Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hidden Conversations

Growing up I was very fortunate to have a steady best friend, David, all the way from first grade through high school. David’s house and mine faced 56th Avenue; we lived diagonally across from each other, each a corner house, his bordering 211th Street, mine on 212th Street. Over those years we played a lot of ball games with a Pensie Pinkie. (I could find no image on the Web for Pensie Pinkie but if you have no idea what I’m talking about you can find some info by looking at this page for the prime competitor, the Spaldeen.)

Our favorite game was slapball. The way we played it you needed at least two players in the field, a pitcher and someone else to take the throw at first base. We could accommodate more fielders if there were more kids who wanted to play. When we first played the game David’s older brother Lesley was the permanent pitcher for both teams. As we got older we learned to “pitch” too, in this case a motion similar to throwing a dart where the ball bounces once before it’s ready to be hit. It’s amazing how much spin you could get on one of those Pensie Pinkies by flicking your finger as you tossed the ball.

We had some special ground rules owing to where we played. My family had a one-car garage attached to the house (but you still had to go outside to get into the garage) and the driveway was steeply sloped so it really wasn’t good for anything sports-wise; but we did have a stoop that was perfect for stoopball and David and I played that too when we didn’t have enough kids for slapball. David’s family had a two-car garage, luxurious for the time and the neighborhood, that was unattached to the house and with a flat driveway, which was perfect for our slapball infield.

The heading east lane on 56th avenue (my side of the street) and the heading west lane (David’s side) were separated by a “mall,” mostly weeds and some trees surrounded by curb, about the same width as one of the lanes. This was well before the Pooper Scooper Law went into effect so the mall was a bit of a minefield and you either tried to avoid it altogether or carefully watch your step while walking in it. The mall was where our outfield started and the ground rule was that if you hit the ball there or beyond on a fly you were out. On offense the goal was to hit it sharply but on the ground and see if you could get it through the infield. If you got a big hit that way with the ball ending up on the mall or, even worse, on the lawn of the Old Lady who lived next to my house and across from David’s, then it was the fielders’ problem and they had to chase it.

Slapball was our main game when we had four or more. When we had three we played Chinese Handball, using the Garage Doors as the wall, and with two apart from stoopball we either played boxball or “errors,” the latter where you threw the ball at the garage above the doors and the other person had to catch the throw on a fly. You’d get an error on the throw if you missed the target and a different type of error if you didn’t make the catch. David killed me at that game. He was a much better ball player. But I learned to passably catch a ball with one hand that way and my hand-eye coordination definitely improved for all ball games as a result.

The simple joys of childhood sometimes mask the valuable lessons from the play. On the emotional front you learn how to compete but still keep it fun, how to keep from being a spoiled sport when you want to win too badly, how to accommodate players of different abilities and temperaments and different ages too. My brother, 20 months my junior, often tagged along. He didn’t have a friend like David who lived close by. Similarly, David’s older sister Julia also tagged along. I was really lucky that way. I never had to feel lonely or out of place. The siblings were not as fortunate.

Probably the most important outcome was to gain a strong core value for friendship. It seems throughout my life I’ve almost always had a best friend and in making choices about my circumstance I’d often be driven to favor that choice where I’d be pretty sure of striking up or resuming a good friendship. The prime cause behind those choices can be found by looking back at those times with David and the happiness in that.

With all this good fortune and David living right across the street, hard for me to miss his playing outside when walking out our front door, you might think this all came about by us finding each other and then moving along from there. But you’d be wrong. It didn’t happen that way. Indeed, we lived in that house for over a year before I met David. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, my mother found the house of another kid who also ended up being a friend, Steven. He lived around the corner and down the block on 211th Street. My mom took me over to Steven’s house. David was already there. We played upstairs that day. I’m guessing it was Mr. Potato Head, but I was 5 or 6 at the time, so it was 1960 or 1961. Who remembers specifics with accuracy that far back? In any event, I was the one late to the party and the only reason I got there at all is because my mother dragged me.

