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.

Calling forth the 21st Century Digital Librarian, please…

Take ebook rental to a better price point, say $.99 for 30 days, for all books and this will almost end undergraduate brick/mortar library usage. (See

Add completion of Google Books and Google Library…or whatever that has been or will be relabeled, and all but archival manuscripts may soon be fully on the web.

Add to this that many archives are working hard to digitize and make available their collections and…well, my friends, what will we do with that edifice we call the library? There’s lots of square footage in there.

More importantly, what will those librarians be doing?

I love the library and my librarian colleagues. And the days maintaining large collections of paper books, no matter how aesthetically pleasing they are to hold, smell, and caress with hand and eye, are drawing to a close.

But now, I need my librarian colleagues even more than I did before. After all, I could navigate the card catalog, or whatever we started calling it when it went to computer. The real need for me and my students is professional and scholarly digital curation.

I can’t read all the books on a topic that I now find available. I certainly can’t keep up with the best digitally created content on the topic.

I need something smarter than a web aggregator or a search engine search. Twitter is great for getting links to sometimes relevant news from my “friends” but when I get serious about information, I need a to rely on a big head, not a long tail (see Clay Shirky on institutions vs. collaboration | Video on

I need someone smart and academic to curate introductory information sources (create topical bibliographies = books, articles, digital content). When I, a professionally trained historian, get interested in chaos theory and network science, I need something like… “Chaos Theory for the Non-Scientist” that takes me to two accessible, must-read-first books (that I will rent for 30 days for $.99) by notable folks in the field, three solid articles (that I will read on JSTOR), and an active blog site or two. And this needs to be kept relatively up-to-date. Not stale and dated like The American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature (, which of course in its day was GREAT.

To such curations, I can also point students.

I can hear the gasps from a stodgy colleage in a Research 1 school now, “What you aren’t keeping up in your field, are you that lazy! You call yourself a scholar?!”

Why yes, thank you, I can curate in my own particular field — mostly — but my awareness of even related fields in my discipline that I once kept up on has gotten so stale that I find myself recommending students to 20 year old “classics” (are they or are they just books I read new and thought were good then?) in those fields. For instance, when some student asks about American economic history and I scan my bookshelves for something to hand her, I know somebody has surely moved past Gabriel Kolko and Robert Wiebe by now (did I say 20 year old classics?).

Add to this that when one teaches broad introductory undergraduate courses, and ask students to write research papers, it would be great to have a wide array of professionally pre-curated collections to point them to once they’ve gotten through their a quarternary overview of the topic via wikipedia.

This I need. For many of my colleagues in library services, I suspect that such work would be more stimulating and fulfilling than making latte’s in the library coffee bar. And I’d really use it and I think my students would to.

I suppose if we can’t pull this off with our information professional workforce here in the States, Google or somebody will likely get some folks in Madras who can.

(Angel Investors interested in putting some millions into such a project can contact me here 🙂 )

Three Ways to Teach through Feedback to Promote Better Learning

“Feedback is Teaching, Too”

I saw that as the title of a session I couldn’t go to at the Higher Learning Commission this week. And, even though I couldn’t attend it, that phase has been ruminating in my intellectual stomach for a couple of days now. I think it began to create the necessary bridge in my mind to inspire a dawning “Aha” revelation (and I know some of you are saying, “duh”).

Providing clear and timely feedback is an educational best practice.  I know that intellectually and so do many of my collegues.  Sadly, the behavior of many students over the years have taught their teachers and professors that providing feedback is a waste of time. That often happens when the paper upon which the feedback is written is dropped in the trash on the way out of the room. The message communicated by that act is: “I saw my grade and your advice is not relevant to me.”

When I think about the feedback that I have given, though. I suspect it was not as constructive and useful as it could have been. Cryptic and critical editing comments, such as “be concise!” or “avoid passive voice” or “THESIS!?” in the margins may not have provided students with feedback they could handle or use.

Also, I sometimes gave (and sometimes still do give) one-off assignments. If I have students read a couple of primary sources and write a summary and analysis paper on them, and that is the only summary and analysis paper they will write for the class, there is little chance they will see reading and reflecting on the specific feedback that I provide them as important. They might glance at it, but aren’t likely to have any motivation to pour over it, reflect on it, and learn from it.

In that light, it strikes me that I need to take giving feedback more seriously as a strategic teaching strategy.

For this to work, I think that I will have to be more intentional about defining the habits and dispositions I want my students to develop. Then I need to design assignments that practice them in these habits and dispositions and have them do at least three similar assignments that incorporate lessons learned from previous feedback into them.

I need to think carefully about what I need to point out that will help the student improve on the next assignment. Then I need to clearly communicate that.

Idea # 1: Grading Rubric

I have found that using a grading rubric helpful in speeding up the grading process. The grading rubric focuses my attention on the things that I identified as important when I created the assignment. However, when following the what is sometimes a pretty complex and time consuming approach to making a tabular grading rubric, I give up.

I often get stumped trying to think of how to express the five different levels of distinction necessary to put in the boxes under gradations of performance descriptions (ie poor to great). I suppose that might be because I create more gradations of quality than is really useful (I like to use 5, when maybe there are only 3 levels of distinction that I can clearly articulate, so maybe I should just use three, until I figure out the other distinctions).

For a quicky on rubrics see the Wikipedia page on the Rubrics

Or, maybe, to make it more personal, I might use the idea presented several years ago by my colleague Howard Culbertson who used in those days wordperfect macros to create personalized letters with relevant feedback for each student.

Idea # 2: Drafting:

Another approach to getting students to engage in incorporating learning through feedback into performance improvement might be to create an assignment that comes in early enough that it I can use drafting techniques to help them improve. I must say that I’m a little reticent to use this time-honored approach for two reasons:

a) When students hear “turn in a draft” they don’t seem to put their best effort into creating it; and

b) I like to use assignments to cause students to engage in thinking about content.

Since I teach history, the flow of time covered over the course means that when a few weeks go by, I like to have an assignment topic situated relevantly within that flow.  I’m sure that drafting and revision based on feedback would work great on many semester long project assignments.

Idea # 3: Feedback Reflection Journal:

I like to use the Learning Journal approach that I picked up from MaryEllen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching. I think I could modify that assignment, which as it stands now asks “what did you learn, what impeded your learning, what could we do different” to ask students to reflect on my feedback on assignments. Maybe they would address:

Summarize the main points of the feedback you received from me (or others) on your last assignment.

What could you do differently, based on that feedback, to improve the quality of your work on the next assignment?

In an ideal world, I would ask the student to do a self assessment of their work at the time they turn it in, too, and compare and contrast their self-assessment with my feedback. But that seems to be getting too complex.

I think that perhaps the key point is I need to do a better job of providing timely, relevant feedback and find a way to engage the student in a learning conversation around that feedback and provide them another opportunity to demonstrate that learning.

For more practical tips on this topic see The Teaching Professor Blog post on giving feedback.