Welcome to Cyberschool

While technology always has played a role in education , it went into hyperdrive with the pandemic-driven move to online learning. Up to this point, economic pressures and growing student numbers already were causing a panic in education. Schools were struggling to trim budgets as “accountability” scrutinized everyone. These extant conditions presented an upside to some of the changes that would occur.  Most dramatically, the shift to doing schoolwork at home eliminated shortfalls in classroom space and, at least temporarily, student housing as well. As the pandemic continued the share of higher education offered online jumped from 10 percent in 2019 to 33 percent a few years later.[i]  But as everyone now knows, so-called “distance learning” isn’t for everyone and doesn’t work for all kinds of material.  Research shows that one-size-fits-all character of mechanical course delivery disadvantages students of many kinds.

Online schooling isn’t as new as you might think. The idea of distance learning dates to vocational and self-improvement correspondence courses of the eighteenth century, which arose with improvements  in mail delivery systems. Often cited as an early example was a shorthand course offered by Caleb Phillips, advertised in a 1721 edition of Boston Gazette with claims that “students may by having several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.”[ii] By the 1800s all manner of vocational skills were being taught by mail, as well hobbies like drawing and painting. The University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees in 1858. By the end of the century, learning by mail had become big business for institutions like the Pennsylvania-based International Correspondence Schools (ICS). In the decade between 1895 and 1905, ICS grew from 72,000 to 900,000 students signing up to learn technical and management skills.[iii] Much of this growth was due to the innovation of sending entire textbooks rather than single lessons, along with promotion by a large in-person sales team. Continue reading “Welcome to Cyberschool”

The Learning Society

As consumer prices continue to rise, experts now warn of a looming recesssion brought about by pandemic manufacturing slowdowns and supply-chain shortages. Economists explain it as a classic case of demand outpacing availability –– with scarcity making things more costly. Unfortunately, the painful solution now being launched will raise borrowing costs rates so that people spend less. While these measures may or may not improve the overall economomy, the combined effects of inflation and rising interest rates will exact a double blow to people struggling to make ends meet. In such an atmosphere it becomes critical to help people manage their own finances and to prevent the broader economy from overheating.

This is where consumer education and financial literacy can help as part of a larger move toward a “learning society.” For some time now, economists have been promoting financial education in public schools and urging people to become more resourceful. Time Magazine reported polls showing “99 percent of adults in agreement that personal finance should be taught in high school.”[i]  The Federal Reserve argued that “financial literacy and consumer education, coupled with strong consumer protections, make the financial marketplace ‘effective and efficient’ and assists consumers in making better choices.”[ii] Many colleges and universities have started making financial literacy courses graduation requirements. And for some it has worked, as many Americans “put their own budgets under the microscope ––akin to what financial analysts routinely do when the scrutinize companies.”[iii] Continue reading “The Learning Society”

The Creative Inner Child?

Pablo Picasso once quipped that “Every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.”[i]  In this often-quoted slogan, Picasso neatly summarized idealized views of the universally creative child and the uncreative adult. In a similar fashion he would later write that, “It takes a long time to become young.” What is one to make of such laments? Nostalgia over a lost youth? A yearning to escape a pressurized grown-up life?  Regardless of origins, it’s impossible to deny America’s ongoing infatuation with childhood creativity.

This fascination childood artistry dates to the 1700s, corresponding to evolving views of children as “blank slates” (tabula rasa) better served by nurturance and education than by discipline alone. At the same time, Enlightenment debates over individualism and personal autonomy were bringing considerable anxiety to the era, evidenced in worries that self-interest would overwhelm moral sentiments. This set the stage for the naturalism espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile: Or, On Education, seeing an inherent “goodness” in children, which becomes corrupted by adult desire and material want.[ii] With the 1800s, views of “human nature” gave ways to theories of evolution and behavioral adaptation –– owing in large part to the influence of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. While the resulting rationalism eventually would make education more formulaic, an artsy transcendentalism would counterbalance American culture with an advocacy for an “educated imagination.”[iii] The Romantic Era writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman advanced themes of emotion over reason and imagination over reality –– setting in place a tradition progressive of push-back against the instrumentalist ethos of science and industry. Continue reading “The Creative Inner Child?”

