I’ve been reading grim statistics about college education. I am disheartened by the Thomas Hobbesian news. Are you?
But I’m an optimist, so my view of the future is Star Trekkian in nature. I believe it will all be okay, and that we all really want to be gentle with one another. However, I also know that’s not necessarily the case right this minute. I’m on the realism train right now, waiting for my transfer to the science fiction train. In the meantime…
You’ve probably heard of all the hikes in college costs even if you haven’t felt them personally. I’ve seen it at my institution and at those where many of my friends work: tuition increases up to 30% (or more) and reduction in faculty pay or no raises, or the cashiering of whole departments, both academic and administrative support. Goodbye, Mail Room, it’s been nice knowing you. We’ll miss you, Physical Plant, you were great (thanks for handling my heater crisis last winter; I hope I never have any problems with my 40-year old heater again). Ciao, Italian Department, I loved you so much; in bocca al lupo.
Casually looking online for information about college education and income and what the landscape is like these days, it has been easy to get blue. Good news is coming, though–I mean later in this post–so hang in there like you’re in a Great Depression soup kitchen line: there’s shelter and warm food ahead. But first some somber moments brought to you by the government and the New York Times. (It could be the case that everything has turned around in the last month or so because I’m hopelessly out of touch with the world in some ways… wouldn’t that be great? But it’s not likely.)
The short, brutish, nasty news that I dug up without really trying:
- Only 57 percent of 1st time students seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution at the beginning of this millennium finished in 6 years or less. [U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). The Condition of Education 2010 (NCES 2010-028), Indicator 21.] (Took me nine years for a four-year degree in the last millennium. Just saying.)
- Between 1998-99 and 2008-09, the cost of undergraduate college attendance (tuition, room, board) at public institutions rose 32 percent, and prices at private institutions rose 24 percent, after adjustment for inflation. [U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Digest of Education Statistics, 2009 (NCES 2010-013), Chapter 3.]
- Median household income in the U.S. actually fell from $51,295 in 1998 to $50,303 in 2008. [See this brief post at NYTimes.com or the U.S. Census Bureau Report issued in September 2009 on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage.]
I beg your pardon, if my naivete is showing, but it looks like there’s a problem here.
Could there be any good news? I think there is. Folks are talking about college readiness, what that means, and how we can be sure students in high school have it, if they want it (or maybe despite them not wanting it), before they get to college. And some folks are talking about helping those under-prepared for college to get college-ready as soon as possible while they attend the first year or so of college, through summer bridge programs or developmental courses. All that’s good.
Standards are being talked about and written up (but that’s not so hard to do really: “learn this much… ah, there you go, you got it–check, done that–now move on”), and outcomes have been created for nearly everything imaginable. I really like outcomes and standards and rubrics and assessment; it’s good to get on the same page with other educators, with students, across a discipline, to have something to talk about using the same kinds of words and ideas to communicate (avoids the problem Cool Hand Luke had with the Captain: a failure to communicate). (But the “end” is only a start, right? Teaching to meet and exceed all expectations is important still, yes?) The Council of Writing Program Administrators did a wonderful job of developing outcomes for first-year writing, a statement that informs a whole lot of what I think about as a WPA, as someone involved with writing across the curriculum, as a teacher of upper division and graduate courses in my discipline (writing and literature, English studies is a fine name, maybe). The WPA outcomes are great stuff because they are forward thinking addressing what faculty can do beyond first year writing because becoming a writer is never over. We just open the door in freshman comp, students walk down the writing hallway forever after that. But the WPA folks are always doing this sort of thing: thinking about how to clarify what learning can be, how we can work together, bridge gaps, meet needs. So this is all fine, too.
But is that it? Even if it is (it’s not), I wouldn’t dream of giving up on the doing of college degree work of any kind. Some of it is better than nothing, and most of it is pretty great. Even a little can go a long way in changing a person’s life. But there’s a disconnect if so many students can’t get through it all.
For those who need extra support to get through college, there is hope. At least there is learning to be had that isn’t that expensive. For the price of a computer or time spent in a computer lab (if you’re already in college and have access to a university computer), one can get a LOT of really great learning experiences online. If only students knew where to look, so that those 43% who die on the vine at college might could maybe hopefully stick around and get something for their energy and investment. How could we help them? Hmmm. Oh, wait. There’s open educational resources (OER). Here’s the gist from a relatively old document (February 2007), a report to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (5):
The definition of OER varies a bit according to where you look (and 2007 as the date for this makes it long in the tooth by online standards), but this is fine with me (it’s the H of the Hewlett Packard…how off can these people be?). Creative Commons (see footnote) is a licensing entity that allows folks to understand a thing’s origins and intended uses: “Share, Remix, Reuse — Legally.” They actually define themselves this way (very sharp): “Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.” They are all about intellectual property management. Just wow.
