Thursday, February 28, 2013

SPA13 - An educational mindset: Higher education and the virtual generation

Today I attended a conference during the workday.  The conference was put on by Student Personnel Association (SPA), which I found out about via email a few weeks ago.  Having never attended any sort of professional development for my university job, I asked my boss if I could go and was able to register.

The theme of SPA13 was "An Educational Mindset: Higher Education and the Virtual Generation"

As I got to the main conference room for breakfast, I spotted two people among the crowd that I knew from my College at the University.  To make the most of the event though, I sat down at a table of all unfamiliar faces.  One of the first people I met worked in the study abroad office (awesome!) and did not have a Master's degree! (Which doesn't mean I won't get one eventually, just means it's possible to work somewhere in higher ed without one...).  And soon began the keynote speakers.

Keynote: Tom McBride and Tom Nief of the Beloit College Mindset List

The keynote speakers were Tom McBride and Ron Nief of the Beloit College Mindset List.  I had never heard of the list before, but I guess it's a wellknown thing (their site gets over a million hits per year).  The lists reflect the mindset/world view of entering first year college students, with a list for each year.  The first list was made for the class of 2002, whose members were born in 1980.

Ron began by talking about thongs.  He proposed the question: "Why are thongs bought in pairs of two?"  Bought in pairs of two? I thought, are they really sold in pairs?  I didn't think they were always sold in pairs, so I wasn't really sure what he was trying to get at.  Then he mentioned a college dorm letter (or something) that said all students should be sure to bring thongs for the showers.  (*laugher*)  Said notice had gotten a confused reaction from the students, but then I realized what the speaker had been referring to this whole time: flip flops.  That was his first example of a mindset moment.

Another example of these mindset list items was that "For them, Beethoven is a dog."  Another mindset moment was when an eighth grader asked her mother to sign a permission slip for school and her mother said, "So you want my John Hancock?", the daughter thought her mother had said an obscenity.

The mindset list is now often used by college advisors and school administrators to better serve their students.  Ron and Tom shared with us during the keynote that clergy is another group to often use the mindset list for reference.

I see where the list could be useful for older generations to learn about how younger generations think (and what we have and haven't been exposed to during our lives in comparison to our parents), but I also took a bit of offense to some of the items.  I was one of the youngest people in attendance at this conference, but I know who Beethoven (the musician) is!  I know what a John Hancock is!  I even know that thongs are another word for flip flops, it was just in the back of my mind so I didn't make the connection at first.

Referring to the younger generation as "they" in each of the list items, followed by laughter from the audience made it feel like myself and younger peers were being made fun of by these older men.  "They think this means this.  They don't know what this is used for, etc.  *laugher, laugher*"  Now, I myself did laugh after some of the stories, and I get that making your audience laugh is one way to be positively received.  However, it's my understanding that the list's main purpose is not comical (please correct me if I'm wrong).  I'm under the impression that it's used by many people and organizations as a reference.  Here are a few items from my class's list (2011) with my comments in italics:
1. What Berlin wall?  We know what the Berlin wall is.
4. They never "rolled down" a car window.  Yes I have.
53. Tiananmen Square is a 2008 Olympics venue, not the scene of a massacre.  Didn't know that it was the 2008 Olympics venue, but I'm very aware of the massacre scene.
55. MTV has never featured music videos.  Yes it has.  I spent my mornings post-surgery in high school (2005) watching music videos on MTV and VH1.  I know what the list item is getting at though; the channel is full of reality series now, but I know it used to mainly just show music videos as the channel's name suggests.
So are these lists productive, or do they mock and create further separation between generations?  I feel like if I were to make lists of the mindsets of older generations, it would sound as though I were poking fun  (The first items that come to mind for this list I'm not going to make would be: "They don't know about tabs in browsers" or "They type urls into the google search bar").   Am I being too harsh on the mindset list here?  Do I need to lighten up?  Am I missing the main point?  I'm curious to hear others' opinions, from all generations - please share your thoughts in the comments!

#1: The flexible option: Competency-based education in the UW

After the keynote was finished, I went to a breakout session about the new Flexible Option at UW.  Here's a short video so you get the gist:

If you don't feel like watching, it's an online program that allows students to receive a number of degrees and certificates.  This flexible program is self-paced and consists of various assessments, making the degrees content-based.  So if you already know a lot about a certain topic, you can start with the assessments and pass as many as you can.  Then you use online resources (you find them) and guidance by a faculty member to study the content of the remaining assessments.  When you've mastered all of the assessments, you've earned the degree.

