Saturday, February 28, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 6 - Students Teaching Students

At the outset I intended the Everybody Teaches series to culminate in this post.  I did not, however, plan to offer up a mea culpa.  But now, rereading what I've produced so far, I feel I must because the set of preceding posts taken collectively has the feel of one long subterfuge on an issue I understood well at the outset of this series.  Here's the problem.

High touch instruction, which is the feature of the Everybody Teaches series, aims to provide students with sufficient self-teaching skills.  Armed with those skills, a student can learn a fair amount from a large lecture class by self-teaching on what goes on in the course, using the lecture as one of the primary inputs for that learning, just as the textbook and online materials also serve as inputs for learning.  Here, to make things plain, having learned something means being able to transfer the ideas into a novel context, one that is other than the context where the ideas were initially presented.  (See the volume, How People Learn, especially chapter 3.)  Many entering students don't yet have sufficient self-teaching skills.  The effort they put into their classes produces surface learning only.  (See Ken Bain's book, What the Best College Students Do, on the distinction between deep learning and surface learning.) 

How much high touch teaching is needed to get students to where they are competent at self-teaching?  Alas, nobody knows the answer to this question, though one is probably safe in saying that the answer depends on the student, particularly in how receptive the student is to try alternative approaches to learning and then in how diligent the student is in practicing the new approach that is embraced.  For many of the students who need improvement in their self-teaching skills, is it conceivable that the Everybody Teaches approach, as articulated in the previous posts, is simply inadequate to the deliver on this end?  Consider, for example, that even in its heyday the Discovery Program covered only about half of the entering students.

Would one high touch Discovery course do the trick?  Or would most students require quite a few high touch courses before they turned the corner?  Observe that one-on-many courses can seem to offer positive reinforcement for surface learning.  (Many students in these courses are under the impression that their only obligatory tasks are to get the lecture notes and then memorize those notes.  This approach will produce tolerably good results on exams, much of the time, apparently validating the approach.)  Observe further that during the first year students are taking mainly General Education courses, many of which are taught in one-on-many mode. 

It therefore appears that Everybody Teaches is solving the wrong problem.  (Alternatively, what has been written so far in this series of posts seems a veiled argument that for parents who can afford to so they should send their kids to private liberal arts colleges, in spite of the substantial tuition differential between the liberal arts college and big public U.)  In other words, while Everybody Teaches may maximize the number of high touch courses offered on campus, at the scope that is feasible it is likely insufficient to counter the cumulative effect from taking all those large lecture classes.  (There is also the issue of excessive testing in K-12 exacerbating the problem.  We need to acknowledge K-12 as another cause for why so many students don't have the self-teaching skills on arrival at college, though I don't want to elaborate further on it here.)  So I need to apologize for creating the impression otherwise. 

Indeed in the first year writing this blog, I wrote a series of posts that I labelled Inward Looking Service Learning (INSL), which was based on the realization that the only labor input that scaled with the students is the students themselves.  As I pretty much still believe in the substance of those posts, I won't repeat them here, but I will provide a brief summary so the reader can see how it fits with the current discussion.

The core idea was to use peer mentors/tutors/TAs who had taken the course previously to support instruction.   The peer mentors would be deployed in a way that is unlike how graduate student TAs are utilized now, with the peer mentors used in a more labor intensive fashion.  The key innovation was to organize instruction around the study group, say with 5 current students in it.  The study group would meet for several hours a week.  The study group would be led by the peer mentor.  The thought behind calling this inward looking service learning was: (a) the peer mentors would be doing service for the campus, (b) there is a substantial amount of learning that occurs when teaching others as in leading a study group, and (c) it might actually work well because students need to open up about their current understanding in order to learn in a deep way, yet many students are reluctant to do so in front of an authority figure; they are much more willing to open up with a peer.

In my sketch of INSL, it would be deployed extensively, in every class that students take.  The extensive deployment of INSL would then drive students to become deep learners.  Of course, this remains an open proposition that should be tested.  My current belief is that if done in a full-throated way, INSL would work and work well.  Given that, do we really need Everybody Teaches too?

I believe the answer to that question is, yes we do.  In other words, in order to solve the right problem, the answer to which is INSL, we must first solve the wrong problem, how to maximize the number of high touch classes taught by instructors.  We'll never get there if we try to go directly to solving the right problem.  Not enough people in authority will understand why we should put in such effort.  I have been trying to advance the cause of using undergraduates in a big way to support instruction since 1997, maybe even earlier than that.  Others have argued likewise. A few early adopters among the faculty have done this in a big way, but it certainly hasn't diffused to become ordinary practice.  My explanation for the lack of diffusion is that awareness of the issues is lacking - many instructors and administrators trust that the bulk of  undergraduates are learning a good deal, much more than they actually are, this in spite of various very public exposés that argue the contrary.  So awareness needs to be raised, in a big way.  You can then read the Everybody Teaches essays, parts 2-4, as necessary awareness raising steps, with the awareness raising concomitant to the other learning that those essays describe.

