What we “know” (about) what we “need”

December
2010
Karolyn van Putten, Educational Policies Committee Member

Just recently, I heard a senior administrator refer to community colleges as “employment engines,” alluding to the pivotal but somewhat undervalued (or under-acknowledged) preparatory role we play in getting students ready for (or retraining them in) the world of work. This preparation refers to more than career and technical education (CTE) programs and certificates; it engages all of our most noble learning outcomes. We aspire to produce students who contribute to society in meaningful ways, who are ethical world citizens, who think critically. Even our statewide mission emphasizes “a skilled workforce and an educated citizenry.”1

Actualization of this mission is increasingly focused on and driven by a tripartite mantle: basic skills, transfer, and CTE. Though CTE is more directly and clearly learning that is work related, and while we certainly want to increase our local success rates, still, the students who transfer and later graduate, are ultimately expected to enter the world of work. As a system we’re becoming more accommodating of basic skills needs which, once met, then prepare these students for success in classes that are directed at transferring or degree and certificate completion, all of which lead to, well, work.

We know that higher wages are a predictable outcome of college degrees and certificates; that this is so could always be a prominent message from our colleges. The business world has been clear in stating its needs and expectations of incoming workers and President Obama’s community college initiative further spotlights the integral relationship between student success and economic recovery. The Association of American Colleges and Universities identifies the Top Ten Things Employers Look for in College Graduates2:

  • The ability to work well in teams—especially with people different from yourself
  • An understanding of science and technology and how these subjects are used in real-world settings
  • The ability to write and speak well
  • The ability to think clearly about complex problems
  • The ability to analyze a problem to develop workable solutions
  • An understanding of global context in which work is now done
  • The ability to be creative and innovative in solving problems
  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills in new settings
  • The ability to understand numbers and statistics
  • A strong sense of ethics and integrity.

You will readily observe that nothing in this list is specific to a particular discipline or career path. One could further synthesize some of these qualities as the abilities to focus, communicate and collaborate. If we accept this as part of our charge, to develop students who know how to focus, communicate and collaborate, then it behooves us to pay closer attention to how this learning occurs, and to what conditions and circumstances facilitate – or interfere with – developing these abilities.

An increasing body of research suggests that the quantity, quality and expanded access to global media in the form of entertainment, news, information, social connectivity has potentially detrimental effects on acquisition and use of the cognitive skills associated with an ability to focus.3 Similarly, there is growing concern about the social and affective impact of media exposure and communications technology.4 Exposure to violent media is associated with a reduction in empathy and compassion; repeated exposure to rapid-fire media snippets may confuse one’s moral compass; game playing and other forms of online interactivity often interfere with completing homework assignments. Growing dependency on an abundance of digital distractions threatens physical fitness, is associated with sleep deficits, trivializes interpersonal communication and impairs concentration. All of these effects conflict with developing the abilities employers seek in college students.

At the same time, engaging educational uses of technology are lacking, and the existence of the Internet has changed everything about how we learn anything. For the first time in the history of consciousness, with access to technology, it is now possible to learn anything one wants to know about without leaving home. In principle, this flattened world of knowledge makes access to educational opportunity easier and more affordable than ever, provided the student learner is savvy enough to know how to use it. Some would propose that a large part of our job as educators is to help students develop that savvy.

We must ask and answer for ourselves the question, “If the answer can be found on the Internet in a matter of seconds, why should a student spend time memorizing it?” More importantly, when several different answers are available in a matter of minutes, how will the student know which ones are accurate and reliable? Recall that two things employers seek in potential employees are a) the ability to think clearly about complex problems and b) the ability to analyze a problem. If we are to succeed in improving student success significantly, in better, more efficient and reliable preparation for good, sustainable, life supportive jobs, we must change how we teach to accommodate increasing differences in how students learn5, integrated with the ubiquity of the Internet and social media, and connected to what students are expected to be able to do when they enter the world of work.

The learning outcomes and assessment features inherent to our accreditation standards provide a natural incubator for making these changes and for knowing when we have been successful. Numerous resources are available to support us in making the shift from an instruction-centered to a learning-centered paradigm, including one I recently discovered, developed by the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AACU). The AACU framework is one we could benefit from examining and adopting systemically.6 When we use what we know effectively, we will have what we need to fulfill our mission, that of cultivating “a skilled workforce and an educated citizenry.”

1http://www.cccco.edu/SystemOffice/MissionandVision/tabid/194/Default.aspx

2http://www.aacu.org/leap/students/employerstopten.cfm

3 See, e.g., sources quoted in The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html

4http://www.brainmysteries.com/research/Launching_an_attention_movement_in_a_distracted_society.asp, http://www.brainmysteries.com/research/Tweet_this_Rapid-fire_media_may_confuse_your_moral_compass.asp, and http://www.brainmysteries.com/research/Violent_media_numb_viewers_to_the_pain_of_others.asp

5See, e.g., http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2001/07/retention.aspx, and http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2006/03/cover-teamwork.aspx

6http://www.aacu.org/resources/assessment/index.cfm

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