Should we say goodbye to the 12th grade?

Western Tech a high school in Toronto, Ontario...
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According to a Utah lawmaker, the state’s budget woes indicate to him a need to end high school with the 11th grade.

Contending 12th grade is a wasted year for most high school students, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, suggested Monday that the state could save $102 million by compressing high school into three years…Buttars outlined his proposal for members of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, dismissing 12th grade as a uniquely American tradition that is followed for reasons no one can identify.

So would three years of high school be enough? We could look to our neighbors to the north, for some examples. Ontario once had thirteen grades until budget cuts and pressure to match the 12th grade norms of the rest of Canada (and the US) forced a change. On the flip side, Quebec only has 11 grades, but then students attend a two-year post-secondary institution prior to attending university if they want to do so in Quebec.
While it seems unlikely the Utah plan will go far, will budget concerns force us to alter the way we educate students? I think we can already say it has, but what affect would a plan like this have on college admissions? Would institutions view a 3-year high school diploma the same as a 4-year? Would lawmakers increase funding to community and technical colleges to make up for the increased number of students who choose to attend them after 11th grade, in the absence of a 12th grade year? Some might say setting 16 and 17 year olds loose a year early would be good for them, but I don’t know if we’re really prepared as a nation to make that happen.
Still, with all of the budget cuts and lingering recession upon us, all it would take is one successful implementation of a program like this to have it spread around the nation.

Teaching with powerpoint

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but after reading this blog post by a CS student who prefers her teacher’s illegible chalkboard rants to powerpoint, it made me think about my own experiences teaching with and without it. In the beginning of my course, I opted against using it. I found it a bit unnatural, because the class I teach is two hours long and not recurring. So I feel like in the time we have in-person, it’s a critical opportunity to tie things together and also to get as much interaction from students as possible.

I think if nothing else, it really depends on the individuals you’re working with and that changes each term. I’ve started using Powerpoint, but mostly to help me, rather than my audience and it’s worked well to this point. I’ve found also, that working in tandem with other online tools and healthy use of the web to drive home particular messages.

So I’m going to continue with it the rest of the term. I think it really does depend on the professor and their teaching style, to determine whether Powerpoint works well or not. I’ve pretty much lost all ability to write on a whiteboard, it seems, as typing and just not writing much anymore has eroded my handwriting. I might work on this.

National signing day is a fraud

Aah yes, national signing day. Future college athletes get sized up, measured and predicted to be the next big thing for their school. What is it, you ask?

National Signing Day is always on the first Wednesday in February. It is the first day a high school senior can sign a binding National Letter of Intent for college sports.

The issues are plenty. Let’s examine them, shall we?

  1. College athletes aren’t professionals. But national signing day is treated as a star-studded event where “student-athletes” are feted over for a day. Why? The unspoken story is that national signing day is the journey that gets them one step closer to the NFL or NBA. As if there wasn’t enough hypocrisy in the salaries of college coaches at the highest levels, the television contracts and so on, this joke starts with the name of it. They’re not signing a contract for money, folks. If we really wanted to celebrate something, let’s celebrate kids talking about how great an education they’re going to receive. Of course, that’s not the priority. They’re rather talk about these kids like they’re pro prospects entering the hallowed cathedrals of their sport.
  2. How many of these students are going to graduate? It’s the big question that no one wants to ask, because see also “they’re going to the league,” but since we never see college tennis, fencing, swimming or other minor sports on ESPN deciding what cap to put on, I don’t really target them. I’m talking about the abysmal graduation rates of most major universities have in regards to their revenue sport student-athletes. (e.g. men’s basketball, football and sometimes, men’s hockey)Exalting these high school graduates that often times have a difficult time even qualifying to attend some of these schools, before they’ve stepped foot on campus causes a lot of the problems we see. These aren’t just students, they’re not just athletes. They’re someone else’s meal ticket. For teens that aren’t allowed to drink, might barely drive and have little way to make a living for themselves, that’s a heck of a lot of pressure to know that your mom, dad, coach, cousins, teammates and thousands of “fans” you’ve met in your life are all relying on you not to suck.
  3. These kids haven’t done anything yet. Ok, so they worked hard to get to college. To get recognized and sized up by a bunch of independent people. All of these issues are interrelated and all comes back to one thing — money. Everyone knows that the people who shined in high school, don’t necessarily translate well to college. Maybe that’s why this is good for them, they get a chance to secure their skills into an education at a place they might not otherwise get to go.Is this really a healthy exercise for anybody in the grand scheme of things? I mean, when everyone has congregated in the community to wish you well on your future pro career that’s still light years away, where do you go from that if you fail? How shattered would your confidence be forever? I don’t know. But it’s akin to those dudes at the party passing out their cards, telling you how their startup is going to make them billionaires soon. There are just too many variables involved in all of this and you just don’t know how it’s gonna turn out.