OER can be whole courses like those at MIT and other schools (over 200 universities around the world) like those who participate in the Open Courseware Consortium which are made available to anyone who can get access (accessibility is an issue for some, but OER visioneers are working on changing who and when and how access happens). Other groups impress me with how they are working to get educational materials into the hands of everyone (in no special order):
- College Open Textbooks (an amazing place with loads of books… open–already yours; it was started by a huge group of folks including community colleges, nonprofit groups, funding organizations, government agencies and more–please go and see this. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Vol. 1 is listed among English & Composition texts. Well done us.)
- MERLOT: Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching (get past the first page–it’s hard to read)
- Connexions (at Rice University)
- Next Generation Learning (I like this because: 1) it smacks of Star Trek; 2) they are looking at both secondary and post-secondary OER; 3) it’s so right–well, I want it to be so right–it’s really just beginning.)
- Kahn Academy (I am taken by this OER–one guy started this–just began teaching math.)
- AND check this out: P2PU. Peer 2 Peer University. Courses are FREE; all materials are openly available on the web; groups of peers come together to learn. Inconceivable. Well not really, but still, it had to be said. Scenario: I heard about Python the other day while listening to a Ted.com talk–I wished I knew more about it. Apparently, it’s a computer program of some kind. P2PU offers a course called, “Learn Python the Hard Way.” The leader is a biologist who has taught programming to 7th graders and believes it’s a skill and art as important to education as learning English and math. Well. Maybe I should take the class. I could if I wanted to: free.
You can learn a lot more from The Free to Learn Guide (there are ever so many more OER sites and creators and innovators in that document than I could intelligently list here–go, read, learn–for free). I’m overwhelmed by the choices available to me as an educator, as a student, as a life-long learner, but I am determined to embrace this OER thing in all aspects of my life (especially as a person responsible for nurturing one young life). I have never believed education should be limited to those who have easy access, so this is all the way down to the very end of my continuum of the right things to do. Do I want students in Singapore to use OER I might create and prosper because of it? I wish. My dreams come true. And in Zimbabwe. In Germany. In Romania. Anywhere. Anytime. And do I want teachers to improve upon what I do or do something fascinating with what I create that I couldn’t imagine alone? Yes. 1,000 times yes.
Community matters, collaboration matters, cooperation matters, communication matters, composition matters, creating citizens matters–all the Cs matter. (Alliteration matters. Of course. I’m was an English major for heaven’s sake.) Developing OER in sustainable ways so that communities of educated citizens of the world grow and prosper together, understand one another better, work well together to problem solve… well, who could be against that? Are you against world peace? I hope not.
Money matters, too. Students can be poor and still want to learn. I get that when I look at books that cost over $100 or into the $200 range. It’s so bad crazy to think a book I’d read once and over the course of a few months is a third of what some people in the world make in a year. The disparity of it riles me. When I was an undergrad, I bought used books a lot, sold back my used books (at a fraction of what I paid, and then only read parts of them, or none of them–sigh). I remember scraping together money to buy more books I needed to learn whatever I needed to learn. Yuck. I dreaded the book buying each semester. Okay, I loved it. I love getting new books, but it was always expensive. OER texts for students is just one tiny reason this stuff is so great. Remember how 43% crash and burn in some way, and remember how the economy sucks? I’m taking a geography class this term and am lucky to have gotten a book from a friend for free, because it costs $150 at the bookstore. And while I’m employed at a university and can attend classes for free, $150 is still a lot of meals to give up to buy a book that I’m reading half of for the term. LOVE my class and my teacher, but $150 is also a pair of shoes, or a fabulous dinner out for my father and me, or half my airfare to visit my best friend 1,000 miles to the west. (By the way, I think every teacher needs to go back to school and take one class with a great teacher. It’s wild stuff to be in someone’s class at this point in my career as a student. I’m learning as much about teaching as I am about geographic information systems–I also have a writing assignment due soon that will be a blog post at some point, of course. I can’t wait. I have criteria; it rocks.)
But OER isn’t just about money, or about not having much money as a student, it’s also about creating a community of learners that isn’t restricted to those other 19, or 249, or 5 students in a class. It’s about all the students studying geography, history, Italian, or immunology. It’s about all teachers of whatever subjects are possibly taught anywhere anytime in any way finding a connection to each other, to learn together through curriculum, texts, and ideas that can be remixed, reused, and revised, and rewoven to teach, teach, teach.
And learn, learn, learn. Students who are struggling with math–go to Kahn Academy. Students who are struggling with writing–go to Writing Spaces. Students who are struggling with understanding cash flow statements–go to MERLOT. Students who are struggling with Immanuel Kant’s view of the mind and the consciousness of self–go to the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Students who need to know programming and don’t: P2PU. It’s all like having a teacher in your pocket.
It’s joyful for me to contemplate how I am mixed up in all this in a small way through Writing Spaces. I already see how it, and OER in general, is changing the way I teach, how I think about collaboration, curriculum development, textbooks, learning, and digital stuff/new media/whatever you want to call it all. How I think is changing.
OER is a concept that could literally change the world; it’s like having a teacher in my pocket. Whenever I want to learn about anything, I just ask. That is so Star Trek.