Is College like a pub? What do the folks paying for college expect to get?

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky suggests that the reason people make creative amateur media contributions (photos, videos, blog posts and the like) and make them freely available sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, twitter and the like has much to do with the convivial social atmosphere created by such amateur media outlets.  To explain this, Shirky uses the analogy of drinking beer in a pub (or one could use eating a meal in a restaurant).  He suggests that drinking beer (or eating) at home is much cheaper.  But people are will to pay double for the social atmosphere and easy access to the object of their consumption.

This analogy started me thinking about why people are willing to pay for the kind of education that colleges can offer, particularly when the availability of information is greater than ever and access to that information is rapidly approaching free?

Like drinking a beer in a pub or eating a meal in a restaurant, people can acquire information much cheaply at home in the networked information age than what people seem to be willing to pay for the experience that earns a college degree.  This suggests to me that people are not really paying for the information that they may or may not acquire in the college setting.

So what are people paying for?

One of the things people are paying for when they buy education from a college is socialization.  People want to experience the college life.  The culture of college life is reputed to be about freedom and friends, which appeals to the prospective student, and learning to behave responsibly and civilly and learning how to work with non-related adults in the knowledge industry, which appeals to parents. Indeed, college is about socializing students into the knowledge economy in an environment where failure and mistakes are acceptable, expected and recoverable. Educators expect students to make mistakes and offer opportunities for them to learn from those mistakes in large part because that’s the way the knowledge economy works.  We disservice our students if we don’t challenge them, support them and hold them accountable for their performance.  After all, that’s a chief reason for paying what it costs to go to college.

Another thing people expect in return for their tuition is curated information and learning processes. I first encountered the idea of curation listening to a presentation by Robert Milliron, formerly a key person at the Gates Foundation and now at Western Governors University.  Milliron explored the idea that in older educational models information was rare and expensive, but in the new information economy information was so readily available and rapidly produced that to consume it was like drinking water from a fire hose.  Milliron’s suggested that a key role for educators is to provide expert curation of the best information for students to learn.  In addition to curating information, which could also be done and has often been done for free online (see the Internet Movie Database for instance), consumers also expect colleges to curate effective learning process.  The professor says, “Here’s the content you should think about and this is the approach to thinking about how to do something with it that will enable you to really learn it and be ready to apply it.”

A third thing for which people in a knowledge economy are willing to pay a premium is the certainty that the teacher is competent.  People expect that because the curation of information and the learning process has been so teacher-centric in the past. However, we must re-envision the role of the professor in the free information knowledge-based economy.  If find ways to properly curate the information and the learning process, the professor’s role becomes much more that of a coach and tutor. To be competent, the professor must understand the learning process, have some degree of mastery of the content, and understand where students get stuck and how to help them get unstuck.  The key purpose of the professor is to serve as a guide to assist the learner in navigating the new and exotic territory of an academic discipline. The student has to do a great deal of work and create him or herself as a curious explorer to learn the new landscape, but the professor must be there to offer technical advice about the learning process, convey and model the particular disciplinary or interdisciplinary ways to think about and work with the material at hand effectively.

It is important to note that in this transitional period, the services people want is often not what they get when they enroll in a course and thus hire a field competent professor. Today’s professor, the academic historian, chemist, literary critic, economist, accountant, biologist, etc. may in fact have no clue about how to curate the learning process or coach the student through it. He or she may know a lot about the field, and if the student and field expert engage in a mentoring relationship then the student can learn a lot by watching and imitating and listening to pick up on point of view, etc.  But that occurs only if there is a significant amount of interaction between professors and students that requires working together with the content under study.

In our new world, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the older educational models may fall short of what the purchasers of a college education want, we must ask: is the professor willing to become a master at androgogy in exchange for employment in a teaching-learning centered college, or should the content expert serve as mentor, advisor, and colleague to the student, leaving course design and academic coaching to others or is the content experts job something else entirely. REMEMBER information is not what people are paying for but rather effective curation and guidance.

The final thing people are willing to pay for is credentialing. Possessing the writ of transcript, the university can confer upon someone certification that they have learned to do and come to be what is expected of a novice in a particular field of knowledge. I use the word novice intentionally. If, as gurus of mastery suggest, it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, and if a college major is about 45 credit hours in duration, and if the student is fully engaged, then the student practices the skills of the discipline for about 2000 hours.

