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Multilitteratus Incognitus

Traversing the path of the doctoral degree

Graduate admissions process pondering

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This post has been brewing in my head for a couple of years now. Since I am waiting for IRB clearance for my dissertation I thought it would be a good time to jot things down and see what others think.  I usually tend to have people in my network who either teach or work in some sort of instructional designer (or faculty developer) capacity.  I don't (think) I know too many people in the higher education administration aspects of my work to discuss these kinds of things with (so I may just be speaking to no one ๐Ÿ˜).

Anyway, one thing that's been gnawing at me for the past number of years is how one enters into graduate programs.  I'll focus more on the master's level for a few reasons.  I manage an MA program, I teach for an MEd program, and from observation, I've seen that masters programs probably don't have as many administrative constraints: for example, [virtual] classroom space, working with a cohort model that's more tightly integrated [as compared to doctoral programs that are more tightly interconnected], and most masters programs allow non-matriculated students to take courses for fun or interest (doctoral programs typically do not). 

In the US, a typical application to a graduate program requires the following:
  • An application (usually electronic these days)
  • An application fee (my institution has it at $60 for domestic students)
  • A statement of purpose (why do you want to apply to the program, how does it meet your goals, etc.)
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation from academic referees (former professors)
  • Your transcript indicating that you completed an undergrad program (sometimes ALL transcripts, even if you decided to take ENGL501 for fun somewhere...).
  • Some sort of standardized test (albeit this is not as common these days)
I've done this song and dance four times since 2004.  The first time I did it (for my MBA), I didn't think much of it.  The second time I did it (for my MS), it was a little easier, albeit annoying because I was applying to the college I was already a student in.  The third and fourth times (MA and MEd degrees) I reused letters of recommendation and I phoned it in. I actually used one application to apply to two programs, and one statement of intent that covered both.  I almost did it a fifth time for another MA degree, but they required GRE scores to prove that I could go graduate work (after having successfully completed 4 masters programs mind you...), which is when I decided to not apply to that program.

As part of my day-to-day work, the admissions process is one of those things I manage, and I'm convinced that the entire apparatus is mostly an arcane and archaic gatekeeping mechanism, built around the constraints of "p-learning" (Dron, 2016) and program scarcity (when MA programs only really accepted a few students each year).   The admissions process doesn't feel like an enabling mechanism.

Take letters of recommendation for example. If you've attended a western institution, and you ask for a letter of recommendation from a former professor, the letters of recommendation that they provide will mostly be good. No one decent will agree to write a recommendation if they are going to negatively evaluate you. Hence, the asking for, and receiving, of a recommendation becomes a ritual of asking former professors to vouch for you, but really knowing ahead of time that, if they agree, what they write will most likely be glowing.  It privileges people who've already built those connections with some professors, and it is a colossal waste of time for the referee. It also privileges western applicants because (it's been my experience) that non-western referees typically write sparse recommendations that typically reference a transcript ("AK was a good student, got A's in my class").  In cases where someone doesn't have academic recommendations (for whatever reason), a common tactic is to take a course or two in the department (as a non-matriculated student) to obtain those letters of recommendation.  If they've taken two courses, and gotten good grades (however you define "good grades"), then the recommendations are pointless (especially since those who write the recommendations are also those who often read them for admissions๐Ÿคท).

Another thing that I find interesting, is the requirement for a BA (sometimes the requirement is just a BA, even if it's not in the discipline).  A bachelor's degree can be verified by transcript, but I do find it odd that some schools require *every* transcript. So if someone has earned an Associate's Degree in Automotive engineering (school 1), a Bachelor's in Sociology (school 2), and wants to apply to an MA program in school 3 (let's say in a sociology program), that school could ask for a transcript from his AA degree transcript even though it's not relevant, just in case the applicant has anything to hide๐Ÿ™„. If the applicant has demonstrated that they can do academic work by showing a transcript with a completed degree, why request everything? 

Related to this, here is a hypothetical (I haven't seen or heard of this happening in real life, but it theoretically could): students are able to take graduate courses as a non-matriculated student.  As a matter of fact, learners can string together all required courses for a degree as a non-degree student but still not earn the MA because they either lack a BA, or they took all their courses as a non-degree student, so we can't count most of them if they matriculate near the end of their studies.  I am actually not sure where I stand on this.  On the one hand, the MA is positioned as an advanced degree in something (which assumes an introductory degree in it?) but on the other hand if you can do the work, and you demonstrated that you can by actually doing the work, why should you be prevented from earning that degree if you don't have the previous one in the series? ๐Ÿค”

