Sunday, August 21, 2011

Three Cheers for Higher Education

It's that time of year again...students and educators at all levels are gearing up for the 2011-12 school year. If your local school has not started already, it will likely have its first class day tomorrow, at least in Texas. SHSU starts a week earlier than some universities, but the startup is looming for all of us. Yesterday I went to Freshman Convocation at Sam Houston State University. The coliseum was crowded with students, faculty, and parents. There was a bit of pomp and circumstance with faculty in regalia and a formal beginning to the event. Then we heard from our university president, and the student body president, and ended up with the Alma Mater. The band was there with usual exuberance. It was a beautiful (if sweltering) evening with supper served for all afterward. I enjoy this kickoff event every year even though our department only serves graduate students. It's a great time of coming together to share our loyalty to, as our previous President Gaertner used to say, "this grand old university."

As I was sitting in the audience, I could not help thinking of Western Governor's University which touts a 2 1/2 year bachelor's degree for $15,000. This school has recently received a lot of attention in Texas due to "Governor" Rick Perry's endorsement. It allows students to work at their own pace and use "life experience" as part of their studies. I wonder about that. When I showed up in Waco for my freshman year at Baylor, I had precious little life experience to prepare me for anything other than being a highschooler who worked for her daddy on Saturdays and during summer vacations. I worry about what these students will NOT get, both in and out of the classroom. One strength of colleges like WGU is said to be that they will allow "non-traditional" students to get educations. Maybe so but I know that SHSU has a great track record in this arena as well. I am proud of the fact that over 70% of our graduates are the first in their families to receive bachelor's degrees. In addition to campus life, I cannot help suspecting that actual instruction will get short shrift also. Students will not have much contact with their professors, who will teach large (think triple digit) online classes. An article I read last week shared the fact that grading of work has been contracted out also. So the student cannot meet or converse with his instruction (yes I know there will be videos and audio presentation) and will not benefit from that person's insights for grading. And of course THAT means that assignments are likely to be the type that can be machine graded. Yes I know almost any subject can be taught online. Our MLS is online but we do also offer face-to-face instruction resulting in hybrid courses. Studies show this is a great model.

I think our newly minted Bearkats will benefit from their time on this beautiful, friendly, and historic campus. And I applaud their families for supporting them as they work toward their goals. I worry about an anti-education, especially higher ed, strain that is showing up in our state. I hope we have this problem worst of all states because I would hate to think anybody else was worse off than we are. I will comment further on this concern in a future entry. But rest assured, your state universities are not ivory-towered academic theme parks with slacker intellectuals who bask in their offices and call that "research."

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