Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Post-Election Reflection from a Scholar Activist

By: Susana Muñoz, PhD 
Assistant Professor of Higher Education, Colorado State University

To accurately describe my current state of mind post-election would require more text than this blog allows. I will say, I continue to feel anxious, fear, anger, and disappointment, and with every new appointment made to the President-elect’s cabinet, I feel that I am living in an alternate universe. Yes, a world where education and relevant work experiences are no longer necessary for key cabinet positions, where common sense loses to impulsive reactions, and where white supremacy ideologies are permissible under the guise of free speech (not hate speech) and white pride. When folks urge me to give our President-elect a chance or encourage me to wait and see what happens before I make any assumptions, I immediately think to myself, “It must be nice to sit with that kind of privilege”.   In fact, urging people with minoritized identities to push past our pain, you not only enact privilege by erasing our right to feel/exist, but you also uphold white supremacy. For those of us still struggling and grappling with our new political reality, it’s ok still to feel what you feel. For those who are watching us struggle, offer your love and support constantly.

As an immigrant Chicana scholar activist, who works with and for undocumented immigrant communities, the last few weeks have been laced with both moments of hope and moments of despair. Days after the election results, undocumented students on my college campus gathered in solidarity to publically disclose for the first time ever that they are “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.”  I beamed with pride and wondered if college campuses across the nation would show just as much courageous leadership in pushing the immigration discourse as the students on my campus demonstrated. I worry about the consequences our society will burden if colleges and universities remain silent on impending deportations, the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, and registry for Muslims. Let me be clear and state that our country has always endured the public health impacts of deportation, immigration raids, and family separation, our President-elect just happens to be much more forthright about deportation than his predecessors. I caution educators and administrators from solely focusing on college students as our central position of advocacy thus creating the “deserving and undeserving” immigrant binary. Our focus must also include families, those who have been detained in deportation centers for minor infringements. We need to advocate and fight for all immigrant and religious minoritized communities and not just a privileged few.

Most disconcerting are the more overt anti-immigration actions and violence inflicted by others. I was devastated to hear that a member of my own community was at a local convenience store at night when he felt someone tap his shoulder. He turned around only to find a white-identified man who asked him, “Are you Mexican?” He replied, “yes” and then felt the full force of a punch across his face. Because he fought back and because he was undocumented this incident went unreported. In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 867 hate incidents have been reported since the election. For most undocumented students I work for and with, I see pure emotional exhaustion as they grip to any sense of normalcy all while trying to wrap their heads around how much will change and the impact this change will have on their families and their communities after the inauguration day. While I’m grateful that over 500 college presidents have signed the Pomona College petition to support DACA and sanctuary campuses are emerging across the nation, I know deep in my heart these actions are not enough.  

Audre Lorde has taught us, “when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” Colleges and universities can no longer be silent. Our education professional associations cannot be silent. We as individuals, cannot be silent. We need to mobilize and organize with our local communities. We need to take our knowledge and research to the streets. We need to engage with those who cannot access our conferences and classrooms. We need to stand up, demonstrate compassion, and speak out against these continued injustices happening in our communities and across the nation. I believe, in our current time, this is a character defining moment for higher education. If we fail to stand with the most vulnerable populations in our country than we need to ask ourselves, “what do we really stand for?”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Are we really delivering the U.S. classroom experience we promise to undergraduate Chinese international students?

by Gabriela Valdez, Ph.D, Consortium for North America Higher Education Collaboration, 
The University of Arizona 

Admission offices around the nation have discovered there is a huge demand of Chinese international students who want to study in Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) in the U.S. It was estimated that only 2% of Chinese students have access to higher education in their country (International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project, 2009), which creates a very competitive entrance process to Chinese national schools. At the same time, a large middle class who can afford to pay international student tuition paired with the perceived prestige of U.S. institutions, creates the perfect environment for U.S. recruiters targeting Chinese international students. But are we really delivering the U.S. classroom experience we promise to undergraduate Chinese international students? This was one of the questions that inspired my research around classroom experiences of Chinese international students in the U.S. and I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but no, we are not delivering what we promise, well at least according to a group of Chinese undergraduate students interviewed.

Institutions of Higher Education in the United States have gone through a series of budget cuts in recent years. Just in Arizona alone, the state cut 99 million from universities and 19 million from community colleges in 2015 (Beard Rau, 2015). This and other reasons have forced IHEs to become more and more creative about generating funds. One common practice is to attract international students, especially Chinese international students, who tend to be self-funded (China Education Online, 2012) and who now represent the largest group of international students in the U.S. with more than 300,000 students in the U.S. higher education system (Farrugia & Bhandari, 2015). As U.S. institutions continued to attract more Chinese international students, the relevance of the quality of their classroom experience and their role in that setting becomes more important.

