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What’s So Special About Specialized Majors?

Narrowing Your Focus is Both Risky and Rewarding

May 11, 2011

What’s So Special About Specialized Majors?

by Alexis Mattera

Starting college with a specific idea what you want to do with your life can make choosing a major, selecting classes and finding internships much easier than the decisions facing your undecided roommate. But is that specificity better? The answer is yes...and no. Well, actually, it’s a maybe.

With the increasing demand for expertise in narrow fields, some schools are putting programs in place to produce candidates perfectly suited for these niche jobs. SUNY at Albany, for example, has opened a College of Nanoscale Science to meet what The National Science Foundation estimates will be about 2 million workers with nanotechnology-centric backgrounds needed by 2014. The results so far are promising – even first-year students have already been offered summer internships with companies like Intel and IBM – but is this kind of specialization always wise?

To an extent, but career counselors, hiring consultants and academic officials think it’s more important for students to diversify their undergraduate years. Industry-specific skill sets may get a graduate into their chosen field faster but may severely limit career flexibility down the line. You may think you know your ideal career path but wait until you’ve taken a wide enough variety of classes to be sure...especially when employers report they value soft skills like effective communication, critical thinking and problem solving over precise training.

What do you think? Should you specialize right away or sample what your school has to offer before making a potentially life-changing decision?

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Full Internet Access During Exams? Ja, in Denmark

Danish University Hopes Strategy Will Quell Cheating

May 12, 2011

Full Internet Access During Exams? Ja, in Denmark

by Alexis Mattera

Here in the U.S., surfing the Internet during class is usually frowned upon and accessing the web during an exam could warrant an automatic failing grade. Overseas, however, Internet usage in these situations will not only be allowed but encouraged to – among other things – inhibit cheating.

The University of Southern Denmark has announced that by January 2012, all exams will be transferred to a digital platform and administered via Internet software. In addition to making it possible for faculty to create tests aligned with course content that would better assess students’ problem solving prowess, analytical skills and ability to discuss particular topics, e-learning project coordinator Lise Petersen said this program presented an innovative solution to academic dishonesty. "One way of preventing cheating is by saying nothing is allowed and giving students a piece of paper and a pen," she said. "The other way is to say everything is allowed except plagiarism. So if you allow communication, discussions, searches and so on, you eliminate cheating because it’s not cheating anymore. That is the way we should think."

Do you think Southern Denmark’s plan is an effective one or an approach that will breed more academic dishonesty? What’s your school’s stance on Internet usage in class?

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Study Shows Students Don’t "Get" the Materials They Cite

April 12, 2011

Study Shows Students Don’t  "Get" the Materials They Cite

by Alexis Mattera

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thanks a lot, They: A new study shows that college students are taking those words to heart when it comes to citations rather than actually deciphering the meaning of the subject they’ve been tasked to write about.

The Citation Project, presented by Rebecca Moore Howard (associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University) and Sandra Jamieson (professor of English, director of composition and department chair at Drew University) at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, analyzed research 164 papers written in first-year composition courses at 15 colleges in 12 states and divided the 1,832 citations into four categories: exact copying, patchwriting, paraphrasing and summary. Unfortunately, the type of sourcing that reflects the most comprehension – summary – represented only 9 percent of the citations in the study. “That's the stunning part, I think: 91 percent are citations to material that isn't composing,” said Jamieson. “They don't digest the ideas in the material cited and put it in their own words.”

The explanations for these practices are vast – writing for efficiency as opposed to understanding, finding increasing difficulty of separating legitimate from illegitimate information on the Internet and not knowing what exactly goes into forming a proper citation – and there’s much more to Howard and Jamieson’s research here but the sad truth is that students are just not "getting" the material. Have any of your papers contained the offenses they detail? Given the statistics, it’s likely they have...but why?

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Harvard Hopeful Sings for Admission on YouTube

How Far Would YOU Go to Get Off the Waitlist?

