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Thoughts on Education – 6/6/2012 – Studying in college

I wonder about this all the time.  How much work do students really do in a class?  I don’t know if my own memories are clouded by the distance, but I certainly remember working a lot in college.  Admittedly, I went to an upper-tier private school, but still, I worked on my classes every day of the week.  The only day that I took off completely throughout almost all of my college experience was Friday.  I only worked a few Fridays over the four years I did my undergraduate work.  All other days were fair game, and I usually did school work on all other days.  Now, I did not study all the time by any means, and I did plenty of other things as well, but I just remember doing almost all of the assigned readings, working on assignments before they were due, and just generally being engaged throughout the school year as a full-time student.  Of course, I did have the luxury of being a full-time student, working only enough to earn some extra spending money, so that did affect what I did.

At my community college now, things could not be more different.  We struggle to get the students to do any work, and certainly do not expect the students to work on anything any earlier than absolutely necessary.  Of course, it is a community college, and the students here are largely not that strong academically and often work in addition to going to school.  Still, it is disappointing and difficult to try and teach students like this.  I’m certainly not trying to romanticize my own background, but I think I was a pretty good and pretty diligent student overall.  I had good semesters and bad semesters, good classes and bad classes, but I consistently did my work, paid attention to assignments, and was mostly engaged in my classes.

I’m certainly not the only one who has noted this.  You just have to talk with any of my fellow instructors, or really instructors in general, and we all feel like the students aren’t doing enough.  It is easy to dismiss this, as it is the same type of thing that teachers have been saying about students for a long time.  I’m sure my own professors groaned about me and my fellow students as well.  So, I don’t know if I’m really bringing up anything new, but I have come across a couple of articles on the subject as well.

This Washington Post article is interesting, just from the perspective that it takes.  According to the article, the average student today studies around 15 hours a week, whereas in the 1960s, the total was 24.  Even at the “better” universities, apparently the average is only up around 18 hours a week.  The article then notes the 5 top reporting schools, each of which exceed this average.  Most are small, isolate, private liberal-arts schools, with the University of Wisconsin being the only exception.  I have to wonder, however, what the average is at my community college, as I’m assuming that community colleges were not included in these numbers, although I could be wrong.

Also in the Washington Post, is this article, asking the question, “Is college too easy?”  It takes these same statistics and turns it around.  Is the problem that the students aren’t working hard enough or is it that we instructors aren’t asking enough of them.  The data they have shows that the average student in the 1960s worked roughly 40 hours a week in college, while the average today is 27 hours a week.  That brings about the chicken-and-egg conundrum.  Are we asking less of students because we expect less of them or are students doing less because we ask less of them.  Or is it really a symbiotic relationship all the way around that has led to this decline?  I don’t really know.  I have taught for around 10 years now, and I can see the creep toward asking less and less.  This is especially true in an era of tight budgets and increased class sizes, since asking more of students means more work for me with no more (and sometimes less) compensation.  So, I wonder where to look to think about this problem.  Even my own wife has said to me that she remembers working harder in high school (over a decade ago) than in the bachelor’s degree program she just finished.

I don’t know what to think about it, so I’m just raising questions here.  What do you think?

Thoughts on Education – 04/28/2012 – Mentoring college students

I went up to campus yesterday on my day off to a meeting centered around a new push to mentor our students.  I have been on our college’s retention committee for two years now, and we are starting to see some of our ideas floating up through the bureaucracy of the college and becoming an actual part of what we do.  Some of the changes so far have been with regard to easing registration, requiring students to visit their instructors to get drop slips signed, introducing a small set of students to a “how to do college” class, and so forth.  The faculty side of things has largely been left out of the changes so far, but one of the things that I have been pushing for is starting to come into existence.  I believe that students should have actual faculty advisors that they talk to, not for setting up schedules, but for more general college advice and help making it through the college process.  Thus, we now have the beginning of a mentoring program.  It will be slowly launched in a pilot program this fall, and the meeting yesterday was the first in a series of meetings to gain interest and see who would be willing to use their time for this.

