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Does a larger mallet actually change the game?

By Jeremy Cunningham
February 22nd, 2016

Whack-a-mole: the classic arcade game where a player is faced with a never-ending stream of moles popping up from the ground. When a player hit one in the right corner of the board, one pops up on the left side. Reforming education is a lot like Whack-a-Mole; the industry has so many interconnected issues and contradictory problems that no solution can cover every need. Technology promises to change this by providing educators with a larger mallet. Instead of whacking one mole, we can get three; it almost feels like we can get the whole board. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Recently, Charlotte Kent wrote a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses how focus on technical skills in education has lessened emphasis of soft skills like attendance and work ethic. She cites an employer survey from 2009 which states, “the most serious gaps [in employees] are believed to be ‘soft skills’ such as work ethic, accountability and self-motivation.” The study highlights a significant gap between skill level and performance level and attributes it to the lack of soft skills. Kent sums up the findings by saying, “people know how to do jobs; they just don’t act like it.” She emphasizes soft skills in her classroom as a means of preparing students for the professional world. Her article laments how students disregard these regulations and expresses concerns for how education is shaping its learners.

How does this play out in our application of technology? My online classes are all structured to be completed over various weeks. Theoretically, I could open up all of the material at the start of the semester, grade work as students see fit to complete it, and then close the course at the end of the semester. Students could complete all of their work in Week One or complete it all in Week Fifteen.

Yet, this would only whack the mole of skill and not of responsibility. My instinct, like Kent’s, tells me the course should do more than simply test understanding. I am concerned about students not learning lessons about time management and respect for the instructions and schedules of others.

Conversely, an opponent might argue that these grades should not be intertwined. Education is about documenting skills adoption. How do we, as educators, resolve this tension?   What are we expecting ourselves to do? What is our role in preparing our students for a professional world? Do we even have a role in that or are we solely in charge of topical knowledge?

As I thought about Kent’s point, the Detroit Free Press published an article titled, “Got Job Skills? Michigan Needs You.” The article goes on to discuss Michigan’s “skills gap” in areas of skilled trades, nursing, and even engineering. The article states that 64% of these jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher, and yet only 26% of Michigan residents have those qualifications. As much as I wanted to side with Kent and commit myself to soft skill enforcement, the dire need presented for my state prompts me to consider designing streamlined online degree programs for these trades and jobs. If a person can master the skills of the job, or merely prove they already have them mastered, then they could fill the desperate gap being discussed. Current technology seems primed to design these programs and allow students easy access to them.

The tension between these two articles represents the tension within education. To extend the Whack-a-Mole metaphor to its fullest extent, hitting moles with a mallet represents a strategic failure. To rid my yard of moles, I need to consider deep structural changes. This should be a lesson. No matter how technology equips us, educators still need to answer structural questions about intent, purpose, and obligations of our programs. Even the largest mallet can’t overcome that fact.

To Read John Gallagher’s article in the Detroit Free Press, click here.

To Read Charlotte Kent’s article in The Chronicle for Higher Education, click here.

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.


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