Mission to Refocus: How to Learn and Why?

by Henry Fan

I Can & I Will – Extended Opportunities Program Summit. Led by Adam del Castillo, Jahmal Williams, and Joshua Kas-Osoka

“Give ordinary people the right tools, and they will design and build the most extraordinary things” – Neil Gershenfeld, American professor at MIT focused on physics and computer science

As a student that has access to many educational materials, I hesitate when I hear people diving head first into making educational resources “free.” The larger problem I experience and witness each day as a student is the grand challenge of turning information presented to us into our own knowledge. Combined with the uncertainty about why we should bother doing so, this is the tool that we lack to create significant learning experiences in our lives. Working to “pass” a course designed by people who I don’t know, and can’t seem to fully trust, to earn a degree that sometimes seems to have increasingly less value in a student’s mind than what the world seems to be marketing to us… I question the authenticity of a college degree’s value from time to time. 

Missing these fundamental “tools”, the nature and skills to learn, is the biggest issue facing students in college. When classmates tell me they don’t feel the need to invest in course materials because they’re not worth the price, that is a small piece of the larger issue – organizations may be able to fix this problem by providing affordable and accessible materials. However, when a student does not understand how the paid or included course material(s) will help them in learning what they are asked to learn, because they are already overwhelmed with all that they are juggling, AND don’t have the skills to learn the material that is necessary to pass, that’s a problem that will necessitate a larger change in mindset to equip students with effective and efficient learning tools. 

I recognize the skeptics and opposing viewpoints may argue that it is up to the student to develop the study skills, tools, motivation, and reasoning behind why they are a student in the first place… but I think we shouldn’t be so harsh on students, the customers of education, if our mission is to sustain and enhance a democratic society to empower students to achieve their goals as members of the workforce as global citizens.

I’ve seen that for many of my classmates that I have tutored and mentored, and for many of my co-workers from low income jobs in construction, In-n-Out, and Nordstroms, their hopes and dreams to bring their family out of poverty ends up coming to an abrupt end due to lacking the mindset, skills, and tools necessary to learn in a traditional college setting. This is the brutal reality that many professional educators and students experience each and every day. The difference is that students usually have a unique set of challenges professional educators do not have in their lives. Succeeding – let alone thriving – in college is not intuitive for many learners, however, I am hopeful because I know we are all on the same mission, and we can be the solution. 

One of the most important factors for myself and my friends, I don’t see being addressed thoroughly enough in college is how to differentiate information from knowledge. While students can get their hands on seemingly more information than they possibly seem to need, it’s never been harder to turn that information into knowledge. The Mission Critical Problem is the unclear understanding of the “why” should students bother creating significant learning experiences, and the “how” to do so, which is heavily reliant on the privileges and study skills, also known as tools, necessary for someone to be able to learn. Everyone reading this right now has skin in the game. We are invested, we want the most optimal outcomes, and not surprisingly to us, we are the solution. Without teaching & coaching students on how to navigate the “why” and the “how” to learn, we will all fall short of our mission to sustain and enhance a democratic society to empower students to achieve their goals as members of the workforce as global citizens. No matter how affordable or accessable our resources may be, when we don’t equip our students with these essential tools, we will fall short of our mission, “Time After Time” as Cyndi Lauper beautifully sang in her song.

In 2020, and moving forward, the design and development of (e)textbook business models have become increasingly important to learn and discuss to resolve affordability and accessibility in education. There are fundamental reasons textbooks require a system and model for them to exist in a competitive market, however I see many challenging problems in the processes of generating and publishing textbooks. Namely the fact that too many students lack the effective tools to turn information into knowledge. The scholars I interacted with at the Open Ed ‘19 conference and the CA STEAM Symposium ‘20 shared many insights with me about the future of textbooks and the future for publishers. I understand that the textbook publishing industry is transforming, which may significantly change how schools and teachers assign their resources for their students. I recognize this change will influence how publishers profit and how students obtain course materials. I have seen this paradigm shift being portrayed by physical textbooks turning to digital course materials; however, this shift does not encapsulate all the underlying changes in how course materials arise. Studying the decisions that professional educators make, which may be influenced by textbook models, have become a critical part of designing meaningful and accessible solutions for many generations to come. However this raises the question: whether or not accessible resources will actually critically address the mission critical problem of students not having the ability and skills to learn. The problems of educating students about “how” and “why” they will be able to learn what is asked of them, so that they can become the critical thinkers and decision makers afterwards, is the true mission we are all on. If we think otherwise, if we think our mission is solely introducing our students to concepts and ideas inside the discipline of course, without any focus on addressing the students ability to learn, then we will fall gravely short of our mission, “Time After Time.”

