Friday, March 30, 2012

The Funding Crisis in Higher Education

It is no secret that (public and non-profit) higher education across the country is facing a funding crisis right now. Ever since I became a student at UW we’ve been staring down double-digit tuition increases every year. Last year both programs I am enrolled in faced being merged into other schools, and the Information School responded by making the MLIS program self-sustaining, rather than state-funded, which resulted in substantial tuition increases for in-state students (though not for out-of-state). In the past week or so, I’ve come across a variety of pieces that touch on this funding crisis, and I thought I would pull them together for the Bookaneers. Many of us work or plan to work in academic settings, and though this is not strictly library-related, I think it is imperative for librarians to have a broader understanding of what is happening in higher education.

Do college professors work hard enough?” Last Friday the Washington Post ran this editorial (watch out for that paywall), which, as the title suggests, argues that college professors are overpaid relative to the amount of work they do. David C. Levy (no relation to the iSchool’s esteemed professor), writes that

Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Many people have rebutted Levy’s piece for being essentially a straw man argument based on anecdotal or inaccurate evidence, and I don’t find it necessary to address his points individually. At the very least, we can all see the flaw in the argument that 15 hours per week of time spent in the classroom is equivalent to 15 hours of work per week. The reason that I am highlighting Levy’s piece, though he completely misidentifies the root causes, is that he is striking at some very serious problems in higher education.

The funding crisis and rising tuition costs are partly based on reduced state and federal funding. The irony of publically subsidized education is that in and after recessions more people want to go back to school just as governments with fewer tax revenues are reducing funding for public services. This puts a substantial squeeze on higher education institutions, especially those like community colleges that view part of their mission as worker retraining.

This post at Confessions of a Community College Dean also identifies some structural elements to rising costs in higher education. He argues that institutions are becoming less productive because they are not adapting to technological and economic advances. As we adopt better and better technologies, and use them to radically change the way we do business and live our lives, higher education has not necessarily taken advantage of these tools. (I’m wildly paraphrasing, but I think that is his basic argument.) The writer recognizes that this is a long-term problem with a long-term solution, and in the short run it is very difficult to address.

Here are just a couple of the short-term (and short-sighted) attempts to address this problem recently:

The New York Times this morning is reporting on a plan at Santa Monica Community College in California to create a two-tiered tuition structure. In response to complaints that required courses are filling up too quickly, the college is planning to create additional sections of the courses, and charge a higher tuition for those sections. Currently, community college courses cost $36/credit hour; the additional sections will cost $180/credit hour. The Times does a good job of walking through the pros and the cons of this plan. Essentially, the higher price would cover the college’s cost of providing the additional sections (the lower price is state-subsidized), and it would enable more students to get the classes they need to complete their degrees or to transfer to a four-year college. However, the higher tuition would in effect prevent low-income students from enrolling in the additional sections, though they have no priority in the regularly priced classes. As access to education is one of the primary missions of community colleges, this raises some serious questions about equity and fairness.

The second example I have recently come across is in Canada. Tamara Shepherd, a professor at Concordia University, writes on the Culture, Digitally blog about a student strike in Quebec:

Students have been on what is so far a six-week strike against the Quebec Liberal government’s proposal to increase tuition fees by 75% as part of a widespread privatizing of post-secondary education. Over 200,000 Quebec students out of a total of around 300,000 have joined the “strike,” which has entailed not attending classes, and holding public demonstrations.

That whole paragraph is pretty mind-blowing, and I’m surprised that I haven’t heard about this before. Here is an excerpt from a statement by Concordia professors, who largely support the strike:

The government’s plan is an attempt to break Quebec’s hard won social contract on education. The proposed 75 percent increase in tuition fees will undermine the accessibility of higher education. This is not merely a question of lost earning power for those who cannot afford to attend university. Universities create social, entrepreneurial, artistic, political and scientific networks that contribute to the productivity of our society. When access to university is restricted, society as a whole loses because these productive networks are reduced in size and diversity. Further, since the tuition hike will disproportionately affect women, people of color, and other marginalized groups who consistently earn less, the hike will worsen the economic and social stratification that Quebec society opposes.

I don’t think that I can more eloquently or succinctly express why I think these kinds of drastic tuition hikes and changes in access to higher education are disturbing, counterproductive, and could have potentially long-term negative effects on society.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Community College Online Learning


It was splendid to see most (Wesley, I'm looking at you!) of you last night. Since teaching is so much on our minds at the moment, I thought I'd share this Chronicle article about the progress and pitfalls of online courses at the community college level.

According to Rob Jenkins, a professor of English at a Georgia community college, the demand for higher completion rates for state and nationally funded colleges, has led to a push for more online courses. Online courses mean more options for folks who are fitting in school between jobs, or who have a hard time getting to campus, which, the received wisdom suggests, should increase completion. Jenkins disputes this claim, though, with a fairly compelling argument:

... online enthusiasts point to a 2009 "meta-analysis" by the U.S. Department of Education that, they say, shows that online courses are not only cheaper and more convenient but also better. The report looked at 99 individual studies of online learning conducted since 1996 and concluded that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

Nice try. But that study has serious flaws, especially as it pertains to community colleges. In the "Effectiveness of Fully Online Courses for College Students: Response to a Department of Education Meta-Analysis," Shanna Smith Jaggers and Thomas Bailey of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University point out that only 28 of the 99 studies examined in the Education Department report focused on courses that were fully online. Furthermore, only seven looked at semester-long courses, as opposed to short-term online programs on narrow topics, "such as how to use an Internet search engine."...

