How Students Running ‘EdSurge Independent’ Say Colleges Should Change

How Students Running ‘EdSurge Independent’ Say Colleges Should Change
EdSurge Independent writers Rosie Foulger, Amanda Wahlstedt, and Jared Silver

Don’t even think of lecturing to these college students. The 14 students who just finished up the spring session of EdSurge Independent want something more active, and they want to have a voice as colleges rethink how they teach and support people on their campuses.

EdSurge sat down with three of them—Amanda Wahlstedt, Jared Silver and Rosie Foulger, to talk about how they view the buzzwords and experiments happening at their campuses, and also to get a sense of what they see as the problems with education that need to be solved.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: Why does college need to change at all? Amanda, you’re a freshman at Wellesley College. You are a first-generation student from a rural community, and you felt it wasn’t obvious you’d go to college at all. What is it about college that you think needs to change?

Wahlstedt: College a lot of times doesn’t make accommodations for students like me. And so for me, I like to focus on, “Are there students who are going hungry that we’re missing out on?” When students get into college and you have homeless students, students with food insecurity and students who don’t have a [strong] family background or a safety net, those sort of issues can be absolutely detrimental to this person’s future. So, for me, when I think about the future of higher education, one of the biggest things is addressing that.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle for these students?

Wahlstedt: Some of it is funding, but a lot of it is just awareness. A lot of people just don’t know that there are students who are struggling like this. Or if they do, they don’t know the students personally [or have a mentor relationship]. It’s harder for first-generation students to make that connection because first-generation students tend not to reach out to their professors.

Jared, what has been your experience in college so far, and why do you think college needs to change?

Silver: I spent a couple of semesters at Babson College, up in Massachusetts, and it has a very strong focus on entrepreneurship. I don’t want to talk about them in particular, but as a whole, the way that I see college is it’s very, very good at teaching you how to carry out a set of tasks and teaching you how to do a repetitive set of to memorize this, or how to very formulaically do what someone else tells you to do. But unfortunately, the problems that the world faces today are no longer of that variety. Rather, what we need from our institutions of higher education are teaching people the skills, or helping people develop the skills for themselves, to determine what it is that they need to do to figure out how to solve the problems.

Rosie, you’re a student at the Minerva School, which has an alternative higher-ed model that’s online, and so you’re right now in Buenos Aires studying. What is it about the sort of traditional version that you weren’t sold on, or what do you think needs to change about higher ed?

Foulger: I used to attend a traditional university in the U.K., and I transferred to Minerva because I think that’s a lot better than at my traditional university where I sat there, I read some stuff, I attended a lecture that has no pedagogical basis in reality. In no sense does anybody learn well from a lecture. It’s just a poor way of teaching.

Minerva is based on the science of learning. Everything that we do is very intentional, very thought out. Every class is planned to the minute. Our live discussion seminars are planned to the minute. So I’m interested in education changing because I think that we have, just like Jared said, very prescriptive models of education. They’re not backed up by any research, and I think that it would be pretty easy actually to change the way that we teach in school and university to make them scientifically valid and useful for the world.

Since you all are thinking about the future of education, I’m wondering: Are students asked enough for their input on what ought to be?

Wahlstedt: A lot of times when students are asked for their input, it is done in a very surface way. So it’s, “We have these students’ input, but we don’t integrate them into the actual process of making the change or into the process of troubleshooting with the change,” and those are often where the problems lie. So, I feel, no there’s definitely not enough student voice as far as what goes on campus and just in general on college campuses. Students need to be integrated and need to have a say, but it’s hard to do apparently.

There’s the argument by some professors that students don’t know what they need when it comes to curriculum, and that colleges shouldn’t become just consumer transactions. What would you say that idea?

Silver: There is a tremendous, tremendous difference between learning and being taught. While I’d agree that at the outset, we as students might not know exactly what we need to know, that’s not the most important thing. What’s important is that we develop the ability for ourselves to figure out what it is that we do need to know, and then figure out how to acquire that knowledge. What’s most valuable about higher education is not the actual information, but the meta-skills that you develop by learning how to acquire that information—how to think for yourself, how to determine what it is that you need in order to solve the problems that you want to solve.

I wanted to give you a chance to describe EdSurge Independent and what you’re learning. What it is this project, for those who don’t know it?

Foulger: EdSurge Independent is this really cool community that is by and for students, and our aim is to give students a voice. We meet once a week on a video call as a group, and we talk. We have a mix of discussion sessions, guest speaker sessions, and article review sessions. So we’ve had speakers from the U.S. Department of Education, from the Gates Foundation, from AltSchool in San Francisco, from Minerva—speakers who have very different points of view.

Then we write articles—three articles per student per semester. Those can be essays. Those can be photo journals. Those can be videos, multimedia presentations. People have written some fascinating things.

EdSurge covers edtech, but we’re focused on the bigger challenges of education and the problems and solutions—not just to be a tech-for-tech’s sake. I’m curious whether you think there’s sometimes too much “tech is the answer” talk within the discussions of changing or rethinking education?

Wahlstedt: I think technology is a tool, at the end of the day. So when it’s viewed and used and implemented as being a tool to supplement learning, then yes. But I’m not sure that right now at our current position, or in the very, very near future, we will be able to use technology to completely take over learning as we know it.

Silver: I’d say that to the extent that technology has sort of empowered educators in the classroom by automating some of the tasks that would take their focus away from the needs of their students, to the extent that technology in the classroom has enabled sort of individualization for students. In those areas, technology has been fantastic. But over the long run, it needs to move more in the direction of what we’ve been discussing education as a whole needs to move—and that’s away from this sort of linear traditional model and toward a more branching, individualized, adaptive, whatever buzzword you want to throw in there, approach.

Foulger: A lot of people talk about the dangers of having too much technology in schools, and I think that this is a misnomer, and a misrepresentation of how technology can be and should be used in classrooms. I have personally seen, from my experience at Minerva, where every single one of my seminar-based classes is on a very souped-up, very, very cool active-learning platform online classroom. I have learned so much more on that platform than I ever did in a traditional classroom.

It tracks how I do in everything. It tracks how much I speak. It tracks what my teachers comment on things that I say. It really, really helps to know where you’re coming from, where you’re going. I can go and rewatch my first-ever class at Minerva. I can watch every time that I’ve ever spoken in school over the last two years, and I can see exactly how my thoughts and my thought patterns have changed, and I can watch all of my peers do that too. There’s no back seat. Everybody’s across the top of the screen. You can see everybody equally. Everybody is sitting next to the professor. It creates a much more well-rounded learning environment, in my opinion, than a physical classroom could ever hope to achieve.

So there are some amazing things that we can do with technology, and I think that it is dangerous to start telling people that using technology in school is a dangerous thing. Because used right, [technology] can drastically change and improve the way that education is run.

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