The graduate admissions protocols (at least for masters programs) seem like unnecessary gatekeeper these days.  Because of all of the documentation required, and the process of review for the materials submitted, admissions has defined calendar deadlines each year, which can shut people out if they happen to miss those deadlines.  Personally, I'd like to see more Open Admissions process to start to take place.  Perhaps some introductory and required courses could be open to anyone interested in taking them (I'll pick a random number, and say that this represents 40% of the curriculum), and then whoever is interested in continuing their studies can submit a brief application, and a reflective essay/statement of purpose and the faculty can make a more informed decision in terms of formal acceptance given their own experiences in class with the applicant. This would cut out the unnecessary transcript evaluation, letters of recommendation, and standardized scores (and all the processing and vetting that goes on with that).

Your thoughts?
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Letters of recommendation - what's up with that?

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It's been a while since I've blogged, or at least it really feels like it.  I've had my nose stuck in (virtual) books trying to get through my literature review - but more on that on some other blog post. I came across an article on InsideHigherEd this past week asking whether or not letters of recommendation are really necessary. My most immediate context is admissions, given that that's part of my work at the university, but the people who gave their two cents also mentioned something I had not considered: academic jobs. I won't rehash the opinions of the people who wrote for the article, but I will add my own two cents, mostly from a graduate admissions perspective. I don't have a fully formed opinion on letters of recommendation for employment purposes, but I'll add my two cents as a prospective hire (in a few years when I might be done with my EdD :p)

For admissions to graduate course of study, be it a masters program, a PhD program, or even a certificate program, I really personally don't see much value in letters of recommendation any longer.   My point of view is framed from the perspective of a student, an instructor, and a program administrator.   When I was applying for my first master's degree I bought into the rationale given to me for letters of recommendation: former professors can provide the admissions committee qualitative information about you as a learner that a transcript cannot provide.  This is all fine and dandy, and for me to worked out: I was working on-campus as an undergraduate student, and I had some professors who I had for more than one course and who were able to write letters of recommendation.  This was a privilege that I had that other students may not have had.  For my second masters I was applying to the same college, and I was applying to a new program of the college, so they looking for student, so getting recommendations wasn't that big of a deal.  Once I finished my second masters, I really didn't want to deal with more solicitations for letters of recommendation - I started to feel odd, and I kept going back to the regular well of people for recommendations.

So, I applied to two programs concurrently so that I could write one statement, and the letters of recommendation could pull double duty.  After I finished my last two masters degrees I took some time off regular, "regimented" school and programs and focused on MOOCs.  Going back to earn an EdD posed some issues as far as recommendations go.  I had previously applied to a PhD program at my university (at the college in which I earned two masters! - never heard a final decision on my application by the way), and by the time I wanted to apply to Athabasca I felt that the well had run dry for recommendations.  Former professors still gave me recommendations, but I kind of feel I was taking advantage of their kindness by asking for a recommendation for yet another degree program I wanted to pursue (don't judge, at least I complete my degree program haha ๐Ÿ˜œ).  Not that I am thinking a ton past my completion of the EdD, but should I want to pursue a regimented course of study in the future (degree or certificate program) the recommendations will be an issue; not because I can't get them, but because I feel bad about asking for them - after all I am asking for someone to volunteer their time to give me a recommendation when my academic record should suffice. This is how I feel about the GRE and other entrance tests, by the way.  If you've completed undergraduate studies then the GRE is pointless - you can do academic work.  If you are unsure of the academic work capabilities of applicants, accept them provisionally.  Just my two cents.

Another lens I view this through the administrative.  Asking for letters of recommendation, and subsequently receiving them (or not) requires time.  It requires time from the student (especially in tracking down referees if they don't submit stuff in time), it requires processing time from admissions departments, and it requires reading time on the part of committees who review applications. When such a system takes that much time and effort into it, you have to ask what the benefit, or net positive gain, is.  Going back to the story I was told - the qualitative component of the transcript, basically - does make sense in theory, but in practice... not so much. 

While I don't make decisions on applications that come to my department for review, I sneak and peek at materials that come in because I need to process them.  What I've noticed is that by and large (1) recommendation are uneven, and (2) they tend to be the same, more or less, just with different names.  The unevenness is partially cultural in nature.  If you get a recommendation from someone employed at a western institution you tend to get (more or less) what you seek.  However, non-western colleagues don't use the recommendation system so for them a recommendation is just an affirmation that the student was indeed in their class, in the specific semester, and from what they remember they performed well.  The "basically the same" aspect of recommendations runs into the same problem as non-western recommendations; that is that recommendations basically boil down to: student was in class, they performed well, so accept them.  It just turns out that western colleagues are more verbose in their recommendations so they happen to add in some anecdotes of your awesomeness as a candidate, but even those anecdotes tend to run along the same wavelength most of the time:  asked interesting questions in class, was the first to post in forums, engaged fellow classmates, submitted assignments early, etc.  From an administrative perspective there is (so far as I know) no background check on these folks providing recommendations so we are taking what they are writing in good faith.