The program itself, from what I understand, will be aimed fairly narrowly at first.  We will be advising first-time-in-college, first-semester, full-time students.  Out of our 5000 or so students, that means about 3-400 students that we will be directly mentoring in this first batch.  I fully applaud this idea.  I would love to see it expanded soon, but I know that it has to start somewhere.  As the program sits now, we will be given 5-10 of these students to mentor, with the expectation that we will try to meet with them around three times a semester, serving as a person they can talk to about college, get advice from, and use as a sounding board.  These are students who need all the help they can get, but, honestly, there’s probably not a single student on campus who could not use some set of advice.

This was echoed in this article from the Chronicle recently.  In it, community colleges are admonished to stop blaming others for the problems of students not succeeding and doing what they can internally to improve this.  I think the retention work we have been doing, and this mentoring program as a part of it, is a good step along the way toward creating better chances for success among our students.  As well, the second point from the article is also part of this.  She says that colleges, especially community colleges, need to be better at guiding students through the process.  Right now, our students, without a serious amount of advice outside of preparing schedules each semester, blunder forward until they have reached enough credits to do something with them.  For many, the idea of a degree plan, a goal outside of taking their “basics,” or even what it takes to graduate, is something that only the most academically involved and prepared students have.  A mentoring program can help focus the students in on their plans and help with general academic planning throughout their career.  If we can get them in, out, and done, we will be succeeding.  The longer they take, the more likely they are to not succeed.  As well, the less focused they are, the less likely they are to reach a satisfactory conclusion to their academic career.  Hopefully this mentoring program can get them going with that.

Programs like this are also an answer to the question of how we measure student progress.  Right now, we are in this wave of measuring, one that looks at the progress that students make academically as they proceed through college.  This article from The New York Times illustrates that, discussing the need for something that can measure progress and pointing out the different ways this is currently done.  I think an equally valid measure is what success the students have in reaching their goals, regardless of specific success in a specific course.  With a mentoring and advising program, that can be helped, as we can work with students who are often lacking in a real idea of what they want to do. This group we will be dealing with is especially unconnected to the traditional measures of success and progress, as they have no family experience to fall back on as to what they should be doing in college.  What they know is that they are supposed to go to college to get something (often undefined) and that by taking classes they will somehow get there.  I know we are not the first place to ever put in place an advising program, and I know that success with the program will depend on both instructor and student participation.  However, if we can even point half of these students in a more productive direction, then we will have success.  If they can come out with a better idea of what they need to be doing, what classes will get them there, and what they can do with the classes/degree afterwards, then we will have helped them along the way.

Thoughts on Education – 3/28/2012 – Thinking about the future of education

I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here.  So, here we go.

The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant.   I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way:  “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future?  What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studioa reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?”  Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me.  The article also noted:  “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.”  I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well.  At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age.  That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key.  In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.”  Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new.  While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign.  I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.

Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times.  The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education.  What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea.  A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for.  Here are some of them:

  • “a college degree is economically valuable”
  • “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
  • several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
  • “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
  • “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”

That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here.  It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas.  I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver.  I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more.  I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.

Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level.  As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people.  But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage.  As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'”  So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall.  In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes.  As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students:  “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'”  This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively.  I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections.  I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment.  I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.”  That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now.  I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are.  I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students.  Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.

OK.  I think I’m going to call it a night here.  Any reactions?

Thoughts on Education – 2/22/2012 – Getting a liberal arts education

Back to thinking about education after a couple of days doing other things.  I’ve been trying to get something up here every day, but things have been so busy over the last couple of days, that I’ve been taking a quick way out a couple of days.  So, I want to get back into thinking about some of the big educational ideas out there.  There have been a few articles on getting an education, largely about getting a liberal arts education, that have passed through my Evernote, so I thought I’d bring them together here.

I wanted to open with this chart.  It comes from a short article here.  I don’t even really need to say anything about it, but I will anyway, as the chart is certainly provocative:

I guess the questions out of this are, what does the SAT really test and what does looking at a standardized test tell us about student progress.  The first I learned from a summer of teaching for Princeton Review, which is that the SAT tests you on your ability to take the SAT.  That’s about it, since if you know the tricks of taking the SAT, you can do well regardless of your actual knowledge.  I can only guess that the fact that SAT scores increase as you go up in income probably reflects the greater availability of SAT prep courses as you go up in income.  Or even sadder, maybe it’s that our whole education system is set up to help the richest succeed overall, so what knowledge that is tested on the SAT is more likely to come from the wealthy.  On the other side is, of course, the question of how well a standardized test actually measures student ability or progress.  Increasingly we come to rely on these high-stakes tests, but do they actually test ability, or do they just test access.  In other words, if you are rich and can afford to send your kids to the best private high schools, are you more likely to do well on the SAT tests because of that.  I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s a combination of all of this.

