Thoughts on Education – 2/11/2012 – A revolution in the classroom?

Here’s a breakdown of the articles on education I’ve come across recently.

We’re ripe for a great disruption in higher education

The core of her argument is here:  “But the real disruption comes when you stop measuring academic accomplishment in terms of seat time and hours logged, and start measuring it by competency. As all employers know, the average BA doesn’t certify that the degree-holder actually knows anything. It merely certifies that she had the perseverance to pass the required number of courses.”  She is projecting a time when everything is going to be overturned.  Where it’s not just the point where online courses take the place of face-to-face courses, but where the whole model of how we teach gets overturned.  Who knows if she is right that this is going to happen anytime soon or in our lifetime, as revolutions are predicted all the time, but the argument is certainly compelling.  Alternatives to the 4-year, sit-down degree have been growing, and at some point, it is easy to see us reaching a point at some time where we have fewer and fewer “traditional” students.  Even now, I know that we could fill as many online classes as we could offer at my community college.  My history ones always fill in a day or two after they open, and we could keep going.  Of course, then there becomes the question of who is going to take the traditional classes if we just have more and more online classes?  Right now, we limit the alternatives, forcing most students to take a traditional, face-to-face class.  And, right now, there is a distinct population that wants that.  However, at some point we are going to stop being able to keep that gate closed, and students will start going to places that offer more flexibility.  The other thing that occurs to me on reading the article is that even our most “non-traditional” offering at my community college, the online course, is still strapped into the traditional course calendar.  It starts and ends at the same time, and the guidelines we are given have the students not able to work ahead but instead completing the course like a traditional course.  Breaking those boundaries will become necessary I think.  We should be moving to classes that are self-paced, classes that work outside of a semester schedule, classes that can be completed in 4-, 8-, 12-, 16-, 20-, 24-weeks or whatever.  Classes that start at odd times and classes that end at odd times.  I can see the day, at some point, where we have rolling enrollment and completion on a student’s schedule.  The student registers and starts, finishing up when he or she finishes, with assignments graded as they come in.  We create the content, monitor the course, are available for consultation, feedback, and assessment.  In other words, the day where a lot more places look like Western Governors University.  And, the scary thing is, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Using Google Docs to Check In On Students’ Reading

And, if we are going to move to this more self-paced model, then we need to have better tools to check in on our students as they are doing their work.  So, this article’s title certainly seems to go along with that.  This is a quite interesting use of Google Docs.  He details how to create a spreadsheet to keep track of where students are and what they are doing.  As it is shared among all students, everyone can then see whatever common dimension you are looking for.  In his case, he was having common reading and having the students post up before each class on how far they had read.  That way he knew roughly where all students were, including a class average that gave a decent idea of how far most students were.  I could see this used in a lot of different cases for common assignments in a traditional class or with a self-paced class, you have to post up to that in order to keep track of each individual student’s progress as they make their way through a self-paced course.  I could see something like this really working well at tracking students on those types of assignments that they do outside of class that don’t have specific end points/assessments (like textbook reading and the like).  That gives you another way to check progress rather than just waiting on them to complete a chapter test.  The only thing this relies on is the students accurately and honestly recording their progress.  I do think this would matter less if you were thinking about a self-paced course than one where it would be embarrassing for a student to show up to class not having read the required reading.  With a self-paced course, this tool could also serve to remind the students at regular points that they should be working on some piece of the course.

Harvard Looks Beyond Lectures to Keep Students Engaged

This article was a bit shorter and lighter on substance than I thought when I posted it up to Evernote to read later.  Still, it does cover some of these same ideas that something needs to change, as I think many of us can agree.  In this case, Harvard is dealing with the problem that “researchers already know what works to promote deeper thinking and learning and it’s not sitting in lectures, taking tests, and then moving on to the next topic. Instead, students need the opportunity to make meaning of what they’ve learned and apply it to real-world challenges.”  I can certainly agree with that.  What I don’t buy is the last section, which implicitly tells us to wait for Harvard to make its decision on how we should change things, and then we can all rely on their expertise and change afterwards.  I’m not waiting for them, and I don’t think the field is either.

