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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

A recent campus e-mail asked for interested faculty to contact the administration about developing a MOOC, or massive open online course. Rather than traditional online courses at, say, the University of Phoenix, MOOCs are provided to (potentially thousands of) interested students free of charge and bear no college credit. Brad Koch’s* recent argument was similar to that of some of my colleagues. Koch states:

The difference between MOOC’s and liberal arts colleges is like the difference between televangelism and an old-timey tent revival; the message is essentially the same, but the experiences are worlds apart.

When institutions like Georgia College uncritically float along with the shifting tides of higher ed, they misallocate resources and dilute their brand. We cannot–and should not–compete with MOOC’s. We should instead own the value of our unique identity and fill our niche.

Serendipitously, an article by Will Oremus at Slate this week describes the failure of a MOOC on how to successfully plan and carry out online courses. Oremus quotes pupil Jill Barshay’s account of the course, who stated:

Within hours, things were going awry. Neither the “Getting Started” tab nor the “syllabus” tab offered much direction on how to begin the class. I wasted an hour taking surveys on my personal learning style. (One said I was a visual learner. The other said I wasn’t).

The biggest problem was breaking our class of more than 41,000 students into discussion groups. Dr. Wirth asked us to sign up using a Google spreadsheet. The only problem was Google’s own support pages clearly state that only 50 people can edit and view a document simultaneously. I was one of the thousands who kept clicking, but was locked out. When I finally got in, it was a mess. Classmates had erased names, substituted their own and added oodles of blank spaces. …

In the meantime, the video lectures were mind-numbing laundry lists of PowerPoint bullet points. A survey of educational philosophies left me no more enlightened than before I watched it. The readings were a bit better. One of my favorites, Teaching with Technology: Tools and Strategies to Improve Student Learning, linked to a hilarious PowerPoint comedy sketch about the stupidity of reading PowerPoint bullet points. …

Maybe this MOOC should have focused on irony! (Real irony, not the commonly misused meaning of “a strange coincidence.“) For more on MOOCs, Koch provides helpful links to some posts at Orgtheory available here, here, and here, and an article about why the campus experience still matters here.

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A recent article in the Chronicle by Nannerl O. Keohane tackles the age-old question of why a liberal arts education is valuable. Keohane mentions a number of good reasons, but I don’t know how many of them would resonate with my students or their parents. Although I work at a private liberal arts institution, most of my students don’t want an invitation “to a community of scholars, both professional and amateur, spanning the ages.” They want jobs.

Because students and their parents want reassurance that $120,000 of their money will not be wasted by spending four years in college, there is increasing pressure on institutions like mine to offer more applied majors with direct connections to jobs. I see this in my intro students when they tell me that they love sociology but that they don’t want to major in it because they don’t want to be social workers and even in my advisees when they come to ask me what kind of job their sociology degree will get them after graduation.

Maybe majors at schools like Duke and Wellesley, where Keohane has worked, have a direct pipeline from the liberal arts to careers and graduate degrees, but the experiences of my own students (and most of my friends) have been very different. Ask a few non-academic friends what they majored in in college and compare their responses to their current jobs. I’m guessing that most of them aren’t employed doing anything remotely close to what they thought they would do when signing their major.

While schools like mine are facing pressure to offer more applied majors, the reality of the job market for most people is that those who are best off are those who have a broad knowledge base and can use that knowledge to reason, solve problems, and clearly communicate with others. There seems to be a huge disconnect between what students think they will get out of college and where they actually end up. If we can get people to realize that linear paths from high school to college majors to careers are the exception, the importance of the liberal arts should be self evident.

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I’ve had a few conversations with a student friend lately about her experiences at a Christian High School. She criticized aspects of the curriculum that included paper assignments like “Discuss why Islam is wrong. Use bible verses.” As she pointed out, using one religion’s sacred text to disparage another religion is problematic, but what I found most interesting about an assignment like that is that it requires students to: 1) know something about Islam, and 2) support an argument with evidence. Some public school students probably make their way through high school without either of these things. Subsequently, this student won the made-up award (what award isn’t made up?) for “best use of bible verses” in a paper exploring religiosity and attitudes toward medicine.

As an aside, biblegateway.com is apparently a good place to find bible verses, though it is apparently easier if you already know something about the bible – my searches for things like “procrastination” turn up nothing but a more experienced person can find things like this:

But about going further [than the words given by one Shepherd], my son, be warned. Of making many books there is no end [so do not believe everything you read], and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

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While looking for a class example recently I came across the graph above comparing Michigan K-12 school revenues with health care expenditures.  In class, I displayed the graph and asked my students what they hear people blame for the rise of health care costs.  They mentioned insurance companies and the uninsured.  Then I asked them what they hear people blame for the rise of education costs.  The first thing they mentioned was teacher pay.  These reasons are given despite the fact that in the past 15-20 years teacher pay has barely outpaced inflation while physician’s salaries have increased a good deal more.

The rhetoric surrounding both of these increases is fascinating because of how clearly it illustrates the low value we place on teachers and the work they do.  I have heard similar claims about faculty salaries in the face of rising tuition (and decreased state support for public colleges and universities).  While I am somewhat insulated from these claims by virtue of being at a private institution, the eroding value of teaching at all levels will undoubtedly affect all of us in the future.

