By Ernie Kulhanek
Delaware Technical Community College
Welcome back to the online book club discussion of Teaching Naked, by Dr. José Bowen. Last time we reviewed the Preface of the book; today we will jump right in with the first three chapters. These chapters are clustered together as Part I: The Digital Landscape.
Chapter 1: The Flat Classroom and Global Competition
In Chapter 1, Bowen acknowledges that eLearning is not just unique to education. Because this method has been around for a long time, and is employed in nearly every sector (including business, government and medicine), people have come to expect what eLearning offers–that is, individualized help, mastery-based tutorials, immediate and convenient feedback , as well as free online options. Bowen says
The point here is not that online learning is better, but it is here. Outside of traditional higher education, online resources have been transformative: you can already become a pilot, pharmacist, veterinarian, lawyer or rabbi online. With other industries believing that learning can take place on a flat screen, online learning challenges higher education’s traditional course delivery model and its ability to increase tuition. (p.9)
This quote is important because, according to Bowen, higher education is one of the few remaining industries in which the price of admission doesn’t fully cover the cost of the service. Students (and potential students, of course) do not want to hear this, particularly in the current era of outrageous tuition costs. But how can colleges give students what they want, which is a cheap (or free) education available even to those who never step foot on campus, and continue to be solvent?
Another point Bowen raises is the inevitability of competition. This section read like a warning to all higher education employees. He draws an analogy to the automobile industry of 1970s Detroit. When the established (American) brands were dominant they did not worry about new, and inferior, competition. When new car companies entered the market (Honda, Toyota, Datsun), the established brands convinced themselves that no one would want to buy these foreign, cheaper, more efficient cars for two reasons:
First, when you are surrounded by existing technology that works you are less likely to see the value in innovation.
Second, no one is scared of brands without name recognition until they are established and begin rolling out luxury brands. Bowen goes on to say that “The University of Phoenix is already the world’s largest university and may be the Honda of our age. What will its Acura look like?” (p. 13)
At this point in the chapter, all of the “yeah, but” statements flooded my mind. I am sure you are at the same point. “Yeah, but the University of Phoenix does not offer the same quality of education as the University of Delaware, let alone Harvard.”
This is undoubtedly true, at least for now. Bowen admits that in today’s environment, students are “learning for credentials.” In other words, yes students pay more to go to a more prestigious institution, but they are not paying for the education, they are paying for the name on the top of the diploma. However, in order for this to continue to be true, these pricier institutions have to prove they offer more than other, cheaper options. Bowen says that parents, students, and legislators are calling for increased accountability in higher education.
While proponents of the traditional model argue that cheap, online degrees offered by for-profit universities have to prove they can educate as well as traditional institutions, everyone else (in this case, consumers) is saying that traditional colleges and universities need to prove that their more expensive way of doing things truly is superior.
One thing that seems certain is that the current pricing structure of higher education will not survive. In the past, students have viewed education like wine: if it costs more, it must be better. Obviously this is not always true. But even if it were, there will come a point where the perceived stigma of an online education is worth the savings of an overpriced, yet traditionally valued, education.
Will the college bubble replace the housing bubble this country has just moved through? Eventually, probably. Until that happens, or in order to keep that from happening, traditional colleges must create value. The value of a liberal arts education is the critical thinking skills one learns. Thus, developing critical thinking skills should be the number one goal for faculty at liberal arts schools. If this is the case, then higher education should be structured around delivery of content. Yet most college professors have no formal preparation for teaching. Is this wise? Bowen argues that
We need to adjust our classrooms to focus less on content and more on application of material to new contexts, development of intellectual curiosity, investment in the material, evaluation, synthesis, challenging personal beliefs, development of higher-level cognitive processing, oral and written communication skills, construction and negotiation of meaning, information literacy, connection of information across disciplines, teamwork, and reflection on the significance of content. (p. 21)
Now, as an instructor who literally teaches a course called “Critical Thinking and Academic Writing,” this sounds perfectly reasonable to me. In fact, Bowen’s list reads like the table of contents for my textbook. But not every instructor is in the same position. Do you agree with Bowen when he says that we should focus less on content and more on critical thinking?
Consider this – Bowen’s central argument is that delivery of content is already being done more cheaply and conveniently online. What are we offering students when we say we have content knowledge when the internet has the same content knowledge available on-demand, and mostly for free? To remain valuable, traditional higher education institutions need to focus on training students to be the sorts of critical thinkers that employers, and the public at large, insist on having. In order to do this, any college “outside of the top 20 brands” needs better pedagogy.
Bowen closes the first chapter with the four current business models for higher education:
Free model: This model will survive because major universities, governments and philanthropists are willing to support it.
Elite university model: Here education is not the point – the brand name is. This model will survive due to the power of alumni networking.
For-profit and community college model: This model is flexible, convenient and results oriented. This will survive because potential students demand it and are willing to pay for what they want.
Traditional colleges without an elite brand: These colleges are too expensive and inconvenient. This model must adapt or perish.
The good news is that he thinks the community college model (which I think we can all agree is important to this institution) will survive, provided we remain valuable by offering students what they cannot get elsewhere cheaper or more conveniently.