Then comes two articles on what value there is in the education that students get out of the college they go to.  This discussion apparently followed out of a previous article about the ties between Wall Street and the Ivy Leagues.  I’m not so interested in that, but I thought the further discussion about the liberal arts degrees and their relevance today were interesting.  Of course, my own background as a history major makes me even more interested.  I like this paragraph as a starting point from the first article:  “Let’s say you’re a history major with a specialization in 18th century Europe from Yale. It may be that, from the economy’s perspective, your time at Yale taught you to think, research and write, which are all skills that can be used in a wide variety of upper-management positions. But that’s not what you think your time at Yale taught you. You think your time at Yale taught you about 18th century Europe. That’s what you spent all your time studying. That’s what you got graded on. And that’s why you’re nervous. There aren’t all that many jobs out there asking for a working knowledge of the Age of Enlightenment.”  We talk about these skills that we expect our students at a community college to come out with, but I never really thought about the fact that students might not see or value those skills, as it is not obvious that is what they are really learning.  It’s really a question of perception here.  As Ezra Klein notes, “. . . it’s a problem that so many kids are leaving college feeling like they don’t have the skills necessary to effectively and confidently enter the economy.”  While he is discussing high level education, I think there’s a similar problem at the community college level, as students are even more skills focused at that level.  They want to know explicitly what the value of their education is.  Simply telling them that learning history will be valuable in the long run doesn’t do much for them.  Yet, when you point to these skills — the ability to read, write, think, evaluate, argue, and so forth — they don’t see those listed in the jobs they are seeking, even if those are the skills that employers might really want.  I’ve heard this described before as college being short-hand for employers that a graduate has these skills, but that doesn’t help the actual graduate get a job if he or she does not know that they are valuable for that reason rather than for the degree they have.  I think this is something we need to emphasize more from the college perspective, but I think that employers also need to be more open about it.

Following in that vein, there was a similar article discussing the results of a concentration on a liberal arts education.  Daniel de Vise states – “We tend to offer some – typically our more disadvantaged, low-income populations – a more limited education that may prepare them for jobs for two or three years before they need to be re-trained. Meanwhile, we tend to offer others – disproportionately a more privileged group – a lifelong, liberal education that appreciates over time, preparing them for entire careers, and for jobs that may not even exist yet in our rapidly evolving economy.”  We certainly go with the first side at the community college level because that is what we see ourselves as, as much technical trainers as transfer teachers.  We do think of ourselves as teaching transfer students in the standards, but the reality is that many of our students are even pursuing a degree for the work advancement that it can bring.  And this article comes back to that issue of skills.  What he calls “liberal education” is at the center of the transfer of those skills from the Klein article earlier, in that a liberal education delivers an ” education that focuses on the development of capacities such as writing, effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and ethical reasoning. These skills are practical, transferrable, and essential for the life-long learning that we all need if we are to thrive in a world that is complex, diverse, and ever-changing.”  He warns against taking away that education in focusing in on technical education in fields that might not last or in training that will have to be renewed soon.  Again, I think we need to emphasize these skills more.  And, I guess I’m pointing to myself here, as I never really make it all that apparent that these are the valuable skills in the whole process.  I know we get caught up in the specifics of our subjects, but delivering a course as simply learning history or english or math or whatever will never be as valuable to a student as learning skills for the real job market out there.  As well, if our students graduate or transfer only knowing that they have accumulated the correct courses to graduate, then they will not see the value of what they are learning.  Of course, as I noted above, if employers aren’t honest about what they want out of a college graduate, then those skills won’t be seen as valuable either.  They need to be explicitly sought in the job market for it to be relevant for me to tell students that they are learning these valuable skills. It has to be a circle starting somewhere, I guess.  But should it start from my end or from the employers?

