Saturday, December 17, 2005

Gresham’s Law and Using Learning Technology in Large Undergrad Classes

It is an unfortunate but real part of teaching that many students will try to subvert the assessment mechanism they are exposed to rather than be measured as an under performer. I’m not sure entirely why this happens. I’d guess it is a combination of human nature, a lack of understanding of the ethical issues involved, and a disconnect with the subject matter so that the assessment is perceived as for the grade only and not for the benefit of the student’s own learning. As a consequence, we who support online learning technology and those instructor/designers who author materials for these online environments go to some length to deter this type of behavior and encourage more appropriate student engagement.

Examples include banks of quiz questions from which CMS software makes a random draw so that when a student tries again (or when another student tries the quiz) a different question will appear, timed quizzes in the CMS so that students can’t get real time help during the period when the quiz is administered, anti-plagiarism software to see if the student has produced original content and to alert both the student and the instructor to the need for appropriate citation when the content was taken from elsewhere, and software to disable the ability to connect to external networks on computers in computer labs when such labs are being used to administer tests. Some instructors deliberately eschew the technology, particularly because of the perceived pernicious effects on class attendance. So they don’t put up lecture notes for fear that some students will view that as an excuse to miss class. Indeed, one instructor I know has students record multiple choice homework on scantron sheets that the students must turn in by hand during the live class session, just to make the students come to class.

These are examples of Gresham’s Law in Learning Technology clothing. (The bad drives out the good.) In the examples above the good students lose the convenience or learning benefit from the technology because the bad students will take advantage of the situation. In my own teaching, I know that in the old days I would hire extra proctors to administer paper tests and some students would report the feeling that they were in prison, being watched by the guard. The security measures created an aura of distrust. On the other hand, when some students witness other students cheating, that also hurts class morale.

This means that for any possible technology innovation there needs to be incentives to encourage the desired behavior. Good design takes a leveraged approach where those incentives double dip or triple dip and do other things that are benefits to learning, aside from providing the requisite “stick” to ensure appropriate student behavior.

So let’s consider the suggestion I made in my last post this way. Imagine there are two types of students within a single group. First there are Emily Eager-Beavers. Then there are George Goof-Offs. George and his cronies will try to free ride on Emily and her cadre. George will either not attend the live sessions at all or will be there but won't pay attention. Perhaps George will give Emily a hard time during the live session. Emily, on her part, wishes George would just go away and wasn't part of the team at all. She feels George is dragging down team performance.

If in this setting the professor designs a mechanism where team members police each other, there is a good chance it will fail. The Emilys of the world will feel they are getting nothing out of the policing activity. They will perceive this role as a burden without a commensurate benefit. And the Georges will take advantage of the situation as much as possible, trying to get the benefit of the doubt where they can and otherwise antagonizing the Emilys to get more out of the arrangement than is deserved based on performance.

What is the instructor to do? The obvious answer is to have someone else, an agent of the instructor who is not a student in the class sit in on the group discussion. Perhaps the most straight forward way to do this would be to have all the groups in the same physical location, i.e., the classroom to where class meetings are held. Of course if this is done then there is no economy achieved with respect to scarce classroom space. More importantly, to the extent that the group gather in the regular classroom, wouldn't it make sense that the instructor do direct communication, i.e., lecture, rather than engage the class in a placeware session? To the extent the instructor as regular practice has the students do active learning exercises to promote thinking and problem solving, perhaps using placeware to amplify and interconnect the active learning within each group would make sense. Certainly this is a possibility as an instructional enhancement but viewed this was it is an add on to cost. Further, many of our classrooms in the requisite size range are not well suited to accommodate students with laptops. So this might work in some instances but not as an across the board approach.

The other is to use students who have taken the class before as peer mentor/teachers, to attend the group meetings both for the live class session and for out of class sessions, each of which now can be held at a location designed for that purpose. I have suggested this before and would really like to see this possibility unfold. But it is clear that such peer mentor/teachers won't put such effort simply for the good of the order and thus that should be considered as a cost of instruction, one that we might not be able to afford. (My own view on the affordability front is that greater reform is needed and that it is possible if that happens, but not otherwise.)

What is the bottom line? Can we get there with using placeware in large undergraduate classes as a way to promote interaction between students and instructor as well as from one student to another? I don't really know, but it is clear that hoping it will happen is not sufficient.

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