Chapter 2: Social Proximity and the Virtual Classroom
Chapter 2 discusses how professors and instructors should view virtual communities and e-communication. Bowen argues that students no longer depend on physical proximity to develop and nurture relationships due to the rise of on-line social networking as a communication tool. He argues that this is not necessarily a good thing by saying “Time for reflection and interaction is a casualty of the digital age, and one of the primary goals of higher education should be to reclaim this time” (p. 27).
Here is where Bowen begins to outline his plan to use technology to demonstrate the true value of a traditional, face-to-face institution. He argues that traditional higher education institutions should reclaim this valuable time by extending class time by reaching students wherever and whenever they are, paradoxically using the same technology that is competing with the traditional model.
This idea struck me as very interesting and applicable to my situation as an instructor at a community college. Creating a community of learners is difficult for community colleges where students do not live, eat, sleep, or socialize in close physical proximity. We should understand the value of texting, skype, Facebook, twitter, etc. in creating a virtual social community that can then overlap with an online academic community that helps to shape student culture and influence student learning.
In order to do this, we as faculty need to embrace this method of communication. When we are loathe to embrace the digital lifestyle of our students, we communicate to them that our courses lack value and relevancy to their lives. We also need to understand how to use emerging technology because it is a 21st century skill. Doing things the old way is not always better. When I talk to fellow educators, it is this idea that generally gets people upset. However, consider the medical community. How many of us would like our doctors and hospitals to use methods developed decades ago simply because “the old way of doing things worked just fine”?
Furthermore, e-communication bridged the gap of power differential between students and teachers. Students are afraid of teachers because they feel powerless. But if they fear us, how can they learn from us? One way of removing fear is to demonstrate that we are not outdated robots. Surprise! We too are people. In their minds, people do certain things. People text, tweet, play games on their phones, and post to Facebook and Twitter accounts. If you do none of this, how can you possibly be a person? Also – how can we expect to be taken seriously when we critique their methods of communication and way of life if we do not understand it?
Beyond being viewed as a person and understanding this new generation, Bowen argues there are economic and curricular implications of embracing this type of proximity. The potential for an increase in faculty-student interaction is tremendous. More does not necessarily mean better, but the opportunity for more practice and application is there. This could have an enormous impact on adjuncts. Students take online classes because they can be living anywhere in the world while taking a class from their particular institution. Imagine being able to teach for universities set in cities which you have never even visited. Bowen’s point about this new phase in higher education is that “getting the balance of humanity and technology right is everyone’s new mission,” particularly if we want to serve our students in a sustainable way (p. 49).
Chapter 3: Games, Customization, and Learning
Chapter 3 was an eye opening chapter for me. Bowen says that video games are now the world’s most common teacher. In fact, one study he cited states that 99% of all teenage boys and 94% of all teenage girls play video games regularly (p. 62). If so many people are being taught by video games, shouldn’t we should really be paying attention to how they are being taught? Gaming’s most valuable attribute is customization. Players are offered a variety of choices as they work their way through the game.
In today’s environment, students view themselves as customers, and after all, the customer is always right. “Have it your way” does not just apply to ordering from Burger King anymore. The annoyance of students’ demand for customer service is felt strongly by some faculty. De-valuing education by likening it to any other transaction does not sit well with a population that has dedicated its life to the more romantic aspects of the process. However, I wonder if there are benefits to approaching education this way?
Bowen says that “games are just an endless series of tests, a constant stream of problem solving and assessment” (p. 59). I have spent many hours playing video games, in addition to hours writing and grading tests, and I can say that I personally agree with this premise. So maybe education should be accomplished through gaming and customization. After all, the learning principles of games – customization (allows different types of people to play), risk taking (low consequences for failure), performance before competence (no instruction manual or textbook), pleasant frustration (challenging but surmountable), interaction (gives immediate feedback), agency and identity (see the value), situated meetings (learning in context), on demand (delivers information when gamers need it to apply immediately) – are all conducive to what I am trying to get my classroom to look like.
Not only that, but the skills that games offer to those who master it – systems thinking, sequential problem solving, lateral thinking, distributed knowledge, cross functional teams and production – are the exact 21st century skills that employers want their employees to have (pp. 59-61). Isn’t my job supposed to be helping students gain these skills?
Bowen closes the section by stating
Technology is taking us in two directions at once. The explosion of information has created a wealth of primary data that is a wonderful resource for learning activities. But the trend toward less quantity and more customized information increases the importance of authority (who is doing the customization), and it also provides an opportunity to rethink the relationship between the content and thinking in our educational models. (p. 64)
In other words – we do not need to have students remember things. We need them to categorize and analyze things the internet can tell them. We need them to be able to customize information and learn to apply it to specific conditions. In order for them to be able to do these things, we must teach them how to do these things. Learning cannot occur under just our limited set of conditions. In order to help students learn what they need to know, thus being of extreme importance and value to them, we must educate them in ways that are conducive to their own learning.
Thanks for joining me for part two of this five part series. I look forward to hearing your comments, questions, reactions, and experiences. Join me again in 2 weeks when we’ll look at the first half of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses. If you’d like to be reminded of future posts, be sure to subscribe by email, Facebook, or Twitter in the sidebar.