methods of utilizing technology, as well as the benefits and costs of the various alternatives. It seemed only natural for me to partake in a variety of these alternative methodologies to experience first hand the experience each one offers. The result? I am very impressed and excited about my experiences, but still find myself missing certain elements of the learning experience. It is not the content that I missed because my experiences were filled with interesting content, often rigorous. Rather it was the way I learned, the breadth and experiential nature of my learning, the camaraderie and collegiality of the classroom and the ultimate loneliness that kept creeping in my experiences.

I had previously begun my splurge into technology by taking a doctorate level management course at a major proprietary institution. In this course, email and focused newsgroups formed the technology core and the lectures, exercises and papers were in written format. There were Learning Teams, API Formatting and online Examinations that were machine graded. There were discussion questions and verbal interaction. It was nonsynchronous and very convenient.

I later tried one of the courses provided in iTunes, a political science course from a prominent school. It featured some spoken word lectures and video content as well as PowerPoints and slides. It was somewhat similar to the offerings on YouTube (yes, YouTube!!) that were based upon recorded lectures and some ancillary materials. They turned out to be pretty boring, although I have to take some of the responsibility for that.

And then the MOOCs – the Massive Open Online Courses that are the current rage. I took two courses through Coursera: (1)a course by the University of Edinburgh on Astrobiology and the Search for Life and (2)World History since 1760 from the University of Virginia. I found the academic content and rigor of these courses to be of very high quality, consistent with more typical undergraduate courses. The lectures were excellent – well planned and paced, consistently thoughtful and challenging and always attractive to watch. I found myself very much drawn to the presentations, whether viewed on my PC, laptop, iPad or iPhone. I viewed a few of the lectures multiple times to make sure I increased my retention. I’ll admit I did not do all the reading, but I did pass all the quizzes and participated in the discussion groups. The quizzes were a bit easier than I expected. The discussion groups were filled with discussion, but with an extreme mixture that ranged from inane to very insightful. It was very uneven and impersonal with no real basis for us to connect with each other. Of course there is no college credit, but I did earn a “certificate”.

As much as I enjoyed learning from all these different educational modalities, I missed some of the basic qualities that make “Old School” so effective in its own way. Primarily I missed the eye to eye contact with a real person, the opportunity to ask questions in the middle of a lecture to better understand a point. I missed the body language, the extemporaneous humor of the lecturer, the impromptu introduction of personal anecdotes and examples that seemed unrehearsed and “real”. And what we give up from the teacher’s point of view. There is no one to utilize “Classroom Assessment Techniques”, where the teacher can use cues such as eye contact, alertness, questions and facial expressions to make the alterations that enable the instructor to more effectively deliver the material. The classroom exercises would have been more natural and extemporaneous, and often more fun. In the absence of the teacher’s assessment skills there is a “sameness” and middle of the road presentation that falls short of the live presentation.

There are more Old School qualities that we also need to incorporate: the creation of a collegial and professional atmosphere for learning, outlets for informal and even social interactions to understand the human behavior characteristics that are often part of any solution. Heated arguments, earnest discussions, even a song or laughter are conducive to better learning.

One example that I believe has demonstrated some hope of retaining some “Old School” qualities is the FlexNet modality at the University of Phoenix. It is a modality where the first and last weeks of class are in the physical classroom led by a teacher, with all the related advantages. The middle of the course is offered in an online modality, using the Web and email to communicate. By adding some elements from the MOOC the combination may be quite powerful. To be sure, the online portion of such a course offers the great advantages of all online courses: time flexibility, proximity, and sometimes cost.  Online simply can’t be beat for its flexibility in time commitment from students, and or the fact you can be anywhere that has an Internet connection to do the work. Students” concern for their schedule often is the dominate decision factor. But we are not reaching the full potential if we cannot integrate personal contact with a teacher and fellow students, a connection that helps enhance the meaningfulness and transformational nature of education, not just the knowledge base. Let’s hear it for “Old School!”

Playing Carnegie (The Unit, Not the Hall!)

For a concert, the standard is Carnegie Hall! But in Higher Education, the standard is the Carnegie Hour Unit!

