Sunday, February 20, 2011

The absurdity of numbers?

A number of recent posts on Inside Higher Ed have highlighted national (U.S.) debates on post-secondary policy and its relation to Barack Obama's economic/policy plan. Obama has repeatedly emphasised the importance of education and research funding, even as the Tea Party have lobbied the Republicans to try to reduce funding. Meanwhile legislation has been introduced for the purpose of regulating private, for-profit career colleges, and it’s being battled every step of the way by the lobby groups associated with said colleges and by their political various allies.

All these developments relate in some way to the pressure to increase enrollments and "completion" rates—what some have referred to as the “completion agenda”—from post-secondary institutions. And that imperative is about developing a “knowledge economy”, so that the United States can remain competitive in the assumed global zero-sum game in which national prosperity is at stake.

In Canada, federal and provincial governments have taken up precisely the same strategy of pushing for more graduates, both in undergraduate and in graduate education (witness in Ontario the provincial Liberals’ goal to create 14,000 more graduate student spaces from 2002-3 levels, by 2010—see OCUFA, 2007).

Like others, I question the use of these kind of numbers as a means of gauging a nation's success at, or progress toward, developing a sustainable “knowledge economy”. Human capital may be available, but this doesn't mean that the “capital” will be put to use (i.e. that people, with their skills, will be able to find employment) in the immediate or near future. Are there sufficient job opportunities for those who make the “individual investment” in PSE, such that the investment will “pay off”?

The numbers conceal a potential over-production of graduates through the assumption that more college/university degrees automatically means more access to gainful employment for all those who graduate, as well as producing a more "innovative" workforce. (I've previously written posts about relative value vs. inherent value in education, and the policy implications.)

The focus on these numbers also hides the uneven quality of mass post-secondary education and the unequally shared burden of its increasing cost. For example, in the United States the for-profit career colleges often market to traditionally under-privileged groups who cannot access more prestigious institutions, but who ironically end up paying hefty tuition fees anyway—and finding themselves burdened with debt by the time their studies are over. It’s a debt they have trouble re-paying due to difficulties with obtaining appropriate employment after graduation.

Along with student “completion” comes the imperative to discover its causes, a search that has produced a whole range of new objects for measurement. One example is the project to measure levels of “student engagement” (gauged by the National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE). Tests of student learning “outcomes”, and the development of standardised curricular goals, are also related to this process of environmental assessment.

Responsibility for failure must also be assigned, such as in this article where the author discusses reports that argue that “many American colleges are failing to graduate their students, at a time when the Obama administration and leading foundations are trying to ramp up the number of Americans earning a postsecondary credential.” So the university/college becomes a new target for critiques and for governmental interventions designed to ensure “quality” and positive “outcomes” for graduates.

In some ways, the obsession with numbers is really just a sign that education and its “products” are considered to be more important than ever—for their economic value—and thus they become, increasingly, sites of scrutiny for a plethora of “publics”, including not only governments but also parents, students, employers, and the media. But focussing on and rewarding outcomes, usually “completion” as either a proportion of the eligible age cohort or of the national adult population overall, means that institutions are more likely to implement “quick” technocratic fixes to what is generally a much deeper structural problem. Do we really need more graduates who are struggling to find work and to alleviate debts? How can we create a situation where these graduates are more likely to be solvent and employed upon, or shortly after, finishing their PSE courses?

A larger number of PSE graduates is only desirable, economically, if it produces the intended effect; but what we see instead could be an increase to the number of young people who are actually unable to participate fully in this economy even though they may technically possess the credentials for doing so. Unless this issue is addressed, the "production" of more PSE graduates is much less likely to benefit either the national economy or the individual graduates themselves.

Reference: OCUFA, 2007. Quality at risk: an assessment of the Ontario government’s plans for graduate education.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Myths & Mismatches": Where from here?

The last series of blog posts left me all blogged out for a couple of weeks, but I thought I'd offer a follow-up post regarding my thoughts on the e-course by Jo and Julie, on career planning and professional development, and a few other things.

What I found helpful about the course was that it provided me something to respond to, and in the process I found myself thinking harder about my current decisions. And because I'm feeling "stuck" and unfocussed at the moment, this was a valuable exercise. I tried to imagine my self in a particular role, and asked: what would I look like doing this job? How is that going to happen? Where do my current actions take me in terms of that kind of goal? Fairly basic stuff, but I find writing it all down tends to help me with coherence and direction. And when I'm feeling lost, I like to focus on the tangible aims that make it easier to make decisions in the present--since they build towards something in the future.

Some of the things I'm doing at the moment in order to provide myself direction--in a few different aspects of (academic) career development:

Making a decision about an academic "subject area" in which I could work comfortably, i.e. as a member of a department or program or team. This sounds like a no-brainer, and for most people in a PhD program it hasn't been an issue since at least the MA level. But because of the way my interests have developed, choosing an "area" has been a less than straightforward process (my degrees are in Communication Studies, Linguistics, and Education).

A related task is to work towards drawing my various projects into a well-articulated and coherent research "map" that works within that subject area. I have diverse interests, but diversity is only a strength if it's grounded in something stable like a good knowledge base, along with a plan regarding how the various pieces fit together and reinforce each other. I know well enough how everything is related, but I need to work actively to make those connections clear to others. This is important no matter what line of work I end up following.

...Alongside the usual academic channels, I've been experimenting with using social media to meet new colleagues and develop professional relationships, to "network" and to share/publicise my own work, to develop opportunities for contributing to ongoing debates (such as writing articles for other blogs and web sites), and to keep up with news/issues in my fields. As a result, I'm thinking about blogging and other "public communication" as part of academics being "public intellectuals", not just professors or employees of the university. I'd like my blog to be a way to share my ideas even as I'm developing them in other ways (e.g. through research).

While I won't swap social media for more traditional fora such academic conferences, participation in the latter is restricted for me because of the expense (travel, accommodation, registration fees) and timing. Sources like Twitter are an ongoing means of conversing with others whose interests I share, engaging in long-term exchanges that keep me thinking and that open up the discussion to anyone who can use a hashtag.

I'm working on teaching through practice (even just with my small tutorial group this year) and through development of approaches and philosophies; and I'm thinking about pedagogy rather than "teaching", about theory and overall strategy as well as classroom tactics and practices. I'm looking for ways to examples that "stick".

And in the context of our wired classroom, where students can use laptops and Blackberries to "tune out" from course discussions, I'm trying to understand and take into account the issues involved--"student engagement" and technology in the classroom; consumerism and credentialism; cognitive development in learning; differences in learning "styles"--and translate that back into an approach that gets students interested enough to abandon Facebook in the middle of class (high hopes, I know).

I still see teaching and learning as being about relationships, communication, partnership, mutual responsibility, motivation, feedback, confidence, hard work, listening, and changing your approach when something doesn't work. Most important to me is to create an environment wherein questions and discussion can happen. With all that in mind I'm considering things like course design (in the abstract) and how this relates to pedagogy, particularly in terms of how different aspects of the course (curriculum/readings, assignments, tutorials and TAs, lectures) all have to work together in a way that makes sense to students.

I think that's all for today. I hope you enjoyed the series of "Myths & Mismatches" posts, and if you're following my blog--thanks for joining me!