Since there are likely multiple skills embedded in being a historian or chemist, we have at best introduced the basic tools and showed the student how to make simple moves that can be practiced and built upon in the shop of a masterful employer.  Thinking about educational certification in light of the processes used to create mastery in medieval guild systems and the time it takes to achieve it helps clarify thinking about appropriate student learning outcomes and to what point a student be reasonably expected to arrive by he end of a course or a curriculum of study.

Thinking this through carefully and articulating it clearly to all constituents is key to meaningful credentialing and takes a bit of wind out of the sails of the educational critics. Learning must happen in college.  Students must make intellectual progress while in college, but mastery is not something tobe looked for in a freshly minted BA.  What we can reasonably expect is basic awareness of the intellectual forms that shape the view and practices of the discipline, basic skills in standard practices embedded in the discipline, the ability to continue learning and improving, and general skills in problem solving and communication. Start with this and 8000 hours of reflective work later, one may see a master.

All this in mind, we must ask the question, if these are the things that people are paying for, is this what college is PROVIDING? I suggest that in many instances it is not.

Major universities teach with apprentices who neither really understand yet the content nor the androgogy.

Colleges have diminished the importance of androgical competence in favor of terminal degrees and/or faculty productivity. Neither of which are guarantees that a professor trained to a point near mastery in the research problems related to his discipline can curate an educational experience or effectively coach an undergraduate.

Calls for better trained faculty, trained in proper androgogy, are sometimes acknowledged but he vast majority of colleges and universities devote little strategic energy to making a wholesale transformation in faculty culture or in the strategic mission of the university.

In the end, if the traditional college model continues to move hesitantly to address the rapidly changing world and its new information economy, then it deserves to suffer in the face of the disruptions causes by for-profit and on-line colleges.  The time is right to leverage the potential of the brick and mortar campus for the sake of the college experience and empower the student experience in that context with potent intentional educational practices that prepare students to become effective contributors to our knowledge based 21st century economy.

General Education

What is the minimum that colleges and universities should expect of their graduates? That question is what educators have been asking for decades if not centuries. Good faculty ask it of themselves every time they teach a class and wonder about it as they sit in graduation ceremonies.

Here’s my list of minimum expectations:

1) Critical Thinking: upon completing a university degree, college graduates are able to critically evaluate the assumptions, presuppositions, and arguments (both subtle and direct) embedded in expressions of thought and culture by individuals and societies.

2) Problem Solving: College graduates can solve problems creatively by drawing upon appropriate principles, methods, and examples from a variety of disciplines, predict possible consequences (positive and negative) of a range of potential actions, evaluate (if appropriate) possible solutions in an ethical framework, decide upon the best solution, and successfully plan and execute the chosen solution. Of course, one would hope they come in with those skills, but since many don’t, college educators must remediate when necessary and help our students extend their abilities in this area.

3) Effective Communication: College graduates can construct rational arguments based on solid evidence acquired from appropriate sources and through the use of the best available methods and can communicate those arguments clearly and concisely using sound rhetorical strategies in both speech and writing. Of course, students come to college with elements of these skills in place. As with any skill, practice makes better. Students must practice and refine these skills so that good communication skills comes second nature. They can stand up and speak well at the drop of a hat if necessary or sit down and compose a text, using proper grammar and spelling, that argues of point or narrates an event.

4) Aesthetic Analysis: College graduates have the ability to critically evaluate artistic expressions, including the fine arts, music, drama, literature, media, and human movement (i.e., dance, sports), through the use of political, sociological, anthropological and aesthetic theories.

5) Science and Technology: College graduates can critically evaluate developments in science, technology, and health on the basis of elementary principles, good scientific practices, and the proper interpretation of mathematical models and statistics.

6) Global Perspectives: College graduates are able to interpret and contextualize current events in light of historical, geographical, sociological, economic, and political contexts.

7) Information Literacy: College graduates are able to consult various sources of information and critically evaluate the information and its source for veracity, authenticity and usefulness. They are aware of the wide variety of sources available for gathering information including library reference areas, paper and electronic finding aids, government issued documents, paper and online periodicals, as well as material revealed by internet search engines and are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Of course college students learn many other things, but if they learned to do these across the board, I think we would all be pretty happy. Margaret Spellings would not be wondering if colleges were doing their job well enough for the federal government to fund them through student loans. Parents and students would know that their money was well spent. Employers would see increased productivity. That may be a little pie in sky, but I’m convinced this is doable. These expectations are reasonable and faculty and students should expect to accomplish them in the course of the college curriculum.