On the theme of a degree telling employers something, this article on the value of a graduate degree is also relevant.  As noted, a master’s degree or higher “signals to employers that recipients can complete a demanding program and that they have already been vetted by an institution.”  It denotes a set of skills rather than a specific skill.  While nothing in this article is particularly groundbreaking, it really just extends the last two I’ve discussed here into the graduate realm.  Of course, the value of the graduate degree does vary by field, and I found their graphic to illustrate this well:

This, or course, shows that for me, there was a bump for getting my degree, although certainly from a lower level to start and a lower gain as well.  Also, as noted a master’s degree is quickly become a standard rather than an option.  This is true for me.  So, regardless of the skills that I’m supposed to have learned from my degree, I simply had to have it.  I could not have gotten my current job without a master’s degree, regardless of what skills I actually gained.  And this, of course, is the other side of all of this I’ve talked about today.  If the degree is a symbol of skills learned, then we have to be teaching those skills.  I think I am, but are we all?  Does every college education show those skills?  Just something to think about.

Thoughts on Education – 2/18/2012 – Who can achieve academic success?

Back to your normally scheduled educational blogging.  I’m feeling better finally, and I’m going to take a bit of time to blog here before starting on my main job for today, which is going to be grading.

‘Academically Adrift’: The News Gets Worse and Worse

The beginning has to be the continuing discussion of the assessment of how much students learn in their college education.  The latest information that has been released shows a further problem with our higher education system:  “While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.  Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don’t challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they’re able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree.”  With teaching at a community college, I do, unfortunately, see mostly those from the second half.  And, as I know from experience, when people think of college students, they don’t think of the students I have.  Instead, as has been noted, the people who talk about educational policy mostly come from that first group and the people who create educational policy come from that first group.  Students like mine are generally ignored in the debate about what to do about academics, which is why I often find the advice and discussion about education to be somewhat irrelevant to who I teach.  In fact, even the failures of my students (and there are many) are generally seen as a failure on the part of the student.  We blame the students for failing, even when they come into a system not designed for them and where their needs and abilities are not dealt with in a constructive manner.  I don’t mean to say that the community college system or my community college is failing, it is just that when I have an expectation that 30-50% of my students will either withdraw, fail, or get a D out of my course, then we have to be working at a different standard.  You don’t see that at elite or even normal 4-year colleges, yet most of what you see out there that involves higher education deals with those students.  There are some community college specific resources, but they don’t drive the national conversation about education.

As this report shows, that bottom level of college students are more likely to come out of school with few skills and few prospects, where the likelihood is that they “are more likely to be living at home with their parents, burdened by credit-card debt, unmarried, and unemployed.”  And, that makes it more difficult to justify an education to the students and to justify the cost of that education to those who pay for it.  Of course, as I have noted so many times, articles like this love to point out the problems, but they never say much of anything about solutions.  In fact, the implication of the end of the article is that maybe this research isn’t really correct and that we need to do our own research to find out the real truth.  But I see the failures every day.  We know that a certain number of students will simply never make it through, no matter what we do.  It is sad, but it is true.  But are we giving value to the rest of the students is the real question.  I hope that we are, and I know that our current assessment craze is trying to prove that.  I guess I don’t have anything more profound than that to say about it.  It is definitely one of those things that makes teaching hard and makes justifying the money and time spent on teaching hard.  But the question to ask always is, would we prefer a system where we never give any but the top people a chance at an education?

I came across two other related articles on teaching that I thought I would talk about for the rest of this blog post:

Colleges looking beyond the lecture

I picked this one because it is one of the things that pisses me off over and over in reading articles about changes in teaching.  Here’s the reason:  “Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away.”  Where are the humanities and social sciences in this?  Why is it only STEM that is trying to make changes.  Yes, I can find a few history sites out there, but overwhelmingly if you’re talking about changing up education or the use of technology, it comes back over and over to STEM as the place where changes come from.  So, wonderful, colleges are looking beyond the lecture in these areas because students aren’t succeeding with the lecture.  Does that mean the lecture is working elsewhere?  Or is it because the lecture is such an expected part of other areas of education that we don’t even question its utility.

So, the article goes on to talk about the challenges of the lecture system — low student learning, the ability of students to get the same information elsewhere, and low retention.  What is interesting is the last part of the article that talks about the solutions, which is mostly to stop lecturing.  While they don’t use the term “flipping” the classroom in this article, that is what is discussed over and over.  So, nothing really new over things I have discussed in the past.  What is interesting is that most of the solutions talk about “experimental” classes that are tiny in comparison to the large lecture classes.  But, is that an acceptable solution?  Obviously, we have large classes because that’s what makes the most monetary sense, and we are not going to switch to a situation where there are no more big classes.  So, I found the solutions here to be unrealistic.


