Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pedagogical Failures: Donald Tapscott's NPR Interview on How to Better Change Colleges to Suit the Millennial Snowflake Generation

As Mr. Burns said to Homer, "dance monkey dance!" It would seem that in the twenty-first century, the college classroom is being reduced to a carnival sideshow self-help session in which instructors are ring leaders.

The great Professor Claire Potter of Tenured Radical fame has moved over to The Chronicle of Higher Education's website. Quite kindly, she also imported her blog roll which includes this humble website. Thus, We Are Respectable Negroes has some new folks who may not have discovered us otherwise.

As long time readers know, I do occasionally comment on issues surrounding higher education where my favorite posts include the following: 1) how I have used the Black Israelites as a jumping off point for discussing white privilege and 2) the greatest student email ever sent by an entitled snowflake to their professor (which ironically The Chronicle reran for its readers last year).

In welcoming some new readers, many who likely work in higher education, it seemed appropriate to return to my theme of "pedagogical failures." Last Thursday, NPR's Talk of the Nation hosted the esteem Donald Tapscott who discussed his new book Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business And The World, and its thesis that colleges and universities need to retool for the 21st century and change how they engage the 'Net generation.

It is rare that I am moved to even consider calling into a radio program, but on that day I was quite close to pulling over to the side of the road and offering a fusillade or two for the good doctor to consider as rebuttals to his overly generous and rosy depiction of the current crop of college students.

Much of what Tascott offered was nothing new to those who are knowledgeable about the pressures facing colleges and universities in the 21st century. Instructors should place materials online, democratize information for ease of access and use, professors should move from "teacher centered" to a "student centered" classroom, change their teaching styles to suit a limited attention span generation of multitaskers, and that universities had better please the customer by making information "relevant" to students.

Context matters in this discussion. We are in the midst of a broader movement to destroy tenure and to adjunctize the profession, to radically review the role of liberal arts education in light of how it provides a "service" to students entering the labor market, and an overall assault on public education where the good work that is done in the classroom is reduced to a set of deliverables, the value of which can be assessed by bureaucrats and politicians, who then in turn decide who is to be fired and (re)hired. Ultimately, it seems that there is a whole lot being asked of college and university staff without a corresponding increase in compensation or job security.

In sum, after NPR's interview with Don Tapscott I was left with a good many questions, and some initial reactions that would benefit from a good salon. There are a good many educators and others who have thought about theses issues who frequent WARN so your thoughts are invited and welcome.

Let us begin:

1. Is it so problematic that many of the techniques used in the classroom of the 21st century are none to different from those used centuries ago? Is a good lecture, seminar, or discussion not in fact timeless?

2. Are professors employees of students? Should the former be providing some "deliverable" or "service" to the latter? How does this formulation negatively impact the quality of college-level instruction?

3. There is something to be said for the experience of participating in a classroom discussion, attending seminar or lecture, and interacting with one's fellow students. The experience of online learning and downloading materials seems to be missing out on the intangibles which separate a positive and deep learning experience from a superficial one. In the 21st century is college simply to be a way of delivering facts? Consequently, it is out-priced in an era of relatively "free" information online?

4. As mentioned in the NPR interview, is Phoenix University really a model of learning that we should be striving for across the board?

5. Tapscott has high praise for the current crop of college students, calling them "the smartest generation ever." Huh? What of data suggesting that Millennials are actually learning less than previous generations and retaining even fewer amounts of what they are exposed to?

6. Second point: how can Tapscott suggest that Millenials are doing well as measured by grades, when there has been a notorious amount of grade inflation in recent years, so severe that an "A" is now expected--even for the most mediocre of work?

7. I am no Luddite. I almost exclusively use a seminar approach in my teaching. As a function of that policy, I do not play Powerpoint karaoke, nor do I provide reading summaries, handouts, or offer copies of my notes to students. I also do not allow the use of laptops in my classes (this policy has greatly improved the quality of conversation; it has also weeded out weaker students who would rather be doing something else than giving the class their full focus). Am I so wrong? Are my students "missing out" on something?