April 15, 2011

Harvard Hopeful Sings for Admission on YouTube

by Alexis Mattera

By this time of year, most high school seniors know where they will and will not be heading for the Fall 2011 term but others are stuck in college admissions purgatory as one name on a very long waitlist. While some are doing what the term suggests and waiting for these schools to decide their fates, others – like Harvard hopeful Grace Oberhofer – are refusing to sit idly by: The Washington State resident took matters into her own hands, logged on to YouTube and pled for acceptance to the school...in song.

Though the Tacoma School of the Arts senior has already received acceptance letters from six schools (Duke, Brandeis, Oberlin, Tufts, Tulane and Sarah Lawrence), Oberhofer has her heart set on spending the next four years in Harvard’s hallowed halls. She elected to make her case for admission on YouTube, where she performed an original song expressing her love for the school. Oberhofer’s not relying on comic relief alone to earn her the fat envelope; she supplemented the video with a serious letter. Smart move.

The video, which has amassed more than 36,000 views, proves Oberhofer is capable of composing a catchy tune with some pretty amusing lyrics but the jury’s still out on whether the video will help or harm her chances of admission. Waitlists are especially formidable this year; would you take that extra step to stand out if it meant getting in?

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Dartmouth’s New Metadata Game Makes Tagging Archives Fun

May 24, 2011

Dartmouth’s New Metadata Game Makes Tagging Archives Fun

by Alexis Mattera

If you have a Facebook account, you have probably been tagged in at least one photo. It could be an image of you participating in an extracurricular activity, attending a sporting event with friends or maybe even elementary school you sporting bangs that Mom cut with kitchen scissors but people looking at the picture will know who it is they are looking at. Many universities, however, haven’t had that same luxury in tagging their archives but a Dartmouth College professor is aiming to change that in order to make years of information more accessible to all.

Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital humanities who’s also an artist and designer, has created Metadata Games, an experiment in harnessing the power of the crowd to create archival metadata. Since many schools don’t have the resources to tag their archives as thoroughly as possible, Flanagan’s program turns what could be a tedious process into a game that invites players to tag images. Interesting, right? What’s more exciting is that this tagging process is working: During the pilot phase, players generated 6,250 tags and more than 90 percent of the metadata was useful. “Games are becoming more and more part of what people want to do,” Flanagan said. “What you’re doing in games matters. Games are meaning-making machines.” Plus, it’s a lot of fun!

You can learn more about Metadata Games here but based on what you’ve read so far, do you think this program is a useful one?

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Automated Attendance Monitoring Proposed at UK University

May 26, 2011

Automated Attendance Monitoring Proposed at UK University

by Alexis Mattera

On days like today, it’s hard to get out of bed, let alone head out to an early morning class. True, your professor may not notice you’re missing from their 8 a.m. 300-person lecture now but it could get more difficult to skip class in the near future.

Case in point: De Montfort University in Leicester, England is considering monitoring student attendance via electronic chips in their ID cards. Unlike attendance-monitoring programs introduced at other institutions, De Montfort’s would be completely automated and, according to the minutes from a recent meeting of the school’s executive board, combining Wi-Fi and RFID technologies would make for "the most foolproof way of monitoring attendance."

The National Union of Students warned that members would "balk at the prospect of being treated like inmates under surveillance" and I have to agree. Students don’t need to be monitored and penalized for lack of attendance; it’s their decision whether or not to go to class and their participation and overall grades will reflect that choice. Do you think this attendance monitoring system (or attendance monitoring in college in general) is a good idea or a bad idea and why?

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Cheating Scam Busted in Beijing

June 6, 2011

Cheating Scam Busted in Beijing

by Alexis Mattera

There have been countless movie and television show plots surrounding forms of academic dishonesty but in real life, cheating doesn’t pay. The cheater’s reputation, on the other hand, does. Dearly.

The Associated Press reported 62 individuals have been detained by China's Education Ministry for selling wireless devices they believe would be used to cheat on the upcoming college entrance exam. Since the plot was discovered before the exam, however, the ministry hopes its actions will protect the test's integrity, which more than 9 million high school students are expected to take this week.

