A New Kind of Core

apple coreNicholas Lemann, in the December 2, 2016 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about what he is calling "a new kind of core curriculum." Lemann is a professor of journalism and dean emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Perhaps more importantly here, he is a member of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It seems that he first formed this idea while being dean at a professional-school where they needed to teach the specific content of an education in a field. Though he is not proposing a trade school approach to undergraduate education that is designed to get you a specific job at graduation, one of his premises is that "if you want to practice a profession, there is a body of material you must master, at least in the early part of your education."

Like many faculty, he is not fond of seeing the liberal arts gradually slip away, and he thinks the way to reverse the decline is to move in the direction of a core curriculum.

Of course, the "core curriculum" has not exactly had a lot of cheerleaders lately either. His proposal is for a methods-based, rather than a canon-based, curriculum. He has "arbitrarily limited my core curriculum to eight one-semester courses, which would amount to no more than half of an undergraduate education, so it would not eliminate the ability to have a major or to choose elective courses."

Lemann notes that the six-year graduation rates now are still at a poor 60 percent rate. He believes that is at least partly because too many entering students aren’t prepared to navigate the world of college-level work. He is not suggesting a change in secondary education though. And he is not a fan of elective systems. 

His new core has courses with names such as "Information Acquisition," "Cause and Effect," "Interpretation," "Numeracy," "Perspective," "The Language of Form," "Thinking in Time," and "Argument" sound new but their descriptions harken back to fairly traditional offerings. 

Take as an example "Argument" which he describes in this way: "Back in the 19th century, when undergraduate core curricula were the rule rather than the exception, practically everybody had to take a course in rhetoric or oratory. The requirement often had roots in the colleges’ original mission of training ministers, and it usually vanished with the advent of the elective system. This course would aim to revive the tradition by teaching students how to make a compelling and analytically sound argument, both written and spoken (and probably also, inevitably, in PowerPoint). It is an endeavor with centuries of interesting thought behind it, so one can imagine the course drawing on philosophy, law, theology, even drama — with the opportunity to consider exemplary arguments from the past. It should be obvious that the assignments would ask students to practice the skills the course is teaching them, in writing and in performance."

For all the Education 2.0 and new approaches being tried in higher education, the lifetime-earnings premium of having a college degree is still substantial enough that some students will continue to show up on campus. Keeping them there and moving them through at a reasonable pace and preparing them for life after academia is far more important than admissions.


Major Money

moneyWith all the talk about alternatives to the degree and open education, we still have 70% of American high school graduates enrolling in college. You would hope that the major they choose are not based solely on money, but salaries are not only important to students but have been important marketing tools for colleges.

The job site Glassdoor did  an analysis of nearly 500,000 resumes and salary reports they hold for their job-seeking users and came up with a ranking of the 50 majors that pay the most during the first five years out of college.

The top ten majors range in salaries from $70,000-58,000.

1. Computer Science

2. Electrical Engineering

3. Mechanical Engineering

4. Chemical Engineering

5. Industrial Engineering

6. Information Technology

7. Civil Engineering

8. Statistics

9. Nursing

10. Management Information Systems

Do you see a theme in the top 10? Yes, STEM majors take most of the top spots. They also point to likely entry-level positions, such as for #6 IT being a programmer analyst, technical support and systems engineer. Social Work comes in at #49 with a  median base salary of  $41,656. Biology slips in at #50 at $41,250 for entry-level jobs like lab assistant or paramedic, Education (K12 teachers) comes in at #41.

 


Degree-Planning Tools and Learning Advisors

road signOnly about half of all students who start college graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. It doesn't help that completion rate that the path to degrees is less linear than ever. More than a third of students transfer at least once during their college years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Of those, nearly half change institutions more than once.
EDUCAUSE ELI published a new brief in its "7 Things" series on "Degree-Planning Tools" which discusses how some colleges are allowing students to design their own college experience. Working with advisors and based on their own research into academic, professional, personal and financial aspects of their career goal, they design a curriculum path.

I view this as a kind of adaptive learning on a larger scale, not just within a course.

Technology is playing a role. Tools can help guide students to move based on their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and circumstances. I'm seeing these tools built into learning management systems. For example, Blackboard has MyEdu, Civitas Learning uses Degree Map, and Ellucian offers MyDegree. A newer player to me is Degree Compass which was acquired by Desire2Learn.

These tools fall under the category of predictive analytics, but I'm a believer that merely acquiring data won't make any positive changes without an intelligent way to apply it. I think this requires software paired with old-fashioned advising so that a student's goal and her academic career align. This is more than choosing the right courses and sequence. It is also about getting complementary experiences in internships, work experiences and professional networking. Those things probably won't come from software. 

A more human approach to this is perhaps the old-fashioned idea of having guidance counselors. They may come with new names. I have seen the title "learner advocate" used and most recently the odd "education sherpa" label used. "Sherpa" is Tibetan for "eastern people", and is an ethnic group from Nepal, high in the Himalayas. We know them as guides to explorers of the Himalayan region and expeditions to climb Mount Everest. In some cases, those guides do most of the serious work for inexperienced climbers. I wouldn't want to think that our educational guides would do much of the difficult work for students. 
The comparison has also been made to professional patient advocates who help people navigate the often-confusing medical system. This may be particularly important for students who are the first in their families to attend college and don't have natural access to people who can act as resources for academic decisions and guidance towards careers. 
 

Tech and the Liberal Arts

People in the edtech world always seem a bit surprised when they find out that I came from a liberal arts background. I was an English/Education undergrad, and my graduate work was in communications and media, and then in pedagogy. I am old enough that being there in the early days of computers in the classroom and pre-Internet, if you were interested in technology, you could get in "on the ground floor" no matter what class you taught. Yes, people expected the computer teacher to be a math or science major, but it didn't turn out that way in all cases.

That's why I am pleased to see articles about topics such as the digital humanities and a recent one on "Why tech industries are demanding more liberal arts graduates." 

"...While liberal arts degrees have been criticized in public by corporate officials, presidential candidates and others, college and university officials continue to laud the value of traditional training in the fields. Data from the American Association of Colleges and Universities shows that unemployment of liberal arts bachelor’s holders is only slightly higher than the national unemployment average of all degree holders — 5.4% to 4.6% respectively, and that long-term earning potential of liberal arts graduates exceeds that of graduates in professional fields by more than $2,000 annually.

Fields like military science and finance depend heavily on liberal arts training for its focus on communication and building teamwork, a concept EAB Senior Analyst Ashley Delamater says is becoming an attractive credential for tech development companies and Silicon Valley’s next wave of executive hiring.

It’s not going to be about radically reorganizing the liberal arts, but reorganizing to create a direct connection to jobs that need the liberal arts today. What are the potential jobs available to our students that they don’t even know they can apply for, and what are the markets that has a lot of openings where one or two courses can help you to add some technical skills to the leadership and liberal arts knowledge base earned in these majors.”


Computer education is more than coding

A recent story on NPR asked "Should Computer Education Cover More Than Just Coding?" My answer is, "Yes." You can read their story for the full details, but the takeaways are that teaching other computer (really "technology") skills and the accompanying "soft" skills like critical thinking often require coding.

For example, students learning to work with and structure data, or ones working with an Arduino will need to use code and understand basic concepts such as algorithms.