I’m just back from Chicago where there was a Sloan-C Workshop on Blended Learning. It was interesting for me and I’ll comment about some of the things I learned there below. I did skip out of the workshop early because I’ve had a hacking cough that seemed to be getting worse and making me feel kind of out of it and since I knew I was looking at a three hour drive, I thought I’d take that during the middle of the day rather than latter and be pooped out for tomorrow.
I’m prone to compare my own undergrad experience (as modified in my own memory by the 30 years or so since I graduated) with what I’m hearing now about good approaches to encouraging learning. So let me review a few quick points about my college experience. By my junior year at Cornell (I transferred there in the middle of my sophomore year) I had a very complete and engaging intellectual/social life with the people who lived at 509 Wyckoff Road. This was entirely outside the course experience. None of the people I lived with at Cornell took classes with me. This contrasted to my Freshman experience at MIT, where my roommates and I had several classes in common. The courses, in contrast, created their own contacts/friends and the work I did in them was entirely at an individual level. For some of these course – a topology course in particular but some other advanced match courses as well and some advanced political science courses – the work relied on intensive introspection and I really don’t see an alternative to that. On the other hand, I had plenty of social argument on issues and construction of ideas, with my housemates. I am thankful, in that respect, of being able to have both of these things are integral parts of my education. I view them to both be essential. That prefaces for what I have to say next.
For students who either are commuting in face to face instruction or who are taking a totally online class and who are holding down a job at the same time, there is probably no chance to fit in an intellectual social life on top of that which resides outside both the world of work and school. There just won’t be enough time for that. As a consequence, there may very well be a reasonable role to be played by school as a provider of intellectual social interaction and hence having the pedagogy done with that in mind may make good sense. For residential students of the traditional age, who are busy to be sure but without the burdens of work and family to compete for their attention, one wonders whether many of them do intellectual activities outside of class, for their own entertainment and personal growth. My sense is that it happens much less here and now than it did for me at Cornell. I’m not sure about this, but my impression is that this is far from the norm. So I can see, even at the undergraduate level, some folks arguing for a social and constructivist approach to education in the formal classes, as a way to provide this type of intellectual life.
However, there now seems to be an argument being made, implicitly if not overtly, that intensive introspection – hard thinking, working through a complex argument that solves a difficult problem, and doing that on one’s own and thereby establishing a sense of competence in being able to think this way – is not a necessary part of education and that all problem solving can be done in a social context. I believe there are many, including most of my colleagues in Economics, who think otherwise. If the two sides are to do more than simply growl at each other, it would helpful to sharpen the issue and also to ask whether there is any middle ground.
Yesterday afternoon, there was an interesting presentation by Gary Brown from Washington State University on joint work with Tamara Smith and Tom Henderson involving student evaluation in online and hybrid (some but reduced seat time) courses on something parallel to but not identical to the dimension I discussed above. Gary and his co-authors pose two possible and intended to be mutually exhaustive constructs for learning. The first is “School” and the second is “Community” and students were asked which construct most aptly reflects the learning in the particular course where the survey was administered. The principal finding in this work is that novice learners appear to be neutral to these constructs but more experienced learners speak more about community as being important and particularly that peer assessment is of value. I found this provocative but also a little unsettling.
On the drive back today I stopped in Kankakee at a Starbucks for a coffee and a sandwich and read through Gary’s PowerPoint for the presentation. Reading the slides confirmed my initial impression. I thought the cards were stacked a bit unfairly against “School” in that it was presented in an unappealing manner, not attached to personal growth of the student at all but only about getting a good grade via doing well on the tests. With this characterization of school, the results are less surprising. So I wonder whether one might get a more interesting picture (though probably not so strong results statistically) if one made a better case for School and in the process peeled the onion a bit more.
Consider these further issues. There are some courses where “students feel lost” and if the students were interviewed by somebody outside the class who was knowledgeable in the subject but who because they were not in a position of authority in assigning a grade could get the student to open up, would readily establish that the student felt a sense of incompetence in the course. There are other courses, however, whether the student though a novice feels that she is gaining mastery of the subject and making good progress and capable of functioning well with the material.
From the days when I had office hours at the same time as my undergraduate TA and could witness students walking past my office though I had nobody else there so they could meet with the TA, I’m quite convinced that many students who feel lost don’t want to talk with the Professor about it. It is painful to show intellectual weakness of this sort, especially to someone in authority. It is understandable to such students that they would want to seek out a knowledgeable peer, who might help without creating that feeling of embarrassment. But if this is the primary driver of why experienced students want peer critiques, it might be rightly criticized and resisted as the blind leading the blind.
Now consider a different type of student. This student is not just progressing nicely in the course; she is proceeding at a more rapid pace than her peers and is getting deeper into the subject matter. How does this very able student express her questions and issues since most certainly anybody with this type of aptitude will be curious about what comes next? Does she do it with her classmates? Wouldn’t that be asymmetric and unsatisfying? Or does she seek out the instructor whose authority is now not a threat but an opportunity for arguing about the issues that she is confronting. Does this type of student choose “School” on the Brown, et. al. survey?
Students who are in the middle between those two extremes and who find themselves interacting mostly with like students (neither clueless nor prodigy-like) may find that they work better in groups and getting some fresh ideas from peers while holding their own on the giving up of ideas as well and that might be satisfying.
But what happens when the subject gets really hard? Do these type of students avoid such courses? Does the social form of interaction and the group problem solving overcome the inherent difficulty in the subject? Or do we get blather of the blind leading the blind type.
While the Physics faculty here don’t practice constructivism per se, I know that they do follow a Just In Time Teaching Approach and that they reported some time ago that the approach tends to give more focus on the middle students and the very high level students feel they are being held back. Is this focus on social settings for learning and constructivism as an approach in particular really a veiled argument for taking a utilitarian rather than elitist approach toward instruction? If so, might there be a flipside argument that we should be encouraging these middle student to jump a bit higher and not be so comfortable in their mode of learning? And does it matter whether we are thinking about this with adult learning in online or blended courses or traditional college students in on ground courses?
Who else is asking these type of questions?