Monday, June 20, 2005

Connections Across Cohorts of Students

One of my staff forwarded on this link to Declining by Degrees, a Web site, a book, and a documentary all with the same title. The documentary is airing this Thursday evening on public television. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and it seems this documentary will let us know what that something is. I’m hopeful it might be fodder for some discussion on student engagement and student commitment, on the one hand, and campus engagement and commitment on the other.

George Kuh, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is one of those folks featured in the documentary. The quote from him on the Declining by Degrees Web site is pretty damning. But I suspect they won’t dwell on that point, in particular, and Kuh will be sandwiched in between more familiar names (why is Frank Deford in this documentary? he is a sports reporter. ) because audiences “want” to watch those they are already familiar with.

Some time ago at a conference called TechForum sponsored by the CIOs of the CIC Universities (Big Ten + University of Chicago), Kathy Christoph from Wisconsin, Steve Acker from Ohio State, and I made a presentation that was in part based on one of Kuh’s articles that originally appeared in Change Magazine.

While the entire piece is of interest we focused on the particular nugget below which sized up the situation nicely circa a couple of years ago. I don’t believe that things have changed much since then.

And this brings us to the unseemly bargain, what I call the "disengagement
compact": "I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone." That is, I won't make
you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won't have to grade as
many papers or explain why you are not performing well. The existence of this
bargain is suggested by the fact that at a relatively low level of effort, many
students get decent grades--B's and sometimes better. There seems to be a
breakdown of shared responsibility for learning--on the part of faculty members
who allow students to get by with far less than maximal effort, and on the part
of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions

Since I think Kuh has got it pretty much correct the question is: why has this happened? On the faculty side of this equation the standards to get tenure are, if anything, on the rise and so junior faculty find themselves under a huge amount of pressure to do an adequate job in teaching and no more so that every available free moment can be devoted to research. The thing is the attitude persists beyond the tenure and promotion stage because, quite frankly, the undergraduate teaching is orthogonal to the research they do. Research is where the reward and recognition lies.

But we’ve been moaning about this for years and years, certainly since I started with learning technology in the mid ‘90s. I doesn’t seem like more moaning will be very productive, even if the moaning is done by accreditation agencies. Instead, what if caring professors started to take matters into their own hand, not via indictment of the system but rather by doing something constructive?

A natural first question is where to start. My view is that intellectual climate is the key; promote an inquiring intellectual climate outside the classroom. This is something that (at least some of) the students want, but they don’t know where to find it. Let the caring instructors show them the way. This is a possible path.

Suppose the instructor kept a blog or a listserv or some other form of electronic communication that was intended for students who already had taken the course. The students would know the instructor and vice versa and that knowledge is something to build on. There would be no grade motive and much less of a power relationship than in the regular classroom. The students could participate or not purely by choice and they could participate either passively (simply by reading what was posted) or more actively (by occasionally commenting and responding to the comments of others.) In other words, the instructor would do everything that one should do in a class to engage students in online discussion, but do it outside a class setting, purely for the fun of it.

It’s probably easier to do this sort of thing in the social sciences, where one can mix commentary and news from popular outlets with books that have been recently published or with information from other electronic outlets. The thing is, many of us are already doing this sort of thing with colleagues. So all I’m really suggesting is trying to expand the audience to former students.

It might be a little awkward to set up at first; this is not the norm in behavior. The students won’t expect it and so some might be put off by it. And others might really be too busy or just not interested. But let’s give it a try anyway. Let’s see if we can make that work in some limited sense.

Suppose it does. Suppose we have a blog that has professor postings and student comments and everybody seems to be having a good time with it and getting something out of it. Suppose further that the professor is teaching the class again. Should current students be allowed into the blog? Should they be encouraged to do so?

Before I address those questions let me point out that yesterday I came down strongly against public spaces for class work. I think class work should be done behind password protection. So if current students did participate in the blog, they shouldn’t be there to get a good grade, brown nose the professor, or any stuff like that. They should be there for the same reason as the alums, for the fun of it.

Can those dual roles work? Can a professor be quite informal in a blog meant for students who have already taken the course while exercising the appropriate level of authority in teaching the current class? Will students who are taking the current course feel comfortable interacting with the professor in an outside the class setting and will they feel comfortable with the other participants in the blog? The answer to the latter seems to me to be obviously yes. If that outside the class setting is lively and informal it will make participants comfortable and I would hope it would touch them in such a way that they want to participate. Younger instructors may have some trouble moving back and forth between the two environments because they may still be defining their style as a teacher, how much they are the boss and how much they are the buddy of the students. Experienced instructors, who have worked those issues through already should be able to do this without much difficulty in my guess. Having the buffer of students who have already taken the course and are there for no apparent reason other than interest in the subject should make it easy.

But I haven’t tried this myself yet so here I’m guessing rather than basing this on personal experience. I’d really like to see some experiments of this sort. I think we can have much more effect on the lifelong learning of students by affecting what they read and doing that outside of class should be much easier. If the tone on campus in general were more intellectual then perhaps doing these things in class would be possible. But we’re not there yet. Let’s not try to remedy all the ills of higher ed by looking only inside courses but let’s do engage faculty to engage the students. This is worth trying.

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