Over the past 50 years, higher education has changed dramatically. Technological advances have had implications in nearly every aspect of education. As the number of Americans attending college continues to increase, the changing face of education affects more and more people.
Do these changes make college more or less difficult for the average student? The answer is complicated.
Technology is the biggest player in changing education.
“Virtually all of the tools and support items and mechanisms are different,” said Joe Walenciak, dean of the Soderquist College of Business. “We had blackboards, and having colored chalk was kind of good. It was a real struggle to find information.”
Walenciak recounted time spent with research specialists when he did his graduate work, finding exact wording for a web search, which could cost hundreds of dollars. Now, Google fields about 2 million such searches per minute, according to the Daily Mail.
The internet made so much information readily available that educators had to become more than just the “sage on the stage,” said Carla Swearingen, associate professor of chemistry.
“Students can go on YouTube and watch a lecture,” she said. “The information is out there.”
With resources widely available for free, colleges have changed tactics in order to stay relevant. Education has become more customizable, more interactive and more student-focused.
This is well-illustrated in the way Swearingen teaches her General Chemistry class. Swearingen is experimenting with the “flip” method, which involves posting pre-recorded lectures for her students as homework, so that class time is used for questions and application rather than lecture.
“I think it’s important for John Brown, which focuses on traditional undergrad education, to offer something you couldn’t get with an online degree,” said Swearingen. “You need a reason to go to class.”
This puts a lot of new pressure on educators, especially ones who are directly involved in teaching about technological advances.
“I often use my summer months to teach myself the new stuff that’s coming out,” said Larry Bland, chair of the Division of Engineering and Construction Management. “For both students and professors there is the issue of using new technology appropriately and correctly.”
Educators are facing standards they’ve never had to before.
“There’s a lot more conversation about what effective education is, about what a healthy learning environment is and what engagement looks like,” said Walenciak. “Today, accountability is very high.”
This is by design, according to Steve Beers, vice president of student development. Teachers are judged less by their prominence in research or writing and more by assessments of learning outcomes, he said, especially at John Brown. This is unlike decades past, where “it was almost a badge of honor for weeding out students who wouldn’t make it.”
The game of education has changed, and so have the expectations of students. More emphasis is placed upon soft skills, like communication, critical thinking and creativity, and less on technical skills, such as navigation of new information and rote memorization.
In a world where technology is interwoven into nearly every profession, more demand is placed upon people for things machines cannot do.
“We’re [not] equipping you as a knowledge-based generation,” said Chris Confer, director of career development. “What we’re training you to do is so much more than just regurgitation.”
In order to develop the soft skills now valued by employers, the interactivity of learning has increased dramatically. Where Walenciak recounts one group project in all four years of his undergrad learning at John Brown, now at least one group project is required in almost all classes.
However, some of the added work balances out, as research and navigation are exponentially easier for students these days. Unfortunately, the internet provides a significant challenge as well.
“The resources that we get are really great, if you use it the way it’s intended to be used,” said senior Ashley Lick, a biochemistry major with an art minor. Lick referred to homework sites like chegg.com, where one could, for a price, have all homework questions worked through by someone else.
“I think having that struggle of actually having to do the work is something we’re missing in our classes because it’s so easy to Google,” Lick said.
Learning with depth seems to be a challenge many students face. Some students have trouble applying skills learned in one class to information learned in another, said Walenciak.
“Your navigation skills are really good, but the world is not just content,” he said. “It’s knowledge. It’s not like you’re inferior. [But] you never finish the house if you keep rebuilding the foundation.”
The way to combat this is better discipline, said junior Luke Macfarlan, who is double-majoring in chemistry and mechanical engineering.
“I try to study and learn as I go, rather than getting by and trying to cram,” said Macfarlan. “Your grades naturally flow from the amount of time you put into [a subject].”
This leads to the biggest question of changing education.
Is College Harder?
“Things have become more complex, but we have the tools to deal with the complexity,” said Bland. “It’s just different.”
Difficulty is subjective, depending on the class, the professor, the subject matter and the student, and thus is hard to quantify. However, it seems the new challenges posed by tech-savvy higher education are balanced out by technology’s advantages. It seems college education as a whole is not measurably “harder.”
However, the academic rigor at John Brown is another story. Ten years ago, the staff and faculty made what Beers called “a concerted, specific effort on increasing academic rigor.”
“The academic prep our students are getting is top notch,” said Confer. “Typical students at other universities are not performing at the level you are.”
Though some would argue this hurts students, the University’s retention rate for incoming freshmen speaks for itself. At 82 percent, it’s well above the national average of 77 percent, despite added rigor. Beers says that the University’s students are ready to rise to the occasion.
“Academic rigor with the right support doesn’t decrease retention rates,” he said. “It’s actually a good influence.”