You Don't Need a College Degree: New Edition

graduateThe argument that a college degree is or isn't the path to a job surfaces regularly. Many studies show that having a degree ultimately leads to greater earnings in a lifetime, and colleges love to see that research out there. But in the past few decades, you find more stories in the news about people succeeding in the workplace without degrees.

This year, I am seeing two trends: more vocational training in high schools, and companies not requiring degrees for some jobs that once did require a degree.

An article on wsj.com discusses the direct ties between some big companies and local high schools to prepare students for jobs. Volkswagen is working with schools in Tennessee to modernize their engineering programs. Tesla is partnering with Nevada schools on an advanced manufacturing curriculum. Fisheries in Louisiana have created courses for students to train for jobs in “sustainability.”

There have long been high school career education programs, and the U.S.. has had specialized vocational schools for a century, but this is a shift. The idea that not all students need a degree (and especially not a liberal-arts degree) in order to get a good job is gaining strength through relationships and changes with employers.

The outlier examples of the billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who never finished college are anomalies. Students - and parents - were not convinced that skipping college was the right path. When I was an undergrad back in the 1970s, we all knew that with good grades from a decent college in almost anything you could get some kind of job. I had art history friends who ended up in banking, education majors who went into publishing etc. It was an early enough time in computers that you could get in on the ground floor of that area without a degree. I knew people who got training in network administration at post-secondary vocational schools and did very well.

But there was also a time a bit later when if you wanted a job at Google you had better have a degree, and really a doctorate from Stanford. That is less true today.

The job-search site Glassdoor compiledlist of 15 top employers that have said they no longer require applicants to have a college degree that includes companies like Google, Apple and IBM. 

These companies are not saying they don't want any college graduates and this doesn't apply to all their positions, but it does apply to many more than before. Passing on college degree requirements for some positions is probably a reaction in part to the tight labor market and mounting concerns surrounding student debt.

For example, Apple is considering and hiring people without degrees for positions such as Genius (in their stores), Design Verification Engineer, Engineering Project Manager, iPhone Buyer, Apple Technical Specialist, AppleCare at Home Team Manager, Apple TV Product Design Internship, Business Traveler Specialist, and Part Time Reseller Specialist.

Google lists these positions as open to non-graduates: Product Manager, Recruiter, Software Engineer, Product Marketing Manager, Research Scientist, Mechanical Engineer, Developer Relations Intern, UX Engineer, SAP Cloud Consultant, Administrative Business Partner.

Do these companies penalize someone with a computer science or marketing degree who applies? That would be foolish. But they do seriously consider people without degrees who would not have made the first round of interviews ten years ago.

Threats to the college degree in the past 30 years have been many: tuition costs, online learning, MOOCs, and OER have all been viewed as things that would take down the traditional degree and perhaps the traditional college itself. We would have Education 2.0 as we had Web 2.0. Still, students still apply, take courses, study, party, attend sporting events and graduate. But do they get jobs in their field of study? Sometimes. Do they discover when they get a job that much of those 120 credits seem to play no constructive role in their work? Sometimes.

Technical Writing

Technical Writers are often the link between engineers, marketing associates, developers and external users of a product or service.

When I have taught undergraduate classes in technical writing, something I have to address with students right away is their definition of technical writing. In many people's minds, writing that is "technical" is complicated, full of jargon and difficult to read. But in fact, the goal of the technical writer is exactly the opposite. It is usually to make technical subject matter less complicated and easier to understand and use.

In my undergraduate technical writing classes (which are considered advanced writing courses) we combines current theory with actual practice to prepare students as technical writers. They analyze complex communication situations and then design appropriate responses through tasks that involve problem solving, rhetorical theory, document design, oral presentations, writing teams, audience awareness, ethical considerations and ethical issues.

When I teach at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), my students are engineers, computer scientists, architects and scientists who often dislike writing and are used to only academic writing. Unfortunately, much academic writing is students demonstrating their learning to a professor who already knows the subject. In most real technical communication, the writer is the expert and the readers are the learners. In professional life, you may be writing for supervisors, colleagues or customers. You might be explaining a problem, a product, an experiment, or a project, and the format may be a proposal, abstract, report, email or manual.

When I teach technical writing at a more comprehensive university, such as Montclair State University, the students are more comfortable with writing, but less comfortable with the technical part.  That is because they don't think of technical writing as being a part of every field. For education, biology, art, music, and other science and liberal arts students, they need to rethink the technical aspects of their studies. For example, I have had art history majors who wrote technical documentation on art restoration.

