Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Online learning can ease economic inequality

Digital learning is often seen a complement to sit-in-the-classroom colleges courses, but at a recent conference at MIT, experts convincingly portrayed innovative online offerings as a key tool for helping those of modest means move up the economic ladder.

College degrees pay off. But low-income students often face family, financial, or work constraints that keep them from pursuing higher education full-time or even on a regular nights-and-weekend basis. Citing the fact that 36 million Americans have some college but no degree, keynote speaker Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education and a former federal undersecretary of education, said the American higher education system is “leaving too many students along the side of the road.”

And though Massachusetts is a comparatively well-educated state, the same problem exists here. Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, noted that those who have a bachelor’s degree make, on average, about twice as much as those who don’t. Still, 1.5 million working-age Massachusetts residents either have only a high school diploma or, if they have taken some college courses, have not obtained any kind of degree. That despite the fact that almost a third of working-age residents without a degree say they’d like to pursue one.

The Baker administration hopes that flexible, expanded digital learning opportunities will help them achieve that goal. One subject that came up repeatedly at was the importance of college courses built around mastering competencies, something that students can work on at their own pace and on their own schedule, rather than on spending a specific amount of time in the classroom.

A second: College credit for prior learning. By identifying and giving credit for legitimate skills already obtained, colleges can ease the path toward a degree. That’s particularly important for those who have served in the military, since their careers often included high-quality training.

Meanwhile, several leading employers showcased their own efforts to make digital learning work for current and prospective employees. Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest employer, announced it will make a new online health care-management program, offered through the University of Southern New Hampshire, available to all its employees on an affordable basis. General Electric pledged to interview for jobs any state resident who completes a “MicroMasters” program in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, supply-chain management, or cloud computing offered through the online-learning platform

So how to push these trends along? One problem is that federal financial aid is generally not available for competency-based online learning. Meanwhile, more employers should take their cues from Partners and GE in encouraging digital education. And more colleges should get in the game with affordable, for-credit online offerings.

The Baker administration, which sponsored the conference and will soon appoint a commission to explore ways to expand online learning opportunities in areas critical to the state’s economy, should be applauded for its efforts here. This kind of wonky work often get overlooked, but it’s an important effort to create a future where more residents can share the benefits of our knowledge-based economy.


Students, stop waging war on the past

Now British student leaders want to erase William Gladstone's name

Disappointing news this week from my alma mater, Liverpool University. A campaign has been launched to change the name of the Roscoe and Gladstone halls of residence. Students want the name of four-time prime minister William Gladstone to be expunged from the site because he didn’t support the abolition of slavery and his father’s money came from the slave trade.

In my first year at Liverpool I lived in the neighbouring halls: Derby and Rathbone. I’ll admit it never occurred to me to look up the background to these names. All I knew was that I had selected the halls that had not had the asbestos scare a few years earlier – and that was good enough for me.

Incidentally, it seems the student leading the campaign against Roscoe and Gladstone halls, Alisha Raithatha, hadn’t bothered to look up the names while she lived there, either. ‘As former residents of the halls we were horrified to find out we had been living in a building named after such a figure for a whole year without even realising’, she wrote on the university’s students’ guild website. A case of delayed outrage, it would seem.

Raithatha argues that Gladstone’s name should be replaced with the name of someone ‘more worthy’. She has suggested Liverpool alumnus and journalist Jon Snow. Oh dear.

The campaign has received 80 ‘likes’ on the guild website, which means it will be debated at a guild summit – the first step to it becoming an official campaign for the guild. Liverpool is following in the footsteps of Oxford University and Kings College London (KCL) in embracing historic virtue-signalling. The Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign sought to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel Square in order ‘to decolonise the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’.

Earlier this year, KCL’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience decided to replace portraits of its founders with a more racially diverse selection of scholars, after it was concluded that the old paintings did not reflect today’s standards of diversity.

It really can’t be a shock to people that historical figures do not stand up to today’s standards of goodness or diversity. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary figure who could withstand student activists’ testing of virtuousness, never mind someone from the past, when very often black people and women were not seen as deserving of equal rights.

