Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Unnoticed Changes

Today we crept over the 1100 number in course site requests for Illinois Compass (our instance of WebCT Vista). These requests flow in daily. The first day of class was a week ago, and I believe we’ve had more than 200 course site requests since then. There is no sign of the flow stopping, but is has slowed a little in the last day or two. Our business process for making course sites and populating them with current rosters is much better than a year ago, but it is not fully automated. So there are lags from when a request is made to when the site is ready for the instructor and there are lags from when students add the course after the first day of the semester till they see their course site on the Illinois Compass home page. The expectations seem to be that all of this will happen automatically. For whatever reasons instructors don’t seem to compare the course site creation timing with textbook orders, which have to be given months in advance to ensure that the campus bookstore has copies before classes start.

As we regularize our business process to support the campus course management system, we are trying to make small but useful changes in the service that either make things easier for the instructor, or that improve logistics for the students. For example, working through the Vista Gradebook API, we are now able to include some extra fields in the grade book so we are uploading three additional pieces of data: the University Identification Number (UIN), the section the student is in, and the student status (undergrad, grad, or other). Most instructors are familiar with identifying students by their netid (that is what we use as the unique identifier in Compass) but because we recycle netids after the student has left the university, so more popular combinations can be re-used, the UIN is used to identify students in Banner, as that is a lifetime identifier. So this extra data should help instructors navigate back and forth between the two systems.

We are beginning to come up with other ideas in this vein. One thought I had on the student’s behalf is to encourage instructors to use the Calendar tool in Vista. It is the only tool that I’m aware of where a pooled view of data from multiple courses can be seen by the students in one view. If I’m a student taking say three courses in Vista: A, B, and C, then the value to me from the instructor in course C using the calendar is much greater if my other two instructors also use the calendar. In other wordf6s, I as student am much more likely to consult the calendar if I can see the information from many classes in one unified view.

It is commonly said that students need help with their time management skills and something in this dimension would indeed be useful. Here, I’m not talking about information regarding when classes meet. Rather I’m talking about deadlines for quizzes or assignments or other course obligations. Many students tend to do the work in a time window near the deadline, so the students would be able to see times during the terms where they are likely to be quite busy and other time where they are comparatively unburdened.

We are also talking about using the template feature in Vista to make a campus level template that instructors would use when they request a “blank” course. The motivation would be as I’ve articulated above, to make things easier for the instructor or the students. One could set up a common navigation scheme for students so courses have a common look and feel. I don’t know how valuable that is, but it is possible. And one could include a host of links to institutional information, such as the final exam timetable or the Campus Code of Conduct. The instructor wouldn’t have to use these links, but they’d be there.

I wonder how far down that path we can go and what type of things should be done in this vein. If you have ideas on this front, by all means please pass them along.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Does RSS affect the way we read?

I have a few aggregators on my laptop but I still largely read through the browser. The last couple of days I’ve been asking whether that is because old dogs can’t learn new tricks or if it represents some sort of preference. I’m not sure, but I want to offer up a related question. If a document has a bunch of links in it, do you read the document through or do you branch off? If you branch off, what triggers that? And do you care to know where you are when you read something.

The last couple of months I’ve done more “Web Surfing” than I’ve done in quite a while and that is because the blogging has opened up new outlets for me, my level of knowledge in some of these areas is nil and the surfing seems like a way to get caught up quickly. But I don’t have a scientific method for this. A lot is determined by whim. This person makes an interesting point, so I want to read a few more things by this person. Somebody makes a point that seems contentious and I want to see how others line up on that point. Google is an extremely important tool in doing this. You have to start somewhere and Google gives that starting point.

On the other hand, there are some tried and true sources like the NY Times, where I regularly read the Op-Ed and a few front page stories, the Chronicle, which the last few days has been a bit weird because the digest has not come first thing in the morning but usually is there to go through before the first cup of coffee is consumed, ESPN just to do a quick check on the Yankees and anything in the US Open, and then a variety of other things that come from friends who have emailed links or PDFs.

Time is scarce and the tried and true sources probably are more efficient uses of my time than the surfing. But for getting diversity of point of view and learning new things, the surfing is far better. I haven’t taken to read one other persons blog on a regular basis, but I now do look at 15 or 20 blogs with a somewhat regular somewhat impromptu approach.

The question I want to get at is how much discovery do we do for new sources of things to read and whether we let those people with a penchant for reading and acting as aggregators determine our own discovery process, or if we put in effort to control that ourselves.

My sense is that aggregator software inhibits discovery somewhat. It makes finding the content that one subscribes to remarkably easy and it is no trouble whatsoever to subscribe to more stuff than one could possibly read. If you subscribe to Slashdot, that in itself is a career just trying to keep up. Then there is Wired, Slate, and a bunch of other things, I feel I should be reading but I know I can’t process it all. And I should mention the Educause Periodicals, the ECAR studies, the CNI pieces, …I’m getting a headache.

So here’s a little plug for surfing, reading the posts of individuals, quite possibly people who don’t have the credentials otherwise, but who when one stumbles on their site, one finds interesting stuff. This is, perhaps, an anti information literacy view, but it is a way to find perspective that won’t come through in the subscription approach. At least that’s the way it seems to me.

Monday, August 29, 2005

On Talking Heads

Over the weekend I bought an inexpensive Logitech Pro Webcam for the family computer. Part of the idea was for the kids to make little videos and burn them to a CD to send to family. The other part was for me to play with it because it seems like there is a little Video craze on campus and I wanted to get some more experience with it. One kid made a video and then immediately afterward told me to trash it and not look at it. So I did. We’ll get to sending movies to the relatives a little later.

For now, I did some first order experiments, making a few simple movies of myself, both with the software that comes with the camera and with the free version of the RealProducer. The install of the camera itself was remarkably easy. It comes with a CD that has the software and after that is installed a reboot and plugging it into a USB port is all that is required. Not being a genius in the practical arts, I was challenged by how to work the clip used for a flat screen panel and getting it off the base that one uses when it sits on a flat surface, like a desk. There were no instructions for that. It turns out it snaps off its base and readily fits into the clip, which is of hard rubber and easily bent to fit the flat screen. Some impressions of how this might be used for instruction follow.

Talking head videos are viewed as a no-no for good online instruction. I understand that. There is little real content added given how much additional bandwidth the video consumes. A voice track is not that bad, bandwidth-wise. But the video is a killer. And what does it add? Presumably, this is replicating the part of the face to face world that we could do without. The Web seemingly offers all these other opportunities for finding approaches to engage the learner, and here we go again with the lecture, the tried and true approach that we know doesn’t engage them. We just can’t seem to resist talking at the students instead of having conversations with them.

But now, let’s flip this on its head. What if it is the students who are making the talking heads video? What if they do this in pairs as part of a project that is in lieu of a term paper. Suppose the project requires them to write up a little screenplay in dialog form on the topic the instructor assigns, has them present that dialog online by acting it out in front of the WebCam and then delivering that in some format that at least the instructor, possibly the rest of the class, and maybe anyone else on the Internet can see. And suppose, in addition, there was a requirement to design a Web site that complemented the presentation and that included a discussion of the issues and an annotated bibliography on the topic. The talking head video now becomes an instrument through which students make oral presentations, something we should definitely encourage them to be doing, and a way to get them engrossed in making the project. Since they are on screen, they might rehearse. They might care more about what they are delivering. And, that might translate into them learning more about the topic they are presenting on.

With that in mind, my object in using the WebCam was not in high production value but rather in terms of seeing how hard it was to make a movie (and also what type of bandwidth the moving making consumed). After a fashion I fixed in on movies that were 320 x 240 (I assume the unit of measurement is pixels). This seems small enough to keep the bandwidth down but big enough for the viewer to figure out who is on the screen. I made a bunch of clips that were each about a minute in length. The resulting output is about 10 MB in uncompressed AVI format and about 500K in compressed RM format. Though not my intention, a student could send a video mail once a week and that would be no big deal.

“Dear Mom and Dad – School is great. My roommate and I are partying all
the time but I’m still able to keep up my B average. The food though is
terrible. Please send money so I can eat out once in a while. Love
The recording is near idiot proof. Push a button to start the recorder and then push the same button to stop it. There is something to know about where the file is when the recording is done and it is saved to the hard disk. And with the free RealProducer software there is something to know about naming and locating that file before the recording takes place. Otherwise it is a snap.
The hard part for students, I assume, is finding a quiet and well lit place to do the recording. I used my home office for this and it worked like a charm. I don’t think a dorm room would work nearly as well.

I did absolutely no editing on the videos I recorded. I know others want to get the students engaged with video editing but for me teaching an Econ course I’d let the students know that editing is possible if they are not satisfied with the raw footage, but that would be for them to decide. For me the idea would be to have them focus on themselves as presenters and get that as good as possible. Worry about that and the economics, not the film making.

