Change, Engagement, equity, Higher Education

Active(ist) Learning

Well here we are.  In the midst of getting our minds around COVID-19, we have a resurgence of an old plague – racism (thanks to my colleague for that framing).  It seems unbelievable that this could happen while we are all still reeling from the trauma of quarantine. But it is not unbelievable to those who have been on the receiving end of our clearly codified structural biases. Indeed, we should not be surprised at all.  This is not new, and the current quarantine has only enhanced the visibility of the cracks in our socio-economic system.

As I have mentioned in other essays, COVID-19 made obvious the differential experiences of education that we have been complicit in supporting.  In March, as we deployed laptops and hotspots to our neediest students, I wondered why we had neglected this until now.  Why had we been comfortable knowing that our neediest students were required to come to campus (own a car, pay for gas) and forgo opportunities to earn money (give up shifts so they can access our open computer labs) in order to fully access their education? We were perpetuating systemic inequities. Those same students are also unlikely to have the opportunity to

  • win awards because they will not be able to participate in our co-curricular activities, which are the foundations of most awards.
  • do an internship because they need to work to support themselves while in college; or
  • participate in a faculty research project because it will require even more time on campus, time they cannot give.

These pieces of our “meritocracy” are entirely rigged against the struggling students who are mere mortals, as opposed to the superstars we always hold up as examples of what can happen with hard work. I will not go over all of the ways in which the paths to higher education are also rigged against the have-nots.  We all know this, and we should be ashamed that we let it stand. For students of limited means, being a successful college student is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet, our less advantaged students do succeed every day. They juggle the demands of work and school, and they accept the realities of the things they cannot afford. We work hard to help–despite the barriers I have described above.  As we see the barriers, we try to address them. But we are too slow. So is our culture.  Hence the roar of anger, dismay, and pain that we are hearing in our streets.

While it would be easy for me to throw up my hands and say, I cannot think about this right now because COVID-19 is taking my every waking moment, I will not do so.  I must not shy away from a thoughtful response.  Like the people in the streets, members of my community have suffered the endless indignities of a system rigged against them, and they deserve a response. So here it is–I am proposing direct instruction in the tools that can help our students to change the world.

Proposal 1: Let’s reimagine our first year courses. At WCSU, FY courses are a combination of an extended orientation (which is an important step toward equity) and an introduction to a discipline or set of disciplines. We can do better.  Let’s skip the intro to the discipline and focus on debate skills instead. Our students need to practice gathering and presenting evidence, responding to counter-evidence, and understanding multiple points of view. Standing up and presenting one’s case will be excellent preparation for their undergraduate studies and for advocating for their ideas after they graduate. We can build in the orientation piece, but the heart of the course should be honing debate skills.

Proposal 2: Let’s adopt a second year experience that focuses on developing and advocating for policy change. There is room for this in every discipline, but we could also cluster things around special topics. Sophomore year is a great time to do this, so students can understand the connections between policies and their majors.  Think of all the future educators looking at the structure of education while learning about pedagogy. Or the chemistry majors who might partner with our environmental sciences students to develop a path to environmentally responsible invention. And, of course, our students aspiring to careers in justice and law professions might truly delve into the persistent inequities in how our laws are applied.

Proposal 3: Establish a center for policy research that is powered by faculty, embedded in courses, and connected to the relevant political arenas.  Our students can be actively engaged, serving as lead investigators or research assistants as appropriate.  Making policy research part of our required classes will remove a barrier to participation, because it will be on a student’s schedule. We can harness the varied ideas of our students and faculty, who are not uniformly left- or right-leaning in their perspectives. This will help us keep our proposals grounded in the possible. And in a state the size of Connecticut, we will have real opportunities to get these proposals into the right hands.

All of this could be done quickly.  We could just say “let’s do it” and move to logistics instead of engaging in our usual, drawn-out debates. It is not that I do not value those debates, but there is no time for that right now. We must take action. We must prepare our students to take on the hard questions, eyes wide open, and we must instill in them the confidence they need to try to change the world.  We can evaluate and adjust the strategies I have proposed as the flaws emerge (and I know they will). That is good practice. But right now, we need to act, and these proposals are a good enough start.

