Sunday, August 21, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 7

Using the approach for outreach

Individuals get better at an activity with practice. I’m better at writing blog posts now than I was in February when I got started. I have a better sense of what will work in the writing and how to get my point across. That doesn’t mean all the posts will grip the reader. But my batting average is higher now than it was six months earlier. I have a sense that the writing is getting better, that the sentences fit better, and that the argument is better constructed. It helps that I’ve hears from some others about the blog and that on other sites I’ve seen my blog cited as something that is worth the read. That confirms my learning. And it gives a sense of confidence.

Organizations learn with practice as well. I know my EdTech unit is better now at supporting the campus course management system then they were a year ago at this time when we first went into full production mode. Part of this is the individual learning of each staff member. But there is another factor, probably more important in the organization case. We know how to coordinate with each other better and respect each other for our individual efforts. There are fewer disputes about how the work should be done and a better understanding of how the individual roles fit together to provide a decent service for the instructors and their students. The work becomes more enjoyable as a consequence. There may have been fear initially about doing something new, something perhaps too hard for us. Fear can be a spur for the learning. But if the fear persists, then certainly the job is hard to like.

As a manager/strategist, I anticipate this sort of organizational learning. I’m not very good at estimating how long it will take to move down the learning curve, but I do know it will happen. For that reason I expect the same for the inward looking service learning. One should expect that an institution which commits to the approach will be more able to deliver a really good experience for the students when it is a few years into it.

At that juncture, and I really hope not before then because it won’t be ready, the institution may consider trying to move the approach outwards. The natural first audience to consider is bright high school students who are ready to do college work and who would benefit from having peers like themselves in their classes, but who may not be able to find these peers at their own high school. One can envision the group meetings happening online instead of face to face using some placeware system. (One advantage these systems have over a face to face meeting is that they produce a transcript of the meeting in the process of allowing the meeting to be conducted.) Lectures and other course materials can be put online. Except for the use of peer mentor/teachers (I’m not sure if that continues to be the right label when the mentor/teachers are experienced college students and the members of the class are still in high school, but the point is we’re continuing to use the approach that has worked well in educating the residential students) this is already happening and has been going on for some time.

I’m intrigued about the possibility of moving beyond this. What about interventions that are aimed more broadly at the typical high school student rather than restricting attention to only the best and the brightest? If there is a problem with student engagement at the college level, as NSSE indicates, it stands to reason that there are issues with student engagement at the high school level as well. The budget issues we are facing in Higher Ed also have to be surfacing in the K-12 arena. Indeed, to the extent that the state subsidy to Higher Ed is declining, one could argue that it is doing so because the demand for funds from K-12 are on the rise and for utilitarian reasons, K-12 holds a greater command of the funds than Higher Ed.

The core idea is simple. Let the college students as mentor/teachers assist the high school teachers by providing support for grading and giving help to the high school students. This will raise the productivity of the high school teachers and thereby keep costs at that level down while increasing accountability of the high school students, engaging them more in their learning, and one would hope increasing their performance. Indeed, to the extent that the college students enjoy the role they play, this might help to alleviate the shortage of high school teachers by creating a genuine interest in the mentoring and teaching high school students.

There are probably several barriers to making this work, even if the inward looking service learning is a run away success at the college level. Let me point to two of these that are obvious to me from my perch. First is access. Any utilitarian program of this sort will require substantial Internet access for the high school students, something that is probably not present in most schools at present. A program aimed at the best and brightest only will not confront the issue. It is not that hard to finesse the access issue for a handful of students. But when providing for an entire grade level, this is more daunting. And to manage that, almost certainly, there will be scheduling issues. I don’t think these issues are insurmountable, but they need to be recognized up front.

The other big issue is identifying the locus of engagement and control from the university perspective. Traditionally the linkage with K-12 has been through the College of Education. There have been some programs (in the form of advanced placement courses or college equivalents for students in rural high schools) that have been run out of the department teaching the course, facilitated by the continuing education folks, but this has been a low volume activity. If one envisions a high volume activity of this sort, and if the University were not the primary provider but only the facilitator, there are open questions about how that would work. Certainly, a related issue is how the money for this would be handled. If in the humanities and soft social sciences this were viewed as a source of research funding, then some faculty in departments like History, English, and Political Science might be drawn to the endeavor. Let me assume this happens but in a way where there is a partnership with College of Education folks (for reasons I’ll explain below).

What I have in mind is a fairly complex set of interactions. The High School teachers, ultimately the drivers in all of this, either attend courses at the University during the summer or take online equivalents that emphasize method and content for teaching with the college student mentor/teachers as partners. These college students need to part of these summer courses so they become well acquainted with the teachers they will assist. These courses are led by faculty at the university who have an oversight role for this approach during the rest of the academic year.

The high school teachers can “commission” online content to be created akin to the type of content they will learn about during these summer classes. So part of the process is developing effective and interesting online materials that match their curricular objectives. A formal evaluation process needs to be undertaken, and a significant role of the College of Education faculty will be to develop and design such an evaluation. There is a need to consider the effectiveness of the process in general and specifically in a given subject matter. To the extent that standardized testing occurs in the subject area, performance on that needs to be considered, but a big part of the issue is engagement of the high school students and that needs to be measured in other ways.

The high school classes will be divided into study groups just at the college classes were. A college student mentor/teacher can be assigned to a couple of these groups and they will have formal online meetings. That part can parallel the on campus approach that has proven successful. There will also be general online help staffed by these same college students. And issue is when that general help will be made available. If Internet access in the home is sufficient, even availability makes sense as this is when many of the high school students do their homework. Indeed, on the engagement front, getting the students to be serious about their homework is a major objective.

One can also envision a face to face class led by the faculty members who are part of the project, where the high school teachers join in online. The role of this class would be similar to the role the class plays for the on campus service learning, but with one very big difference. The faculty here are facilitators. They are not the teachers. The High School teachers have that job. Yet the faculty members are the ones assessing the college students on their performance. And, to make this work, the High School teachers need to be pleased with how things are going or at least sufficiently engaged that when there are issues they can see these being addressed. The value has to be obvious to them.

This triangular relationship between College faculty, the High School Teachers, and the student mentor/teachers will be harder to manage. This is why I think confidence needs to be built first by the on campus service learning and that it would be a mistake to try a scaled up version of this outreach from the get go.

But, certainly, the prospect of this sort of thing is intriguing and can be contemplated early on. Since getting funding for it might be difficult as partnerships of this sort cut across government bureaucracies, it will take a while to get this going and promoting the possibility early may make sense but not to the point where it undermines the credibility of the on campus activity.

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