Monday, March 18, 2013

Reflections on high school football

I have spent a career working with High School students in a variety of capacities: teacher, youth pastor, camp director- and now as a parent.

For the past couple weeks I have been following the story from Stubenville, Ohio on the two young men who have been convicted of raping a 16 year-old girl. The news article I read talked about the arrogance that was displayed by the boys and their friends. According to the article, they felt an entitlement to this kind of behavior because they were football players.  News story

This following content isn't a direct response to this story, but something that I wrote a couple years ago  when I observed the pressure society placed on these young men.

Fall is here and with it comes one of America’s favorite pastimes, football. For those of us who work with high school students, this one sport tends to dominate all others.

Last year, while attending a high school football game at my alma mater, an interesting thought struck me. The entire community, young and old was gathered on a cold October night to watch a group of 16-18 year olds play football. The team from my old high school was pretty good and was beating the visiting school quite easily. What was interesting wasn’t what I watched, but the way people talked about the local team members. I heard comments like, “He’s a real player,” “#18 is the best we’ve had in years,” “we’re all counting on #32 to bring us a championship,” and so on. I was struck by the fact that from the comments around me, the hopes and dreams for the entire community were balanced precariously on the shoulders of a group of boys barely old enough to shave.

I could imagine the next morning when the running back, the star of this particular team, walked into the local Starbucks and had complete strangers come up and congratulate him on the game, give him compliments and encouragement, and maybe even tips for the next week. How does this make him feel? More important, is he cognitively and emotionally ready to handle this kind of recognition?

I’m not against young people being encouraged for a job well done. In fact I believe that one thing young people need more of is encouragement. What I do have questions about is the level with which this young person is esteemed in the community and what will happen to him when he graduates.

For many, these high school years will be the best time of their lives; for others, it will be the worst. Don’t believe me? Why are there so many films made about adults returning to high school to change a significant event? I read that when Henry Kissinger was asked what his greatest public moment was he replied, “Attending my high school reunion and showing them that I made something of myself.”

Ten years from now, the allure of returning to “the glory days” could be strong for this running back in Starbucks who may not ever receive the kind of attention he is receiving now. How will he cope when the reality of life is different from the surreal world of celebrity high school athletics? What has my local town trained him to expect from life?

As a person with a career in youth work, I’m concerned with the pressures we place on youth to grow up too fast too soon. At the same time, I’m a strong advocate for leadership development in adolescents. How can we walk the fine line between these two realities? Instead of setting up a dichotomy, can we see this as a “both/and” situation?

First, I think youth workers and teachers should be the first to raise their voices to call into question the pressures and expectations placed on today’s young person. One way to provide assistance for young people trying to navigate through these difficult times of adolescence is having in his or her life a blend of support and challenge. Too much challenge without support and the young person might be pushed so far they just give up. In reality, too much support without any challenge is probably not possible in this life.

Second, I would encourage that the school, teachers, parents, and the church to seek to help #32, my community’s running back, to see his success in the wider scope of leadership development. Maybe a coach can spend extra time with those students who are both the appointed and natural team leaders, teaching them leadership principles that are applicable on and off the playing field. Alternatively, this could be a place where a youth pastor could be of assistance providing a “leadership development cohort” at a local school.

Whatever we do, I encourage us to find ways to work together. We owe it to #32 to help him navigate this time of fame so that he is grounded in the reality of the future. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Massive brainpower in a MOOC

During conversation with a friend at lunch the other day he remarked, “I’m sorry I can’t remember, I’ve lost too many brain cells.” He was bemoaning the fact that his mind was not as sharp as he would have liked.

What would we give for more brainpower? How nice to have minds like Einstein or daVinci. “If I could only be smarter,” we tell ourselves, “ I would accomplish….”

At times I’ve wished for more brainpower. I have a lot of education and an advanced degree, but still feel inadequate in thinking sometimes.

These underlying wishes were unexpectedly met through my recent participation in my first MOOC; and reinforced through a TED talk I came across.

First the TED talk.

