Today (June 2, 2014) on Fox 35 Good Day Orlando, the topic of discussion was how credit card companies and cell phone service providers will be teaming up to prevent credit card fraud. There are several ways this could be accomplished, most commonly by linking the location of the credit card with the location of the credit card holder’s cell phone.
Today’s topic on Fox 35 Good Day Orlando was “The Future of Shopping.” It was a quick look at how technology is changing the way we shop, and what retailers are doing to motivate people to look away from the Internet long enough to come into an actual shop location. Technologies such as holography, 3D printing, and even good old bluetooth connectivity to your cell phone are all part of the story.
Narrative as a framework for learning is one of my favorite topics. I few weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting on this topic for the Florida Distance Learning Association at the University of Central Florida. Feel free to take a look here: https://ucf.adobeconnect.com/_a826512158/p7sfo087at2/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal.
I was on Fox 35 Orlando yesterday morning (May 10, 2014), talking about how to get the cable or satellite monkey off your back. It’s getting easier, though there are still some places you’ll need to compromise!
This raises the question of “cutting the cord” from the current higher education channels. Is it possible? Would it be a good idea? Is it possible to consume education in a more customized manner?
I originally intended the title of this post to be “The Role of Play in Learning,” but then the typo made more sense to me when I considered it. The idea that play is an essential component to learning is gaining more an more acceptance in the education community, especially filtering up from the work of early childhood educators. This article by Bethany Wilinski, “If Children Are for Learning, Then Let Them Play,” sounds a cautionary note regarding the decline of play and the impact it is having on the attainment of basic skills related to academic achievement among learners. Wilinski’s article cites Alison Gopnik’s TEDTalk “What do babies think?” for insights, and Gopnik’s material is worth a view if you haven’t seen it already.
“Babies and young children are like the R&D division of the human species.” – Alison Gopnik
In looking at the typo, though, I realized that while play is essential to learning, the opposite is also true: learning is essential to play, certainly to continually engage the player. Without learning, play is little more than a series of repetitive tasks with no change in outcomes, no evolution in action, and no stretch to bring the player back to expansion of mastery. Interestingly, a (very) quick scan of the literature hasn’t turned up much in the way of learning as a component of play; most everything I’ve been able to find addresses the opposite, and more obvious, viewpoint.
So I submit the following questions for further consideration on the topic:
- Can people play without learning anything? What does that look like?
- Is learning required for play to be fulfilling?
- Might we assess the quality of play to determine what learning has taken place?
The third question above is especially interesting to me, as the education community continues to wrestle with assessment methodologies. If play can be considered at least to some extent as a proxy for learning, then the assessment of play may provide greater insight into what has been learned. After all, the idea of assessing play, from setting and knowing victory conditions to evaluating individual player statistics across multiple categories of measurement is something we do regularly and fairly well. Well enough for us to improve play and hire or replace play instructors (coaches) based on player performance. Perhaps it is time for us to consider flipping the play and learning dynamic.
I noticed a picture making the rounds of Facebook today of an Austin Community College professor, David Lydic, wearing a t-shirt with the caption, “It’s in the syllabus.” The picture linked me back to this article on the Inside Higher Ed website title, appropriately enough, “It’s in the Syllabus!” I needn’t go into great detail regarding the specifics of the article, but one can readily surmise the overall tone of the content: educators are often frustrated by repeated questions for which the answers are found within the course syllabus.
While the picture shows an angry instructor, Lydic explains that he was posing for the photograph with that expression at the request of the student snapping the shot. Indeed, Lydic wears the shirt primarily as a humorous way to remind students of the existence and utility of the course syllabus. Like many instructors, Lydic has repeatedly gotten questions that would all be answered for students if they simply read the syllabus provided to them.
What I found very interesting were many of the comments posted in response to the article. Many appreciated the t-shirt for its light-hearted approach:
“I got a kick out of this article. All I want to know is ‘Where can I get one?’!”
“Getting the attention of the students is often difficult. This humorous approach will stay with the students not only in this class but others! Love it!”