This seems like an exciting new development, but to be honest I was shocked at how much they still had to figure out before the fall semester begins.  Aaron Brower's enthusiasm and confidence was reassuring, and Rebecca Karoff did a great job presenting as well.

Some questions posed by the audience at the end of their presentation included:
  • Will students have to pay segregated fees?  If they happen to live near their program's campus, they would probably want to use the libraries and perhaps athletic facilities...
  • How will the faculty have time for students one-on-one?  What will this time look like - emails? phone calls? skype?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Is there a time limit to complete the degree?
The group is still trying to find concrete answers to all of these questions (and more), but in the meantime feel free to check out the Wisconsin Flexible Option website for more information.

#2: First year experience for international students

The second session I attended was called First Year Experience for International Students.  Having been an international student myself in Madrid, and having sought out international students on campus here in Wisconsin (by participating in BRIDGE, for example), I was interested to find out what the UW does for their international students.  Five years ago they created the First Year Experience survey for international students, to get feedback about how to improve international student services.  The information and comments collected during the survey have also proved useful for grant applications.

Most of the survey questions are multiple choice, but a few ask for a brief written response.  One of these such questions asks for surprises about coming to UW-Madison.  A few entertaining answers include:

  • Weather changes every five minutes (exaggerating).  Dunno what to wear for the day.
  • I saw bunnies and squirrels everywhere
  • The drivers are really polite to walking people on the road.
  • I arrived in January and the big problem for me was the cold weather
A big concern (understandably) for most international students is making friends with Americans.  I completely understand the worry and fear.  So everyone please be extra nice to your international classmates -- it's not easy!  

#3: Ready, set, grow: Developmental training strategies for student employees

Between the five options for the third session, nothing really jumped out at me.  Talking with other conference attendees, I found that they felt the same way about this round.  I ended up going to a session about developmental training strategies for student employees.  During my time working as an undergraduate, I never felt that my supervisors attempted to train me in the areas of "identity development, multiculturalism and social justice," as the session's blurb describes.  We also have five student workers in my current office, so I figured anything I could take away from this session would be useful.

There was not time to cover the whole powerpoint during this hour, but everyone had a handout of the slides to read later.  However, many of the slides were completely filled with text, making the font too small to read on the slide handouts.  And I even have young eyes.

There didn't seem to be much continuity in the presentation; I was unsure of the main points and where we were headed.  We jumped from slides about the Johari window to "self-authorship" to "cycles of socialization" to white privilege on campus.  I wasn't sure how everything was supposed to connect, and being a type-a who needs an organized outline, I didn't dig the lack of clarity.  I'm still glad I attended this session; I was exposed to concepts and activities I wouldn't have read/talked about on a regular day, but a better organized (and formatted) presentation would have improved the experience for me.

#4: A lesson on paying it forward: How one graduate student's memoir and the national college advising corps are inspiring the current generation of students to dream, lead, and succeed

My final session of the day began with Megan Morrison, Sun Prairie author of the memoir And Then It Rained: Lessons for Life.  Megan explained why she wrote her book, and that she wanted the book's proceeds to help other students apply to their dream college.  Luckily, Megan found out about the National College Advising Corps (NCAC), whose efforts match those that Megan wanted to support.  Jennie Cox-Bell from the NCAC presented about the organization during the second half of the session. 

When Jennie was talking about NCAC, right away I thought of a similar program I'd read about the previous week.  I couldn't remember the name at the time, but looking it up later it's Strive for College.  (Since there's a Cnn article dated Feb. 21 about the program, I'm assuming I read the news story at the second job that weekend.)  Strive for College was created by Michael J. Carter who graduated from college in 2010.   It sounded very similar, except that NCAC is only open to partnering Universities.  Since there's not an NCAC  partner university in Wisconsin, for example, there are no NCAC counselors serving Wisconsin high schools.  This creates the need for other similar programs, but it seems as though it would be best not to reinvent the wheel - to simply combine forces somehow.

Closing remarks

In summary, I'm very glad I attended this conference.  I learned something in every session, and met people I probably never would have run into on campus.  It got me thinking about what other opportunities exist in higher education, and for a split second I even considered pursuing another higher ed job this fall instead of teaching English in South Korea -- just for a split second.  I was able to publicly live-tweet my first Conference from @RebeWithaClause, preparing myself for the Standards-Based Grading Conference that I'm attending in April.
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