An educated citizenry or an efficient workforce?

Having read yet another tweet complaining about the lack of connection between what’s taught in classrooms and what’s needed in the workplace, I posted my own:


It hit a nerve with a number of people.

One of my connections wrote



And another:


This is exactly it. My classes in History are General Education. My goal is to help foster an educated citizenry, not an efficient workforce.

And I am not promoting the other narratives either:

One popular narrative is that we should change education because it is irrelevant to the innovations of the future. In this story, today’s entrepreneurs are lauded, the guys who dropped out of school or didn’t like college because their classes were boring. Their success supposedly proves the irrelevance of our educational system. What it actually does is attest to the role of genius, luck, opportunity and money.

Another narrative links the use of electronic technologies, particularly the web, to making education more relevant. While I am deeply tied to the use of web technologies for teaching, I have not been able to buy into the idea that either the openness of the web or the marketplace of ideas is sufficient for providing a full education.

It’s the same reason I can’t accept the narrative that automated online courses and xMOOCs with peer or graduate student feedback schemes are a substitute for what we’re doing well in our colleges.

The final narrative I reject is the one that says that we live in a post-industrial world, so that many of the skills we used to value (the ability to follow an extended argument, or write coherent prose, or articulate ethics) are no longer needed. We need these skills, not because they are going to be applied somewhere specific, but because they change who we are and make us better people.

Knowledge that transforms students, that turns them into growing, learning, educated people, is by necessity broad and deep. What’s learned in college may have very little application to the specific tasks of a student’s future job.

Education changes people’s broad perspective of the world. It trains habits of mind, not technicians.


Related posts: Relevance in an Age of Forgetting

Why we do it

As I read some pretty bad final essays (and some good ones), it is always tempting to wonder whether my work makes any difference.

This semester, for the last writing forum, I did not have students post their essay drafts, as I usually do. Since they had started their essays earlier this time, I simply didn’t want to see them again. Instead, I had a discussion questions, something like:


Although I was clearly asking for reflection about the discipline, I instead got a zillion posts evaluating the class. I was surprised.


And one very much stood out, from Rachel Brawner, one of my US history students (used by permission):


Once I had a student ask me, on the first day of class, “What are you going to do to make history interesting for me?” I replied that I hoped that the materials I was assigning were inherently interesting, and that engaging them would be the key. He scoffed, but at the end of the class told me I had been right. The materials, especially the primary source book I had edited, kept him engaged.

I had another student tell me that this workbook (my primary source collection for modern US history) was a book of “activist documents”. I had never thought of that before – I had simply collected sources (maybe 5 for each weekly unit, edited down) that I thought represented the period. When I looked at the collection more critically, I realized he was right. My sources for that class are all about the people making change, or show the reason why they had to.

And now a student has taken that and gone from pessimism to optimism about our country while writing an essay.

Providing a place, and some information, to change someone’s mind – that’s why we do it.

Pessimism and the POT Cert Way


cc Todd Morris via Flickr

The whole thing is going the wrong way.

Educational research clearly indicates that effective online teaching includes elements such as professorial enthusiasm, use of multiple tools appropriate to the pedagogy, personalized attention to the students, guided pursuit of student interests, and collaboration, even to the point of creating online communities for learning.

Market forces clearly encourage the use or purchase of set systems to house online courses (Coursera, iVersity, Udacity, Instructure), taught through easily standardized modules that don’t need much monitoring, with flexibility and convenience the prized elements for consumers (oh, sorry…I meant students). They offer products, processes and support that will save universities money while they make money through their product. It is in their interest to have only their product in use, if possible tied in with their own support structures to provide a seamless experience for their…um, students.

Market forces do bow to popularity, of course. Online tools that are used by large numbers of people are integrated or plugged in to the systems. Google Docs, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be part of your class, even in Canvas! (Gosh, that’s exciting.)

So, back to that research (and you thought I’d forgotten). The approach promoted by the POT Certificate Class emphasizes the pedagogy of the individual instructor, supported by the use of appropriate tools. Everything I’ve worked on for the past decade has been in the direction of empowering instructors to empower their students to learn, by emphasizing the instructors’ knowledge and approach, realized through cool web tools that the fit the task.

But the tools will not be there if the market forces prevail in education. They will become expensive (think Ning) or unavailable. Faculty who design their own courses, and teach them using tools that fit their imagination, will become fewer and fewer. It won’t be worth the time to create a course in such an old-fashioned way.