At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard

This article is certainly related to the last, and I include it here, as this is the direction that everyone looking at education reform is looking at, based simply on how many articles there are out there.  It is, of course, also what I am considering, which is why I pull every article like this out to look at more closely.  But then, what do I see?  “The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning.”  Back to STEM.  Back to ending the large classes.  Sigh.

Of course, if we had the money and resources, I would certainly jump at trying this:  “At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers.  Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups.  Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.”  But, we don’t have that type of classroom, those types of rooms to work with, teaching assistants, or anything like that.  Plus, as the first article made the distinction, is this something that only works with the top level of college students or could it work for the bottom as well?  A big question that I do not know the answer to.  But since this is where the current push to change the system is going, I am trying to find out all that I can.

That’s why I started with the first article, as I think that we do design and think about the top level of students first, but that often leaves the bottom level out.  And, I teach a good portion of students who are at that bottom level.  I am trying to change their opportunities, but so often it does seem like the solutions I’m looking at require more money, time, and resources than are available to me.  And yet, we’re also facing continuous budget cuts because even at the level we are now, we seen as being too expensive.  I don’t know what this means, but it does make the job more difficult.  Being innovative, creative, and improving student success on the cheap is very difficult.

Thoughts on Education – 2/12/2012 – Is Technology the Solution?

I haven’t had much time to sit down and think about education since Thursday.  It’s funny how the weekends slip away from you.  I do have a big backlog of articles after having not done them on either Thursday or Friday, so I’m going to stick with more reviews today.  I haven’t quite figured out what’s a good mix here, more of my own stuff or more article reviews.  Of course, even in the article reviews, I am including a lot of my own thoughts as well.  Right now, I’m doing article reviews when I get 4-5 articles I want to look at.  However, I do look at so many places for information through the week, that it is honestly quite hard not to have that many articles to examine.

Using Technology to Learn More Efficiently

OK, so to start, just ignore the large Jessica Simpson lookalike on the page there, as distracting as her stare is there.  I was interested in the article from the title, which is what gets me to save most of them for review later.  So, often as I’m sitting down here to write about them, I am reading them for the first time as well.  Sometimes they are so irrelevant or don’t do what I want that I simply don’t do anything with them at all, such as this one today.  This one almost got a delete as well, but the concept is at least interesting, even if it links up to an older style of learning that I don’t want to encourage in my own classroom — flash cards.  The article profiles a company that is digitizing flash cards and remaking them to encourage better retention and more honest use of flash cards.  The more compelling idea is the creation of a schedule and the push for accountability to the students to complete their work.  As the article notes, this is really an attempt to reduce the unproductive cramming before an exam and open up a broader studying schedule.  However, the ultimate limitation here is the students.  They are the ones who have to make the decision not to cram at the last minute, and I have a feeling that the students who would do this with this program would be the same ones who would be least likely to put off all of their learning to the last minute anyway.  Still, I’m all for accountability, especially if it could be integrated with that idea from yesterday on using Google Docs to gauge student progress.  So, maybe as a tool that an instructor could put together and release to the student, this could work.

The Gamified Classroom (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

“Today, students are expected to pay attention and learn in an environment that is completely foreign to them. In their personal time they are active participants with the information they consume; whether it be video games or working on their Facebook profile, students spend their free time contributing to, and feeling engaged by, a larger system. Yet in the classroom setting, the majority of teachers will still expect students to sit there and listen attentively, occasionally answering a question after quietly raising their hand. Is it any wonder that students don’t feel engaged by their classwork?”

This, again, goes back to the issues I’ve talked about in several other posts, especially the last one.  If we are talking about student engagement, then I think we are failing with the lecture model, especially to the most current generation of students, which is who this article series concerns.  I just have to look out at my own classes on lecture days to see the problems, with maybe 1/3 paying active attention, 1/3 paying occasional attention, and 1/3 completely disengaged from the material.  Of course, is gamification the answer?  Of course not.  But can we learn something from this educational trend?  Very likely.  Perhaps it can bring in greater engagement and even foster creativity rather than rote learning.

