Expelliarmus: Removing One Thing From Higher Education

Anytime I come across a prompt that allows you to “change one thing you’d like about…” I always visualize someone swishing a magic wand, saying some magic words, and the change occurring with a *poof*.  As I thought about higher education, and a change I’d like to see there, I landed on a single idea – removing the “Ivory Tower” label often applied to institutions of higher education, especially those institutions that are most selective, most expensive, and where the presumably most brilliant minds available teach and conduct research.

Now, I want to make sure the nuance of the view I’m hoping to express here isn’t lost right off the bat.  I’m very glad and thankful for research done by universities that isn’t in response to a specifically identified need.  Curiosity, exploration, and experimentation are hallmarks of university research and are incredibly valuable parts of innovation that drive humanity forward.  In no way, shape, or form am I arguing to completely stop that value-added tradition.   Instead, I’m arguing that universities need a better balance of research goals to show that the “Ivory Tower” label is unfounded based on the actual research conducted by university researchers.

An example of the perception problem university researchers have can be seen in a clip from Captain America: Civil War.  In the movie, Tony Stark (played by Robert Downy Jr) provides funding for MIT students to conduct their research.  An MIT faculty member approaches Tony after the announcement to pitch his research idea.

I have got this killer idea for a self-cooking hotdog.

Here’s what I think would need to happen to help change the perception problem.  First, university research should be expected to be more responsive to the needs of the public than it currently is, especially research conducted at public universities.  Researchers should work collaboratively with key external stakeholders to develop research questions that need to be answered.  Second, and partially related to the first point, is that there should be an expectation that researchers actively seek to share their research with key stakeholders and not only seek to share their research through journal article publications and at academic conferences.  The idea of transferability should be considered before conducting research.  Third, this type of work should be considered as part of the tenure process.  Not every researcher should be expected to come up with something completely novel in their field.  Holding that expectation can lead to data manipulation, fraud, and – worst of all – research that has a very limited hope of ever making an impact with people.  We should hold our research to a higher standard of applicability.

I think that the work will require more than just those three things, but this is where I’d start.  So I’m picking up my 11-inch spruce with phoenix feather core wand, making a swish and flick motion while declaring “Expelliarmus” (not a Harry Potter fan, it’s OK, just click here), and saying good-bye to the “Ivory Tower” label and mentality.  I think both higher education and humanity will be better off for it.

Posted in Profuture

The Receding Influence of Higher Education

The world we live in is in a constant state of change.  Technological innovation drives much of that change.  To keep pace, businesses and employees need to regularly update their skills to apply the new technologies to their work.  Learning those skills through continuing education programs at colleges and universities has been the primary approach used by business, but that trend appears to be changing.  According to this article, more and more businesses find the programs offered at colleges and universities to be poor value.  The programs are not current enough and do not apply specifically enough to their work to be worth the high cost.  Instead, businesses are increasingly relying on internal education programs and micro-credentialing services to update skills.

In isolation, this change is probably not something that many colleges and universities will be highly concerned with.  This purpose is not at the heart of their business model.  However, in a more general sense, this change does point to something that could be much more impactful and detrimental – the actual and/or perceived value of a college education.  As businesses improve their efforts at providing internal education programs, and as niche web-based programs continue to gain traction, the need for a formal college education could significantly decrease as well.

The current state of the education-to-workforce pipeline is significantly influenced by the increasing number of students who go to college.  More students are going to college because of a widespread belief that a college education leads to a high paying job.  As a result, employers can use having a college degree as a baseline “certification” for employment.  It’s a gate-keeper to employment that is paid for by employees instead of the employer.  However, what happens if and when employers realize that this “certification” is not a viable predictor of workplace success?  You can expect they will find other ways to screen prospective employees.