This all seems quite do-able, with perhaps the exception of where the students store their work, including all the outtakes. I’ll deal with that in a future post.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

On Unfair Comparisons and Strategic Planning

My university is at the early stages of a strategic planning process. This is an obvious first step for our new president, B. Joseph White, especially since he has a business school orientation. They have already done a planning process at the University level, and now each campus will do likewise, and perhaps that will get pushed down further to the individual colleges and departments. You can read the framework document and look at President White's Web Site on the strategic plan.

While what is there seems reasonable to me, the process is inherently political. The bulk of the members of the Board of Trustees are appointed by the Governor. And, quite unfortunately, we have a visible but otherwise mostly irrelevant issue in our mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which if nothing else is a serious distraction from the mission at hand.

The framework document has some "unrealities" in it, in addition to the usual boilerplate. Before getting to these let's point out what happens when unrealities determine the planning process in another setting - Iraq. President White could take some lessons in how not to lead from President Bush. The NY Times Columnists have been merciless on President Bush and rightly so. The picture he paints is completely divorced from what is happening. Frank Rich's column, another beauty, really makes Bush out to be a charlatan and in the absence of coherent policy all that's left is a bizarre public relations campaign. David Brook's column makes a different point, though he makes it clear it's not just President Bush but also his lieutenants, in this case Don Rumsfeld. Brooks, in essence, says couch your strategy in reality. In Iraq, there is a clear counterinsurgency. What is the right way to fight in this case. Are we doing that?

Of course the answer is no, we're not, and that's because the folks at the top have a view of the world that is, unfortunately, not tied to reality. That's a problem.

Let's go back to University of Illinois planning. Two facts, obvious to me, but that did not find their way into the document are these. First, the Higher Education structure in this state is hard if not impossible to reconcile with an efficient system. Think of all the public universities in the state that are not part of the U of I system - Illinois State, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois, etc. If the U of I is to have a presence statewide, undoubtedly we'll be infringing on the territory of other publics. In my opinion, there should be one big system for four year universities. What we have now doesn't make sense. But even if you disagree with that, you'd think the structure of higher ed in the state would get a mention in the framework document. But it doesn't. It sure won't get a mention in the plans of the individual campuses.

Second, there are two great universities in the Chicago area, the University of Chicago and Northwestern. UIC is a significant campus and the medical school is a very important institution, but when looking for excellence it is the two private universities which first come to mind. The framework document talks about looking at our near competitors we want to displace as well as those just trailing us, but it doesn't talk at all about schools which are demographically situated similarly to us. The most obvious relevant comparison in that dimension is the University of Massachussetts and its presence in Boston. No matter how much strategic planning UMass does, Boston will be dominated by Harvard and MIT. That seems obvious. We otherwise wouldn't consider UMass a peer, but in this very important dimension it is probably the most important school to watch.

Are these fatal flaws with the strategic planning process? No, not at all. But if one took the current framework document and every other place it said the goal was "excellence" or "a brilliant future" and that were replaced with "sensible approach" or "realistic plan" at least it would show we're aware that planning can go completely awry when the vision is divorced from the actuality.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Seeing

I didn’t mean a double entendre with that title, but readers of this blog couldn’t access the site starting early Saturday morning, because my campus was experiencing a denial of service attack, I believe from some on campus computers that had been compromised. Sorry that the site was down.

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Last night the kids were watching some junkie movie on the good TV and the joys of family bonding notwithstanding I had absolutely no desire to sit through that. So I went upstairs to find something I’d like and ended up renting “Million Dollar Baby” on pay per view. Part way through the movie I start saying to myself “I know that story.” Then I’m arguing, “It can’t be. That story was too gruesome.” Then a bit latter, “This is just the type of story Clint Eastwood wood pick at this time in his career, gritty and with the devastating violence of reality.” But mostly I’m angry at myself saying, “Why didn’t I see it? I should have known this long ago, when the movie came out. Why didn’t this occur to me until know?”

It turns out the movie is based on a story in a book of short stories about boxing called Rope Burns, by F. X. Toole. My wife had bought the book for me a few years ago, perhaps for Father’s Day. Sometime later I read the book, made some mental notes about it – worth the read but not great fiction – I had read a biography about Ty Cobb around that time and it kind of fit in, then I promptly forgot all about it.

Why I felt that I should be able to recall this and identify it with a movie that I hadn’t seen (but I did see Morgan Freeman on Inside the Actors Studio and he spent some time talking about working with Clint Eastwood and I also saw Hilary Swank on 60 Minutes interviewed by Mike Wallace). So the clues were all there but I didn’t tie them together. I just didn’t see it. I suppose part of the reason I was angry is that seems to be happening more and more and on stuff I feel sure I would have gotten a few years earlier.

Learning is about seeing. The goal is to see something, maybe the big picture, maybe how to do something, maybe a connection between things that are familiar but that didn’t seem tied before. When you’re not seeing it is uncomfortable, perhaps some pangs of anxiety, and if its been a long time then total desperation. When you do see it, that’s a good feeling. We say “Aha” for the moment when the seeing occurs and “I’ve got it” for afterwards. I believe we’re hard wired for wanting to see. Curiosity is a basic emotion.

All of this is in my writing of the blog. It’s easy to tell when I’m seeing something. The writing is specific, about an example that has enough fullness that it tells a little story in itself. And when I’m not seeing, the writing is theoretical I have a general idea, but I can’t make it jump up and grab you. There needs to be an angle, a point which comes out of my own curiosity. If there is one, that’s great. If there isn’t, why would anyone else want to read this stuff?

I think this is also in how to view teaching. In the metaphorical, we teachers shrink ourselves down, crawl inside the students head, and then point them in the right direction. “Not over there. Why do you keep looking over there? That will get you no place. For the love of Mike, look over here. This is where it’s happening. Look now. Don’t you see it?”

But what’s going on in the head of that student sitting in the middle row who had a question about 10 minutes ago but was too scared to raise his hand then and now teacher you’ve moved on to another point and then still another and so can’t keep up? “I’m totally lost and really I’m not sure what the point in trying is. So teacher, I’m talking back at you, but you’re not seeing it. Give me something I can make heads or tails of. What you’re doing is ridiculous. You’re not connecting. Either you don’t know it or you don’t care.”

Barbara Tuchman, the noted historian, talks about “Woodenness” in her book The March of Folly, given a variety of examples of wooden behavior throughout history. Woodenness means a deliberate act of non learning, a mulish need to stay the course even if it denies the reality around us. While we may be hard wired to want to see, we often find ourselves being wooden.

One reason why, the most obvious reason to me, is that we’re afraid. We’re not guaranteed to see and its painful to admit we don’t get it. So we stop looking, claim we have a pat hand, maybe even delude ourselves into believing we do, and then the woodenness is a natural consequence. That can happen to the teacher, especially a new one who finds herself in some tough situations with her students, largely a consequence of her own inexperience.

Woodenness can hardly be restricted to the teaching situation. I see it a lot in IT support. We providers see things from our point of view. The users of our services have a different perspective. It’s possible to connect with them. It’s also possible that doesn’t happen. The parallel to teaching is strong. There can be seeing and there can be woodenness. And the question is whether we can do anything about it.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Moving Down the Learning Curve

One of the big issues during the early SCALE days was raising student expectations and instructors subsequently not being able to live up to it – an example of the instructor making things harder on themselves. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Almost anything worth doing has to be learned. It’s efficient to work harder during this learning phase rather than work at a steady pace and let the learning happen en passant, because what the instructor will do afterwards will be different (and better) and getting to that point quickly is a good thing. It is possible to raise student expectations and make life easier for the instructor simultaneously. But that doesn’t happen by coincidence and it certainly doesn’t happen by standing pat on the teaching.

Instructors getting started perhaps should not be too caught up in these issues, since they have enough on their mind to keep them busy. But those who have used the course management system in the past are likely ready to take next steps and we should encourage them to do so rather than expect them to come to us looking for suggestions. Here are a few different ideas just to get the rest of you thinking along these lines. There are many other things that can be done.

Public Web Presence for Course that Exists Inside the CMS

One of the long standing issues that instructors who use Blackboard or WebCT have had (I believe this is true for other CMS as well) is that it’s been kind of clunky to have a “public piece” to the class Web site presence and a site inside the CMS as well. Now the instructor could keep a blog for the public presence, take the RSS or Atom feed for that blog and run it through the an xml to javascript converter and then plop that Javascript into a page that takes HTML input inside the CMS. Students in the class read the feed inside the CMS while those who are not class members can access the blog. The instructor does have to author in both the blog environment and the CMS environment, but that is not too hard and for everyone else it should work like a charm.

