Gold Standard?

If I asked you to list the most important things any class could have, what might you say? Personally, I imagine Socrates asking questions and guiding students along to a pre-determined and yet (somehow) fresh and transformative conclusion.

Over the years, I’ve had a few teachers who operated like that, although for the most part, I’ve lived the life of an autodidact.  Even when I was a young child I went to an “open concept” school with no set classroom space or curriculum.  I chose what I wanted to learn and then, for the most part, I taught myself.  Not much room for the Sage on the Stage in my personal history.

My own educational journey was unusual, for sure, but regardless how we got here, most of us in higher education today are likely to have had experiences that are more similar than they are different.  Even outliers like me went to a physical school, filled out worksheets, and read textbooks.  We know the gold standard when we see it, right?  Because we lived it.

But today’s classroom is changing, and rapidly.  Our own students share much of our educational experiences, but they have also had much more “digitally enhanced” education along the way.  When I was in the 7th grade, only the gifted kids got to use a computer, and it was just a novelty with some simple games. Today’s traditional undergraduates have been getting their education from things that beep for much or all of their lives.

This isn’t a “kids these days” observation.  Personally, I’m not all that swayed by arguments about “digital natives” or “the way millennials learn.” But I do think it’s time for us to think about what good education looks like and ask ourselves hard questions about the way forward.

Did you know, for example, that students in hybrid classes can outperform those in the traditional classroom, and retention rates for hybrid classes tend to be higher too?  But many professors continue to be skeptical of online and hybrid education for a variety of reasons.

In some ways, the issue here is nothing more than change management.  From ivy league schools to our local community colleges, online education is increasing educational access. Digitally-enhanced education is alive and well in higher education, and the biggest challenge is simply getting used to it.

So, what would “getting used to it” look like?  Does acceptance mean acquiescence?  Not if we look deeper, and investigate our basic assumptions.  For example, did you know that the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) takes a close look at the parity between the face-to-face and the online experience for students?  Parity goes beyond simply what happens in the classroom, although educational quality is a top priority, of course.  But to this point, parity has largely been a question of making sure that online students have an experience that is comparable to face-to-face students.  That is, the face-to-face experience has been taken as the standard.

But should face-to-face be our standard?  At the very least it’s worth reflecting on whether it is and if so why.  Surely, as educators most of us are more comfortable with face-to-face; it’s what we know and what we experienced.  But was what we learned due to the delivery method itself?  Or is learning something distinct from delivery?  Having received much of my grade school education through a radically different delivery method, I’m inclined to believe the medium is not the message.

It’s time to reflect upon our basic assumptions here because times are indeed changing.  Online, hybrid, and flipped classrooms are taking their place in the higher education universe.  If we are going to continue to offer our students the best educational opportunities we possibly can, we need to be thinking long and hard about what our gold standard looks like.

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