Degrees of certainty

I wrote this post about the way the “skills gap” discussion is informed by the politics of funding and the increased amount of risk that universities are expected to manage. Here is the original post from March 27, 2013: Degrees of Certainty.

recent post by David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, has been quite popular with academics and has generated a lot of commentary. Naylor makes the argument that Canadian higher education is dogged by “zombie ideas”, and he describes two of them: the first is that universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates [and] focus on preparing people for careers”. The second is the idea that research driven by short-term application or commercialization, should be prioritized by universities because it provides a better return on governments’ funding investments.

I focus here on the first point, since in the past few weeks, in the run-up to the federal budget on March 21st, there has been a great deal of coverage of the alleged “skills gap” in in the Canadian workforce. Others have already done the work of summarising this issue, but as a quick recap, the argument goes something like this: business leaders and employers in Canada complain (to the government) that they cannot fill positions because candidates lack the skills. Yet Canada produces more post-secondary graduates than ever, and those grads are having trouble finding employment that matches their qualifications. So why is there an apparent “mismatch” between the education students receive, and the skills employers are demanding?

I don’t have anything to add to the debate about what is needed more–“narrow” skills such as those available from colleges or apprenticeships, or the “broader” education that universities argue they provide–because I don’t have the expertise to make an assessment within those parameters. However, I find the discussion interesting in terms of its context, including who is doing the arguing, and why.

For example, while the “skills gap” is assumed as a dramatic fact by Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who “recently called the labour and skills shortage “the most significant socio-economic challenge ahead of us in Canada”” (CBC)–other experts, including Naylor, disagree that a skills gap exists at all. University graduates, they argue, are still making better money than those without degrees; and most of them (eventually) find jobs that draw on their skills–so why reduce the number of enrolments? Alex Usher of HESA has been generating a lot of commentary for this side of the argument as well; in the comments of one of his posts, his points are disputed by James Knight of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

Clearly the debate is more complex than “BAs vs. welders”, but this is the rhetoric being reproduced in numerous mainstream media articles. The average reader could be forgiven for finding this issue hard to untangle, based on the radically different accounts provided by media and policy pundits. Yet all this is discussed with much urgency, because post-secondary education is now being understood as a stopgap for everything the economy seems to lack–and economic competitiveness is imperative.

The politics of urgent “responsive” decision-making lie behind many of the arguments being brought forth. The skills gap, should it exist, has its political uses; agreeing that a thing exists means having to find ways of dealing with it somehow. In this case, a restructuring of university education is one solution on offer, including steering students away from the corruption of the arts and humanities and towards more suitable areas where demonstrable “skills” are in demand. Those doing the arguing have the means and “voice” to define the problem in a particular way; they can intervene in that debate and someone will listen. Each player has stakes in this game, too–the colleges plump for skills and job training over research investments, while the universities, and their advocates, claim a “broad” education is more appropriate; employers want graduates they don’t have to train, so the concern is with graduates being job-ready (for jobs that may not even exist yet).

Is this a kind of moral panic for Canadian higher education? That’s an important question, because such tactics are used to create a climate in which particular policy changes are favoured over others, both by politicians and policy-makers and by voters.

I think at the heart of the debate there are the problems of risk, certainty, and value (for money). Canadians have more of a “stake” in what universities do–often through directly paying ever increasing amounts of money for it–and so they care more about what universities are for. Governments have more of a claim now too, because of the idea that universities are magic factories where students enter undeveloped and emerge brimming with human capital (but it must be capital of the right kind).

The more we experience instability, the more we desire certainty–or at least some form of guarantee that if things go off the rails, we have other options. Yet there is no certainty about economic (or other) outcomes either from education or from non-commercial, “basic” research. Education and research give us no way to “go back”, either. For those trying to get a good start in life, there’s no tuition refund if we fail our classes or find the job market unfriendly at the end of the degree. We can’t wind back time and have another try. So the question becomes: what will guarantee our ability to cope with the future? A long-term focus on broad learning, which can (it is argued) help us to adapt to the changing structure of careers? Or a short-term focus, on skills designed to prepare students for specific, immediate positions?