My graduate students in professional technical communication are often dealing with social media, documentation, video presentations and a variety of real world tasks. NJIT offers a Technical Communications Certificate that attracts primarily professionals who intend to learn/expand their careers as technical writers, editors, trainers, website designers, and documentation specialists.

I don't know that being a technical writer at Google is typical of that job, but this video gives you a little taste of technical writing and life at Google.


Should Social Media Be in the Classroom?

appsThere's no question that social media is increasingly ubiquitous across age groups and industries. The drivers have been the rapidly increasing ubiquity of smartphones and expanding WiFi networks that gave rise to the many social media networks. many of those platforms have fallen away and a handful of them, like Instagram and Facebook, dominate.

And then there is the education world...

A 2015 Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of teens use more than one social networking site, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” Schools have reacted as they often do with new technology. They try to stop it from entering the classroom. Phone-off policies have been used for several decades. Students sneaking a look at their Instagram account in class are treated in the same way we would have treated a student sneaking a look at a comic book in the 1950s.

Of course, there were teachers who tried to incorporate phones and even social media into their lessons. Having students do searches, following a class hashtag, polling apps or using the photo and video capabilities to record experiments or document learning are just a few ways teachers have made the enemy mobile device more friendly.

But those teachers and classrooms are still the exception. I regularly see articles in edtech journals about a teacher using social media and it is treated as innovation when it is not. I understand the headlines though, because it is still at the fringes of classroom pedagogy.

The concerns in K-12 are understandable and that is a different world when it comes to privacy, cyberbullying and other issues. But social media in higher education classrooms is just as limited.

So, am I saying we all need to include more social media in our courses? Yes, but with the caveat that it should be limited - as with other mediums such as film/video - to true educational applications. Using social media to be trendy is stupid.

Social media can be a way to teach students to think critically and creatively about the world and their place in it. I feel that we do have an obligation to teach students about the intelligent use of their devices and apps. Successful networking, whether it be via devices or face-to-face, is always listed as a skill employers want. As mobile social media continues to dominate our culture, its intelligent use for marketing or more personal communication becomes a must-have skill.

A page at accreditedschoolsonline.org lists a number of resources and lesson plans that teachers can use. It is important to use lessons that would naturally occur in your curriculum, rather than injecting social media lesson into what is probably an already crowded curriculum. How can social media be the tool or vector to teach what you want to teach?

The way that rather than just have students read a famous speech or Shakespeare scene or poem, you can have them experience it as a video/audio, we can find new ways to experience content via social media.

Two examples from that resource page:

Flickr Gallery is a lesson using curated (in itself, an important concept) Flickr galleries to teach students about selecting useful images, critical thinking about image presentation, and ideas of intellectual property and copyright.

I know that some of my colleagues would laugh at the idea of using Twitter for Research (some still don't understand why students need to be taught to properly use Wikipedia) but it is certainly used in that way by journalists and other professional writers. 

Educators need to be more aware of the social learning aspects of websites that they might not think of as "social media." For example, Goodreads is a free site that allows people to search its literary database, annotations and reviews and curate reading lists, connect with other readers and even take quizzes about books or do a Q&A with an author. This is not limited to fiction. Non-fiction groups are there too. My own Goodreads list has connected me to readers of my reviews and led to conversations about authors and books.

And other sites are probably not familiar to many teachers. Yes, you will need to think outside the platform's probable original uses and applications and hack them for your educational needs. Kahoot! is a game-based trivia and quiz platform that obviously provides a way for teachers - and even better, students - to create and share their own quizzes within the classroom. Wakelet is a free social media curating (I do like that skill) platform that allows you to collect information from around the web, including tweets, videos and photos. These collections can be private or shared, and users can add text of their own to their stories.

Should Social Media Be in the Classroom? Yes. How might you use sites like Reddit, Snapchat, SoundCloud or Twitch in your courses? An excellent topic for professional development.

Learning How to Learn Online

learnI have been reading about some of the sessions at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW) that occurred this month at Columbia University. 

One keynoter was Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester. She is known for her course "Learning How to Learn," which is sometimes described as being "the world’s most popular MOOC." It has had more than 2 million participants. There may be MOOCs with more participants, but her course has been translated into multiple languages and had some serious media attention. It is a broader kind of course and not really aimed at a college audience alone. It fits into a workplace focused conference and lifelong learning. It is described as a course that “gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines” to learn.

I haven't taken this course, but I plan to this summer. From what I have read, many of the concepts are ones I know from my own teaching and education courses. For example, “how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information.” That is something I learning a long time ago in teaching secondary school, and also used extensively in doing instructional design on other professors' courses as they moved online.

