"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Valuing Literacy

So now I reflect on what I learned and how I used it. In preparing my study, I first looked at the training manuals we use for teaching computer classes. They use non-contextual learning; they teach students how to perform tasks in a program. When I teach, I try to give my students context for using the skills. The books normally follow a company through their office tasks, and I try to apply these to the students’ everyday work environment. But then I started thinking about the culmination of the training. There isn’t a final exam or grade. I thought about the degree I earned last year for four years’ work at VCU. I wondered if the certificates students receive have value. I do have a bias in that I would like to think that the certificate actually had value for the student and was not simply documentation of completion. My case study was to try to find out if my hopes were realized, so I don’t know that I could be fully objective; I needed to make sure I recognized my biases.

In preparing interviews, I knew that the topic would make it difficult to have direct interviews. I don’t have co-workers to whom I could direct questions, other than the director for the program I teach in. Stephanie, the director of Think Again, was very helpful in telling me about the program, how classes are selected, how faculty are selected, and the purpose of the program. I asked her about the students who take the class, and she indicated that many of them were either currently working in a subject for which they were taking a class or wanted to work in a field and needed some classroom training to get experience before trying to get employment. I prepared questions for interview surveys, because I thought that was the best way to direct questions regarding the training and the resulting certificate. It was a difficult set of questions to craft, because I needed to start with the reason for the training and lead into the value of the certificate itself. I think as a student it would be difficult to answer the latter set of questions simply because most of us don’t really think of setting a value for a piece of paper, so responders would need to think about what that paper represented. This is not something we spend much time reflecting on. My survey had fifteen questions, and I tried to keep them open ended, but there was no question that I was leading them to think about putting value on the certificate. Had I phrased my questions differently, I think I might have been a little more – maybe cynical – about putting value on a piece of paper. It would cause responders to question the value of the training as a whole and the paper as a representation of their efforts. No one wants to think that work they put forth is not of value, so of course they would want to respond that the training, hence the certificate, would have value.

It was difficult conducting phone interviews with hiring managers. Going in asking for information about their employees and how they work to improve their skills is something recruiters and managers would like to put a good face to. Again, no one wants to think that training is of little value in a job, so managers would like to think that the representation of the training, the certificate, would have value. As I discussed training and its value in a corporate environment, I found something I thought I might but was hoping I wouldn’t, from a personal/professional satisfaction perspective. Managers felt that training was helpful, but practical experience was more valuable in most cases. Some certificates, or what they represented, had more value than others. According to one manager, having the ‘initials’ on one’s signature block, made a difference in the perception of an employee. For one company, the staff create a professional plan each year that includes training. This is considered important for all employees, clerical to professional. The recruiters and manager I interviewed were trying to be helpful. I think that asking them to discuss the value of a certificate for training kind of geared them to putting value on it, because it would be defeatist for someone professional to answer that formal training was of little value. 

I would like to have interviewed students who had taken training at some of the local ‘universities’. One school has the tag line, “It’s all about the training”. When I think of college, I think of learning, not training. But looking at some of the offerings online, I saw more of a focus on training for employment, so for these certificates, there would have been more value. I had the opportunity to talk to two people in a medical office who had the type of positions advertised by local ‘colleges’. One had begun in the office as a temp and learned the job as she worked, so when the position was advertised, she had the experience rather than the training, but got the job. The second person had taken the training for the position. She indicated that while the training and certificate helped her get the job, it was a lot of money for a position that could be taught on the job.

Taking the raw data to conclusions was difficult. In the background I kept hearing my voice telling me that there should be a value to the certificates. When I heard neutral comments or read responses in the survey that were not always positive, I was a little dismayed. My vested interest didn’t exactly interfere, but I did try to put the best light on what I heard/received. I had wished that there were a way for students to have had face to face interviews with someone who was more neutral. I’m sure a consideration for them was to please me as the interviewer. The same consideration applies to the recruiters and hiring manager I interviewed. I indicated at the outset what I was going to be discussing, so I’m sure they wanted to put a positive spin on the value of training and the certificate it represented. Most respondents to the survey either provided the certificate to their supervisor for their personnel record or hung it in their office space. The physical representation of their achievement was valuable enough for them to have the reminder in their office. The key words I heard were achievement, accomplishment, commitment, and recognition.

It would not be a stretch to say that coming from a different perspective, that is, different stakeholders could legitimately come to different and valid conclusions. The value of the certificate depended on what the certification was. One recruiter said that the certificate could help, but all three indicated that it would not be a deciding factor. As a stakeholder, hub workers could come to different conclusions. They might find that the certificate helped them find employment or achieve a promotion, but others might find that while the certificate was nice, it didn’t necessarily change their position or perception by others in the organization. As a trainer/educator, yes, I did have my bias hoping to find that all stakeholders would find value in the certificate. My values definitely impacted on my findings. I think like all researchers, we have results we would like to find, and we look for those results in what we receive. It would be interesting to have someone outside the environment look at the survey results and interview answers and see what they came up with. Realistically I have to admit that the certificate as a literacy event has some value to everyone who earns it, but does not always have the value I would like to find.

At some point I may have the opportunity to review this and take it further. Recognizing my position both as a student and a teacher has given me perspective on tangible representation of intangible skills. I read chapter 5 of Belfiore and continued reading into chapter 6.  In it, the authors talk about the social practices of the literacies. I tried looking through this lens at my research. While some of the motivations for literacy learning included recognition, respect, and status – something I heard from my surveys – I also was struck by how my view of the certificate as a literacy event was more managerial than objective. I wanted to think the certificates had value in the workplace. In practice, though, I have formed an opinion that the literacy event meant less than I would have hoped. The theory and the practice were somewhat at odds. Employers in theory would like to have certified employees, but if a student or employee had certified, it did not necessarily empower them. As I read, I wondered if a student would take more initiative in their job as a result of what they had learned. Could a former student question a supervisor with the knowledge they had attained as a result of their training? Could the certification give them more of a voice than they might otherwise have? I am sure this varies in differing work environments. Did it make them a better communicator to co-workers and supervisors? These are questions I don’t have answers to. Did I do critical research? I think to an extent I did. Having read Belfiore again, I think I might look at the literacy another way, as weaving into practice rather than the end result.

So the first semester of my literacy journey ends. I learned that I have so much more to learn, which seems to be the case for every class I take. Thank you all for sharing your knowledge and patience.

Joyce M.

1 comment:

  1. Joyce, thank you for this earnest reflection on your subjectivities! You noted that "My case study was to try to find out if my hopes were realized, so I don’t know that I could be fully objective; I needed to make sure I recognized my biases." Since no research and especially qualitative research is 'fully objective' (nor does it aspire to be objective, but simply transparent), I agree that your research question "to realize your dream" might have been too close to home. I mean, wow, how devastating would that be to have your dreams denied?
    Regarding your survey questions, though, perhaps a more indirect strategy would have enabled respondents and you yourself to gain a more detached perspective. Maybe, for example, if you had students rank order 5 certificates that they've received in their life from most valued to least valued, and then have them discuss why some were and some were not. (This is sort of what you did with us in class, which I loved!).
    Again, going back to your research questions, I wonder if more open ended ones--like "what does the certificate mean to me" would have given you a wider range of understandings than questions about the amount of value? But these are somewhat limited by the survey format, I realize.
    Finally, since there were some differences in the way the business community perceived the certificates and your students seem to view them, will you consider sharing what the managers views were with your students?
    Well...your project was energetic and ambitious. I am glad you gained some insights about the way certificates are perceived, and hope you've also gained some insights about the rigors and challenges of qualitative research. Thank you for this superb and honest and open reflection!


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.