Many edtech products begin as startups, and a foundational approach to think of a startup idea is the problem-solution model: identify a problem and create a product that solves that problem. This process has produced many EdTech products used in education today—e-books, flashcard apps, learning management systems, just to name a few—that focus on solving the broader problem of efficiency, or “digitizing” education.
Because of these types of products, technology-enabled and online education are expanding access to underserved and nontraditional populations—improving the lives of countless students. These early innovations are the foundation on which modern EdTech can flourish, but the EdTech of today should seek to do more than solve problems—it must continuously improve education with products that make learning more effective and enhance core learning processes.
Core learning processes are fundamental features of how our brains evolved to learn over millions of years. Contrary to the perpetual myth of individual learning styles—that some people learn better with visual information and others with verbal information, for instance—all brains learn information the same way. (What is actually variable is individual students’ interest and motivation to learn a topic). A recently published book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine. . . For Now by Stanislas Dehaene, articulates with great detail exactly how it is that humans learn. Dehaene explains that core learning processes are foundational to how all humans learn—powerful information for EdTech developers.
Higher education is facing many problems: the cost is way too high, students are underserved, dropping out at alarming rates, and have skyrocketing mental health issues. Why are these things happening? How do we fix it? I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have reading recommendations. As I’ve moved professionally in to education research, particularly focused on improving academic outcomes for diverse students, I’ve taken a great interest in reading as much as I can and engaging with varied perspectives on the state of higher education. Below are five very different books on higher education and why you should read them. Enjoy.
The take: Higher education’s dirty little secret is that an enormous number of students are not graduating. How many? On average, around 40% at public 4-year state universities – key word being average. Graduation rates are much lower at some universities, and bad at community colleges. (Of course, the highly selective public universities and the Ivy’s don’t have this problem with over 90% of their students graduating.) Why is this happening? Lots of reasons, but mostly because public universities are serving incredibly diverse student populations. Diverse in life experience, diverse in educational background, and diverse in goals. The short answer: our institutions are not ready to serve the diverse student populations they now have as a result of expanding access to higher education.
Why you should read it: The hemorrhaging of college students at our nations public universities may be problem most university administrations fail to tackle with actionable, effective solutions, but there are a few shinning stars that have solved this problem. Yes, it’s possible to actually serve and educate diverse students at a single institution. Georgia State, CUNY, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Texas, Long Beach State, and University of Central Florida are living proof. The College Dropout Scandal shows how administration can make a difference in student outcomes, and serves as an invaluable resource for those working in higher education that are trying to make their institutions better.
The take: What is happening on our college campuses? It’s now normal to hear of students de-platforming politically incorrect, conservative, or controversial speakers. Adult students need emotional safe spaces and coloring books. The use of mental health services is skyrocketing. These social trends are alarming for many reasons, but their cause is unknown. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that what we’re seeing is largely a result of helicopter parenting and a failure of children developing resilience, problem-solving capabilities, and of social-emotional skills. The result is high anxiety, entitled demands, and continued coddling.
Why you should read it: This book is controversial. Disagreements abound, there are very serious changes in child rearing and young adult social trends that all educators should be taking seriously whether they agree with the Coddling’s thesis. Free speech is being challenged at universities, despite free speech, exchange of ideas, and exploration being the foundation of liberal education. Today’s generation Z has been raised under more careful supervision and non-independence than previous generations, which those who study human development know to be a disservice and impediment to children’s social-emotional development. Their take is more of a hypothesis for what’s going wrong socially and culturally on today’s college campuses, but it’s a hypothesis worthy of engagement and discussion.
The take: Higher education is said to be the surest path to economic mobility, helping students access higher ranks of American socioeconomic class. But does American education deliver on its promise? Not always. Paul Tough takes an intimate, investigative journey into the how the current educational system is failing too many students. He works through the systems of higher education from college decision making, test prep and admissions, to student belonging and retention. The Years That Matter Most was truly an eye-opener for me to understand where higher education is going wrong. You can read more about my thoughts on this book here.