Tracking and Notifying Students by Grade Book Performance

One of the great things about technology is that you can use it to “nag” selectively so the person who needs the prodding gets the information, but it is done by an email rather than a face to face scolding. So, for example, if a class has a weekly quiz then those who have missed the deadline in the past can get reminders about the pending deadline. Or those who have overall low performance can get a suggestion email that they come into office hours to discuss their progress in the course. Certainly the WebCT Vista grade book tool is very good for doing queries of this sort to identify the target population and then it is simple to email the group. Instructors who make a practice of this sort of thing may come to realize they need some boilerplate for these emails so they don’t have to spend a lot of time authoring each message individually. An instructor doing this long term will want to develop scripts that automate the entire process, but until that point one can get much of the benefit without too much hassle just by using the query and export tools that are built into the system.

Buddy System for Students

While many in the teaching and learning business extol the importance of group work, one frequently ignored benefit, especially in large classes, is that otherwise students can become invisible. So, for example, if study groups form in a voluntary manner by the students themselves with no involvement of the instructor then it is possible, perhaps even likely, that some students will not be involved. They will be complete outsiders and some of them will end up lost in the course.

Group work allows students to check in on other students. To use my swimming example from a couple of days ago, if one of the students is drowning the others in the group will know this and they’ll try a few things to bring the struggling student around.

Most CMS have a way of provisioning work space for a student that is just for the group or at least for members of the group to submit work on behalf of the groups and for group members to track the work as it is evaluated. So the CMS can make the student buddy system work better and thereby help to ensure that students don’t go off the deep end.

I ‘m sure there are other examples we can use as possible paths down the learning curve. I’d love to hear from readers of this blog with their pet ideas. Having spent the last couple of years getting our instructors acclimated to the new enterprise CMS we may lose sight of our need to give the ones who already made the switch something new to try. We need to keep at it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Playing with Google Tools

When I first got started with learning technology we were operating under a Sloan funded project called Scale and much of what we did followed the precepts of Frank Mayadas, our grant officer and very much a path maker in eLearning. (We called it ALN for Asynchronous Learning Networks and while that is a mouthful I still like the acronym and the discussions about what is and is not ALN.) Frank was fairly generous with his funds at the time but he wouldn’t give a dime to software development. He encouraged us to use off the shelf applications. Though he never articulated his reasons to me among the more obvious ones were: (a) this is one way to hold costs down, (b) development stuff can be flakey while commercial off the shelf stuff has to work if it is to survive a market test, and (c) if an approach works well with off the shelf software it is more likely to transfer to other situations.

I still share much of that in my own sensibility and in that I feel a bit of an outlier in the information technology organization where I work. I think most of the IT pros ascribe more power to software than I would. My view is that it matters a lot if it is bad, because then it impedes work getting done. But as long as it is usable, then it does matter so much. This may sound odd (especially to my staff and likely to folks at WebCT who know I’ve asked for a lot of features to be added to the Vista software and for more features in other software we support). Part of this is a linguistic mater – what does the word usable mean? But the other part is simply a recognition that the role of the software, even the best stuff, is limited. Teaching and learning is still fundamentally about human interaction and individual reflection.

So I spend a lot of time worrying about whether what we offer has substantial incremental value over what the market provides. And given how much attention Google has been getting the last week or so and that more than half the hits on my blog result from Google searches and that the business model for Google make its services free to the end user, I don’t think it bad to consider what the market provides to be exemplified by the Google Tool Suite, even if there are other important players to consider. So today I played with several tools that either I hadn’t tried before or hadn’t looked at for a while. These were Google Talk, Google’s Personalized Homepage, Google Desktop, and GMail.

Google Talk, seems like an ordinary IM with voice offering and in my one test of that with a friend we had problems with the audio cutting out. I have a crappy microphone and that may be part of the problem, a review in Wired said the voice part worked fine. So I’d like to try that again with better equipment. I don’t think voice chat replaces telephone service….yet. So the only thing I’ll note here is the seeming integration with GMail and I would expect that to be enhanced in future releases.

Google Personalized Homepage is remarkably easy to set up and can readily accommodate XML feeds. So in that, it is a potential alternative to a campus portal. As it is right now, the limitations from the user point of view is that if you want a lot of channels you have to scroll most of them and you can’t format the XML feed, it seems like it gives only subject lines that are clickable, but not any of the text of the message. I’ve not been a big one on portals for my personal use, but I have served on campus committees that dealt with portal provision. And in that role I recall reading a piece by Howard Strauss on portals where basically he said the only way for it to work is for everything a person uses regularly to be in the portal. That made sense to me. A campus portal will likely have campus feeds only and only very slowly allow the user to bring in other feeds. Perhaps Google will implode under its own weight, but if I were betting I’d be more comfortable putting my money on them than on the Uportal open source development effort. This is simply a matter of the scale of investment going into the activity.

Google Desktop is ok. I don’t think that finding stuff is the be all to end all that others do but it seems to me this app is the most direct threat to Microsoft and so the interesting part here is whether Microsoft will respond by an accommodating strategy (which seems to be what it is doing right now) or by a combative strategy.

Gmail is mind numbing, not for search stuff but for the quotas. We offer 10 MB of space to our students for their email (and I believe we’re in last place in the Big 10 in terms of that quota.) GMail is over 2.5 Gig of space now (and climbing every second). On things like making email compatible with your cell phone, GMail is much more likely to produce a satisfactory solution than we are on campus. The part where the campus offering wins is on privacy and security. My guess is that most students care about that less than 10% of the time and maybe for faculty and staff that becomes 20% of the time and for administrators perhaps somewhat higher. So I really do think we and many other universities need to reconsider their email strategy and think hard about where the value add really is.

None of these tools will revolutionize teaching, which is part of my point. Let’s leave to the market where it is doing a decent job and not replicate the services so we have some resources left to focus on things that will improve the quality of life on campus. At this point, I think the campus LMS does continue to add substantial value, especially for large course instructors. But in the general category “online IT services for students” the market has some pretty good stuff and replicating that will become expensive, if not in direct cash outlay then certainly in an opportunity cost sense.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Buddy System

My earliest recollection of having a buddy was in summer camp during swim period. For anyone who swam in the deep water they assigned you to a buddy. The rules were to stay close to your buddy while in the water. There probably were other rules as well. I don’t recall. It is obvious to me now, 40 years later, that this was a sensible solution to having a limited number of lifeguards, who had a limited ability to monitor all the campers who were in the water.

We in educational technology have a limited number of staff and the staff probably shouldn’t be the only people the instructor interacts with as she works through her teaching program and how to effectively use learning technology to enhance that program. Beyond the scarce resource issue teaching, unlike swimming, is highly situated, and a good buddy understands the situation as well as the general premise. So in many ways a teaching buddy is better than and interaction with the staff, because the teaching buddy shares certain affinities and hence can offer more critical and valued feedback. Yet interaction with staff is better than doing everything on one’s own (though some self-experimentation is obviously to be encouraged). So what I’m asking is whether we can improve upon the status quo, not do away with it altogether.

Faculty who are experienced may very well use former students as teaching buddies. Indeed, one reason I favor inward looking service learning is that it enables a buddy system to develop between the instructor and former students. But what about new instructors? Who should be their buddy? How do they find their buddy?

In the old days when we used to give out campus $$$ to instructors to attend summer faculty development workshops, we encouraged them to come in groups of their own creation, so the buddy system was built into the workshop activity. Some of these folks would have done this without campus insistence, because they were planning a substantial roll out with technology at the departmental level. But in other cases the campus stipulation (we didn’t rule out individuals but said that groups were favored in getting selected for the activities) did cause a group environment where it otherwise wouldn’t have occurred and based on some follow up interviews, we know that was reasonably successful.

We are long past the days where we give out $$$ at the campus level for any activity that entails faculty development. At best, we might give out a free (er, subsidized) lunch during one of our workshops. Can we nonetheless find a mechanism so that new instructors have a buddy? After all, almost any interesting use of online technology for teaching involves communication of some sort. You can’t really try that out with just yourself. You need somebody else. For example, yesterday I did a little test of Microsoft OneNote’s Shared Session capabilities. (This was one way of having the TA with the Tablet PC to readily be able to communicate without a bunch of setup in advance and in many respects is an improvement over online White boards.) I needed to use a colleague in Econ whom I knew had the OneNote software to conduct the test.

This is a question that I think important and for which I don’t have an obvious answer. There are some easy cases. In departments that bring in multiple junior faculty in one year, there is a potential group for a buddy system. And something similar might happen with new faculty who are in different departments but who have a common appointment in some interdisciplinary center.

