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reflections on state funding for higher education


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our cohort is looking at trends in state level funding for higher education and saw Arkansas proposing a plan to tie funding to short term measures of performance like class completion %, which triggered the following reflection on my part during our weekly discussions

1. state legislatures are tied to the annual and biannual budget cycle and election cycle. Statewide educational funding is one of the most important priorities and largest budget line items and one in in which they can make the state competitive for outside business. So there’s a natural urgency to do something about education at the legislature level.

Being tied such a short timeframe though is a challenge for them because they have to come up with metrics that are meaningful in their timeframe but which may not be suitable for assessing the impact of new programs over time. And so we get caught up in this series of short term projects on the margin, chosen simply because they are measurable and not necessarily because they contribute to a theory of deep learning.

2. if this were medicine, you wouldn’t expect to see legislatures defining standards of performance and measures of effectiveness in legislation to tell doctors how to do their job, which is very technical nature. You would expect them to rely on the medical profession to define measure and enforce reasonable technical standards. But because everyone has a belief about what they think constitutes good education and good educational outcomes, you see these kinds of technical specifications creeping into the language of the law. That doesn’t help us create effective learning programs. Simply adds another set of constraints. I think we have to decide to engage with them rather than just react to them.

3. on the subject of tools changing the tool user, just consider the effect of twitter on our higher cognitive processes. Twitter limits you to 140 text characters. This acts as a forcing function to make you say what you mean in short sharp clear simple text. But an academic scholarly paper of 30 pages has approximately 10,000 words or 50,000 characters, using the averages of 300 words per page and 5 characters per word. That’s the equivalent of 600-800 typical tweets.

The problem of course is that few of us write 600 tweets in the form of a complex nuanced scholarly argument. Tweeters get locked into superficial stream of consciousness dialogues that are one idea deep. Because it’s so easy to tweet around all day, we lose the capacity for uninterrupted focused attention which is both the blessing and curse of consciousness. By focusing on certain things we neglect other things. Tweeters, much like digital culture, thrive on short attention spans and superficial feelings.

We are much more like a nation of American Idol watchers than Masterpiece Theatre watchers, sadly. I don’t see that trend reversing. This further contributes to the development of the haves and have-nots: with the haves, having a culture of excellence and refinement while the have-nots live amidst their feelings.

it’s the bread and circuses of the digital empire

proponents of twitter in the classroom point out that it is a way to get people writing in small bursts. My concern is that there needs to be equal attention given to the construction of arguments and the power of rhetoric to persuade and to deconstruct other people’s arguments. Rhetoric works in both ways. It helps us make better arguments but it also helps us analyze.

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