Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Luddite Letters of Recommendation

A couple of years ago, I finally got fed up with writing college recommendations and having no idea what happened to them after they were dispatched. Occasionally I might hear that they couldn't find the copy I mailed in or something nifty like that. Otherwise, it's been a sheerly one-way process.

I decided to fire off a letter to my alma mater about my complaints and was shocked to receive a phone call from a senior admissions officer at the University of Michigan who chatted with me about teacher of recommendations for a good half hour or so. After the conversation I tailored my constrained my praise about the student to specific areas that stood out in my class. I now present the recommendation as a series of bullet points, focusing on qualities like resourcefulness, intellectual curiosity, communication skills, and creativity. I describe specific achievements in my class rather than construct some kind of general resume, biography or mash note. So the conversation was helpful to me in terms of recasting the template for this annual chore.

This year, I did all my recommendations online. But all that this meant was filling out the same old forms at a web site and then uploading the pdfs of the kind letter I formally did on paper. Way to go, colleges, you have moved up to using a 1993 technology and you still want teachers throughout the country to peck out a bunch of text for you-- a process that probably tells you more about the teacher than the applicant!

As I focus more and more on using Web 2.0 technologies in my class, these old-school letters of recommendation seem less and less relevant. For example, one of the applicants this year had made a terrific video for a blog on vlogs exercise. If you viewed one minute of this video you would know as much about this student as I might write on a page. Shouldn't the admissions office see the student's work. Our role would be to authenticate it, not mediate the student's work. When my current sophomores apply in a couple of years, I'll be describing the web sites that they created in my class, laden with video, pod casts and slides. Shouldn't the college be checking these out for themselves?

For that matter, if I made a three minute podcast, I could give the university a personal sketch of the student and waste far less of my time doing it.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the universities to request authentic evidence of what the kids have creatively designed and deeply learned. But I am starting to send them the links to these treasures whether they want 'em or not. Someone has to start pushing back against the colleges who should be leading the way, not lagging so far behind.

For a nice little piece on the original Luddites, see

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