Friday, June 12, 2009

Creating as a way of Orienting

My friend Gary Daynes recently made a call for higher education to move "from consumption to creation" ("No more teaching to learning").  I think this idea has interesting implications for the way we orient new students to our campuses.

Of course, new students are in need of a certain amount of critical information (e.g. How do I register for classes? Where do I buy my books?); however, I wonder if our attempts to provide easy, pre-packed answers to  these types of questions might reinforce a consumer mentality.  At it's core, new student orientation is a learning experience just like sitting in a class or taking an exam.  And, if I'm right in assuming that engaging learners in a creative process leads to meaningful learning, then there is no good reason why orientation shouldn't do the same.  

If I was remaking an orientation program on a college campus (particularly a smaller campus where numbers and logistics aren't a huge problem) this is how it might look:

1.  Fewer "Easy" Answers:  Rather than sitting students down in an auditorium and bludgeoning them with slide after slide of dry information, it would be interesting to expect students to find some of their own "answers."  This would not be a scavenger hunt--I don't think gimmicks are the answer.  But, if we could design a meaningful experience that requires students to locate key resources, pieces of information, campus locations, etc. and then report back to a larger group, I think we would see students learning more.  We make a mistake when we try to make learning easy.  Struggle on the part of a learner can pay dividends (see Chapter 1 of Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code for a more in-depth discussion of this concept).  Of course, we don't want students wandering aimlessly across campus during orientation, but guiding them in finding or creating their own answers could have some interesting outcomes.

2.  Opportunities for Meaningful Written Reflection:  Even more important than transmitting specific information, orientation is as a time to transmit the values and culture of a particular institution.  For instance, what does it mean to be Yale Bulldog or a Delaware Blue Hen?  What kinds of things do students at Harvard do?  While orientation programming can hep create this vision for a new student, an equally valuable component  is the personal reflection that a student does after orientation is all over.  What if students were asked to reflect in writing about what it means to be part of the heritage of Washington State University or what Boston College really expects of its students?  For colleges that require enrollment in a freshman seminar course of some kind, this could be the first assignment and bridge the gap between orientation and the first day of the course.  This sort of activity engages students in creating their own picture of what it means to be a college student at their particular institution, which could help frame the way they approach learning.  Asking students to share "orientation stories" of struggle, anxiety, excitement, celebration, etc. could also drive interesting reflection, reflection that could help students make meaning and grapple with transitional issues (as an aside, these stories might also provide some interesting qualitative data that could be used in assessment of orientation programs).  

3.  Opportunities to engage with real problems or issues on campus:  What if each orientation group was tasked with developing a solution to a real campus problem during orientation?   A good problem or task would require students to make use of a variety of campus resources (e.g. the library, the Student Union building and its offices, campus maps, etc.) in gathering information and articulating a thoughtful solution.  Even if none of the proposed solutions are feasible, students will have been engaged in an authentic learning experience that introduced them to campus and modeled the type of learning (learning that benefits a community) that we hope happens during their time on campus.  In the best case scenario, some of the elements of these "solutions" could be adopted and highlighted so as to reinforce the importance of students adding to or enhancing the learning community that they are a part of.

We are experimenting (in a very small way) with some of this on my campus.  We have selected 20 students to be part of a small pilot program that involves them in creating film documentaries of their orientation experience.  These 20 students will be broken into groups of 4 (within their larger orientation group) and each group will be provided with a video camera.  We will provide them with a short list of learning outcomes for orientation and ask them to, using the medium of film, illustrate that they have learned or experienced the things we hope they will.  Ideally, we hope that the act of creating something during orientation helps focus their learning.  We have also made these students aware that what they are creating could be used to market orientation to new students that come to our campus in the future.  

We'll see how things go.  Maybe it will crash and burn, but I feel good knowing that we are at least making an attempt to provide a more interactive and engaging experience during orientation.