Why you should read it: The approach Tough takes in this book is personal and intimate. Each stage of the higher education system that he highlights is complemented by real student stories – stories of high-achieving, well-deserving students that are butting up against the flaws in our system. If you want a student perspective on higher education to really get a grasp at the ways in which we’re not fully serving our students, this book will not disappoint.
The take: We all know higher education is, honestly, an enormous rip off. It is way, way too expensive and everyone knows it. So, why do we keep buying it? Because we have to—employers demand it. Caplan argues that obtaining a university degree is mostly signaling to employers that your IQ is high enough, you’re relatively conscientious, and conformist. How much of your degree is signaling? He says around 80% but there’s room for debate. He shows with enormous amounts of data the continued arms-race that is occurring between employer demands and higher education is leaving students with useless degrees and crippling debt. From the macro perspective, higher education is a waste. From your personal perspective, you should get a degree (in an applied discipline).
Why you should read it: Any data packed book on a relevant topic is deserving of a read, or at least a skim of the tables. But Caplan exposes glaring flaws in the connection between higher education and employment. Why does a bachelor’s degree in art history, psychology, or literature qualify you for a range of basic office jobs if your content knowledge is nearly useless on the job? Why do you only get the college pay-off if you graduate? If your knowledge was truly worth something to employers, you’d think you’d get a pay bump for any college credits, but you don’t. And if you ever wondered whether your major matters, it does. If you’re a parent with children deciding on college or working in higher education, you should read this to better advise students. Also, it was one of my favorite books I read last year.
The take: Real Education takes a very different approach to higher education than the books mentioned above. Murray’s thesis rests on the idea that human ability varies, and therefore not all students that go to college should necessarily be in college (see The College Dropout Scandal for how many students aren’t finishing!). He highlights a big problem in American education: the devaluing of skilled-labor and vocation training. Note everyone needs to be an engineer or lawyer. Given these realities, he argues that too many students are going to college, and we should redirect training resources and high school courses on vocational careers. Higher education should be primarily reserved for student above average, intellectually speaking.
Why you should read it: Don’t let his name turn you off – it’s a great book that makes very valid arguments. Essentially, Real Education is a different solution the problem outlined in The College Dropout Scandal. We as a society value the college path over the vocational and labor paths, and the result is an enormous proportion of college student dropping out, with lots of debt and no degree. If we can’t graduate students, we’re actually leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college in many cases (not good!). Unlike Kirp who argues for colleges changing to serve new student populations, Murray’s argument is to only admit high-achieving students (i.e., high SAT scores). This is not an unpopular perspective in the academy—and exactly why you should read it.
So, what is the state of higher education today? How do we fix its problems? There is certainly no straightforward answer to such a complex question, but the answer will certainly involve nuanced discussion and hearing from a variety of perspectives, such as those above. Remember, you can disagree that higher education is only for the IQ elite, but that does not mean you should not engage with the perspective and work to understand it. Each of these authors provides a valid take on higher education today. Each have contributed to my own perspective of higher education, and my views on higher education – its problems and solutions – continue to evolve as I engage with diverse perspectives. I encourage you to engage as well.
A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science tests how ethnic and cultural spaces on college campuses impact perceptions, experiences, and outcomes for minority and White students. Ethnic spaces increased minority students sense of belonging, their perception of how much the university values minority students, their felt support by the university, and their reported academic engagement. For White students, however, ethnic spaces decreased their perceived support from the university and lowered their reports of future campus engagement; ethnic spaces did increase White’s perception of how much the university values minority students.
These results are a net positive for universities. As the authors suggest, ethnic spaces are one way in which universities can foster a sense of belonging for minority students on campus—and important component to closing equity gaps in academic outcomes.
Ethnic spaces on college campuses, however, are also subject to debate. There has been a lot of controversy over the years about who can use these spaces, and whether barring White students from these campus spaces is racist (it is), and whether the spaces are being used enough to justify their building cost.