The role of technology can both help and hinder learning.  The article refers to a number of ways that technology can help engagement, through having the students involved in project based learning and higher levels of engagement, using both apps and clickers.  What is interesting is what the author sees as one way that technology is reducing that engagement as well, the smartboard.  I’ve not seen that criticism before, as the smartboard is often held up as one of the prime ways to engage students.  “Unfortunately, our classroom is often filled with technology that only exists to better enable old styles of teaching, the biggest culprit being the smartboard. Though it has a veneer of interactivity, smartboards serve only as a conduit for lecture based learning. They sit in front of an entire classroom and allow a teacher to present un-differentiated material to the entire group. Even their “interactive” capabilities serve only the student called upon to represent the class at the board.”  I have been suspicious of smartboards as a save-all, but I had never really been able to figure out why I didn’t like them.  I find this argument compelling.  From my own point of view, they seem to just be a new version of the chalk board, offering nothing more than you can find with the method.

“In schools, our students should be using technology to collaborate together on projects, present their ideas to their peers, research information quickly, or to hone the countless other skills that they will need in the 21st century workplace–regardless of the hardware they will be using in the future. If we’re just using tech to teach them the same old lessons. . . we’re wasting its potential. Students are already using these skills when they blog, post a video to YouTube, or edit a wiki about their favorite video game. They already have these skills; we have to show them how to use them productively and not just for entertainment. This is where Gamification comes in. Games are an important piece of the puzzle–they are how we get students interested in using these tools in the classroom environment.”  I agree.  Ha!  What I always tell my students not to do, present a big quotation and say they agree, but I guess I’ll hold myself to a lower standard than them.  Still, I think this is an insightful look at the problems with just throwing technology at the problem.  You can’t just hand teachers technology and expect them to transform everything.  Technology is not the solution, although effective teaching with effective technology could be part of the solution.

The last two Parts of the series deal with how this might take place in practice.  I’m not going to go through all of that here, as the information is diverse and hard to summarize.  So, check it out if you’re interested.  I think what is most interesting is the push for self-pacing and self-motivation for students.  Tying completion to rewards beyond simple grades and pushing the students to do more.  This is an interesting idea, but I do wonder if our students are ready for this.  That is always the problem with these articles, that they project these things into an ideal world where students are not motivated because we aren’t motivating them.  Yet, the real problem is often much more complex.  Our students are as varied as can be, and the reasons for motivation or lack of motivation are varied in the same way.  How do you motivate students who are working two jobs, taking care of kids, sick, taking care of sick family members, in school only because their parents think they should, in school only because they think the should, and so forth.  In other words, when students aren’t required to be there, such as at college, how does this push differ?  Something to think about.

The loss of solitude in schools

And, I’ll close for today with an opposite view.  Here, the author is warning against the push for project-centered education, one where we emphasize interaction and group work over individual absorption of material.  She makes the case that education is inherently a solitary process, where we engage with and absorb difficult material until we learn it.  As she says, the emphasis on group work and interaction produces students that “become dependent on small-group activity and intolerant of extended presentations, quiet work, or whole-class discussions.”  In other words, they forget how to learn on their own.

She also notes that the push away from the “sage on the stage” can be just as damaging for students.  “Students need their sages; they need teachers who actually teach, and they need something to take in. A teacher who knows the subject and presents it well can give students something to carry in their minds.”  I have never done much with small group work, so I can’t say one way or another how this works.  I have generally done either lecture or discussions.  I don’t know how to evaluate small group work, and so I have not done it.  Perhaps this is short-sighted of me, but I just don’t know how to give a grade for group work that is not just on the end project.  In other words, how do you hold everyone accountable?  I know, from talking with my wife and remembering my own experiences, that group work is inherently unequal and very frustrating for those who want to do a good job, as they generally end up doing most of it.  I don’t want to put students in that position, and have never been much for this idea.  I could be convinced otherwise, but I am skeptical on the idea of small group work.  I know that many of the changes I’m looking at making involve small group work, but I just don’t know what to do with it.

Anyway, enough for today.  Please let me know what you think or if you have any responses to the ideas I’m presenting, as I don’t want to be working in a vacuum on this.

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?