On my quest to answer the aforementioned question, I started by conducting a synthesis of research based on 15 peer-reviewed published studies about classroom experiences of international students, in which there was an overrepresentation of Asian students. It is important to say that my intention was to focus on Chinese international students, but the lack of published studies forced me to adopt a broader scope. After analyzing reoccurring themes that included classroom differences, classroom participation expectations, and denial of equity in education, I was able to identify six classroom practices that instead of including international students into the U.S. classroom experience, excluded them from these experiences (Valdez, 2016).

On another instance, I interviewed a group of Chinese international students about their classroom experience in a specific university. While most of the participants preferred the American classroom practices over practices in China, their perceptions about the way American students and faculty perceived them were conflicting, especially in relation to profiling and attribution of stereotypes. There was also a discussion about the internal identity conflict of being Chinese, which most participants linked to negative attributes in the classroom setting, and being “Americanized” which was linked to positive attributes (Valdez, 2015).     

I was also able to conclude that there was an overall sense among Chinese students interviewed of non-membership and non-belonging to the U.S. classroom environment based mainly on perceptions of classroom exclusion, low language ability, inability to meet unfamiliar expectations and attributions of stereotypes. Something very interesting was that after hearing from students about their classroom experiences and their perceptions of not being very active, I noticed that these students were very engaged in their academic activities, but were engaged in ways not visible to the mainstream classroom environment. As an illustration, participants reported studying an average of 19.5 hours a week in order to prepare for their classes, a number that they considered to be significantly higher than their American classmates. Their invisible engagement was also illustrated by their high engagement in written discussion of academic concepts and their ability to apply their knowledge to concepts in an international and intercultural perspective.

There is no doubt that with the presence of nearly a million international students in the classrooms of U.S. colleges and universities (Farrugia & Bhandari, 2015), professors have a great opportunity to internationalize their curriculum and classroom environment. Unfortunately, it takes more than just having an internationalized curriculum and having the presence of international students in classrooms to take advantage of a truly international classroom. As we internationalize and diversify our colleges and universities in the U.S., it is also important to diversify the way we teach and the pedagogies we use. It is unrealistic and unproductive to expect every underrepresented student to engage in the U.S. mainstream classroom environment which has been historically influenced by white male values.  It is now the time to start thinking about a critical pedagogy of internationalization that goes beyond the internationalization of the curriculum and reflects the complex and diverse ways of learning that are now represented in our higher education classrooms.

The implementation of a critical pedagogy of internationalization could potentially fully incorporate Chinese and international students into the classroom environment, their perspectives and their endless contributions. This is something that will not only benefit every student involved in that classroom setting, but will contribute to creating a richer learning environment.
Gabriela Valdez, Ph.D.
Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration
The University of Arizona

Beard Rau, A. (2015, May 13). Arizona Tops Nation in College Cuts, Tuition Hikes. The Arizona Republic, Retrieved from http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2015/05/13/midnight-arizona-tops-nation-college-cuts-tuition-hikes/27221021/
Farrugia, C.A., & Bhandari, R. (2015). Open Doors 2015 Report on International Education Exchange. New York: Institute of International Education.
International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Project (2009). A Brief Description of the Chinese Higher Education System. Retrieved from http://gse.buffalo.edu/org/inthigheredfinance/files/Country_Profiles/Asia/China.pdf
Valdez, G (2015). U.S. Higher Education Classroom Experiences of Undergraduate Chinese International Students. Journal of International Students, 5(2), 188-200.  
Valdez, G (2016). International Students Classroom Exclusion in U.S. Higher Education.  Campus Support Services, Programs, and Policies for International Students. (pp. 35-56) Hershey, PA: IGI Global. Doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-9752-2.ch003

Friday, April 1, 2016

An Account of Online Learning Experiences with First-Year Doctoral Students

by Sheena Ghanbari, Program Promotion Specialist at UC San Diego; Nahid Nariman, Director of Research at Transformative Inquiry Design for Schools and Systems and Karina M. Viaud, Director of Parent and Family Programs at UC San Diego

Higher Education is faced with multiple challenges such as tuition inflation, student retention, campus climate, and time to degree. Specifically, graduate school, namely Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs, continue to face challenges with student retention; approximately 50% of doctoral students leave the program before attaining the degree (Cassuto, 2013; Lovitts & Nelson, 2000; Reid, 2012) and most students discontinue the program at the ABD stage (All But Dissertation), a stage in which coursework is complete without successfully defending the dissertation (Barnett, 2008). Before reaching the dissertation phase of the doctoral program, many Ed.D. programs institute an end of the first year assignment - i.e., students must qualify for the subsequent year by writing a Qualifying Paper. This stage of the program is important in two ways. First, this stage signifies a critical junction in which the student demonstrates the ability to write a coherent literature review. Second, this stage signifies how well the Qualifying Paper Course prepared and supported the student to move forward in the doctoral program.