But what about in the harder cases where there is only one junior hire in that department, possibly only one in several years? And on a different but related note, suppose it would be good for the faculty member to have a research buddy. Should the research buddy and the teaching buddy be one and the same? Or different? I should add here that our College of LAS has a teaching mentor program for new faculty and perhaps some of our other colleges have similar programs; I’m not sure. One might ask whether the teaching mentor and teaching buddy should be one and the same. (I think not, but I’d be prepared for the argument that if there is a teaching mentor than maybe the teaching buddy is less needed.)

Perhaps I’m just jealous of the president of He does a really smooth commercial. But, seriously, for faculty getting started with using technology in their teaching they would really benefit from having a peer who is at the same place as they are. Does it make sense for us to collect personal profile information from them so we can make a match?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Should Online TAs Have Tablet PCs?

I intend for this post to be a natural extension of my discussion yesterday on First Steps. Let me focus on the use of discussion boards as an online class Help System, where any member of the class can post a query about some work the students are required to complete and any other member of the class can post a response to that.

In may subject areas, restricting attention to text is quite limiting there is notation specific to the subject and representing the ideas in that notation is far better, if it is possible to do that online. Also, many ideas are best explicated via diagrams or images of some sort. That point is easy. The question I want to ask here is this. Can one go from text use of online bulletin boards to “rich language” use of online bulletin boards in a straightforward manner or does that type of extension still entail a lot of pitfalls? And, if the latter, is there anything that can be done about it?

The link below is an example from Econ, something I’ve lectured on a zillion times. It’s not pretty but it does demonstrate notation intensive writing along with the type of diagrams that economists favor.

Compensating Variation

I produced the diagram on my Tablet PC by making a blank slide in PowerPoint, going to SlideShow mode, and choosing the Pen, and then writing. I saved as a jpeg, that slide only, and then uploaded the result to a Web server where I have an account. Then I linked to the file from the blog post. That worked, but the process is a bit tedious. As an alternative, I tried to make an email in HTML with the handwriting within the message and then sent to the blog. That is much faster. But it didn’t work. The image of the handwriting doesn’t appear. I’m not surprised. The blog post is a Web page and to render images within a Web page the image must be at some source location.

The above means it really is easier to do notation and diagrams within email than it is to do this in a blog or discussion board. As a non-techie, I don’t understand how the email pulls it off. Obviously it is smarter than I am. I believe the ink annotations are converted to image files but it is the mail program rather than me personally that specifies file name and file location for the images. It would be nice if electronic bulletin boards could do likewise for images, in which case than be pasted in. Now one has to use the html command (img src=”imagename.jpg”). That email has figured this out makes me jealous and I really wish the bulletin board had this capability.

An easier way to get image data of this sort is to copy it via screen capture. (Of course that means the content has to exist someplace else so it can be copied.) Microsoft provides some freeware to accompany the Tablet PC which combines the screen capture with ink annotations. Below is a link to an example of that.


In order to do screen capture in communication of this sort one really needs to do area capture. My own experience with using the built in screen capture (Fn key + PrintScreen) is not very satisfying in that one has to crop the image afterwards to make it useful. There are free screen capture utilities out there and old time users will be familiar with SnagIt if not other screen capture tools. But I wonder how many students have such a utility on their own computer and whether they’ve used that functionality.

A third way to get hand constructed notation and image into the computer is to write it out on paper and scan it in. Scanners are now dirt cheap and bundled in with the printer. But this approach is also clunky and it typically will produce large files, especially for a user who is not otherwise aware of what is going on while scanning.

I also note that many course management systems have a built in equation editor for their discussion board area and other places where html can be displayed. These are fairly straightforward to figure out how to use, but input is slow. If I were a student I would use this sort of thing for a formal assignment where I wanted my stuff to look good, but I would not use it otherwise.

Similarly, even without a Tablet PC one can make simple diagrams with programs like Paint, and somewhat more complex diagrams with Visio. Students can master these tools in fairly short order, but the same caveat applies to them as to the equation editor. It is a little slow to get something constructed.

My conclusion is that none of these approaches is “really great” as a way to have richer language in the discussion. They are each possible, but there is some clunkiness. At this point it is natural to ask whether there are alternatives that might be better. In this case the obvious one is to use a chat and whiteboard combination.

My experience with electronic whiteboards is that with a mouse only they seem like a frivolous tool, not very useful. But with a digital pen, say from a Tablet PC, they become quite useful. The Whiteboard has the same feature that the html email has, the pen writing shows up immediately and it can be sent quickly to other users. So imagine the TA has that capability and the students use chat. This would seem to better, it will enable some of the rich language to be used, certainly by the TA and possibly by the students too.

Not expecting Shangri La, let me say what is less desirable about the approach. Students will write differently in chat than they will while posting to a bulletin board. It is much easier for someone else to read through prior posts to a bulletin board than to read through an archive of a chat.

So if I were doing this in my class I’d have both areas and have the TAs as much as possible archive their whiteboard sessions as posts to the discussion area. But look what’s happened. Now we’re way beyond the getting started point. I wish the technology were easier.

Monday, August 22, 2005

First Steps with Learning Technology

We start fall semester classes on Wednesday --- a new beginning. The last few days I’ve done some orientation presentations on learning technology targeted at instructors who are new to campus. What should we tell them? The right answer, I’m sorry to say, is much less than I’d like to tell them. My 15 minute talk is mostly about where to find resources and how gain access to them. That’s obviously necessary info for them to have and I’ve been doing these things for enough years now that I know trying to show more at a first session is really counterproductive.

But since this blog is my form of work related indulgence, I’m going to recast my assignment here. Suppose I am the mentor for a couple of new junior faculty members and I am coaching them about their teaching. What would I tell them? What about using technology? Where do they start? How can we make their initial experience successful in the sense that they remain sufficiently interested in learning technology to want to do more with technology the next time they teach and, more generally, they want to continue to experiment with their teaching?

My view is that this is all about finding the right question to ask. One way to get at that right quest is to talk with the instructor and inquire about what they are trying to achieve with their teaching. For somebody who has been teaching for a while but has not used Web based teaching tools, this is probably a good place to begin, because they will have an informed view of their teaching goals. Then the technology recommendations become subservient to those articulated goals and the technology itself can be viewed instrumentally as helping to address those goals.

But I think for junior faculty, in particular, this is not the best way to go about things because while they may have definite views about teaching, they will not have done much of it themselves and so they can’t be reflective on teaching based on their experience as teachers. They can, of course, reflect on their experience as students and possibly on their experience as teaching assistants. It’s not as if that is entirely irrelevant but there is a bit of apples and oranges to the comparison.

I also thing it is critical here to encourage the new instructors to be empirical in their views about teaching. Whatever the approach they do come up with, they need some way for their experience and the experience of their students to impact the changes they make and the next experiments they want to try. The evidence need not be quantitative, but it has to be measured in some way.

Armed with that, I’d suggest the following question for the instructor. What do you know about how students feel or think about your course? (Do they think it is hard? Or easy? Do they think it is boring? Or exciting stuff? Do they think they are getting something out of the course? Or spinning their wheels?) The obvious related question is: how do you know this?

During the process of discussing those questions, I hope it would come up naturally that presentation of content in general and lecturing specifically tells very little on this score. The instructor learns from the questions and comments the students pose. And in a small class setting the body language of the students may convey something about their interest. But students often sit on their hands and wait for others in the class to ask questions. And the body language feedback is often quite insufficient to understand the teaching issues.

I would then lobby real hard with the instructor on the following point, which is fairly basic to economics. Revealed preference information (information that emerges as people make real choices) is much more compelling than information that comes out from providing survey responses, because the respondent usually has little stake in the answers being provided in a survey. It’s not that the respondents are deceitful, it’s just that what they are considering is hypothetical and not tied to anything of consequence for them. This is an issue with all survey research.

So not only do we have the first question for the instructor, we have a strong bias about how to collect the data to answer the question. If possible, we’d like to get at that by observing the students doing the work of the course. And now we have a natural gateway into thinking about the use of technology – it exposes the instructor to some of the student thinking.

Framed this way, it is almost impossible for the instructor to conclude that the right first step is to put up PowerPoints and other course information. That just doesn’t follow. They may do it anyway, perhaps as a teaser to get the students to the course Web site. But as the primary goal, it doesn’t fit.

I will say that perhaps the instructors shouldn’t even come to me for the mentoring the very first semester they are teaching. Perhaps they need some stumbles before they are ready for the help I can provide. In that first semester, starting with the PowerPoints might be right because it is straightforward to do (and usually the students want that content). And this is how we preach in my ed tech unit about getting started. But I have reservations about that because the benefit is pure logistics, nothing about learning, and I think putting off the learning benefits for a semester or two can be a way to turn the instructor off to experimenting with the teaching.

At this point, there seems to be two possible paths, a veritable fork in the road.