“This is an easy, fun way to remind students of their responsibilities and it will stick with them.”
But some comments indicated some deep frustration and a rather unflattering view of their opinion of at least some of their students:
“Yes, we should hold their hands instead! Science knows that they cannot read the syllabus all by their little selves!”
“Syllabus skippers (and grade-grubbers, and deadline-benders, and special case pleaders?) may think they are entitled to ask any question they want. But they’re not. Public higher education is a public good that very few people have the privilege to use. Asking dumb questions or asking for special consideration in a classroom full of students is akin to leaving your trash on a public beach: it just ruins the opportunity that more thoughtful and responsible people are happy to have, and happy to share, by doing their due diligence.”
I’ve taught for many years in both public and private institutions; at community colleges as well as universities; face to face and online courses. In every one of the courses, I would begin my dialog with the students by telling them that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Not because I was interested in holding their hands to spare them the chore of reading, but because I understand that the learning process is complex, and that individuals struggle with different issues when they encounter something new.
Clearly, though, there is something to the “dumb questions” point if it resonates with so many in the teaching profession. Right? As the title of this blog entry suggests, I disagree with that perspective. Consider if we were discussing some other product, and the consumers kept asking the same question(s) over and over. There are several questions we would ask ourselves (“maybe our user manual stinks,” or “is the design of our product fundamentally flawed?”) that would indicate an attitude and a desire to better serve our consumer.
My point is this: if so many students regularly ask questions when the answers are in the syllabus, could it be that the syllabus construct is flawed, and we as educators should address that? In defense of students, we need to admit that:
- Syllabi, while often addressing the same categories of information are by no means standardized in their format (even within the same academic departments at the same institution).
- Syllabi are often used from term to term, and not all instructors are completely rigorous in the process of updating information.
- Modern students are often non-traditional, and many are the first members of their family to go to college, so syllabi are a new thing for them to comprehend along with a whole host of other new things.
- Modern students are conditioned by a world of just-in-time-information accessibility, so they often do not consider or ask a question until they actually are in a particular situation. Informing students at the beginning of the term via the syllabus that the final exam is worth 25% of the course grade doesn’t make sense when they don’t start thinking about the final exam until the end of the term.
- Modern students are accustomed to searching for information using services such as Google, yet syllabi are often provded as Word or PDF documents (or paper!). This is not ideal for when searching for particular bits of information.
It seems to me that the age-old syllabus is not meeting the needs significant numbers of students. The solution isn’t, however, to dig in our heels and insist that students simply read the syllabus. At least that’s not the user-friendly, service-oriented solution that would actually address the issue in a meaningful way–more meaningful than a t-shirt that admonishes the student for their unfamiliarity with that document.
So as a challenge to my fellow educators, what might we provide to our students instead?
In Hap Aziz’s recent blog article, Society or Student: What Should Education Serve, Mr. Aziz posed a number of important questions: what is the role of higher education in contributing to and preserving the entrepreneurial spirit? What is the contribution of higher education to developing students who demonstrate creativity and independent thought? The answer, it would appear, would be one and the same—serving the student, by providing an education that encourages independent thought, serves society. The influx of US government dollars into education, however, means that the American citizen is rightfully interested in the ROI—what is the quantitative, as well as qualitative return on the investment of an estimated $54 billion dollars per year (http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/09/17/its-well-past-time-to-slash-higher-education-subsidies/) in federal grants, aid, and tax breaks—aside from money spent at the state level? This amounts to $250 per taxpayer. Granted, these are very rough estimates, and could arguably be swayed either way depending on what you want the numbers to portray, but my point is this: As Mr. Aziz stated, “He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all.” While this is true in most business transactions, is it true in higher education? At the end of the day, who is the customer? Because this determines who higher education is going to be motivated to serve.