Friday, June 5, 2009

BYU's Dirty Politics

That title might get me in trouble, but something afoul is afoot at BYU and people need to talk about it.  BYU and the city of Provo are making it increasingly difficult for students to have any real voice in their community.  Students and those who care about students should be up in arms at the latest developments in this saga.  

Yesterday the Daily Universe (BYU's campus newspaper) ran a series of articles focused on student involvement in the political process of Provo, Utah (the city where Brigham Young University is located).  It is, in my opinion, the best journalism I've seen the Daily Universe do in the 6 years I have been here on campus.  For some good reading check out any of the following articles 
The article regarding the failed attempt to put a student on the city council is particularly telling.  I'll address a few comments made in the paper below.  In general, the comments made by Nathan Ward, the assistant director of Student Leadership at BYU are vague, non-descript, and appear to be attempts to make the university look good without committing to any meaningful change.

"We declined to participate when it became clear that it was an inconsistent way to choose a good representation of the community"
What does that even mean?  What was inconsistent about the "way" this student representative was going to be chosen.  When were BYU students consulted about this?  And, why is a full-time administrator speaking for the BYU Student Association?  Shouldn't we be hearing from an actual student? (On a side note, this another indication that BYU's student leaders don't have any meaningful involvement in actual decisions impacting the students they represent--this isn't the student leaders fault, it's bad leadership on the part of those leading them).  

"One reason for concern about the idea of a BYU Provo City community representative was that BYU's and Provo City's interests are sometimes not identical."
Are you kidding?  Of course BYU and Provo city's interests are different.  This statement actually strengthens the argument that student's should be represented on the council--none of the other members of the council have similar interests or a desire to ensure that student interests are addressed.  Additionally, this statement is full of bad logic.  The whole idea of a democratic process is to allow for a diversity of interests and views to be represented and addressed.  If the discrepancy between BYU & Provo City's interests precludes students from sitting on the council, then, applying the same logic, anyone that doesn't fit the mold of the typical Provo resident should not be represented either.  Non-LDS Hispanics, Single-Mom's, non-BYU attending college aged-students--you're all out of luck.  If your interests don't align with the oligarchy holding positions in city or university leadership, then you don't have a voice.

"We applaud the efforts of students to engage in the civic process."
Really?  That seems very disingenous given the fact that BYU has done very little to allow students to have a meaningful role in the civic and political process here in Provo.  Yes, students can vote, but as illustrated by the first article I reference, the student voting bloc has been split so many ways that it would be virtually impossible for students to have a meaningful voice in the political process.  What BYU really means when they encourage students to be "civically engaged" is to provide the city with free service (tutoring in local schools, bolstering the economy by shopping at local stores and eating in local restaurants), put on a pretty face so BYU looks like a "well-kempt" campus, and vote in the BYUSA election.  I don't doubt that there are some very sincere individuals in the campus administration that want students to be involved, but let's put our money where our mouth is and actually go to bat with students.  Are we using buzz words like "civically engaged" because we mean it or because it looks good in newspaper articles?

"We've tried to communicate with BYU, and this is where it has gotten us."  
This was a comment by current council chair Cynthia Dayton.  It may be the dumbest thing I've heard this month.  Dayton was referring to the city's current struggles in developing parking guidelines for the area south of BYU campus (commonly referred to as the "Joaquin neighborhood").  Apparently Dayton believes that being on the city council does not include addressing significant issues.  This issue of parking has been an issue for years but the city and university ignored it until students made enough noise that it had to be addressed.  Being a political representative means dealing with hard things, having hard conversations, and working hard to make the city a better place to live for all citizens, not just those over 30 with families and full-time jobs.  Heaven forbid Cynthia actually make a difference.

BYU students should be outraged at this.  Provo wants them to serve, spend, and look pretty.  But, from the look and sound of things, they don't want students to be involved in any meaningful ways.  Likewise, BYU wants to prepare students to "go forth to serve," but they aren't willing to do much to provide authentic opportunities for students to be involved in the political process.  

Sad, very sad.  Thanks Daily Universe for doing a great job of bringing these issues to light.