For several years thereafter it was Steven, David, and I as a threesome at play, with various siblings on hand from time to time. This persisted even though by an odd quirk 56th avenue became the dividing line for where to go the primary school when a new school opened up in our neighborhood starting in second grade. So Steven and I went to P.S. 203 while David stayed at P.S. 31. By junior high we were all going to the same school, but the trio didn’t survive. Somewhere around that time Steven started to find a different crowd. My friendship with David, based mainly on play outside of school, stayed strong. I don’t believe we took any classes together till perhaps junior year in high school. That didn’t matter.

Thinking about this all these years later, and knowing that I really had it in for my mother for other things she did later on where she pushed me in what I thought was the wrong direction, I’ve really got to hand it to her. I don’t know if I’d ever have gotten into that deep friendship with David without her setting it up at the beginning. For that I’m very grateful.

* * * * *

Last Thursday our four-week summer session concluded. Along with the rest of my eLearning team, I’ve been involved in a project to record video of a small seminar offering of a finance course that is taught in large lecture mode during the fall and the spring. The processed video from the seminar, along with other online content, will replace one hour of live lecture in the fall. In my college, this effort marks our first foray with a “blended learning” format in large classes. The day before the final exam for the summer course I conducted a focus group with the students, right after the regular instruction had concluded. The primary goal going into that conversation was to get the student take about having such seminars as a means to generate fodder for other blended offerings that might be done in the future: Did they like the course? Would they recommend to a friend to participate in such a seminar if given the opportunity? How did the filming (there was a large flat panel at the front of the room to show what was being recorded at any time – front camera shot, rear camera shot, or output from laptop) affect their behavior in class? Were they self-conscious or did they learn to ignore the camera? These were the questions we had going into the session. I was also prepared for the students to go off script and frame the issues as they saw fit. Indeed, they did exactly that.

Reaching this point in the writing, I hit an impasse and am only beginning again after a two-day hiatus. The news from the focus group was good but for some reason that challenged me in the writing. Partly, that’s because everything we’re doing with this summer offering is intermediate product only – input for what will be delivered in the fall, not a true end in itself. We wouldn’t offer a stand-alone small seminar class like this in the absence of recording it for re-use. It would be too expensive in that case. Also, so much of my writing style come from imitating what I read, much of which is in newspapers or magazines. The bulk of those are critiques of misplays in politics. There are fewer pieces written as affirmation of what is happening. So it’s harder for me to structure the argument now because there are fewer models of what a good structure should look like. Then too, I’m really not a dispassionate observer but rather an active participant in the project, so very much want all the news to be good. The makes it tough to use my usual reportorial style in this case. So much for this brief aside, now back to the post.

The students liked the course very much. After a day or two they got comfortable and it became clear during the focus group that they bonded with the professor and with each other. They felt empowered to ask questions because of the small numbers and because the instructor’s friendly tone encouraged that. (Note that the students were actively recruited for the seminar and hence it is far from clear how “typical” students would have reacted to this experience.) And, because they got to know each other more than they would in a typical class, they could better appreciate the contributions of their classmates.

Although the course was set up as a small seminar precisely so we could capture the student contribution and we understood that much of the contribution would come as they posed their questions, I was nevertheless surprised by the results of the focus group. My mental model for the course was a classroom version of the Charlie Rose Show. I like to watch that show on occasion, depending on the guest and the topic, and reasoned that if we could produce something akin to that the students in the fall would like to watch it too. Charlie Rose is often a bit verbose and sometimes he appears to be competing with his guest for who gets to speak. But by the end of the interview a lot has been said by both Rose and his guest. So I was hoping to to reproduce that consequence in the sessions that we recorded.

During the first week, I watched a substantial amount of what was recorded, the raw “footage” before we had processed it. There were questions from the students, to be sure, but mostly it was the instructor talking. The instructor has taught the class many times before and he’s very glib with the content. The students, in contrast, seemed rather shy to me and perhaps were too patient to step in with their questions. During the weekly lunch meetings between the instructor and me, he and I discussed the issue of how to encourage student participation. We had multiple conversations on this topic, before and during the course.

Subsequently, I’ve reached the conclusion that a TV talk show likely does not provide the right norm for us in considering a course like this, especially an intro course where the students are fairly inexperienced in the subject. “What is the right norm?” I wonder. Have we produced something that is noticeably distinct from recording straight lecture? I’m curious about how the students in the fall will react to the processed videos.

