Friday, February 26, 2010

Engagement ethnography?

Can we use the web as a way to gather stories of engagement, in a way that both gets us to some of the research standards that lionofzion rightly suggested here, while also making the stories public in a way that they have power for the tellers and readers without (or before) analysis, as Bryce suggests here?

Any examples of online ethnographies?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Coverage of Journal for Civic Commitment

I've mentioned before that I edit the Journal for Civic Commitment. Yesterday, the American Democracy Project's blog ran a short piece about the journal and its most recent issue which focuses on political engagement. Enjoy.

More on engaging student engagement

Great comments from Lionofzion and Bryce on yesterday's post about student engagement. Both drew more attention to my comments about relationships, and Bryce proposed a project:

It would be interesting to put together a collection of narratives that describe both successful and unsuccessful attempts at increasing engagement. I would be curious to know if this issue of relationships would emerge as a critical element.

I'm game--how do we do it? Seems like a "research project' would be interesting but not-so-useful. How about a new blog--stories of engagement? Or posts here? Or a wiki? Thoughts?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What is engaging about student engagement?

This is the heyday of student engagement in higher education. NSSE has got to be the most widely recognized assessment tool on American campuses, institutions work to have a full range of engaging programs--service-learning, mentoring, leadership opportunities, etc., etc., faculty try to build engagement into their courses, we throw the word around in a way that signals that we somehow know what we are doing.

But at the same time, every person associated with a campus can think of all sorts of "engaging" activities that fell flat with students. We all know students for whom service-learning is drudgery, group work a failure, interaction with faculty paralyzing, discussion boards perplexing, or clubs profoundly upsetting.

What is at the core of this disjunction--between the evidence for engagement (it leads to learning, retention, graduation, clarity in career, etc,) and the lived experience of many students, faculty, and staff?

I've noticed a couple of things lately that hint at an answer:

1. Coagulating conventional wisdom about engagement. Anyone who attends a conference on learning in higher ed can parrot back the conventional wisdom about student engagement--students are connected all the time, they are social, they want to be engaged, old-style education is a profound turnoff. Therefore, we have to have more engaging activities. Such consensus signals to me that people have stopped thinking about the issues underlying engagement and have moved on to doing. No debate, no stories of failure, no increase in wisdom.

2. Student engagement as program-building. The portfolio of engagement activities has, by now, become clear. (Take a look at the NSSE items for the big ones.) So the main tactic of campuses is to start new programs or initiatives that align with engagement measures and the practice of other campuses. Put another way, the conventional wisdom moves directly into conventional activities.

Now I am not saying that student engagement activities are a sham. I've made a career (such as it is) of service-learning, learning communities, project-based learning, assessment, faculty development, and shepherding engagement programs to sustainability, in and beyond the curriculum. And I am certain that on the whole, students involved in these programs, and the campuses that have hosted them, are better off than they would have otherwise been.

But I have learned a couple of things--my half-witted answers to the question at the top of this post. What is engaging about student engagement?

1. It is a tailored response to an actual problem, not a conceptual response to a statistical result.

2. It grows out of my own commitments as a person.

3. It is connected to the real concerns of actual students.

4. It moves forward by questions--what moves you? what are our community's needs? what do you wish you could do more of? what do you still need to learn?--as much as by activities.

5. In other words, engagement is about creating right relationships between people who know each other.

6. At the core of engagement isn't action but contemplation. At least, for me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Is there anything worth reading about education?

I am traveling for work again today--this time to Seattle for an accreditation meeting. I get a lot of good reading time when I travel. Thinking about this trip made me realize that it has been a long time since I read anything recent and good about education, or at least anything recent and good that was longer than a magazine article or a blog post.

This is not to say that there is nothing worth reading that has implications for education. I am in the middle of Dixit and Nalebuff's, The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life (purchased, incidentally, in the Seattle Airport bookstore). The Art of Strategy has a lot to suggest about education--both about how simple decision trees can help teachers and students predict the results of their activities, as well as about how the prisoner's dilemma might help colleges think more clearly about the cost of a higher education. Similarly, lots of reasonably popular trade books--Nudge, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, Emergence--are filled with ideas that have clear applications to learning, to the organization of schools, to educational policy, and even to the philosophy of education.

