Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Who are the Tarriers?

As we stumble forward into the future, seemingly yanked in many directions all at once, we’re also inextricably circling backward in time. For the economy as a whole, it’s the 1930s again. The pundits are hoping Obama will be the reincarnation of FDR, as the parallel between Bush and Hoover seems all to clear, a perfect backdrop to set the stage, and Obama’s latest announcement of a massive infrastructure investment reminiscent of the New Deal programs.

But I wonder if we need a different sort of comfort, one more recent, within our own realm of experience. I’m reminded of this scene from one of my favorite episodes of West Wing. Josh is suffering badly from post traumatic stress disorder, giving back talk to the President (which is simply not done) because he is not in control of his own emotions, fearing for his job since it is full of work tensions and denying the situation since he has no outlet to vent his anger. After a long session with a psychologist who eventually gets Josh to make the connections between what happened after he was shot and how he has been acting for the previous few weeks leading up to the Christmas Holiday, Josh has a (not so) serendipitous encounter with Leo. As his boss and dear friend, Leo has also had to conquer his own demons, pills and especially alcohol, and indeed that his most recent prior abysmal performance as a high official in the Democratic party came when he did some heavy drinking right before the Bartlett nomination, and worse that political opponents knew that was the case. Leo had weathered the storm in good part because of Josh’s loyalty and quick judgment. His reassurances to Josh were real, just for that reason, and his support was total, because Josh had likewise been that sort of friend when Leo was mired in the muck.

To the extent that the economic morass is the consequence of each of us caving into our weaknesses, spending more than we can afford, emphasizing the material benefits in our existence, cravings rather than ideas and people, we can liken ourselves to Josh and hope to find our own Leos. The economic morass is more than that, of course, and some of the things that ail us require government intervention and macroeconomic cures. Personal salvation, however beneficial individually, simply won’t fully address the range of economic problems. But the converse is also true. This is a time when personal salvation is especially needed. If we’re to make substantial economic sacrifice to get through the present harshness, we won’t be able to cope without it. Will we as individuals get better this way or fall back to our own bad habits once the economy starts to rebound?

In this piece, however, I don’t want to linger in talking about the economy. Instead, I want to concentrate on learning technology, where I’m having my own personal circle back, to the 1990s when I ran SCALE, where we supported Mallard, which is still up and running, about ghosts from Plato, and about the specter and promise of online learning, as it seemed then and as it appears now. These memories where stirred up in me from a publisher advisory board meeting I attended last week in Salem Massachusetts, an interesting place to hold such a meeting given the history of the locale, and also that I know some of these Board members from prior episodes in learning technology: the CIC learning technology group (when it was group sponsored by the various Provosts and gave out grant funding for inter institutional projects), the Pew Program in Course Redesign, and the WebCT Vista Product Advisory Board (prior to the buyout by Blackboard).

On the way home from this meeting, partly inspired by the locale, I read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, instead of reading the Management Textbook I was supposed to read as I might use it in an upcoming course. (The Kindle has a bunch of downloads for $.99 of works that are now in the public domain and that have been converted to Kindle format. This was the first of these works I have read from beginning to end on the Kindle.) Thoreau’s essay, written at the time of the Mexican-American war, a military engagement that Thoreau viewed as unwise and unjust, is all about conscience, when to succumb to will the of the majority, and when to act against its strictures by not paying taxes that are government imposed or by deliberately breaking the law. Much of these historic issues with learning technology I now view as matters of conscience and I will write the rest of this piece in that tone, perhaps scolding too harshly; but really I don’t see a better alternative.

Let me start with pedagogy, a loaded term if there ever was one, a term where the rhetoric and jargon have limited our thinking, I’m afraid. Plato started a tradition of “computer assisted instruction” where the computer was a tutor for the student and the emphasis was on student-computer interaction. This notion survives but where when I started this was viewed as wondrous and the the wave of the future, Web delivery seemed to promise a Plato-like educational experience for any and all who were interested, now it seems dated and limited, relegated to the confines of training and the high enrollment introductory course. Real learning is student centric, driven by the student’s own inquiry, based on notions from Constructivism, and then extended to online learning and social networks. Computer assisted instruction has no place in that universe. It is too spoon-fed and prescriptive.