Higher education is gaining a reputation for being behind the curve with innovative and applicable teaching practices.  Employers are starting to realize that and responding accordingly.  When that happens en masse we should expect the push for college admission to decrease.  Maybe that will be the push for innovation in teaching needed within higher education?  Maybe this will be the domino that positively impacts the student loan crisis in our country?  Either way, changes are coming and higher education needs to be ready.

Posted in Profuture

Why Professors Don’t Change Their Teaching

If you’ve been around my blog before you know that I work in K12 education.  One of the things I really enjoy about working in K12 is the fact that we basically get to hit the reset button each school year.  If you don’t like how something went the previous year you can do it a totally different way next year.  It is an environment that should breed innovative practices.  Keep what works, iterate what doesn’t, and make it a little better each time.

That’s the backdrop to this post.  I was reading an article on The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “Many Professors Want to Change Their Teaching but Don’t. One University Found Out Why.”  It even includes a study from UVA.  Interest piqued!

So what did they find?  First, teachers didn’t change because they don’t have enough time.  Innovative teaching practices can take time – especially in STEM fields (the focus of this study).  However, I think that was a bit of a red herring for the real issue – the requirements for tenure and promotion, including the prioritization of research over teaching.   Other connections were also identified, such as department culture.  If students asking for it, and your colleagues aren’t pushing it, it won’t happen.

Making this change is important.  As the article points out, active learning produces better outcomes than traditional lecture style classrooms.  Students might push back against it because they aren’t accustomed to it.  Colleagues will resist because they don’t see the value.  There are lots of obstacles to making things better.  Change is difficult.  Unfortunately, the current system does not support the work.  Maybe the first thing that needs to change is the system?

Do you have any thoughts on this?  If so, I’d love to hear them.  Leave a comment below.

Posted in Profuture

Higher Education, Technology, & Infographics

I’m just old enough to remember doing school projects and research prior to the advent and proliferation of the Internet.  Going to the library, learning how to take notes by hand, actually talking to other people face-to-face to get information and develop ideas.  It was a different time that required different skills.  The Internet was around when I was younger, but the amount of content available didn’t make it the world-altering technological marvel that it is today.

With the advances made in wireless networking – especially the signals broadcast through cell towers – and cell phone technology we are currently living in an age with nearly ubiquitous access to communication, knowledge, and resources.  Even though there are some negatives associated with the Internet – calling an especially insidious part the dark web is an especially poignant touch –  I love the simplicity created by the technology.

As a K12 teacher, graduate student, and (hopefully) future college professor, understanding how the Internet is changing education is an incredibly important part of my day-to-day reality.  The Internet is changing how we think about resident life, demographics of a “typical” student, learning environment, and faculty’s role in the process.  There’s so much to think about with all of this information.  My hope with this post is to highlight the top three most impactful ways technology is impacting higher education.

First is access to higher education courses.  Online learning has become a fundamental component of a school’s course offerings.  The Virginia school with the largest student population has achieved that status largely through its online program.  Online programs allow students who aren’t between the ages of 18 and 21 the ability to pursue an undergraduate degree, students who live in an area without a university can pursue a graduate degree without moving, and students can more easily balance full-time work and school responsibilities.  This is an area that continues to provide opportunities for growth – especially in the area of blended learning.

Second is the online experience provided to students who live and attend classes on campus.  The way we interact, seek entertainment, and study is very much tied to Internet access.  I can’t imagine the level of panic that would set in amongst students if campus Internet went down during exam week.  Seats at restaurants and coffee shops with Wi-Fi would be even more at a premium.  One area we should expect to see this play out even more in the future is with the amount of available bandwidth.  Every student walking around campus will have two devices that will connect to the Internet – a phone and a laptop.  Some will have more than that.  Dorms are filling up with SMART TVs, video game systems, and other web-enabled devices.  Planning to meet those needs for all individuals on campus is a major undertaking for schools.

