Principles of Sociology/Social Science in Higher Education

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Based on John Scanzoni's 2005 book "Universities as if Students Mattered: Social Science on the Creative Edge"

Some Questions You Should Ponder:

1. Given what we think we know about likely future social, technological and economic trends, if we were to create a college or university from scratch today to reflect those changes, what would it look like?

2. How much do you know about the workings of your primary educational institution?

3. How did we get to the point where many, if not most students spend years in higher education not because they love learning, but because they feel intense social pressure to do so in order to be a “success”?

4. How much do you learn in school that you couldn't learn more effectively through hands-on experience?

5. Which group do you think is better at tolerating boredom and following rules: students or professors?

Underdeveloped Educational Processes

• Most college courses are based on the ingestion-regurgitation (IR) method, that is, the experts (professors and texts) provide the students with information and students are then judged by how proficiently they reproduce this info in various evaluation contexts (essays, multiple guess, etc.)

• Research has shown that when utilizing this method, students remember perhaps a quarter of this information when retested in the near future. Not only does this represent mediocre educational performance, but it provides a very monotonous context for learning in general.

• Furthermore, this method of teaching was originally designed for colleges whose mission it was to “stock the students” minds with the widest possible base of knowledge. This represents the old ways of “culturing” the children of aristocrats, not the application-based learning valued today.

• Though students and professors alike may be interested in doing things to “make life better” for others, there is not yet a system in place for allowing them to do much in concert to achieve these ambitions. There still remain stark divisions between teaching, research, and “doing good works.”

• The skills of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis have always been the hallmarks of good education, but are more so now that job insecurity demands more broad-based learning capacity

Conflicting Research and Teaching Objectives

• The “best” universities in the country are judged by research success, not teaching excellence.

• The most prized departments in a research university (like ours) are physical sciences that consistently produce the components for technological innovation that can be brought to market.

• Professors advance in their career and achieve tenure (job security) by performing exceptional research work that brings in outside funding. Their teaching activities are but secondary concerns.

• The vast majority of professors have no formal training in educational theory or practice and thus tend to reproduce the status quo in teaching, which has at this point been reified over generations.

• With this model in place, the teaching obligations of most professors (if they can't evade them) are at best a burden on their overall careers, so their classes are normally organized with as many labor-saving mechanisms as possible. This ends up looking very mechanized (powerpoint) and IR focused. The emphasis remains on instruction efficiency and not how students actually learn best.

Accountability and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education

• State governments have begun to tire of funding such large numbers of university institutions and their students, especially since there are few reliable methods in place to judge the performance of professors and students in the realm of education and preparation for the job market.

• In Florida, the majority of undergraduate students enrolled in state universities are funded by state scholarships, meaning that that the university system runs not off citizens directly paying tuition for their kids, but from money gained from property taxes (the rich) and lottery profits (the poor).

• States have begun to try to reduce this burden by encouraging more professors to demonstrate performance by fund their own research initiatives – changing their overall professional designation from that of hired hands for the state to independently contractors i.e. entrepreneurs

• The state hopes that the innovations developed from increased university research will spur economic activity within the state, thus generating larger tax revenues that justify their job pay

• These changes devalue teaching further due to the greater pressure on professors to “produce”

• Some have promoted the growing trend of cyber-credentialing or distance-learning as an option to cut down on overhead for educating a vast number of students. This is mostly an extension of the same efficiency paradigm. The use of high technology does not guarantee high quality education.

How the Social Sciences Fell Behind

• Social science in the US was originally begun as an attempt to mirror what the natural sciences had done in improving human well being through technological advancement. The University of Chicago sought to develop social innovations that would help the immense problems stemming from poverty in a largely immigrant city around the turn of the century.

• Many social scientists of the day were more interested in reform than science. Some blamed the poor for character flaws that caused their situation. Others believed that the public didn't know enough about bad living conditions, and that once they were “enlightened”, things would change.

• However, their efforts eventually offended many of the powerful men profiting from these poor conditions. Eventually, social science was forced back from this obligation to the betterment of humanity and into a more detached role as an analyst/commentator on the state of the social world.

• Today, while arts and humanities (history, philosophy, English, etc.) departments are under greatest threat from the new entrepreneur model, the social sciences too face significant challenges because both politicians and the public understand that the hard sciences have been the ones most often fulfilling their mandate to produce innovations that improve human lives.

• Furthermore, unlike natural scientists, who often collaborate on interdisciplinary research projects with faculty from other departments within the university, academics from the social sciences have more frequently remained mired in their respective disciplinary obscurity.

The Coming Credentialing Crisis

• The sheer number of college degrees handed out around the country has been increasing at breakneck speed for a few decades now. It is inevitable that as more individuals acquire such degrees, the less valuable each one becomes. Grade inflation had sped this process further along.

• Employers need ways to effectively distinguish amongst qualified (credentialed) job candidates. This task cannot be adequately accomplished through assessing GPA and standardized test scores.

• At present, employers base much of their hiring on the ranked prestige of specific educational institutions. However, these rankings are based mostly on research, not teaching.

• Many hiring decisions are based on the prestige of the educational institution that students attend, regardless of what quality of education they received there. With the cost of a college degree rising nationwide, these decisions will mostly reflect the socio economic standing of individuals.

• While they will for some time at least rely on these more unreliable and antiquated methods, the job market of today often requires that candidates present evidence their actual skills and abilities.

A Way Out and Over

• Make research based learning the standard – skills can only be reliably cultivated in one way – make students pose a question and then help them launch into the process of trying to answer it – we learn by thinking hard about what actions we are taking to try resolve a specific problem

• This Discovery Based Learning (DBL) is superior to Learning by Telling and Testing (LTT) and for this reason has been utilized in graduate education for some time now – the only problem is that it currently seems too expensive in large-scale undergraduate education.

• A different approach that takes seriously both accountability to students and performance of the social sciences' historical mandate to help humanity take possession of society could integrate the two by forming goal-oriented teams to tackle specific problems in the context of higher education.

• Specific modules would be formed within colleges and universities to develop and test innovative strategies to address social problems or shortcomings worthy of public attention. They would be led by professors and graduate students that specialize in these issues and have developed skills necessary to help undergraduates acquire knowledge and skills necessary to fully participate.

• An action research model would help utilize both the expertise of the professor and the interested effort of undergraduates to collaborate with folks in the local community to research tough social problems and produce meaningful and empowering social innovations to help the situation.

Potential Challenges to a New Model

   * The system of tenure is still based mostly on research productivity. Although tenure is an outdated concept, is very attractive for professors' job security and will be resistant to this new model.
   * Could introductory classes be designed to reflect the DBL model or are they totally outmoded?
   * How could the worth of professors as “coaches” in DBL teams be assessed outside the productivity of a specific action research project?
   * How could portions of the population over the age of 25 be integrated for continuing education?