Part 5, on retirees and Discovery classes, is different.  It is a model in its own right to address the issues. It may not scale itself to address the issues, but if the ranks of volunteers can be expanded in a fruitful way, it has some chance of doing so in itself.  Further, it can serve as a model for a similar approach to be tried in K-12, which ultimately might prove to be the greatest benefit that comes from the effort.

* * * * *

Until now, I have studiously tried to avoid relating Everybody Teaches to current efforts on campus regarding innovation in teaching and learning.  Further, I have ignored the role that technology might play other than suggesting that the student writing I advocate for would happen in blogs.  It is time to juxtapose these things and ask whether they must be considered separately or if they possibly can be looked at in a unified way. 

Historically (going back to mid 1990s) learning technology was viewed as a way to provide access to instruction and perhaps also as a means to lower the cost of instruction.  When I ran the SCALE project our grant officer at the Sloan Foundation, Frank Mayadas, repeatedly told me that our quality was good enough and that he really wasn't interested in course development the sole purpose of which was to improve learning.  But at that time, with the economy booming and tuition still comparatively low, most people I knew on campus were not yet ready to consider the cost issue.

Soon thereafter, Carol Twigg started the Pew Program in Course Redesign, which had twin goals of using the technology to lower cost and raise the quality of instruction, though in my way of thinking there was much more emphasis on the former than the latter because the focus was on those 20 courses or so that had super large enrollments and accounted for about half the overall enrollments on campus.  For a very brief time I became the poster child for the Pew program, as a result of the work on the SCALE Efficiency Projects.  At the time I had the feeling of being out of the mainstream, with most faculty not involved in those very large courses, so much more interested in the quality issues and not really interested in improving the efficiency of instruction.

This division between quality and cost with regard to instruction showed up in other ways.  There were divides between instructors who cared about technology and those who were phobic of technology but who cared a lot about learning.  Likewise, there were divides between those who supported instructors use of technology and therefore focused on out-of-class learning done online and those who supported instructors by helping with their pedagogy, where the focus was moving away from straight lecture (promoting active learning).  Throughout my time as a campus administrator, I was never able to entirely bridge those divides, though a bit of a thaw developed between the people who worked in the respective units as the technology itself became less remarkable.

All of this played out again when I moved to the College of Business, like a remake of a movie I had seen before.  There was a push to move the larger courses to blended learning, for efficiency reasons.  Many students around campus wanted a Business Minor, but the College lacked the capacity to offer it except to a limited few.  Those large classes were taught by adjuncts.  It was 10 years later and these instructors were not innovators, so that part was different, and my staff put in a lot of effort to compensate for that difference.  But otherwise, it was remarkably similar.  For the rest of the faculty, who did face to face teaching exclusively at that time, faculty development was about improving quality of instruction and documenting teaching efforts for promotion and tenure review.  Some of these faculty were quite resistant to efforts to move instruction online, even as competitors had already done that. 

This summer it it will be five years since I've retired.  Now I'm the one advocating for a focus on quality improvement, with Everybody Teaches leading to an embrace of INSL, all of which emphasizes high touch interaction between learner and teacher.  I'm pushing this argument while the technology that everyone is going gangbusters about on campus is video, in MOOCs and elsewhere too.  High touch teaching emphasizes the instructor in response to students.   Video production, in contrast, emphasizes a lot of up front development, so that the video is recorded and edited well in advance of the class being offered.  These still look separate to me.  Might they become unified eventually?  And might that eventuality be not too far off in the future?

I'm intrigued by the possibility of video made as response, rather than constructed up front, where if this is happening in a class where INSL has been implemented it is the peer mentors who make the videos in response, rather than the instructor/course coordinator.  These videos, measured by production quality, would be inferior to the ones that are made up front. But in terms of salience, the students taking the course may regard them more highly because such videos address issues these students have articulated about the content that was developed up front.  Such issues were not anticipated in the up front development and probably couldn't be.  The virtue of response is that it is situated in where the students actually are.  Up front development, in contrast, is based on some hypothesis about where the students should be.  That hypothesis may very well prove errant.  Over multiple iterations of the course offerings, then, it seems possible that these videos made on the fly could end up replacing some of the videos made up front and/or that the videos made on the fly that seem popular will then be reproduced to have higher production value, if that remains a concern, and then the original videos are dropped.

In other words, where response was just response in the low enrollment Everybody Teaches classes, response might be the gateway to redesign of the videos.  Further, student product (made by the peer mentors) might supplant instructor creation of the content.

While recognizing that the above is highly speculative, it does seem to be a possibility to consider, perhaps even to encourage.  If it happens that would unify matters to a great degree.  Response would be the key.  Course design for online learning could be much less substantial up front, with the course offered in a small class form the first couple of times, to let the redesign of content do its thing.  This would then seem very much like how an Everybody Teaches course should work.

Will we ever get there?  I hope so. 

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