Look, it’s great they’re all going on to get an education. I’m sure college will be just dandy for most of them, will afford them all sorts of connections they’d otherwise not have, friends they’ll maintain for life and skills that you couldn’t buy at Wal-Mart.

But let’s not kid ourselves into believing this all about the greater good, friends. It’s about cold, hard cash. And the ones producing it, aren’t really reaping what they sow. I can’t see how this thing goes on for another ten years in the status quo.

Or will it?

What’s a degree really worth?

A story in the Wall Street Journal today, asks this question.

There are all sorts of questions about topic and I doubt it’s going away, as college costs continue to rise and more students feel the weight of student loan debt coupled with a stagnating job market. The story argues the original numbers used to calculate the earnings benefits of high school versus college graduates were flawed and that, it may no longer be big a difference.

This discussion goes on a lot in the startup forums and blogs I read among 20-somethings who 1) have almost always gone to college and 2) seem to have appropriate backup plans if their bright ideas don’t quite work. But what about folks who don’t have that luxury? Is there really a substitute for the leg up in the job market that even one degree provides?

Are people thinking of this as they market their institutions or is it just business as usual?

The perils of learning management systems

A former student alerted me to this article, which is an interview with Kyle Jones, a librarian in Darien, CT.

It’s a great interview about using an open source tool like WordPress as a learning management system over Blackboard or other tools. I encourage you to check it out.

I hadn’t used Blackboard much as a student, but since I started teaching a hybrid class (2/3rds online, 1/3rd in the classroom) I’d become pretty adept at it. We switched to a new LMS this semester, but it’s still fraught with a lot of the problems I attribute to these proprietary “learning” tools.

The closed environment of IM, chat, message boards within most learning management tools are all offered as some way to increase student and teacher interaction and to simulate the classroom experience. But it doesn’t work as well as it should. With many students already adept with Twitter, Facebook and existing tools, I never understood why so many institutions felt it was necessary to implement (often expensive) third party applications that reinvent the wheel and lack the relevance of use other than as a medium for classroom “interaction.”

After three terms of teaching my class, I finally decided to experiment with the tools I’d already been using, especially since I teach a course to aspiring web professionals and so much of what we do takes place online. Students now create their own Twitter accounts if they don’t already have one and create a tumblr blog. In addition to the course books used for class discussions, there’s a course text in the form of a blog that gets updated several times a day with information such as articles, posts from me on whatever ties back to discussions we’ve had or ones we’ll have later in the term. Students produce most of their response papers via their tumblr blogs and future conversations are woven into Twitter.

The idea here, is to get students engaged into the conversations that are already happening in the wider world. So much of what happens in the classroom can happen in a vacuum and I felt like it was important to help them understand that other people were having many of the conversations we’d had, have asked many of the same questions and the places to find insights and information they might be seeking out.

While this is all one facet of the course experience, it’s a good way to provide extra value in the form of tools that might have value beyond the classroom. Whereas, an LMS doesn’t offer you much value when you’re done. You use it, you finish the courses and it stays behind.