At the end of 2016, we were presented with a different type of story about the end of a semester. Instead of stories about finals, celebrations, grades or even holiday events, we heard a story about “quitting.” That’s right - QUITTING. It wasn’t about an educator quitting either. It was about a student quitting.
Kansas State University Freshman Billy Willson finished his first, and his last, semester right before the end of 2016. In a Facebook post, he announced that he was dropping out, despite having earned a 4.0 grade point average. According to Willson, he was going to start his own business and learn more from that experience than anything he could hope to do at Kansas State, or any other higher institution for that matter.
He simultaneously set off a couple of controversies. One, he ran a photo of himself giving the finger to Kansas State which angered many in the education community who labeled him a spoiled and profane millennial. But more importantly, he also set off an even larger debate about the on-going question of the value of college and education in general.
Willson screamed out on Facebook call to action to his peers and let them know, “You are being scammed.” He went on a litany of issues related to the high cost, debt, textbook costs, poor instruction, outdated general education and more. But what he was really going after was RELEVANCY.
The day has finally come. Educators and leaders have been talking about relevancy forever. Students have too, but less formally. But they are now drawing the line and creating a new front line in education. They are not afraid to use any means to let all of us know that our systems are not working and indeed failing them. When your customer thinks your product stinks and is not helpful, then the funeral march begins.
Indeed, Willson said he did the dramatic photo and used social media to draw more attention to the issue. He was not just doing this for himself, but rather he was challenging others to abandon the system as well.
I have long been a proponent for student voice and choice. But I think we all need to begin to pay a lot more attention. Despite what some may believe, today’s students are more savvy, connected, enlightened and purposeful than ever before. They are aware that our systems are obsolete and they are not afraid to call us on it. That is not to say that we don’t have innovative, relevant educational programs out there. We do and there are some satisfied students finding their education relevant. However, if take higher education, for example, more and more students are questioning it, or even rejecting it. And they are not doing so because they haven’t played the game to qualify to get there. They have played the game and realize it is just that. It’s not going to get them where they want to go and they are not going to stand for it.
I have long argued that our system (s) won’t truly change or evolve until students essentially rise up and demand it. I know many in the field are trying, but the system (s) move slow and each student generation grows more impatient.
So, what should our system(s) response be to these concerns? In many cases, there are lots of people trying. We have lots of educators at all levels of education working hard to create new educational experiences for students that are engaging and ultimately relevant. But here are some things we can continue to do more and re-visit until we see wholesale changes:
- Connect Education / Educators To Career: Address the disconnect between education and careers. Too many of our students are completing degrees and programs only to find that they are not effective, or even irrelevant once again, when it comes to finding meaningful and professional employment. Only half of the students who are attending our universities are completing with a bachelor’s degree. Of those, only half are finding employment that required that education. And the average time to complete that four-year degree is six years. And the cost, oh my god the cost. We need to educate all of our educators how flawed the current dominant paradigm is. We need to make all education, K-16 and beyond, about connecting learning to career. Career Preparation can not be a side project or afterthought. It has to be foundational in order for increased educational and economic success, as well as the means to be relevant to all.
- Revamp General Education - It is becoming very frustrating to our college students, who are paying a lot of money and finding new global employment challenges, to embrace the general education course requirements. After all, they study most of these subjects several times in their K-12 education. We can argue all day long about the benefits of a liberal arts education. But given all we’ve already established, it’s lost on the students. What if we made their courses relevant to their majors? What if their English or Communication classes connected to their major or career interest? What if the social science classes were history of their career area? What if the math was stats class about their chosen career? You get the idea. We either need to drop it or change it. If we don’t, more and more will walking away like young Billy Willson.
- Ditch The Textbook Forever - According to the College Board, the average college student spends an average of $1,200 a year on books and supplies. A single book can cost $200 or more. And it’s not just about the cost. Whether digital or not, we now have the online resources for students to access any and all information that we need for any subject or area of study. The textbook paradigm is problematic in two ways: (1) they are directly related to dying and irrelevant instructional model and (2) they are connected to an entire publishing industry with less than noble goals. If we ditch textbooks - print or digital - we will not only save our students money, but fundamentally change teaching and learning for the better.
- PBL For All (Customize, Personalize & Innovate) - Project-Based Learning needs to become the dominant pedagogy for all educational endeavors. We need students to be able to take ownership of their learning path through choice, voice and relevant applications of learning. We already have many major universities and online/hybrid programs that allow students to mix and match courses based on their individual career goals, skill development and interest. Technology can help this, but as usual, the real challenge is mindset. Whether it’s K-12 or higher education, why can’t students choose topics, projects and areas of interest within a discipline? Why can’t they choose how they will present and share their findings? Why can’t they essentially, with mentors and advisers, map out an individual program of learning that allows them to customize and personalize their experience? I don’t just mean choosing some electives. I mean choosing what their courses look like, feel like and are like. I mean they would individually negotiate with their instructors their pathway within a course. Again, we have the means to do this, but do we have the will? Essentially, we need to be project-based learning K-16 and beyond. PBL allows for all of this and more.
- Not Just Degrees or Certificates - There is a movement now within education and training that is about the micro certificate. These are documentation of skill level in very specific areas of study. They are designed to give each student, as a professional, the ability to gain highly technical skills and have a way to demonstrate their skill on a standard platform. Whether it’s a digital badge representing a pro application certificate or an industry-specific one, it’s all the right direction. Our traditional bachelor’s degrees and associate's degrees are just as relevant to our students - both professionally in their careers and personally in their educational pursuits.
Naturally, I could go on and probably so could you. It’s not about completing the list per se, but rather about addressing the problem before it’s too late. The lives of our students, and our educational institutions, are both on the line. Both are relevant and need to be working together for the benefit of one another.