Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ask why five times

Good ol' Zoidberg asking Why
Back when I was an MBA student, probably in a project management class, we were told that we should ask "why" five times in order to come to the root cause of the problem (I wonder why this is why kids seem to keep asking "why" incessantly ;-) ). It thus seems quite a propos that the first formal week (two weeks actually!) of Connected Courses are focused on Why we need a Why.

As is the case with most cMOOCs there are some reading suggested by the good organizers of the MOOC, but most content will most likely come from fellow participants, which at the moment number to around 180(!). The live session isn't for another day or so, so I've decided  to tackle some ideas that came up in the readings for this week. Luckily most things were in a format that Pocket could read out loud to me so I was able to tackle most in my schedule ;-)

First up, I came across Who are you and what are you doing here? which was quite odd. The author apparently grew up close to where I went to high school and had similar discussions with his father. For a moment there I had Truman Show moment where I was Truman. An interesting view comes out in this article, something I've discussed elsewhere (either in this blog, or in person), and that is our quite (Ayn) Randian view of why we go to college, which boiled down is to college more money for more stuff.  The author goes on to say that the work of faculty is over-intellectualized and not accessible to people, except to peers in their own group, which in term serves to increase their intellectual capital, which in term gets them better paid and able to pursue this Randian dream.  What about teaching, then?  Well,  teaching (apparently) is not the point of college, so professors keep writing their over-intellectualized pieces, and students continue to party. This, to me, brings to the forefront one of the bigger issues about a college education: the glorification of the Piece of Paper (diploma). We seem to be giving paramount importance to it, thus giving more significance to the signifier than the signified! I wish I could say that this was an anomaly (or at least I could claim I worked in a place where this wasn't an issue!) but I have heard discussions amongst faculty members where their aim is to convince authority-figure X that they should be doing more research, and therefore teach fewer courses.  Maybe being  successful in getting some grants would set them on their way toward that goal.  Of course is this the goal that we should be working toward? Looking at this week the questions are about what should be taught? how? and to whom?  If we have faculty who are so averse to teaching, and we make up for that fact with the hiring of adjuncts, thus creating two classes of academics, and have those that don't teach set the curriculum, the right set of checks and balances for our endeavor?

The second article is one by Clay Shirky called Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. This one keeps coming back, and this is probably the third time since it was published that I've read it. The blog post talks a bit about the music industry, their arrogance over the then-new MP3 format and how, they thought, it wouldn't really affect them. They did have a monopoly which was really busted by a number of events that were precipitated by the new format, not the least being able to see what consumer behaviors are in a new environment which wasn't available (or available for measurement) before.  I do think that Shirky's metaphor is a bit weak.  You can unbundle an album and take the one or two songs you like from the rest that you don't.  You can't really always do this with education.  You could just take a few courses here and there, but you can't really go down to the course level and break that up. Why? Because some courses have pre-requisite knowledge that needs to be attained before moving on to other material that builds off that foundational knowledge. Some subjects you may be able to unbundle, but how does that affect the web of understanding that we need in order to fully comprehend what we are learning?  Can we break apart the specifics of a battle during the war of independence for the US and view that through a lens that connects it to previously occurring important events that made it successful/unsuccessful, and the eventual outcomes of the war?  While you may be able to speak to some facts (names, dates, places, people), can you really build those connections in an unbundled environment?  It's an interesting design problem, but I don't know if there are solutions to it at the moment.

The other thing that came to mind is that of the "best" course. I have a problem with this, the best course, is the seminar lecture. Also, why do we still stick to the best course from the best professors from the best institutions trope when it comes to xMOOCs?? Why do we continue to keep perpetuating this colonization of the mind? As Shirky points out, the fight over MOOCs isn't about MOOCs, but rather it's a surrogate fight. It is about what higher education is, who it is for, who delivers it, and who can critique it (among other things).  This connects nicely with the points I tried to make when discussing the previous article: If everyone's off doing research, who's left to do the teaching? I think the "disruption" that may or may not be occurring in higher education with MOOCs has to do more with us questioning some really fundamental things, rather than the lectures one finds online, behind login-walls, that resemble a TED-talk.

Finally, to continue on our questioning, we have, Who gets to Graduate? This one, too, has crossed my path a few times since it was published. I think this is the second full read-through that I have for this article (thanks again to Google and the TTS on Android ;-) ).  A few things came to me as something to jot down in this article and they all have to do with language and how we set ourselves up. It's noted in the article that Higher education is viewed as a prize, fitting into the Rand narrative that I saw in Who are you, and what are you doing here. Given that education is seen as a prize, it seems only natural to conclude that some will attain it, and others will not.  After all a prize is a prize because it's not commonplace, and therefore not everyone is deserving of a golden star?  Or are they?  This discourse is something that I find problematic because I think everyone deserves to be part of an educated populace.  Furthermore, it's not helpful, and it's most likely harmful to adopt a defeatist sour grapes, or "you weren't meant to be here" attitude, as the article pointed out about this student's parent saying to her when she didn't do we on an exam.

College completion is not only related to academics, but rather the background you bring into the class with you (no surprise there), and how you are treated when you get there. The student, who didn't do well in the course, was placed in Chemistry for English Majors since she wasn't doing well in Chemistry for Majors, even though she wanted to be a nurse (and Chemistry is a required course). This is a strong indication of the formation of in-groups and out-groups.  This reminds me a lot of my own experience in computer science when I was an undergraduate. At my school you didn't have a Major advisor until you matriculated in a program.  Once there it seemed that the Major advisor didn't really know a lot about the general education requirements, and seemed to know only the canonical requirements to graduate.  He didn't really seem to know a lot about how the program was setup and seemed to be quite deaf to my professional goals and how school might help me attain them.  My grades in computer science were so-so. When he noticed that my grades in modern languages (my minors) were better, he recommended that I switch majors since I did better there than in computer science.  Why not ask why I am not doing as well in computer science (which was about 50% math, with no computers) rather than recommend that I switch?  Were I not stubborn, and so close to graduation (and also decided to prove my advisor wrong) I might have just dropped out and done something else. Typical of "it's not us, it's you" mentality.  What rubs me the wrong way is that this individual got the teaching award the year that I graduated.

What this brings me to is that community and language matter. Community connects nicely with Cathy Davidson's post on community. In the decade after my graduation from my BA, the college setup a Success Center and first year programs to help undergraduates succeed in the sciences.  That's great, but attitudes of faculty also need some change as well. Words matter. As the article pointed out you should tell students that they are in your (remediation/student success) program because they will succeed, not because they are in danger of failure.  Setting up a positive tone is key to success. Also, setting up for success means embodying the role that you aim to be in.  If you aim to be a computer programmer, you should not only be picking up ways of making efficient algorithms, and the nauseating math required to test them, but you should actually be building cool stuff. You should be putting what you are learning into practice rather than learning it in a sterile environment with no connections to other areas of your profession.

So, in the end, my question is this: Why are we here, with these (and other) issues in higher education? Is it a  lack of a shared global vision? Is it a lack of understanding in how to implement this vision? Is that people are looking out for themselves and not working cohesively as a group?  Your thoughts?
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