Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Understanding the Values of My Students

I was recently reading a comprehensive study of South Texas conducted by the FSG. I hope to blog about several of the findings as they relate to education and in particular writing students; but what I found most intriguing was the comparison of the student population from the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio in regard to priorities (both communities are considered to exist in southern Texas by FSG). According to the study, “The difference between UT San Antonio and UT Brownsville students is that they have different priorities. When asked to rank priorities UTSA students ranked in the following order: (1) school (2) work (3) family, while UT Brownsville students ranked the opposite: (1) family (2) work (3) school”.

I think anyone who has lived and worked in the RGV understands that this finding is undeniably true. Many college and university students are overwhelmed with the familial responsibilities of raising children, caring for struggling parents, assisting siblings, etc. In the border communities of South Texas, a family concern will almost always supersede any assignment that is due in college; that is simply the law of the land. The community’s heritage is beautiful and loyal, but as an instructor, I have seen how often the family responsibilities impede a student’s success. If a student with these priorities is faced with a difficult choice in regard to family or school, which will they let go of? Life becomes a great juggling act for many.

 It goes without saying that many students will need to withdraw because of family sickness, finances, hardships, but if it is an inescapable part of the culture of the RGV, it makes me wonder how an institution can possibly build part of their foundation around the priorities of their students.

Perhaps one of the first solutions to come to mind is offering more hybrid or fully online courses through RGV colleges. The flexibility of online learning for students would certainly be a benefit to those juggling family and school. Recently, the article, “Bailey: UTRGV will be a truly regional university” published online through the Rio Grande Guardian shared how UTRGV will be a true “distributed university,” meaning the educational opportunities will be available throughout the entire valley: “Almost all programs will be offered at both campuses [ . . .] Cutting-edge technology will be used to do this and to provide maximum access to UTRGV programs by students across the Valley”. I think the essential word here is “technology”—innovation will be the means in which to serve a community comprised of traditional values.

But what if an instructor is not teaching a hybrid or online course in the RGV? How can they design their course with the value system of their students in mind without compromising the rigor or standards of the institution and their own personal teaching philosophies? I think a good place to start is implementing technology that is useful for students to pass the course without adding more “office hours” time to their schedule. For example, a few semesters ago, I began making videos using a free Screencast.com account to guide students through the meticulous research and database process when we hit the research paper. Many of my students had never used a database or even checked out a book from a library; using this online software enabled me to offer step-by-step guidance for my students that they could watch as many times as they needed, at their own leisure (after their kids went to bed, etc.). Another innovative tool I began using in the Spring of 2015 was Google Docs (again, this is also free). My students and I were able to comment on their writing in a way that offered substantial feedback without requiring them to come in during office hours. The conversations on Docs were meaningful and specific because of the tools featured. My students and I could schedule a time to meet on Docs together or they could read my comments throughout their writing on their own schedule. We were still interacting without them coming in to my office. My students loved this tool in particular, and I believe it was due to the freedom it gave them to schedule when they could “meet” with me about their writing, and I think it also showed them specifically (in writing) what I suggested about their writing.

Suffice it to say, many RGV students are propelled by their first priority (family) to endure their last (school) to achieve their second (work), which is a positive, no matter what the hierarchy is. In the same Rio Grande Guardian article about UTRGV, the region’s “bi-cultural[ism]” is listed as a “strength”. And I agree, but it can also be a weakness if institutions of higher education attempt to ignore it or, worst of all, change it -- because that will be a losing battle.

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