At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

Ghost in the Wire: The Education Crisis

All this talk of Hacking Education and the crisis in Higher Ed reminded me of this old Kaplan University commercial, entitled “Your Time.”

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The logic of the commercial is pretty clear, played out through narration and visual imagery that shows the modern student, who can’t be struck in their classroom prisons. They want to learn in the subway, and on rooftops, while feeding their kids – you know, places where they can really concentrate. This is supposed to be much better than that dinosaur of a higher education system that remains mired in “old traditions” and “old ideas,” a characterization that makes it sound like the Universities of the world are still putting a heel of bread out for the Fae to ensure good fortune.

The commercial does help us in some ways to situate the “crisis” in education to which we are responding this April. But crisis can be a difficult and loaded term, with its etymological roots in the notion of judgment and separation. In that spirit, we want to be careful that the crisis we’re talking about – and in a few instances, celebrating – is the same “crisis” to which we’re responding.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we can identify three forces that have conspired to call big education into question. The first two are intimately linked, in that both are economic in a strict sense. On the one side of the coin you have the drastic cuts in state funding that have been accruing over the last decade, thanks in large part to a combination of unfunded federal mandates hoisted upon the states, sluggish regional economic growth and thus lower-than-needed property taxes, and a Tea Party-inspired Tax Revolt 2.0, which looks for state-run or state-funded services that seem extraneous. Public education, suffice it to say, seems superfluous to many individuals who have long ago sacrificed reasoning skills to the altar of the invisible hand. As such, education often stands at the front of the line when the budget guillotine gets ready to do its bloody work. This in turn forces educational institutions to cut their expenditures (i.e. staff, and occasionally those departments with few students pursuing that major), seek more money from external sources, and to raise tuition. And of course, once the big state schools begin to raise their tuition, private schools can justify proportional increases.

On the other side, we have a new and extremely catastrophic (in a non-pejorative sense) wave of globalization, one that has effectively made the outsourcing of creative and intellectual (i.e. white collar) work incredibly easy. Pace turn-of-the-millenium predictions that the creative, imaginative worker would be safe in the New Globalized Economy, we have found that firms across the globe can meet much of the demand for creative work, and do so for considerably less money. These creative jobs have joined manufacturing jobs in their flight overseas, and for the foreseeable future, barring a really shocking peak oil price spike that makes localized manufacturing more cost competitive, these two types of labor will continue to face stiff competition thanks to the wonders of comparative advantage.

These two structural changes go hand-in-hand, and they do create a crisis in education, one that is robbing university students of the confidence that the return on their degree investment is worth it. Acquiring mountains of non-defaultable student loan debt to become knowledgeable about work doesn’t seem like a grand idea when one’s job prospects can be trumped by a team of freelancers in India who don’t share equal cost of living expenses. When students allude to their uncertainty, as Dan Thornton related in an earlier post, they are alluding to the confluence of these two economic forces.

The third factor is socio-technological, in that the generation of students entering university today is accustomed to new technologies and new learning practices that are not, we are supposed to believe, resonant with the form of university education we have today, stuck as it is in the halcyon days of print media and lecture halls. If these students are to learn and be prepared for the contemporary (read: globalized, digitized, social) job scene, schools need to to adapt to the new demand, or like Fifty Cent, die trying.

Two problems with this last factor should provide something of a gentle restraint for our more hypertrophied “Hacking Edu” moments. First, there is a tendency to unjustifiably conjoin the economic and the socio-technological factors in the same conceptual crisis. This should be resisted; while the two are co-incidental, and correlated, they manifest as different sorts of crises. The first deals with the competition that graduates face relative to their cost of degree attainment, or put differently, it challenges the notion that a solid college degree is a sufficient enough marker of success to gain good employment. We could, for the sake of clarity, refer to this as a crisis of education’s ends. The second crisis is more a crisis of pedagogy, of method or means: how do students today learn, and what do they learn as a result of these learning methodologies? These two crises are related but they are not the same. The latter would exist in the absence of globalization and state funding cuts, for example, and the former would persist without the market penetration of tablet computing. As such, these two crises deserve different and more nuanced responses.

Second, the socio-technological factors are less disastrous than many portend, and less strident than many are willing to admit. A few claims should be sufficient to demonstrate this. First, consider the comparison between education and journalism. While the two institutions have some minor similarities, their funding models, their purposes, their means of acquiring social credibility, their bureaucratic/administrative structures, and their actual products are vastly different. The collapse of ad revenue does not hurt the university, though the failure to see a liberal arts education as a deservedly public-funded good does. Yes, the traditional model is now facing new online competition, much like what precipitated the collapse of many traditional news media outlets, but the revenue model for universities does not have the same sort of priority trade-offs, nor the limits on demand, that plagued newspapers. Universities have been turning students away for decades, and there are always more students.

Second, these arguments are actually pretty old. McLuhan was predicting that education would need to be reworked fundamentally in the wake of television, and was saying as much back in the 60s. More recently, Douglas Rushkoff has made the the case that you can’t train students to be critical thinkers in today’s age without teaching them media literacy. And universities have at least attempted to adapt to these technologies, by integrating video into teaching, by recording lectures for the sake of absent or future students, and by increasingly adding media literacy courses and coursework into the undergraduate curriculum. Educational technology programs have swelled, training new generations of teachers who understand the appropriate use of technologies in and out of the classroom. Ian Porter, one of MCDM’s alumni, works at UW-Bothell, where he spends his time assisting with the integration of these technologies, and where he sees near constant conversation about blended and hybrid classes, about best practices with digital tools in education, and about what technologies might benefit students.