Path one is to use the discussion board tool in the way engineering classes use newsgroups – as an area to seek and provide help. In other words, the tool is not where the course work is done, it is only where questions and problems with the course work get vetted and resolved. The good aspects of this approach are that: it encourages the students to help one another, the students who pose a query can reasonably expect a timely response because it is not just the instructor who might respond, and it cuts down on the instructor having to address the same query over and over again. Of course some students might lurk only and not post, so what the instructor observes will be more about those that actively participate, just as in class discussion reveals more about those students who frequently raise their hands.

Path two is to use content surveys as part of the course work. Periodically, say once a week, a question or two are posed on some substantive aspect of the course, perhaps after the student has been asked to read some information on the topic. The student is to respond with a paragraph or so, giving his own thinking on the issue. To keep the instructor’s evaluation work on this manageable, the instructor provides response to the class ensemble, not to individual students, and there is a participation grade only, did the work or not, no letter grading. The advantage of this approach is that it encourages all students in the class to participate. There may be some issues with the students taking the work seriously when there is only a participation grade. But it is my experience that if the instructor can credibly convey that the student work is being read and that the class lessons really do adjust as a consequence to what the instructor has learned from reading what the students have said, then the students will participate in full.

Which path one tries in a first time teaching may be a matter of instructor taste, subject matter, class size and other resources that the instructor has at her disposal. So I don’t want to advocate for one approach fitting all class settings. Yet the reader will note that I haven’t suggested using discussion boards for required online class discussions, nor have I suggested using other collaboration tools for some other type of student writing. My belief is that those are fine to do when the instructor is further along, but they are harder to do well so shouldn’t be tried at first. The instructor should get some experience with simpler approaches initially and only then branch out.

Should we stop the instructors who are more ambitious? Absolutely not. But in figuring out what to say in these first steps discussions with new faculty, let’s avoid the standard teaching mistake of casting ourselves in the role of the new instructors. And let’s remember that primarily we’re trying to help them be more effective as teachers. Turning them into technophiles has to be a lower order priority.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 7

Using the approach for outreach

Individuals get better at an activity with practice. I’m better at writing blog posts now than I was in February when I got started. I have a better sense of what will work in the writing and how to get my point across. That doesn’t mean all the posts will grip the reader. But my batting average is higher now than it was six months earlier. I have a sense that the writing is getting better, that the sentences fit better, and that the argument is better constructed. It helps that I’ve hears from some others about the blog and that on other sites I’ve seen my blog cited as something that is worth the read. That confirms my learning. And it gives a sense of confidence.

Organizations learn with practice as well. I know my EdTech unit is better now at supporting the campus course management system then they were a year ago at this time when we first went into full production mode. Part of this is the individual learning of each staff member. But there is another factor, probably more important in the organization case. We know how to coordinate with each other better and respect each other for our individual efforts. There are fewer disputes about how the work should be done and a better understanding of how the individual roles fit together to provide a decent service for the instructors and their students. The work becomes more enjoyable as a consequence. There may have been fear initially about doing something new, something perhaps too hard for us. Fear can be a spur for the learning. But if the fear persists, then certainly the job is hard to like.

As a manager/strategist, I anticipate this sort of organizational learning. I’m not very good at estimating how long it will take to move down the learning curve, but I do know it will happen. For that reason I expect the same for the inward looking service learning. One should expect that an institution which commits to the approach will be more able to deliver a really good experience for the students when it is a few years into it.

At that juncture, and I really hope not before then because it won’t be ready, the institution may consider trying to move the approach outwards. The natural first audience to consider is bright high school students who are ready to do college work and who would benefit from having peers like themselves in their classes, but who may not be able to find these peers at their own high school. One can envision the group meetings happening online instead of face to face using some placeware system. (One advantage these systems have over a face to face meeting is that they produce a transcript of the meeting in the process of allowing the meeting to be conducted.) Lectures and other course materials can be put online. Except for the use of peer mentor/teachers (I’m not sure if that continues to be the right label when the mentor/teachers are experienced college students and the members of the class are still in high school, but the point is we’re continuing to use the approach that has worked well in educating the residential students) this is already happening and has been going on for some time.

I’m intrigued about the possibility of moving beyond this. What about interventions that are aimed more broadly at the typical high school student rather than restricting attention to only the best and the brightest? If there is a problem with student engagement at the college level, as NSSE indicates, it stands to reason that there are issues with student engagement at the high school level as well. The budget issues we are facing in Higher Ed also have to be surfacing in the K-12 arena. Indeed, to the extent that the state subsidy to Higher Ed is declining, one could argue that it is doing so because the demand for funds from K-12 are on the rise and for utilitarian reasons, K-12 holds a greater command of the funds than Higher Ed.

The core idea is simple. Let the college students as mentor/teachers assist the high school teachers by providing support for grading and giving help to the high school students. This will raise the productivity of the high school teachers and thereby keep costs at that level down while increasing accountability of the high school students, engaging them more in their learning, and one would hope increasing their performance. Indeed, to the extent that the college students enjoy the role they play, this might help to alleviate the shortage of high school teachers by creating a genuine interest in the mentoring and teaching high school students.

There are probably several barriers to making this work, even if the inward looking service learning is a run away success at the college level. Let me point to two of these that are obvious to me from my perch. First is access. Any utilitarian program of this sort will require substantial Internet access for the high school students, something that is probably not present in most schools at present. A program aimed at the best and brightest only will not confront the issue. It is not that hard to finesse the access issue for a handful of students. But when providing for an entire grade level, this is more daunting. And to manage that, almost certainly, there will be scheduling issues. I don’t think these issues are insurmountable, but they need to be recognized up front.

The other big issue is identifying the locus of engagement and control from the university perspective. Traditionally the linkage with K-12 has been through the College of Education. There have been some programs (in the form of advanced placement courses or college equivalents for students in rural high schools) that have been run out of the department teaching the course, facilitated by the continuing education folks, but this has been a low volume activity. If one envisions a high volume activity of this sort, and if the University were not the primary provider but only the facilitator, there are open questions about how that would work. Certainly, a related issue is how the money for this would be handled. If in the humanities and soft social sciences this were viewed as a source of research funding, then some faculty in departments like History, English, and Political Science might be drawn to the endeavor. Let me assume this happens but in a way where there is a partnership with College of Education folks (for reasons I’ll explain below).

What I have in mind is a fairly complex set of interactions. The High School teachers, ultimately the drivers in all of this, either attend courses at the University during the summer or take online equivalents that emphasize method and content for teaching with the college student mentor/teachers as partners. These college students need to part of these summer courses so they become well acquainted with the teachers they will assist. These courses are led by faculty at the university who have an oversight role for this approach during the rest of the academic year.

The high school teachers can “commission” online content to be created akin to the type of content they will learn about during these summer classes. So part of the process is developing effective and interesting online materials that match their curricular objectives. A formal evaluation process needs to be undertaken, and a significant role of the College of Education faculty will be to develop and design such an evaluation. There is a need to consider the effectiveness of the process in general and specifically in a given subject matter. To the extent that standardized testing occurs in the subject area, performance on that needs to be considered, but a big part of the issue is engagement of the high school students and that needs to be measured in other ways.

The high school classes will be divided into study groups just at the college classes were. A college student mentor/teacher can be assigned to a couple of these groups and they will have formal online meetings. That part can parallel the on campus approach that has proven successful. There will also be general online help staffed by these same college students. And issue is when that general help will be made available. If Internet access in the home is sufficient, even availability makes sense as this is when many of the high school students do their homework. Indeed, on the engagement front, getting the students to be serious about their homework is a major objective.

One can also envision a face to face class led by the faculty members who are part of the project, where the high school teachers join in online. The role of this class would be similar to the role the class plays for the on campus service learning, but with one very big difference. The faculty here are facilitators. They are not the teachers. The High School teachers have that job. Yet the faculty members are the ones assessing the college students on their performance. And, to make this work, the High School teachers need to be pleased with how things are going or at least sufficiently engaged that when there are issues they can see these being addressed. The value has to be obvious to them.

This triangular relationship between College faculty, the High School Teachers, and the student mentor/teachers will be harder to manage. This is why I think confidence needs to be built first by the on campus service learning and that it would be a mistake to try a scaled up version of this outreach from the get go.

But, certainly, the prospect of this sort of thing is intriguing and can be contemplated early on. Since getting funding for it might be difficult as partnerships of this sort cut across government bureaucracies, it will take a while to get this going and promoting the possibility early may make sense but not to the point where it undermines the credibility of the on campus activity.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 6

Summer Camp

Historically many learning technology units, often in conjunction with Center for Teaching Excellence units, would offer faculty development programs in the summer to get faculty comfortable moving down the path to use learning technology in their teaching. Virginia Tech is one of the first places that had a vigorous program of this sort. There they coupled the faculty development activity with the replacement of the faculty member’s computer. You can think of the replacement computer as the bribe for the faculty to get them to participate in the faculty development activity. Alternatively you can think of the faculty development activity as institutional burden imposed on instructors when they received their new computers.

