I don’t talk about my going to school much here, for a variety of reasons that I don’t delve into here, but this piece from Bill Gates provides a good overview of the current state of continuing education:
In my experience, what separates the great courses from the mediocre ones is the quality of the professors, whose passion and expertise bring their subjects to life, as much online as in-person. That’s why it’s critical that during this time of transition we keep our focus on the instructors. They are the ones who inspire and guide students. The best online learning technologies expand the reach of the most inspiring professors by allowing more students to be part of their classes.
Gates Notes: “Online, All Students Sit in the Front Row”
This, however, is just as important point as the above:
The biggest challenge facing all higher education institutions is how to ensure more students stay in college or university and complete their degrees. They are looking everywhere for solutions. Arizona State University, for instance, discovered that the college catalogue overwhelmed students with too many class choices and gave them too little guidance. So the university redesigned the entire experience. The new, personalized online catalogue features “major maps,” which outline a major’s key requirements, optimal course sequence, and career options to help keep students on the path to graduation.
I can see where students, potential and otherwise, would have a problem with course selection, as with anything where there is a lot of choice and minimal guidance. I’ve faced that dilemma a few times, especially now that I am mopping up the last of my non-credit requirements, and more able to choose the courses I want to take. But course selection is an answered question in the form of advisors. The key to good curriculum choices is to have a plan walking into school. If someone doesn’t have a plan, a good advisor will help create one. But, course selection is the least of my problems as a continuing education student.
The larger, and much harder, problem is balancing school with other responsibilities. There are times when my passion for school outweighs my passion for work. Work is, at times, mundane and uninteresting because I am in maintenance mode, fixing bugs in Applescripts and my utility apps because of some application or operating system upgrade. Compare that to learning something completely new to me in any of my classes, and I can’t get out of work fast enough to go to class or do homework. Then there are times like this semester when the opposite is true, where my passion for work exceeds my passion for school, and doing enough work to get good grades (not passing grades, good grades) is really hard. Add two kids in the mix—five and three this year—and I occasionally get overwhelmed. There’s been a lot of “take a deep breath” moments over the past several years because quitting my job, dropping out of school, or ignoring my kids is never an option.
Being smart about my time is at the core of that balancing responsibilities. Good time management means everything is strategized and planned, from what I eat to maintain a semblance of good health, to when I spend some time with the kids so they don’t feel ignored, and all the way down to when I go to bed to get enough sleep to press on the next day. Courses are at night by necessity, which means I don’t get home until 23:00 (at the earliest if I don’t need to speak with the professor right after lecture). I love going to campus and sitting in the classroom. Online lectures are convenient and I get the meat of the course, but nothing beats the atmosphere of being in a classroom watching the lecture live, and being able to ask questions. But, my morning alarm goes off at 04:00 for a variety of reasons, and there are times when I have to choose sleep over live lecture and instead watch the course online when I am in a better state to do so. Honestly, most nights I don’t go to be because I am relaxed and tired; I often go to bed simply so that I can get enough sleep for the next day’s activities. Not that any of this is a complaint; this is all simply a statement of fact. I will never complain about school because I have chosen to take on the challenge, and I believe one ought not to complain about those things for which one has volunteered.
I have a course I am taking this semester now where the professor is really great, very engaging as is the material he assigns, challenging coursework in all the good ways, but the papers are philosophical, therefore very time-consuming, and sections are required (though my understanding that is against the school’s policy, but, hey, each course is its own little kingdom as my advisor once told me). At the same time, I have a company-wide project I’m now leading at work that just got approved after years of flogging to the powers that be. For that, I need to be alert and awake for some really tough meetings where I have to make tough decisions. That sounds very cliché, I know, but it’s true. Building a content management solution that my company will live with for probably the next ten years requires making decisions at morning meetings that will impact our workflows for years to come.
All things being equal, a project with years of impact that will be a huge addition to my resume, unfortunately, has to trump one grade out of thirty-two I’ll complete by the time I’m done with school. To put it another way, school will be done in two years, but this system, and my job, will be around for a lot longer. Instead, I have to focus on the core coursework needed to get a passing grade and finish off the semester with my sanity intact. My professor likely wouldn’t agree, not that I would blame him, but my getting burnt out will do no one any good, least of all myself.
School is a lot of things, but in this context, it’s an endurance race. I don’t expect schools to address that issue for me as a student, and so I wouldn’t expect to see that in Bill Gates’ article. But, his article does cast a light onto a gap in the conversation about contenting education: how best to approach the balancing of school, work, and other responsibilities. Schools are doing amazing things now to accommodate non-traditional students (here defined as not having gone to school right out of high school), but their efforts are only a part of a larger problem for many people. There is not a government or school policy that is going to provide a solution to that problem.