Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Star-Centric Topology and Black Holes

We are now sufficiently far into the spring semester that the administrative setup details are "almost" behind me so I can begin to see where the classes are going and what the main issues are. I had thought that one of the main things I would be comparing is use of an LMS (Moodle) versus use of Blog for the course Web site. I'm doing the former in the intermediate microeconomics site and the latter in the behavioral economics site. It turns out that is less of a big deal than I thought, though there are some issues that I will comment about near the end.

My current biggest issue is this. I have the students blogging in teams in each class. I read the posts and write a response. The posts are due a few days before the class session where the topic is discussed. We have class on Monday and Wednesday in both courses and I teach them back to back. In the behavioral class they are blogging before each session. In the intermediate class they are blogging before the Wednesday session only. They have different homework due before the Monday session. In the ideal, I can extract from the student posts enough interesting commentary that it becomes the substance of the class discussion or at the least a way to initiate the class discussion. Last week with the bad weather when we did an online optional session, I did that for the intermediate class. Pedagogically it seems to me the right thing to do. But, given what we are reading, I'm leaving the blog topic somewhat open ended for the students. Some who are just keeping their heads above water are posting mainly summary, which leaves me very little to extract. Others are giving some interesting flavor but I'm not sure whether that should become the basis of discussion with the entire class.

The related point is that I need some time to reflect on this and make a judgment about it but I don't have the time. This morning I was still making comments on posts in the behavioral class a couple of hours before the class session and I hadn't had my shower yet to get ready for class. So now what enters into the equation is a need to plan the session with little incremental effort. I can do that if I think through the issues and then spend most of the time talking in class. Ergo...

... the title of this post. Star Centric Topology is terminology I learned from Jack Wilson around the time Carol Twigg was getting the Pew Program on Course Redesign underway. It was a disparaging description of communication in a class - mainly student to instructor and much less student to student. The instructor as the central node would inevitably clog which would end up reducing communication overall. Efficient redesign would promote more student-student communication placing less burden on the instructor channel encouraging both more communication overall and better quality communication so that more of the student formative thinking comes to the fore. Not everyone holds to this view. Some really do prefer straight lecture with not that much in the way of student generated messaging. The Econ department here may be a place where the traditional view holds sway. More on that below. Before getting to that, I'd like to note the reason for the rest of my title, the Black Holes part. There are a variety of other factors which are pulling me to take a star-centric approach. Some of these I anticipated before the semester started. Others caught me by surprise. I will list these below with some annotation on each.

The Physical Setup Of The Classrooms - I'm teaching in rooms that have auditorium-style seating meaning the seats are bolted down and in rows. If there is a vacant seat in the middle of a row a late arriving student will probably need students sitting near the end to stand up in order to get through. This is ok for lecture but it really inhibits having group work done in the classroom. A setup with tables and chairs a la a coffee house is much more conducive for group work. But it probably means getting fewer seats overall into the classroom. I think this is a big deal issue. One that should have some policy discussion behind it. In new buildings we seem to go for the table and chairs version. Why do we cling to the old approach with the seating in older building after we have renovated the classrooms there?

In any event, to get group meetings, at least so far, they have to do that outside the class meeting time at a different location. That time is not scheduled so while some teams are doing it others are not. It is also the case that when I attempt Socratic dialog in ensemble mode, most of the students can't see and possibly can't hear the student who is responding to my question so I'm getting no cascade where one student says something that follows from what another student has said. They are all responding to me. This is one I knew coming in and though I feared it, I thought we'd be able to work around it. But so far, we really haven't.

The Building I'm Teaching In Is Under Construction - Often during the class sessions there is quite loud noise that is being generated by work done very close to these classrooms. This building is where the Econ department faculty have their offices. Generally faculty prefer to teach close to where there office is. I also suppose that the size of classroom (capacity about 65 students) is scarce on campus, particularly at the times I'm teaching. So somebody must have decided it is better to hold class during the construction than to schedule the classes in a different building or at times when the construction work is not happening. The consequence is that when class is in session it is very disconcerting to hear the noise and it becomes harder to concentrate. Further, by the time the second class is in swing I feel my voice being stretched. This one is non-recurrent, at least for this specific building, but conceivably could happen elsewhere on campus as those buildings get renovated. This one I didn't anticipate and all I can say about it is that it lessens my enthusiasm for the teaching. I can only imagine what it does for the students.

