Shaking It Up, Part 2 — A Conversation with John Sener, Author of ‘The Seven Futures of American Education’

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

[Note: This is the second in a three-part series by Judith McDaniel. Read part 1 and part 3. – Editor]

I asked Sener, “How can we improve education, using all of the knowledge and resources available to us?” In Seven Futures, he provides data indicating “that at least 70 percent of American jobs now require specialized skills and knowledge, and that students need education that will help prepare them for jobs which haven’t even been invented yet” (29). It seems obvious to me that our entire educational system needs a jump start and that teachers trained in the old methods of teaching the old knowledge don’t have any chance at all of meeting that challenge.

Imagine what teaching today’s students for tomorrow’s needs might entail — “Realigning Education with Redefined Knowledge.” Simply put, old knowledge isn’t enough. What we know is changing, changing quickly, and it’s not just the sciences. Yes, the number and definition of the planets has changed, but so has every branch of knowledge. I talked with a discouraged college student who recently graduated from a prestigious university in journalism. His last course in college had consisted of an advanced journalism class that exclusively included information on working in print media. The professor was a woman in mid career who seemed not to know that these students had a very small chance of working on a newspaper or magazine.  They were not even being prepared for the careers that have been invented in information production on the internet.

And this is only part of the problem in realigning education with redefined knowledge.  How will we assess the learning that does take place? And what do we decide must be assessed? In Seven Futures, Sener says:

Proficiency with multimedia is also emerging as an important skill set, as illustrated by an assessment issue which an adjunct professor encountered in her graduate-level journalism class. The final class assignment included both a print and a multimedia component; she felt confident about assessing the student writing, but she was much less confident about assessing a multimedia project. She was struggling with how to assess one particular student who seemed to be relatively deficient in writing but excelled in the multimedia part. Journalism was once all about writing, but now there are plenty of journalists whose craft is based on other skills such as on-camera presence or multimedia creation. The problem is that journalism is being taught for the most part by teachers who excel at writing but not multimedia, so they have relatively little clue about how to assess it. The dilemma is understandable — writing is long-established, multimedia is relatively new — but it doesn’t diminish the issue: multimedia is on the rise and requires new skills. (25)

One of the most exciting answers to this problem, in my opinion, is Sener’s suggestion that it will be teachers who move from face-to-face to online teaching who have the best chance of opening this door. Moving a course from a university classroom to an online format is not simple, and what I have found is that, while my learning outcomes can remain the same, I must give a great deal of thought to how the students are going to achieve them. In the world of education, this is what is called educational pedagogy — and in my experience it is not something that college professors have paid much attention to.  We teach our specialized subjects in exactly the way that we learned them — lectures, print research, written summaries that demonstrate “competence” in a narrow field of knowledge.

I had been teaching in higher education for more than twenty years before I heard the term “learning objective” or saw a rubric that outlined an instructor’s expectations for fulfilling an assignment. A teacher — college or K-12 — who moves into online teaching is moving, in Sener’s words, from “reflexive to reflective.” We have to ask questions about method and content.  We have to wonder why we did some of the things the way we were taught and try to determine whether or not there is a better way, or at least a way that will translate into this new environment.

Another challenge for educators who want to improve education: “Realizing Redistributed Access.” What does this mean?  For one thing, our students are different. We can expect to mentor students who never would have been part of a traditional classroom. That access means adults and students of all ages, students who live rurally or far from “hubs” of educational opportunities, students who are reaching out for new skills because of a job transition or a new job requirement.

How does this improve the quality of education? It will do that only if and when education can meet the needs of learners. Not everyone needs a degree; many don’t even need an entire course. Information is available in hundreds of ways and places. The role of the teacher is shifting as access to knowledge expands and becomes more accessible.