One of the themes I heard was the concept of subscription-based resource models for students, but I think this is off target of the mission critical problem, which is the how and why students are learning. At first glance, I saw the benefits of such subscription textbook models, but I know I own physical course material that I would not be able to afford to be “subscribed” to. For example, if I know I will be referencing my data structures and algorithms computer science material for many years to come, I would not want to pay a monthly fee just to be able to have access to this information. Not to mention the idea that not everyone has access to electricity, connectivity, and all the other requirements of online resources. This is the case for many of my tutees and peers. This particular circumstance creates a sour situation for consumers and generators. Not only is my investment in this subscription-based resource no longer sustainable, but it also no longer provides meaningful value to me. I understand the idea of being invested in our education, and that the fact that we’re paying for what we’re supposedly learning, makes us more effective. However, many of my peers, including myself, struggle with understanding how to turn already accessible resources into our own knowledge all the time. I have tutored students who can’t compose a single English sentence or solve a algebraic equation, and never did they come to me with a subscription based resource to solve their problem. I find it challenging to see how adding a daily fee to have access to resources will address our demands and challenges of learning: how to learn the material and continue learning from it. 

As my Foothill Community College professor Jeff Anderson articulated, “students have to believe what they do in the class truly matters in their lives. Therefore I will deliberately work to transform the learning we do in our classes to become part of how we think, what we want to do in our life, and what we believe is true about ourselves, as well as what we value.” Having shaper tools such as textbooks that cater directly towards the most meaningful learning objectives in a course is important – but if we don’t help the students understand how to use these tools, we will be missing the mark.

A page from my professor, Jeffrey Anderson’s linear algebra syllabus on his website: http://www.appliedlinearalgebra.com/blog/for-students/welcome-to-math-2b inspired by the book Creating Self-Regulated Learners by Linda B. Nilson

We must address the issue of students who aren’t successfully learning what we’re asking of them. Yes, in theory, students who preview course material before lecture, generate critical questions for themselves throughout a lecture, actively review key ideas from lecture within 24 hours of the event, go to office hours to get those questions answered, have mastery of prerequisite knowledge, have their lives in line to be able to learn etc., should be able to learn just fine. But have we really taught or modeled for our students how to do those steps meaningfully and thoughtfully? I certainly haven’t been taught any of those essential steps I just mentioned, besides from my professor Jeff. Even though Jeff has students who obtain A’s in the class, he refuses to let the majority of his class go through their academic journeys without equipping them with these tools. He refuses to think of his class as a gatekeeper to higher education, because he values his students dreams and aspirations, as well as their learning journey. I’ve heard opposing viewpoints about how students have to figure that stuff out on their own – but many don’t have the tools or the resources. I agree that professional educators also lack resources and time – I can’t imagine how much goes into their work. But without the prerequisite study skills, tools such as scheduling and setting specific measurable achievable relevant and timebound goals, it can be really difficult to learn critically and with purpose. I’m sure we all can empathize with that idea here, right? Even with the assumption that the information we are consuming is credible, vetted, accessible, and academically & peer-reviewed, this does not mean this information turns into knowledge in a student’s mind. And no, not all students should figure this out by having to fail or receive a C- in their class. I trust we can do better. This is where I would like to see a larger investment on: equipping students with tools like mindset, scheduling, lecture note systems, study skills, and understanding the reasoning behind their learning. In my next blog post and at the CreatorFest, I will be sharing platforms where my team and I look to address this issue thoughtfully. 

My math instructor Jeff Anderson, a Foothill Community College professor who has a PhD in Mathematics, has been tackling this “mission critical problem” a phrase he re-coined for me and my peers, by critically studying how learning works, cognitive psychology, public speaking, and neuroscience all while equipping his students these essential study skills and tools. Not only has he demonstrated this by publishing study skill activities and videos on his website, he has also conducted workshops, group office hours, and hosted activities on uncovering what it means to learn. I have shared these resources he has created with my tutees of many different majors, and witness them change their perspectives to learning dramatically during our year long tutoring journeys. 

“Leadership isn’t about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge” – Ryan Hawk.

My professor Jeff takes care of his students beautifully, by not solely completing a mathematical lecture according to the curriculum “standard”, or by “holding our hands”, but rather by doing his best to create significant learning experiences for his students and slowing down whenever necessary, so the majority of his students may be reminded of the how, which are the fundamental tools of learning, and the why, which is the reason I’m learning significantly in my life. This is a professional educator who has developed deep awareness as well as mindfulness, and has taken action to address the mission critical problem, of students losing hope because their tools are broken, in academia each and every day. 