At my campus we did stipends to be spent on student help or on software/hardware in lieu of computer replacement. Ultimately we had to get rid of the program because of budget cuts and because the need for increased support also consumed resources so there was some redeployment of resources toward general support. My understanding is that this has been the trend nationally.

If a campus did embrace a program of inward looking service learning, it would be a natural to offer this type of development to the students during the summer between their freshmen and sophomore years. I would make this a requirement for all students though I wouldn’t give course credit for it, nor would I charge tuition. (So it is worth asking if it is affordable to do.) I would offer it in two different modes: either face to face in a one week block, which means the students would have to be in residence on campus during that time, or online, in a three or four week block, so the students could live at home and hold down a job as long as they had adequate access to a computer and the network.

The goals of this intensive training would be these:

a) Get students some expertise on the mentoring part. How to facilitate a session, how to listen to the other students to help direct their discussion, how to get them to understand their role as an intermediary between the professor and the students taking the class.

b) Get students some background on Web design and the use of other software that would be employed in making learning objects.

c) Get students to understand the help structure on campus, so they know where to go to get support when they need it. (The issue of how students in the mentor/teacher role can access help is an interesting one because the current help resources that we have on campus to support instruction clearly wouldn’t scale as is if all these mentor/teachers were potential consumers of the help resource.)

d) Give the students an appreciation of what the faculty member and their peer mentor/teachers will be expecting from them both in terms of effort and in terms of performance.

e) Learn the basics about copyright, the campus policy toward copyright ownership and creative commons licensing.

f) Get students some basics on making content universally accessible and on understanding how different learning styles will process content differently.

g) Perhaps get acquainted with the instructor they will work for and the other mentor/teachers in team of students assigned to that instructor.

In other words, a good part of this summer camp work would be things that most of us have already done in their summer faculty development activities, with the remaining activities devoted to getting the attendees to understand their roles as facilitators in the small groups.

The big difference, apart from the different audience, is the scale. When we were doing this sort of thing we did a couple of workshops with a total of perhaps a 100 faculty combined. Based on our current enrollments, we’d have to push through about 7000 students through these same workshops. So a big question is whether we could keep quality up and intensity of commitment with these very large numbers.

In other words, with these summer workshops we’d be a situation similar to how the big for profit universities (like Phoenix) work. It is intriguing to ask whether if the approach were successful it might create spillovers in instructors for courses that do bear credit and are offered during the academic year.

I know that right now our campus is moving down that path of offering a one credit hour University 101 course for every freshmen student. Certainly courses such as that would likely benefit from that type of approach. Perhaps other courses in the curriculum would likewise benefit.

It is also conceivable that such non-degree training will have market value for the students in terms of summer employment they might qualify for and even in terms of the initial job they seek after graduation. Further, if upper level students taught in this program or served as teacher/mentors in this program, that too might serve as an important credential. Therefore the university has an important role in certifying that the students have completed the work assigned during the workshop and have attained the requisite mastery of the content.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 5

The role of graduate students

So far I have deliberately not considered graduate students much if at all in the discussion of inward based serviced learning. I hope to make my reasons for doing so apparent in this post and to discus how I’d like to see graduate students utilized in undergraduate instruction at public research universities.

My direct experience with graduate students is first as an undergrad at MIT and then Cornell, second as a grad student myself at Northwestern where I did my doctorate and then at Illinois where I’ve interacted with initiatives that involved graduate students in a teaching/support role in the Economics department and more broadly across campus as my ed tech unit has supported instruction.

At MIT the intro chemistry course I took, which was somewhere between general chemistry and organic, was taught in lecture/recitation mode. I had a great TA who taught us a lot and if my recollection serves (this was fall 1972) really liked the teaching part. The Physics class relied on faculty to do the TA function and the Calculus class was taught in self-paced mode where I believe they used undergrads as graders of the walk in exams we had to pass to get credit for the course. The other classes I had were small and taught by faculty.

My first semester at Cornell I took a course called Women and Politics taught by Werner Dannhauser. He was an extremely popular professor and the course was offered in the large lecture room in Uris Hall. I don’t believe we had recitation sections but he had several graduate assistants who I believe occasionally lectured, but it is quite possible I’m confusing this with some other large class. The following year I took German taught by a graduate student (I shirked in this class starting around the middle of the term because it was an 8 o’clocker in the morning. I had to take German in summer school to get through their requirement which required a certain score on the achievement test equivalent. But that was my fault not the fault of the grad student.) I also took a topology course which was smallish but had a grad student grader and somehow I got to know him and we talked both about the math and other things. I also took a macroeconomics principles course, again taught in the large auditorium in Uris. The prof was great, he ultimately encouraged me to go to grad school, but I had my first experience with a TA who I thought was not competent. I only learned much later that the Cornell Econ department was having some problems in those days.

At Northwestern, I was on fellowship all four years I attended. Nonetheless, I served as a TA each quarter of my second year. No first year students in the Econ department at Northwestern were allowed to TA and at least at that time the teaching was part of the degree requirement. (Some of this may have been to work around IRS regulations, but I want to get back to the idea of Teaching as part of the education.) I also acted as a grader later on – that was purely on a cash basis and not considered part of the degree. I had no interaction with the students whatsoever in that capacity.

At Illinois, it is a commonplace for first year graduate students in the department to TA, the key is their English speaking ability, not their knowledge of economics. Fellowships, which have been funded by gifts, are typically reserved for students who are further along and have proven their worthiness. Likewise, faculty with grant money who can fund research assistantships, typically hire upper class students and they likely will take on those students as their thesis supervisor. Many graduate students TA for several years and so I think it is reasonable to describe the TA relationship as an employment relationship primarily, rather than as part of their graduate student education.

Thinking of it as an employment relationship there are several factors that tend to alienate the grad students. First, the wages are low. Second, the faculty member they work for as a TA quite likely is not going to be on their dissertation committee nor have they necessarily taken a course from that faculty member. So the TA function is outside their own graduate education and there is little or no attempt to tie the two together. Also, the graduate students don’t have many options about being a TA. They can’t really work at other jobs (for example teach at the local community college) because they need the tuition and fee waiver that is bundled with being a TA. And in some departments (Anthropology is a known example) the time till the dissertation is completed may be 6, 7, or 8 years and until it is done the department can exploit these students as TAs.

It is said the public universities simply can’t afford to use graduate students as TAs in the way private universities do. In other words, the publics knowingly exploit their graduate students to some degree, and offer a somewhat lower caliber of instruction as a consequence, because the cost model of the publics doesn’t allow anything else.

However, if inward based service learning by undergraduates is a viable alternative, perhaps it is then possible to utilize graduates students more in the way the private universities do. This likely means fewer graduate students overall (and some might find that objectionable) but the graduate students we do have would find their involvement with teaching more sensible and more to their liking.

Here are a few more specific points.

(1) It will be difficult if not impossible to find undergraduate peer mentor/teachers for senior level courses. (Those qualified will have graduated already.) It makes sense to use graduate students here, particularly if the faculty member in the senior course also might know the graduate student from other contexts, a course they’ve been in together, a seminar series they both attend, or if the faculty member will be on the student’s dissertation committee.

(2) To the extent that the ability to deliver a coherent lecture is valued in the particular discipline, graduate students should get practice at lecturing. The recitation section is not the place for lecture. Indeed, the point of the recitation is for students to be able to interact with their instructor. So graduate students should be allowed to lecture to the class as a whole.

(3) To the extent that we want to evoke change in the way teaching occurs, from presentation mode to “guide on the side” mode, graduate students need to learn the new modalities. Assigning them as a TA in a large class is not the way to go about achieving this end. Better to have them in a smaller class where they can interact with the students more readily. Most of our smaller class tend to be taught at the upper level.

(4) If graduate students don’t teach the first year they still will have needs for tuition waiver and stipend. This may be less the case for foreign grad students who have home country or home company sponsorship. But it still is something to be considered. I know that many public universities are doing big fund raising efforts to offset declines in public subsidy. In my view of the world funding the first year graduate education out of subsidy or gift fund would be a high priority. But since any set of funds have an alternative use one might reframe this point to say we need to shrink the subsidy that goes to faculty (either pay them less or have fewer of them) so we can have a viable experience for first year graduate students.

(5) In general the size of the graduate programs should be determined first and foremost by the discipline’s need for new members over a certain time span. Undergraduate teaching needs should not be the primary driver of the size of the graduate program.