“In Seven Futures,” said Sener, “I describe several factors which are redistributing access in American education (28-32). Pivotal demographic shifts — more nontraditional students, more older students, more women, greater ethnic and language diversity — have drastically altered the composition of the American student population over the past few decades. Lifelong learning found its niche as human resource and workforce development, which has reframed education as a continual, lifelong process. The shift from access as equal opportunity to a much greater focus on producing results also redefines access; simply providing opportunity to access education is no longer enough. And, of course, the transformation of education into something that nearly everyone needs to succeed in society has made greater access an essential social good — one which we are still struggling to provide.”

Sener continued, “So providing greater access is still an important function of online education. Anything that expands educational access to previously neglected or underserved learner populations, helps more learners develop the skills and knowledge they need to live better lives, reaches nontraditional students more effectively, accommodates lifelong learners in ever-greater ways, or increases chances of student success will also improve the quality of education. Of course, there are also many other ways of using online learning to improve educational quality. As the book argues, we also need to be utilizing these strategies so that we can move online education into a new era defined by a focus on improving quality — not just for online education, but for all education.”

As Sener says, there are many ways in which education is becoming more accessible — and each of these contributes to a shifting dynamic between learner and educator.

[Read part 1 and part 3.]

2 Responses

  1. “So providing greater access is still an important function of online education.”

    This function is not just one of geography but also of cost. Too many people cannot afford education now. I could also say that too few communities allow themselves to afford it as well. As this near-depression continues, education is one way, albeit slow, to get out of it. Wide access to employable skill learning, e.g. the multimedia journalism example in the article, will make a difference.

    Those who teach must adapt. For many who have painstakingly developed their course structure and materials over time, it will be wrenching. I think that these people should view it as a great opportunity to exercise their minds and bring joy to their work. But, I’m not one of them and so should not attempt to put my ideas into their heads. I was a professor in the old days and had the problem of never teaching the same course in two successive years.

    Some continue to assert that online education misses some critical factor of being physically together. This elusive factor has suddenly become all-important. I immediately think of Columbine when this sentiment is expressed. Can’t help myself. I did not have great experience with schools. It was all fine until I skipped third grade. After that, I become more reclusive in school. I was in the position of being too smart and too young. I watched others being tormented because of some difference and many striving to be a part of the best group.

    The fact is that online education the future, and we all must accept that. In early years it will be blended with not too much online, although much may be technology-based. The online component of blending will increase until the age at which students no longer are required to stay in a friendly version of a concentration camp daily.

    Interestingly, alternative education has been apart from that system for a very long time. Online resources, including entire courses, should help alt ed greatly, but I don’t see it yet — although I don’t look often.

    Learning should be fun. Online learning has the capacity to make it so, also to make it better, make it faster, and make it affordable for all.

    • Harry,

      I agree with all of your post. I just earned a Master’s in Literature and Writing from Union. Though I was often tempted to apply for teaching English 101 to freshman undergrads, thus far, I’ve fought the temptation since my true goal is to establish an alternative education for young adults and older adults, both of whom can’t find any decent employment. My method will stress discovering your passion–this an opportunistic and thrilling historical time for entreprenaurs and dreamers who wish to concretize their ideas.

      I’ve made plans to work on a book next semester at Union, which, on one hand, responds to Morris Berman’s book “Why America Failed,” and then uses specific works from John Dewey (democratic education), Paulo Freire (conscientizacao), Carl Jung (archetypal psychology applied to literature and writing), and Gandhi (nonviolence and a future of peace). The more I’ve studied the educational (prison) institutions, the closer I’ve come to the core issues of the dysfunction. IMO, students need to learn how to critically, and even scientifically, analyze or understand the world’s present reality if any authentic, meaningful, and structural changes are to come about.

      “Freire’s conviction” that if “every human being [is] … provided with the proper tools for … looking critically at the world in a dialogical encounter, … the individual can gradually percieve personal and social reality as well as the contradicitions in it, become conscius of her or her own perception of that reality, and deal critically with it,” summarizes my goals as an alternative educator (PotO 32). I also teach and practice Yoga, which has numerous rewards to offer stressed-out workers, the unemployed, and students.

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