Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!

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2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!

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In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.

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The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.

 

 

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