Even more alarming, for those of us on the front lines at community colleges, is the fact that all seven of those studies were conducted at midsize or large universities, five of which were rated as "selective" or "highly selective" by U.S. News & World Report. Those are not exactly the kinds of places that typically attract at-risk students—the ones least likely to complete their degrees. Community colleges do attract such students, and in large numbers.

Moreover, in six of the seven studies, withdrawal rates were not even mentioned, meaning that the research gauged only how well students performed after completing the course. The studies didn't tell us anything about those students who didn't complete the course.

Two other studies by researchers at Columbia's Community College Research Center do shed light on the role that online courses play in college completion—and the news isn't exactly good.

The more recent of the two, as reported by The Chronicle in July 2011, "followed the enrollment history of 51,000 community-college students in Washington state between 2004 and 2009 [and] found an eight percentage-point gap in completion rates between traditional and online courses." That comes on the heels of a 2010 study that reached similar conclusions about community-college students in Virginia: "Regardless of their initial level of preparation ... students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution." [for the full article, please visit the Chronicle of Higher Education and look for the article "Online Classes and College Completion"

In any class, using as many different means of delivering ideas and content as possible increases your chances of reaching students with different needs, resources, and learning styles. As we consider how to incorporate technology into our classes--or our classes into technology--we should make sure that we're opening up ways for students to access ideas, and persist with their studies, rather than closing them down. I believe that there are useful ways of taking our teaching online--but I also believe that it requires a careful consideration of the possibilities and limitations of our present technology--and the strength of the human connection that can come from face-to-face instruction.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Teaching Tools Roundup

Ahoy Bookaneers!

As I'm finishing up my second quarter as a real librarian, and preparing for my upcoming quarter, I find my desk(top) covered with the new accoutrements of our profession. While many of these items bear the word "library" on them, they also bear words like "literacy," "pedagogy," "teaching," and "classroom." What has surprised me most these last two quarters is the sheer amount of teaching I have done--and the amount that I have to look forward to. This instruction takes many forms, and happens both in-person and virtually: class sessions with students I see only once or twice, one-on-one instruction while assisting a student at the reference desk, carefully detailed tips and advice in response to an email reference question, or virtual learning objects like research guides and video tutorials. This spring I'll teach a two-credit, full-quarter information literacy class as part of an I-BEST cohort, and the prospect of 20 hour-long class sessions has me both excited and just a little nervous.

I know that several of us have been experiencing the same steep learning curve as we recognize the gaps in our knowledge about teaching at the same time that we see the potential for its impact on our students. So, I thought I'd pull together some of the resources that I've found most useful in helping me grow as an educator, and I would love to hear what you all have been using, too.
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice by Geneva Gay has been invaluable in my process of thinking about classroom dynamics and communication styles at the very culturally diverse community colleges where I work. Gay, an instructor at our very own University of Washington, brings into focus the ethnocentricity of traditional American teaching styles, and how disenfranchising that classroom environment can be for our students. Most excitingly, Gay explores the multiplicity of communication styles represented in a multicultural classroom, and how much richer our educational experiences will be if we harness that diversity of styles in our teaching.
  • The recent blog post "Reflective Teaching for Librarians" by Char Booth nicely summarizes the experiences I've had working with all you bright Bookaneers and the incredibly gifted educators at Seattle Central Community College, Shoreline Community College, and Highline Community College where I work and teach. Char suggests some practical approaches to collaboration, mentoring, and observation that operationalize all of the knowledge that we, almost unconsciously, absorb from our colleagues. With the brisk pace of the reference desk, its easy to forget some of the brilliant techniques that we witness daily, and it pays to be as disciplined in our record keeping as Booth suggests.
  • Teaching Information Literacy: 50 Standards-Based Exercises for College Students by Joanna M. Burkhardt and Mary C. MacDonald with Andree J. Rathemacher comes as close as a book can be to the practical ideas that you get observing a colleague in the classroom. While the exercises are so concrete as to be a little limiting at times, I really appreciate the step-by-step instructions of how to plan different lessons around the various and interlocking elements of information literacy.
  • While I don't necessarily agree with them all of the time, the ACRLInformation Literacy Competency Standards have been an important touchstone as I've planned classes; discussed the value of information literacy with administrators; and struggled to define, in my own mind, how the skills that I teach differ from the content of the class that I'm teaching to.
  • A thousand thanks to Bookaneer Freeda Brook for sending along the brilliant In the Library with a Lead Pipe blog post on "Carleton: Forensic Librarians and Reflective Practices." Jastram, Leebaw, and Tompkins make a subtle but important distinction between teaching information literacy skills and fostering an information literate mindset, that has set my head spinning (along with Claire Murata's at Shoreline, with whom I can't stop talking about this) with ideas about how to shift my whole pedagogical paradigm.
  • It's been over 10 years since I first encountered the classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and the inspiring Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, and they have been foundational to my thinking of the classroom as a possible place of liberation. Freire's simple injunction to remember that the teacher is also a student and that students are also teachers has had an amazing impact on the level of trust and relationship building in the classes that I have worked with. I've found that nothing makes students take me seriously faster than taking them seriously first.
I had no idea that teaching would form such a fundamental part of my practice as a librarian, but I am grateful that it does. Nothing takes more of my time than preparing for a class, but nothing feels as good as seeing a student's life get easier and more interesting because of something they learned in a class with me. We have the opportunity to make a huge impact on the lives of students in our classrooms, and I look forward to a lifetime of working with you all at getting better at that task.