Monday, December 05, 2016

Tech as a Gen Ed

Last week I was in a discussion with some of my counterparts from around the state, when the topic of a “technological competency” general education “outcome” came up.

To translate: general education outcomes are the skills we want to ensure that every graduating student has, regardless of major.  Whether you’re a business major, a history major, or a nursing major, we want to be sure that you can communicate well in writing.  That goal supports the requirement of English composition courses.  

Some gen ed outcomes have dedicated courses or batches of courses, and others are expected to be “infused” throughout the curriculum.  Ethical reasoning and awareness of diversity, for example, make more sense in context than as standalones.  The advantage of the “infusion” approach is precisely that it opens up the possibility of exploration in context.  The disadvantage is that when a goal is owned by everyone, it’s owned by no one.  If we aren’t careful, it’s easy for “infused” to become “diffused.”

That was the framework within which technological competency came up.  In New Jersey, back in the 90’s, the statewide coordinating group (whatever that was at the time) decided to establish a requirement that all students be brought up to speed on current technology before they graduate.  Operationally, that was defined as the ability to use the Microsoft Office suite on a p.c.  And that made sense in the 90’s.  

But we’re at a point now in which my seventh grader gets issued a chromebook by her public school.  There’s no single ubiquitous platform anyone, and to the extent that there is, students tend to show up already having mastered it.  Some don’t, of course, but many do.  

Which suggests that we may have hit a tipping point.  We certainly want students to be able to work competently with current technology, and to be able to adapt as it changes.  But it’s harder to assume now that most of them are starting from scratch.  The range of competencies with which they arrive is growing, and the degree of consensus about which technologies matter is dropping.  

If that admittedly broad-stroke picture of our students is mostly right, then it suggests that competency in tech may be ready to move from a standalone criterion to an infused one.  It may not need a blanket course requirement across the board; instead, it may make sense to treat it as a basic skill that only needs remediation if they don’t already have it.

That may sound arcane, but a shift like that would have serious ripple effects.

First, and most basically, various degrees have a set number of gen ed credits in them.  If the credits previously allocated to tech are freed up, they’d have to go somewhere.  That would have effects on staffing, scheduling, budgeting, and labs, among other things.  If enrollments in the Intro to Tech class go down, and enrollments in (say) Chemistry go up, we’d have to reallocate resources over time.  In the interim, I could foresee bottlenecks.

We’d have to get a bit more prescriptive, too, about ensuring that some level of tech is covered in other classes.  And we’d need to develop an assessment protocol for it that’s independent of the class that used to be required to cover it.

For the students who show up lacking the basics, we’d need some way of bringing them up to speed.  The old “remedial course” model is very much on the way out, though, so we’d need another mechanism to do that.  Drop-in workshops are lovely, but as Kay McClenney noted, students don’t do optional.  

I know that different states handle this differently, so I’m curious.  Wise and worldly readers, especially those at open-admission colleges, how do you handle technological competency?  Is it required, assumed, or ignored?  Standalone or infused?  And has anyone figured out a way to infuse it and still help students who are far behind make up ground?