The third way is instructional strategies.  Students expect their classes to utilize technology – preferably in creative and engaging ways.  Allowing a classroom of 200 students to engage in a virtual world simultaneously during class takes a lot of Wi-Fi.  Training instructors and professors on how to implement these strategies will require a lot of training – most likely delivered asynchronously across the web.  Collaborating with universities around the globe requires reliable connectivity.  The amount of difference-making data moving across a university’s network on a second-by-second basis must be mind-boggling.

The work of higher education is intertwined with the availability of Internet connectivity and the ubiquitous nature of web-enabled devices.  Schools need to accept this reality and work towards ensuring access and leveraging these technological advancements for the benefit of individual students and society as a whole.

Posted in Profuture

Why is “Free Speech” on College Campuses An Issue?

The front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education featured an article on an executive order signed by President Trump.  The headline, “Trump’s Order Could Have Been Harsher, but Higher-Ed Leaders Still Don’t Approve” made it seem like the order is not really a big deal, but is still not viewed favorably.  I was intrigued so I read it.  After I read that article I read this one, then this one, then this one.

To be honest, I found the research by Sachs to be the most compelling of the articles.  Calling what’s going on a crisis really seems to be an over exaggeration of the actual situation, however, simply saying something doesn’t exist is a tried and true method used to allow things to carry on as they always have without trying to understand why another group is shouting and pointing fingers (here’s a good example).  For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the situation.

What I’d like to see on college campuses is an openness to hearing all kinds of opinions.  If higher education doesn’t let individuals express opinions that are contrary, uncomfortable, and down-right terrible then you are promoting an echo chamber mentality.  You just hear the same things all the time without being able to hear differing opinions that will force you to think in a deeper way.

Higher education should be about deep, important thinking.  If someone comes in with an idea that falls into the down-right terrible category we should have a thoughtful response.  If their ideas are so terrible we should be able to explain why.  Students in higher education are going to enter a world with wide-ranging of views.  Shouldn’t college prepare students for that reality in a place that encourages thinking, dialogue and an exchange of ideas?  Maybe that’s too optimistic.  I suppose I just hope that we can do better than verbally abuse and harass people with ideas we don’t like.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for people to stay quiet.  Protest away.  Counter ideas you don’t like.  I do draw a line though.  Don’t demonize people.  When one group starts doing that the other group inevitably believes they have to demonize the other side to “win the fight.”  It’s a zero-sum game.  You win a battle and lose the war.  Many of the morals we cling to today were unpopular and/or unthinkable at some point in history.  How much faster could we have gotten to this point had we dealt with ideas as ideas and not sought to discredit and vilify people with ideas we didn’t like.  I think we could have saved a lot of time.

I do realize this is idealist, but isn’t that the culture we are trying to create: an ideal one?  If we compromise our ideals on the path to creating an ideal society then we will necessarily have a compromised end.  I’d compare it to cheating to win a competition.  If you cheated intentionally, and you win the competition, doesn’t that take some of the glory out of the victory?  If winning is the only point, then I suppose not.  For me, I want to win the right way.  The means used to get to the end matter.  If college students, staff, and administrators had this view of means and ends maybe this whole discussion could have been avoided in the first place?

Posted in Profuture

Local Higher Education in the News

Admittedly, I don’t spend a lot of time reading local news.  I probably should do so more often, although it’s pretty easy for me to excuse the fact I don’t in my own mind given how much I read between my work as an educator and efforts as a doctoral student.  That being said, there’s often interesting stuff going on in Southwest Virginia that relates to what I do on a daily basis as a high school teacher and doctoral student.  This week there were two articles in the Roanoke Times that I found interesting and at least tangentially related to discussions occurring at lunch and in the classes I’m taking.

The first is a story from Virginia Tech in which a professor was removed from a list of individuals banned from being on campus.  He was on the list for over a year.  I have so many questions about this.  What got him banned?  Why did it take a year to resolve this?  What was he doing while he was banned?  How did he do something significant enough to get him banned but not significant enough to be fired?  Unfortunately, none of those are answered.  We did learn the issue was resolved amicably to (it seems) the satisfaction of both parties.  The professor is no longer “a threat” and had his ability to enter campus reinstated.