The credit hour has been the most important administrative measurement in the administration of Higher Education for over a century. Embraced by educational institutions around the world, the Carnegie Unit (or Hour) has provided a guideline for determining and supporting much of the academic enterprise, including the awarding of degrees, schedules, student (and therefore faculty) workloads and financial aid. Although a relative new concept for me, I can easily see the noble promise and utility of such a system. Considering that it was never intended to be such a widespread measure and standard and that the underlying logic has long been discredited, it enjoys remarkable staying power.

The Carnegie Foundation developed this unit as a way to provide a standard for determining faculty members’ eligibility to receive a pension. The current patterns of usage were never intended nor foreseen. But it fills a vital purpose in higher education: it provides a metric that is simple and can be universally understood. So it has been applied to most every higher education institution, regardless of how its classes are structured, which modality is applied, what political environment exists and how rigorous the course content may be.

So every institution must consider the system in developing its curriculum. Since it’s inception in 1906 it is generally defined as one hour of faculty-student contact per hour and two hours of outside work over a 15 – week semester. It is so broadly used that we hardly give it a thought. But the clouds are starting to gather in the distance. Last December the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced a grant to study the Carnegie Unit. The virtual gold standard of administrative strategy may be outliving its usefulness.

There is certainly a considered debate on what an appropriate standard should be. But why, you may ask? If it’s not broke, why fix it?

Well, there is certainly a great deal of evidence that it is broken. The system is no longer able to embrace and allow management of more modern educational approaches in an effective way. Consider the following:

  • Technology has made significant improvements and is able to allow students to learn at their own pace
  • Improved measurement methods
  • New insights into how students learn
  • Student learning varies greatly among individuals who teach the same material.
  • Increasing role of distance learning and telecommunication.
  • Focus on “seat time” limits progress on promising new approaches like online (self-paced and competency-based)

I am certainly not participating in any research concerning the validity and effectiveness of the Hour System, but after 40 years of teaching in Higher Education I have some considered anecdotal opinions about the system. I have taught in

  • traditional schools, large and small,
  • proprietary schools, large and small,
  • on-line, ground and balanced (a combination of the two) modalities,
  • in the Northeast, Southeast, MidSouth and Southwest regions

In no school did I encounter any course where the Carnegie Hour System consistently provided accurate comparisons between courses. There are just too many variables that must be considered in determining standards:  academic rigor, difficulty in teaching the class, number and difficulty of quizzes, assignments, length and number of classroom meetings and ancillary activities. An assignment by a Learning Team might be worth one amount of credit hours in one school, but a different amount in another. Some labs were intensive, others were hardly demanding. There is a built in arbitrariness in the process of determining what must be included in the course for those 45 hours you need to satisfy scheduling for the registrar.

Now as Higher Education attempts to embrace a rapidly changing methodology with the onslaught of technology (See my post of February 26  , 2013 called “Is Higher Education Redefining Itself?“), the Carnegie Hour is facing its most difficult challenge. In this period of rapid change, many critics question the arbitrary use of time as the basis for measuring educational attainment. And I certainly agree – student learning varies greatly among instructors who are teaching the same material. And think about this – the variability is amplified by variations among faculty members, topics, schools and universities. Throw in distance learning and telecommunication and you have a great deal of frustration. What about the new Internet based MOOC that carries such a buzz right now?

The most likely approach to replacing the Carnegie Hour is a standard measure of competency rather than time in class. The Carnegie Foundation has begun a large scale study among educational professionals to determine what form a new unit might take. How can a system deal with technology allowing students to move at their own pace? Many working adults bring a great deal of life and work experience to the classroom – should that be included in determining academic success? Testing will certainly have to play a major role in the system as a controlled way to control the measurement process. Of course, there has to be a way to standardize the measure to avoid it becoming watered down by schools that may have much to gain by doing so.

Several colleges are awarding credits based upon demonstrated competency at present and more are lining up to do so. The Department of Education has said it supports competency-based education. Federal Financial Aid standards have been developed to pride students in such programs to access financial loans.