This is why Naylor makes the argument that “the best antidote to unemployment–and the best insurance against recession-triggered unemployment–is still a university degree” (added emphasis). The word “insurance” speaks to the risk each person internalises in the current economy. Such risk has many effects, and one of them is heightened fear of the unknown: with so few resources to go around, will we get a “return” on what we invested, will our sacrifices “pay off”? What will happen if they don’t? As Paul Wells has pointed out, university advocacy organizations such as AUCC have pushed for universities to be recognised as providing economic benefits–since this is a logic that validates requests for further government funding. Yet it means universities are held captive by their own argument, since funding comes with the expectation of economic returns for the government. What if they cannot deliver on this promise?

The skills/employment “gap” is being blamed for a lack of national economic competitiveness; and it is a parallel to the ongoing “innovation problem” that Canada has in the research sector. But it’s the outcome, not the process, that’s really driving this debate. Never before have we been compelled to pay so much attention to the purpose and results of university education, and now that it seems to matter so much, we’re finding that “what universities should be doing”–or even what they already do–can’t be pinned down so easily; it can’t be mapped so cleanly onto a specific, measurable result. This is partly because what we now demand of universities is certainty, where serendipity used to be enough.

Perishable goods – Universities and the measurement of educational quality

In this blog post I responded to an article in the Globe & Mail, regarding the splitting of funding for teaching and research in universities. My piece refers to the lack of adequate measures for teaching “quality” and student learning, and how this makes it impractical to attempt to link government funding to those factors, as well as the trouble with assessing “outcomes” of education in the short-term. Here is a  link to the original post, from October 11 2011: Perishable goods.

Today’s post is a response to the Globe and Mail’s October 11 editorial, Canadian universities must reform or perish. The response from my PSE friends on Twitter was provocative (the tweets can be found here on Storify); those involved in the discussion seemed to agree that while the article highlighted real and pressing problems, the analysis was awry. The issues being addressed in this article — quality, sustainability, and accountability — are relevant and important, but it’s the assumed answers to these issues that are troubling. I want to take a look at what I think are some of the implications of the argument.

One issue is that the article seems to focus on universities primarily as places of undergraduate education, whereas they’re viewed by faculty members (and administrators) as research centres as well. Professors don’t engage only in teaching, since teaching is not generally the sole mission of universities.

The article suggests that universities should train professors in pedagogy, and place more value on teaching in the tenure process; I wouldn’t argue with that. The trouble lies in the suggestion that teaching and research should be split apart and funded separately. Along with teaching-only campuses, this segregation of funding and function would further entrench an existing hierarchy — because universities and faculty members operate in a larger “market”, wherein research is given more prestige and more monetary value than teaching.

I’d argue that it’s a problem to suggest that funding for teaching should be tied to training and assessment (i.e. performance-based funding). Proposing that we fund universities by the “performance” of professors requires a reliable means of measuring this performance, and student learning is assumed to be the outcome. But a reliable measurement of student learning is like the “Holy Grail” of education research at all levels. Tests developed in the United States have provided some limited answers, but all standardised tests are somewhat fallible due to the annoyingly individualistic experience of education; tests mostly fulfill a function within systems, rather than providing real knowledge of knowledge, as it were.

While it’s possible to create systemic criteria — such as Ontario’s University Undergraduate Degree Levels Expectations (UUDLEs), for example — these measure a set of pre-defined skills determined by design, which excludes a good deal of what students may experience as well as future effects that learning may have on them.

Philosophical and practical difficulties arise from relying on measurable data in education: how do we begin to ask what numbers could show “proof” for outcomes like “critical thinking”, “creativity”, “innovation”, and “knowledge” itself? Will these measurements of  “learning outcomes” take into account student “inputs”? How will they do this? After all, education is a two-way process and not all students have the same capacities, nor do they all contribute the same amount of work.

Another related issue is that the article posits multiple, potentially conflicting goals for university education. Should the role of the university be to train workers for the knowledge economy, or to “bring the values and practices of a liberal arts and science education to the masses” — or both at once? If liberal education is the goal, then hiring more research professors, whose salaries the article refers to as a problem, is the best way to expand the system—rather than splitting teaching from research as suggested. That segregation has meant that enrollments are often expanded on the backs of part-time and contract teaching faculty who can be paid less and provided fewer or no benefits. The Globe’s editorial highlights this phenomenon without linking it to the expansion of enrollments alongside the separation of research from teaching.

