Sociologist uses Twitter for class but are the students learning more?

Stories like this are not uncommon: professors utilizing technology to engage their students (and here is another one about clicker use).

Wendy Welch is incorporating the use of the social networking site Twitter into her cultural geography class this semester. The adjunct instructor said she decided to use the social networking site in her class after having problems with students using their phones in class for less-than-appropriate purposes.“If you can’t beat them, get ahead of them,” Welch said. “That’s the way the world works now.”…

Each student was assigned a country in Africa and asked to tweet facts about their country, such as languages and population, using designated hash tags, or categories. That way, each student only has to research one country but has access to all the information they may need from other students.

Welch also plans to have students use their mobile devices or laptops to research information during class sessions, she said…

She said she hopes to “get students to understand and participate in their own education.”

Perhaps this does increase the engagement level of the students. All professors want their students to be engaged and we don’t want to be seen as being behind the times. But, I think there is often something missing from discussions about student engagement and the use of technology in the classroom: does this actually lead to higher levels of student learning or student outcomes?

I suspect professors will always try to keep up with technology as it changes and each of these changes will be accompanied by hand-wringing. However, we need to be able to distinguish between engaging students with technology versus helping them learn. Take this Twitter example from class: do students do better on tests? Do they retain the knowledge better? Can they apply their knowledge from this particular class to other settings, particularly if the technology is not present? Does technology itself help students think more deeply about the big questions of our world?

If technology alone becomes the answer in the classroom, we will be in trouble.

Forbes’ college rankings signals possible trend of looking at alumni earnings and status

The college rankings business is a lucrative one and there are a number of different players with a number of different measures. Forbes recently released its 2011 rankings and they have a particular angle that seems aimed at unseating the rankings of US News & World Report:

Our annual ranking of the 650 best undergraduate institutions focuses on the things that matter the most to students: quality of teaching, great career prospects, graduation rates and low levels of debt. Unlike other lists, we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures such as school “reputation” and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending. We try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would: Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree? The rankings are prepared exclusively for Forbes by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C. think tank founded by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder.

With phrases like “ephemeral measures” and “ill-conceived metrics,” Forbes claims to have a better methodology. This new approach helps fill a particular niche in the college rankings market: those looking for the “biggest bang for your educational buck.”

In their rankings, 30% of the final score is based on “Post-Graduate Success.” This is comprised of three values: “Listings of Alumni in Who’s Who in America” (10%), “Salary of Alumni from payscale.com” (15%), and “Alumni in Forbes/CCAP Corporate Officers List” (5%). These may be good measures (Forbes goes to some effort to defend them) but I think there is a larger issue at play here: are these good measures by which to evaluate a college degree and experience? Is a college degree simply about obtaining a certain income and status?

At this point, many rankings and assessment tools rely on the experiences of students while they are in school. But, with an increasing price for a college degree and a growing interest in showing that college students do learn important skills and content in college, I think we’ll see more measures of and a greater emphasis placed on post-graduation information. This push will probably come from both outsiders, Forbes, parents and students, the government, etc., and college insiders. This could be good and bad. On the good side, it could help schools tailor their offerings and training to what students need to succeed in the adult world. On the bad side, if value or bang-for-your-buck becomes the overriding concern, college and particular degrees simply become paths to higher or lower-income outcomes. This could particularly harm liberal arts schools or non-professional majors.

In the coming years, perhaps Forbes will steal some of the market away from US News with the financial angle. But this push is not without consequences for everyone involved.

(Here is another methodological concern: 17.5% of a school’s total score is based on ratings from RateMyProfessors.com. Forbes suggests it cannot be manipulated by schools and is uniform across schools but this is a pretty high percentage.)

(Related: a new report rates colleges by debt per degree. A quick explanation:

Its authors say they aim to give a more complete picture of higher education — rather than judging by graduation rates alone or by default rates alone — by dividing the total amount of money undergraduates borrow at a college by the number of degrees it awards.

We’ll see if this catches on.)

Discussions about student-learning outcomes among college boards

As discussions about assessment and student-learning outcomes build on college campuses, a new report looks at what governing boards think about their discussions of student-learning outcomes:

While oversight of educational quality is a critical responsibility of college boards of trustees, a majority of trustees and chief academic officers say boards do not spend enough time discussing student-learning outcomes, and more than a third say boards do not understand how student learning is assessed, says a report issued on Thursday by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

According to members, boards tend to focus on business matters. But this issue of assessment and student-learning outcomes is one that is likely to affect all levels of colleges and universities.

(A note about how the results were obtained: the survey was sent to “1,300 chief academic officers and chairs of board committees on academic affairs how boards oversee academic quality.” The response rate was only 38%.)