Researchers have begun analyzing data trails as means to obtain insight into various academic individualization, prediction, intervention, and adaptation. Analytics has captured meaningful attention in institutional research and business (MacNeill, 2012), and is a relatively new area of research in higher education (Barneveld, Arnold, & Campbell, 2012; Bichsel, 2012). It can also support innovative and meaningful ways of improving students’ performance and success (MacNeill, 2012). Learning analytics enables us to generate specific learning processes and images of students’ performance in a way that the two can be compared to the overall performance of a course (Gaviria, Glahn, Drachsler, Specht, & Gesa, 2011). Early investigation on academic analytics predict students’ academic difficulty in order to help faculty members generate individualized learning instructions tailored to the student’s learning needs (Campbell, DeBlois, & Oblinger, 2007). Broadly speaking, schools or other programs that use analytics evaluate data to help make decisions with information that can determine the best course of action to improve student learning (Hawkins, 2008; Long & Siemens, 2011; Norris, Baer, & Offerman, 2009), and improve teaching and learning (Campbell, 2007; Baepler & Murdoch, 2010).

In an effort to gain a different perspective of writing a Qualifying Paper in the student’s doctoral journey, we proposed that one class of the Qualifying Paper Preparation Course be conducted online to see how students engaged in dialogue about on-becoming a critical consumer of research. We analyzed data from this online activity to garner insight in information-giving while individual and collective learning developed among three groups of four to five doctoral students. We saw data related to students’ early understanding of the assignment develop in real-time. This digital footprint compiled evidence to consider creative ways of action in teaching and students’ learning development in this Qualifying Paper Preparation Course. We were interested in how online analytics can unveil the beginning stages of student learning and affect teaching strategies. We used Google Drive as the platform for the online shared-activity because it is a familiar technology. We collected data over a three-hour course that took place in the third week of the quarter. Participants were randomly assigned to three groups of four or five students. Each group navigated through four modules that explored different approaches to becoming a critical consumer of research. The following is a snapshot of the participants’ reflection on their experiences.

The first module asked participants to think back to assigned course readings and share what it meant to be a critical consumer of research. Building on this premise, the second module began with a video that outlined the process of writing a literature review followed by describing three strategies from the video they would be incorporating in their upcoming literature review for the Qualifying Paper milestone in the Ed.D. program. The third module asked if any new knowledge was gained during this activity and if the participant’s initial definition of a critical consumer of research has changed. After each module, participants also wrote a brief reflection. Finally, the fourth module was an overall reflection and opportunity to share general feedback about their online experience.

At the onset of examining our data, we identified and used key adjectives linked to individual knowledge such as learn, explore, understand, find, and realize. We coded instances of collective learning and interactive conversations that showed collaboration. Responses that suggested individual or collective learning were closely reviewed for evidence of learning during the online activity. The first module focused on defining what it meant to be a critical consumer of research. Group-One had noticeably less interaction than the other groups. This group consistently shared resources and information, but gave less insight into where they were in their learning as a group. There was evidence of some contribution to learning with words like “additionally” and “also” after acknowledging an agreement. Group-Two illustrated greater collective understanding of shared learning experiences and challenges by providing interpretations of each other’s responses and using words like “agree” and “exactly.” Overall, there was a great deal of agreement and key words similar to “learning” were used sparingly in this module. Group-Three showed evidence of interaction and illustrated an awareness of changing current practice as they explored the definition of critical research consumption. This group conversation was deeper and showed a balance of individual and collective learning. For example, one of the exchanges in Group-Three exemplified a thoughtful interaction that included further questioning. Student-One described her interpretation of being a critical consumer of research and then Student-Two responded “I would agree with everything [name of student] said about critical consumption of research ...I would also add that just because it [article] does pertain, does not mean it should be included.” This point was affirmed by Student-One and then she followed with, “I would think that identifying why it [article] doesn’t fit can begin to expose the gaps. Is that your thinking?” The exchange continued and showed a confident display of understanding and deepening of thinking surrounding on-becoming a critical consumer.