8. I>clickers that reduce classes to a game show. Tweeting questions to professors instead of raising one's hand and asking them. Social networking in the classroom. In total: What are we teaching students by facilitating a culture where basic interpersonal skills are neglected, and their semi-anonymous narcissistic predilections coddled?

9. Tapscott praises the wondrous abilities of multitasking snowflakes who get good grades, can do three things at once, and (to my eyes and as mentioned in the NPR segment) are proud of never reading a book. Help me out, I thought the research suggested that multitasking is in fact changing brain structure...but in problematic ways? And that multitaskers perform poorly on said tasks all things being equal?

10. Back to technology. I have seen some great podcasts online of master lecturers from places such as Yale (cheers to my hometown), Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere. But, what of the move to make all lectures available to any who would want to watch them? Is this in conflict with personal and academic freedom? Does the move to put classes and lectures online create the dangerous illusion that consumption by proxy is a fair substitute for having one's butt in the seat of a lecture hall?


Anonymous said...

Yes, that news story made me cringe as well. Wouldn't it be nice if we were helping our students become more thoughtful, capable of sustained thinking, and possibly even better employees.

To add to your excellent points... All our students have laptops, and I can tell you that Facebook beats ANY classroom activity, no matter what activity that is.

Vesuvian Woman said...

You raise many good points and I am inclined to agree with you on most of them.

Theses "Millineum Babies" have awful penmanship and poor grammar. They have a higher tendency to comeplete short-term goals, but standardized tests and essay questions, they have yet to master for all of this "multi-tasking". 'Big Technology' is surely making an effort to keep their latch-key off-spring from making rich Mommy&Daddy look bad.

What is missing from on-line colleges and universitys (amongst others) is the acknowledgement of the psychology of learning; the appreciation of the necessity of the microcosm, in itself an instructor, to guide empathy as well as direction. Students subscribe to education; it is not the parents and not guardians who do. When anyone other than the proposed learner places self behind a desk, chaos ensues as only it can.

In five hundred years of democracy Americans still refuse to accept: You can not save those who don't want to be saved. So much more than open books takes place in a university setting that only people too stupid to attend school for the purpose of education would presume 'going to school' is what it takes to get a fatter paycheck ; )

CNu said...

America is not a democracy, it's a republic.

That aside, I'm glad to see that you're finally coming around to acknowledging the writing on the wall that signals your impending irrelevance.

The 19th century, talking-head expert model of pedagogy is as played out as newsprint and vastly more vulnerable to intelligent disintermediation.

But take heart, even the very best and the very brightest are so profoundly wedded to their stock-in-trade http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

That they've wound up repackaging 19th century chalkboard lectures using 21st century media. The functional equivalent of Pat Boone's version of Tutti Frutti....,

Plane Ideas said...

I am no longer in the classroom like CD is and as such I can't argue with any of his talking points about his opinions on the present day status of education...

Yet I do detect a very defensive theme from CD whichreads like a lot of excuse making for the shortcomings of CD's peers..

More importantly I don't recall the golden era of pedagogy.. Rather then provide a list of my own problems with the educators before the www/social network era I will observe the chatter from the sidelines maybe I can learn something or not...

Tom said...

Having learned plenty both in classes and by self study, I have to come down on the side of CDV. You want to do self study, get the textbook (or click on the link, whatever!) and go to it. Why destroy an educational approach that has (frequently) worked over hundreds of years, simply because we have little beeping accessories velcroed to our bodies at the moment?

Industry and technology come and go. They're hot one year and gone--I mean gone--five years later, much less a hundred. We can't pin our cultural future on that stuff alone.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

No one really learns anything if they aren't pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to work through difficulty. Of course, students hate that part of the process. Hell, I even did as a student, and I was one of the motivated ones. Few people like having to struggle, but struggle is part of learning. No one expects learning to play guitar or to build a house to be easy, why should we think that of learning history or political science?

One thing that has really depressed me is that students are less and less likely to work through the challenge necessary to learn. They are more likely to pick up a complex text, get frustrated, and simply put it down. That happened plenty in the past, but today their unwillingness (and inability) to win the struggle at the heart of learning is approved and served by the system. Why? Because the system is set up to give a stamp of qualification, not provide true learning. Or as George Carlin put it, to make people just smart enough to do their menial jobs, but still stupid and unchallenged enough not to question their economic circumstances. That is what public higher ed in America is becoming, and part of the reason why I got out.