Governments and universities are clearly aligning themselves with market forces, in desperation. That desperation is not just financial. It is, ironically, based on lack of knowledge. Little consideration is taken of the research. Market forces, in the forma of educational product companies, couch their products in the illusion of innovation, but what they offer is packaging. They make the process of learning so much less messy.

Trouble is, learning is messy. It can’t be broken down into outcomes and modules. Teachers know this, and the research shows it. But all that can be ignored, and so much money (and hassle!) saved, by having assistants facilitate carefully packaged courses instead of faculty teaching them. No need for faculty – they can be replaced with “content experts” on teams of course designers (yes, I know, it’s already happening, in lots of places).

So ultimately, programs like our Program for Online Teaching Certificate Class (now between semesters) will become anachronisms, teaching skills that are no longer used, like penmanship and typesetting. And by then, there won’t be many pens or typesets to choose from anyway. It will all fade away.

Relevance in an age of forgetting

Occasionally it happens that in one particular class, I feel that I am simply not getting through. This always leads to introspection. So I look for ways to improve my teaching. This time, I’m getting a message that doesn’t make sense to me, although I’ve nodded and promoted it for a number of years.

The issue is student engagement. There is tacit agreement that keeping students interested and engaged is a Good Thing. However, after much thought, I’m starting to think that this emphasis is detrimental to good teaching and learning. As a historian, I also fear it will damage my discipline as, well, a discipline by encouraging a lack of…discipline.

We often face classes of staring, bored-in-advance students waiting to be entertained. There’s an excellent post by Dave Graser on how to flip a zombie. He meant flipping a bored class (assigning static material for out of class, and using class for discussion) and connecting it to contemporary issues to engage students. The ideas are exciting, and are behind the whole movement of “flipping” classes.

We also have students who are completely unprepared for the rigors and habits of college-level study. Alford and Griffin on Faculty Focus: Teaching Underprepared Students, claim that the solution for such an unready, disengaged group is “relevance, relevance, relevance”. We must figure out where students are, and then bring them to the subject through connecting their experience to our material.

We are also told can engage them through fun activities, gaming, modern colloquialisms, or pop culture. Dynamic lecturing, new technologies, new approaches, should all be designed to encourage their engagement in our course.

The premise of all this is that teachers have the responsibility is to make things “relevant” and exciting, so that students will stay engaged and maintain focus. It is natural to want happy, active students. I want them too! But there are several problems. One is that the current prescription puts the burden of engagement on the instructor rather than the student, leading to dependency. Another is that trying to effectively engage students can lead to a “dumbing down” of ones discipline.

cc popefelix via Flickr

In short, the current emphasis on student engagement is misguided.

The Instructor’s Role in Engagement

The suggestion, way out there in not-much-research-land, is that engagement equates as student success in the class, presumably in the form of high grades and an advanced level of work.

The problem is that engagement doesn’t do that – engagement┬ámakes it interesting to do well if you are already capable of doing well. It cannot ensure doing well if you’re not able to succeed, for whatever reason. I know students who are totally engaged in History, and very enthusiastic, but will not accept instruction in either the discipline or how to express it. Their “teacher” is the History Channel, the things they’ve already read or heard about, and the workings of their own mind, independent of facts and habits of cogent analysis. They are engaged, but cannot construct a coherent historical argument nor back it up with sources.

By the same token, those who do not like the class, or are “disengaged”, may do very well. This is particularly true if they are self-directed and cognizant that they don’t like the class. They push harder to do good work because they want a high grade. Engagement is a side effect, one I encourage by allowing students to pursue their own topics.

I do want them to enjoy their work – that’s important to the quality of the class, providing the opportunity. But it is just, as I’ve indicated before in my post about “student success”, an opportunity. If I don’t provide an opportunity for engagement, by creating a class with both clear direction and some room for exploration, I am not doing my job.

But I cannot force engagement – no one can. And we cannot delude ourselves that we can even track it. I cannot tell whether a student who is looking at me while I lecture or doing the work enthusiastically in her group is learning history or thinking about lunch. Similarly, I can’t assume that the student staring at his desk is not listening and learning. Online, we are deceived by data such as the number and length of log-ins, which is faulty the moment a student leaves to get a sandwich with the lecture screen open, or logs in twelve times a week because they have a nervous disposition.