I was more interested in knowing what her "secrets" would be for building and teaching that MOOC. I haven't seen any video from the conference, but here are some bits I have found about her session.  

She uses the "Learning How to Learn" principles of learning that are being taught in the course in the design of the course. She is not adverse to PowerPoint slides but uses simple visuals to chunk key ideas.

Oakley emphasized the impact of integrating lessons from neuroscience. One of those is neuro reuse theory. The theory was a way to explain the underlying neural processes which allow humans to acquire recently invented cognitive capacities. It attempts to explain how the brain responds to new cognitive processes - think of many of our digital encounters - which are cultural inventions too modern to be the products of evolution. Simple application is her use of metaphors (a key element of neural reuse theory) because they allow students to a quick way to encounter new ideas. 

She emphasizes paying attention to production values in creating a course. She did her course production herself at home and says the cost was $5000. I assume that was for software, video hardware etc. Many schools now have production facilities for online course development. 

Bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) attentional mechanisms are a theory from neuroscience that she uses to keep attention on the screen.  Bottom-up mechanisms are thought to operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and
involuntarily shifting attention
to salient visual features of potential importance. Think of the sudden movement that could be a predator. Top-down mechanisms implement our longer-term cognitive strategies, biasing attention toward something like a learned shape or color that signals a predator.

This is a more complex topic than can be covered in a blog post but it is easy to accept that the brain is limited in its capacity to process all sensory stimuli in our sensory-overload physical world. The brain relies on the cognitive process of attention to focus neural resources according to the contingencies of the moment. You can attention into two functions. Bottom-up attention is attention guided by externally driven factors to stimuli. That could be the bright colored popup ad on a screen. Instructional designers can make use of techniques that marketers and game designers have long used. Top-down attention refers to internal guidance of attention based on factors such as prior knowledge and current goals. The overall organizational structure of a course - weekly elements, labels, icons - can take advantage of top-down attention.

She recommended the use of "unexpected humor" to help maintain interest, which can also be a bottom-up technique.

Wherever practicable, theory is instantiated with examples drawn from personal stories.

Overall, this is all about trying harder to engage learners. Oakley pointed out that in a MOOC learners aren’t "caged up like students on campus." MOOC learners are free-range learners - free to come and go, free to stop paying attention or attending class - and if course production values are weak, students are more likely to tune out.

In designing and teaching an online course in the traditional college/tuition/credit/degree situation, we do have students caged more, but that doesn't mean their brains operate differently.

One of Oakley's earlier books is A Mind for Numbers with the subtitle How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and her new book this summer is Learning How to Learn whose subtitle is How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens. Those subtitles remind me that these book and the topics they address are lifelong learning concerns, though certainly of interest to K-20 teachers.

I am planning to take her course this summer before I embark on a new course design project. See coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn I'll follow up on this post when I finish. If I finish. If I don't finish, I guess I'll make some analysis of why - was it me or the course?



Active Learning

Active learning is an approach that strives to involve students in the learning process more directly. That sounds so logical that I suspect some people would say "Isn't that what every class is doing?' It certainly is not a new idea, but it is not the norm in many courses and classrooms. 

I think the active learning approach was introduced by Reginald Revans as "action learning." Either term can describe an approach to have students do more than passively listening by being actively or experientially involved in the learning process.

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Frequently, this approach has students read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems, and engaging in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. A very simple definition might be having students doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.

I am doing a presentation this week that I titled "Predator and Prey: Active Learning Is Social Learning at the Active Learning Symposium at Rutgers University.

I base it on the premise that active learning is often social learning. The session will be primarily hands-on using a problem solving activity identifying animal species based on viewing skulls.

cat skullIt is a hands-on "active" presentation with people who have little or no background in osteology (the study of bones and skulls), but that is not what I am usually teaching when I do this activity.

I have used this activity with elementary school students, high school students, undergraduates and adults outside of a school setting.

I have usually used it in critical thinking classes, but the learners will also learn something about the skulls and species. When I use the activity to teach about osteology, it is an active way to involve the learners in critical thinking. Groups quite naturally are active and become social in the process. 

The action learning process typically addresses a real problem that is important, critical, and usually complex and involves a problem-solving set. The process promotes curiosity, inquiry, and reflection.

I'm not locked into labels and if someoen told me that my active learning activity was actaully experiential learning, or action learning, adventure learning, free-choice learning, cooperative learning, service-learning, or situated learning, I would say that is a good possibilty (though I know these terms are not strictly synonymous). My interest is in the learning, not the label.