The Fall 2020 Gap Semester

mind the gapThe "gap year" has been around for more than a half century. Gap years first became common in the 1960s with the young, baby boom generation and a gap year industry developed to help students find what they would do in that year.

A gap year, also known as a sabbatical year, is typically a year-long break before or after college/university. It's not just a year off vacation and students engage in various educational and developmental activities.

A gap semester is not a new thing this year, but it has gotten more attention lately due to the pandemic. This is a shortened form of a gap year and would normally cover about 4 months. Due to the uncertainties about COVID-19 outbreaks and about how classes will look on and off-campus this fall, more students - particularly freshmen - are considering it. From what I'm hearing, many parents are also considering it rather than paying on-campus tuition for an online or hybrid version. It makes financial sense since the average U.S. yearly cost of college is about for a public college and $48,510 for private schools. 

What is typically done during a gap year or semester? Some students use the year to research and find a program or school. The semester gap seems to be popular for students who have changed schools, courses, or majors and need to fill time before the next semester starts. Working at a job related to a course of study, internships, travel and cultural exchange, language learning, and volunteering are all possibilities. Students might take remedial or advanced courses at another school or online (MOOCs included). There are students who take a gap in order to play sports before officially playing them in college.

You can find studies that show that students who take a gap year perform better academically than those who do not, but parents are often concerned that their children will never start their education after the gap ends.

Unfortunately, right now many of those typical gap activities, such as travel, internships and even volunteer possibilities have also been limited or curtailed because of the pandemic. What are the options for a 2020-2021 gap year as of the summer of 2020? Limited.

I haven't seen any definitive statistics on how many students are taking a gap semester or year yet, but I know there is great interest and concern from colleges.

Learning, Working and Podcasting Spaces

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Image by Daniel Friesenecker from Pixabay

I recently changed one of my categories here, "Learning Spaces," to "Learning & Working Spaces" because I'm seeing greater overlap in those two places. We know learning has always been occurring outside of traditional spaces, such as classrooms, but it is more formalized now than ever before.

Spring 2020 certainly moved a lot of learning online from pandemic necessity. But other learning spaces have emerged in recent decades.

Co-working spaces are formal places for people needing office space but not wanting an office full-time. WeWork is one of the better-known commercial spaces. Colleges are opening virtual campuses, micro-campuses, but informal work and learning is happening in Panera Bread stores, Starbucks, and many local cafes and coffee shops.

I saw recently that Staples stores have been giving some of its retail space over to podcast recording booths. They partnered with Spreaker for recording spaces in six Staples stores in the Boston area. These booths are part of a new Staples Connect model, in which the retail stores offer coworking and community event spaces. The soundproof Staples Connect Podcast Studios are being developed in partnership with iHeartRadio. They provide professional equipment (RODECaster Pro control board, RODE microphones and SHURE headphones) and space for up to four people.

I don't know if most people would consider podcasts as a learning space but a lot of informal and some formal learning is happening through podcasts. 

When I started podcasting at NJIT back in 2006, our initial audience was prospective students and we were clearly doing marketing. But that potential audience quickly grew when we saw that downloads were coming from a more general audience that was interested in research from the university.

In 2007, NJIT became part of the original sixteen colleges to launch Apple's iTunes U. That's when we started thinking about podcasts as a learning space. (The term "coursecasting" was briefly being used by some schools.) 

Apple has changed how it offers podcasts but iTunes U still exists and as they state "iTunes U provides everything an instructor needs to bring the classroom together on iPad—build lessons with apps and your own materials, collect and grade assignments, start class discussions or talk with students to answer questions and provide feedback."

bookMy virtual friend, Kristen Meinzer, recently published So You Want to Start a Podcast, a very comprehensive how-to guide to getting started. There's a lot more to starting a podcast than buying a good microphone and installing some software. Though those things are necessary, having great equipment is hardly at the top of the list of reasons why podcasts succeed.

Kristen knows podcasting having been a commentator, producer, and former director of nonfiction programming for Slate’s sister company, Panoply. She has also hosted several successful podcasts, reaching millions of listeners and continue to create shows.

Is she an educator? Not in the formal sense of a teacher or professor, but you can certainly learn from the programs - and be entertained, which is a combination that some educators have not mastered. 

I would include podcasting as a learning and working space that should be considered by individuals, businesses and schools.