Finally, the poor job market for teachers and professors likely exacerbates these problems, since for every teacher or tenure track professor complaining about declines in benefits and take-home pay there are three claiming that they would be happy to work for even lower wages in exchange for stable employment.

Image Via: Michigan Parents for Schools

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People who want to be accountants, chemists, and sociologists aren’t the only ones who go to college.  College Humor has dug up the college schedules of video game stars Mario, Link, and Fox McCloud.  I am glad that the course on “Woman Studies: Vulnerability and Frequency of Capture” includes an attempt at prevention, though this seems to be a prime example of blaming the victim.

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On Saturday, Kevin Huffman, a Washington Post opinion writer, discussed the “keys for success” in our education system, arguing that they go beyond “funding and families” (the former is a topic I have mentioned before).  The article opens with the story of two Teach for America educators who started a series of charter schools in the Rio Grande Valley.  They argue that the success of their students – the first class graduated this year and 100% of them are going to college – was based on:

“the thinking around the problem. I have no control over what goes in on in the kids’ Colonia. But we can create a culture. Kids here feel part of a family, part of a team, part of something special.”

This is in line with the argument that some sociologists (and non-sociologists such as Jonathan Kozol) have made.

Strangely, I expected Huffman to argue that they keys to success were related to creating this type of culture in poor areas, even in schools without high levels of funding.  Instead, he argues that we need to focus on “people, policies, and parents.”  (It is interesting that we can control “parents” but not “families.”)  In fact, none of his keys focus on creating a nurturing school culture.  I agree that we need to get to work on the issue of education, but it would help if we could recognize that giving incentives to good teachers in poor districts will not change the cultures of these schools.

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From the Onion:

WASHINGTON—According to the findings of a recent Department of Health and Human Services study, school lunch programs that teach children to avoid all contact with food may not be an effective method of reducing teen obesity rates.

Despite the popularity of abstinence-only meal programs in schools across the country, the study found that children who were provided with no food at lunch and cautioned against eating at an early age were no less likely to become overweight than those who were provided with a well-rounded nutritional education.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the findings could adversely affect federal funding for all programs that tell kids “lunch is worth waiting for.”

“There’s no evidence to suggest that instructing teens not to chew, swallow, or even think about food is actually going to stop them from eating,” Sebelius told reporters. “Let’s face it: Kids are already eating. And not only during lunchtime. They’re eating after school, at the mall, in their parents’ basements. Pretending like it’s not happening isn’t going to make it go away.”

“After all, they’re teenagers,” Sebelius continued. “Eating is practically the only thing on their minds.”

The whole story is worth reading.  Be sure to read the last paragraph.

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I have spent the past 10 years of my life learning about sociology (three years as an undergraduate major and seven years in grad school).  Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this and realized that if I had wanted to know about sociology all I had to do was read a few things by Comte.  This essay (diatribe?  rant?) argues (and by “argues,” I mean “states,” like a less inflammatory Ann Coulter) that the goal of (presumably modern) sociology was stated by Comte over 150 years ago as “the entire systematisation of human life on the basis of the preponderance of the heart over the intellect.”

She goes on to explain:

That’s it! That is basis for the whole sociological dictatorship. Suggest problems for emotional involvement and demand the intellect devise social solutions. It can turn any personal problem into a social problem, a social problem into a national problem, and a national problem into an international problem belonging to all humanity. Social science treats life as a series of problems for ‘society’ or united ‘Humanity’ to solve. When all the problems the social scientists can concoct from any part of the world become social problems for the WORld Management System (WORMS) to solve, the sociological dictatorship will be complete.

I’m sure that you can also imagine my surprise at discovering after 10 years that I am supposed to be working toward the completion of a sociological dictatorship!  If we are to be successful in this pursuit we need to do a better job of letting grad students know.  After all,

Sociology and other “social sciences” are required courses for many careers so students who become community organizers, reporters, politicos, lawyers, teachers, etc., etc., are thoroughly indoctrinated before they begin work.

We’ve been controlling all of these people without even knowing it, so imagine how much more effective we will be when we actually put our minds to it!

I recommend reading the entire thing If you’re ever in need of a good laugh.

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A recent post on Crooked Timber examines school improvement and the achievement gap.  While the post includes a number of good points, I have to disagree with the following statement:

For a lot of schools this is very likely indeed right now, because the economic crisis will result in more kids being more disadvantaged, and more at (sic) who are quite disadvantaged becoming very disadvantaged. Make sure that you and your staff understand something about the limits of the effects of schooling on achievement, even as you try to improve those effects.

The author seems to argue that if a middle class family falls into poverty, the children of that family will stop reaping the rewards of their parents’ education.  While social class has an effect on student achievement, that affect is likely mediated by cultural factors such as education and parental class background.  Despite changing economic conditions these cultural factors are likely to remain stable for a particular student.  On the other hand, achievement likely will be affected for those at the very bottom for whom the change is more likely to be from being able to afford meals to not being able to afford meals.

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