Librarians vs. IT Nerds
September 25th, 2011

According to Inside Higher Ed, several liberal arts schools have already begun integrating their IT and library functions into one administrative unit. Predictably, people are peeved. At least one issue of the New Yorker was shoved aside in a gesture of dissatisfaction, sources say.

The justification for this move are manifold: Students will be better served, resources will be allocated, peace will reign over the earth. But what is interesting is that no one has pointed out what, to me, is obvious: a library IS a form of information technology. Period.

Unfortunately, we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking of a library, in its venerable, dusty, inefficient, boring and oppresive guise, as falling into the category of “things one simply must have” and not thinking about what it is there for: to store and facilitate the recall of information. Combining these units would help to reinforce this and, hopefully, encourage students to use the resources that we do have, since what we’ve been doing is apparently not working.

On an anecdotal note, I went into the library the other day to ask if I could bring one of my classes into a library classroom to show my students how to do research in the library databases. I was told that, if I brought them in, I had to let the librarians do the instruction. I was told this was to, “prevent other people from using our [The Library’s?] classrooms.” I told them, thanks but no thanks. I’d rather do a video on Jing. I’m sure that the librarians are great teachers, but I’ve always been of the opinion that, since it’s my name on the door, I’m ultimately responsible for the quality of the students’ experience. I’d rather not pawn that off on someone else.

The point is, libraries are resources for faculty and students, not temples to some multi-armed god of officiousness. I’m personally in favor of anything that allows for a more efficient use of resources and allows students to have access to more computers. You know, for playing Bejeweled.

Net Price Calculator Embraced by Schools, Skepticism Ensues
September 21st, 2011

The “net price calculator,” which allows students to gaze upon their future debt NOW, was mandated by the Higher Education thingamajig of 2008. The idea was to provide an estimate of the total cost of college to the student, figuring in available, need-based financial aid (the inclusion of other kinds of aid is up in the air). It is unclear to me whether the calculator includes library fees and 24 packs of Natty Light.

Colleges who consider their financial aid offerings competitive are seeing this as a way to show off. Those who don’t, are seeing this as a reason to be bummed. The marketing departments are especially excited, because they can use the price calculator as a way to gauge student interest, as well as to collective coveted market information (parent’s income! GPA! OMG!).

I, for one, think that this is a step in the right direction. Going to college is one of the most important decisions of someone’s life and it is often made with a very paltry amount of information; most of it heresay and “common sense” (Have you ever noticed how the size of the life decision and the information informing that decision vary inversely?). Every last droplet of added info will at least make people appreciate how byzantine college finances can be, and, hopefully, act accordingly.

I sincerely doubt that these price calculators will help bring down the price of tuition significantly, though. Only Chuck Norris can do that.

Click here to read InsideHigherEd’s reportage on the Net Price Calculator.

Want Real Education Reform? Abolish Education.
September 19th, 2011

That’s right, abolish education.

Before you come to my house with the pitchforks and the torches, though, let me ask you what comes to mind when I say the word “education.”

For me, it’s teachers and schools, venerable buildings and administrators, politicians ranting and parents raving. It’s preparedness for a “21st century economy.” It’s testing and standardization and outcomes and evaluation and funding‚Äìmy lord, the funding.

Basically, education is the institution within which learning happens, it is not learning itself. And, although we tend to forget it sometimes, learning is the raison d’etre of all education and not vice-versa.

Many debates and discussions get derailed because these two things are mistakenly conflated. When someone suggests that we should decrease the hours in the school day, they are greeted with a screech that makes it you think they suggested we give our kids lobotomies. How can my kids learn, they think, if not in a school, sitting at a desk, wishing he was somewhere else?

Yet, it would be ludicrous to suggest that receiving an education and learning are the same thing. I have yet to see a study, in fact, that suggests that students learn more than 10% of what they know in an educational institution! And, when you look at the percentage of their waking hours are spent in school, that seems like a pretty paltry number.

I am not certainly not the first person to suggest that we separate learning and education. Ivan Illich made a similar distinction in his book Deschooling Society. Illich also makes the point that, if we aren’t careful, institutions begin focusing more on their own propagation instead of focusing on what they were ostensibly created to do. We can see this in the case of contemporary universities, who no longer bat an eyelash when deciding to construct a multi-million dollar Student Activity Center (read: mall) while laying off instructors.

What do you think drives enrollment more, adjunct Italian instructors or ping pong tables and a sweet food court?

I’m not willing to go as far as Illich, though, who seems to desire the wholesale destruction of schools. That seems a little melodramatic for my taste. What I do think is that we should look for ways to improve learning AND THEN make institutions and organizations to do so, not the other way around. Measuring learning is a whole different mess, but a worthwhile mess, which is more than I can say about measuring institutional factors like money spent on student.

Measuring money spent on students instead of measuring learning is like comparing a meal at El Bulli and to a meal of 20000 chicken McNuggets because both cost 500 bucks.

This may open us to the possibility that our present educational configuration is the local optimum and not the global optimum. This is to say that our educational institutions may be crudescence of centuries of kludges and easy fixes which may not strictly be the best for learning. And when assessing these institutions, we should do so based on how well students learn, not how well the educational institution is doing of keeping itself fat.