There is a tension that has been there since I started with learning technology. As Carol Twigg likes to point out:

Undergraduate enrollments in the United States are concentrated heavily in large-enrollment introductory courses. In fact, just 25 courses generate about half of all student enrollments in community colleges and about a third of enrollments in four-year institutions. The topics of these courses are not surprising and include introductory studies in such disciplines as English, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, accounting, biology, and chemistry. In addition to suffering from a high rate of academic failure, these courses affect literally every student who goes to college.

But a campus like mine has a huge number of undergraduate courses, in excess of 1500. The vast majority of the faculty are teaching these other courses; the student/faculty ratio is much higher in those 25 and in that sense they subsidize the rest of the operation. In a nutshell, the tension is about whether innovation with learning technology should happen where the students are, in those 25 large courses, or if it should happen in the other classes, where most of the faculty are. With Plato, and then later with Mallard and CyberProf, we were getting one sort of answer. With Web 2.0 and student centric approaches to learning we’re getting a different sort of answer. And never the twain shall meet.

This is unfortunate. While there are some other efforts in the spirit of supporting those large classes such as LON CAPA, which dates back to the CyberProf and Mallard days, and the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, a more recent development in the same spirit, it remains true that the there is far too little creative effort going into these sort of environments than there should be and the constructivists in the crowd look askance at those efforts that do manifest – clearly they must be misguided since they don’t start off with the right view of the learner. To which my response is: look closer; you’re wrong in lumping all this into one box. There can be excellence in computer assisted instruction and it is informative to understand what this sort of excellence looks like.

Further, there is a rather serious problem in that excellence in this area is the exception. The rule is a perpetuation of a very traditional approach, moved online. The rule needs a critique, but a critique from within so it can be replaced with something better that is still do-able. Instead we’re getting a critique from without, a critique that says “abandon ship” but a critique that likely will have little impact because students do need foundational knowledge. This sort of knowledge likely won’t be produced by individuals in pursuit of their own inquiry, at least not purely in that manner. (And in the large class setting nobody knows how to guide such pursuit.) Let me illustrate.

The traditional textbook, I’ll use my own discipline Economics to exemplify the issues, has each chapter organized by presentatios of theory first, then worked through examples to illustrate the theory, then end of chapter problems to test students understanding and to see if they can transfer what they know to specific contexts. This is the paradigm for much of what we do in teaching at the College level – presentation of theory first, illustration second, and then assessment to follow up. In electronic format, we now have eTextbooks to handle the first two and electronic and automatically graded homework to handle the third. The paradigm hasn’t changed much if at all, but now the delivery is online. Publishers are struggling selling eTextbooks as stand-alone products. The students aren’t buying. The electronic homework they buy (and then work on) because their grade depends on it. The publishers understand that their future lies in development of good electronic homework environments.

But the paradigm itself is faulty. If we consider, as an alternative to the textbook, an extended conversation between a student and an instructor and that the conversation might occur both orally and in writing over a period of time, then it is evident that the conversation has presentation, illustration, and assessment throughout with little bits of each going back and forth. The conversation is not nearly as linear as the traditional textbook paradigm would suggest. And the conversation ends up being much richer because the student contributes and the instructor can tailor the conversation based on the student responses. There is learning throughout and a conversation that is engaging is so precisely because the learning is ongoing. In contrast, when students are given assessments in the traditional textbook paradigm, the assessments are designed to test what the students already know. Assessment in this case is about performance only, not about learning. The learning happens sometime prior to assessment (if it happens at all).

The question emerges then why, in moving to electronic delivery, don’t we abandon the traditional textbook model and try to embrace the conversational approach done online? (The traditional model itself was never quite as simple as I’ve presented it above. What’s missing is the study group time where the end of chapter problems are discussed as well as the student preparation time in getting ready for the study group meeting. There may very well be a gateway function into the subject that is via the textbook or the lecture, but there is a conversation aspect in the middle that makes the entire thing work.) The thought, in particular is that in the preparation time students can use help in the form of conversation and that electronic delivery should be able to provide this.