Stop Blaming Students: Toward a Post-Pandemic Pedagogy

There’s trouble in the college classroom these days. But you can’t blame students. The pandemic and other disruptions of the past two years have shaken higher education to the core, casting doubt on how universities deliver instruction, pay their bills, and justify their existence. Enrollments are dropping across the nation, as students and their families increasingly see college as  overpriced, inequitable, and non-essential. More disturbing still are shifts taking place within institutions themselves, as dispirited students are losing motivation and enthusiasm for learning.  Clearly something has to change, with many pointing to the classroom as a key place to start.  But will it be enough?

“A Stunning Level of Disconnection” is the way one recent article described the situation. “Fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They have trouble remembering what they learned and struggle on tests,” several professors reported.[1] Instructors are trying to reach and teach students, to figure out the problem, and do anything they can to fix things, with many now concluding in frustration that “It may be necessary to change the structure of college itself.” Call it a stress test for higher education – the seismic disruption of the college classroom during the COVID-19 years, and its ongoing after-shocks. At all levels of instruction, educators continue to voice alarm over the persistent malaise and underperformance of college students. Continue reading “Stop Blaming Students: Toward a Post-Pandemic Pedagogy”

The Problem with Rigor

“It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor,” read a recent headline in education press.[1]  The article detailed growing concerns about hidden bias within what many see as conventional teaching practices. Here, “rigor” was taken to task for throwing roadblocks up for some students more than others, even as its exact meaning remains vague. Webster’s Dictionary defines rigor as “severity, strictness or austerity,” which educators often translate into difficult courses and large amounts of work, rationalized in the interest of excellence and high standards.[2]

While there is nothing wrong with challenging coursework, per se, this interpretation of rigor often becomes a recipe for failure for otherwise intelligent and hardworking students.  Such failures can result when rigor is used to incentivize or stratify students, as in gateway or “weed out” courses with prescribed grading targets, or situations where faculty overuse tests as motivation. Rigor discussions I have witnessed rarely consider instructional quality, teaching effectiveness, or principles of learning. Instead faculty complain about poor student attention, comprehension, or commitment. As the Chronicle explains, “all credit or blame falls on individual students, when often it is the academic system that creates the constructs, and it’s the system we should be questioning when it erects barriers for students to surmount or make them feel that they don’t belong.”[3] Continue reading “The Problem with Rigor”

The Algorithm Rejected Me

School is where most kids first become aware of what I call the  “update imperative.”  After all, education is a process continual improvement in a step-by-step process of knowledge acquisition and socialization. In this sense schooling represents much more than the beginning of education. For many kids it’s a time of moving from the familiarity of home into the larger world of other people, comparative judgement, and a system of tasks and rewards. Along the way, a package of attitudes and beliefs is silently conditioned: conformity to norms, obedience to authority, and the cost of failure. All of this is presented with a gradually intensifying pressure to succeed, rationalized as a rehearsal for adult life. Rarely are the ideological parameters of this “hidden curriculum” ever challenged, or even recognized. Much like work, American K-12 schools are driven largely by mandates of individual achievement and material accumulation.

By the time college applications are due, levels of anxiety can run out of control, given the role of degrees in long term earnings.  Many students start the admissions Hunger Games as early as middle school, plotting their chances, polishing their transcripts, and doing anything they can to get good grades. Everyone knows how admissions data now flows in an age in which students apply to an average of 10 schools each. Unsurprisingly perhaps, overall applications have increased by 22% in the past year alone.[i] And while the applicant side of this equation has been much publicized, what happens in the admissions office remains shrouded in mystery. Largely unknown are secret criteria driven by algorithms to determine things like likelihood to enroll or willingness to pay. Even less known are kinds of AI analytics used to monitor and grade students, sometimes making prejudicial judgements along the way. Continue reading “The Algorithm Rejected Me”

Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching

A recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the apparent reluctance of college and university professors to embrace the growing body of research about how students learn and what teaching methods work best. While many faculty simply cling to what has worked for them in the past, others feel overworked and unable the consider changing. In the meantime, an increasingly diverse student population experiences increasing inequity as a result.

