Saturday, February 27, 2010

At cross purposes: funding vs. attendance

At the same time that we are cutting education budgets, especially for post-secondary education, we are also encouraging attendance at those very same institutions, whether though worker retraining dollars or exaggerated claims of job marketability.  Our educational funding mechanism is so convoluted and disjointed that perhaps this contradiction really does make sense, but I doubt it.

In particular, I think of those students back at the community college who need or want new skills, but not necessarily a degree.  As we know, or should know, our education system is structured to encourage and reward the granting of degrees.  Education is only a means to that end, not the end in itself. 

These student I refer to, however, work in areas where degrees or certifications aren't important or who already have degrees or certifications at a higher level (community college student with a Bachelors degree).  Is there a more effective, flexible and cost effective way to help them identify and gain the education they need?

You may remember sometime back in a post called Basic Cable I floated the idea of the community college as career health club.  When you sign-up you get a counselor to help you define your goals and then establish an exercise plan to help you reach the goals.  The "club" is always open so you can drop in and use the equipment whenever you need to.  In addition, you may team up with other clubmembers to push each other to be better.  What the fitness counselor doesn't do is prepare the gym for you before each session.  She doesn't stand over you with every lift and tell you how good you're doing.  She does not declare "you are healthy", give you a piece of paper to confirm that and send you on your way, never to be seen from again.

And that, to me, seem to be the problem. We can't run more people through the system because we can't get more instructors or because the existing instructors can't handle the increased load.  Or can they?

Let me change metaphors on you for a moment.  The Theory of Constraints says the organization's ability to achieve a goal is limited by one (or a very few) constraining factors.  The only way to achieve more is to maximize the throughput through the constraint.  In education, the instructor is the constraint.  I don't mean this in a bad way, it's just that there is only so much course creation, class prep, lecturing and grading one instructor can do.  If you wanted to double or triple the students through the class you would need more instructors or more TA's or .... a different mindset. 

What if education, not degrees were the goal?  What if the content was already freely available? What if the class was not time-bound or geographic-bound? What if certification was available from an independent entity or wasn't required?  As we know, those are all true.  Class materials and tutorials on hundreds of subjects are readily available across the web for the instructor to select from.  Both vendors and independent organizations offer certifications. Podcasting and learning management systems allow teachers to break the boundaries of time and place. Freely available wiki's allow cohorts to collaborate and share the learning.  Books 24X7 and other online library resources provide access to many books that don't fair well on the library shelves (in technology where change is frequent and constant). 

Could an instructor who now is limited to teaching 30 students, instead facilitate the education of 90 students with the same effort?  I don't know, but it hard economic times it might be worth some consideration.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

21st century computer literacy

In the last month I have attend two advisory committee meetings for career and technical education for local school districts and in both the question of computer basics classes came up.  One district had canceled their basic computer skills class, the other about to.  Somewhere along the line someone - student, administrator, parent, upstanding citizen - decided the millennials were born knowing how to use a computer (my take on that in my post Digital Naivete).  One district appears to be getting a basics class back because it is can be taken for University of Washington credit while in high school (see iSchool in the high schools). 

The point of this blog is to carry on the advisory committee discussions beyond the two-hour meeting and to gain more feedback from a broader audience.  So I'm looking for those of you out in the workforce or teaching post-secondary to share your wisdom with instructional staff on the topic of computer skills for all students (not just those interested in technical fields). 

Let me get this started with a few thoughts of my own on a standalone computer literacy class in high school.

  • It's never to late - I would agree that high school students shouldn't need a basic computer literacy class, that they should have gained those skills before they reach high school. If, however, they don't have those skills then high schools must have a remedial class, just as they do for Math or English. Otherwise the problem, and the costs, just gets passed to colleges or employers.  By the way ... let's stop debating whether digital natives know everything about computers or not.  Someone needs to establish a baseline skill set, develop an assessment and make all students take the test.  If they fail, welcome to Computers 101. I'm tired of arguing about the measurable.
  • Evolution of essential skills - As with the broad-based adoption of any technology, what you needed to know to use computers ten years ago is different than what you need to know today, and what you'll need to know ten years from now will be different still.  If a Computers 101 class is teaching config.sys files, well it is irrelevant and should be dropped.  
  • Computer drivers license - To carry the last point a step further, we want to teach the computer equivalent of Drivers Ed, not Auto Shop.  The general computer user needs to know how to responsibly use the computer (anti-virus software, cyber-bullying, file management) and how to use applications.  The don't need to know how to rebuild a transmission. 
  • Information literacy - As we move away from teaching the hardware and internals, aren't we really focusing on information literacy instead of computer literacy?  Let's use file management as an example.  We need to teach creating directories and maintaining files, but that's just the mechanics.  If you look at any hard drive, particularly a shared network drive, you will see a complete disaster.  People can create directories and copy files alright.  What they can't do is categorize information so that it is retrievable.  Categorization is an information topic, not a computer topic. 
  • Teach in context - Finally, it seems to me that those skills - responsible use, applications, information literacy - are best taught, practiced and evaluated within the context of other types of coursework, not in a standalone computer class.  In my post What's the Word I suggest ten things everyone should know about MS Word.  It's my opinion that those ten items should be taught, practiced and evaluated in a language arts class, not a technology class.  I learned to write with a pencil in an English class, not in a pencil class.
Okay guys, what are your thoughts?  What are the basic computer and information skills everyone needs?  Is high school too late for that class? Should we use a standalone class or should it be embedded throughout the curriculum? 

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