And there are several older education books that provide bracing viewpoints on education. Paul Goodman's Compulsory Miseducation ought to be read by anyone thinking about the purpose of college, or whether higher education is for everyone. (College administrators ought read it whenever they get a little confidence about the educational value of administration.) Ivan Illich's De-Schooling Society is rooted in a deep respect for tradition, but that respect allows Illich to predict forms of social organization (online social networks, for example) that others have only made sense of in retrospect. Neil Postman's The End of Education anticipates today's debates about the competing values of liberal and professional education, and suggests responses that today's administrators and teachers should use. (Not to mention Dewey--important but unreadable, Addams, Locke, etc.)

So the question is this: Why there is so little contemporary book-length writing about education that is worth reading? And why is this the case particularly when education has become an ever more significant part of public discourse? Here are some answers:

1. I have a narrow field of vision. Maybe there is a lot of good writing about education, but I have just missed it. This is certainly likely, but if it is the case, what would you suggest that I should read?

2. The long stuff is unnecessary. Maybe book-length writing is passe, and so what really matters is the short stuff. If so, what are the short pieces of writing about education that have really changed the way you think, teach, or learn?

3. Writing is unnecessary. What really matters is (a) data, and (b) action. So what we should be looking for is results, not ideas. If so, where are the results? Where are the data? Or where are the websites, cognitive maps, etc. that have replaced writing about education?

4. Education is no longer really important--it is only symbolically important. True, perhaps. But if so, why? Shouldn't there be at least one good book explaining why all the attention to education doesn't really mean anything? Is there one?

5. There is no market. Teachers don't make much money, and who else would read this stuff? If so, what explains the glut of spirituality books on the market? Do you get rich from religion? From writing political memoirs? Fiction?

6. There are no ideas worth paying attention to in education. Maybe, but it seems to me that the big challenges in the world--sustainability, the economy, social organization, liberty and responsibility, the purpose of life--are about learning in one way or another. And lots of the thinkers in those areas are asking education to take a more active role. So how can educators do the same, and ask business leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, and families to pay a bit of attention to what we know about how people learn.

I'll know this has happened when I get to the bookstore in the Seattle airport, and instead of choosing a business book, or a novel, or something about Buddhism, I have a selection of books about learning that I want to read.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Learning Cities

You see what you look for. Since the past post on universities as cities, and because our campus theme next year is City, I've been looking for examples of work at the connection of learning and cities.

Today I came across Udaipur as a Learning City, a project led by Shikshantar: The People's Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, an NGO in India, to create learning spaces in the city, and by so doing, bring freedom, relevance, and joy to education.

The Udaipur project has many aspects--city-wide learning communities, projects to create learning in parks, movie-making about learning outside of school, and citizen discussions among them. All of the projects aim to take the power and complexity of city life, and turn it into learning. Running in the background are the ideas of Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, EF Schumaker, and Ivan Illich. But the projects don't carry the stigma of intellectualism. They are instead locally grown efforts to learn all the time.

Udaipur got me thinking anew about a series of workshops that local community activists and Westminster have been hosting. Called the Sugar House Forum, the bi-monthly meetings aim to create conversations about healthy communities, and then out of those conversations to promote on-going projects and develop new leaders. We have hosted three to date: one on food, one on history, and one on shopping locally. Our next, on place-making, is coming up on Feb. 27.

I wonder, then, what would happen if we thought of communities as schools. How would our neighborhoods and towns be different if one of their goals was learning? How would our schools be different if they were only responsible for those portions of learning that could not be accomplished through everyday life, punctuated with conversation, work, and contemplation?

(I've done a bit of writing about these questions in my chapter, "Making Moral Systems of Education" in Education and the Making of a Democratic People, fwiw.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Can universities and cities learn from each other?

Late last week I talked with someone from an organization dedicated to improving higher ed completion rates by working with state policy makers and large institutions. She remarked at how hard it is to get big institutions to change (and of course that while it is easier to get little institutions to change, the impact is, well, smaller).

Her comment got me thinking about the size of universities. In Utah, the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College, Utah State, BYU, or Utah Valley University are all the size of municipalities. And, they have a lot of the components of cities--governments (of a sort), police, food systems, power systems, etc. So what if we thought about universities as (good) cities? Would learning be better? Would students be more satisfied? Would change come about easier? Under what conditions?

I'm not sure I have answers to these questions, but two great books about cities: Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Steven Johnson, Emergence both convince me that healthy cities create learning by their nature, and that their nature requires a great deal less formal control than do universities. So is it possible to get to the learning outcomes of higher ed, and have students have the experiences that lead them there, by taking cues from decentralized, self-emerging systems like cities?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

can student and faculty development happen simultaneously?