We (I) will be vilified, of course. Everyone hates it when higher education is political, and this is political. But, as I learned in an undergraduate history class long ago, to do nothing is also political. This proposal is not about teaching students to support a single point of view. It is a proposal in support of the development of the skills necessary for active engagement with important societal questions.  I am pretty sure that was one of the points of education in the first place.

 

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The COVID-19 Toolkit: Critical Thinking

A few years ago, my university adopted a new general education curriculum.  We moved from a distribution model that featured exposure to ideas in different categories (humanities, social sciences, sciences) to a model with defined learning outcomes for ten general education categories (scientific inquiry, mathematical reasoning, oral communication, etc.).  We named this a competency model, which was definitely a mistake, but the change did help us focus on the notion that our students should develop particular skills and habits of mind as part of the general education experience.

Among those “competencies” was critical thinking.  We had a lot of conversation around this one.  As it turns out, every discipline wants to claim that they teach critical thinking. The agreed upon definition, which describes the evaluation of arguments, was twisted to fit into every possible version of critique. The word “argument” was stretched to include every aesthetic choice and there was a general claim that you cannot teach anything without doing critical thinking.  Would that this were so.

In the face of this pandemic, it has become exceedingly clear that as a culture we have failed to teach critical thinking in any meaningful way.  From the misunderstanding of the use of masks to the over-generalization of preliminary scientific investigations to the mistaken notion that this quarantine is designed to stop COVID-19 completely, we are awash in evidence that we do not know what evidence is. And don’t get me started on the idea of trusted sources. We have clearly lost our collective minds on that one. Higher education must remedy this immediately.

Here is where I think we went wrong.  We do teach the basics of critical thinking, but we do not always connect those basics in humanities classes, to the hypothesis testing in science classes, or to the structure of probabilities in statistics. We also seem to be satisfied with the starting principles (often black and white/true or false constructs), and less committed to the complications of the gray areas.*

For example, most of our students have had an experience of science that involves hypothesis testing. This is good because hypothesis testing is the primary mechanism for moving knowledge forward in the sciences.  It is an important method because it can yield both positive and negative results. To put it plainly, if there is no option to find your hypothesis wanting, you do not really have a hypothesis.

The trouble is  our basic understanding of hypothesis testing often leads to the faulty idea that hypotheses yield true or false conclusions. This is rarely the case.  They lead to conclusions that are more likely to be true or more likely to be false.  A good research protocol continues to build on those likelihoods until there is enough evidence to propose an action or at least a reasonable working assumption.  That leaves a lot of gray area, yes gray area is science.

Then there are the informal logic classes.  These focus on the structure of arguments, and the incredibly important tool of the syllogism.  You all remember a variation of this one:

  • All human beings are mortal.
  • Socrates is a human being.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

It is such a simple and elegant tool.  I remember when I first encountered it.  It was as if I suddenly had the tools to defend myself from arguments that I had felt bullied into accepting.  I went on to learn about manipulations of syllogisms, which abound in the world of politics and advertising, and the abuses of language that can mislead (weasel words), and I was properly empowered.

The trouble is most of our knowledge is not as simple as this construct allows. True and false are rarely the conclusions of an argument. More true and less true are the much more common realities. As much as I love the syllogism, it has a way of suggesting certainty where none exists.

Then there are our statistics classes. We have determined that statistics is foundational for many research programs (business, psychology, communication, and so on), because it is how ideas move forward in these disciplines. Basic understandings of T-Tests or Chi-Squares or ANOVAs are important tools for many career paths, and students who pay attention in these classes will develop their ability to use these tools. This is to the good. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be succeeding with the other important part of statistics–decoding and interpreting probabilities.