Whether it’s copying and pasting someone else’s words into your paper, crafting the tiniest of crib sheets or constructing an elaborate system of two-way radios to relay information in real time, cheating is everywhere. The good news is that educators are fighting back with new outlooks, smarter software, harsher punishments to curb students’ urges to cheat. Are these tactics working? The jury’s still out. What’s being done at your school to limit and eventually stop academic dishonesty? Do you have any suggestions how to make these methods more effective?

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Students Say "I Do" for Lower Tuition

Would You Marry to Keep College Costs Down?

June 7, 2011

Students Say "I Do" for Lower Tuition

by Alexis Mattera

In February, we read a New York Times article about students getting married to save on tuition and asked our Facebook friends and Twitter followers if they, too, would get hitched if it meant they’d pay less for school. The responses? Mixed, but the topic is still hot four months later.

State aid is down, tuition is up and students are stuck in a tough position these days. While some are continuing down the traditional paths of obtaining funding for college (filling out the FAFSA, applying for scholarships and grants, taking out loans, etc.), others are taking a different route – or should we say aisle – with a friend or another student in a similar monetary situation. Why? If a student is single and under the age of 22, their financial aid is determined by their parents’ income but if the student is married, aid is determined by the joint income of the student and their spouse – an enticing loophole for cash-strapped undergraduate and graduate students. Unlike marrying to obtain citizenship, marrying for financial aid or in-state residency benefits is legal according to WalletPop; there are even matchmaking services that help students find likeminded individuals to marry for tuition relief and divorce after graduation!

What are your thoughts on these “on-paper” marriages? Would you say “I do” if you could save thousands on tuition and fees or do you feel this practice – while legal – is too unethical to consider?

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From Yale, With Love (and Perhaps a Lawsuit)

Online Course Transcripts for Sale in China

June 8, 2011

From Yale, With Love (and Perhaps a Lawsuit)

by Alexis Mattera

This is not a good week for higher education in China. First, a cheating scam is toppled just days before the national college entrance exam and now, it’s been discovered that Shaanxi Normal University Press is selling transcripts of Yale University’s free online courses.

The content – five transcripts from Open Yale Courses, a program that’s been offering free online videos of popular Yale classes since 2007 – has been published by Shaanxi without Yale’s permission. In addition to lifting content from the video lectures, Shaanxi also took material directly from the transcripts’ translations prepared by YYeTs, a Chinese nonprofit. Diana Kleiner, a Yale art history professor and principal investigator for Open Yale Courses, told the Yale Alumni Magazine blog “possibly as much as 95 percent” of the material was copied; this plus the sale of the content violates the terms of the course giveaway, which states others cannot profit from the material.

Though one professor says he is flattered by the attention, Yale officials are less than pleased, especially since the school is planning its own book series based on the Open Yale Courses.

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Wikipedia Gaining Classroom Approval

June 20, 2011

Wikipedia Gaining Classroom Approval

by Alexis Mattera

“Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.”

Though those words were spoken by a bumbling television character, there is some truth to his musings: The website is slowly gaining legitimacy...and not just within the walls of a fictional paper company – in college classrooms.

While many professors have banned students from citing information from the free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project, Wikipedia is gaining some academic traction. "I do encourage [my students] to use it as one of many launch points for pursuing original source material," said Karl Kehm, associate professor of physics at Washington College. Peter Shulman, assistant professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, agrees it's ok for basic facts but tells his students they shouldn't be referencing the site for anything further. "Saying it's off-limits won't stop students from using it, so I've switched to helping students understand when it's useful and when it's not," he said.

Strides are being taken to further legitimize Wikipedia – faculty members and students from more than 20 colleges are helping site editors clean up errors and broaden articles directly applicable to specific college classes – but its status as a 100-percent trusted source is still a long way off. Do you use Wikipedia in your classes? If so, is it frowned upon or somewhat accepted?

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