The critique of current professors’ performances and salaries fails to get at the heart of a decades-old problem, mainly through an over-emphasis on the present outcomes of those long-term processes. In essence this is an individualizing critique that assumes professors who don’t want to teach, rather than 40 years of postsecondary expansion and economic change, are primarily responsible for the declining quality of undergraduate education. Yet professors don’t create provincial policy, nor do they set the limits on tuition fees, or even determine the number of students in a course. Tenure-track and tenured faculty are also juggling increased research and administration loads as competition becomes more intense. All these things have a strong effect on the environment in which teaching and learning takes place. If and when the concept of “quality” is focused on professors’ classroom performance, and on teaching and research as easily separable, then a narrow analysis — and flawed solutions — are likely to result.

Live Q & A: Should the higher education sector regard students as consumers?

I participated in another Guardian UK online panel, this time on a topic I’ve thought about a fair bit (student consumerism). The online discussion is available at this link.

The “best bits” of the discussion were summarised and re-published in a Guardian article here (Thursday, November 10th).

On the up and up – Socioeconomic class and inter-generational change

I wrote this post after watching the Up Series, a group of documentaries begun in 1964 and continued for every 7 years after. The series traces the personal histories of a group of children through their adulthood. I was struck by how much people’s life trajectories seem to have changed within less than 2 generations, particularly with regards to education and employment. The latest instalment of the Up Series – 56 Up – was released in 2012. Here is a link to the original post from September 19, 2011: On the up and up.

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

— Jesuit saying

This week I spent a couple of days watching every movie in the Up Series, a set of seven documentary films that follow the lives of a group of English children over a period of about 45 years.

The Up Series is an unusual and fascinating project that began in 1964, when a program was commissioned by Granada Television as part of the World in Action TV series. The first episode, Seven Up, was directed by Paul Almond, and Michael Apted took over for the following six films which were produced in 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, and 2005.

The films follow the lives of 14 children who were initially chosen as “representative” of various socio-economic class (SEC) strata. The program was designed to focus on the “determining” role of class in people’s life circumstances. The group of children included was geographically and socially diverse, ranging from one child from the rural Yorkshire Dales to those from London’s East End and suburban Liverpool.

In successive episodes, the participants were asked about various topics including their leisure time activities, educational environment, family, class and money, and race. The project later delved more into participants’ personal lives — choices and relationships, attitudes and motivations, and self-awareness. Several of them bowed out of a number of episodes over time.

Aside from the fascination of watching lives unfold, I was most interested in the role of education, which was a focus in the series because of the association made between education and SEC. There were varied educational experiences within the group, including elite private and prep schools (singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin!), state comprehensive and grammar schools, and a charity-based boarding school; several of the children later attended Oxbridge while others didn’t complete high school. Style of education is framed as an early sorting mechanism, as in the first episode where the narrator argues that the “distinction between freedom and discipline is the key to [the children’s] whole future.”

What’s become clearer over time is that this series also provides a small portrait of a generation. Born in 1957, these children were part of the long post-war Baby Boom. They grew up in an era of unprecedented change, both to social values and to economic prospects; and they benefited uniquely from the Keynesian “welfare state”, much of which was built by their parents’ generation.

There was a huge difference in the perception of education between participants, as well as between “then and now”. Those who weren’t from privileged circumstances seemed to see higher education as optional to a full life, including a career and a family, though for some it clearly wasn’t an option presented. This was a contrast to the children from wealthy families who knew from a young age the stepping-stones to professional careers.

The trajectory of life in general was also different, possibly because of the timing of education. Many of the participants had married and had children by 28. Several of the marriages had lasted over 20 years by the time 49 Up was filmed in 2006 (though several others had divorced). Most started full-time work at a younger age than the current average — including the one participant who became an academic.