One school of thought is that the customer is the government that is putting the dollars on the table. Eighty-five percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates receive financial aid at four-year colleges. Meanwhile, this number soars to 92% (now 96%, according to the Harkin report referenced below) at for-profit colleges (http://chronicle.com/article/Share-of-Students-Receiving/132016/). Whether this is a good use of funds or not is a subject for another day. The question here is, if the government is indeed the consumer (paying the piper), is the government calling the tune, or dictating how and where those the dollars are spent? Current data would suggest not—the government is writing blank checks that any institution meeting very basic requirements can qualify for. Pell grants and loans are available to any college that can win accreditation, and every college can get the same amount. Though it is the US Department of Education that officially recognizes college accreditation, it is outside agencies that review institutions and actually grant accreditation (http://www.ehow.com/how-does_5128294_do-colleges-accredited.html). This means that while government funds higher education through grants and loans, it does not directly evaluate any institutions or programs to where those funds are directed. Is the government calling the tune? Hardly. Any direct governmental oversight of funds spent has been done after the fact. The senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions) committee chairman, Tom Harkin, initiated a two-year investigation to determine exactly what the government is getting for its money from for-profit colleges that receive the highest portion of government funding (http://www.harkin.senate.gov/help/forprofitcolleges.cfm). The conclusions do not paint the outcome of this investment in glowing terms. But nothing was dictated in advance as to what those funds could and could not be used for. If the government is left holding the bag, it is only because it left the door open for opportunists rather than providing a clear picture of the intended expenditures and outcomes.
Another school of thought is that the customer of higher education is the student. After all, although it is the government that writes the check, it is the student that hands it over to the finance department of their chosen institution. As the student makes the spending decision, it is the student to whom institutions are marketing. One finding of the Harkin report was that 22.7 percent of all for-profit college revenue was spent on marketing, advertising, recruiting, and admissions staff. Traditional colleges and some non-profits are striving to keep pace, spending over 20 percent of their annual revenues on advertising and marketing (http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/ways-higher-education-marketing-change-10-years/). Colleges and universities are thrust into unfamiliar territory—determining the hot buttons that cause a potential student to chose them over and above increasingly fierce competition, and catering to obtain (and retain) those students. As the student walks through the doors with a government check, it is truly the student who calls the tune. And like the government, the student is typically not doing a great deal of investigation into exactly what those dollars are paying for. After all, it is usually not $20,000 a year they have earned and socked away into their own savings to pay for this education. It’s effectively someone else’s money, money that they will have to pay back at a later date—once they have obtained the high-paying job that their new degree practically guarantees.
And what is it that this customer wants? Though students are incredibly varied, and their expectations for higher education are equally varied, the end result is ultimately, and almost unanimously, the same thing. From the eighteen-year-old student entering a four year MBA program on a traditional campus, to the twenty-eight year old student taking night classes in veterinary technology at a vocational institution, the purpose of pursuing higher education is to get a job. It may be to pursue the American dream of independent wealth, or to just make enough to pay the bills and raise the children, but the outcome is the same. The institution that can convince students it offers the greatest opportunity for success will win the day.
So we have a precarious arrangement. A government provides nearly unlimited and unmonitored funds to institutions to market and provide an education to students, and allows students to determine the allocation of those funds based on the ability of the institution to convince them of its worth. It’s up to the institution to determine, therefore, what is more important…in this arrangement, will it be to use those dollars to provide the best value and quality of education to the student, contribute meaningful research to society, and lead the charge in developing the independent and entrepreneurial spirit, paying to recruit and retain the highest quality instructors? Or will it be more inclined to enhance its image, create dynamic marketing campaigns, and falsely inflate retention and graduation rates to produce enticing statistics for its potential students?
Or to put it anecdotally, if my parents gave me a $100,000, unconditional loan to buy a new car when I turned 18, would the salesman make a sales pitch to them, or to me? And at the end of the day, do you suppose I would end up making the most informed purchase with those funds? Until the unrealistic alignment of funding in higher education is reformed, neither student nor society will be best served by the outcome.
And for the record, I did some searching and found a used 1991 Lamborghini Diablo for $93,500. But don’t worry. I’ll pay it back.