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Change Magazine - November-December 2014
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November-December 2014

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Editorial: Mattering to Students

Things have changed in society in ways that make people's questions about traditional higher education's relevance to and fit with the contemporary world increasingly pointed.

To begin with, outside of classrooms, students are learning in new ways that are not congruent with how we structure curricula or teach classes. For instance, here's the way Carson Wong, in the Listening to Students feature in this issue, describes how he and his teammates created robots when they were in high school:

Back in the garage, the process of building a robot would go something like this: brainstorm ideas to respond to a challenge, do research, discuss ideas on forums, build, test, and reiterate before competing. Experimentation and trial and error would take place practically every day.

This sounds a lot like John Seely Brown's description of how young people learn on line: “Link, lurk [i.e., identify the challenge], and try”—and try again. It's also very similar to the way Gintaras Duda, in this issue's Teachable Moment, says physicists work: “PhD students or researchers in industry or at a national lab don't take a course when faced with unfamiliar material. Instead, they dig into the literature, seek help from colleagues and mentors, and try to work through it themselves, step by step.”

Academic learning doesn't typically proceed this way—or it hasn't. Take teacher education, for instance, where students often spend years studying the history of education and child development before getting in front of a classroom and finding out that they don't like kids.

Lauren S. Cardon points out how the information-gathering strategies that work online have shaped the learning habits of young people: “With the infinite amount of information at their disposal via the Internet, [millennials] are accustomed to fine-tuning their search inquiries to find material they deem the most useful, valuable, and interesting.”

They are also used to creating content. With the new technologies, anyone can become a designer, visualize their creations, and (especially now, with the advent of 3-D printing), produce them. My father was a photographer when every picture cost something—for the film, the processing, and the printing—so he was parsimonious in his shooting, even though he said that to take a good picture, you had to take a lot of them. So how many pictures do you currently have stored on your smartphone? And are a handful of them really good, if you do say so yourself?

Moreover, students today are used to carrying their technology with them—leading some educators at a conference I recently attended to talk not about “e-learning” but about “m-learning” (“m” is for “mobile”). Students treat their smartphones as prostheses, arms that fusty old professors want to rip out of their sockets—anticipating, perhaps, the next phase of technological development, in which the devices will become wearables.

As one presenter at the same conference put it, students today are “place agnostic”—which both enables the kind of distance mentoring that Analia Albuja and Steven Greenlaw described in the last issue of Change and makes students annoyed at being herded into seats arranged in forward-facing rows. Garages are preferable to traditional classrooms, and “whenever” is preferable to set times doled out in 50-minute segments. Hence students' pleasure at “having it their way,” at least as to which virtual classroom sessions they will attend from week to week, as Wendy Cowan and Mark Gale describe it.

This doesn't mean that students don't want the communal “college experience.” For traditional-age students, this includes living in dorms, joining sports teams, participating in student organizations, performing community service—and even doing academic projects in teams. As Chris Gallagher points out, “students in 1970s competency-based programs benefited from—and often demanded—social, place-based learning.” And Cowan and Gale remind us that relationships play a critical role in student persistence—and that relationships can be fostered in virtual as well as place-based communities.

Of course, different students want different things. The motivations of the adults who attend College for America, as Kris Clerkin and Yvonne Simon describe them, differ from those of the millennials Cardon portrays. Even the latter group contains both the Carson Wongs of the world, who launched his robotics career as a high school student, and the students in Idaho who have not been well served by the K-12 standards in that state, according to Tom Luna, Mike Rush, Rod Gramer, and Roger Stewart—not to mention the first-generation students described in the last issue. And then there are the international students, whose needs differ from those of native students—as Sheila Schulte and Rahul Choudaha discovered. We need to be sensitive to all those differences.

These students do have one thing in common, though: They want to be prepared for the work world. Although those of us in the humanities might object to it, the idea that one of the chief functions of higher education is to prepare and credential people for careers has been around for a long time—at least for graduates who didn't have an assured social and professional place waiting for them, regardless of what they studied. We may understand that the working adult students to whom College for America appeals have this aim, but many of us believe it is a misplaced emphasis for younger students.

Nevertheless, millennial students too want college to be, at least in part, a road to financial well-being. But they are skeptical about higher education's capacity to serve this function. And they have drop-out heroes to point to. As Joshua Videlefsky, one of several students quoted in Lauren Cardon's article on the millennials' disillusionment with higher education, comments, “More and more young adults are being inspired by the success stories of people like Albert Einstein, Akio Morita, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs and many more who did not complete college.”

His sentiment is echoed by Wong, who says,

As each semester passed, I sympathized more and more with the college-dropout success stories: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. Dropping out of school did not seem like a possibility because of the way I was brought up. But I'm beginning to believe strongly that a college degree has little correlation with financial success.

Often, what's holding these students in school are parental expectations, based on what their offspring perceive as the old-fashioned belief that college is a necessary condition for financial security and success. It may seem to the adults that thinking that you will become the next Steve Jobs is about as realistic as Wong's high-school ambition to play for the NBA, but big dreams are one of the most necessary, appealing, and in any case inescapable features of youth.

Would they be this skeptical if they were learning the way they want and are used to outside of class—if they were producing usable ideas and documents like Cardon's students or learning “the fundamental principles of physics by solving real-world problems in groups,” like Duda's? Would they stick with us if they were part of virtual communities such as those offered at Athens State or had access to competency-based education that avoids the hyper-individualism that Gallagher warns us about?

We need to give our students high-quality choices that build in the kind of spatial and temporal flexibility that technology affords and the satisfactions of working on ideas that matter, as well as the pleasure of producing something. If we aren't up to the challenge, Carson Wong may well head back to his garage.

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