The Great Reading Debate: Digital Or Paper?

Patricia Lopes Don

Blog, March 10, 2015.

Do students understand and retain what they are reading digitally as well as they do paper texts? Recent research indicates that it depends on what you are reading and for what purpose.

Digital reading is a problem for the long novel because the reader does not seem to retain the evolution of the plot as well. There is something about the physical sense of being part way, half way, or almost done with a book that aids the reader's sense of time and narrative. On the other hand, the book that is a simple page­-turner (sometimes called the airport book), does not place on the reader the kind of demand that James Joyce's Ulysses would; thus, the popularity of Kindle with the easy-reading public.

The amount of time spent reading digital texts is also an issue. Though recent studies indicate that the younger reading public is more accustomed to reading digitally than their elders, handing anyone a 400­-page digital textbook is going to be a slog. Yet, the students already tell us that the 400-­page paper textbook does not interest them either--nationally 30 percent of students don't even buy the assigned text and those who do buy hardly get past the first two chapters before they give up on that particular reading experience.

The real problem here is selecting the right kinds of reading for the various purposes of the classroom. One single type of reading is probably not the best preparation of a modern reader and not the most effective reading strategy for today's students, most of whom come to college several grades behind in reading ability.

Here are 4 types of reading that you might want to consider:

  • Shorter passages of digital information text of 2000-­3000 words or less, or the textbook "chunked" as reading specialists call it. And these digital texts need to get back to where paper textbooks were 40 years ago­­--1/3 less information.
  • Short background readings of 500-­700 words or less in digital or paper form to set up primary source readings also of no more than 500­-700 words.
  • Digital or paper scripts for 2000-­word lectures that are accompanied by a 20­-slide, all images Powerpoint­­--in other words some of your lectures but for home reading.
  • Real paper books of the standard 65-­90,000 words that have narrative quality and strong interest for young people. These might include historical fiction, biography, autobiography, or very straightforward monograph.

In the end, while professors consider the virtues and drawbacks of the two methods of reading, digital or paper, let us not lose sight that the kinds of reading, their diversity, and their purposes are actually more important to the student. To each reading purpose, there is a better or best reading method or combination of methods.

Why The Mooc Did Not Work

Patricia Lopes Don

Blog, March 18, 2015.

A recent talk I had with a perceptive adjunct professor at San Francisco State University distilled this issue for me perfectly. His argument: If what college professors do in the classroom is lecture each class period, then the MOOC makes perfect sense. Why have 1000 professors who have varying capabilities in lecturing, when you could have one expert and very talented lecturer do the same thing and stream it out digitally?

You can see what the investors who jumped on the MOOC bandwagon were thinking. Afterall, most of them went to college and probably received the traditional all-lectures classroom experience. But as adults with some business experience, they knew an inefficient use of expensive resources when they saw it. The physical classroom needs not only large amounts of money for salaries and benefits, but also support staff and administration to manage them, as well as expensive facilities in which to hold the lectures and all the ancillary services to take care of the congregated students, such as health centers, student unions, athletics, etc. And then there are the costs for students to get to the classrooms--in travel time, gas, parking, public transportation, or the ability to live near the college. For what? To sit in one place together and listen to a lecture? Very inefficient.

Only one thing got in the way of the MOOC investment strategy--the students. They preferred the physical professor and the physical classroom. Mind you, they were not crazy about it, they just preferred it to the virtual professor and the virtual classroom.

So here are two ideas to take away from the MOOC experiment. First, the better the student--experienced with computer resources, academically skilled, highly motivated, strong problem solving drive--the more he or she benefits from the MOOC experience (and any online experience for that matter). A Harvard student is the perfect candidate for a MOOC. But, while Harvard was willing to give MOOCs to other students, they would not dream of offering it to their own students. Mom and Dad shelling out $50,000 a year for Junior to listen to lectures on computers? Not likely. The point is, you already have to be quite learned to benefit from a virtual lecture. But then, the same could also be said of a classroom lecture.

