Back To The Classroom: A Professor’s Experience

As a professor at a private regional university in one of America’s largest cities, I found last week’s “back to the classroom” experience to be a surreal one.

I spoke for 75 consecutive minutes through a face mask. I fidgeted while anchored to the podium, unable to move around the room while remaining within range of a video camera. And I watched with trepidation while students moved within six feet of friends, tugged down their masks to speak, and generally struggled to respect the restrictions of social distancing standards.

How can any one teach under such circumstances? Indeed, how can any teacher meet the semester’s learning objectives when students are permitted to “elect the remote learning option,” thereby eliminating the classroom entirely and opting to “attend” sessions by watching the video recordings of the live lectures?

Thus far, I only have one week of teaching under my belt. Nevertheless, I am already adapting to new realities by emphasizing certain principles:

1. EMPATHY. In unfamiliar and unprecedented circumstances, I find that I can only anticipate the needs of students by making a conscious effort to “stand in their shoes” and “see through their eyes” to identify their obstacles to learning. By making such an effort, I can recognize difficulties and develop solutions that may not have occurred to me otherwise.

For instance, consider an ostensibly inconsequential student presentation assignment. For students who are learning remotely, the physical classroom must be replaced by some type of electronic communication platform.

At first blush, a video platform such as Zoom or Skype may appear to offer an effective solution. But what if I view this assignment through the eyes of a disadvantaged student? Does that student possess a broadband internet connection at home? In more extreme circumstances, does the student live in a home at all? And in a visually “presentable” one at that?

There are various solutions to deal with this problem, though (regrettably) none is ideal. Nevertheless, by applying a sense of empathy, I may be more likely to identify the challenges that students may confront during a simple presentation activity.

2. FLIPPING THE CLASSROOM. Traditionally structured courses require students to listen to lectures and discuss cases in live classroom environments, and then to go home and apply their knowledge by completing homework assignments. For many years, though, some teachers have “flipped the classroom” by instructing students to watch video lectures at home. Then students are expected to complete their application activities in the classroom, guided by teachers who serve as coaches and mentors instead of as lecturers.

To be sure, this is not a new pedagogical strategy. However, when many students must “attend” lectures through videos because personal circumstances prevent them from traveling to their classrooms, “flipping the classroom” may evolve from an optional strategy to a mandatory imperative. Under such circumstances, teachers can embrace the “flipping” model and communicate with these remote students electronically, serving as coaches and mentors in an empathetic manner.

3. PULL COMMUNICATION. Under normal circumstances, teachers communicate with students by making verbal announcements in classrooms and video chat rooms, and by posting messages via email, blogs, and electronic announcement boards. Students then reply by verbal conversations and email transmissions.

Under pandemic conditions, teachers can continue to communicate by utilizing these methods. But imagine the discomfort that students may experience while telling teachers “I have Covid” in open Zoom chat rooms, or while reporting on students who attend off-campus “no masks allowed” parties via email messages.

New communication methods may be needed to “pull” such information from students by removing the behavioral obstacles that impede such conversations. Anonymous message systems and private reporting mechanisms may conflict with recent trends towards open and transparent group communication methods, but they may enable more effective interactions during the pandemic era.

 

Technology clearly plays a key role in each of these three circumstances. However, the solution in each circumstance is not technology itself. Rather, the “Path Forward” may involve the establishment of a more durable and reliable human connection between the professors and the students whom they serve.

Who Needs A Traditional MBA Degree?

Mark your calendars! 2008 will mark the centennial anniversary of the world’s first MBA program. Yes, Harvard University is about to celebrate the one hundredth year of its full-time Master’s Degree in Business Administration.

But does it still serve a purpose? Back in 1908, America’s Industrial Age economy needed a process for inculcating engineers, scientists, and other professionals in the principles and practices of modern commerce. An aspiring young inventor at a firm like General Electric might thus seek a two year MBA Degree to complement a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial, Mechanical, or Electrical Engineering.

Today, though, many full-time MBA Degree programs are in decline. And many micro-credential, nano-degree, and part-time programs are ascendant. The reasons for this evolution are not surprising: the cost of higher education, the time required to obtain a traditional degree, the need for narrowly defined technical specialists, the capacity of internet-based technologies to convey information, etc.

But before we consign the full-time MBA program to the ash heap of history, let’s consider what we would lose if all graduate business students were to enroll in the newer options instead.

Think about it. Our undergraduate programs are still producing thousands of engineers and scientists each year to serve our social and economic needs. They’re producing nurses and social workers and teachers too. When all of these professionals advance to positions of organizational authority, won’t they need a comprehensive knowledge of business practices and principles?

If we shut down our full-time MBA programs, where will they go to obtain that knowledge? Do the new alternatives possess the capacity to replace two full years of formal education?

To be sure, it is indeed possible that many business managers will be able to function without two such years. And yet, as a point of comparison, the American education sector has eliminated traditional Civics classes from our public school curricula. How has that decision impacted our society?

So let’s not rush to bury the full-time MBA program. After all, it has served as a critical component of our nation’s educational infrastructure for the past century. If we destroy it today, we may not be able to rebuild it tomorrow.