Beth McMurtrie’s “Why the Science of Teaching is Often Ignored” opens with a discussion of a recent study by five Harvard University researchers who published some novel research. The group was trying to figure out why active learning, a form of teaching that has had measurable success, often dies a slow death in the classroom. They compared the effects of a traditional lecture with active learning, where students solve problems in small groups.

The results were not surprising; students who were taught in an active method performed better on standardized tests. The academic press praised the study for its clever design and its resonance with professors who had trouble with active learning. Yet despite being praised in some quarters, the study was criticized in others.

This mixed reaction reveals a central paradox of higher education, according to McMurtrie. Teaching and learning research has grown dramatically over the decades, encompassing thousands of experiments, journals, books, and programs to bring learning science  into classrooms. But a lot of faculty members haven’t read it, aren’t sure what to do with it, or are skeptical. Continue reading “Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching”

Inclusive Pedagogy

The pandemic years have been rough on college students everywhere, with record levels of academic stress and losses in student learning.  While occurring throughout higher education, these problems haven’t affected all groups the same way. Students from privileged backgrounds have fared better than the under-resourced, with disparities in network access, income, and external responsibilities exacerbating inequities. As I saw these dynamics play out in the large undergraduate general education courses I teach, I began wondering if instructional methods might be partly to blame and if changes might improve matters going forward. Working with UC Irvine’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) helped me to rethink my own teaching by searching out ways that I unconsciously had been putting up roadblocks

Usually when educators speak of “inclusion” they are thinking of course content and ways to incorporate diverse perspectives or voices previously excluded. While this approach remains a central tenant of inclusive teaching, a deeper look at the issue can reveal biases or barriers built into the teaching of even the most progressive educators. Practices of exclusion can be the result of habits or structures that have become so routinized in instruction that they seem natural or neutral approaches. Costly books, rigid deadlines, and high-stakes exams are among practices that privilege students with money, time flexibility, and testing skills, for example.

Faculty attitudes also can get in the way of inclusion. This often is manifest in principles of “rigor” intended to elevate worthy over unworthy students. Such attitudes create a scarcity mentality toward success rather than one that makes high achievement possible for all students. Decades of educational research has shown the deleterious effects of such practices in conflating grades with knowledge acquisition. The grade pressure that frequently drives “rigor” has been shown to affect some students more than others, while creating an atmosphere of anxiety and an emphasis on types of learning easily that can be easily tested. Not only does this create learning inequities, but it also tends to discourage collaboration, questioning, and diverse opinion. Continue reading “Inclusive Pedagogy”

Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

No one could have predicted the radical changes in education of the early 2020s. Besides making the once-obscure Zoom into a household name, the pandemic accelerated an already fast-moving takeover of everyday life by the internet. The economic consequences were profound, with revenues exploding for companies like Netflix and Amazon while brick-and-mortal retail outlets and restaurants disappeared by the thousands. Of course nothing about the upheaval was especially surprising in historical terms. Cataclysmic events like disasters and wars often leave places quite different than they were before, as systemic restraints give way to radical reorganization. Emergency measures accepted in the moment have a habit of leaving remnants in place, much as occurred with online learning. Not that this is always is a bad thing. Urgent situations can trigger remarkable innovation and creativity, seen in the hundreds of ways that educators found ways to keep instruction going. But just as often people get hurt in the rush, as short-term solutions make for long-term problems.

Seen in retrospect, the rapid transition to online learning certainly falls into this latter category, evidenced in the huge numbers of students who failed or dropped out of classes, with those affected overwhelmingly the historically underserved. Changes occurred and learning was disrupted. But the convenience and efficiencies of virtual classroom were too good to let go. “Online Learning is Here to Stay” read a feature in New York Times, citing a study from the Rand Corporation saying that 20 percent of schools were choosing to continue portions of their online offerings. “Families have come to prefer stand-alone virtual schools and districts are rushing to accommodate, but questions still linger.”[i] Questions indeed. Before the pandemic less than one percent of K-12 schooling took place online. Educational reasons notwithstanding, this also had to do with the function of school as childcare for working families. The idea of a twenty-fold increase in home learning raises the question of what parent demographics are driving this shift. Or more to the point, who has gained from the online shift and who lost out? Continue reading “Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner”

Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects

It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.

Inherent school power inequities  have aggravated  antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.

This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.

These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used.  Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii] Continue reading “Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects”