Modern Education: A Round-Up of New York Times Education Stories
11.9.11 | The New York Times Education Life supplement is full of stories that may be of interest to those following technology-related learning shifts.
First up is a story by Laura Pappano on why selecting an online program is such a crapshoot. John B. Bear, who has written guides on distance learning since 1974 and is working on one about online MBA’s, offers this advice: “I have two words: Be careful,” he says. “The differences among schools are significant, but hard to find.”
Most students looking to study online face a tension: They want to learn, but they need institutions to operate more like Starbucks than State U.
Libraries with vast holdings? Less critical than 24/7 digital accessibility. Big-name professors with endowed chairs don’t matter; e-mailing students quickly does. Faculty quality counts, but online is more about guiding than lecturing. Ph.D.’s and brilliant campus lecturers do not guarantee strong online instruction. “It really takes a different set of skills,”says Ron Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, which works to improve online learning. “The online classroom turns them into coaches.”
That’s why Alexa Schriempf, a philosophy Ph.D. who teaches online at Penn State World Campus and Southern New Hampshire University, makes herself available to students by smartphone even at her part-time job picking greenhouse vegetables.
“Online platforms are set up for you to very quickly provide feedback,” she says. “They have windows all over the place where you can very quickly put two lines of text — ‘This is perfect. If you keep this up you will meet the requirement. Have you thought about this?’ ” she says, noting that some colleagues hardly engage, and “just grade at the end of the term.”
A lack of graduation data matching government criteria and confusion over professional degrees adds to the difficulty in evaluating programs. Pappano provides a handy checklist to help prospective students understand what they’re signing up and what they’ll get in return.
Moving along, the story titled “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)” has garnered more than 1,100 comments and counting.
The story notes that studies show “roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.” And that percentage goes up—to as much as 60 percent—when pre-medical students are included.
“We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college,” Mitchell J. Chang, an education professor at UCLA who has studied the attrition rate, told the Times. “It’s not just a K-12 preparation issue.”
President Obama has called for an additional 10,000 engineers a year and 100,000 new teachers with majors in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. David E. Goldberg, an emeritus engineering professor, says the president’s chances or reaching that number of engineers is “essentially nil.”
In other STEM news, the Times reports on efforts by schools known for their excellent science and engineering programs to bridge the gender gap.
“At most colleges and universities, women outnumber men — at 57 percent nationally. But Southern [Illinois University] finds itself among a smattering of campuses with a few too many good men: women make up just 44 percent of undergraduates. And over all, only about 30 percent of Southern’s students in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are women,” writes Karen Ann Cullotta, who reports on recruitment efforts, such as a cheerleading camp, that SIU is rolling out to encourage more young women to visit the campus and ultimately apply for admission.
The problem must be addressed long before it’s time to fill out college applications, says Patricia Albjerg Graham, a professor of the history of American education at Harvard: “We need to change the culture for little girls who are growing up now, and start expecting them to not only ‘get’ math and science, but to do well, take more A.P. classes, and join the math and science club.”
“The real issue is women are falling out of STEM fields all along the pipeline, starting in middle school and high school,” says Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT (where 37 percent of all students are women). “To increase gender balance, it’s all a matter of getting the right story out about science and engineering to young women, that it’s not about sitting at a desk doing math all day.”
Learn what other schools, including Texas A&M and Carengie Mellon, are doing to recruit more young women, including bringing in professors who share visiting students’ passions, such as discussing “CSI” (for forensic science) or, my favorite, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (ethnographic research on fandom). Also read some of our previous coverage on the gender gap, including a look at support for STEM initiatives and stereotypes and women’s history.
A separate story points out that more young women than ever are majoring in STEM fields, but the majority of them are focused on life sciences. “About 58 percent of all bachelor’s, master’s and doctorates in biology are awarded to women,” writes Christopher Drew. “But except for medical students, salary prospects are lower in biology, and research jobs, the most coveted of pursuits, hard to come by.”
The section also contains two brief library-related stories: one on the futuristic automated storage and retrieval system at the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library (watch books being retrieved from the storage site 50 feet below ground in the video below), and the other on schools pairing students with their own personal librarian—not to be confused with personal assistant.
“While personal librarians help students figure out what they’re looking for, and how to find and use it, here’s what P.L.’s won’t do: your research, make photocopies and set up your computer VPN,” writes Jaywon Choe.
Finally, the Times gives brief mention to the Digital Media and Learning Competition and its focus on using badges to formally recognize an ability or skill. (Speaking of, the stage one deadline is Nov. 14.)
Connie Yowell, director of education at MacArthur, told the Times, “We really believe that we’re launching a national conversation about what skills matter and how those skills get assessed.”
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