Accounting Games And The Next Generation

Today is Labor Day, the social conclusion to the summer months. It’s time to pack away our beach sandals, close up our summer homes, and turn our sober eyes toward the worlds of work and school.

So what did the sensible and pragmatic folks at the New York State Society of CPAs decide to showcase during the week leading up to Labor Day? Accounting games! No, not the shenanigans that companies play with their tax returns, but rather the activities that make us laugh and cheer as we compete to win our contests.

I’m a contributing writer for Next Gen, the professional development guide of the New York Society, which has developed a sizable following among millennials who are working as accountants or who aspire to become accountants. Last week, they published my posting entitled Oh, The Accounting Games We Play.

It describes how games can be utilized to enliven the process of professional learning and education. And, in particular, it presents an illustration of a game that I co-created, entitled Audit Experience!

Believe it or not, the design process of an educational game is actually a very serious endeavor. Like any other communication media based service, it must carefully consider factors like the attention spans of the learners, the entertainment value of the content, and — most importantly of all — the ability of the game to convey knowledge in a sustainable fashion.

If you have any curiosity about the design of such games, you’re welcome to click over to the Next Gen blog posting. In fact, even if you’re not particularly enamored of educational games, you might wish to peruse the Next Gen platform of online media content to see how the New York Society is addressing the interests of the millennial generation.

And if you ever find yourself struggling to maintain your interest in a tedious training or learning exercise, please don’t give up on the material! Instead, try searching for an approach that makes a game of it.

New York’s Education Rebellion

Have you ever heard of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791? It represented the first instance of a sustained anti-government protest in the United States. Although President George Washington employed federal troops to decisively squash that uprising, Americans have continued to stage protests since that time.

Indeed, from the military draft riots of the 1860s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and then on to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests of the 21st century, Americans have continued to rally against their own government’s policies and practices. And today, the ongoing public demonstrations against police brutality extend this established tradition.

Every so often, though, social rebellion tends to erupt in unusual venues. Did any one expect, for instance, the suburban parents of grade school children in New York State to rebel against school testing practices?

The recent governmental emphasis on standardized tests originated in the No Child Left Behind law a decade ago. It then expanded under the recent Common Core initiative. But why are parents in New York now so concerned?

Apparently, the parents believe that an over-emphasis on testing is creating a destructive high pressure, high stakes culture that diverts resources from learning activities and encourages “teaching to the test.” They do have a point; after all, eight grade school educators in the Atlanta school system just received prison sentences for helping students cheat on their standardized exams.

New York is facing a similarly challenging situation because parents in the Empire State can elect to opt out of testing activities. In much the same way that California’s “opt out of pediatric immunizations” policy led to a measles outbreak and a public health crisis, New York’s “opt out of standardized testing” policy is leading to a public education crisis.

That’s because the bedrock foundation of any standardized testing activity is the presumption that the results of the tests are representative of the students in the education system. Once significant numbers of students opt out, an assessment system solely based on testing has no alternative means to gauge their needs.

Imagine, for instance, a restaurant owner who decides to transform his entire menu on the basis of information from a handful of little customer feedback cards. If many of his paying customers decline to hand in their cards, should the owner rely solely on the feedback that he receives from a few patrons?

At the moment, New York State Education officials are both exhorting and threatening parents who wish to opt out of the testing process. Many officials are encouraging parents who have already opted out to change their minds and opt back into the system. But no official has yet launched any initiative to address their complaints.

In a society where teachers risk prison to help students cheat, though, why not directly address the high pressure, high stakes testing culture? After all, if America’s Whiskey Producers, Civil Rights Protestors, Tea Partiers, and Wall Street Occupiers never responded to simple requests to cease their protests, why would the soccer moms of New York State act any differently today?

Toddlers Rejoice: No More Admission Exams!

The standardized test industry has recently experienced some rough times in the United States, hasn’t it? The federal Department of Education and various trade associations, for instance, has repeatedly criticized many of the grade school testing requirements of the Bush Administration’s landmark No Child Left Behind law. And critics continue to complain about the inadequacies and failures of college admission examinations.

But did you know that many prestigious grade school, kindergarten, and “pre-k” (i.e. nursery school) programs in the United States also require standardized admission tests? The Association of Boarding Schools and the Education Records Bureau sponsor the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment (ECAA) examination for very young children.

Last week, however, the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York announced that some of the Big Apple’s most renowned private schools would no longer require the examination. The reason? Too many parents are spending thousands of dollars on test preparation services for their toddlers, creating “a lot of anxiety in families and kids that is unnecessary.”

The unspoken implication, of course, is that the tests have also become ineffective indicators of natural student ability. After all, examination grades that can be improved by expensive test preparation services inevitably discriminate against individuals who cannot afford to purchase such services.

One can only wonder whether other industry sectors will face similar concerns as well. For instance, if the newly emerging universal health care program in the United States is unable to rely on purportedly unbiased measurements of medical efficacy, it will struggle to serve the needs of the American people.

At the moment, though, America’s toddlers aren’t worried about universal health care. They are merely breathing sighs of relief about escaping their first experiences with school admission tests!