Clay Shirky is a writer and teacher on the social and economic impact of Internet technologies. He has a presentation on the site entitled How Cognitive Surplus will Change the World.

In this short talk (If you’d rather read it, there is a button on the bottom right for a transcript) Shirky talks about Ushahidi – a Swahili word which means “testimony.” Ushahidi is a collaborative, open source way to create networks using social media. It was used during the Kenyan riots in 2008 and the Hatian earthquake in 2010 to help people find family and loved ones.

Ushahidi began as a generous experiment in global collaboration and Shirky points out that working together is an important part of what makes us human. People have a need to move from consuming to producing; and the web and other electronic media have made it easier to produce beneficial and ‘just for fun’ content on a global scale. Shirky says that people like to create and want to share- whether that sharing is something as significant like Ushahidi, or something for a laugh like LOL Cats.

This brings me back to my experience in EDCMOOC. I experienced the benefit of cognitive surplus on a global scale. I found “fraingers,” a term coined by Ary Aranguiz (combining “friend” and “stranger”), who became a learning community for me. During this course students shared digital resources, e-learning tools, and their own web-based creations with me. I found Shirky’s thesis to be true: people like to create and want to share.

My brain didn’t physically grow new cells during this course, but it did grow on an exponential scale through the generous collaboration and sharing of my classmates. I now have access to digital resources I didn’t know existed two months ago. I have learned about new technologies, and I have discovered fraingers from around the world who are willing to share their cognitive surplus; and when that sharing happens, the amount of communal “brain cells” is astounding.

Cognitive surplus is changing the world. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Colleges- soon to be like 8-track tapes?

I work for a small private college in central Kansas. We’ve got two locations in order to reach out to a wide range of students and over the past few years have grown at the traditional, undergrad campus. I’ve recently been hired to create an online Masters degree to widen the institutional reach. In fact, although I started this job in November, I’ve been working remotely for a few months and will be moving my family to Kansas, from California, later this summer. As we go through the transition of packing up after 10 years and selling our house I’m making a big investment in the traditional college.

A new job and moving across the country is why I read with interest the article by Shirky on the end of traditional higher ed.

Having read The Starfish and the Spider by Brafman and Beckstrom  I was familiar with the argument about the demise of the record industry. I agreed with Shirky that Higher Ed institutions could be in danger of following the same path of not recognizing the need for change. When I read this quote,
“Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.”
I immediately agreed. With today’s technology we do have a good way of publishing lectures! I’ve listened to lectures from top professors on TED and ITunes-U. Why wouldn’t we want to have the information straight from the expert in the field? Isn’t that the Kahn Academy method? So why have academic institutions at all?

I thought the rebuttal to Shirky by Aaron Bady was adequate. His article and the points he raised encouraged me but I was left with additional questions. For instance, are there any benefits to the traditional college? I’ve been following Jeff Sellingo from the Chronicle of Higher Education and he came out with an article this week that addressed some of my questions.

Sellingo’s points in favor of Higher Education are:

A maturing experience
Jeffery Arnett has recently highlighted the fact that adolescence is extending to the mid-20’s. Young people are taking longer to take on roles and responsibilities that make them adults. College can become a time of growth toward adulthood. (For more on this see my book: Consuming Youth on

Access to Mentors
There is a role, especially in this wired world for teachers who invest in the lives of students. I believe Colleges need to take a new look at the role of mentorship on College campuses. Rather than “sage of the stage” instructors need to become a “guide on the side” and provide real mentoring to students.

Experiential Education
This is another area where schools can step up to help college students find ways to apply what they are learning to real life. Internships, practicums, and practical assignments can contribute to helping students put their learning in to practice.

College and University campuses are great places to make lifelong connections with people who become friends for life. Yes, a person can network on LinkedIn or Facebook, but Universities add the residential, academic component that can make connections grow deeper.

I hope my institution stays around for a number of years. I hope I’m able to bring online learning to the existing structure to add another piece to the overall plan. At the same time, I think our institution needs to take seriously the story of MP3’s and Napster and evaluate carefully what benefits colleges can provide.