Resistance to the inverted classroom can show up anywhere

I’ll close today with this one, which goes back to a concern I raised in the first article.  “Many students simply want to be lectured to. When I taught the MATLAB course inverted, all of the students were initially uncomfortable with the course design, some vocally so.”  Challenging the way things have always been done is going to lead to resistance.  The student in a lecture class is in a passive role.  Little is asked of that student, and they can just go through and do the minimum and do fine.  Show up, take a few notes, and we will consider you to be learning.  I hear that all the time from my colleagues (not going to name any names here), that the students they have won’t even take notes in class.  I wonder two things about this.

First, is taking notes the thing we are seeing as the highest level of learning?  I hear that more than anything else, that if you aren’t lecturing and the students aren’t taking notes, then learning isn’t happening.  I go the route where I give all of my students my lecture notes ahead of time, which they are welcome to bring to class or use a laptop/tablet to access in class.  I have had a number of students comment positively about that, saying that it allows them to actually pay attention to what is said in class rather than furiously trying to take notes on it.  I’m not sure when it happened, but we seem to have elevated taking notes on a heard lecture to the highest form of academic achievement.  Yet, I have plenty of students who don’t take any notes who do well and students who take a lot of notes who struggle.

Second, listening to a lecture and taking notes on it is the most passive of activities for a student.  It might seem active to watch the pencils flying out there in class, but, at its heart, this exchange requires very little of the student beyond paying attention.  There are not a lot of jobs out there where the ability to listen to 75-minute lectures and take notes about them is going to be a regular part of what they are asked to do.  Yet, that seems to me to be the primary skill that we ask of the students.  And while it is, why would a student want to change it.  All they have to be is a listener and a note-taker.

Of course changing out of the model is going to breed resistance.  If you told me that instead of sitting and listening to a lecture, I had to actively participate, presenting my opinions, engaging the material, and thinking and doing, I would have resisted as well.  I can’t say it a lot better than this author did:  “What I think this illustrates is that there is a cultural expectation about how college classes ought to go that is very hard to change. Many students — and faculty! — in higher education are sold on what I called the renters’ model, which is basically transactional. I pay my money and inhabit this space while you take care of my needs, and when I’m done I’ll move on. The inverted classroom is one style of teaching that insists on ownership. There will be some friction when two fundamental conceptions of class time are in such disagreement with each other, no matter how much sense it might make in your content area.”  It is something I worry about on a regular basis about making change to my class.  The question is, do we let expectations hold us back or do we move forward anyway and try to change those expectations?

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

3 responses to “Thoughts on Education – 2/11/2012 – A revolution in the classroom?”

  1. William Smith says :

    I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, but I see two main problems with the idea of self-paced classes. The first is the lack of interaction that such a model necessitates. Occasionally, I have students in my online classes who want to work faster than the schedule I’ve established for the course. I have to hold them back, in order to maintain some level of interaction between the students in the class. Admittedly, “discussion” is somewhat artificial online, but it does seem to me that there’s an important difference between the individual model of education that online classes are moving toward and the traditional idea of a “class” of students who work together and interact with one another throughout the semester.

    The second issue, of course, is compensation. Since adjuncts are paid by the class and even full-time faculty have contracts that are based on a number of classes taught, somebody will have to figure out how to pay faculty to teach on a student-by-student basis. I don’t mind this transition in theory, but I’m pretty sure that, in practice, it would mean teachers getting screwed.

  2. Scott Williams says :

    I have thought on the interaction part quite a bit, and I really have come to believe that the “interaction” that happens online seems to be rather limited and possibly even useless. I never am satisfied with the interaction that goes on, and I have tried multiple different methods over the years. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing, but it just doesn’t seem to be there. I was very keen on interaction when I first started, but I just can’t get excited about it at this point. Maybe we are moving toward a more individual mode of education there anyway, as it seems to me that the mirroring of the physical class in the online class seems to be failing in this respect.

    I certainly agree on the compensation part, although I would be curious to see what the pay model for something like the Western Governors University is. And, I’m already pretty used to being screwed as a teacher anyway, that I feel that any model that is different will probably mean more work for the same or less pay for us anyway.

  3. prawniczek says :

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