The person not tasked with doing statistics must still be able to interpret them. In all cases, what we are interpreting is the strength of the findings–the probability that we could get the same result with another, similar sample. Understanding how to determine the strength of a finding is so important to our lives, that I would call it an essential learning outcome. As we consider the barrage of “information” about COVID-19, essential learning becomes a matter of life and death.

Take the question of the effectiveness of face masks. Masks are a containment measure, but not an absolute one. They contain the spray we emit from our mouths and noses when talking, coughing, sneezing, etc. The argument for wearing them is to protect others from you in case you are an unknowing carrier of COVID-19. The argument is not that the masks will prevent all spread of COVID-19, but early studies suggest that it is a good tool in the effort to reduce the spread of this virus.

But wearing masks is not enough. We must use masks properly (cover nose and mouth).  We must remember not to touch our faces, even if we are wearing a mask, because we may encounter droplets spread by someone else.  We should probably stay 6 feet apart even with masks on (although, I think this argument is conflated with the typical spray range of 6 feet, and may be nullified by the wearing of masks), because that will remind us not to touch each other.  If we are in a high risk category, we should probably continue to stay home.

In other words, it is not as simple as

  • Wearing a mask will stop people from spreading COVID-19.
  • Everyone is wearing a mask.
  • Therefore, we will stop the spread of COVID-19.

The truth is more like

  • Wearing a mask will help to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Most people will wear a mask (I hope).
  • Therefore, we will limit the spread of COVID-19.

What the second syllogism needs to help us all feel a little better is some well-supported testing results that yield some probabilities that we can be comfortable with.  We are also going to need some points of comparison to help us live with results that are less than 100% perfect, because 100% effective is never a result of anything. We are going to need reminders of the things we already do that are not 100% safe and those statistics need to be calibrated to reasonableness (please do not give us car accidents).

We need to understand the connection between probabilities and hypotheses and/or syllogisms, and the realities of the vast gray areas in which we live. That is the only way we will be able to move out of our quarantined world. Critical thinking is the best tool we have for navigating the gray areas in which we live.  Higher education must address this habit of mind directly and often because our lives are at stake. To ignore this urgent need would be a dereliction of duty.

*Apologies for the simplification of logic, hypothesis testing, and probabilities. This is an essay. We all need to full courses.

Higher Education, Quality

COVID-19 Lessons Learned, Part II

Last week, I wrote about some of the lessons I have learned from experiencing the mass migration to online learning that was required in the face of COVID-19. These lessons included a lack of preparation, concerns about equity, and finally some real skepticism about delivering education online.  This week, I would like to talk about how we might be prepared for the fall, address some issues of equity, and do a good job of blended learning environments. Here we go.

Be Prepared

Preparing for fall 2020 is preparing for a great deal of uncertainty.  While some campuses are boldly stating that they will be fully on-ground, and others are declaring that most things will be online, for many of us, the plan is shaping up to be some combination of those things, or what we have been calling a hybrid campus.  After a first round of conversations with faculty and staff, and while we are waiting for system and state-level guidance, WCSU is working on a plan that reflects a campus prepared for a changeable reality.

Step one: Every course and all student support systems will be ready for online delivery. We hope to not need this measure, but it is easier to switch from online to on-ground than the other way around. This way, we will actually be prepared to continue education, uninterrupted in the fall.

Step two: We are mapping spaces and schedules to determine how much we can offer on-ground with reasonable social distancing measures in place.  We are puzzling through labs because they really are better face-to-face.  We are re-imagining studio courses. We are thinking about a safe number of people in a room, in the hall, in office areas to determine maximum occupancy. We are scrutinizing schedules for adequate time between classes to make room for people to be on campus without -literally-bumping into each other.

Step three: We are thinking developmentally. Instead of just prioritizing courses that really do not do well online, we are also thinking about the transition from high school to college and how we can help these students develop skills for navigating a hybrid learning experience. We already know that the drop in structured time from high school to college is a challenge; being partially online, makes this an even bigger concern

And there will be a million other logistical questions about managing a campus organized around social distance, but we have begun to plan, and it feels good.