(6) Most faculty prefer to teach graduate students and the subject matter of graduate student courses, because they can better tie their research to their teaching and because they can occasionally find a student at the dissertation stage that they want to supervise. For this reason, faculty may be instrumental in their other views and consequently want a large graduate student TA pool for their department. Thus a discussion between the Provost and the faculty on the TA issue may very well find them pitted against each other.

In everything I talk about above where I say graduate student one could readily substitute in doctoral student. I am definitely not talking about masters students, for example in the MBA program, who pay big bucks for a professional degree of some sort. Because professional program students are paying tuition, they need not be considered here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 4

For those regular readers of my blog who expect a daily post, let me offer my apologies, as I've not met that standard the last couple of weeks. First I was on family vacation though I did bring my laptop. Then I took an unplanned trip because my mom was in the hospital. (She'd back in her condo now.) The lesson is that anytime anyplace does not mean every time every place and the barriers to communication, which clearly exist, are most definitely not technological. I'm back in CU now and how to resume the regular pattern of posting.

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Peer Mentor/Teachers and Writing and Editing

Immature writers, and mostly I mean first year students but the thought probably applies to many throughout their undergraduate career, frequently have a problem generating prose when asked to do so in a formal setting (producing a draft for a term paper). They play games like adding filler text, adjusting margins and font, and unfortunately knowingly plagiarizing all are part of the paper they write. I'll return to why they do this in a bit, but note here that in an informal setting, instant messaging and email, these same students are writing all the time. So the issue is almost certainly with the formality of the task, not the writing per se.
Many more mature writers, and I believe this is the case for many I have met since entering the learning technology field, have something of the reverse problem. They take what I would call a CYA (cover your derriere, an acronym I learned from hearing John Poindexter testify during the Iran-Contra hearings) strategy in their writing. That is, the writing proves they've done the requisite research. It conveys thoroughness of purpose, in some cases in an overwhelming way. Frequently, however, what it misses is a sense of the reader. The bulk of the writing is daunting - rendering it inaccessible to many who want lighter fare. The writing needs a heavy dose of editing with a good pruning knife. But what should be cut? The readership is diverse, right? Better to leave everything in because somebody will want that particular information.

My sense of the freshmen writing problem is that that is stems from lack of prior work - the students haven't done the requisite research in advance of the writing task and they haven't done the pre-writing necessary to talk about how to assemble that research into a coherent discussion, identifying the themes and the arguments that will provide the direction for writing the paper. In many cases the term paper is "outside" the other course work that they are doing so the procrastination follows naturally.

One of the ideas of the inward based service learning is to keep students engaged and accountable via the group meetings. When it comes time for a project that requires research, the group's internal mechanisms should have already been firmly established and the project work should be a continuation of what they have already been doing. If the group has already been doing some writing to facilitate its own work, for example, via keeping minutes of the meetings, and if the work itself has had some writing aspect all along, the larger project should be less daunting. The group through its structure should ensure that the research gets done in advance of the writing and then it should be able to talk through the issues that are necessary for a pre-writing activity. My sense is that this will go a long way to alleviating the first problem with student writing.

If by the junior year the issue of generating prose has largely been addressed and most students are competent at that, then the second problem must be addressed. This, I think, is harder as editing requires a strong sense of taste and a sympathy for the reader that may be hard to develop. But the motivation to develop this would seem clear as in the private sector the ability to write a good memo, clear and cogent, one that captures the attention of top management, obviously is a skill that can be tied in a straightforward way to career advancement.

Of course, this may not be the biggest need in the students' writing as perceived by the instructor of that junior level course, who mostly will be concerned about teaching that subject. So I don't believe that the second issue can be addressed unless this becomes a strategic goal of the curriculum as a whole. My sense is that serendipity alone will not get us there.

Indeed, one of the larger benefits in moving to the inward based service learning approach is that faculty will have to reconsider what are the major learning goals for the undergraduates and undoubtedly some of that will focus on student writing. My own bias here is that the primary goal should be to learn to write for intelligent non-experts (engineers writing for business types, English majors writing for scientists, etc.). Apart from the two issues I've identified above, the major problem is that education makes the students insiders into their field of study while a substantial part of what is needed is to make them generalists, especially in how they communicate.

So what we hope to achieve is some recognition of these goals at the curricular level and then a structuring of the peer mentor/teacher activities to help turn those goals into outcomes.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 3

The First Year Experience

Having sketched out how inward looking service learning might work, I feel like a man with a new hammer and I’m looking for some nails. So I want to begin to consider how peer mentor/teachers might be fruitfully employed outside the normal course experience into other facets of student life.

One reason for asking this question is to note the following. With the retention rate at my University (our graduation rate is around 80%) we have a ratio of about 5.5 eligible students per available peer mentor/teacher. But in the model I described previously, in large classes there would be 10 eligible students per mentor. And it is not clear whether the institution will want to use peer mentor/teachers in small classes, where substantial direct student/faculty contact is possible. So we haven’t yet allocated all the peer mentor/teachers and if the model is to work then we need to fully allocate them to useful functions.

In the model I’ve set up, after the first year students spend a substantial amount of time in the peer mentor/teacher role. (Recall that these students are taking one less course per semester and are also putting in the hours they previously would have worked at a part time job.) During the first year students don’t perform as peer mentor/teachers. So it might be tempting to allocate this additional time to letting these students take other courses. And perhaps there is some of that. (At MIT when I started in 1972 they had a bunch of courses that were out of the norm and for half the credit of a regular course. I took a course on “Calculus Theory” with a great professor that really helped me make a jump in my mathematical imagination. One of my roommates who was in many of my classes, including the calculus theory course, took another one of these unusual courses on Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness.” )

I want to suggest a different use of that time, one that focuses on shaping what students do when they are not doing their course work. On my campus this part of student life is normally not the concern of the academic side of the university. We have an entire administrative structure called “Student Affairs.” This unit includes divisions of Housing, Recreation, and the Dean of Students office among many other functions. There is some overlap between Student Affairs and the Academic Affairs. One of the bigger examples is the Living and Learning Communities. But in the main they operate in different spheres.

On a comparative basis, the University of Illinois does a good job getting students acclimated to campus and encouraging students to participate in extracurricular activities. But at a national level there are issues. Binge drinking is an overt symptom. The broader problem is a pervasive nihilism with underlying cause that precedes college and college only amplifies – school is a passport not a reward in itself, fun is hedonistic over indulgence, a blasting of the senses into a temporary oblivion, and as long as grades are good have as much fun as possible. To this college adds a personal sense of freedom, especially the living away from home part.

And there is an additional factor that exists at Illinois and probably at most major state universities, particularly when there is a single large city in the state that dominates its political and cultural life. Many of the students at Illinois are from the suburbs of Chicago and frequently they attend in cohorts that are sufficiently large that the social life they had in high school simply extends and amplifies when they are in college. The good in this is that it mitigates the sense of loneliness and homesickness that many first year students experience. The bad is that it tends to preserve a sense of provincialism and keeps the students in the friendly, safe environment that, unfortunately, does not challenge them sufficiently and does not encourage them to grow in their perspective.

One possible approach is to encourage a sense of discipline via a regimented regime, conjuring up images of Marine Basic Training or the coaching of Bobby Knight. That method might appeal to some of the students. My preferred alternative is to promote a sense of exploration and engagement in the students so that the course work and leisure time share a sense of purpose, perspective, and approach and more deeply so that the students are offered a serious alternative to the hedonism that they surely will encounter, likely in ways that will make it hard to resist. So the core idea is to create the viable alternative, make the students experience it (I trust they will experience some of the hedonism as well), and after the first year let them choose their own path in their leisure activities armed with a sense of the possibilities.

Part of this is to give the students “role models” in the form of other students who seem to be leading interesting and full lives and part of this is to get the students to overcome some personal inertia that they are more likely to encounter at big schools. There are a slew of good opportunities in terms of social/intellectual activities on campus for students to take advantage of. If a student is by nature outgoing, then joining one or several of these activities is no big deal. But for the shyer student, and many are in this category, there is reticence to take the first step, for fear of walking outside the personal comfort zone and possibly being put in a tough spot. The presence of the peer mentor/teachers doesn’t eliminate these risks, but they can make it more likely that the initial steps are taken so that the upside possibilities can be realized.

The structure of what I have in mind would be something like this. The peer mentor/teachers would have to volunteer for this particular assignment. They themselves would be in groups, say of three or four. They’d be chosen for their diversity – boy/girl, humanist/engineer, sophomore/junior/senior, and some other dimensions. They’d be the leaders of a group of freshmen, perhaps ten of these, who would also be selected so their group is diverse. (I definitely would choose them so they don’t come from the same dorm floor.) I don’t quite know how this would be orchestrated but it would be good for the group as a whole to have at least one meal together per week with ample time afterwards for friendly conversation. The rest of the time the meetings might be in smaller groups arranged on an ad hoc basis.