Second, the MOOC experiment has highlighted the fact that the physical classroom experience is the gold standard of college education--quite expensive to arrange so you better take advantage. Does the lecture--as the only method of instruction--really exploit that golden opportunity? After all, the students did not vote for physical over virtual lectures. They voted for people--professors in the flesh and fellow students in the environment. Maybe we should take advantage of the gold standard classroom to give them more of what they want:

  • More engagement among professor, student, and fellow students.
  • More dimensions and methods of teaching in and out of the classroom.
  • More interactions among professors to explore what really gets the maximum educational results in the golden classroom.

The Ever Expanding Textbook

Patricia Lopes Don

Blog, April 9, 2015.

Tutors have a secret method called "preteaching"--teaching the student a concept or process the week before it is presented in the regular class. The method works and works well. Why? Because preteaching taps into a factor in student success that is not well appreciated--pre-knowledge.

The more successful student is often the one with a greater fund of subject knowledge going into the class. Not only is there less new information to learn, what is learned is being tied to previous information already organized in the mind. Even more important, the student has the powerful social role of expert in the classroom. The novice student is the opposite--knowing little, viewing the knowledge like it is an insurmountable wall, lacking confidence. Thus, preteaching turns the novice student into the expert student.

So what does this have to do with the textbook? Well, the textbook is not written for novice or expert students; it is actually written for you. And you are not just an expert, you are a super expert. When you read the textbook, you not only know the information, you are critical of it. You ask why some information is not in the text or why it is not given more prominence. Then you communicate your learned concerns to your textbook representative who communicates it to the editor. The editor has only one way to respond and keep your adoption--that is to add more text to the already dense textbook.

Since 1980, textbooks have grown 50% in size. The most frequent inquiry in professor rating sites today is "Do you have to buy the textbook to pass the class?" And increasingly the answer is "No." Why? Professors have a sense that the density of the textbook is too much even for the expert students. The tendency is to ask more questions from the lecture and less from the readings. Not surprisingly, national studies today show that students are not making any progress in reading in the first two years of college.

Add to this the research that shows that the 8 best-selling textbooks are written several years beyond the median reading level of entry-level college students, and you begin to see an important problem. The textbook is not only expensive, it is becoming irrelevant. Or as one University of California professor recently said of the most frequently adopted history text today: "The best textbook students don't read."

Love The Student You're With

Patricia Lopes Don

Blog, May 5, 2015.

I would like to enjoy the music of today's students, but I confess that, like most people, I am a creature of the social and cultural world of my youth. A favorite was Stephen Stills and his classic, "Love the One You're With," an anthem to free love. I enjoyed hearing about it more than participating. But another way to look at that song is, while it is not always easy to accept a new normal, sometimes you should just try it and make do.

There are a lot of new normals in college teaching today, most of which are not good and some of which should not be accepted. But I believe that today's students, whose capabilities are very different than those of the 1970s (and not for the better), are a new normal that we want to embrace.

A few statistics. In 1973, about 45% of high school graduates went to college, and of those, about 60% graduated with a bachelors by 1980. Forty years later, 70% of high school graduates attempt college, but a little less than 50% graduate in 6 years. Another way to think about this is that there are 3 types of students going to college today--top, middle, and low performing. In 1973, you would have seen the first and second, but not the third student, who is clearly contributing to the falling graduation rate of the last 40 years.

Ah hah! But let's think about that third student. Forty years ago, the third student did not need to go to college, because there was gainful employment for the non college-educated. That labor, however, has been globalized and automated out of this economy. Without educated labor skills, the third student will not obtain the employment that lifts him or her into the middle class. He or she hovers around the poverty level and, in a very disturbing recent trend, can not afford to form a family. Either the student accepts joining the working poor or gives college a try.

What happens in college to the third student and for that matter half of the second or middle performing students? Most are simply weeded out--part of the over 20% of all students who drop out in the freshmen year and then another 30% in subsequent years, or a national 52% college dropout rate. A lot of things contribute to the dropout rate, but the core problem is that entering students do not have college-ready skills in reading, writing, computing, and problem solving. In fact, the average student arrives in college 3-4 years behind, with specific weaknesses in writing and problem solving. If you are thinking "No Child Left Behind," you are partly right. Though perhaps well meaning, this law had the unfortunate effect of dumbing down high school curriculum.

