Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fad, fad, everywhere a fad

One thing I'm learning fast is if you're in education of ANY kind (from K-12 up through college), there are fads that blow like the wind. And there are administrators who blow in the wind of those fads.

I'm also learning (slowly) not to freak out TOO much at whatever new inanity comes down the pike at us. (The current one: trying to have online versions of all our courses. Yes, even the lab and field based ones. Yes, even the traditionally low-enrollment ones). I'm telling myself (and my father, who lived through it is telling me) that this is like the IETV push of 35-40 years ago, where it was said that "brick and mortar" universities (but I doubt that term was in use then) would be replaced by everyone sitting at home and watching class on PBS or something.

And don't get me wrong - when it's administered well, and there is sufficient IT and other support for it, online teaching can work well. But just as schools and colleges emphasize that students should not have to face a one-size-fits-all classroom experience (how much we are told about "different learning styles" and asked to accommodate them), I also do not think that colleges should push for "all online" - because THAT becomes one-size-fits-all. But a lot of schools seem to see online education and a giant cash cow - that they can invest a little up front (maybe in the form of faculty release time to develop the class) and then continue to reap the rewards without any updating. (I have heard possibly-apocryphal tales of people at the adjunct or instructor level being asked to develop material, then be told "Thanks for all your work. This campus owns the intellectual property of the online course you developed. Oh, by the way, we're not renewing your contract.")

And while online learning can be a tool in the toolbox - by God, don't throw out the rest of the tools just because you have a new one! But that seems to be what some campuses are thinking about. I know on mine there is a real push to make courses online - without apparent deep consideration of what will work well and what will work badly. (We are getting transfer students who did their first year of intro bio completely online - including lab. I really don't like getting students with ZERO real-world, real-lab experience into the lab....already I get an awful lot of folks who don't know what a beaker is, or why it's more appropriate to use a graduated cylinder to measure a volume of liquids, and so on).

I'm telling myself not to freak out too much, that they can't strap a camera on me when I teach field labs with the idea of "simulcasting" the field lab for online students; that's too ridiculous. And that something else will catch the attention of TPTB and they'll shift to the next big thing.

And that pendulums can swing back. Joanne Jacobs
is noting that there is some "new" research suggesting that "tracking" grade school students (that is, grouping by ability) leads to higher test scores.
I went through school in the era of "tracking." Yes, we knew we were grouped by ability. (It wasn't quite so blatant as there being "gold," "silver," and "brown" reading groups (as per the old Matt Groening bit), but we knew). And you know? Yes, it might suck to be in the lowest group - but having a classroom with a wide range of ability levels means often that the kids needing the most help don't always get it, and the high-achieving kids sometimes get bored and act out. (Or, as sometimes happened in my classes - get recruited by the teachers to "tutor" the struggling kids. Yeah, that helped my popularity a lot. NOT.)

I don't know. I think sometimes we've gone too far toward "let's not hurt kid's feelings" rather than "let's do what's best for the child's future."

So maybe at the college level, things will swing back. I will admit that today as I was doing a bit of sewing, I fantasized about quitting working at a university and gathering like-minded educators and setting up an "Institute," where we could teach more or less as we saw fit, where we could expect a high degree of rigor, where we didn't give as much of an inappropriate level of worry to "retention," and where we wouldn't worry about being everything to everybody (which seems to be a fault a lot of small colleges develop: they want to cater to the online crowd, AND do big research, AND offer small and personal classes, AND have cool athletics, AND AND AND....). And I envisioned us maybe being on or near a working traditional farm, and the students would pay part of their tuition in "sweat equity" helping to raise food for the dining-hall tables....

and it's a nice fantasy, but then I got to thinking about "how would we earn accreditation with just a few departments?" (I was envisioning something like English, Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Classics, and maybe something else....History?) And how would the whole thing work? And how would I get the money to start something like that - how do you even plan it?

And I gave up. It's a nice dream - to run away from the rat-race of appeasing the Legislature (my fantasy school would be private, and take no state money, possibly no federal money), to teach the way I want to, to be my own boss in a way I thought I would be here, until we got the current administration we have...

1 comment:

Dave E. said...

If it's any consolation, I've lost count of how many business fads I've had to live through over the last 25 years or so. Some had a kernel or two of wisdom, but for the most part they were all crap. As a general rule, my peers and I made a sport out of letting senior management think that stuff mattered while we actually ran our departments the same way year after year.