At the D.C. Newseum, a policy summit sponsored by the National Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation outlined the modern problems facing colleges, faculty and students. However, most of the attention was directed at the first speaker, who is under investigation by the federal government for sharing information with his non-profit while working for the U.S. Department of Education.
Ron Brownstein, the editorial director of Atlantic Media interviewed Robert Shireman, the executive director of the education policy non-profit California Competes. When Brownstein breached this topic of a federal investigation, Shireman bluntly said, “I am not here to answer those questions” and Brownstein shifted gears.
Shireman served as one of the Education Department’s deputy undersecretaries from February 2009 to July 2010, early in President Obama’s first term. Overall, Shireman seemed to be more of a motivational speaker than an education policy wonk in giving his answer to solve higher education woes.
He compared the 1980s Jane Fonda exercise video revolution during the 1980s to the current education problems in the U.S. It seemed that with the video, Americans realized that exercise can be done at home, but without a good reinforcement, it has only led to “a lazier and fatter nation” in the past few decades. Too often, said Shireman, “convenience is a barrier to learning” because there is a “human tendency toward slothfulness and laziness.”
Shireman lamented that too often, when people listen to the news they have an attitude of “I just wait for people to tell me what this means” instead of using critical thinking skills. This also illustrates the American higher education system’s woes, said Shireman, because “the problem isn’t the availability of knowledge” but getting students to “exercise” their brains and stretch their academic horizons.
The best teachers, mused Shireman, were those that pushed “you further than you thought you could,” gave feedback and acted like a personal trainer to make students accountable. With the move toward online lectures, which Shireman thinks is “ludicrous,” American educators believe they can give professors less and less responsibility in the classroom with less interaction and feedback.
He argued that the central problem of the education system today is the “lecture and regurgitation approach,” where a professor lectures a class, and asks simple regurgitating questions such as, “what did the author say in that passage?” but does not ask students to stretch their mental capacities. The less challenging courses are growing in number because “faculties have incentives to make courses easier” and not harder. He asked how this could be reversed and said that the “dynamics of professor ratings” have to change from promoting easier professors to promoting harder professors, or adding a difficulty component to GPA calculation based on grade distributions in a student’s course load. Instead of dealing with the same-old issue of rigid college grading procedures, this forces “colleges…to show what they say about the rigor of their courses are is true” and forces them to “make changes to these courses.”
During this event, Brownstein held a brief interview and Q&A session, and picked Shireman’s brain. Shireman said that online courses cannot replace a book because he believes that “it is a lot more efficient to read” a hard copy of a book than watch an online lecture. Although courses like chemistry would be best served by having preparation work done online, “we have to be careful” of fully integrating college courses to the online model.
Spencer Irvine is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.
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