“There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
First of all, let me admit, this post has been in draft form for almost six months. My new job and my new life have taken up all of my attention these days. In fact, I’m in a bit of guilt spiral right now taking one minute away from the goals of my new job. Because I love it. Because I’m so thrilled to work with so many smart people who care so much about the same things I do.
I know this about myself: If my eyes strain too close, I lose focus. Taking this break to finish this post will feel like stretching a bit. It’s like gazing out at the window when I’ve been focused on the laptop screen for days. For weeks. For months.
Here’s the thing.
I have this fantasy that community college teachers have the time to debate on Twitter, blog, and go to conferences to share their experiences. I have this fantasy that adjuncts are the ones debating about what open education means and who it can help. I have a fantasy they are the ones talking about how to teach with open materials creatively in order to save their students money. I have this fantasy that people were more generous when they discuss the needs of our poorest students. Our poorest colleges. Our community of colleges.
The loudest voices aren’t always the ones who have the best answers. I’m riffing here, of course, with my blog title on Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me.
Men (Still), Explain EdTech To Me, (why didn’t I think of that?!) is a refrain that Audrey Watters returned to twice last year with her keynotes. And it’s awfully awesome for feminists while at the same time reminding me about the sad state of journalism.
Allow me make a connection here.
My very good friend T. Andrew Wahl is a journalist and a comic book historian, and I’m incredibly thankful for all of his wisdom that he shared with me during the almost two years we were office neighbors at a community college north of Seattle, WA.
He and I have talked extensively about the history of the newspaper industry in the last twenty years and how it connects to some of the current challenges in educational technology.
So much of what frustrated me as an eLearning director/administrator, he experienced when the newspaper industry was trying to move from paper form to digital print. From the analog to the digital. From the known to the unknown. From the past to the future.
I’m beginning this blog post with a nod to the work of Audrey and Andrew because they are both journalists. Both writers. Both very influential to me as a thinker.
Andrew said to me one day about a year ago, “You know, you’re like the Cassandra of your field.”
I laughed hard and blushed brightly. “That title’s already been taken. Have you heard of the name Audrey Watters before? She’s the one. Not me.”
I got to meet Audrey IRL in 2015 at NW eLearn when I was on the planning board for that conference, and of all the work we put into making that event happen, I’m most proud of the introduction that Lisa Chamberlin read to the audience that I helped write with her and Maria Erb. Here’s our best paragraph in that introduction, and Lisa delivered it beautifully:
Audrey often gives voice to the things we cannot say in our daily work lives while she critiques institutions and philosophies around the intersection of education and technology. As someone who claims to be a serial dropout, we’d like to give her an honorary degree in Feminist Radness. And men, if you feel excluded, allow me to remind you that feminism is for everyone.
The Open Door Policy: A Memoir
Community colleges accept everyone who walks in the door. Students sign up. Community colleges say yes no matter what. They say yes. Look up Open Door Policy.
Universities, on the other hand, say yes, maybe, or no. Community Colleges always always always say yes. Never no. Never maybe. Yes. Programs that are in demand create a waiting list.
Come on in, students. Let’s see what we can do with you. Let us see.
I just want to make a point here to defend my colleagues who support online education at community colleges. I am no longer a part of a community college system yet I want to help online education succeed in every state. In every corner of this country. In every county. Of every state of every region.
I’m having a very hard time not writing “We” when I talk about community colleges. I’ve been struggling with this for months. So I’m just going to own it and use that pronoun.
A while back, another Twitter hero turned IRL pal Kevin Gannon @TheTattooedProf posted a link for some discussion for the folks at the POD Conference. Here’s the link:
The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed by Clay Shirky.
This is the writer who was very public about not allowing students to bring their laptops to his class.
This “no laptop in my class” article, and the praise (the likes/the hearts/the favorites/the retweets) that surrounded the popularity of that edict made my blood boil at the time. I’m sure he’s a swell guy, but his assertion about the reality of teaching assumes that every student has a laptop to bring to class. And his students, no doubt, in fact do own them, and that’s wonderful.
But. Remember the open door policy of your local community college. These students are not always so lucky. So privileged. So connected. So supported.
Shirky’s article is the type of online journalism that a dean or an upper administrator reads and then emails to faculty as “professional development” or as a “must read” before department meetings. Check this out, they’ll say.
When really, these edicts about pedagogy, deserve a broader conversation. This idea deserves more than just a stance, a policy draft, or a forwarded email that says, “Aha! Technology allows students to multi-task. So bad! We don’t have to pay for it after all! Ban them in your class. This reinforces what I’ve always believed in about [enter banal assumption about teaching and learning here]. Technology, Bad. My Way, Good.”
And to me, when I read Shirky’s work, he’s not saying that technology is universally bad at all. He’s asking meaningful questions about the value of seminaring in the face-to-face setting. He’s questioning the value of presence in real time with a group of people seminaring together.
Note in that last sentence that “seminar” is used as a verb. To seminar. To seminar with students is something I believe in. To seminar with people is something I believe in.
