Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Adventures in Edu-Cyberland V - Choose Your Own Adventure

It is the consistent confrontation by unsupported, dogmatic assertions which tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) require unquestioning buy-in to even begin talking about online education that marks my own experience of Edu-Cyberland. As a student of religions, I recognize dogma when I hear it and I know true believers when I encounter them.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the third workshop I attended at the Sloan Conference. Entitled “Choose Your Own Adventure: Millenials and the Post-Traditional Credit Hour.” It was an hour long paean to the consumer-student and the university as providers of goods and services. And, in the usual pattern of hubristic hype, it was offered as the way of the future in education.

In Praise of Millennials

The session began in a promising fashion with presenter Sean Traigle laying out the differences between the traditional student (18 year old freshman, needing more structure) and the post-traditional student (older, needing flexible structures). Traigle then began painting a somewhat questionable picture of millennial students:

They expect to be engaged in learning, they don’t do well as passive learners, they won’t stick around if there’s no technology utilized, self-assured, confident,  civic-minded, compelled to make the world a better place.

From my observations, there is some truth in this description if primarily in the thus far unrealized potential of this generation if not its actualization. As with online education, there has been far more hype than substance thus far.

Traigle asserted that 90% of the millenials are in college primarily for career reasons – to advance, start or change careers. This is certainly true of my observations. The vast majority of my students are strategic learners driven by extrinsic motivations. Of course, at some level, they are a reflection of the culture which bred them, a culture which Richard Hofstadter observed to be anti-intellectual 50 years ago and which today clearly values education largely – perhaps solely - in instrumentalist terms.

Whether these students “don’t do well as passive learners” is somewhat debatable. In truth, few real students do well taking passive approaches to learning. One of the great gifts to pedagogy is Paolo Freire’s critique of the banking concept in which experts pour information into the heads of passive learners who must then disgorge such information upon cue. Such approaches produce little retention of its content or critical comprehension, much less its connection to the lives of those learning it.

But Millennials are the products of standardized test driven pedagogies. Their primary question is inevitably “Will this be on the test?” In my experience they do not regularly come to class prepared for discussion (i.e., reading prior to class) and often whine about any kind of engagement demanded beyond the data dump high-stakes testing for which they are so well trained, particularly if it requires even a modicum of critical thinking. Strategic learners are motivated by extrinsic rewards – grades, degrees, accolades. The notion that they would be particularly engaged in learning at any depth is probably not a reasonable expectation.

Traigle also heralded Millenials as keenly aware of the differential between their own “comfort level of technology” and that of their instructors, a phenomenon easily observable today. Yet, as a group they also exhibit a profound inability to judge context in the appropriate use of technology, a failure of judgment that is not only rude but can get you killed in movie theaters in Florida these days. They also display major difficulties in remaining attentive to any given task at hand due to well-developed patterns of constant self-distraction with their technological toys.

While their technical skills are clearly well honed, their contextual awareness and critical judgment about the proper time and place to use those skills are limited if not impaired. Indeed, a number of studies are now suggesting it’s precisely the persistent interaction with technology rather than people that results in such impaired judgment and the decline of interpersonal communication skills as well. 

They are well-trained consumers, indeed.

Creedal Assertions

About halfway through the presentation, the creedal assertions of Edu-Cyberland appeared. Traigle works for an online technology company called Straighterline.  The company describes its services as “providing high quality courses that are guaranteed to fit into your degree program.” Clearly, as with any consumerist enterprise, it is, at least on the surface, all about you.

The site continues

With StraighterLine you earn your college degree from the top career-focused universities, in the field and ultimately in the career of your choice - in less time, with less stress and with $15,000 less in student debt.

Traigle then launched into a diatribe on “being tied to a seat” and being required to regularly study with any level of intensity. Traigle described these behaviors as tied to a traditional system of education whose time has passed, a system which must be replaced by learning with flexible start/end dates, outcomes-based personal learning and accomplished primarily through technology.  In the revealed truth of Edu-Cyberland, the ultimate heresy is always to be seen as “old school.”

The dogmatic presumptions of this approach and their religious implications are pretty clear:

·         Education is strictly about careers (confessional statement)

·         Investment of money, time, presence, intensity and energy in this process are negative values to be avoided at all cost (sin)

·        The consumer is always the best judge of all aspects of the process, at least the limited array presented him/her by the provider of goods and services (personal salvation schema)

·         Learning cannot occur without technology (liturgical ritual) and the terms of its usage must be unconditional (orthopraxis)

This makes for an interesting religion but it is an impoverished view of education if it can truly be called that at all. There are a number of problems with these presumptions beginning with the fact that, like all dogmatic assertions purporting to define revealed truth, they must be accepted without question as a condition of even discussing online education.

The minimalism and reductionism in these presumptions are staggering.  But the most troubling aspect is the understanding implicitly revealed in the requirement that one avoid any kind of investment in the process that education itself is somehow a negative experience to be engaged in only the most expeditious and painless manner as possible.

Why in the world would that be?

Less Hype, More Critical Reflection

If online education is to have a prayer of success in actually creating an educated public, it is going to have to become MUCH more critically conscious of and willing to discuss its dogmatic presumptions and the values they reflect. The how of online education is much less important in the long run as the why.

  • We need to question whether careers are the only or even the primary reason people should attend college. 
  • We need to question consumerist presumptions of convenience and comfort as the primary values in our approaches to education. 
  • We need to ask ourselves why we see education in such negative terms generally and what such attitudes say about us as a people. 
  • And we need to critically confront the way we use our technologies generally but particularly in the context of education.

My observation is that higher education needs a lot less hype, a lot less dogma and a lot more critical self-reflection.  Perhaps it is only when our hype implodes and our failures confront us - as San Jose State discovered to its great chagrin last year in the meltdown of its MOOC Great Leap Forward – that we will be forced to do the hard work of thoughtfully considering the questions of why we do what we do and how it impacts those we would ostensibly serve. 

Not surprisingly, false gods inevitably give their challengers plenty of evidence of their emptiness to work with. This one is no exception.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
Osceola Regional Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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