 

 

The Long Summer Slide of 2020

It is known as "summer slide" - the learning loss many students experience during the summer break from school. The topic is often associated with younger students in K-12 but if you have ever taught college students or adult learners (especially in sequential courses) you have also seen it occur.

In 2020, the typical two-month recess became six months for some students because of COVID-19 class cancellations and possibly less-than-ideal attempts at online learning.

Will we see a greater slide this fall than in other years? Will a high school student whose second half of French II, Algebra, or another course be really prepared for the next course this fall? I have friends who teach in secondary schools who fully expect in the fall to have to spend the early weeks (months?) reviewing and catching students up on work before moving forward. They did this in past years, but expect a greater need for remedial instruction for fall 2020. 

When students are not engaged in learning for an extended time, they slide. It would be true if they skipped a semester of took a gap year or were ill for several months. From what I have read, this is particularly true with math, science, language, reading, and any sequential course that builds on a prerequisite.

There has been a lot of research on summer loss the past century which shows young people can lose up to several months’ worth of school-year learning over the summer break, and some studies also show that older students have greater gaps. It is particularly concerning that summer loss seems to be greatest for low-income students for a number of reasons.

There are those who question the whole idea of summer slide, but in my 45 years in classrooms (secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels) I have seen that loss when students returned in September, even in their work and study habits. 

What is the solution? The standard answer is to keep students engaged in reading and educational activities. But every parent will tell you when school ends motivating students to do things that closely resemble schoolwork is very difficult. Plus, this year many parents were doing more schoolwork support the past few months than ever before and also want a break.

College students might be wise to use some free MOOC offerings to supplement courses from this past semester or to prepare for fall. But again, after a semester fully online, more online learning may not be very appealing.

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Image by Paula Deme from Pixabay

Strong and Weak AI

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Ask several people to define artificial intelligence (AI) and you'll get several different definitions. If some of them are tech people and the others are just regular folks, the definitions will vary even more. Some might say that it means human-like robots. You might get the answer that it is the digital assistant on their countertop or inside their mobile device.

One way of differentiating AI that I don't often hear is by the two categories of weak AI and strong AI.

Weak AI (also known as “Narrow AI”) simulates intelligence. These technologies use algorithms and programmed responses and generally are made for a specific task. When you ask a device to turn on a light or what time it is or to find a channel on your TV, you're using weak AI. The device or software isn't doing any kind of "thinking" though the response might seem to be smart (as in many tasks on a smartphone). You are much more likely to encounter weak AI in your daily life.

Strong AI is closer to mimicking the human brain. At this point, we could say that strong AI is “thinking” and "learning" but I would keep those terms in quotation marks. Those definitions of strong AI might also include some discussion of technology that learns and grows over time which brings us to machine learning (ML), which I would consider a subset of AI.

ML algorithms are becoming more sophisticated and it might excite or frighten you as a user that they are getting to the point where they are learning and executing based on the data around them. This is called "unsupervised ML." That means that the AI does not need to be explicitly programmed. In the sci-fi nightmare scenario, the AI no longer needs humans. Of course that is not even close to true today as the AI requires humans to set up the programming, supply the hardware and its power. I don't fear the AI takeover in the near future.

But strong AI and ML can go through huge amounts of data that it is connected to and find useful patterns. Some of those are patterns and connections that itis unlikely that a human would find. Recently, you may have heard of the attempts to use AI to find a coronavirus vaccine. AI can do very tedious, data-heavy and time-intensive tasks in a much faster timeframe.

If you consider what your new smarter car is doing when it analyzes the road ahead, the lane lines, objects, your speed, the distance to the car ahead and hundreds or thousands of other factors, you see AI at work. Some of that is simpler weak AI, but more and more it is becoming stronger. Consider all the work being done on autonomous vehicles over the past two decades, much of which has found its way into vehicles that still have drivers.

Of course, cybersecurity and privacy become key issues when data is shared. You may feel more comfortable in allowing your thermostat to learn your habits or your car to learn about how you drive and where you drive than you are about letting the government know that same data. Discover the level of data we share online dong financial operations or even just our visiting sites, making purchases and our search history, and you'll find the level of paranoia rising. I may not know who you are reading this article, but I suspect someone else knows and is more interested in knowing than me.