But these days it is not enough to just provide opportunity and access. If students do not engage, it is my fault, or the fault of the design of my class (my design). They drop because I have not engaged them enough.

I just don’t buy it – teaching and learning doesn’t work that way. I can give them the dance floor and the lessons, but they need to engage the dancing by stepping out there and giving it a whirl. Much of their willingness and ability to do so is beyond my control.

The problem of intellectual integrity

In the above articles, it is advised that we should engage students emotionally first. I know a history instructor who does this, and does it beautifully. He starts his lectures with horrific images or stories of human cruelty. Once students are upset about the injustice being portrayed, they want to know the background, so he gets into the facts in the lecture.

At first, I believed I was just not cut out to lecture that way. But after awhile I realized it isn’t my storytelling ability – I actually have pedagogical issues with the whole approach. An emotional approach is inherently anti-intellectual. It also leads to emphasizing primary and secondary sources that have an extremist viewpoint. There are moral lessons to be sure, but also a real danger of encouraging a “History Channel”, sensationalist approach to history. I have always had trouble with role-playing as a technique for teaching history for the same reason. Although I am enchanted by such projects as the Titanic re-enactments on Twitter (and now, Jack the Ripper), I cannot bring myself to use such a technique with my students. The gamification of education causes the student to focus on side issues instead of learning historical skills (despite the enthusiastic teachers who assign Civilization IV or promote “what if” alternative history).

We are told that we must make history relevant by continually connecting historical events and ideas to those in comtemporary life, and we strive with increasing difficulty to find current affairs with which students are familiar. But again, the approach is misguided. What makes history “relevant” is not related to immediate things, or things that are part of students’ daily lives. And when we emphasize those current connections (having students construct their family histories, or their own) we give the wrong impression of what the historical field is all about.

A great forgetting

Nicholas Carr (in The Atlantic) reports the extent to which our computer dependence causes us to forget how to do things. He uses flying a plane as an example – accidents these days are the result of human error due to lack of practice, rather than mechanical failure. After reading his article, I used an example in my class when students said that the compass was a significant medieval invention. Yes, it was, but it also led to dependence on the techonology – fewer and fewer people would be able to read the sky to know where they were. One of my students came up afterward and told me of a camping trip where they had forgotten their standard compass, and could not figure out how to use the fancy electronic compass on an expensive watch. Only one of them knew where the sun would be, to help find their way.

The final danger is that as we trivialize history to make it relevant, we will forget how to practice skills required for the discipline. Many people are already forgetting how to read a sustained argument, which is essential for understanding many significant historical documents. We are forgetting how to find things in books, how to gloss dense text, and how to take good notes. We are losing the ability to retain information, because we know we can easily look it up.

I used to assure students that they did not need to memorize historical facts, since we could look them up. Now I’m not so sure. To not memorize anything is to allow an important habit of mind to rust into uselessness. Should we really cater to short attention spans with 10 minute videos and breaks in the classroom action every 15 minutes? Perhaps it would be better to teach students how to analyze a document carefully, how to take notes on a document, how to focus on one thing for awhile.

As I noted recently on Twitter, our “customer” in public education is society, not the student. Right now, society in this country is on an anti-intellectual bender, defying rationality in its political system and reducing the financial support for higher education. To cater to students’ demand for entertainment and short “chunks” of information is to further the aims of those who would prefer an uneducated public (as I’ve noted about online “providers”). It is usually the goal of historians to encourage an understanding of the past in order to improve the future. And I’m not sure we can do that if we continue bowing to the gods of student engagement.

To Not Speak

Recently, an interesting conversation has been going on about educators being tongue-tied and blogging less, feeling they’ve lost their voice. Bonnie Stewart wrote of this after reading a post by Paul Prinsloo, then Jenny Mackness mentioned Bonnie’s post while talking about “conscious incompetence”. I detect a crisis of confidence, but this may be only because I’m experiencing one.

I read much of Jenny’s work – it’s wonderful. I read Bonnie’s posts – they’re wonderful. And yet, I understand the tongue-tied feeling, and the way in which it’s related to the rise of MOOCs. I’ve tried not to blog about MOOCs, but I end up doing it anyway in an effort to make some sense of the role of the original pedagogies, the publicity, and the commercialization. The evolution of the MOOC discussion parallels, not coincidentally, the movement in higher education toward the abandonment of traditional pedagogies, the publicity about college costs and purpose, and the commercialization of educational goals. I’m hopelessly old fashioned – I think the reason for a college education is to become a more educated person.

