Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reinventing college

Your objective in high school is to tidy your record so that you can gain acceptance to the college of your choice. That achieved, you must graduate after four years (if not sooner) and then move into your career in IT, medicine, or business management.

That's what society demands, right?

Well the Stanford Design School has a few things to say about that. More to the point, they are looking at ways to redesign the college experience for a new era and maybe slaughter a few sacred cows...both in academics and society itself...along the way. Being a college educator, I certainly took the time to sit and watch the video presentation (see it at the Wired link). I heard a few things I really liked:

-The entire admissions process needs reconsideration. Currently, students work for high grades not to gain knowledge but to get good transcripts. They often take part in activities and volunteerism not for fun or for altruism but for how it looks on a college application. In other words, these are minds trained to jump through hoops really well, not necessarily to think critically.

-The hoop jumping often does not go away once they are in college. Colleges and universities then tend to churn out graduates who have narrow concepts of success and little vision. Students are also taught since high school how to navigate highly structured systems. The problem with that is that they will inhabit a world that is more in flux than ever before. As stated in the video, it is a world with problems like Ebola and ISIS. It is a world where we must consider the ethics of NSA surveillance. And I would add...it is a world of burgeoning transhumanism. This societal landscape will require flexible, creative thinkers.

- How about this: show up to college when you're ready. As it is now, our society looks down on those "slackers" who delay their transition from high school to college. I know that when I began grad school, my approach to my studies and my attitude towards assignments was in near diametric opposition to those (especially early) days of undergrad. I had a purpose. I had a vision. What if we could grant this for everyone?

-Here's another idea we need to get across: it's okay to not know what you want to do. It's so simple that I want to go across campuses and blast it with a bullhorn. Few things grate on me more than making an 18 or 19 year old kid exactly plan out the whole rest of their life. This doesn't allow for someone to grow and change. It also doesn't help with a society that has people not just frequently changing jobs but entire careers.

-To that end, Stanford came up with the idea of the Open Loop University. College would consist of six years, not just four. Better yet, you could take those years whenever you wanted to throughout life. A year here, a year there. Work with life, don't have it be an obstacle.

-Axis flip. This is something we're already doing at my campus and have been for a long while I am proud to say. Instead of filling someone with information, you develop sets of competencies in people and how to apply information outside of your chosen discipline to situations.

Naturally, it very much remains to be seen if these concepts can be practically implemented or if they are perhaps star-crossed ideas. Additionally, these thoughts do nothing to tackle one of the biggest problems in higher education and that is the egregious cost of tuition. To be fair, these ideas from Stanford weren't meant to address that issue, rather they were about pedagogy. The cynical side of me also wonders if American power systems would ever allow for any of these changes to happen. After all, hoop jumpers are ideal. They make great consumers. How else do you get people to mindlessly head to Starbuck's for coffee and to line up for the next iPhone?

It certainly has me thinking about my own pedagogy as well. Right now, I run my class like a workplace, figuring it prepares students for the world of employment. By that I mean you have to show up and if you don't and have no notification, you're in trouble. More than two unexcused absences results in a lowering of the final grade. But not everyone learns well by sitting in a chair and listening or even through discussion and activities.

Surely there is a place for them, too. Perhaps new approaches can help them achieve their rightful education as well.

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