Findings of this new study in SPPS shed some light on some of these controversial issues. On the one hand, ethnic spaces do positively impact minority students, but on the other hand, White students feel less supported. Additional analyses in the paper also show that the positive effects for Black and Hispanic students (the majority of the underrepresented minority sample in this research) are not dependent on actual or perceived usage of the space, “suggesting that [ethnic spaces] served as a signal of a more welcoming university context for underrepresented students” (emphasis added).
So, what are some practical insights that can be gathered from these new findings? First, creating a sense of belonging for underrepresented groups is important and can have a positive impact on those students. Higher education institutions that want to better academic outcomes for all of their students should focus on the idea of institutional belonging. Are ethnic spaces the best way to foster a sense of belonging? Maybe. In my opinion, I think that universities can both create spaces to celebrate ethnic diversity, be inclusive to all students, and be a good financial investment for the university. Finding the sweet spot of all these goals is possible.
It seems that the primary goal of ethnic centers is to give students a space to hang out, be themselves, be around like others, and hold events. For example, here is a description of ethnic spaces at Virginia Tech:
“These centers consist of a room or several rooms, ranging from 564 to 1,400 square feet each, equipped with televisions, sofas, chairs, tables, and bookshelves. But they are more than physical spaces for students to hang out, do homework, rest, and host club meetings, choir rehearsals, and other gatherings. They are judgment-free spaces where students say they can be themselves.”
This is another description of ethnic spaces that were used in the SPPS study at University of Washington:
“In support of the goals of the University of Washington, the Ethnic Cultural Center promotes an inclusive and educational environment by providing programs and services which enhance the communication and exchange of multicultural perspectives and values. The Ethnic Cultural Center provides programs and a learning environment where students and student organizations collaborate, develop and implement programs while building leadership and organizational skills.”
It seems that the goal of ethnic centers should be more than to provide spaces for particular students to hang out, and more focused on supporting particular students in the academic journeys. A good example of a ethnic center that has a clear mission is the University of Utah:
“Using a pan-African lens, the Black Cultural Center seeks to counteract persistent campus-wide and global anti-blackness. The Black Cultural Center works to holistically enrich, educate, and advocate for students, faculty, and staff through Black centered programming, culturally affirming educational initiatives, and retention strategies.
This new center will enact this mission through intentional programmatic learning outcomes, envisioned to build a sense of belonging and community at the U, with the goal of increasing the recruitment and retention of Black students, faculty, and staff. Supporting academic and cultural activities, this center is designed to promote and explore Blackness, equity, justice, and other progressive social change initiatives on campus and within the larger African diasporic community. The broader public mission of the Center is marked by a commitment to community activism and collaboration.”
Ethnic centers should, like the University of Utah, be aiming to provide academic resources for underserved populations, and serve as educational resources for all students, rather than barring certain students from these spaces. Rather than ethnic spaces serving as a signal of belonging, as the research suggest, ethnic centers should aim to be mission-oriented and educationally-based for all students, and the local community.
How could ethnic spaces be inclusive to all students, while still promoting belonging for underrepresented populations? Potentially, the spaces could be educational in their focus, which would also align with the missions of universities. Such spaces could be thought of as museums of sorts, that celebrate human diversity, showcase student and faculty work in relevant areas, and motivate academic engagement within the center. The public could be charged a small admission fee (free for all university students and staff) to help support student organizations. Providing opportunity and incentive for student engagement would likely promote greater use of the centers, too.
Rather than having a separate student union-like buildings or spaces for particular groups, a potential solution could be a single ‘multicultural’ center on college campuses that could showcase and promote unity on campus, rather than exclusion. Such centers would be a place for all students to visit, learn, and engage with, and hold events, with the goal of promoting positive perceptions and belonging for all students on campus.