Neither Ian nor UW-B is alone. I was an undergraduate at Wake Forest a decade and a half ago when they began their partnership with IBM to provide laptops to every incoming Freshman and to integrate computers into as many classes as possible, training faculty, hiring new tech staff, and so on. When I was a sophomore (around 95), every seat in every classroom in every building (save one) had its own Ethernet port, which was replaced with early WiFi a few years after I graduated. The effort to integrate new digital technologies into learning practices has a long, and arduous history within the university setting itself, and they’ve discovered several things from doing so.

One is that only some courses lend themselves to upward digitization. Math courses do very well, as do some science courses. English courses, philosophy courses, not so much. Certain subsets of sociology or psychology can do well, while others won’t benefit, and might even lose something.

Another is that technology has its trade-offs. We all know the studies that explode the myth of multi-tasking, and we’re familiar with the idea that the Internet can, in its own way, make us dumber instead of smarter. But we should also remember that the classroom is first and foremost the physical imposition of a set of relationships, and that the nature of those relationships make possible much of what we consider learning. We don’t do MCDM courses online because we understand that networking is part and parcel of the institutional function of education, and while this might seem obvious in a professional, terminal degree program, it is no less true at the undergraduate level.

In many cases, online classes unfold autonomously, sacrificing shared experiences and insights, shortchanging opportunities for expression, correction, and reflection, and do so under a ruthlessly pragmatic mindset, one that “just wants to finish the course material” because there really isn’t more to the course than the material itself (i.e. no real peers, no real faculty). I teach an online course for UW PCE, for example, and I haven’t had a quarter yet without overt plagiarism from at least one student, and my average is just north of two per quarter. In the eight years of teaching prior to starting the online course, I had dealt with plagiarism once. The lesson here should be fairly obvious: online courses work by distancing the student from the institution. This can be effective, offering students the ability to learn at their own pace and thus emphasize intrinsic motivations for learning, but it’s not without opportunity costs. And thus far, too little work has been done to study whether or not these technologies are actually more effective at delivering quality education than the alternatives, or to what degree they can supplement curricular objectives.

Finally, if we’re measuring the status of a class by its adherence to a curriculum of maturing technology, we may end up prioritizing class structures that don’t deserve to be prioritized. This is a shame, because not all courses – very few, in fact – have clear job-acquiring ROIs. This could be seen as a shortcoming, I suppose, but it reflects a conviction, from John Dewey on, that education is about more than prepping future workers for their work. Education should also be tasked with preparing engaged and learned citizens to do the sort of advanced citizenry work that a functioning democracy requires. As such, “practicality” is an important but nonetheless impoverished standard by which to measure the efficacy of Higher Ed. That students have moved increasingly toward thinking of education as (merely) a consumer good or service is unfortunate, but it isn’t something education as an institution should give into lightly.

It also highlights an enduring problem: students are poor predictors of a) knowing what they want to do and b) understanding how what they learn affects their actions. One of the major assumptions of much of the meet-the-students-on-their-time-and-for-their-needs stance, as well as one of the major assumptions undergirding the post hoc dismissal of the value of higher ed from those who went through it, is that our reasoning processes are largely transparent to ourselves. In other words, we tend to assume that we know why we think what we think and are aware of which cognitive or mental resources allow us to invent anything in a given moment. This assumption is typically, demonstrably false. We believe we have intents, and we believe we have reasons, but the underlying structure that articulates those intents and reasons is not something that most individuals have easy access to. In this way, the distinct possibility exists that meeting the demand is, in fact, failing those students.

This gets us back to the nature of the crisis in higher education. Many of the same folks who are most loudly trumpeting the problems in higher-ed are the same people who plan to make money from said crisis. In this, the linkage between crisis and opportunity is far more mercenary, and mercantile, than many companies would have us believe. It is difficult for me, for instance, to look at Apple’s new textbook initiative, the iBook 2, with anything other than horror, though that’s probably a post unto itself. And it is difficult for me to see commercials like the one I opened with as anything other than slick and cynical marketing from an industry already noted for their predatory practices. While higher education as a set of institutional practices continues to adapt its mission and its methods to both macro-economic and socio-technological changes, these various companies act as if the prescription for an ailing educational system is just the right injection of sweet, sweet tech medicine. The new, newer-than-new, future-new iPad as a spoon full of sugar that helps the criminology degree go down. Thus far, imo, these claims seem unconvincing and non-responsive to the larger forces that are actually reshaping the university.

There are some really interesting initiatives out there, and obviously universities have a long way to go in addressing all the factors influencing their current predicament.  I am hoping we’ll be contributing more depth and detail to our understanding of what is actually happening and what can be done about it as we move forward with our Hacking Edu events this month.

photos by Dan Thornton

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This post is categorized in: Hacking Edu, Uncategorized

About Ken Rufo

Kenneth Rufo holds a Ph.D. in Communication, and teaches the occasional class for the MCDM.

2 Responses to Ghost in the Wire: The Education Crisis

  1. Pingback: Passionate about Learning (PaL) ++ Ghost in the Wire: The Education Crisis – Flip the Media

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