Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Role of Faculty in the 21st Century

Below is an excerpt from the class manual I've produced for my biology majors course in genetics. The goal of having students read this is to help them understand how their professors can best help them prepare for life beyond academia.

How this class is structured to aid your long-term success in life

You made a tough choice when deciding how to take college-level coursework. It used to be that brick-and-mortar institutions called Universities had a monopoly on advanced knowledge, and if you wanted that information, you had to pay the University to attend their school and learn from those experts (the professors). Back then, professors did just that: they professed (lectured). This was how you obtained factual and practical information: you sat and you wrote (copying from the blackboard, often).
Much of this expert information is freely available online today. Interestingly, it seems that the model of the University doesn’t work as well when so many students want to attend a University to earn college degrees, because we are limited in the number of desks we can place in each classroom on a physical campus. Thus, online coursework is a major trend in higher education.
Surprisingly, it is often (though not exclusively) those of us who are employed by Universities who also put all of that information freely online. Why? It might partly because many of us just love to teach and to help others; we want to spread information as widely as we can. Our Universities also occasionally provide incentives to do so, to help position them to be able to launch their own online courses. Why would Universities do this? Money, usually: because enrollments are often limited by physical infrastructure, and because online courses are relatively inexpensive to teach, this may be the trend of how universities move forward to educate the populace.
I teach in-person classes, and I also make educational materials freely available online. I have never taught a fully-online course. I tell you this in the hopes that you will understand that I approach the online-vs-in-person conflict from a relatively neutral viewpoint.
How, then, do you choose between paying so much money to attend a university in person, as opposed to learning at home while wearing your pajamas and using your computer? Lots of costs and benefits come into play. Here are a few important questions to keep in mind as you continue to assess whether to pursue an in-person or an online education:

If professors are no longer the only source of information, what use are they now?
We professors had to work very diligently to earn doctoral degrees (Ph.D.s) in our disciplines. For example, after I graduated from my undergraduate university, I then spent six years in school at a university to earn my Ph.D. degree, and I also spent another six years performing biological research before I was able to be hired as a junior professor at Fresno State.
A major benefit of you having educational guidance from such a professor is that they can help provide both breadth and depth to your learning. Because of their extensive experience, they can help material become relevant to you, and they can help you understand the details of material. In other words, we are dynamic and can adapt to your needs.
Some online resources cannot do this for you. Some online coursework is extremely static, offering only fixed packages of material. In this regard, the way to make sure you get your money’s worth out of paying for in-person instruction is, not surprisingly, to come to class! More important, though, is to find a professor who will partner with you, as I will, to optimize your in-class time. Gone are the days when in-class time is necessarily for lecture. You can now get all of the nuts-and-bolts, factual information on your own without a professor being present. The best use of class time is for students to obtain feedback and attention from the teacher. Again, for many of us professors, our true expertise is in solving problems. That’s why we are in front of you as leaders: not because we have all the answers (we usually don’t!), but because we have tools we can show you for learning how to develop answers.

Why might I consider not teaching myself only using online resources?
I have seen many students led astray by inaccurate web-based information about various aspects of biology. A huge issue in society today (not just in higher education) is how to distinguish valid information from inaccurate data. This is called “information literacy,” and many of us are trying to learn how to better prepare students to become consumers, interpreters, and curators of information. In sum, one value of the in-person University experience (although this may soon wane) is that the sources of information you use have already been validated by professional educators. If, however, you browse the internet, or even take some online classes, you might not be as sure that you’re receiving the quality and accuracy of the information you expect. Don’t believe everything that you read!

What are other values of the in-person class experience?
Again, assuming that you have a professor who, like me, incorporates active learning in their class meetings, then I have great news! Your investment of time being in class has a great chance of helping you find and/or maintain employment in a good job with your college degree. As I was once a student (and still am, in almost every way), it is not surprising to me that students dislike many types of class activities and prefer sitting and listening to a lecture. However, after I explain the reasoning for why we ask you to do actively participate in the class (e.g. with group work and writing assignments), I hope you will at least appreciate the potential value of these tasks.
  • A recent estimate suggests that students in the last decade tend to have held thirteen jobs by the time they’re 38 years old! We change jobs - a lot.
  • The majority of the top ten types of jobs (in terms of growth in the number of available positions) did not exist as types of jobs a decade ago! Thus, we, the professors, cannot remotely adequately prepare you, in terms of content knowledge, to continue to succeed in even one career (much less multiple careers) as you move through life.
  • There are a core set of skills we hope to help you develop as students in our physical classrooms at a University to help you be able to adapt, to learn, to think critically, to solve problems, and to innovate: to be successful! These skills are ones that the vast majority of employers are looking for now in their employees.

In 2013, the American Association of Colleges and Universities commissioned a study on the desires of employers: what characteristics would they like our graduates to exemplify to make them best suited for our current workforce?
93% of employers believe that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
95% say that they “prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.”
95% think that “it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”
and 96% assert that “all college students should have experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.”

The top two skills desired by employers in the category of “intellectual and practical skills” were: oral communication and teamwork [].

In sum, you must be able to adapt, to learn (on your own), and to think critically to be successful!
Adapt: to think critically, apply information in new ways, often in the presence of others: innovate, communicate, work with others
Learn: to know how to find and evaluate knowledge with healthy skepticism: information literacy
Think critically: choose a course of action based on reasoning

When you integrate these skills, you become a problem-solver, and maybe even an innovator, and that is valuable to the vast majority of employers!
This class is specifically designed to integrate practice of these skills. I cannot help you hone any of these abilities by lecturing content to you. If you come to class unprepared, expecting me to talk for the entire class period, sometimes that will work well for you, but some days you won’t get nearly as much from our time together that will help you develop those life skills that employers and humankind really value. If you willingly and actively participate in this class as it has been designed, then you will get much more out of it.