I’ve blogged quite a bit about a number of higher education topics, but what’s my own vision for higher education? I spent some time with Dr. Beni Balak, Professor of Economics at Rollins College, on the phone for his Punkonomics podcast to discuss the Anazoa Educational Project and my vision for higher education. Follow the link to listen to the podcast.
Have you enjoyed my blogging about workforce preparation and college education? If you like listening to podcasts, I was interviewed by Tim Muma about that topic on LJN Radio.
Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicate that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on paper.
This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted while working on their laptops. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. Students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — rather than thinking about the lecture.
On the other hand, students who take notes on paper have to think about what they’re writing down because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who took notes on paper scored higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.
But in addition to this difference, students taking notes on laptops are indeed distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop, like Facebook, email, and chats.
These bad practices disseminate throughout educational institution. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (a result noted in one study). School administrators listen to these student complaints and attempt to address outmoded instructional methods.
To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen. Schools then have to spend millions of dollars on this tech so have to adjunctify the faculty pool, which further degrades instructional quality. The problem is not that adjunct instructors are bad instructors, but that they are badly paid and badly overworked.
As a result, we have a higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say, the last fifteen to twenty years).
The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the study.
Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion about these ideas:
- Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck, but this tech is continually evolving. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
- There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, so this difference may also be related to how our brains and bodies work together. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
- The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.
- There are always exceptions. Some students need the support provided by electronic devices when note taking. Let’s just be careful not to define the rule by its exceptions.
With the upcoming election cycle, a number of candidates have been discussing a variety of plans for financing college education, some of them being called “free college for all.” I hope at a later date to provide a comprehensive overview of each of the major candidates on education, but at present I would like to take a look at what candidates have been calling “free college.”
First, we have a real problem with student loan debt. Forbes very recently described it as a $1.5 trillion crisis. I know that student loan debt has been around a long time, but it’s ballooning, and students graduating now have a much higher debt to income ratio than students who graduated before 2008. The Forbes link above provides very good historic data about how students have been increasingly taking on higher student loan debt.
Some colleges are better than others, though. As you’ll see in the Forbes data, students graduating from public colleges have the lowest rate of student loan debt (66%), followed by students graduating from private non-profit colleges (75%). The most debt-burdened students are those who graduate from private for-profit colleges (88%), and dangerously, these students also have the lowest graduation rates. The amount of debt held follows the same pattern: those who attended public colleges hold the least debt while those who attend private for-profit colleges hold the most.
Next, 2008 is an important year. It’s the year that the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression hit worldwide. Massive unemployment caused a drop in state revenues, and a drop in state revenues created almost immediate, and very large, cuts in state support for education across the boards. State colleges and universities could only survive by massively increasing tuition, with immediately increased the student loan burden held by students attending these schools.
We should also understand that no one is really promoting “free college.” Bernie Sanders has a plan for “tuition-free” college, which is really taxpayer supported college, but even “tuition-free” college isn’t free college. Students still have to bear the costs of room and board, books, fees, travel, and incidentals, and at many public colleges and universities room and board can be equal to or even twice the cost of tuition. For example, at UCF this year tuition is about $6,300, while room, board, and books is just over $11,500. Sanders’s plan is a great improvement over our current system, but by itself it won’t solve our student loan debt crisis.
We should next take into account state funding. If the Fed stepping in just means that states will cut their funding, that move will cause more damage. As it is, the massive state cuts to higher education funding following the 2008 crash have had ongoing and long term negative effects on higher education. So while we need Federal programs that fund tuition apart from debt, we also need commitments imposed on states to maintain their funding. If the federal government covers tuition, state financial aid should then be redirected toward room, board, and books.
But can we even afford to pay for this? Yes we can — we’re actually very close to paying for it all already. It’s more a matter of how we allocate our current spending and finding a few additional sources of revenue, but that will be the topic of a future post. Taxpayer supported college education is the only viable model going forward, but the details of this plan matter.
I would like to leave you with the thought that we do indeed need to fund college societally. A college education is not a luxury item; college educated citizens are needed for the workforce, and everyone benefits from their presence, even those who never attend college. Without college graduates we would have no roads, infrastructure, buildings, utilities, internet, medical professionals (doctors, nurses, and technicians) — the list could go on. A college education is not a personal luxury, but a societal necessity, and we need to come together to help cover it. Massive debts just mean an inevitable crisis, and right now there is more student loan debt than credit card debt.
When I was sixteen I took Shōrin-ryū lessons with a friend of mine at the local Y. The first thing we asked our instructor was, “When will we receive training with weapons?” Why did we ask this question? Because we were sixteen. Our instructor, who was not sixteen, fortunately, told us that he didn’t train students to use weapons until they were at least a brown belt, which is one stage before black, because weapons are an extension of our bodies. We can’t learn to use weapons properly until we learn to use our bodies properly.
Similarly, technology is an extension of our minds. All the tech in the world won’t make us smarter if we haven’t developed our minds. Without that mental development, we’ll just be idiots with fancy toys, and I think we all know the world has enough of those already. So the first question we need to ask about any educational technology is, “In what ways, exactly, will this educational technology improve our teaching?” My experience with a great deal of educational technology is that the learning curve for instructors and students is so steep, and the tech so buggy, that tech, except when completely necessary, is as much an impediment to learning as it is a benefit.
When we think about the use of tech in education, we should also consider the fact that “traditional education” using “outmoded methods” invented the computer, the cellphone, and put astronauts on the moon. Given the history of education, I think it’s safe to say that educational tech is irrelevant to educational effectiveness. I think it’s important to understand that educational tech is not a magic bullet that will suddenly transform colleges into centers of effective learning (most of them actually are already). The basis of strong education is committed and well-supported instructors.
The Luddites were an early-industrial group of English workers who, because they were under the threat of being displaced by machinery, went out and started destroying machines. I don’t mean to advocate for some kind of twenty-first-century educational Luddism. There is no turning back, or away, from our culture’s dependence upon technology in the foreseeable future. I think we need to distinguish between educating students using technology and educating students to use technology. Rather than looking for the next magic pedagogical bullet in a box, I think we should be teaching our students to code, basic programming languages, how computers and networks work, and so on. We need to raise the bar on technological literacy, in other words, but that’s very different from looking for the latest multimillion dollar pedagogical tool while we continue to disinvest in teachers.
I would like to encourage students and instructors to focus primarily on developing the most advanced technology that we all have: that highly complex processor wet-wired between our ears. Read a lot and read increasingly complex texts. Learn how to write well. Take the most advanced math that you can. No matter what your major, try to get in at least a year of calculus before you finish college, preferably one semester before you finish high school. If you develop yourself in these ways, your tech will be an extension of your highly developed mind enabling you to do things better and faster. If you don’t, your tech will do your thinking for you, and the only possibilities that you’ll ever be able to consider will be determined by the programming parameters of your equipment.