Within a generation, we’ve already seen this picture change beyond recognition. It’s now uncommon for teens to leave school at the age of 15 or 16 for other prospects, probably because there are no prospects without at least a high school diploma. High school alone is not “enough” anymore; class mobility is practically impossible without a post-secondary credential, and even then, the competition is fierce. These days, the news from the UK indicates that teenagers there (and elsewhere) are thoroughly preoccupied with trying to map our their life choices at earlier ages as they navigate the educational system, suffering increased anxiety over future prospects, and sometimes a sense of lethargic hopelessness in the face of increasing economic inequality.

Class still matters, now as much as ever. Watching the Up Series films made me think about what we might learn about class, culture, and education if we had not only longitudinal, statistical information, but qualitative work that fleshes out the complex processes involved in people’s decisions, the opportunities available to them, and the ways in which education is involved. The larger story of a life in context tells us more than a series of numbers. But with cuts to education research in Canada, it’s hard to imagine that kind of study being pursued in the near future.

First year focus – Understanding student choices

A conversation in a second-hand clothing shop provoked me to write this post, which is about the ways in which undergraduates experience the university environment when they’ve arrived right from high school. I was reminded of how easy it is to take things for granted when we’ve been working in an institution for a long time. Here is a link to the original post from September 13, 2011: First year focus – understanding student choices.

September is upon us and with the beginning of another academic year comes a fresh crop of undergraduate students jostling their way into universities’ hallways and classrooms. As a researcher in postsecondary education who also teaches undergrads, I take a direct interest in the first-year experience. Whenever I have a teaching assignment with first-year students, I try to have a conversation with them about the decision they made to come to university, the factors that influenced their choice, and how their experiences in university compare to those in high school.

I thought of this recently when I had a chance conversation with a young woman working at a second-hand store where I was buying some summer clothes. We started chatting about the job and how she’d come to be living and working in town. I assumed she was a student at the local university, but as it turned out she had quit her BA at the University of Toronto and wasn’t sure if or when she wanted to go back. She spoke about coming from a family of artists, and how in hindsight her degree (in Art History) seemed more like the logical and familiar thing to do rather than an informed choice. I was reminded of my own experience, heading to university at age 17 to study studio art, but subsequently taking a break from higher education for several years.

As we talked, she described how overwhelming the experience of university had been, comparing it to the structured and planned environment of high school where “someone was always there” to tell you what you needed to do next, where to go, and why. Even students’ schedules were essentially planned out for them. University was overwhelming because “you could do anything;” there were so many courses and programs, to choose from, but “you don’t know anything about any of it.” Her impressions spoke to me of a lack of guidance and mentorship at that early and crucial stage.

For this student, high school had provided a structure and a coherence that made it navigable. The university was apparently limitless and chaotic, a freedom that came with an unexpected and intimidating level of responsibility as well. The safety of high school, an illusion of knowledge about knowledge itself, was like a rug pulled from under her feet.

Based on other experiences with young undergraduate students, I think this may be one illusion that (some) primary and secondary schooling perpetuates through its very structure: that knowledge is somehow unified and can be mastered by internalizing and reproducing information from the right categories at the right times, that it can be divided into navigable units and that its relevance will always be evident somehow.

Experience with teaching university students has led me to question the dialogue between secondary and post-secondary, which should involve high school teachers and administrators, students, and professors. There seems to be a continuing deficit on both sides of the educational fence. How many university professors are familiar with the high-school curriculum, and vice-versa?

Universities can do their part, using research to inform well-designed first-year programs. Many examples exist in Canada, such as McMaster University’s Honours Integrated Science program (iSci). The program is small, enrolling about 30 students in a cohort. They share a “home base” (a study room), as well as a specially-equipped teaching room, both located in the Engineering library. Students have close learning relationships with others in their cohort and with faculty and staff. They also complete an initial standard curriculum designed to provide a common foundation for the rest of the first year.

The downside of many such programs is that they’re still elite, catering to limited cohorts of students who are more likely to arrive well-prepared for university learning. One of the great policy problems for higher education is the extension of successful elements of elite programs to benefit all students in a massified system.