Several years ago when my friend Steve Acker was an editor for a column in Campus Technology Magazine, he asked me to write a piece and ultimately the outcome was this column on Dialogic Learning Objects. At around the same time, I produced some of the sort of things I had in mind. These are updated versions of two lessons (a Plato term) constructed in Excel and covering the core theory of microeconomics. The first is on the Elements of Supply and Demand. The second explains Opportunity Cost, the demand side equivalent which is called Reservation Price, and how these change as a result of exogenous changes, which in turn causes Shifts in Demand and Supply. They are working examples of dialogic learning objects. They are unlike textbook presentations, as I’ll explain briefly below, and though I’m clearly biased in coming to this determination, I believe they are better than the textbook in providing an understanding of what is going on for the student, because they are at once simple and thus easy to approach but also deep in the concepts they address.

Let me talk about the technical elements first. Unlike most Web assessment tools, but like Plato, feedback is given in the same screen as where the students do their work. Feedback is instantaneous. And students are free to go back and make changes. In both lessons there are places where the students perform experiments. They can try things and evaluate, get feedback and try again. Experimentation is part of the process. The feedback itself is done via conditional response and conditional formatting. So the hard part, since there is no template for the authoring, is designing for that. With some experience doing it, it becomes faster. But it is still not easy. Authoring this way is hard because the writing is itself a set of iterations on what to ask, how to respond, and how to represent the economics.

The economics is different than what is typically taught because discrete choice behavior (buy one unit or not, sell one unit or not) is presented at the outset to motivate supply and demand and in that discrete choice framework a simplifying assumption is made that there is a single continuous good (money) with utility linear in that. This reduces the generality of the presentation but it remarkably sharpens the results and really helps aid the student intuition. Further, the math is embedded in the formulas in the cells of the spreadsheet. Students can get to those if they want to hack the spreadsheets, but what they see at first pass are numbers – easy to manipulate and non-threatening. This simply can’t be done in a text presentation. It is a snap with Excel. The technology is doing something here beyond simply moving the text content online. It is helping the students visualize.

The question is why can’t we get content like this as the norm? The Economics Principles market has about 1 million students per year. That would seem to be a big enough market to generate the type of high quality content I’d like to see, and ditto for the other large courses on Carol Twigg’s list. If this type of content were to emerge, it would defeat the eTextbooks and other online approaches that merely recycle the traditional paradigm. But largely we’re not getting that yet. I don’t blame the publishers for this. The publishers are producing back to us what they’ve heard from us we want. So the real question is: why don’t we articulate a demand for this type of dialogic content, written from scratch to be delivered online?

We know from other sources that students want this sort of thing. In a provocative presentation at the 2007 ELI conference, Julie Evans talked about what she and her group are learning about K-12 students. They undeniably feel alienated from their current form of education and want to see technology integrated in – particularly in math. It is a mystery to me why those wishes are not being addressed. Most schools now offer online grade books so parents can track the grades their children are receiving, but the technology is not used at all for the teaching and learning. And in K-12 the argument, especially in math, that there is foundational knowledge to learn, where teachers don’t have enough time in the day to provide meaningful assessment of student work, would seem to provide the grounding for the computer assisted instruction approach. But so far, there’s not much to show in this arena.

We’re caught in a vicious cycle. Nobody seems to have time to develop the right sort of content, so we work with what we have. We take assessments originally designed for paper testing and now use them for online homework. Although, as a colleague pointed out at the publisher meeting, the students go for the assessment content immediately and then only approach the presentation content on an as needed basis to learn how to complete the assessments, the students do learn to succeed on the assessment but don’t get a a deeper understanding of the material because they don’t have a far ranging discussion about it. And the process is alienating because the students are well aware that they are performing and being judged on that while many are not learning deeply.

That’s actually the good scenario. The bad scenario is that the technology is used to enforce rote learning. It’s drill and then more drill. That’s the critique of the constructivists and why they don’t want to have anything to do with computer assisted instruction. Drill is fine for spelling, the multiplication tables, maybe even some hard vocabulary words, particularly in a second language. But that’s elementary school or middle school stuff. Is it right for college level work? What happens to College students when there courses are repeated drill and the assessments they go through require performance but without learning?

Who are the Tarriers? They’re the students.

No comments: