Center of Attention: Learners

By John O. Harney

Last week, NEBHE convened 300 or so educators and policy leaders for a gathering in Boston on “Learner-Centered Institutions: The Future of Higher Education.”

One key question … what is a “learner-centered institution” anyway? The latest in a torrent of meaningless eduspeak? Or as the conference subtitle suggested, a true paradigm shift in the way we teach and learn?

The definition which evolved suggested at least that learner-centered higher education occurs when faculty are rewarded for being good teachers, not just prize researchers. It involves “authentic assessments” and “predictive analytics” (OK, pardon a bit of eduspeak) but also incorporates internships and getting students and teachers to teach one another.

Several speakers noted that digital forums can enable a safe place for learner-centered work. Yet there’s still little involvement by traditional institutions with online and other new delivery models, said Robert Lytle, managing director and co-head of the Education Practice, Parthenon-EY. Noting that we’re 15 years into some of the U.S. Department of Education’s “experimental sites,” we need to follow that data and see how those experiments are working.

To which, panel moderator Scott Jaschik, the cofounder of Inside Higher Ed, observed that there  is a sentiment to try new things, but also to prevent another Corinthian (the for-profit that recently went bankrupt, leaving students high and dry and indebted.) Lytle countered that Corinthian wasn’t an “experiment,” but rather an established online provider.

When Jaschik asked how many in the audience had taken or taught an online course, many hands rose. Citing polls that people think higher ed is mediocre in the classroom, he asked: Do we want to replicate that online?

Erin Knepler, associate director of Higher Education and Workforce Programs at Public Agenda, said New England should be concerned that demands of learners are going beyond what New England higher education institutions (HEIs) are doing. She noted that traditionally, higher education said, “trust us” (unlike K-12 which must adhere to learning standards), but now that trust has eroded.

John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said students seek something they can be proud of doing … and flexibility. He lamented that while the conference is focused on millennials, students are rarely on hand at such forums. He added that the popularity of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders shows a very frustrated electorate that is losing respect for institutions.

Lytle said that if you get into Williams or MIT, you should go, but 99% of students won’t get in. They need to choose from the other 4,000 institutions for the right fit for them, he said, quipping that one of the biggest determinants of college choice is the weather the day the student is searching.

When the conversation turned to proposals for free community college, Lytle said we’ve become obsessed with the cost of higher ed. But a better question is what can we do with the dollars we save. Better than putting it in the pockets of students, he said, would be investing in support services that can move the needle on graduation rates, especially for schools that are serving challenged students.

Lytle offered the heresy that we should be happy with getting more people into higher education, even if they don’t graduate … but rather than making community college free, we should invest in more Pell Grants. He added that students want “tangible marketing value,” as evidenced by the explosion in coding bootcamps.

A New York minute or two

The State University of New York (SUNY) encompasses 64 campuses and grants 150,000 degrees a year, said its Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, whose presentation on “Investing in Talent” got rave reviews.

Why do we have to ask if we’re learner-centered? What else would we be? Zimpher pointed out.

One of her slides showed that of 100 New York ninth-grade students, 73 will graduate from high school four years later, 51 will immediately enter college, 37 will still be enrolled in their second year and just 23 will graduate with either an associate degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six.

Another slide showed one student looking over another’s shoulder. It’s not cheating, she reminded the audience. It’s learning from each other. She praised collective action and plugged P-Tech and other “early college high schools,” saying it’s important to start early, not in grade 13. She’s also trying to reduce SUNY’s 165 “role-alike” affiliations for roles such as provosts and CFOs down to six.

We have proxies for quality research like citation impact, but not many for teaching. Her aim for SUNY is to be “the best at getting better” … a mantra she admits stealing from hospitals. “Continuous improvement has eluded our sector.” As she said in her state of the university address, “we’re good, but not good enough.”