Jeff’s significant learning experiences that he preaches and practices to his students, inspired from Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink who he has met at Foothill College, and Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

I have also experienced Dr. Anderson cater his course material directly to his students by generating his own writing, math, and notation to support his lectures and our learning. This is someone who is willing to get down and dirty to help students connect to the material. What was inspirationally fascinating about this type of work was that the student learning outcomes in the class seemed to have been quite positive, because the sheer fact that students were able to (1) save money as the professor offered these materials for “free”, (2) witness the work and effort put in by the professor who shared his work with his students and articulated what it takes to compose that level of work, (3) help his students understand the concepts in his classes from first principles, which means understanding the how and why and (4) focus on material that directly align with the the outcomes of the class. I realize that asking all teachers to generate their own materials from scratch is unrealistic, because many educators are underappreciated and overworked; however, I do think it’s valuable for me to share this experience, and for teachers to begin thinking about how much of their assigned material for students is really being utilized in a meaningful way. It’s also important to ask how much of the resources they are requiring or suggesting their students to use is even accessible? One immediate step I know students could benefit from is a call to action on study skills and tools they need to succeed. For example: how to stay motivated, how to refine your goals, creating your weekly schedule, creating a lecture note system, organizing your course materials, utilize suggested problems. While trivial to the students who earn the A’s in the course, I would say the vast majority of students struggle with these fundamentals. The irony is that these fundamentals are what’s truly transferable toward their lifelong learning journey and future lives. 

I conducted some research on the Affordable Learning Solutions Immediate Access Program which I was directed to by a student assistant, Jenifer Vang, at San Jose State University’s Library. While this program has yet to be implemented here at SJSU, it has been at SDSU. The program gives student’s instant access to digital course materials until the drop deadline. This is a program that may resolve some issues of students not being “day one” ready. While I do not believe this program is essential nor sustainable for the ecosystem of all (e)textbooks, I think it does shine some light on the issues of whether resources are vital to student success. However, I know we have the skills and ability to develop and model the fundamental tools & resources for our students. I never forget the experiences I have had with those who don’t truly know how learning works (more than just do it), and just how transformative of an experience it was for them when I introduced these ideas tendered by Jeff. 

During my investigation, I came across an inclusive access model that Barnes & Noble College designed which is called First Day™. This is where digital course materials are included as an additional course charge for a particular course or program. This model is convenient for student use, as it provides an affordable option, and supports students to be prepared for the first day of class. How about we generate an inclusive access program that equips our students with the essential tools and mindsets toward learning?

What is not so promising is that textbook costs are still on the rise. According to the Financial aid and Scholarship Office of San José State, students spent an average of $2,002 on textbooks and supplies for the academic year 2018–’19. Previously, it was an average of $1,948. The rising cost of textbooks concerns students and faculty as it proves to be a barrier to student success. Initiated by the CSU Chancellor’s Office, the Affordable Learning Solutions campaign was created to provide access to inexpensive, accessible, and high-quality alternatives. However, I see the cost magnified when we have resources at our disposal, and we can’t seem to turn those resources into our own knowledge. 

Affordable Learning Solutions Principles:

Choice: Enables the discovery of course content, including commercial publisher content, library resources, and a wide array of open educational resources (OER).

Affordability: Technology and partnerships that reduce the cost of learning for students and the CSU.

Accessibility: Every student is entitled to high-quality education with access to all learning materials.

I learned from SJSU’s Archivist Carli Lowe, that the Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) is operated by the University Library as it provides information on how to lower the cost of classroom materials for students by offering faculty a variety of low and no-cost educational resources known as Open Educational Resources (OER). Other resources include ebooks owned by the library, digital textbooks, open courseware, publishers’ repositories, the book rental program and textbooks on reserve in the library.

SJSU AL$ is made possible in collaboration with our campus partners: Center for Faculty Development, Accessible Education Center, Provost’s Office, Spartan Bookstore.

What is promising is that we are in the middle of a shift of traditional textbook models to innovative ecosystems of resources for students, all in support of our mission; to sustain and enhance a democratic society to empower students to achieve their goals as members of the workforce as global citizens. “Knowledge should not be in the domain of the privileged few,” Amanda Coolidge, associate director at British Columbia Campus. If we, students, faculty, staff, administrators, legislators, publishers can collaborate together to develop and provide meaningful and accessible solutions, such as addressing the why and how behind learning in this ecosystem, then we are solving the mission critical problem. I’d like to emphasize that creating these solutions requires more than Jeff. Engaging in making resources more affordable may feel like we are moving the needle, but regarding the mission critical problem I trust we can deliver more. Our values of lifelong learning must align to the resources we create, market, and maintain. As the journalist Anand Giridharadas observes, a couple of decades ago, businesses had monopolies on steel, now there have been monopolies on our mind and what we consume. Our students are desperate for real change to feel mobilized and actualized in traditional education. Whichever textbook model we may be invested in or are considering… whichever resource we are pointing our faculty and students to… whichever way you are conducting your work in supporting our mission: I encourage all of us to critically think about if those materials and approaches truly align with the student learning objectives. Only then will these resources provide significant meaningful value for all parties involved, and move the needle. 

Thought Activity Below: Where in the Life Cycle of A Book, can you make a difference?


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