There are many critics of competency based measurement as well. In a Huffington Post article, Jason Boyers argues that competency-based education omits the social and relationship-based aspects of a college education, which are often as beneficial to a student’s career as classroom knowledge. And I cannot help but doubt whether students getting credits based upon experience have truly gained the same level of subject matter knowledge as more conventionally educated students.

So where does this leave us? It is certainly mostly conjecture, but I am confident that we will soon be moving toward competency based measurement, first in small ways but eventually a system of broad based testing. As MOOCS and new electronic means of delivering educational content available at reasonable costs, there will be demands for verification of educational attainment beyond the private control on traditional campuses. The demands for more reasonable tuition charges and ways to cater to working adults must be met and I believe that competency based systems offer the most promise. I am not sure we can continue to adapt our current grading system to this new world. I believe our current system will continue in a smaller number of schools who can maintain the current system because of their wealth, prestige or untouchable academic pinnacle. But many traditional universities that are suffering today will be downsized both physically and personnel wise. Competency based measurement will have to serve a significant role in these institutions. But the competition level will be intense, and many will not survive the coming revolution.

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings. It was almost 40 years ago when I first noted these words on a small sign in a gift shop in Memphis. The sign was one of those inspirational messages that tugs at your emotions, but this one struck particularly hard as my wife and I contemplated becoming parents for the first time. The advice it offered was simple, but effective: “There are two things you give your children, the first is roots, the other is wings.” That sign became our first baby purchase and still resides on the bookshelf beside our bed. It became a recurring reminder of how we approach parenting and child rearing, and served us well.

roots

This morning I was struggling to overcome the loss of an hour’s sleep for Daylight Savings Time when I noticed the trusty little sign still sitting on the shelf, broadcasting its message across the bedroom. And it occurred to me that these simple words communicated the essence of why I teach and what motivates me to reach out to my students and to do my best to help them understand how to achieve success. I lead and I support them as they work to build a new life. And whether I am teaching Corporate Finance or Business Law or College Algebra, my task is the same- roots and wings!

Now I admit that the “roots” part is easier and certainly more evident. In my mind, the concept of roots includes nourishment and support as well as stability and staying power. Solid roots imply that the tools are there to weather the storms. After all, the curriculum, the syllabus, the text and my lectures are all directed to one end- the students’ mastery of the basic fundamentals of the course. I will use lectures, exercises, discussion, role-playing, media presentations and even guest speakers to reinforce the material. I want them to master the content, to wrap themselves around the central concepts and ideas they are grappling. I want them to think critically, to grasp subtleties and nuances, to master the content and its application to the world in which it resides. While doing so I want them to develop skills of communication, collaboration, leadership and intuition. My goal is to expand their minds, to broaden their perspective, to improve their skills, to deepen their knowledge. These are the intellectual “roots” that will provide the foundation, and more importantly, the confidence, to succeed in life. It will also be critically important in helping them deal with the “storms” of life.

It is when I contemplate the “wings” of the saying that I feel much more challenged as a teacher. The advantage of having wings is that one is no longer bound to the limits of the ground. There is suddenly a new way to look at the world, a different perspective on the existing nature of one’s life. Your view is much broader and much longer; it encompasses a greater diversity of thought and action and more ways of responding to the routine challenges of life.

The “roots” are really from the mind, the intellect, and the knowledge base of the student. But when I engage the student in going beyond the expected, in learning about themselves and their dreams, their values and their wishes, their heartaches and their joys, it is much more of a challenge. It is a challenge for me first because it necessitates that I have been able to accomplish the same thing myself. Do I know myself, really know myself? Have I lost touch of my dreams, my passions, my values? Do I understand what my students are feeling when I encourage them to put aside their fears and embrace their own dreams?

Secondly, my challenge is to encourage and motivate my students in “affairs of the heart”. This means that the second part of my challenge will rely on my “Emotional Intelligence” (to use a current management concept) to go beyond the subject matter of the course and touch the student’s emotions and feelings and their relationship to their own lives and future. It is here that I feel less prepared but where I see the greatest need. How can I get my students to consider “what can be” rather than “what is”? My success in every class includes my ability to do so.