Past historical figures whose names we remember, and sometimes attach to buildings and streets, are celebrated for what they achieved. This doesn’t mean they were nice people. Most of us are aware of that. Charles Dickens had a problem with Jews: that doesn’t make his work any less important.

Raithatha says of Gladstone: ‘We believe that someone with this controversial background should not have a university hall named after them, especially in a city where we try hard not to forget the atrocities that took place on our docks.’ But no one is forgetting about slavery – and it is absolutely undisputed today that slavery was a terrible historic crime.

So what is the point of all this historical editing? Have the thousands of students who have lived in the Roscoe and Gladstone halls been so influenced by the halls’ namesake that they have come to think slavery was an acceptable institution? Of course not. If we continue this incessant judgement of historic figures by today’s standards, no one from the past will survive our wrath: we will have to tear down pretty much every statue and rename all buildings, streets and squares.

It’s sad to see some Liverpool students pandering to the new PC fury with the past. One of the best things about living and studying in Liverpool was how down-to-earth the city and its people are. But I’m heartened by the fact that just 122 students have taken the time to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ Raithatha’s proposal. Considering the students’ guild represents 21,000 Liverpool students, that means not even one per cent of the student body care enough about the name of the Roscoe and Gladstone halls to express an opinion on it.

This campaign is armchair activism. A handful of students realised, after having lived in a building for a year, that one of its historic namesakes, who died in 1898, held dubious views on slavery. If Gladstone’s name is deleted, who benefits? What will happen? What he thought and said will still have been thought and said. The fact that he was Britain’s PM four times won’t have changed. We cannot edit history, and we shouldn’t try to.

A better approach would be to credit Liverpool students with being intelligent enough to know that historic figures were not perfect, and that history is a complex process.


Australia: Perth Modern School wants bigger classes

Larger class sizes can in fact be highly beneficial if they expose more students to good teachers.  But the unions are afraid of them in case they reduce the number of teaching jobs available

WA’s only academically selective school is offering teachers up to $500 cash in exchange for taking extra students above maximum class-size thresholds, raising the ire of the teachers’ union.

Perth Modern School has told teachers they can “negotiate” compensation for accepting bigger classes above the limit of 32 pupils in Years 7 to 10 or 25 in Years 11 and 12.

A document circulated last week to staff at the Subiaco school said it was not compul-sory for teachers to take on extra students but there would be trade-offs for those who chose to do so.

“Examples of negotiated compensation may include trading off yard duty or, in some cases, for middle years there is a figure of $300 for an extra student and $500 for senior years, or you are welcome to negotiate for something else if you require,” it said.

State School Teachers Union president Pat Byrne said offering teachers a financial incentive for extra students was “highly unusual”. The union had raised its concerns with the department after Perth Modern teachers flagged the issue.

“Planning to have classes that exceed the limit is a breach of our industrial agreement,” Ms Byrne said. “So that’s certainly a concern.”

She said that under the union’s agreement with the Education Department, schools were not permitted to plan for classes to be above the agreed maximum. The agreement recognised that classes sometimes exceeded the limit after new students enrolled, so teachers could discuss reducing other duties in recognition of the additional workload.

“There is nothing unusual about that,” Ms Byrne said. “Where it gets unusual is the notion that people are paid extra. It means the school is actually not prioritising class sizes. Class sizes are fixed at a number for a range of reasons — a lot of that is to do with the size of the classroom and safety, particularly if you’re in a science lab or home economics room.

“It isn’t just about workload, it’s also about the actual attention that a teacher can give to individual students.”

Ms Byrne said she had not heard of any other public schools making a similar offer but worried it could set a precedent.

“It undermines the whole rationale for having smaller classes,” she said. “Schools are funded according to the class size ratio, so there should be no reason for a school to be needing to offer that sort of payment,” she said.

“The implication here is that as long as people get paid money, it’s all right to have larger class sizes.

“But we wouldn’t support that at all. It’s about the quality of education you can provide for that class and the bigger it gets the harder it is to do that.” An Education Department spokeswoman said: “This matter was brought to the department’s attention recently and we are currently looking into it.”


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