There Seems To Be Quite a Large Number Of Asian Students - As a general rule I want to teach any and all students who are interested in the subject and who are willing to do the work. I also understand and agree with the campus strategy to expand undergraduate enrollments with students from out of state who are willing to pay the rather large tuition differential. The world economy being what it is now and the reputation of the University of Illinois mattering for this purpose, a big chunk of these students will come from Asia. But with that there are two caveats, one obvious, the other less so. The obvious one is language. I have students in class either responding to my queries or asking their own questions where I can't make good sense of what they are saying. I don't really know how to address this so rather than solve the problem I avoid it by monopolizing the session. The other issue is that in what I have the students read, either stuff I've written or selections I've chosen from popular outlets, some of the content was chosen because at least part of the ideas should be intellectually accessible and therefore welcoming. For example we read Stephen Jay Gould's essay The Streak of Streaks in the behavioral class. But for it to be accessible the person should know something about baseball and have some fondness for it. Without that background knowledge it is a much less obvious candidate as a choice for a reading. The consequence is that the material actually is hard to penetrate by some of the students. This one I didn't anticipate as well. If it remains an ongoing issue, I will have to reselect at least some of the readings accordingly.

There Is A Wide Variation In Student Prior Preparation - This is always the case and so it really shouldn't be on this list. Teachers need to adjust to it. It is here, however, because I haven't taught these sort of classes for 10 years or more so don't have a good sense of where the median is and that makes it quite hard for me to get a sense of whether the level and degree of rigor is appropriate or not. As with the language and culture issues part of the Black Hole effect is not wanting to find out that these things need to be reset in some ways, being unsure how that might be done on the fly. Dominating the conversation is a way to maintain my ignorance. I've got some odd inner dynamic in me that if I know what is going on and if things are working less than well, then I need to try and fix them. But if I don't know, then I'm not so obligated. I'm not sure I can explain it better than that other than to say that if I felt a little less pressed for time, I might be more open in this other dimension.

Now let me turn to the technology. In the intermediate class I've got homework designed in Excel. The first two problem sets have macros and are in one of those formats that are PC only. I made a big deal of this the first day of class. But I had students add after the first day so they didn't get that message as strongly. I also have the message in my syllabus, but we know there's no guarantee students will read those. So this created some issue. Then a handful of students working on a PC also had problems with one particular macro. I have no clue why. The macros really make the functionality of these exercises better, but maybe I need to rewrite them to get rid of the macros. I will have to think that through later.

The first two problem sets if students did them right I made a worksheet that had all the students responses that I could eyeball to see if they had got all the questions right (which was the expectation, the grade being for participation that they had done the whole workbook). They would save the submission worksheet as a CSV file and submit it in Moodle. I thought this worked remarkably well. There was an unanticipated benefit. Some students inadvertently skipped a worksheet and submitted the homework before they should have. This was quite easy to track. I would then email the students and ask them to resubmit. I believe it conveyed an unspoken message that I care they do the work and I don't want to punish them for mistakes that are inadvertent. It was also quite easy to do this given how Moodle is set up. So this part I liked.

For the blogging part, I like to have each team blog as an rss feed in Google Reader so I can readily see when new posts come in and by which team. Moodle does have an rss feed but as far as I could tell the way I have it set up there is only one feed for the entire class, so I can't track which team is posting that way. Posterous for the students blogs is ok, but I hadn't kept up with changes at Posterous and now they have a listserv function in addition to a blogging function. This post describes the issue. The listserv function doesn't allow comments from non-members. So we needed some teams to abandon that and make a new site. It slowed us down a bit but otherwise wasn't that big a deal. One other thing, I use Google Calendar for the behavioral class and have the upcoming items in the sidebar of the main class blog. This would work remarkably well except that Google calendar doesn't allow linking to other Web pages from calendar items. The links I'd like to have there would be to the readings. I've tagged the readings in Delicious, but they are arrayed chronologically by when I tagged them, not by when we will read them, so the students said that it is a little hard to find the readings that way. I'm therefore making posts in the main blog with those links. It's ok for upcoming stuff, but if they every want to go back to find things, it won't be that easy.

On the big issue deal of open or closed blogging - does it affect the quality of the posts and the sense of community in the class, we're still too early in the semester to tell. The demographics in the classes are otherwise different (Econ majors in the behavioral class and mainly Business students in the Intermediate class where) where even if I observe differences on quality or community I would not be able to properly identify the cause. Nonetheless I am interested in seeing what emerges in this vein and will post something just on that topic when I've got enough information to make some early conclusions.

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