I don’t know how anyone could read this story and not quickly jump to imagining what this professor could have said or done that would have resulted in this outcome.  We don’t know, but I jump right to imagining he was exercising some form of academic freedom in conjuncture with free speech.  Those are great privileges provided to academics and US citizens respectively, but they can certainly result in some tenuous situations.  I’m speculating here, but I do think there’s an important general point to be made.  Professors are given much room to think and express those ideas.  That’s a good thing.  It’s also a powerful thing.  To quote one of my favorite comic franchises, “with great power comes great responsibility.”  Remembering the power of our words should give us pause before we use them flippantly.  University professors have this power and the words used under such a pretext can have significant results.

In another story from the Roanoke Times, a professor at Roanoke College was using her position to try and do something to have a positive impact on her community.  She runs a class that includes students from Roanoke College and inmates at the local jail.  Both groups engage in the course content together, in the same place and space.  Student responses about the class were positive in the article.  I really appreciated this example of an academic using her position to try to do something positive in the community she lives in and around.  It’s not a world-changing thing, but it very well could change the worlds of individual students participating.  I love that approach and way of thinking.

I think these two stories are interesting because they show two paths we can take.  Some might argue the virtues of small school mentality over the impersonal large university systems.  I don’t think that’s true or fair.  I know Virginia Tech has people working to do good in communities en masse.  I’d guess that there is at least one person at Roanoke College who has done something professionally inappropriate in the past.  I didn’t post this to separate the sheep and goats.  I did post it to highlight the power we have as teachers and academics.  There is pressure to achieve in academia.  Professors have to rise to that pressure, but in doing so need to remember their power to impact the world around them.

Posted in Profuture

Open Access Journal for Career and Technical Education

My go-to journal in my discipline, Career and Technical Education (CTE), is the Journal of Career and Technical Education.  It’s published by Virginia Tech, which is probably part of the reason it became my go-to, and a wealth of great research and general information for CTE.  The journal is peer-reviewed, electronically published, and open access.  The “About the Journal” section of the website explains their open access approach:

This journal provides immediate open access to its content on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge.  Authors of articles published remain the copyright holders and grant third parties the right to use, reproduce, and share the article according to the Creative Commons license agreement.

I find this approach to journal publication very practical.  Not from a financial perspective.  It certainly is not the most practical financial approach.  Instead, I find it practical from the perspective of achieving the purpose of the journal.  The journal’s web page states that its purpose is “to serve as a forum for discussion of important issues and trends in the field of career and technical education.”  To do that well, a wide variety of academics, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners need to be able to access the information provided in the publication.  Many journals, unfortunately, leave out that final group.  The problem with that model is that practitioners are the largest of the groups.  To impact the profession, you need to include the people who carry out the work of the profession.

By establishing a position as an open access journal, which specifically adheres to the Creative Commons license agreement, the scope and reach are expanded to allow for maximum impact.  That does not mean that all practitioners review or use the journal regularly.  They don’t.  It does mean that if any of them ever wanted to they would be able to.  Having valuable research available to use to make decisions about policy, practice, and/or future research makes a difference.  We live in a world where we expect information to be available through a Google search.  Keeping valuable information behind a paywall makes the information less usable (although I understand from a business perspective why those paywalls exist).

I know that one day I’ll finish my degree at Virginia Tech and no longer have access to all the great resources available through the university library system.  I’m glad to know that I’ll still be able to access this journal since I plan to continue to read research in my discipline in order to continue to improve professionally.