Indeed, to a certain extent too much structure will kill what we’re trying to produce – that social/leisure time can be used in fruitful ways that expand the sense of self. Perhaps some of them go to a concert or to a public debate on campus, perhaps they attend a meeting of a registered student organization, and perhaps they just hang out and talk – meaning of life stuff, the type of stuff we used to think going to college was about. I’d hope there would be a lot of that.

The peer mentor/teachers have to be prepared for this sort of thing so they got ideas for activities or discussions and have some sense on how to get their freshman charges to open up a little, say what’s on their mind. And as was mentioned above, they have to spend a fair amount of time modeling behavior for the freshmen. So we want to encourage situations where the peer mentor/teachers are together having a spirited argument or a friendly discussion, where the freshmen are around to watch and join in. And we’d also want some time where the peer mentor/teacher is in one on one conversation with one of the freshmen.

There is much of this that I don’t know how to accomplish and I’d want to feel my way to a programmatic approach with different experiments on how this might work. What I’m describing above is what I found in my out of class life at Cornell during my junior and senior years (with me in the role of one of the freshmen and a bunch of graduate students I lived with as the peer mentors). A lot of that was serendipity. I didn’t move into the place we all lived (509 Wycoff Road) with any of this in mind. My roommate and I just wanted to get an inexpensive apartment with a fireplace. I ended up spending less time with him than I thought and a lot of time with the people I met there. The lack of planning notwithstanding, I still feel that much of what I got from those folks was of greater value than what I got in the courses I took. And my sense is that now many students get none of that and there’s only so much we can ask from their courses, even if those courses are very well taught.

At the risk of being accused of trying to turn all our students into bookworms and closet intellectuals, we really should try some things in this arena.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 2

Explicating the Peer Mentoring/Teaching System and More on Counting Beans

It helps me in thinking about the proposed structure of a university that embraces inward looking service learning to envision two types of courses; we’ll label them small and large. In my model small courses are typically taught as seminars and are faculty led. They are places for students to directly interact both with their peers and the instructor in an ensemble fashion. On one level, if we could afford it we’d offer most if not all our courses in this mode with research faculty teaching them. But doing this approach across the board is too expensive. (See my posts from mid June, especially the post on June 14.) So we also offer large classes that are taught in a different modality. The undergraduate peer mentor/teachers are employed primarily in the large classes. The thought is that this bang-bang solution is more effective for learning than having all classes near the average size. However, I will argue below that there are many features of the large class setting that we might want to incorporate in some way in the small environment. So please be prepared for some non-stereotypical thinking.

In the traditional large class setting there might be lectures a couple of times a week and a recitation section once a week. Conscientious students might form study groups outside of class so they can keep up with the reading and assignments and to make sure group members are ready for exams. The main idea is to flip flop the roles. Make the study group the focus by formalizing its structure and scheduling the meeting times just as classes are scheduled. Make the lecture less important and perhaps change what is done during these ensemble sessions.

Some of what I suggest will wreck havoc on how to determine “credit hours” and, frankly, for the learning it is really not that important. But it is important for the revenue allocation to the class and determining whether what I suggest is feasible or not from that vantage. So in the background it might be useful to think of the traditional version of the large course as 3 credit hours (which is what I used as the baseline in my June posts) and to assume the revenue that is generated is derived from that.

Let’s assume these study groups are set by the institution with 5 students per and an undergraduate peer mentor/teacher assigned. Supposed they meet twice a week with the intent that a meeting should last about 90 minutes but is scheduled so that the meeting is assigned a two hour block. The two key points are that no student in the group can claim to have something else going on during that time slot and that the peer mentors can lend something of a voice of experience because they will have taken the course previously, possibly mentored for the course previously as well, and concurrently will be coached by the instructor on how to run these sessions and ensure that the right type of work is being done in them.

Of course the nature of the work that the group does will depend on the subject matter and the instructor style. In my intermediate microeconomics class I had the students do a mixture of machine graded problems in Mallard, written out problems set type of work submitted online and with the graders evaluation also returned online and some more open ended writing. Let’s stick with that for now just to be concrete.

During group meetings the students will discuss recent readings and how best to internalize those into their own way of understanding. They will review work that has been done since the prior meeting as well as other work that may have been returned to them, either with a final evaluation or with commentary that requires further response. The group will spend some time discussing upcoming work and if the labor is to be divided in some way how that should be done. There may also be some time spent on how well the group is functioning and if needed process changes that might make things better.

The group meetings serve both as a direct educational opportunity for the students and as a commitment mechanism. The students must come to the group meetings prepared for the meetings to have value. The students must do the readings and the required work on their own. The meetings are meant to create a positive feedback loop for this individualized work. A significant part of what the mentor/teacher does is to make sure that all the members of the group are receiving this positive feedback. If a particular group member is struggling, that person needs some individual attention and the mentor needs to make arrangements to provide that attention. I don’t want to spend time here talking about out and out slacking off. But, obviously, that would ruin the entire approach and therefore must be weeded out as quickly as possible.

Since the students will do some of their work individually, it is reasonable to assume they will occasionally need help right then and there. Instant messaging with other group members is a possibility. But the class also needs to provide online office hours (and perhaps face to face office hours as well) to keep students engaged and productive while they are doing their work. So another part of the mentor/teacher time commitment is participating in their fair share of staffing those office hours.

Further, the mentor/teachers likely will spend some time as evaluators of the group work that the students submit. It probably makes sense to have some arms length evaluation so that in the evaluator role either the focus is on another group’s work entirely or, if the work can be modularized then each mentor as evaluator focuses on a specific module an becomes expert at that so that evaluation across groups for the same module is delivered in a consistent manner. One of the additional roles that the mentor/teacher fills is to help the students in the group understand and react to the evaluation, to make the students view the criticism they receive as a benefit to give them a new starting point for making modifications on what they’ve done previously.

Some of these courses may rely substantially on online materials that are student created. Thus, the mentor teachers may spend some of their time on content development. It may be that some specialize on this and have little or no direct interaction with the student groups. In any one course specialization of this sort might be desirable. The goal, however, would be that as the students move through the curriculum they get a chance to play both roles as they fill their service learning obligation.
The instructor in effect runs a seminar for the mentor/teachers in her charge. In this way, whether the mentor/teachers are able to as students take other small classes, they do have small class like interaction with the professor. Envision that there is one two hour session per week where issues raised since the previous session are raised, the various mentor teachers compare their experiences of their respective groups, and the professor communicates what next steps are expected. Also envision that there is some seniority among the mentor/teachers so that the more experienced ones may mentor the less experienced ones and the professor may also mentor some of the experienced ones. The professor may make a point of attending a couple of the group sessions each week, both to learn what goes on there and to show the professors interest in that those sessions are well done.

What about lectures? My suggestion is that the professor would run an optional “review session” that either went over the lessons that should have been learned from the work the students completed the previous week or that focused on similar but not identical problems to be worked through so the students can see how to generalize from the work they’ve done and perhaps to get a different view on how to approach the work. If there were other course staff, say some experienced graduate students, they could be doing the more traditional type of lecture that centers on presentation of the material. Otherwise, that type of thing could be moved online and perhaps done in a way that is more accessible to the students (modular clips, linked with support materials, perhaps delivered by the mentor/teachers and in their style of language, to convey that the material is intellectually accessible). Alternatively, lectures may be dispensed with entirely and instead be replaced with online interactive content.

Suppose this large class had 200 students and had one mentor/teacher per 10 students. (Thus, thee mentor/teachers would facilitate two of the study groups.) I’m going to rely on the same revenue numbers as in my June 14 post, but note one critical change as a consequence of the new approach. Students take fewer classes in this internal service learning world, so the revenue contributed per class can be higher. In the June 14 post that revenue number was $400. Here it makes sense to bump it up it up to $500.

Here is the consequence of that assumption.

Revenue generated = (200 + 20) x $500 = $110,000

Direct Compensation for mentor/teachers (4 quarter time mentor/teachers together costs $12,800) = 5*$12,800 = $64,000.

Thus revenue net of compensation for the teacher mentors is $56,000. If there are no graduate Teaching Assistants, then half the faculty members salary can be paid (we assumed that was $100,000) and it seems reasonable to assume that this obligation represents half the faculty member’s teaching burden. Plus a small surplus of $6,000 is generated. That is about half the stipend of a graduate assistant, which is one possible use of the funds. If more graduate assistants were viewed as needed, the class would have to larger.

This arithmetic is meant to show that yes, one can do this inward looking service learning model with research faculty, but they would of necessity have to embrace the approach and be willing to teach in this mode.