While we may not have the means (yet) to provide these kinds of elite program experiences to larger numbers of students, there are things that teaching assistants and faculty members can do to lessen the disorientation suffered by many undergraduates. We can try to connect course material to work they’re doing in other classes, and help them to identify their academic strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly we can show an interest in what’s going on for them and how they’re experiencing it, since this kind of help and attention can affect their eventual success at university.

The luck of the draw

In this post I discussed a few issues relating to how graduate scholarships are assessed and assigned to Canadian Masters and PhD students, and what students need to do to have a chance at winning them. I actually changed the word “grant” to “scholarship” below, because in the original piece I wasn’t clearly differentiating. Here is a link to the post from September 8, 2011: The luck of the draw.

For academically ambitious Canadian university students, including those finishing their undergraduate degrees this year and those already in graduate school, September is scholarship application season.

Application-writing is like the unpleasant medicine of graduate school. While the outcomes are beneficial in terms of professional development (and sometimes, funding), the process of application is painfully difficult and nerve-wracking for many students.

Though we’re fortunate that the funding is available at all, the competition for federal Tri-Council scholarships — those from SSHRCNSERC and CIHR — is intense, and with increasing numbers of graduate students applying that situation is only likely to worsen. Particularly after a recession and a significant increase to enrolments, funding is tight. Financial pressures on grad students intensify the competitive nature of funding, as well as the need for students to distinguish themselves from their peers in the ever more difficult academic market.

If financial pressure and academic competition alone aren’t enough, the process of application can also feel like a course of bureaucratic hoop-jumping. I suffer from “bureaucratophobia”, and I always felt anxious having to order transcripts (from four different universities), getting the “ranking” forms and letters from referees, and making sure to correctly fill out every esoteric section of the actual applications, as well as sticking to the technical directions for producing the proposal. I remember being told at one point that I’d used the wrong colour pen.

Graduate students get stressed about competitive scholarships in part because they tend to feel as if they have no control over the outcome of their application; most of the selection process is hidden from view. Our lack of insight into the process can make the outcome look like “luck”. But is that an accurate assessment?

For SSHRC grants, with which I have direct experience, the application is often worked on by students with their supervisors for more than a month before it’s due. But building a successful application is a process that actually starts much earlier, since the first “screening” mechanism is your GPA. Undergraduate grades, built up over years, are an important factor especially when applying for a Master’s scholarship.

You also need time to build relationships with the professors who’ll end up supporting your application by writing letters of reference. Some students now find it difficult to find refereesfrom their undergraduate years, having had little or no contact with permanent faculty members.

The last thing to develop is your project proposal, in which you’re required to imagine and articulate a feasible piece of research that can be completed in the allowed period. Often there are no examples provided of successful proposals. Even when examples are available, you can’t see what the rest of that person’s application looked like, so you don’t have a clear sense of why they may have won.

After the application leaves your hands it’s passed to an internal audit committee at the program level, then to a faculty committee (often a faculty of graduate studies). The desired result is that it’s sent on from the university to the Tri-Council in Ottawa, where there’s a chance that funding will follow.

At the student’s end of things, much of this process is about waiting, in a great tense silence filled by the effort to “just forget about it” between submission in October and announcement of results sometime late in the second semester.

Graduate students fear that the assessment process is not meritocratic. When all applicants have A-averages, when every proposal is of high quality, how are decisions made? Of course politics — of individuals, departments, and universities — can make its way into decision-making that is supposed to be about “merit”. Perhaps your topic isn’t currently a major issue in the field, or you lose out because of the internal dynamics of a department or academic discipline. As an applicant, you have no way of knowing because no feedback is returned, only a result.

There may well be an element of sheer luck; certainly there’s a hefty helping of serendipity, which isn’t the same thing. More often there’s just a long-term plan, a lot of good mentoring, hard work, and the right topic or project at the right time.

I’m lucky in that my own tribulations with scholarship applications have come to an end. And I’m even more fortunate in that I won scholarships for my Master’s degree and for my PhD. I got to see the most positive result, though certainly the process was extremely stressful even with strong support I had from faculty mentors. Perhaps the experiences of many graduate students — anxiety and frustration with the process — point to the need for more specific explanations from the Tri-Council and more advice and support during scholarship applications.