Posted in Profuture

The Convergence of Best Practices and the Best You

I remember my first year as a teacher.  I knew the content of the courses I was assigned, I was good at building relationships with most of my students, and I always tried to make my lessons applicable (I wanted my lessons to naturally answer the question, “Why do we need to know this?” so that I didn’t have to mid-lesson).  Although there are only a few specific interactions and classroom activities I can vividly recall, I absolutely remember that I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be accomplishing or how to know whether or not I was doing a good job.  That was the hardest part of my first year teaching.*

I think my experience is similar to what a lot of first-year teachers experience.  This feeling that you really should know what you’re doing (we’ve been in school for at least 16 years, shouldn’t we have this figured out by now) set against the realization that you really don’t know if what you’re doing is right.  I felt this tension in Sarah Deel’s essay, Finding My Teaching Voice.

Deel describes the process she went through to become the best teacher she could be.  She did things she remembered her teachers doing that she liked.  She tried to be funny.  She tried to be cool.  She tried to be interesting.  I could relate because I tried to be a lot of things that I admired in others that I simply was not.  I tried to be impressively smart.  I’m not.  I tried to be a stern classroom dictator to maintain control of my classroom.  That didn’t work.  I tried to use instructional strategies I saw other teachers using who were considered model teachers.  That worked sometimes, but not always.  Honestly, it took me a while to figure out which way was up and what I needed to do to get there, but I think Sarah Deel and I found the same answer.

The most important thing I did was to learn how to be me in front of my students.  I’m much better at working with an individual or small groups of students.  I started doing more of that.  I am really good at planning lessons and activities that make the content applicable in a real-world setting.  I did more of that too.  I’m good at asking questions.  I had my students do more work that gave them control over elements of the deliverable so that they could incorporate things they’re interested in and I could ask them about.  That worked really well (high school students like talking about themselves, go figure).  Being me and playing to my strengths really worked, but it was only a start.  There was more room for growth (and still is honestly).

The next step was learning about teaching strategies that really work with students.  I needed to become better at whole group lecture and discussion.  I researched that skill and learned how to do that really well while retaining my personality.  There are so many good sources of information on this (one of my favorites is actually Visible Learning).  Professor Fowler’s Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills is a great resource for learning a lot of this in a really condensed way (seriously, where was this 15 years ago!).  Be yourself.  Teach in small chunks of time.  Don’t lecture for more than 15 minutes (10 is better).  Engage students in lecture with discussion.  Draw on student interests and past discussions.  Move around the room.  These are just a few of the “little things” that totally change your classroom.

Lastly, I’ll also say that now (15 years in) I see teaching as a journey that both changes me and allows me to change it.  Every day is a little different and offers opportunities to help me improve my craft and learn about myself.  I don’t see a way that I’ll ever become static in this line of work.  It wouldn’t work.  So my hope is to continue to grow as a person, learn more about the process of teaching and learning, and put it all together to be the best teacher I can be.

*For full disclosure, I started teaching without the benefit of having any coursework in education.  I had an accounting degree and had worked briefly as a software developer and even more briefly as an internal auditor at a credit union.  I was hired on a provisional license offered by the state that allows schools to hire teachers who have not filled all the education requirements in hard-to-staff disciplines for a three-year period.  I completed a Masters degree in Career and Technical Education in my first two years to become fully licensed.

Posted in GEDI

The Value of Varied Teaching Experiences

I have to admit that my mind was working overtime on Monday night during class.  It wasn’t so much that the material was complex or difficult to understand.  I was simply drifting to thoughts of the future.  To be honest, that’s not something I like to do.  I am much better about being present in the here and now.  That night I was thinking a lot about what I would be doing in the future.  I’d like to become a professor, but certainly, that’s not a given.  There’s a lot that needs to happen for that to work out, some of which I don’t have control over.

I did my undergrad and one of my two master’s degrees at Virginia Tech.  I am working on my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech as well.  In my storybook-ending daydream, I’d love to teach at Virginia Tech as well.  There are some reasons this would make a lot of sense, given my specific discipline and research interests, but it’s something that seems less and less likely to happen.  Not because I couldn’t do the job.  I believe that I could do the job and do it well.  The more I think about it though, the more I think it just makes sense to experience different academic settings in order to be the best professor you can be.