The second module shared a video synopsis of how to construct a sound literature review. Group-One and Group-Two shared a level of discomfort with the scholarly process and moving forward with research. As one student in Group-One stated, “I am still questioning everything I write in my paper.” Other students agreed, “I have moments of uncertainty...it is helpful and a bit of validation that this is not an easy process.” Group-Two demonstrated a similar tone of empathy and appreciation for one another, but more acceptance toward the general challenges and ambiguities of the research process. Student-One in Group-Two described “Be comfortable in not being comfortable right now. I need to trust the process and realize that things will start to come together and make sense.” Group-Three showed a high level of interaction as well, and focused more on answering the prompt and sharing strategies with one another. For example, when one student shared a chart on how to organize literature, she received praise and appreciation from her peers.

The third module asked to share any shifts in thinking from their initial definition of becoming a critical consumer of research. Overall, Group-One’s definition of a critical consumer broadened or changed. As one student stated, “My new knowledge has come from the video and the dialogue between my team members.” Statements like this were heard repeatedly from Group-One and there was a particular emphasis in gaining knowledge from the video. Group-Two and Group-Three by-in-large expressed that their definition of a critical consumer of research did not change. Group-Three participants stated: “The discussions tonight helped solidify my existing understanding and allowed me the time to reflect on my own practices as a critical consumer of research.” Statements like this captured students experience in Group-Three. While Group-Two’s and Group-Three’s original definition remained unchanged, Group-Two also shared their preference for in-person (classroom) learning. This type of reflection did not surface in Group-Three where insight and comfort were the more prominent themes.

The final module was a reflection on the entire online activity and an opportunity to provide feedback on the experience. There was a high level of interaction among all three groups in this module and some variations on where they focused their reflections. Group-One delved deeply into practices of online platforms, strengths, weaknesses, and purposes. Group-Two emphasized their appreciation of being able to work remotely with constant reference to the value of time. Group-Three did not have many criticisms of the online platform. They seemed to have navigated through it with a level of ease not as apparent in Group-One and Group-Two. Group-Three saw value in this online activity earlier in their research journey.

Overall, the three groups demonstrated different characteristics to help us assess their understanding of and progress with the course assignment. Group-One constantly shared information and had moments of individual learning, but the collective interaction and knowledge-gaining attributes were less visible. There was a sense of community, but threads of dialogue were surficial at times. Group-Two had a higher level of comfort with their own skill set and showed an understanding of what it meant to be a critical consumer of research. Group-Three demonstrated a high level of competency with learning together and, much like Group-Two, their conversations pushed one another’s thinking. Group-Three also showed a healthy balance of individual and collective learning throughout the different modules. All of the groups conveyed instances of individual and collective learning, and their unique approaches have been enlightening as we learned about their needs as graduate students and emerging researchers.

In brief, this online activity was significant in that it made clear how the students defined their learning progress related to becoming a critical consumer of research and affirmed and supported each other’s success and struggles with the task of writing the Qualifying Paper. Many of the students felt overwhelmed and lost by the task of writing a 20-25 page Qualifying Paper which also meant undergoing critical examination of existing research; an intimidating academic undertaking. These uncertainties were masked before their participation in the online activity and we believe these uncertainties resembled syndromes of an impostor. The impostor syndrome is defined and redefined in a few ways since it was first presented in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. The impostor syndrome includes characteristics of fraud, fear of discovery, and difficulty of internalizing actual successes (Craddock, Birnbaum, Rodriguez, Cobb, & Zeeh, 2011; Gravois, 2007). The students who may have felt like they were “faking their way through the course” no longer felt alone once they became vulnerable in the online open forum. Upon outing their vulnerability, they validated one another and provided words of support to help overcome fears or struggles.

Simultaneously, the online interaction deepened our understanding of the students’ learning and progress with the Qualifying Paper. We gained insight in (1) areas in which to spend class time to review developing a literature review, (2) some of the students who had unique struggles in developing the literature review, and (3) students who were doing well with the assignment. Therefore, the online activity served as an intervention tool to learn students’ progress in the Qualifying Paper Preparation Course. In other words, the evidence from the online interaction required us to be flexible in and adaptive to the different levels of learning occurring among the students and respond to their unique needs.

The differences in individual and group learning made it clear that students don’t learn the same way and/or at the same rate, even though they are provided the same information in the same classroom. Although the online learning analytics were ephemeral, it is evident that data has provided information to have discussions about ways to be creative with learning, improve learning and possibly approach the entire course differently for subsequent cohorts.


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