Saturday, February 16, 2013

Learning, learning everywhere, but not a sop* to think**

What happens if you feel like Paul Revere, there is an imminent threat that compels you to warn others, but unlike during Paul Revere's Ride these others are not ready to hear the message?  In this I'm reacting to this video of a recent Board of Trustees meeting which focused on learning facilitated by technology and comparing and contrasting it with my recent experiences teaching, where my lament is that too many of the students are not bringing enough to the table.  I've only watched the video to the 22:30 minute mark so far, so I'm reacting to what was in that piece, particularly the remarks of President Easter and the subsequent speaker.  There is a mis-characterization of the nature of the innovation in these remarks, as I will try to illustrate below.  I believe that mis-characterization is what's creating a blind spot for the message that needs to be delivered.

The speaker who followed President Easter, as so many talks with a historical look at technologies impact on learning, went back to Gutenberg and the "teaching" that followed from the printing press.  I will focus only on the recent past,  going back less than 30 years ago, and my personal experience with technology and instruction.  I got my first personal computer, a Mac SE, in 1987.  Two or three years later I learned about Eudora and started to do email with it.  Then I learned about FTP with Fetch and using Gopher.  An important application for me was OzTeX, a Mac version of TeX, which enabled me to do technical word processing on my own and share drafts of papers with collaborators.  None of this mattered one whit in my teaching.

The first software that mattered was PacerForum, a Mac based conferencing program, remarkably easy to use.  I started with it in spring 1995 in my intermediate microeconomics course after the semester had already begun, not because that's the desired way but because I didn't get access for my class till then. So the use was optional only.  The class had about 60 students.  Two of them took advantage of the option after they had done poorly on the first midterm and they improved thereafter via my responses to their online queries.  This very small numbers experience hooked me regarding online learning.  But for the topic at hand the more relevant question is what about the other 58 or so students?   Why didn't they make use of the option?   Was it a lack of access?  Or insufficient interest?   If learning online is effective, then finding mechanisms (which are social, about course organization and course requirements, not technical) that encourage the students to participate online in a vigorous manner are the important innovation.

The technology changed around that time.  PacerForum itself, which relied on the AppleTalk network, didn't survive the move to TCP-IP, the Internet protocol.  Burks Oakley, understanding the issue completely, had the SCALE project embrace FirstClass, which did run over TCP-IP and which worked with both Macs and PCs.  A friend of mine, Gail, who loved PacerForum, really criticized us when we stopped supporting it in SCALE.  But what can you do?  The company had gone out of business.  Soon after FirstClass, SCALE started to look into Web based conferencing.  (FirstClass at the time required a dedicated client.  With Web conferencing the browser was the client.)  In general, these changes moved in the direction of increased access and convenience for users, though Web based conferencing was pretty raw in those years and it took a while before WebBoard became a reasonable substitute for FirstClass.  Yet regarding the learning itself, a move from FirstClass to WebBoard had essentially no impact whatsoever.  We used to say, "it's not the technology, it's how you use it."  The how you use it part wouldn't change even as the technology did change, as long as the mechanism remained effective in generating vigorous student participation online.

Let me turn to this issue of too many students not having enough on the ball.  The explanation for this, in my view, lies in that for these students their experiences don't translate into intellectual growth.  Here I mean both their life experiences, the school of hard knocks if you will, and their in class experiences.  I've had one student I'm aware of who did have something on the ball, but evidently most of it came from the former.  He held the latter in very low regard. (This in commenting about other classes he had taken.  It's virtually impossible for students to be so frank about your own class while that is going on.)   If in the instrumental way students go about their studies the immediate goal is to do reasonably well on the upcoming test, the issue is whether they can get the "right answer" to a question without knowing the reason why.  This seems to be the case quite frequently with the students I've had the last couple of years, when I resumed teaching regular students again.  (Prior to that, when I did teach it was for the Campus Honors Program.  Those students did have something on the ball.)  The issue, then, is non-learning masking as learning and the related question of whether we can get students who have been going through the motions this way to actively want to learn about the reasons and applying those reasons in different contexts.  This is the message I want to deliver, but I'm afraid too many people don't want to hear it.

This is not a new message.  I first heard it publicly articulated by Lucinda Roy, then the Dean or Arts and Sciences at Virgina Tech, and one of the Plenary Speakers at the first Faculty Summer Institute.  Subsequent to that it has been articulated by many others.  George Kuh called it the Disengagement Compact and implicated the instructors as much as the students for accommodating the behavior.  Of course, the institution too should be implicated for accommodating the instructors.  But because it is the same old same old and people have an appetite for the new, it is not a message that will gather much enthusiasm at present.

So let me conclude with something that might possibly capture the attention of Board of Trustees members.  I have had quite small classes the last two times I've taught, so any inference based on that experience is subject to a small numbers critique.  At best it is suggestive of something that might be looked into more deeply across a large number of students.  Among the worst students I've had are students that Banner says were admitted as transfer students.  In one case I know the student attended a community college before attending the U of I.  I don't know in the other cases.  But I do know that in the last several years the Board has pressed the campus to accept many more transfer students from community colleges, in a way to find a lower cost path to the entire college experience.  The goal is admirable, but somebody should be looking now at how those students are doing academically.  My guess as to what would be found is that community college transfer students on average are doing significantly worse than students who started at the U of I as freshmen.  My hope then, and admittedly it is just a hope, is that somebody might ask whether even in the comparison group is learning fine and dandy or are there some significant issues.  That's how the message might be delivered.

I'm impatient about it.  We can't afford to wait.

*sop.  See definition 4. 

**A play on words of a misquote.  The misquote is Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.  The actual line is Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.  From Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 

No comments: