Saturday, September 13, 2014

Education Done Right? – Part I: Actual Learning

I drove home from the Valencia Osceola Campus Tuesday night in a state of near euphoria. I teach one class as an adjunct there after my office hours for UCF. I had just finished our third Ethics and Critical Thinking class meeting with my Valencia students.

It was absolutely inspiring.  As I plowed through a terrific storm along the Turnpike headed back to Orlando, I wondered what it is about this experience that I love so much.

Great Questions

The class had been an energized, intense 3 hours. We had ended the night with an exercise involving a professor’s ethical dilemma. It featured a student trying to maintain her GPA to get into law school who misses a deadline on a final paper and asks for an extension. She claimed she was unavoidably taken out of town to attend the funeral of a dear aunt. She also argued that she needed an A in the class to keep her GPA high enough to get into law school.

As I told my students last night, in my experience this is hardly a hypothetical.

The students were required to individually assess the dilemma and write their own evaluation of it. Then as groups they were required to come to consensus as to what the professor should do and report back to the class as a whole. The discussion was impassioned and well considered. A lot of possible considerations were raised:

  • Should everyone have the opportunity for extra credit?
  • What about the students who worked hard to attain their A without extra credit? What does a grade mean in the light of the extra credit when many people could make an A?
  • How do we know the student is being truthful about why she missed the deadline? Should we require proof?
  • Did the student have any obligations to contact the professor before missing the deadline and not two days later?
  • What kind of precedent does this set for the professor’s classes?
  • What kind of pattern might this reinforce in the student?

These are excellent questions. They are the kind of questions students and faculty alike should consider in such situations. But what was more important about this is that the students themselves came up with them. They did not sit blankly staring at a screen waiting for the teacher to give them “the answer” while glancing at the clock. They generated them in group discussions and passionately debated them. They were engaged. Indeed, they were alive. It was magical.

This is actual learning at work.

But it’s more than just that. By the end of the night, I felt my hard work in planning this class had paid off, my efforts in executing it had been rewarded, my investment had been appreciated by my students, my role as their teacher respected. Not only was this learning at work, this was also actual teaching at work.

As I thought about my experience at Valencia, I asked myself what seems like some obvious questions: What is it about my experience at Valencia that is so different from my experience at the university? Why do I enjoy the former so readily and struggle to deal with the latter? What could the latter learn from the former about higher education?

There is a History

Before addressing those questions, I think intellectual honesty requires noting the contextual differences of my engagement of these two institutions.

While I have been at the university for 12 years now, I have a history at Valencia-Osceola that precedes my time there. I spent five years at Valencia-Osceola right out of my doctoral program in Tallahassee and left there to go to UCF. It was a difficult decision to leave and one I have occasionally second guessed since then. In retrospect I think it’s clear that my opportunities were greater by coming to the university as I had thought and I believe I am a far better teacher as a result. On the other hand, I never completely let go of my ties to Osceola and was welcomed back like the Prodigal Son when I returned to adjunct there a couple of years ago. For that I am immensely grateful.

I also must note that I am not full-time at Valencia. My salary and my health insurance do not depend upon my adjunct work there. For at least the time being, I am not a Freeway Flier. I do not have to attend the endless meetings that I remember from my experience there. I am only minimally impacted by the assessment procedures that are the obsession of many public education administrators and politicians today. I come to the college one night a week, visit my old buddies, check in with my department, spend some time with students before and after class (they actually can come to my university office hours on that campus prior to class), teach my class and go home.

No muss, no fuss.

Institutional Cultures

But there are some institutional cultural differences that are markedly in contrast between these two institutions which I believe explain much. The Valencia campus where I teach is still relatively small. It’s 11,000 students (out of 43,000 total on five campuses) pale in comparison to the 62,000 at the university. Its campus, confined to four good sized structures, a bell tower and a lake, could easily fit into one small corner of the university’s sprawling campus.

Valencia-Osceola lies on busy US 192 between what were once two sleepy citrus and cattle towns which long ago were swallowed up by suburban sprawl and mass migration from Latin America. But the campus retains its small town ethos.

Size makes a major difference in an institution’s self-understanding and interaction between its members. Contrary to the credo of the university, bigger is NOT always better. As size increases, tendencies toward impersonal relations, competitiveness and alienation increase correspondingly. It’s very easy to get lost in the shuffle of what is essentially a medium sized city.

Unlike the veritable black hole of bureaucracy students and staff must negotiate at the university, on a small campus like Valencia-Osceola it’s easy for all members of the community to know where to go and who you need to see. It is also helpful that Osceola consciously fosters an atmosphere of concern and cooperation that begins with students and extends to members of the staff as well. Much like its large Latin population, Osceola sometimes seems like an extended family.

Small classes make it easy for students to actually get to know those with whom they attend classes and those who teach them at the college. One of the most heartwarming aspects of teaching at Valencia is watching the students leaving the night of the final, saying goodbye to each other and scribbling email addresses and telephone numbers for classmates with whom they wish to keep in touch. Community seems to spontaneously generate itself in these small classes on this small campus, no small irony given the fact it is completely non-residential.  

Valencia intentionally caps most courses at 25 and its writing courses at 20. It is actually possible to get to know one’s students in small classes and for them to get to know each other. It is possible to hold thoughtful discussions and not lose the back half of a large classroom (or an auditorium) to social media. While Valencia does offer online sections of many courses, most classes are held face-to-face with the presumption that students need the personal attention to thrive. From my experience, that’s pretty much on target for most students.

Perhaps more importantly, because of the limited class sizes it is actually possible for instructors to read what students write in such courses and offer feedback that is worth considering. That’s particularly important given the writing deficiencies many of these students begin with (many of them writing in a second language). It’s also a way to offer insights to students who may not be able to come to office hours because of work and family obligations.

Because the classes are small enough to get to know your students, it is also possible for instructors to tailor their courses in ethics so that they might actually serve their students’ hoped-for careers in nursing, law, business, architecture and make those connections in class discussions, feedback and one-on-one talks with students. In short, it is possible in intentionally limited enrollment classes for teachers to actually teach (not merely present information) and for students to actually learn (not merely regurgitate it upon demand).

That is hardly an accident.

Valencia sees its mission as being a place for excellent teaching and learning and it has the awards to show for it. While teaching and learning is obviously somewhere on the list of priorities at an ambitious corporate university intent on insuring its “brand” is well known, it is the primary focus of Valencia. Perhaps that is why a person like me, who defines myself as a teacher and values my role as mentor to my students and public scholar to the community at large, finds the institutional culture at the college a breath of fresh air and struggles to keep my head above water at the university.

But it is not only me for whom this difference in institutional culture matters

What always strikes me when I come through the faculty offices to say hello to my old  buddies or to make my copies in the departmental offices before class is how friendly and helpful people are. The first time I heard “How can I help you?” at the college, I honestly didn’t remember how to respond. I rarely hear that at the megauniversity where “You’re on your own” is the operating presumption.

But this was not simply opening night party manners. The willingness to assist faculty in their work is a consistent mark of the institutional culture at this college on a mission. That collaborative spirit is generally reflected in congenial relationships among the faculty there.

Suffice it to say, it is a very, very different reality at the university.


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)
Instructor: Religion and Cultural Studies,
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
Adjunct Instructor: Valencia College-Osceola

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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