Future tense

This post addresses how students are often preoccupied with the future because they’re insecure in the present (particularly financially, but in other ways too). No-one can really blame them from wanting to know where university will take them, since after all, they were told they had to go to university in order to get work later. If you don’t know much else about it, it’s hard to comprehend what else education might be for. Ironically, this means it can be harder to tap into the desire that’s needed in order to excel at university learning. Here is the link to the original post, from March 24, 2011: Future tense.

Perhaps because it’s grading season—mid-term exams and assignments have been rolling in and TAs and course directors are dealing with the results—over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of frustrated talk from academics on Twitter and Facebook. Some of it’s angry, some of it’s more anguished than anything else; but the common thread is that we’re all feeling as if we can’t “reach” students, and that students in turn aren’t doing their share of the work involved in the educational process.

Part of the problem is the way I just defined “education” in that last sentence. I invoked the notion of education as a “process” involving effort from both the person assigned as “teacher” and the people being “taught”; I don’t assume the students are the only ones doing the learning. But as I’ve argued in the past, a consumerist model of education—which encourages students to view education as either a service or a product or some mutation that blends both (“service product”)—undermines the notion of active participation because it assumes a strong element of “delivery” rather than “co-production”. We had a discussion about this in a recent tutorial where I pushed the knowledge-as-object metaphor to its ridiculous limit by drawing on the image of a “basket of knowledge” that we could pass around the room and from which students could simply take what they needed.

Apart from this definitional misunderstanding that causes so many conflicting assumptions about responsibilities and self-conduct, I suspect there are even bigger issues at work. I like asking of students, “how did you know you should go to university?” The reason I ask is because I’m interested in where that decision came from, not just the “why” of it. When we ask “why did you come to university?”, the answer is usually predictable—“because without a degree I cannot get a job.” If we ask how the decision was made, responses are usually quite interesting, and they reflect the influence that parents, teachers and guidance counselors have on students’ decision-making processes.

But what happens to the “work preparation” narrative when students realize that a university education is no longer any guarantee of employment, let alone the “dream jobs” that so many young people are encouraged to envision for themselves? I think this is where the whole arrangement starts to fall apart. You can tell students there are rewards (e.g. in the form of post-graduate employment options), and indeed the statistics continue to point to the financial benefits of PSE for graduates. But if you offer students no (clear) path to those rewards then the result is sometimes a disaffected nihilism towards learning. And one problem with university education is that is was never really designed to offer a clear path to employment.

We need to get at the contradiction in the fact that students come to university because it’s “necessary” to get ahead in life, yet in some cases they show little or no enthusiasm for university learning and confusion that there is no obvious connection between what happens in class and what they expect to happen at a job, later on. I think this is why we sometimes hear disparaging comments about how “undergrad is the new high school”–necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable or productive.

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about why students “tune out” during class and tutorial, particularly when technology shows up as a distraction from class. Larger social, economic and educational trends are one reason for effects such as these, for example the consumerist concept of education as “product” often correlates with students’ focus on grades (outcomes) rather than learning (which often irritates professors and TAs).

We can’t take on those big issues alone, in one course, in one university; they’re ongoing and need to be addressed and re-addressed by everyone. The question is how to navigate these currents when we’re faced with the everyday “realities” and frustrations of teaching in universities–grammatically unsound assignments written in haste because students are working 20 or 30 hours a week alongside full-time study (so who’s to blame?); flimsy excuses for skipped tutorials (who can we believe?); papers submitted weeks late without notifying the professor or TA that an extension was required (how could we know?); students “burning out” and disappearing without even dropping the course (what happened?); and on, and on.

Now more than ever we’re reminded that education is a collaborative effort, and behind that effort must be desire–the desire of the person “teaching” to assist, collaborate and convey; and that of the students, a hunger for knowledge based in questions about the world. Last night in class I talked about how I became interested in education and involved in politics, and how in my experience the key ingredient to success in university is to find some thing about which you have critical questions, a boundless curiosity, a constant hankering, an “itch” that can only be scratched with learning. I think then the learning starts to drive itself.