If you only ever work in one setting, the norms of the setting become ingrained as “the way” things are done.  This does not promote innovation, creativity, collaboration, or ideation and higher education should be ground zero for all of these things to occur.  It’s challenging to do all of these things in a way that impacts society (what some might call living outside of the “ivory tower”Smilie: ;), but trying to do it without a broad perspective just seems like folly.  I really think that seeing the work of being a professor from multiple perspectives is invaluable in accomplishing the goals of higher education.

So this is why my mind was wandering.  Where might I end up after my terminal degree is complete?  It could be another part of the state, another part of the country, or another part of the world.  The latter choice is pretty exciting for me, but simultaneously a bit scary if I’m being honest.  I know the experiences I’d gain in that environment would be phenomenal.  I also know I’d get a bit homesick.  I’d worry I was depriving my kids in some way; even though I know I would be giving them an amazing experience that would positively impact them for the rest of their lives.  It would be hard to leave family.  I’d be curious to know how other people process these kinds of life-changing decisions.  The reason I drifted off in thoughts about it is probably that I haven’t figured out a good way to process these things.  Suggestions welcome!

Posted in Profuture

Incentives and Inhibitors

In his book Drive, Daniel “Dan” Pink argues that money is an incentive that encourages low-skill work, but that money actually has the opposite effect when used as an incentive for creative tasks.  Pink uses this argument to point out how businesses are using the wrong approach to encourage creativity and innovation.  The natural inclination is to assume this research should inform the design of schools.

I’m not entirely convinced, just from the research noted by Pink, that it should be.  The major reason why I would propose caution in doing so is that children are different than adults.  Brain development impacts how we respond to incentives and risks.  It’s reasonable to at least consider that the way we see adults respond to incentives is not the same way children do.  I’m not arguing that children don’t respond in the same way, I don’t know, but we need to at least consider that possibility before arriving at a conclusion.

A change that I do think needs to be put in place in schools is in how students are evaluated.  The system we have used is pretty simple to understand.  The students who do the best producing what the teachers want get the best scores.  Those students who have a more difficult time producing what is asked of them get lower scores.  It’s a system that allows students to be easily ranked, sorted, and categorized.  It’s an efficient and effective system for pushing students towards different outcomes based on their perceived aptitudes.  It makes grades and test scores the golden ticket on the yellow brick road to higher education and a happy life (I don’t believe this, I’m simply arguing it as the perception).

The problem with this system is that it no longer prepares students to participate in our current society, much less the society that they will be expected to participate in when they reach adulthood.  We need to change the way we approach education.  The thing stopping us is the fact that change is difficult.  Changing things that have been a certain way for a long time are even harder to change.  Changing the way we assess and evaluate is going to impact students, teachers, parents, employers, institutions of higher education, car insurance, and any other countless number of groups and institutions.

The changes that need to happen are significant.  To make this happen well there needs to be a series of purposeful incremental change as opposed to a single seismic change.  Shifting from giving traditional grades on every assignment students submit to giving significantly fewer grades and more detailed feedback is one step we can take.  We can also scaffold activities up, meaning that the focus of a course, unit, or lesson can be changed from memorization to meaningful application of knowledge.  As we venture down this path we can eventually move away from grades towards an evaluation approach that is more descriptive.

The nature of the world we live in means that we need to know things, we need to be able to research things on our own, and we need to be able to take what we learn and use it to change the world around us.  Those are the traits I believe students need to have before they leave school.  There are lots of reasons why this will be difficult, or won’t work, for many students.  I know I have a lot of questions about this change myself!  I also know that if we don’t start making the change we won’t be preparing students appropriately.  If we can’t do that as educators then its hard to argue for the value of education and, more specifically, the need for compulsory education.

Posted in GEDI