Strive for Real Equity

Last week, I mentioned the issue of equity that we have long neglected in public higher education – reasonable access to electronic resources. As we made the mad dash home March, we were busy handing out laptops, ordering laptops, and securing access to the internet in some capacity.  Now, it is time to plan for that access from the start, and forever after.

Fortunately, the first level thinking about this is simple. We need to include technology and connectivity as part of our enrollment process. Unfortunately, it gets more complicated after that.  Setting minimum standards for laptops is one important question.  If we do not do so, all of the software we think we made available to our students will not actually be available. Then there are students in majors with specialized software that may require a higher standard.  This is a little bit complicated.

More complex, as always, is the question of funding. We are going to have to examine our fee structure, financial aid processes, and discretionary funding sources, to help us ensure that these tools are equitably deployed.  But this is a question we should have answered before COVID-19, so let’s get to it.

Online Learning

All right, all right.  I know I said online learning sucked. Nevertheless, we are going to have to leverage this important learning environment.  So, let me be more thoughtful in what “it sucks” might mean and how we can overcome it.

First, there are some basics. Every university chooses a learning management system (LMS) -Blackboard is ours.  LMS’s are varied in their capabilities and ease of usage, but no matter what, none of them meets everyone’s needs. This leads to rogue behavior in which faculty find other sites to use for their teaching environment.  I do not blame them. I understand that all officially sanctioned environments are less than perfect.

Unfortunately, this sucks for students. Having to hunt around for entry points is disconcerting at best and alienating at worst.  So, we are going to have to find a compromise that gives students an easy map to finding their courses, while allowing faculty to leverage appropriate tools.  It is not that hard to work this out, but it must be worked out.

Second, online teaching and learning is not the same as the face-to-face environment. It lacks immediacy and often undermines spontaneity.  There can be benefits to the lack of immediacy, particularly when students need time to think before responding, but if things are not structured well, what students feel is alone and what professors feel is overworked. It is also the case that some of our favorite pedagogies – like moving in and out of groups in the classroom, or fostering seminar discussions, or introducing topics and then watching students wrangle them– are just harder to achieve online. They are harder, but not impossible.

This sucks for faculty, at least initially.  Planning for classes will have to be much more prescriptive than some of us are used to doing.  Creating week-by-week schedules, assigning and reassigning groups, popping between “rooms” to mentor conversations, or fostering sustained dialogue over time, are all a lot of work.  Nevertheless, these teaching experiences can be rewarding, and sometimes, as we navigate moving between learning environments, better course design can occur.

There is so much more to say about creating a good, hybrid learning environment, and there are lots of developmental questions that must be considered. But here is what does not suck…expanding how we think about education.  This moment has presented an amazing opportunity to do just that, and it will be hard but exciting work.  So, I will not complain anymore about the negatives, because there is a new adventure in education ahead and that does not suck at all.

equity, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality, Technology

COVID-19: Lessons Learned Round I

Final exams are underway, we are preparing our virtual commencement messages (to be followed up with a live event in the fall) and the rush to declare classes pass/fail is over.  Believe it or not, we are at the finish line for spring 2020 disrupted.  Discussions about fall have begun, but before we get to that, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from this pandemic so far.  In reverse order, here are my top three lessons learned.

Lesson 3: We were not prepared for this.  

Well, “how could we be,” you say?  “This is new for everyone.” Yes, but we could have done better if we were not in the habit of thinking short-term.

We consider emergency scenarios all the time. From devastating storms to campus lockdowns to fast moving illnesses, all of higher education has worked hard to prepare for the worst.  And we have been through many of these things at WCSU.  Since I arrived at WCSU in 2012, there have been two major October storms that made campus largely uninhabitable for a week.  We had to pause.  We had a tornado (a micro-burst) that did much the same.  There have been water main breaks and heavy snow seasons and so on, and each time, well things mostly just stopped.