There is different lesson to be had from the world of economics. An option has value in advance, even if it is ultimately not exercised. The students felt comfortable in their ability to ask questions and that comfort might be sufficient to make them enjoy the approach – the option value was present. Yet its presence didn’t imply they were asking questions all of the time. Further, when one student would ask a question that would often encourage a follow up from another student, so the questions that are there typically occur in clumps rather than be distributed uniformly through the sessions. After the first couple of days of the course I looked at the recordings less intensively and might very have well passed by an interval of students questions without realizing it was even there, only to find it on a subsequent viewing of the content.

Contrary to this impression formed by looking at the videos, in the focus group the students emphasized the small numbers enabling intensive interaction with the instructor and with each other and they reported the experience was unique, not replicated in other classes they’ve taken. I queried them specifically on this after one student offered up the idea and the rest completely agreed. Further, and this was music to my ears, about midway through the focus group session another student offered up without any prompt from me that the class was kind of like attending office hours. This was the point of departure I mentioned earlier. We talked about office hours extensively and their experience with office hours in other courses. A couple of the students were the type to seek out the instructor on a regular basis, just to have the interaction, not as a last minute thing before an exam. But by the nature of that, it didn’t happen nearly as frequently as in the summer course.

Last Friday, after the course had concluded there was a debrief meeting with the instructor and my staff. We posed the rhetorical question of how to induce the same feeling in the fall when there will be a massive number of students as was achieved in this summer offering. We talked about having the students do group work that would be like the type of problems that were worked in class during the summer. The instructor offered up the suggestion that rather than do all that group work out of class, why not use the face to face discussion section time for some of the group work, and instead of having the TAs spend most of their time in presentation mode, why not instead have them mentor the groups. If there is a need for them to present content, they could do that by producing brief presentation for online delivery. I was delighted with this suggestion and very pleased that the instructor has taken up the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish. How all of this will be executed in the fall is another matter that we’ll have to research then. For now we’ve passed a crucial milestone. We’re on the same page regarding the general approach we want to take, the mode of behavior we’d like to see from the students, and with similar ideas about how to instrument those outcomes.

* * * * *

I tend to extrapolate a lot from a few small successes. In reflecting on the focus group, I reframed for myself what it was that the students were doing during the summer course – they were engaged in academic play. Play is fun. They enjoyed themselves in the course because it was play. At the heart of academic play is the ability to ask questions and to have follow-up discussion emerging from those questions that have been posed. My inference from the focus group is that there are many other students on campus who would like to participate in academic play (we’ve got around 30,000 undergraduates) but few of them are actually doing it. Then, the questions are why not and what might we as an institution do to reverse matters.

Having introduced the word play into my thinking, it was no stretch at all to remember back to those good times with David and my mother creating the pre-condition for that friendship to develop. (I should write another post, perhaps even a short book, on coming to understand things as an adult by tying them to experiences from childhood.)

Large classes at institutions like mine seemingly have a kind of Gresham’s Law at work where the behavior of those students who are only going through the motions tends to trump the behavior of the more earnest students – ergo the cheating, plagiarism, and sense of nihilism. So, my rational self says it’s very hard to change that and produce something we’re proud of, where the students themselves feel they’re getting a lot out of the experience. But my hopeful self, buoyed with the good reports from the summer offering and seeing the instructor embrace the approach we’d like to pursue, believes it’s not all that hard to get a good outcome. And, doing so should be replicable in other courses.

There is a liberating aspect in producing video for online delivery that is aimed at replacing some parts of the live class session, whether that video is recording of a seminar done as we have done this summer, it’s produced at the instructors desktop such as via a Jing screen capture or a chat in ooVoo, similar such productions done by the students themselves, or yet some other approach. The liberation emerges because the need to spend class time to “cover” the material vanishes. Coverage can be handled via online delivery. Then, using discussion sections for a planned and organized form of office hours starts to make sense. If done that way most students will attend rather than only the few with initiative as happens now. And play via academic conversation appears to be achievable at large scale.

If students do play this way will they interact seriously with the online content, perhaps as a way to get ready for the discussions, alternatively as a way to satisfy their own curiosity? That’s what we need to find out.

Thanks mom.

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