Research, such as this new study in SPPS, is necessary to evaluate the effects of such spaces on student outcomes. Because ethnic centers are themselves diverse across campuses, it would be useful to compare student perceptions and experiences based on key features of such centers that already exist. Do centers that have a clear educational mission like University of Utah promote a stronger sense of belonging than generic student union-like spaces like at Virginia Tech? Does a single multicultural center that celebrates all types of human diversity have positive effects for minority and White students?
Rather than being just “signals”, universities should strive to create ethnic centers that further educational goals, foster community belonging, and have positive effects on all students.
I’ve spent my entire adult life thus far at university. I began my undergraduate degree at 17 years old and just graduated with my doctorate at 28. And, I now work at a non-profit education innovation hub affiliated with the largest university in the United States. I have devoted so much time to my education personally, and now professionally, because I love learning and, quite honestly, I am not sure what else I could do or would want to do.
Maturing personally and professionally within the American higher education system has left me with seemingly conflicting views of our institutions that I’m sure many other higher education professionals and professors share. On the one hand I view education as one of the most, if not the most, important thing in one’s life; education and learning enable everything else within my life. On the other hand, there are very real problems with our higher education institutions today, problems that are leaving students behind and underserving too many students once they get to campus.
The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough is the most compelling account of the myriad problems plaguing higher education that I have read. Aside from what I think is an utterly uncompelling title (one that really undersells the importance of the book in my opinion), the data and stories contained within its pages give broad, yet intimate insights into the lives of the students that our education system is failing in mass numbers.
What makes this book special and enormously moving are that the problems with our higher education system Tough details are not only backed by data, but demonstrated by real stories with real college students that Tough interviewed and followed over many years. Connecting abstract institutional problems with the lives of real students makes the problems in higher education tangible and salient.
Tough organizes his reporting somewhat chronologically, starting with the decision to go to college and how it differs across income level. For students in higher income levels, the general rule and decision-making process of which college to attend is to go to the most selective college that will accept you. For lower income students, many of whom have parents without college degrees, figuring out which college to attend typically isn’t based on selectivity, but rather location or unambitious recommendations from high school guidance counselors. In what Tough calls “income-typical behavior” high-achieving students from low income neighborhoods miss out on the advantages that going to a selective university can offer for their economic mobility.
Tough then dives into the big business of test prep, and the importance of the SAT/ACT scores in higher education. The decision to heavily weigh SAT/ACT test scores, or use them at all, in the college admissions process is a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, the test scores are the most predictive piece of information admissions offices have for whether a student will be successful (i.e., GPA and graduation likelihood). On the other hand, the use of test scores appears to be leaving a non-trivial minority of students behind. And much of the time, these students are from below-average high schools that tend to be in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods.
College admissions and its focus on test scores works against many high performing students. There is a group of students, which Tough refers to as “deflated-SAT” students that have test scores much lower than their high school GPA would predict. These students account for about 1/6th of those that take the SAT/ACT. For the remaining students that take the SAT/ACT, 2/3rd of them score consistent with their GPA and the other 1/6th score higher than what their GPA would predict, who Tough calls “inflated-SAT” students. The students in the deflated-SAT group compared to the inflated-SAT group, however, are three times more likely to be low-income, three times more likely to be first generation college students, twice as likely to be female, and at least twice as likely to be black or Hispanic. With the exception of women, then, test scores work against already underserved populations in our institutions.
Tough describes research by DePaul university, which is a test-optional institution meaning that students with deflated SAT scores are not required to submit them if they choose not to, shows that students who do not submit their test scores do, in fact, have ACT scores about five points lower, on average, than students that do choose submit them (the university requests that they submit their scores for research purposes). Importantly, however, these students with deflated scores are no different than the students who submit their scores: they have equivalent freshman GPAs, are just as likely to enroll in their sophomore year, and their six-year graduation rates are within two percentage points of the test-submitting students.
After getting in, students need to stay in. Tough’s chapter, Staying In, describes many big problems facing public universities today. How to best help an increasingly diverse student body, and how to get students to graduate. At most public state universities, only around two thirds of students actually graduate, with rates being far higher at more homogeneous Ivy league universities and other prestigious institutions, but much lower for non-selective institutions and community colleges. Thus, even at our best state institutions, too many students are unsuccessful. And, these problems disproportionately plague minorities (but not Asians), first generation students, and low income students.
Why this happens is due to many reasons. For example, primary and secondary educational institutions are not equal across neighborhoods, and the prior knowledge and education of incoming students varies dramatically. In many ways, problems in higher education are rooted in many of the problems plaguing our primary and secondary schools. Moreover, underserved students are often the minority on campus, and their sense of belonging and community can suffer. These big problems are difficult to address at scale, though Tough describes inspirational cases of programs, such as those within the University of Texas university system that are making strides to combat these problems.
The Years That Matter Most is truly eye opening to higher education’s problems; but isn’t ideologically driven. The stories he shares about real students facing real challenges at their university offer something for many to resonate with. And, Tough made me reflect on the ways in which these problems have personally impacted me during my decade-long educational journey. Although higher education does, indeed, work just fine for most students, our higher education institutions need to work for more. We need to find ways to build up underserved students – minorities, low income, first generation, and deflated-SAT – and we need to do so at scale.
Like many soon-to-be PhDs, I entered my doctoral program with all the hopes, dreams, and intentions of landing a tenure-track professor position after graduation. Like more soon-to-be PhDs, I actively pursued — and landed — a great ‘alternative’ job outside of the ivory tower. For those in the academy that know me personally, most were surprised at hearing of my decision to not sacrifice everything in order to become a professor. Most professors that I know told me that I would likely land a tenure-track job given my publication and presentation record, service to the field, and doing all the other things that I was ‘supposed’ to do in order to have a ‘strong’ application on the academic job market. But I chose to look elsewhere as I entered my 5th year of graduate school.
My decision to actively pursue altac jobs (alternative academic jobs, or non-professor jobs) was made in consideration of three primary factors: Living where I wanted to live (rather living where random University X was located), solving the two-body problem (rather than either one of us making a major career sacrifice), and the odds of having a job following graduation. Each of these factors pointed to the solution of being open minded and seriously exploring what the altac job market had to offer. Because aside from a massive dose of luck, I knew that it was extremely unlikely that I would land a tenure-track position coming out of a R2 state school PhD program given geographical constraints.
Graduate students, professors, and anyone with any connection to academia knows how outright dismal the tenure-track market is for those of use not coming out of an Ivy League or top-ranked R1 program. The fact of the matter is: There are not enough jobs. Each year, thousands of PhDs are awarded for only a few hundred tenure-track jobs per field worldwide. Then, it comes down to fit with the department, program, and university. There are many(ish) tenure track jobs in psychology, for example, but the majority are looking for someone who does research outside of my specific area.
If you pay even the slightest attention to college teaching news, you’re familiar with the term “flipped classroom”. The “flipped classroom,” aside from being the latest teaching trend in higher education, is a teaching strategy in which the ‘content’ part of college classes is moved to outside formal class time, whereas the ‘homework’ part of the college classes is moved to the formal class time — hence “flipping” the classroom. The idea being, that, students get the basic content knowledge that was traditionally delivered via lectures on their own time outside of class, and the in-class time is devoted exclusively to activities, group work, and interactive discussion.
Whereas a “traditional” college class may include long-winded lectures, some over-crowded powerpoint slides, and a youtube video link that may or may not work, the “flipped” classroom may include recorded lectures to be viewed at the students leisure (outside of class), in-class jeopardy, and group activities where you make life-long friends and learning is awesome. In other words, “sage on the stage” is out, and “edutainment” and “active-learning” are in.
The flipped classroom strategy is not without good intention, and there are aspects of the flipped classroom that I use myself and encourage others to use as well. Most importantly, there is good empirical evidence that active, engaged classrooms are indeed more effective for promoting student learning and positive student outcomes than lecture only classes. Why? Because students all learn the same way: by doing things.