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What We're Reading

A sampling of relevant reads from the Stanford Digital Education team

New reads on blurring K12 and college, 'HyFlex' and more

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By Annie Sadler 

The divide between our K12 and higher education systems has left many students struggling to navigate across the chasm and transition to careers. Is there a better way to arrange things?

A recent report, The Big Blur: An Argument for Erasing the Boundaries Between High School, College, and Careers — and Creating One New System That Works for Everyone, made me more aware of the changes already underway. It argues that we must radically restructure the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. It calls for creating “entirely new configurations,” which “would be neither high schools nor community colleges” and would provide  “opportunity for all students to start on a path toward a postsecondary credential and prepare for a career—free of charge.” 

Produced by researchers at the national nonprofit Jobs for the Future, or JFF, the report came out in July 2021, just as my Stanford Digital Education colleagues and I began preparing our first pilot — a Stanford course that was offered to high school students nationwide. The report spurred conversations on our team around what spaces will open up to exploration if we remove the divide between K12 and higher ed. 

I was struck that the report zeroed in on what we were doing — dual enrollment — as one strategy while also highlighting others such as market and transfer driven curricular pathways, work based learning experiences, and more focused guidance and support. The report calls for more than just tinkering towards educational reforms, instead it pushes for a bold system level vision backed up with the tangible steps needed to get there all while reframing the 10-14 system as a public responsibility. 

This piece offers a good road map for thinking about system level changes. 

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There are, of course, interesting innovations happening on a more micro level, especially in blurring the line between in-person and remote teaching and learning — and not forcing students to choose one or the other. Two instructional designers at Fort Lewis College (FLC) wrote a case study for Educause in August 2021 about a “HyFlex” model in which courses are  “delivered with fully remote option(s) — synchronous or asynchronous — along with regularly scheduled in-person classes, allowing students to transition seamlessly between the two learning environments.”

The article, Scaling HyFlex for the Post-Pandemic Campus, discusses how this approach was designed and piloted across 10 courses at  FLC, a rural, indigenous-serving, non-tribal institution in southwest Colorado. The school aimed to prioritizes student access to education while not forcing a choice between in person or online learning. To facilitate this effort, FLC built several remote connectivity centers in the surrounding area to address some of the ways that the digital divide hinders high-quality distance education.

I think the results are promising. The FLC model enables students to pursue their education without compromising their community responsibilities. It eliminated many long commutes from rural communities to class. It made it much easier for Native American students to maintain their commitments to their tribal membership. 

Ultimately, this case study pushed me to consider a larger question: What other binaries do we push on students, such as the choice between online and in-person, that would be better left up to students. 

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FLC’s interest in HyFlex arose from its experience in the first year of COVID-19, and the education done during the pandemic remains a ripe area to study. We are all still trying to understand what happened with the shift from in-person teaching to emergency online teaching over the last 22 months. One of the most interesting articles I’ve read about this transition is Exploring Inequalities in the Social, Spatial and Material Practices of Teaching and Learning in Pandemic Times, published November 2021 in Postdigital Science and Education. The piece spotlights a marked change that occurred over this period in the types of behavior university instructors could use to evaluate students’ competence.

The author, Jos Boys, a senior lecturer in environments for learning at University College of London, writes:

“I suggest that lack of visible signs of paying attention (looking attentive, showing facial reactions, making direct eye contact) or of demonstrating an ability to join in (asking questions, having a point of view, confidently debating an issue) often leads to assumptions that a student may be unengaged, possibly gaming the system or just lacking a commitment to learning. Thus, who is valued and understood as deserving has often been most immediately ‘seen’ through the evidence of individual student performances in conditions of co-presence in the classroom.” 

She argues that the transition to in-person learning exposed “inbuilt unconscious biases” about what characterized student competence — implicit standards that had previously worked against many students with disabilities, among others. 

I am now at work on student evaluations for the pilot hybrid course Stanford Digital Education offered in the fall and find myself revisiting this article. It reminds me that new ways of providing courses also present us with an opportunity to reframe how we understand student competence so that it reflects a more diverse student body. 

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I also want to share an essay and book that are not about innovation in education per se but inform my thinking about it.

Simon Sarris, a self-described maker of objects, teller of folk tales and writer of code, publishes a blog and substack newsletter, The Map is Mostly Water, and an essay he posted on December 15, 2020, That which is unique, breaks, delves into how we think about what we tear down, what we mend, and what we build. 

I’ve sent the article to friends and colleagues, along with the warning that it takes a moment to get into but it is worth persevering. What stays with me is his discussion of “uniqueness”:

“That which is unique, breaks. When finished objects become commodities they break too, but they are easily replaced. When you break a chair, you buy another chair. We know well how to make one thousand chairs. They sit in boxes, lining the warehouses, ready for two-day shipping. But when the unique breaks, we might mend.”

This is especially relevant for the innovation space as we can be surrounded by the rhetoric of disrupt everything and nothing old is worth keeping. Technology allows us to do incredible and necessary things with scale, but it also poses risks. I am left with a question: How do we resist the commodification of this unique thing we call education? 

Becky Chambers’  A Psalm for the Wild-Built: Monk and Robot, Book 1 is simply a book that I enjoyed and that I think others might as well. A delightfully whimsical and surprisingly philosophical sci-fi novella, it is set in a future utopia, free of famine and war. The story begins with a tea monk who questions the meaning of his life and goes looking for answers in the wilderness. He meets up with a robot, whose forebears peaceably parted ways with the humans when they gained consciousness and decided to settle deep in the forest. This particular robot has been sent on a quest to reconnect with people and to learn more about them. 

The book follows the monk and robot on their journey together and consists of their gentle episodic conversations as they both try to figure out what do humans need. Not only did their story provide a cheerful spot of perspective on these unprecedented times, it also underscored how curiosity and the desire to learn — key traits for both monk and robot — give meaning to our lives.

Annie Sadler is a project manager at Stanford Digital Education.