A favorite tool of mine in this regard is the telling of stories – my story as well as that of their peers and even their faculty. To some it may seem to be a fairy tale, but most universities are filled with the stories of students who reached out in new direction to follow their own dreams. Another tool is the linkage between knowledge and careers – not the trade school mentality that is running rampant today but the value of written and verbal communication, of exploring the broader questions of mankind through the liberal arts, of the power of quantitative reasoning and scientific problem solving. A third tool is to freely express my passion for lifelong learning, of the permanent journey for self-improvement as well as self knowledge. My passion and commitment can demonstrate the overused “joy of learning”. I can demonstrate this important best by living it.

In some respects I know I am asking a great deal of myself and my students. Especially in working with students with difficult histories and current hardships, it is a significant leap for them to fully embrace the concepts of “roots and wings”. So I know it is a process, a journey that will take time and nourishment. But it is often evident to me that some of my students are having those “aha” moments, those insights into the intellectual demands of the course as well as the impact on their career and also their dreams and aspirations. So it is a question of steps, but the well-being of seeing progress is one of the great rewards I receive for teaching. So I keep on hauling out the fertilizer and water cans, but directing my students to the top branches and courage of flight.

Financial Structure: A Condition of Accreditation?

Accreditation probation? The risk of losing federal student loans and grants? Losing face as an academic institution of higher learning? All of this now is placed before the University of Phoenix as it deals with a Draft Report it received on February 22, 2013 from the Higher Learning Commission (“HLC”) concerning its comprehensive evaluation process recommending that the school be placed on probation. What activities or wrongdoing should bring such harshness? – academic violations, inferior faculty, inadequate curriculum, any of a thousand other academic measures? No, this punishment was attributable to an alleged deficiency primarily in the area of governance between Apollo Group and University of Phoenix .

Wait a minute – this academic review now turns on how an institution is owned? Finance? You have got to be kidding! Let’s see – the University of Phoenix is wholly owned by Apollo Group, who appoints the members of the University (its wholly owned subsidiary) Board of Directors. This is consistent with every other wholly owned subsidiary in the country. The University has its own Board and makes its own decisions. What does this have to do with Academic Accreditation? This finding was completely unexpected, a surprise in every way. On one hand the report validates the academic experience, the faculty, the degree program and the students. But it criticizes the ownership structure. Is the ownership structure between Apollo and the University unique?

Well, no! If this is a valid deficiency against the University of Phoenix, isn’t it an indictment of every For-Profit educational institution in the country? After all, shareholders expect their company to earn money. And where is it better to teach the lesson of capitalism to the thousands of business students that the University trains every year. No, this is at best an assault on an industry, an industry that is the primary method for most of our citizens to earn a degree. Who else caters to working adults, the ones who time and circumstance kept from attending college earlier? Is it coincidence that this comes at the same time that traditional schools are moving online, to territory previously dominated by the For-profits?

It also clearly a political move. The HLC, under scrutiny by Congress for its loose regulation and hands off attitude over the years, is trying to make a point to Congress and the Department of Education about how tough it is. Instead it only looks to be inept and hopelessly misguided. If we are entering a new time of change and disruption for higher education, how can such incompetence exist in a regulatory authority? It is bad enough to apply the rules after the fact, but it is another to CREATE the rules after the fact.

Don’t the Boards of Devry, Kaplan, Strayer, EDMC and all the rest have obligations to their shareholders as well as to their students? Where in any enabling legislation or statute is the HLC delegated the power to CHANGE CORPORATION LAW? If the University of Phoenix does not serve its students well it will lose in the marketplace, the central determinant of our economy and cultural foundation of a capitalist democratic society.

Of course there are problems in the world of Higher Education. The University of Phoenix, as well as all other universities, are working as hard as they can to resolve those problems for the benefit of students. Why does the HLC insist on becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

Is Higher Education Redefining Itself?

Disruption. Smaller and weaker prevailing. Crisis. This is the theory advocated by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, eminent professor and participant in the University of Phoenix Executive Education Series on Innovation. Christensen is the father of the idea of “disruption” as we currently understand it, that smaller, weaker, but more innovative companies break into the low end of a market, then end up completely overtaking previously dominant ones. In a recent interview with “Wired” magazine, Christensen applied his well-known theory to higher education:

“I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble.”

