Learning in person matters for first-gen students

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, 35, probably will discourage his kids from going to college when they’re old enough, he said in a discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation. “Recent college grads… come in with no skills that are usable to us, with the exception of programmers,” he said.


Buzzfeed president Jon Steinberg agreed that a college degree represents “a lot of debt and not necessarily a skill set.” He added, “I don’t want my children to go to college unless they … desperately [want to be] scholars… Otherwise, I’d much prefer them to do an internship.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the foundation, said her son, a junior in high school, has “learned more from the [free educational site] Khan Academy, in many ways, than he has in class.” Today’s teens think they “can learn what I need to learn online,” said Slaughter. “That sense that, ‘If I don’t go to college between 18 and 22, I won’t make it,’ is really changing.”

Online learning may work for the children of the elite, but ”first-generation college students want to learn face to face, writes Stacia L. Brown in The Atlantic. She teaches at an ethnically diverse community college in Baltimore. Each day, her students choose to sit at desks facing her rather than computer tables.

Their desire to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, facing me, is essential. It means, whether they realize it or not, that their concept of college is driven by human interaction. The Internet, which many of them access nonstop through smartphones, is a secondary resource in our classroom. I, the live person, smiling encouragingly as they expound on a thought, am the first.

Thirty percent of first-year college students are the first in their families to go to college, writes Brown.

First-gen college students find it difficult to adjust to most post-secondary learning without dedicated mentorship. Low-income first gens are four times more likely to leave college after the first year than their multi-generation peers. And a study by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board noted that the state’s first-gen drop-out rate for those in face-to-face, on-campus classes was 18 percent, as opposed to 25 percent for distance learners. Students like mine could not be tossed into the deep end of MOOC without having first spent whole semesters sitting at shared desks, raising their hands, and exchanging their writing among teachers, tutors, and peers.

Online instruction is “valuable and convenient” for some, but isn’t enough for first-generation students, concludes Brown.

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