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2017 July 13 - 08:57 am

Community Colleges: The Halfway House Between New and Old Learning Modes

The Economist magazine reported in mid-June, 2017, that “The biggest political divide in Britain is age, (with) election(s) pitting young against old.” And, as Psychology Today has been reporting for at least a decade, “the old tend to vote more often than do the young.” And, Psychology Today points out, since “the old are more reliable voters,” they “tend to get their interests served by the government for which they have voted.” 

Just after the American Independence Day holiday, The Economist came out with yet another remark about age and “age groups,” which the magazine calls “social constructs,” examples of “life changes... (whose) emergence can trigger deep changes in attitude.” Notably, the magazine went on, “Before 1800, no country in the world had an average life expectancy at birth beyond 40. Today there is not a country that does not. Since 1900, more years have been added to human life than in the rest of history combined, initially by reducing child mortality and lately by stretching lifespans. Longevity is one of humanity’s great accomplishments.” 

But, The Economist adds, this elongated lifespan is also “seen as one of society's greatest headaches,” with more old people depending upon the young, with more oldsters having more free time and less disposable income after years of working for pay, and with new strains on medical care of a sort unheard of scarcely a generation and a half ago. 

We at the community college have long considered ourselves to be rich with resources that can well serve the “lifelong learner,” the person seeking to enrich his life or to re-train, to hone a new or not-previously perfected skill. We have been the go-to place for the (re)construction of social constructs, it might be said.  

But, as I look at my own students attending courses at half a dozen demographically different institutions, I wonder how well we are really responding to their wants, if not their needs. In fact, I see an irony among them: Although I have ever more aging people in my classes, their learning practices seem not to be changing as much as Psychology Today or The Economist might seem to be intimating. These people are smart and physically fit, curious and eager to learn, but their methods of learning seem to be perhaps out of sync.  

For instance, many of my students taking the more advanced courses in French language and culture that I teach come from poor, ethnically non-diverse enclaves in which their native languages and cultures determine their behavior. The “old folks” who people these enclaves are typically traditionalists, preferring hard-copy textbooks and paper-and-pencil assignments, as well as subjective tests. They have always left the new stuff to their children or grandchildren; these old people are neither stupid nor low-tech. They are skilled learners and excellent researchers; they are simply no-tech.  

Interestingly enough, students of all ages who attend my classes at a local private school have said that they, too, like the “hard”: They want hard-back textbooks and hard-copy hand-outs, hard documents upon which to write. Adept at everything technological, these learners have pointed out to me that for them, “school is serious”, and that means “traditional.” Social networks and online activity are for out-of-school time.  

And at two other places where I teach short, intensive courses in French, mostly for business or travel purposes, the students ask me regularly if there might not be “one easy-to-read, portable little book” that they can buy to help them. Each week during these month-long forays into things French, I provide learners with more of the masses of material that can be found online with a click of the mouse. These students are mostly professionals who have always wanted to visit a francophone country; many of them are retirees seeking something romantic. Rarely are these learners younger than 25 years old, and the largest “age group” of them is 65-74.  

And so, what are the community colleges doing that have these people as their students? Most of them are improving their online accessibility, and all of them are broadening their course offerings online.  

The students in the advanced French language and culture courses that I cited first above state that they are frustrated by the lack of face-to-face contact that the new move online seems to have prompted. Those who attend the private school say that they are “trying to do as much as possible in-person and leave the online for later.” And the intensive language course learners have started to haunt the few used book outlets in the area, bringing to class their finds to share with others.  

Are we responding to what our demographically diverse—and our aging—populations seem to want? Are these people polled, preferably in person and/or in writing rather than online, for what they want us to offer to them, and about what they think that their local community college should be? Are they taught how to integrate their traditional ways into one of humanity's newest accomplishments: Life online? 

In a world where areas rich and poor are equipped with smart phones and where disasters and excitements, successes and failures can all be shared with an immediacy that was unimaginable less than a generation ago, we at the community college have a responsibility to those in our districts' ethnic enclaves, to the ones in our communities who depend upon us as ways out of economic deprivation. We have to be our own social construct, no matter the age of our learners. We have to be the half-way house between the traditional “in-here” of the varying societies that we serve and the “out-there” nature of everything online. For me, this last means calling students together around a computer in the way my father called us around the radio and then the television, showing off something awe-inspiring and helping them to feel the cool vibes as they turn the machine on. 


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