We know all about the skills gap… what about the engagement gap?

 
I was recently reading the Op-Ed in the New York Times about saving the lecture called Lecture Me. Really. Reading the article, one would think that the lecture is really an endangered species. Well, I don’t believe that. Really.

As part of my market research, I talk to a lot of students. And the students are still saying the same thing – there’s too much lecture, too much abstraction, and not enough engagement. These conversations made me wonder if the discussion about outcomes and the skills gap is missing something. Is the binary evaluation of the 4-year college degree – good versus bad – in itself an abstraction? Looking at the forest, are we missing the decay that’s happening within the trees?

So, I decided to put the skills gap thoughts on hold, and to look deeper into the “everyday” experience of a college student. What does it look like?

 
Wake up
Get breakfast
Go to class
Go to another class
Get lunch
Hang out at the dorm
Do some homework
Go for dinner with friends
Watch TV at the dorm
Do some homework
Go to sleep
 
Ok, you may say, “That kid is definitely a loser”. What about the newspaper club? What about pledging a Frat? What about playing a basketball game? Debate club? Explorer club?
 
Yes, universities open the door to tons of experiential opportunities. But I wonder if the schedule above applies to more than half of the students’ “everyday”. Maybe there are some special days that are different and richer in experience – but, are those days the standard?
 
Which brings up the question: on an everyday basis, how much active engagement is the university encouraging and fostering? I will try grading each line item.
 
Wake up – A
 
Student housing is a natural engagement hub. It combines the responsibility of independent living with the safety and society of one’s own peer group. Students in dorms usually need to make an effort NOT to engage.

Get breakfast – B+

Student dining is generally an extension of the student housing experience – and thus grades fairly well. I imagine there is room for innovation on how the dining halls are laid out to encourage student-to-student engagement. If universities spend some time researching architecture and design for interpersonal engagement, they may see a 15-20% increase within their own dining halls.

Go to class – C

Partially, I am basing this on my own student experience at a good, globally well-ranked, state university fifteen years ago. On a day-to-day, it was mostly lectures. I would occasionally seek out honors seminars and had several memorable classroom experiences, but for the most part, it was:

into one ear -> get an A -> out the other ear.

Was there context as to why I was taking these classes? Not much. Why is this important? Not really. How will I put this to use? Nope.

Was there dialogue with the professor? Only occasionally. Where there incentives to seek out the professor during the “2 office hours available weekly”? Rarely.

Often, I was one of the more engaged students in class, but I would still rank my level of classroom engagement at a D+. Most conversations I have today with faculty and students confirm that things have predominantly remained the same.  Why a C then? The C reflects a bit of optimism that in the last 15 years things have at least moved in the right direction.

 

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I’ll spare you the line-by-line of the rest of the day. I will just note a few things:
 

 

The university may open doors to fantastic experiences (many of which have the dorm as their setting), but I’d like to know how many students actively engage with those experiences on a daily basis. The University of Arizona, for example, has a mandate that every student graduates with an “engagement badge” on their diploma. How does a student get one of those? Well, a one-month program in service learning or internship will do the trick. What does it say about the level of everyday engagement for the students over the 4 years at university? Not much.

 

Most universities’ approach to engagement also puts the entire responsibility on the student’s shoulders. If an A student starts getting Cs, how long will it take for the university to respond? I think that generally, if the student is paying the bills on time, the answer is: NEVER. If the university was an engaged partner, shouldn’t it respond immediately?

 

I advocate that when we are looking for higher education solutions and fixes, we take a look at the everyday experience of the student and seek where we can maximize engagement. I can guarantee that a 4-year graduate, whose every day was full of a variety of engaged activities, with purpose, context, structure, and community – that graduate is a rockstar who will succeed. The skills gap wouldn’t even have to enter the conversation.