Whatever silences I may have experienced are the result of disillusionment. Like the others, I used to post more. As my posts became increasingly cranky, I didn’t enjoy writing them as much. I also became frustrated when I began caring whether people read and responded. But I couldn’t not care about it on Twitter, although I tried. Along with the evolution of MOOCs and Higher Ed, Twitter has evolved too among those I follow: it is now primarily a link-sharing network. 140-character commentary on ones own work has given way to, in some cases, only sharing links to other people’s content. So for me, it’s been less interesting to read, although those info-tweets are still a good resource. When I tweet, and do it in the old style (my own commentary, sans link), there is now little response. More than my blog, Twitter seemed like a conversation. Now it’s more like Diigo than meeting friends at a coffee shop.

The disillusionment is now creeping into how I think about teaching. I am at a stage in my career where I have tried many pedagogical approaches, with varying degress of success. And this success has been distributed unevenly among students with varying skills and goals. Although I would not consider myself, I hope, to be at the complacent stage of “conscious competence” ┬ánoted by Jenny, I may have passed it and come back to “conscious incompetence”. Unlike Jenny, however, I do not feel that I do not know enough, but that perhaps I know too much. Unlike Bonnie, I never went for a doctoral degree, though I have experienced the frustrations of academic writing (or, often, feeling I must read articles so I cite something to back up what I already have experienced in the classroom). There are times when this year feels like my first year of teaching.

While I have not abandoned blogging during all this, and I still feel that I can help others, it’s clear that I need inspiration for a completely different kind of analysis of what I do, or even examining something completely different (poetry? literature? all that history I was going to write about once upon a time?).

For me, I’ll write more when I have begun to think differently.

The assumption of informality?

In terms of social communication and interaction, I am not a stickler. I am not offended by spelling and capitalization errors in emails to me or in social networks.

Student work in my discipline, though, is more formal. I have expectations for clear college-level English writing, with all its rules. That is the communication form of a university education. Proper construction, grammar and spelling (and an advanced vocabulary) make the clear presentation of complex ideas possible. They are required.

I suspect now that in online classes, though, there is a tendency to transfer the informality of other online communications into college work. Because it’s the web, the student default is to communicate informally.

A number of years ago, I changed the way students submit their written work. Having read about and seen the benefits of students being exposed to the work of their peers, I have them submit their writing in a forum rather than privately to me via a test or essay. I assess the work in that forum, but only the student can see his/her own grade. I then point to the best work as examples. At the time I changed over, the literature and anecdotes claimed that students writing “in public” in this way are more careful with their work, because it is being seen by their colleagues rather than just the teacher.

I may be seeing the opposite. Their writing is often poor in their assignments. My colleagues, whom I consulted on this problem, think that I may not be communicating high enough expectations at the beginning of the class. And that may be true – since it’s “in public”, I tend to let them practice, commenting generally on any overall problems of content or construction. I have promised myself to enforce proper writing (through grades – that’s the only “enforcement” we have) earlier in the semester next time.

But I am very interested in defaults when it comes to education, i.e. what do most students think when they use this technology? what do most students automatically do when asked to complete a task? where do most students get lost? how do most students assume things should be?

And I wonder whether the fact that they are writing in a student forum means that the default is to write informally. Since I provide a fairly rigid structure for the assignments, the informality comes out in the form of sloppiness in vocabulary, spelling and grammar. I have assumed thus far that they don’t have the proper skills to write at the college level. But one colleague assures me that they do, if only my expectations are raised.

I wonder also whether those who demand that written work be submitted in a Word document, rather than inside an LMS assignment box, get a higher level of work. Perhaps a Word document implies greater formality than a submission to the teacher, which implies greater formality than a post in a forum. I do have anecdotal evidence: I asked my on-site class to write a paragraph about an article, typed and submitted on paper. The level of writing they exhibited was higher than in the assignments they submit online.

So I’m not sure the extent to which the default of informality is a factor. Do they really not know how to write college-level English, or has no one ever expected it from them? Do they assume that because it’s online it isn’t formal? And are their levels of formality implied by the technology, and they simply follow?