So, what is the college professor's responsibility here? It is a bit hard to realize, after years of disciplinary training and preparing to work with college-ready students, that you are not in the 1970s but in the new normal of the 2010s--facing high school training challenges for which you are not well prepared. Bottom line you have just two choices--accept the weeding out process as necessary (ie. just train the college-ready students) or retrain yourself to salvage some percentage of those dropouts.

I want to suggest that the latter route is worth the trouble and also that it may have very desirable effects involving important contributions from our profession to the nation. When President Obama sets the goal of raising the national graduation rate by 10%, that translates into two extremely important moral outcomes the nation wants and needs:

  • First, it helps to arrest the trend in the decline of the middle class.
  • Second, given that most of these dropouts are students of color, of poverty, and first in family to attend college, it improves the abysmal American record today of being almost dead last among western countries in social mobility.

That 10% goal is not unrealistic. For example, it does not capture up all of the third student who may be sadly too far behind. But it would target some of the third students and most of the second or middle performing students.. That is doable, if we rethink what we are doing in those crucial first two years of college. So instead of waiting for the good old days of classes full of college-ready students, maybe we should learn to love the almost, nearly, could-be college-ready students we are with.

How Students Are Wrecking Their Futures With Student Evaluations

Patricia Lopes Don

Blog, May 25, 2015.

With this title, most people would anticipate that I am going to talk about the end-of-term professor evaluations that colleges administer to their students. There has been a large amount of research conducted on this subject, mostly concerned with how it affects retention and tenure decisions that might help or wreck professors' not students' futures.

These evaluations, however, are not the ones that should concern those who are worried about undergraduate education in the first two years--the ground zero of college failures. Why? Because most of these lower division courses today are taught by adjuncts, and they are far more concerned with enrollments--or how students vote with their feet--than they are with college evaluations and tenure.

Twenty years ago, a senior adjunct professor at my college explained to me the logic of this calculation. Watching me prepare materials for my first college class, he took me aside and explained "the enrollments problem." If the word got around among students that I was likeable, funny, and "easy," the next semester they would flock to my class. What or how I taught was less important than these social decisions. While tenure-track professors have to deal with retention decisions, adjuncts are quite vulnerable to decisions that deprive them of section assignments. According to my colleague, my continued employment would hinge ultimately on administrators' views of my enrollment numbers.

Though I went my own way, every experience that I have had since then confirmed for me that he was essentially right about colleges in general. American colleges are accomplished at enrolling students, but they are not set up well for ensuring the finish line, or making sure that students are college educated and graduated.

Twenty years ago, students had word-of-mouth to guide their feet in and out of the classroom. Today, as with most things, the internet has turned this tendency into a phenomenon to be reckoned with, which brings me to the RateMyProfessor website. When I was teaching, I never looked at this site and naively thought that most students didn't bother either. But I was surprised recently when I overheard a very good former student of mine talking about it. I asked her if she actually went on the site, and she told me yes and that everybody did. For what, I asked? I think she was taken aback by the amazed tone of my voice. She assured me, "just to know whether or not I had to buy the textbook," which of course did little to assuage my concerns.

I finally did access the site to know what this other world of student evaluations was about. Suffice to say the evaluation categories are superficial at best. But one thing that you have to hand to the internet evaluation sites. They make no pretense of evaluating the quality of education, as the college-administered student evaluations do. Instead, they simply summarize and accumulate student comments that give other students one clear piece of information--in this particular course, with this particular professor, and at this particular time, how passive can I be in my own education and still pass the class?

There are many more students than you think, who are gaming the system and graduating in this way. Undereducated college graduates have become a national problem. In 2003, an adult literacy assessment found that only 31% of college graduates were proficient at college reading levels. Michael Gormon, then president of the American Library Association said, "It's appalling--it's really astounding. Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder." (Washington Post, December 25, 2005).

This means that, while 50% of college students drop out and join the working poor in low-end jobs, another 35% graduate with an unpersuasive piece of paper and float around the labor market for years. Evidence suggests that employers are increasingly avoiding these undereducated students by leaving them unemployed, underemployed, or working in low-end jobs.

You may find the following problem a useful introductory exercise for your next course.

College Graduates and the Labor Market

 College Graduates and the Labor Market