Finally, as an instructor, I am lucky, in a sense, that I haven't had to write a ton of recommendations.  I've done so a couple of times but after a few original recommendations I've basically gone back to the awesome student, accept them, here are a couple of anecdotes formula because that's life, we're not living on Lake Wobegon. I'd gladly give a recommendation to former students who did well in my classes, but it's hard to not feel like I am writing a generic letter sometimes. So why spend time writing something that feels like a template letter if I am not providing much value to the system?

In short, recommendations for admission add no value while taking away time and resources from other areas.

In terms of letters of recommendation for academic employment, on a purely theoretical basis I'd say that they are pointless too.  Both for reasons articulated in the IHE commentary piece, but also for one of the reasons that's similar to graduate program admissions: the genericness aspect.  I think having some references is fine, but I think a quick conversation (or heck, a survey-style questionnaire) would be more preferable to a letter. The reason I think it's not that useful in hiring decisions is the same reason no one gives recommendations anymore (for us regular plebes getting work), and that is that people sue if they get wind that they got a bad recommendation. Generally speaking no one will agree to give you a letter of recommendation (or reference) if they can't give you positive reviews, and HR departments just confirm dates of employment these days.  Nothing more, nothing less; otherwise they risk a lawsuit. So, if you're not getting much information about the candidate, and if the information is skewed toward the positive (because that's how the system works), then is the information you're getting valuable?  I'd say no.

So, what are your thoughts?
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MOOCs as admissions considerations

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It's been a while since I've sat down to blog (with the exception of my brief postings last week).  I guess I've had my nose firmly planted in books (physical and digital) trying to get through the reading components of my dissertation proposal so I can sit down and write. I tend to find (for me anyway) that having a bit more of a complete picture in my head as to what I want to write about cuts down a a ton of edits down the road. Because of this I also haven't really engaged a lot with my learning community (MOOCs and LOOMs alike).

That said, a recent work encounter broke my blogging slumber and has pulled me from my dissertation a bit.  In my day job one of my roles is to answer questions about our department's program (what is applied linguistics, anyway? j/k ๐Ÿ˜†) and that includes questions about admissions. While we prefer applicants with a background in linguistics or related background  such as languages (such as French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, whatever language and literature background) we do accept others who did their BA in something different.  Personally I think that the language is archaic and comes from a time when the mission and vision of our department was slightly different, but that's neither here no there.  My point is that when there are people interested in our program who come from a background other than languages (such as business, or computer science for example) the question always becomes  how can I better prepare for this program, and ensure I get admitted? Basically ensuring that the applicant shows some sort of connection with between their interest in our program and what they did, or want to do.

In the past couple of years MOOCs have come up!  Even though I've been steeped in MOOCs for the past six years I didn't really think others were.  Furthermore, it amazes me how much value others place in MOOCs, and MOOCs that they have taken. Personally, while I like taking xMOOCs (I just signed up for about 10 of them recently through edx and future learn, and I am trying to do one on Canvas on collaborative ICT...) I don't know if I would ever mention my exploits in the MOOC arena to others (except maybe through my blog, or through a group of close MOOC friends).  My rationale for not sharing my learning is this:  While I personally derive value from what I do in MOOCs (it expands my own horizons, even if I am just viewing some videos) I also know that assessments are a little forced in xMOOCs.  Simple MCEs or short-answer peer-graded assignments don't really point toward mastery of something.  In ye olde days of xMOOCs the certificates of participation were free; provided that you completed the MOOC in its original run.  Now xMOOCs require you to pay for a certificate of participation, and I personally don't see any value to that.  Even if you pay for a verified certificate where you have someone proctor you while taking MCEs, what does that really mean?  That you can take a test?

This all got me thinking about the potential use of MOOCs for application purposes.  I personally think that by taking (and completing) a MOOC it shows interest in the topic, so that's a positive for the applicant, but it doesn't necessarily show any mastery. So, while useful, it definitely has its limitations.  The certificates don't really mean much to me for my current work, and yes - I do hold on to the certs that received while they were still free (๐Ÿ˜‰) but I don't see additional value to the ones that people get these days in exchange for cash.

What do you think? Is there a value to students doing MOOCs with the aim of getting into a specific part of higher ed?
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