The difficulty lies in getting to those questions and issues, since their instrumentality for the future is obscure in the present. It’s why I told my own story–because students lack narratives they can use to order their present experience, and the tools to construct their own potential narrative; so they find it hard to project into the future even though they are so focussed on it. This is an anxiety-producing state of affairs.

New possibilities open up when we make the connections required to understand a story about how something happened, rather than a description of what is. Maybe it’s this causality that students crave, since they live in a world lacking the certainty with which their parents were so fortuitously blessed. The old stories about careers, adulthood and family no longer ring true in this era of instability, workforce “flexibility”, debt and recession.

Perhaps the universities should be places/spaces where we start telling new stories.

Communication, not edutainment

I wrote one of my University of Venus posts in response to the idea that undergraduate students seem to be easily bored by many different topics. rather than banning them from engaging with “distracting” technologies in class, perhaps we could try to connect with them more and figure out where the roots of that boredom are buried. Here is the link to the original post from March 3, 2011: Communication, not edutainment.

How do we, as tutorial leaders or professors, deal with the revelation that students find classes or entire subject areas “boring?” And to what extent is it our responsibility to get them “interested?” These were questions that came to mind as I read Itir Toksöz’s recent UVenus post about “academic boredom”. While she was discussing the boredom she experiences in conversation with colleagues, my first thought was that boredom is not just (potentially) a problem for and with academics, but also for students.


I see boredom as something other than a mere lack of interest. I think of it as a stand-in for frustration, which can, in turn, stem from a sense of exclusion from the material, from the discussion, from the class, from understanding the point of it all; ultimately an exclusion from the enjoyment of learning. This can happen when the material is too challenging, or when the student doesn’t really want to be in the class for some reason.

Boredom is sometimes about fear, the fear of failing and looking “stupid” in front of the instructor and one’s peers. In other cases it can also be a symptom that someone is far beyond the discussion and in need of a deeper or a more challenging conversation. All these things can be called “boredom” but often they are more like communicative gaps in need of bridging.

In other words, boredom is often a mask for something else. We need to remove this mask, because of the negative effects of boredom on the learning environment and process. It causes people to “tune out” from what’s happening, and in almost every case it creates or is accompanied by resentment for the teacher/professor and/or for the other students. As a psychological problem, this makes boredom one of the greatest puzzles of teaching, and one of those problems that most demands attention.

It’s even more important to uncover the causes of boredom now that many students have access to wireless Internet and to Blackberries and iPhones, in the classroom. Professors and TAs complain that students are less attentive than ever while in class, because of this attachment to their devices—something I’ve encountered first-hand with my current tutorial group.

I think the attachment to gadgetry comes not from the technology itself, but from the students. In my blog I’ve written about the issue with students using technology to “tune out” during lectures, and they do it in tutorial as well; they’re “present, yet absent”. To understand this behaviour we need to keep in mind that the lure of the online (social) world is reasonable from the students’ perspective. Popular media and established social networks are accessible and entertaining, and provide positive feedback as well as a sense of comfortable familiarity. Learning is hard work, and the academic world is often alienating, difficult, and demanding. It’s all-too-easy to crumple under the feeling of failure or exclusion. Facebook is welcoming and easy to use, while critical theory is not.

The other side of this equation is that in the process of negotiating and overcoming “boredom” there’s a certain point at which I can meet students halfway, as it were—but I can’t go beyond that point. Like everything else in teaching and learning, boredom is a two-way street, and the instructor is the one who needs to maintain the boundary of responsibility. I’m not there merely to provide an appealing performance, which leads to superficial “engagement.” I’m not “edutainment”.

However, I think it’s part of my job when teaching to “open a door” to a topic or theory or set of ideas. I can’t make you walk through that door (horse to water, etc.) but I can surely do my best to make sure you have the right address and a key that fits the lock. And that means using different strategies if the ones I choose don’t seem to be working.

Holding this view about boredom certainly doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problems with student attention in class; I’m reminded of that frequently. It just means I have an approach to dealing with the problem that treats their boredom as something for which there’s mutual responsibility. In an ideal learning environment there must also be mutual respect—but unfortunately mutual “boredom” is easier and often wins the day. My hope is to help cultivate the former by finding ways of unraveling the latter.