That is not preparation–that is closing Yet, we had the technology available for continuity of instruction all along. In this new normal, where the possibility of closing could recur multiple times in the next year (I’m sorry, but that seems likely given the spikes associated with reopening), we should be truly prepared for moving online.

Taking the opportunity to learn about online instruction must become a regular part of the life of a faculty member. Unless one’s career is fully devoted to research, with no expectation of teaching, this is as important as keeping up with new developments in one’s discipline. We don’t all have to be experts, but every university must establish basic guidelines on course design that are the minimum, and every faculty member should know how to meet that minimum. Every course should be developed to meet those minimum standards as a routine practice.

In other words, when we write a syllabus, develop schedule, and select course materials, we should then put it all in whatever learning management system the university uses, as routinely as we used to make copies to hand out in class.  It cannot be acceptable to just stop instruction whenever it snows or rains or any flu rages.  Unless the power goes out, we should be ready to teach. That is prepared.

Lesson 2: We have an equity issue.

Prior to COVID-19, we were content to let our neediest students depend on our computer labs and libraries to fully participate in their education.  What a ridiculous state of affairs that was.  Those same students are the most likely to have work schedules that keep them from being available when those spaces are open.  This is just a “duh” moment folks.  One cannot fully participate in higher education without a laptop and access to the internet.

When we all became tech crazed, private colleges and universities did things like give all first year students a laptop.  It was really a publicity stunt for them, because most of their students can afford to bring their own. We never thought it was within our means to do this in public higher ed.  Guess what, this must be a minimum standard for all of our students.  It is not just about moving to online in an emergency: it is about full access to one’s education and all students deserve it.  It is time to right this wrong and provide those minimum tools to all students.

Lesson 1: Online Education Sucks!

We have known it all along, of course, but this experience confirms it. There is just nothing like the immediacy of face-to-face learning in a shared space. Online learning is ok for graduate programs that serve working adults. It is okay for the odd undergraduate class as an alternative learning experience, and because, well, it gives some schedule flexibility.  We push it for returning adult learners because they are usually juggling other things. Do you see the theme here? Online education makes room for education for those who are trying to fit it in with other things.  It is not an opportunity to immerse oneself in education that a more traditional approach allows.

I want to be clear, there can be wonderful online learning experiences. Good course design and a passionate instructor can truly engage students and help them grow.  In fact, I have taught online and felt fully connected to my students. The kind of organizing required to do good online teaching actually improved my on-ground teaching as well, because if forced me to be a much more careful planner and to really think developmentally. So, online has its place and preparing for online teaching is a good practice.

I also think that the use of hybrid instruction can very much benefit all students.  It gives students multiple ways of encountering the course material, which is central principle of universal design. Shy students often shine online, and many students develop skills as independent learners in this environment. There are even good opportunities for collaboration online that are sometimes difficult for students to achieve face-to-face. Using online to enhance an on-ground class can help faculty dispense with a review of readings by quizzing students online before class (among other things), freeing up time for more discussion. When combined with online instruction, class time can be a true opportunity to explore further or apply knowledge. I am a big fan of that.

But without the face-to-face experience we lose something, and that something turns out to be irreplaceable.  This forced experiment with a totally online campus has all of us aching to return for good reason. There are a million little things that happen when we are all in the same room.  An idea is discovered, a shaky voice becomes braver, the direction of the discussion shifts totally unanticipated ways.  There are hallway conversations that praise or condemn what happened in class, which makes the learning seem more real.  In the real world there is spontaneity.

Like the connections that Facebook and Instagram and all the other social media provide, we are thrilled to be able maintain the connections with students that online learning provides.  It is an excellent continuity of instruction system.  And everyone in higher education depends on the electronic access to resources all the time, and that is a true benefit to the digital revolution. But putting the whole thing online … that just isn’t the real deal.

So, let us have no more talk about the efficiencies of online education and the potential cost savings (which are never real).  Online education is a supplement, a means of making up for a disrupted schedule, but the classroom is still the best home for learning.

