Tuesday, May 09, 2006

De-constructing Community

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?


Gary Brown said...

It’s high time to respond to Lanny’s critique and join in the sharpening of the debate he calls for, though it isn’t clear now that we’re getting much attention, itself a reflection of the phenomenon that Bok and others have noted—few academics devote much time learning about how people learn.

I want to begin by clarifying some aspects of the study Lanny cites, referencing a presentation and a PowerPoint, which, it is probably useful to note, is not the same thing as the actual article coming out soon as a chapter in the Sloan book on Blended Learning.

I do want to keep this brief, but have to first clarify a few of Lanny’s misperceptions—maybe the first is that I never said or intended to imply that learning isn’t something that ultimately happens in the heads (and bodies) of individuals, that it doesn’t require one’s application, commitment, “intensive introspection” and, ideally, passion. What I do and will argue is the importance of a recognizing or creating a social context in which that learning happens, and that the absence of motivation Lanny laments is often a result of the success we’ve had in education in extricating learning from any meaningful social context and subsequently rendering much of what students are taught as irrelevant to all but a few, that elite 2% of the population who go on and get advanced degrees.

I also need to clarify more about the straw argument Lanny takes on when he challenges our study, most of which stems from a misperception about the methodology as well as the constructs. We didn’t coerce responses to the loaded multiple-choice framing Lanny depicts. We asked students to identify in an open-ended question what kinds of activities best reflect their learning. There was nothing “mutually exhaustive” about their responses. In fact the evidence we gathered exceeded 100% of student responses because occasionally their responses fell into both of the two categories that emerged, categories that, I should add, have deep roots in neuroscience and more literature than I cited in the presentation. What was striking to us in our analysis, the punch line of the study, was the change of perception as students’ thinking matured—by virtue of age, experience, or something else—that illustrated a deepening appreciation for the use of peers and community in their learning. That finding further counters Lanny’s summary suggesting that a great deal of intellectual activity goes on outside the classroom. In fact, it looks like more intellectual passion goes on outside of class than inside, and that is the problem. How much thinking is involved when so much of what happens in the classroom is mindless transcription of the stuff of tests, which, as students gain experience and their thinking matures, begins to hold less and less sway about what learning means and what matters until we arrive, too often, here, where education is all about ends rather than a lifelong mean, a mere credential, something to be “gotten through.”

Lanny raises a number of other points, many deserving much more time and attention, but the final response I would suggest is that perhaps his call for a “middle ground” in response to what some folks he cites “think about learning” masks the larger issue. I’m not right now persuaded that the way people best learn is a matter of opinion, but to understand that will require more time “seeking out authorities” than it appears too many professionals are inclined to pursue…

Lanny Arvan said...

Gary - thanks for the thoughtful response. As it is more than a month since my post above, I'm no longer caught up in the ideas of the conference. At the time, I believe that I melded what I was hearing in other presentations with your talk. So that may have been unfair by me.

The questions I was trying to ask myself during the conference were first, would colleagues back in Urbana in my home department (Economics) and across campus as well be convinced by anything that was being said at the conference if they did hear these arguments and second, if the answer to the first question is yes, what type of changes to their teaching would they make?

If we can agree, as Gary's rhetorical question near the end of his fourth paragraph suggests, that much of what currently happens in the face to face setting is the instructor lecturing throughout the period and students taking lecture notes throughout, that Q&A and more general give and take in the classroom is less commonplace than one might expect and would think is desired, there remains the important question of why this is so. Would the lectures induce a lot of Q&A if the students were prepared, with taking lecture notes a signal that the students are not yet ready to ask questions? Would the instructor be more engaging and therefore more effective if the lecture were abandoned altogether? What might be put int its place that wouldn't completely overwhelm the instructor from the point of view of the effort involved?

Gary and I did have a little email thread about this post closer to the time it was made. In that he sent a variety of references, some of which I tracked down (and I'm hoping he'll identify the precise one I'm referring to below). There was a piece that said students are reluctant to argue intellectually with peers and find that an uncomfortable activity to be engaged in. I recall that the primary reason behind this finding was the fear that the counterpart would be unyielding in the face of argument and evidence that contradicted the position being advocated and consequently that the argument would turn into something less, a shouting match, something that the student didn't want.

It's unclear to me whether that point is generally agreed to and especially, given the work Gary and his colleagues have done, whether students soften on their views about engaging in arguments with peers as they mature. If not, what is to be made about this preference for Community?

Putting on my pedantic hat, which unfortunately I'm apt to wear from time to time, I have to say that even after reading Gary's explanation I still think that in his methodology the categories School and Community are mutually exhaustive, meaning there was no third category, e.g., "Other." So I don't quite think I made the misperception he believes I made, but so that this is not an entirely hollow point let me tie it to another.

During the Frye Leadership Institute, which I attended in Summer 2003, we learned two "truths" about undergraduate learning. The first is that every student wants a deep intellectual relationship with some faculty member. The second is that most of what students learn (I recall a fraction, 60%) they get from their peers (and hence good university design facilitates that type of learning).

So the question I was trying to get at is what happens to that first truth as the student matures. Do students still want that type of relationship but think it is increasingly unlikely to happen? Do they come to believe that (large) classroom instruction is not a path to such a relationship? Do they become more confident in their own abilities and level of knowledge and hence feel less of a need to converse with the faculty? And tying this back to the study by Gary and his colleagues, would any of this show up in the construct called School?

Gary Brown said...

Nice addition that really gets me to thinking. Now I am persuaded that even though some students make comments that fall into both constructs, the constructs as defined are mutually exhaustive, and as students we are schizophrenic. The problem is that defining school as “pseudocommunicative” is not the same as school might be defined, as the impetus of the definition, defined by all too common practice, strives to encourage reconsideration of teaching practice.

I also agree that most of us sought out and found or were found by a faculty mentor, perhaps two, who identified something in us, validated us. We are the lucky ones. And subsequently we were encouraged or found a way to persist as academics. Maybe we found our mentors by dint of luck, by talent, or by pheromone or synchronicity. No doubt it had much to do with the proximity of school and interest or by incipient academic pursuit. I doubt that beyond that there is very much in the structure of our classes and institutions that prompted the connection. Mostly we find we can dismiss courses and the faculty who teach them who probably don’t recognize most of their students on the street, and subsequently most of us find our own way towards our own interests. Just as I don’t think we can praise the structure of our undergraduate programs in particular for promoting “rich and rapid faculty feedback,” there is similarly very little reason to blame them or the faculty who labor so hard within them. All of this, however, presages the need for and the emerging reality of new models like the just in time profits, distance and blended strategies, learning communities rich in peer critique, and Web 2.0 independence with Western Governors articulation and degree brokering.