From the City University of New York (CUNY), Donna Linderman, university dean for student success initiatives, spoke of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which has realized associate degree graduation rates double those of similar students. Linderman also oversees CUNY Start, a pre-matriculation program for associate-degree-seeking students with significant remedial needs and the Graduation Success Initiative (GSI), a college-success program for public-assistance recipients at CUNY community colleges.

The role of faculty

Of course, there is a crucial, but changing, role for faculty in any learner-centered endeavor.

Honing in on the elusive definition of “learner-centered,” Maryellen Weimer, professor emeritus at Penn State Berks and editor of the Teaching Professor monthly newsletter on college teaching, said teaching is “learner-centered” when, among other things, students: “are engaged in the hard messy work of learning.” It makes no sense, she suggested, for a teacher to summarize the class in the last five minutes. It’s the students who need to learn how to summarize. Also crucial is that they use the content to develop lifelong learning … learn how to think critically and develop awareness of themselves as learners who learn from one another and from their teachers.

Springfield Technical Community College prof Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, named by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as Massachusetts Professor of the Year 2014, spoke of her NSF-funded program called Through My Window.

Very few students take the course for fun; the story has to be their own, she said. The program’s narrative provides a “buy-in” for students to become engaged. How does gravity affect aging? How do rocks skip across water? Students can use software to link and share idea creation.

Paul J. Stonely, CEO of WACE, located the University of Massachusetts Lowell, spoke on cooperative and work-integrated learning. Fully 90% of college presidents say soft skills are very important, but only 40% say they’re doing a good job teaching them.

Still, teaching is more complicated than to speak of it as “teacher training,” said Bridgewater State University professor Thomas M. Curley, a humanist who focused his scholarly work on Samuel Johnson. Curley teaches Bridgewater seniors a travel course that ranges from Great Books such as Gulliver’s Travels to notes from Buzz Aldrin.

Curley protested that when learner-centered excludes teachers, it’s inexpert … it’s the blind leading the blind. For an interesting angle in an age when the lecture is becoming a whipping boy, see the New York Times op-ed “Lecture Me. Really” by Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Weimer noted that her thesis is about learner-center teaching—the expertise of the teacher is not removed; the challenge is to get students to recognize teacher expertise and create conditions where students ask the questions.

Weimer pointed out that sometimes learner-centered approaches generate student resistance, partly because it’s more work; if the goal is to have students generate examples, that’s different from the teacher giving the examples.

The role of tech

In a session on the role of technology, New England College of Business and Finance President Howard Horton mentioned “smell-o-vision” at movies as an example of a technology that made no sense because people went to a movie to suspend reality, not to experience the senses they knew from reality.

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Springfield Technical Community College professor Nick Massa, spoke of his work as a principal investigator with NEBHE’s Problem-Based Learning center—the organization’s chief touchpoint with active learning.

Dennis Littky, cofounder and co-director of Big Picture Learning spoke of his three r’s: relationships, relevance and rigor. People say students have to be college-ready, Littky said, but really colleges have to be student-ready.

Littky and partners realized that “colleges suck if you’re poor” … so they created College Unbound. The program meets one night a week for three hours, with projects done in places of work and daycare for new babies. He said 70% of students are Pell-eligible and more than 80% graduated. “Our students are scared to death of technology, some have just gotten out of prison, never seen a computer,” he said.

Eileen Rudden, co-founder of LearnLaunch, listed the top tech trends as: 1) increased data 2) flipped classrooms 3) adaptive learning products 4) tutoring on demand 5) proliferation of OER (open educational resources). Rudden warned that while K-12 has standards, higher ed doesn’t.

An audience member asked how ideas in neuroscience are being incorporated into tech products, such as the advantages of learning by space repetition or online flash cards, rather than “cramming.” Littky jumped in to say that as workers, we don’t use flash cards. If the learner is not engaged, repetition means nothing. To which, Littky concluded that personalized education shouldn’t just be about the time and place that have been common in student-centered thinking, but should relate to content too—what content engages the learner personally.


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