Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On Passions, Courses, and Other Devices

David Brooks has a eulogy as homage to William Buckley. Though I’m not a Buckley fan, I thought this a very good read. Brooks points to the human side of Buckley and what in the persona enabled him to become the champion of the conservative movement. I wondered if Brooks was being overly sentimental and because I had seen a snip on the Charlie Rose show the night before which included an episode with Buckley and Arthur Schlesinger, I searched for that episode and found this video on YouTube of a show from 1995. (The audio is not very good so you need to turn up your volume to hear and it is not well synched to the video. But it is interesting in several respects.)

Though Schlesinger and Buckley are at the opposite ends of the spectrum politically, Buckley takes a protective stance about Schlesinger personally, forcing Rose to acknowledge the Pulitzer Prizes Schlesinger won, and the tone in the conversation is respectful and collegial, in spite of the differences in point of view. This is a gentler Buckley than I remember from the times I saw him on Firing Line, though this review seems to suggest it was representative and it is my memory that is faulty. The show is also interesting on two distinct bits of politics and history. The general debate between the two is essentially the same argument about the role of government we are having today. In that sense things have not changed at all. The show, aired in January, followed the elections from the preceding November, where it was apparent the electorate was quite fed up, and the reason was pure economics – the middle class was feeling threatened because of the dislocation caused by the move to the information economy. Schlesinger had that part of the story completely right. But this debate preceded the boom and neither he nor Buckley anticipated that at all. So on that they were both spectacularly wrong.

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The above was written on Friday. I thought I’d complete the post over the weekend, in between trips to Chicago to get our Executive MBA program started using Adobe Connect and to Purdue for the CIC Learning Technology Group meeting. But travelling takes something out of me and some other obligations got in the way. So here it is Wednesday and I’m trying to pick up where I left off as best as I can. Also, in the meantime I read Gardner’s post about his encounter with Buckley, with more confirmation that the gentler side of Buckley was the real one – why can’t the people you disagree with be ogres? That would be so much simpler. Perhaps the stereotype I depict next is also not quite right.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been involved in two separate conversations about General Education courses in science, taught by instructors who win the Campus awards and who really care about their teaching and invest in it heavily, and who report that the students won’t put in any effort whatsoever if they don’t get course credit for it. In one case the issue was a pilot blended learning offering in a course on Severe Weather, where the students were supposed to do substantial out of class work in preparation for the live class session and to post their questions about their readings online ahead of time so the instructor would have read through these by the time the live class session was to start. The finding, however, is that the students would do the reading but then get stuck someplace, usually the same place for the bulk of the students, and then the questions they posted would be about how to get unstuck. They t put in neither the time nor the effort to get unstuck on their own. So they never got to the point to ask follow up questions.

In the other class, a course on Plants and Pathogens, an extensive Web site was developed over many years to provide complementary content to the textbook and in some cases novel content that has no parallel in the textbook. The instructor’s original idea is that different students prefer to get their content in different ways and some students would prefer the online presentation to the traditional text presentation. But the finding was that the students used the Web site only infrequently, and then mostly to do the required lab notebooks. They hardly used it in an exploratory way, though the instructors had wanted that outcome.

Judging by the behavior that we can observe, these students don’t seem passionate about these courses and the conclusion the instructors have drawn is that their behavior is typical. The Plants and Pathogens instructor, citing the book My Freshman Year, hypothesized the students are too busy to spend idle time in search of ideas garnered from optional material on the Web site. I’m hearing about the student time constraint fairly often. I continue to wonder whether it is the real story or a place holder for something else. Perhaps the students just don’t have the requisite level of commitment. Then again, maybe it’s that they don’t really know how to make use of such a Web site in a way that would help themselves as learners. Likewise, maybe the students in the atmospheric class don’t have the ability to get themselves unstuck.

My suspicion, and I base this on what I’m witnessing with my own kids as they struggle through some of their homework is that there is a vicious cycle afoot with the following elements:

a) The kids have been told since day one that they are very bright so they feel they shouldn’t have to work hard to master what they are being taught.

b) Some of the work is, in fact, difficult for them. They really don’t know how to cope and need some personal coaching.

c) Absent the personal coaching, the next best alternative is for them to put in the time on their own and muddle through. But the ego is really on the line this way. Blowing it off is much easier and certainly much less painful to the psyche.

d) Their peers don’t seem to be putting in the time either so from a cultural perspective putting in the time would be leaving the herd. For many, that is hard to do.

e) So they develop a lack of confidence that they can accomplish their learning, even though they are bright. And then the cycle repeats.

I have to say, it’s not just the kids. I’m guilty of some of this, particularly with mobile technology, like my cell phone. I don’t learn it well enough at the outset and I find it hard to use. I believe that many instructors are that way with presentation technology to be used in the classroom. The difference here, if there is one, is that these instructors have demonstrated intellectual competency and an ability to learn in some area of endeavor. With the kids, it’s not clear whether they have or haven’t. And if they haven’t, how could they possibly be passionate about their courses?

In an effort to help the instructor in the Severe Weather course, I did some searching on “Getting Unstuck” and in short order I found this paper, Successful students’ strategies for getting unstuck (your Library has to subscribe to the ACM Portal for this link to work.) The focus here is on computer science but I believe the lessons are much broader than that. Much of the answer seems to be in finding help from someone else in the know, not very surprising but certainly worth mentioning. However, I’m more interested in those techniques that allow the student to get unstuck on his own. It seems to me that is the key ability to develop intellectual confidence and learn how to teach oneself in the future. In that regard, I really liked the following quote. This student has figured it out.

I would say, deviate from the assignments on your own time and write programs that you think are completely useless and stupid. You think of these programs, no one’s going to use them. ... Just do it anyway because you’ll understand. You’ll run into problems and you’ll find the solutions to that problem. [...] And then, when the school project does come, you’ll have had the experience from what you’ve done on your own. But I think it’s important that you don’t just do the schools. You’ve got to do it on your own.

It seems to me it’s not so hard to figure this out, but it does take a willingness to put in the time, and between those two there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. So I’m not sure we can teach doing those useless and stupid things that get you to understand what is going on (so they clearly are neither useless nor stupid). But it’s worth pondering.

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On the useless and stupid front, I’ve been screwing around with presentations that are meant for online only, not to be delivered face to face, and using a series of blog posts to achieve that. Here’s one on professional development for learning technologists. I know I make my movies too long for the content that’s in them. But perhaps the format suggests something that others can see could be valuable if done well, and then make some improvements on what I’ve got so far.

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