To those of who are old hands in the classroom, this is somewhat troubling. His opinion is driven most importantly by the increasing utilization and application of online learning. It is expanding exponentially and available to a broader range of potential students. Christensen is convinced that the field will follow Christensen’s classic examples of disruption.

“Mini mills killed off big steel companies by making low quality, low margin rebar, then working their way up to eat their entire business. The same process is starting to happen in higher education. “

On one hand we have schools aggressively targeting the high end of higher education. Startups like The Minerva Project plan to offer an Ivy-caliber education at less than half the price that those universities charge. Christensen said in the interview that an online accounting course from BYU outstrips anything Harvard Business School can offer.

“Some will survive. Most will evolve hybrid models, in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more-specialized courses in person. Hybrids are actually a principle regardless of industry. If you want to use a new technology in a mainstream existing market, it has to be a hybrid.”

So Christensen is convinced that disruption is coming for higher education. To be successful, every university will have to change. Otherwise, they’re going to be overtaken more rapidly than can imagine.

Do you agree? What are the changes that you believe will have the greatest effects on higher education?

For those of us who have taught in Proprietary Schools, the Internet has been a part of our teaching for a long time. So it becomes difficult to view online education as such a disruptive factor. As I reflect on my experience, the Internet has been a nice addition, but hardly “disruptive”. Or has it? I have used the Internet for posting messages, engaging in discussion, for linking to information that exists “out there” or that I have posted. Mostly, I have used Online as an extension of the more conventional approach I have taken in the classroom. Not very disruptive.

But look what is starting to happen! For one thing, a large multitude of major universities have committed to the development and expansion of online learning. And they are approaching it as an entirely new platform, not just an extension of the current, more traditional offerings. The Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs)” have exploded on the scene, offering hundreds of courses online at no cost. Although to date none provide actual college credit, it will change quickly, especially as universities offer them under their own curriculum with local faculty discussion groups. What about 250,000 students in a course?

There is a debate raging about the advantages and disadvantages of this approach, but for sure it has opened the door to new thinking on how to offer courses to more students at a more reasonable cost. I’ll discuss these issues in later posts, but it is clear that these new offerings are having a great deal of influence.

I have taken several courses through Coursera, a collective startup of 62 universities offering these courses. I found every one to be very effective, well executed, beautifully illustrated and rigorous in the amount of information included. Yes, it was impersonal, but if you joined in the discussion groups it did feel more collegial.

It is hard to know where this is all going. We’ll see many more of these being offered in the coming year, including early efforts at allowing some to earn college credits. It will be interesting to see more of the leading professors share their craft with thousands of students. It will be interesting to see how it will all affect higher education. And most assuredly, it will be interesting to see how “disruptive” it will all be.

Welcome to the Exchange!

Speaking to you from the Exchange…this is Joe McGirt! Welcome to The Academic Exchange: Reflections on Higher Education, a blog on the varied aspects of Higher Education and the issues that are the primary catalyst in this time of reflection and change. I am a 40 year veteran of classroom instruction in higher education and a 10 year veteran of the crucible called Academic Administration. My training includes undergraduate degrees from the University of North Carolina and Indiana University, an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Juris Doctor from the University of North Carolina. I have had a full and varied career in fields from Management, Law Practice and Entrepreneurism to Academic Administration. I am a lover of teaching and education and the adult students I teach most every night. I hope to create a place where professionals, teachers, students, and people interested in the academic world can discuss their views of every aspect of higher education…curriculum, classroom assessment, retention and persistence, technology, financial aid, student support, classroom management, adaptive learning, MOOCs and many more.

I invite you to comment on my posts and follow them by subscribing. I would love to publish your comments and articles! If you have any questions or suggestions I’d love to hear them…please get in touch at joe.mcgirt@academic-exchange.com. You can also visit my Twitter feed through the menu on the right or at @academicXchange. I hope to post at least weekly so please check in. I’ll see you here!