Term Papers Kill Readers

I am a librarian at a community college in east Tennessee. This week is finals week. Today is Sunday. Right now, dozens (possibly hundreds) of students are pouring their twenty-first cup of coffee to recapture the energy of last night’s all-nighter. They are writing term papers, hopefully revising them. They are casting words onto a screen much like a gambler casts dice, hoping some of the words turn up lucky and reveal a pattern in an otherwise meaningless spray.

As teachers, this is not what we hope they are doing. We hope they are deeply engaged in the creative digestion of everything they have learned with us this term and are making a careful synthesis of something new, brilliant and insightful that comes directly from that secret, genius-place in their brains.

Unfortunately, that will not happen. We won’t read those papers because we don’t ask for those papers. What if we did? What would that assignment look like? Possibly something like Kurt Vonnegut’s end of term assignment.

How would we grade it? Don’t know. Don’t care. If I could allow a student to be passionate and then force them to share that passion with others, my semester would have been a complete success.

The Crisis in Higher Ed

There is a crisis in American higher education. Surely you must ┬áhave heard about it. It is always in the news. It has something to do with tuition and textbook costs and tenured faculty and student learning assessments and competencies and marketable skills and jobs that don’t exist yet. Or it has to do with student engagement and persistence to completion. Except we aren’t exactly sure what completion means — is it a degree or a certificate or a credential of some kind? Perhaps a feeling of satisfaction or a job hire that suits a person’s skills and interests.

The fix is pretty easy. It involves just one thing. Our best people are working on deciding which one thing it is going to be. Perhaps mobile technology or accelerated courses or free textbooks or open courseware or MOOCs. Stay tuned.

I’m not usually snarky but my head is swimming lately with the sense of urgency that has seized the legislators and administrators standing outside my profession. We are moving at light speed to innovate but can’t easily define our goals. We are eager to demonstrate agility and a willingness to make tough choices but we can’t articulate the nature of those choices and why we have to choose so quickly.

I am not being retrograde. I know the world has changed and we all need to adapt. The internet has matured, and things are possible now that were not possible just a few years ago. We can build administrative processes at web scale. We can design learning systems that capture real-time data about how students learn and then return that data directly to students in real-time to improve their own understanding about their own learning. We can mitigate distance with cheap or free web conferencing tools. We have developed flipped pedagogies and hybrid course delivery modes to blend synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.

I want to adapt. I want to help improve things. I want to help figure out how to use these great new tools we have so that students can learn better, faster and more deeply than ever before. I want to help build an education system that recognizes the strengths of individual students and can offer personalized learning at the point of need so that we can prevent the waste of potential talent that, today, many accept as inevitable.

I want to help people discover what they are passionate about learning and then wrap skills and resources around that passion to create opportunities for genius.

Before I can do that, I need someone to tell me what we want the world to look like and what we need these students to be able to do. There are amazingly smart, compassionate, dedicated teachers and staff in our colleges and universities ready to do whatever it takes to get there. We just need someone to make it simple, make it clear. Give us a picture of the necessary future, give us the tools and permission to use those tools and then get out of the way.