But it’s not entirely yet possible with asynchronous learning, is it? It’s a luxury that only a certain percentage of students may enjoy. Online education, however, can step in to fill this void. Asynchronous learning, like it or not, depends on technology. How do we get the educational value of the synchronous seminar in an online setting? How do we make this style of learning meaningful? How do we get to the feeling of seminaring in an asynchronous setting? How do we help every student that walks into the open door at a community college?
Shirky brings a lot of useful research to his post, and I’ve already read much of what he linked. Let’s face it, he has a Wikipedia page and I don’t. A list of publications. Credentials. A Ted Talk. A boatload of credibility. And, well, I don’t.
He writes about online education:
You wouldn’t know this from public conversation, where online courses are discussed as something that might be a big deal some day, rather than as ordinary reality for one student in four. The dramatic expansion of online classes has been largely ignored because it’s been driven by non-traditional students, which is to say students who are older and have more responsibilities than the well-off adolescents college has always stood ready to serve.
If you’re reading this, you were probably a smart kid who did well at a good school, and that description extends to almost everyone you know. The gap between the conversation about college and its reality exists because the people who drive that conversation — you and me and our friends — mostly talk about elite schools.
Perhaps I’ve been living too long in the “ordinary reality” of working at community colleges. I wasn’t a smart kid who went to a good school and I rarely get to talk about elite schools. His best point and the idea that thrills me is what he says about online education: it’s been driven by non-traditional students.
Like Audrey Watters. Like Andrew Wahl. Like me. Like the students I’m working to try to help.
The conversation about these students isn’t as public because the people who support these programs are too busy doing the work. Too busy to blog about it. Too busy to research and substantiate it. Too busy to have a conversation. Too busy serving the needs of the students in their local communities. Too underemployed. Too busy applying for unemployment to make it through the summer.
It’s (some) university folks, honestly, who miss an opportunity to talk about online education with community college folks.
It’s (some) university folks, honestly, who think they own the only version of higher education worth talking about.
It’s (some) university folks, honestly, who make claims about the “public conversation” when really, there are a ton of people already talking about this issue say, going 15 years back.
There is a research center devoted to community colleges.
There are state agencies such as Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges and Virginia Community Colleges leading the way for open education. The focus, to some, may be too centered on the price of textbooks, but for every fire there is a spark. One can only be so radical in austere times. Open pedagogy matters little to a student who can’t afford tuition, books, and rent without getting into substantial debt.
From time to time, articles in appear in newspapers about community colleges. Here’s the kind of quote that’s helpful for the public. For The People. For the teachers. For the students:
Community colleges have the students with the greatest problems — yet they get the least resources, said Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. It’s unrealistic to think we can have a better outcome without investing more money.
Better outcomes are sorely needed. That is, if education is to recover its role as a motor of opportunity for those who need it most.
The conversation is very public. Very local. Very political. Very personal.
The people doing the work, however are just too busy to publish. Too busy to blog. Too busy to present. Too restricted by budgets to attend regional much less national conferences. Too busy to engage in a public conversation.
Worse still, their institutions do not see the value in engaging in such a scholarly conversation because they see themselves as entrenched in the community. As institutions who have no competition in either the face-to-face, hybrid, or online setting. They are, to be frank, quite cozy being an institution.
It’s been deeply troubling to me meeting many of my OL scholar heroes IRL over the last two years only to discover they are under-appreciated, under-funded, and under-utilized at their local institutions. Audrey Watters, without an institutional affiliation, for example, may not have access to academic databases to do her work.
These are realizations I wish I could unlearn.
But really, university folks, keep focusing on the failures of community college. The gaps in data. The limits of what we don’t know. Our focus on open textbooks rather than open pedagogy (as if you can separate the two, but I digress). When really, you need to be looking at what community colleges have done well to support a variety of learners during very austere times. How they try to respond to the needs of their communities without knowing if they have the right answers.
Watters, as usual, honed in on this exact reality in her keynote from NW eLearn about the Pacific Northwest:
Austerity looms over so much of what is happening right now in education. Between 1987 and 2012, the share of revenue that Washington State University received from Washington state, for example, fell from 52.8% to 32.3%. Boise State University saw its state support fall from 64.7% of its revenue to 30.3%. The University of Oregon, from 35.8% to 9.3%.
This austerity at the university level has trickled down to our community colleges. We need to look at what community colleges have done to meet the needs of their communities. Look at what community colleges have tried to do to help their students. On a shoe string. On a dime.
I’m heading into TL;DR territory, so let me return to a favorite passage of mine from Rebecca Solnit’s “By the Way, Your Home Is On Fire:”
Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That’s easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It’s less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data…
The problem is: How do you convince someone who is stubbornly avoiding looking at the flames that the house is on fire? (Never mind those who deny the very existence of fire.) How do you convince someone that what constitutes prudent behavior in ordinary times is now dangerous and that what might be considered reckless in other circumstances is now prudent?
Change is incremental. My community college teachers taught me that.