My job stands between academic and student affairs, at least as they are traditionally defined. Sometimes that is confusing; sometimes it helps me see.

We've been talking a lot lately here about faculty development--how to do it better, how to help it stretch beyond a single workshop, how to reach faculty beyond the group who seem to be up for everything, how to tie it to student learning and the college's learning goals, how to use it to transform the institution.

At the same time we also worry about student development--how to encourage it, how to build it into our programs, how to extend its reach beyond students who play sports, or lead clubs, or work on campus.

In the last little while it has become clear to me that the two things ought to go together more thoughtfully. Ask any faculty member who uses service-learning, or problem-based learning, or active learning and they will tell you that they are often challenged by students who simply want to be taught, not to do all this hands-on stuff. Ask any student where real learning takes place, and they are likely to say, "outside the classroom." Or, in other words, the effort to improve faculty work, and the effort to support student development not only happen apart from each other. They often work against each other. Faculty fear experimentation because students might complain. Students focus on life outside the classroom because life inside is less vital.

So, is there a way to get faculty and student development to work together instead of apart? Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. To do it we need to abandon the missionary model of development. The general assumption behind training and development is that someone who gets it teaches someone who doesn't. If all goes well, the receiver is converted--that person buys-in. But in much of what we do, the receiver doesn't buy in. Instead they resist, and the resistance makes the "missionary" resentful. In the faculty/student case, this is a particular problem because faculty and students have different power. The faculty member can compel students to participate; students can resist, fail to attend, criticize in evaluations. In other words, when things go badly, power makes it likely that both sides will be unhappy and ultimately step away from whatever the innovation is.

2. Development can happen jointly if students and faculty are united by a question or problem, to which no party knows the answer. In other words, there is no missionary. I'm not sure what this looks like in a classroom setting. In fact in many ways the classroom isn't the place for development at all. The classroom is performance. Development takes place before. At AACU I heard a session by Peter Felton of Elon University. He described a project that the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning sponsors, where faculty and students together rework a course that the professor has taught. They jointly look at evaluations, choose content, write the syllabus, design assessment, and then they offer the class--professor as professor, students as students. not surprisingly this is a hard, contentious, and powerful experience. And not surprisingly, the faculty and student development happens together. Students become more likely to understand why class takes the form it does; faculty to understand what student resistance means.

In their dependence on each other, both learn.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What to do when students literally do not have access to education?

I am part of a small group (we call ourselves a think tank but we're more like a think puddle) on access and success in Utah higher education. We met yesterday to talk about how to track access and success work, share information, and figure out how to come at the policy and practice challenges facing people who want to improve college success for underserved populations in Utah.

Near the end of the meeting we had a depressing conversation about refugee students in Utah. Like most states, our refugee population is growing, with a good sized portion of high schoolers among them.

High school aged refugees are at a particular educational disadvantage. Many have had little access to schooling in their home countries. Their age places them in high school, but many aren't prepared for high school level work, and so they have very little chance to get enough credits to graduate. And once they reach age 18 they age out of high school.

One pathway would be to get a GED and/or enroll in remedial classes at the community college. But the community college folks at our meeting said that many of them have poor enough english skills that they don't qualify for college-level ESL courses. Since they don't qualify for college courses, they can't get federal financial aid to improve their english skills enough that they can get an education.

So, they are stuck. Unable to graduate high school, unable to afford the costs of ESL courses, and in a down economy, often unable to find work. (The term of art in the education bureaucracy is that they lack the "ability to benefit.")

How can educators respond? Perhaps a single-purpose school, one designed simply to prepare refugee teens to graduate high school and enroll in college. What would it look like? Here are a few thoughts:

1. Mastery-based not credit-based. One reason these students don't go on educationally is that they come to school too late to get all the credit requirements for graduation. But Utah has a battery of basic skills tests and established learning outcomes (of a sort) for graduation. So this school, instead of focusing on credit-hours would work with students to pass the tests, and by so doing demonstrate mastery of the subject. Once they pass a particular test, they don't have to do work in that area any more. Instead, they redouble their effort in the areas where they have yet to demonstrate mastery.

2. No age limits. Though the school would ostensibly be a high school, students would remain a part of it until they demonstrated mastery.

3. Connection/obligation to their communities. Many refugee youth carry the hope of older generations of relatives--parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So their task in learning is not just their own success, but sharing that success with their communities.

I'm sure there is more. But this seems like a great opportunity for a social entrepreneur in partnership with refugee families and the agencies that serve them to fill the gap between our K-12 and community college systems.