 

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education

One Book Re-imagined for COVID-19

For the last 10-15 years, many campuses have welcomed first year students with a one book program.  The concept was to assign a common read to the entering class to help bind them together in a shared conversation.  Often part of first year programs, this ritual also allowed for a preview of college level reading and analysis expectations. It had varied levels of success in terms of community building, but it was a go-to approach for schools interested in improving retention rates (among other goals).

We did this for a few years at WCSU, but ultimately found there was not enough buy-in to have the desired impact.  As we moved to a more eclectic version of a First Year program, this common read concept went by the wayside. I am not really interested in bringing it back. I am, however, very interested in seizing this moment in history to foster dialogue about the aftermath of COVID-19.

Here are ten topics that we should all be talking about in the fall (whatever fall looks like).

  1. Tracing a Virus: The origins and future of the study of epidemiology.  This is an opportunity to bring the non-science major into a rich understanding of how science research works, why math matters and, how to decode information about illnesses.
  2. Healthcare: From corporate benefit to a national security issue. COVID-19 laid bare the dangers of unequal access to healthcare when trying to quell a fast moving virus. This is an opportunity to discuss the realities of a “gig” economy, massive unemployment, and systematically marginalized groups in relation to our national healthcare strategy.
  3. From Smallpox to COVID-19: Public investment in science and the development of vaccines. As we rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it is useful to consider both the protocols necessary for developing a reliable preventative effort and how market-based vs. coordinated international efforts can impact the results.
  4. Economic Crises and Social Change: Homelessness, economic insecurity, and plans for a more equal society. Large scale social changes like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, social security, Medicare, and civil rights, nearly always occur as a result of a deeply felt national crisis.  What changes can and should we expect from the COVID-19 crisis?
  5. Illness as Metaphor Reconsidered: How language drives our actions and our search for cures. Susan Sontag’s classic work on how language shaped our understandings of tuberculosis and cancer provides a perfect context for considering the ways in which (mis-) characterizations of COVID-19 have shaped our responses.
  6. The Nation vs. the State: Closed states, nationalized production, and other constitutional questions in a time of crisis. When to close, when to open, ensuring access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, bail outs of businesses large and small, and so on – what are the constitutional realities of these questions?
  7. Globalism Revisited: From supply chain disruptions to closed borders in the COVID-19 crisis. For over thirty years, the world has been moving toward an integrated supply chain system that is mostly controlled by private corporations and bottom line considerations.  Given the shortages that occurred with COVID-19, is it time to develop a more balanced system of profits vs. public safety?  What might that balanced system look like?
  8. Unintended Consequences and Opportunities: The Environmental Benefits of the COVID-19 Shut Down.  The reduction in travel at every level has been having a positive impact on air quality.  What other hidden benefits to the environment can we uncover and how might we extend those benefits into the future? We cannot stay locked down forever, but this is a real opportunity to reconsider the structure of our work lives, school lives, and the shape of our communities for a healthier planet.
  9. Internet as Public Utility: The digital divide and access to everything in an online world. As everyone scrambled to move operations online, the digital divide emerged in full force.  From regions of the country with little to no connectivity, to entire school districts with families who cannot afford laptops, the reality of the barriers to social stability and social mobility have come into focus. What would it take to level the playing field? Can access to the internet be re-cast as a public utility?
  10. What are Schools For? How large scale disruptions can help us re-imagine the structure and delivery of, and access to education. Online learning is not all it is cracked up to be and anyone working in education could have told you that.  As we moved pre-K to post-secondary education online, the holes in this approach became very clear. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from this impromptu experiment that could have long term benefits for education.  What might school look like if we must always be prepared to go online?  What goals will we shed? What will become essential?

If every student (not just First Year) was engaged in one of these topics in the fall, think of the conversations we could have! Perhaps some good policy ideas would emerge. Certainly, we would all have a broader understanding of how a health crisis can shape policy.  For those who are wondering where we will find the time for all of this, I ask, how can we not? What on earth could be more important than learning from this crisis.

Be well everyone.