CNu said...

No one really learns anything if they aren't pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to work through difficulty.

Learning should be indistinguishable from play. Its difficulty or tediousness is directly proportional to the competence of the instructor.

One thing that has really depressed me is that students are less and less likely to work through the challenge necessary to learn.

More depressing by far to me is the fact that tuition costs have soared nearly 500% with no corresponding improvement in constituent facing quality of service. The steadily inflating vested interests of a bunch of navel-gazing academics and administrators and the natural tendency of smugly self-satisfied gatekeepers to knowledge "certification" (and by extension - the middle class) be damned!

They are more likely to pick up a complex text, get frustrated, and simply put it down.

If we're not talking about Feynman and quantum mechanics, then the source of the complexity is mightily suspect.

Plane Ideas said...

This debate can't be this one sided for reality and the truth never is..

Laments about the shortcomings of students is tiresome especially if the tale of the tape ends there..

I expect more from this site with regard to analysis...Specially what is wrong on the other side of the educational equation?

How come educators cannot bridge the gap and address these problems? What role does the educator not measure up to? Is it the inability and lack of intellectual capital on part of the educators which creates this loss of hunger and disconnect in our students?

I refused to accept the myopic equation that there is only one approach to solving a problem and that is just blaming the victim/student/culture/ era/technology/...

In my class this type of pedagogy was not present..

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Perhaps I did not make my point clear, or maybe the impersonal nature of internet communication (which tends to lead to unnecessary acrimony) is to blame. I am not saying education ought to be constant struggle, far from it.

I work awfully hard to make what I teach interesting and to use active learning techniques. I do everything I can to make difficult material accessible, and I have gotten high marks on student evaluations for it, fwiw. (I do not subscribe to the idea that good student evals only stem from being "easy." My former colleagues who were the worst teachers often made this accusation.) My job is to help the students learn, but they have to pull their own weight, too.

At the end of the day, if students are going to learn about, say, the Enlightenment, they are going to read Locke, Kant, etc. If they refuse to do the hard work of reading a text written in philosophical language from a different century, that's on them. I don't expect them to totally get it, but at least to struggle with it on their own before coming to class where I can be a guide and prompt discussion. In my experience a large percentage of students would rather not spend even twenty minutes grappling with "What is Enlightenment?" by Kant, which is not that difficult. Most of what I learned in college I learned outside of the classroom. Studies show that students, for a variety of reasons including the need to work to support themselves, spend less time studying outside of class than ever.

To speak to Thrasher's concern, I blame students less than the low expectations put on them by the educational system, as well as the consumerist model that caters to the desire to have everything made easy, whether it serves the interests of learning or not. I have also witnessed, at multiple universities (and not just research universities), professors who don't care about teaching and have absolutely no interest in pedagogy. That is also the product of low expectations of a different sort. This is yet another reason I am glad to now be teaching at a private high school that values active learning rather than at the university level.

Sorry for the long comment.

Historiann said...

Chauncey, I'm your ally in sticking up for the old-fashioned values you express here. Tapscott sounds like yet another hack distracted by Shiny Metal Objects and social media.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nicole. Cringe worthy was an understatement to be sure.

@Vesuvian. All folks don't need to be in college. Moreover, we are raising a generation of binary thinkers raised on standardized tests. This works well for a disengaged citizenry.

@Cnu. You make me cry. Mean subrealism!

@Thrasher. Not defensive, just worried and concerned. This country is going down the crapper--or is always there--the type of learning that is not occurring in the classroom is part of the problem...or more rightly a symptom.

@Tom. Blackboards for all! More seriously, with the digitalization of everything we are creating a disposable culture. Others can chime in on this one, but what to do when those systems become obsolete, cds and files are corrupted, backward compatibility is not ensured, and we regret not having good old fashioned books and paper.

@Werner. It is your fault! You are supposed to cut off the top of their heads and pour the knowledge into their heads, they learn through osmosis. You didn't know that?

@Historiann. I-click or twitter me that answer. That is the only way I can learn.