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.”


Making More Makers



I suppose I was a "do-it-yourselfer" and a "maker" in some ways long before those terms took on new meanings. But the Maker Movement is a subculture that is a lot less "sub-" than it was a few years ago.

Back in the 1970s, when the big computers became available as personal computers (PC), it started a subculture of DIY types who were building their own computers and writing their own software. The maker movement definitely has roots in that and the hacker (in the good guy, white hat, sense of the word) movement.

In 2005, Dale Dougherty launched Make magazine to serve a community that was growing and the following year they launched Maker Faire.

Though makerspaces have varying names attached to them, they attract those DIYers who want to build something rather than just buy it. While hacker culture which is focused on software rather than the physical objects,both groups share an interest in building new creations as well as hacking at existing ones and making them something new.

A makerspace in a school setting may have a more obvious educational purposes and intentions, but all of these spaces foster an informal way of using and learning practical skills and applying them to design. 

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Two events that I am involved in this month use the maker approach to informal learning.

 

New Jersey Makers Day runs two days this year - March 18 and 19 - so that it can be marked both in schools (on Friday) and have a school audience in community spaces such as libraries on Saturday. There are many activities planned across that state in schools, libraries and other makerspaces. Last year, there were over 15,000 individual attendees at 150 participating sites, including libraries, museums, schools, commercial makerspaces, and AC Moore stores that were spread across all 21 counties of New Jersey. There is probably something similar going on where you live.

As this movement grows, companies and makers selling their creations has become a commercial segment that is also growing. This includes big companies that sell hardware like 3D printers and supplies to the individual selling custom items on a much smaller scale. Both are "shaping the future of our economy."



The NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase on March 23, 2016 at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ is focusing on STEAM - that's STEM with the needed addition of the Arts, including language arts and the digital humanities.

I am doing one of the presentations along with Emily Witkowski (Maplewood Public Library) and Danielle Mirliss (Seton Hall University) titled "The Maker Movement Connects STEAM Across New Jersey." The maker movement really fits well with the STEAM (and STEM) approach to learning. 



Maker Movement Infographic



 


The Maker Movement Connects STEM and STEAM

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                      Photo: Dave Jenson - We're working on it!, CC BY-SA 2.0

Maker culture has been growing, but it contains a number of subcultures. For me, maker culture now includes hackerspaces, fab(rication) labs and other spaces that encourage a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to innovation.

These spaces are found around the world and some probably existed prior to the use of the makerspace label. Like-minded people use these spaces to share ideas, tools, and skills.

Some hackerspaces and makerspaces are found at universities with a technical orientation, such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon. But I have found that many of these spaces are quite closed spaces that are available to only students in particular programs or majors and perhaps not to the entire university community or the wider surrounding community.

So, spaces have also emerged in K-12 schools, public libraries and in the community.

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The NJEDge.Net Faculty Best Practices Showcase is an excellent venue to showcase your work, work-in-progress or posters to the New Jersey Higher Ed and K-12 communities. This month I will be part of a presentation along with Emily Witkowski (Maplewood Public Library) and Danielle Mirliss (Seton Hall University) titled "The Maker Movement Connects STEAM Across New Jersey."  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) gets plenty of attention these days, but this particular conference is focused on teaching innovations in STEAM - that's STEM with the needed addition of the Arts, including language arts and the digital humanities, and drawing on design principles and encouraging creative solutions.

The keynote speaker at the Showcase is Georgette Yakman, founding researcher and creator of ST?@M. The acronym, in this context, represents how the subject areas relate to each other: Science & Technology, interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements. The A stands for a broad spectrum of the arts going beyond aesthetics to include the liberal arts, folding in Language Arts, Social Studies, Physical Arts, Fine Arts & Music and the ways each shape developments in STEM fields.

The Rhode Island School of Design is a good example of having a STEM to STEAM program and maintains an interactive map that shows global STEAM initiatives. John Maeda, (2008 to 2013 president of Rhode Island School of Design) has been a leader in bringing the initiative to the political forums of educational policy. 

Our Showcase presentation presents three aspects of the maker movement: in classrooms, in libraries and the community, and in higher education. We are part of the NJ Maker Consortium which brings together educators and librarians in K-12 and Higher Ed. The consortium looks to provide local support, networking, and training for individuals working to establish or grow makerspace programs on their schools or library branches.

In 2016, the second annual New Jersey Makers Day has expanded to a two-day event, March 18 and 19. This celebration of maker culture occurs in locations across NJ and connects all-ages at libraries, schools, businesses, and independent makerspaces that support making, tinkering, crafting, manufacturing, and STEM-based learning. 


Stemming the STEM Gap, But Softly

Einstein says



There has been more than $750 million in recent years from tech companies to try to help schools bridge the long-acknowledged STEM skills gap. Much of that money was earmarked for what we would term IT. And though I much prefer STEAM (with an arts and digital humanities inclusion) to STEM, most people in any of those areas would probably agree that the gap hasn't narrowed and may have widened. 

Reports say that  33% of American workers are not proficient in the technology required to do their job, and only a tenth of workers believe they have mastered their workplace tech tools. 

new report claims that we are still a long way from being able to adapt technology to the classroom and that the link between having more technology and better learning is not a direct one.

It is not news to say that we  don't know exactly what skills students will need to know to succeed in their future. I have heard a half dozen presentations that discuss the idea that the jobs of the near future for high school and college graduates will require skills that only 20% of workers today might have.

All these reports and studies are focused on "hard skills." These skills, like coding, are more tangible and easier to measure than some of the "soft" skills that sometimes allow someone to get a job despite having a hard skills gap.

It is not that education has forgotten about problem solving and being able to learn new things as needed or being able to produce solutions to problems that were never covered in class or in the textbook. But in many cases, the refocusing on the hard skills gap may have widened the soft skills gap.

We frequently champion and applaud innovators and creativity, but we know that those things are difficult to measure and so sometimes more difficult to "sell." It may be that having those soft skills is exactly what is needed by new workers who are required to acquire new hard skills on the job.


There Is No Defending the Dissertation

In an article from The Chronicle by Stacey Patton, she asks "The dissertation is broken, many scholars agree. So now what?" 

The article covers an issue that is not new. In the big mix of things that are changing in higher education, rethinking graduate education, particularly  Ph.D. programs, is in that mix.

The short list of sub-issues includes reducing the amount of time it takes to complete degrees and reducing attrition - the two are certainly connected. 

For doctoral candidates, another push is to better prepare them for nonacademic careers. With debt for students increasing, there is also increased competition for academic jobs. Jobs are not increasing; they are decreasing.

Is it time to move away from the traditional, book-length dissertation that more and more students and faculty a relic of the past? 

What would a University 2.0, 21st-Century dissertation look like? If you look at the rise of the digital humanities, there are digital possibilities for digital dissertations with video, 3D animation, audio, interactive mapping and more. It is a scenario that probably scares many academics.