On Feb. 25, presidential candidate Rick Santorum took a swipe at President Obama’s ongoing push toward higher education while speaking to a crowd of Tea Party activists in Troy, Mich. The former Pennsylvania senator argued that Obama’s encouragement of students to go to college ignored both the reality and ambitions of those who wanted to pursue more technical careers. Santorum said: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”
While Santorum hasn’t wavered from his original objection, Obama clarified his goal two days later, stating: “When I speak about higher education, we’re not just talking about a four-year degree. We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that is now required of somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment. They can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”
The public appears to agree with Obama. According to independent, nonprofit organization the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the proportion of Americans saying higher education is essential for success has roughly doubled from about 30 percent to nearly 60 percent during the last decade.
“If you want to do well in America today, you must go into the higher education institution and to a certain extent that’s frustrating for business leaders” said Steve Farkas, senior research fellow for Public Agenda, a public opinion research and public engagement organization. “The higher education system is providing a product everyone must buy — as a student you seem to have no choice — but the system is unable to adapt; [it] isn’t flexible or adjusting to changing economic realities. It’s off in its own world, unable to evolve.”
In late 2011, Farkas wrote a report based on independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization the Committee for Economic Development’s collaboration with Public Agenda to conduct a qualitative research effort to explore the attitudes of business leaders toward higher education. Four focus groups with 27 local business leaders were conducted in September 2011 and interviewees pointed to serious weaknesses in the country’s higher education system.
Business executives said they don’t see the justification for rising tuition prices and don’t believe higher prices are commensurate with improving quality. Most are convinced that institutions of higher education are wasteful and inefficient, suspecting that they are paying too much attention to aesthetics.
“If you’re a public four-year college and you see a private college is offering Olympic-size swimming pools and dorms with marble walls instead of stainless steel, you’re going to start doing the same thing to compete for those students,” Farkas said. “You’re going to focus on planting trees and having a nice shrubbery on your campus, but the money, especially taxpayers’ money, shouldn’t be going towards that. It should be going to some serious professors and engaging students.”
Meanwhile, the state of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the United States has seen unflattering appraisals in recent years. Despite its historical achievement record, the U.S. now lags behind other nations in STEM education at the elementary and secondary levels. International comparisons of students’ performance in science and mathematics consistently place the U.S. in the middle of the pack or lower.
“In order for more and more students to choose careers in STEM, they’re going to need to be engaged at an earlier point in their educational career,” said Greg Tobin, president of English, math and student success for Pearson Higher Education, an education services company.
While Tobin said he believes engaging college students in STEM might be too late, he has seen considerable results in Pearson’s partnership with the University of Memphis.
In 2008, the University of Memphis’ Department of Mathematical Sciences implemented a new teaching method in several sections of college algebra, foundations of mathematics and elementary calculus. The primary motivation of the new teaching method was to address low retention and success rates in these large-enrollment, lower-division general education courses.
Using MyMathLab technology, during every class session, University of Memphis students are now required to solve problems in a laboratory environment. They listen to a 20-minute, instructor-led lecture that introduces basic concepts and spend the remaining 65 minutes of class solving MyMathLab problems. Students also complete proctored tests and the final exam in the instructional lab by using MyMathLab. Instructors control access to MyMathLab’s multimedia learning tools on an assignment-by-assignment basis. Tutors are always available to answer questions during class sessions and when students complete homework assignments through the program.
“The delivery of information through lecture is outdated, and the average student’s capability to focus on one task seems to be decreasing,” said Fernanda Botelho, professor of mathematics at the University of Memphis. “It is my observation that any task is constantly being interrupted with other issues of interest to the student. As a result, academic training must comply with this new lifestyle.”
Botelho teaches elementary calculus. She gives a brief lecture — 20 to 25 minutes — at the beginning of the class period and follows it with an hour of lab work. Every student solves problems directly connected to the lecture topic and the system delivers instant feedback. Students are given individual help as needed through videos, step-by-step tutorials or online tutors. Students are also able to chat with one another.
“This method helps pace [the] student through the course and allows us to address individual needs,” Botelho said.
In the past four years, pass rates have increased by 23 percent for these courses. Tobin hopes this will result in more students progressing from introductory mathematics courses to the more advanced offerings, and hopefully more math and science majors.
“The trick to engage students in learning is consistency and personalization,” he said. “It doesn’t end in higher ed. All businesses owe it to their employees to create a culture of learning around their occupations. There’s no job today that’s the same over time. Everyone deserves the opportunity to gain new skills as they mature in their jobs. These types of technology that are being used now can be deployed in variety of ways — corporations aren’t exempt.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery