Sunday, July 26, 2015

From ha ha to aha - how universities might support teaching and learning at the high school and community college level

As momentum for free community college increases perhaps people will start to pay attention to some related issues.  The two I will concern myself with here are:  (1) the price of textbooks, ancillary learning materials, plus any other complements to formal instruction that are available only at an extra cost to the student and (2) what the students are actually getting as take away and whether how things are done now is a good way to go about teaching and learning.

On (1) a question I haven't seen asked but which seems worth posing is whether the textbook publishers will use free community college as a trigger to raise textbook prices, thereby capturing some of the gains that are intended to accrue to the students.  That's the way these sort of markets work, isn't it?  What might be done to prevent that from happening?

On (2) I have in mind two specific courses, principles of microeconomics and calculus, but then also pieces I've read that discuss other first-year courses such as English.  For example, see In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.  That piece argued that at colleges of last resort many of the students lack sufficient preparation and don't have the motivation to do the hard work to overcome this shortcoming.  I would argue something similar is happening elsewhere, even at Illinois, which is highly selective, and even when the students have the credential that indicates proper preparation.  Below is an excerpt from a course evaluation I received for the course I taught last fall.  It is a response to the open ended question - What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the instructor?

Strength - .....
Weakness - I think he's very math oriented / a numbers thinker & he just assumes we understand some of the math he does.

Let me note here that just about every student in this class was an econ major, and either a junior or a senior.  Calculus is required for the major and the math that this student refers to is either calculus or analytic geometry.  The student surely has taken the courses in these subjects, either in high school or in college.  Quite likely, the student viewed these math courses as hurdles - something to get past, over, through, or under, to get a decent grade in any way possible - but not as something that would become part of the student's own way of thinking.  My experience is that this approach by students is fairly common among econ majors who implicitly believe, "I'm no good at math."  What is unique here is how forthcoming this student is on the matter.  I haven't seen other comments like this one, which is why it made such an impression on me.

It is highly unusual for me to observe a student while the student is taking math.  Of course, I did that some with my own kids, but I'm going to abstract from that experience entirely.  I still have some scars from my mother tutoring me in French (she was a foreign language teacher) and that was more than 45 years ago.  While I don't think my interactions with my children about their math in high school was nearly as traumatic for them, I'll leave it be rather than make hay with it. 

This summer I have a little window into what its like for the student taking calculus.  I'm mentoring a student who who transferred from being a music major to being an econ major.  He's taking calculus during the eight week summer session.  On occasion I've helped him when he has asked for such assistance.  In advance of his taking the class I told him I was quite good in math and would be happy to talk to him about how the math relates to the economics.  We haven't yet had that sort of conversation, but for a while we had quite a lot of back and forth about how to do specific homework and sample exam questions.  This experience provides me with one source of motivation for writing this post.

Another was a recent solicitation I received from a startup online test preparation company.  They asked me whether I wanted to work for them writing questions for intermediate microeconomics.  Though I should have known better, I responded in a somewhat naive way, indicating I was suspicious of the approach they advocated but showing willingness to talk to them, which I ultimately did.  Their model is to provide supplemental exam questions for students from which they can study and prepare.  Their claim is that students can then learn in a deep way by returning to the principles by which those exam questions are answered.  So their approach relies heavily on the student wanting to do well on the test serving as the primary motivation.  I tried to convince the guy that with this sort of motivation there will be little if anything to take away from the course afterward.  We argued for a while.  We ultimately agreed I should not work for them.  But I was frustrated by that call and wanted to put forth an alternative argument where students are motivated to a significant extent simply by a desire to understand things.

The last bit I'll mention as reason for writing this piece is that I'm almost finished reading Gifts Differing and it makes several points about the relationship between personality type and learning.  NT types (intuitive, thinking) tend to better in school than SF types (sensing, feeling) and personality type is often mistaken for intelligence.  Further, the authors argue it would be best to teach people with different personalities differently, to leverage the strengths of their particular personality, and thus there should be multiple pathways into the same subject matter that serve as alternative approaches.  There is the retort that sometimes school should teach to student weakness, because the subject matter demands that it be taught in a certain way.  I'm an NT and believe that understanding math requires a certain inventiveness in the learner.  But it may be that can only happen after much other learning that appeals to the learners strength - build confidence first and only then work on weakness.  In what follows I will try to hint at how this might be done.

* * * * *

In this section I want to talk about various blockages to learning that exist, some of which I've seen over the years in my econ teaching and some of which are more apparent to me now, from interaction with my mentee.  These blockages must be addressed or we'll never make any real progress. 

1.  Students don't know how to solve a problem, say for homework, based on math they already know.  How to solve a problem is a critical meta skill that should be taught by itself, but where?  Absent that skill students look to plug and chug, but ignore how to select the particular algorithm that is appropriate to analyze the situation with which they are presented.  They go from one assignment to the next without making much if any improvement on learning this meta skill.

2.  Notation becomes a major impediment.  Students can't see through the notation to the underlying ideas.  Because notation is itself so hard, they spend much of their in class time copying down what they instructor has written on the board (or has in a pre-prepared PowerPoint presentation).  They do this as best they can, often making errors because the presentation is too fast and they don't understand what they are copying.   They spend little or no time in class thinking through what it is they are being presented with, presumably to make sense of it all later.  But not understanding the notation itself, they can't make sense of it then.

3.  Perhaps because so much of the rest of their world is like this, particularly their communication with social media, students expect to "get it" almost immediately, from one big gestalt of the situation, or to not be able to get it, ever.  There is a belief that people who are good at this stuff get it and people who aren't good at it don't get it.  There is no sense of a puzzle to be solved sequentially that only gradually reveals the path to get through it over time.   But discovery doesn't typically work this way.  It requires persistence and patience.  So the students with these beliefs impede their chances at making discovery.

4.  Students fear failure.  Actually, everyone fears failure, it's just that some folks have learned to deal with this fear better than others.  Getting started early on a tough task is a mature way of dealing with this fear.  Procrastination, almost certainly more typical, is one way of caving into the fear.

5.  We learn very early in school about the story of the tortoise and the hare - slow and steady wins the race.  But we don't practice what we preach in this regard.  Timed exams, such as for standardized testing, reward being quick.  I learned from Gifts Differing that NT types tend to be quick and on an exam feel they understand what a question is asking after one reading, but SF types tend to be slow and want to read the same question multiple times to make sure they understand it.  If SF types don't give themselves enough time to produce their own understanding, they are short changing themselves.  The system seems to actually encourage that.

6.  Student often don't read through dense stuff where they must struggle to make meaning of what is said.  The payoff from understanding is not apparent at the time.  The pain from the struggle is obvious pretty much immediately.  (This one I know from my own recent teaching, where the dense stuff was written by me, and some of my students told me they breezed through it, doing the assessments that were assigned but otherwise not building their own understanding.)

There is substantial overlap in the items above but there is enough distinction between them to list them separately.  I say this to argue that why students don't learn deeply is a complex matter.  We should not expect a simple solution to be able to address all these issues in one fell swoop.

* * * * *

My mentee is taking calculus at Parkland, the local community college, rather than at the U of I.  He may be doing this because it is cheaper or because he expected it to be easier, all the while knowing that the credits will transfer if he passes the course.  Many students at the U of I take their Gen Eds at a community college in state during the summer.  In this case calculus fits both the Gen Ed requirement for quantitative reasoning and is an Econ department requirement for the major.  So on this score, there is nothing unusual here going on.

I am sure that the instructor of this course has every intention of doing a good job in teaching this class.  But in considering what doing a good job means, I very much doubt that she frames the issues by focusing on the blockages I've described above.   The support of teaching and learning that I refer to in my title has universities in a secondary role.  Instructors, like this one, will remain in the lead.  The question then is how in this supporting role might universities create some positive influence on the course, by addressing some of the learning blockages.  Before getting to that, I'd like to describe the ideal I think we should be after for a student who succeeds in this setting.

Twenty years ago, when I got started with learning technology, there was a lot about a constructivist approach and that the proper role of the instructor was as guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage.  More recently, I've heard that the proper role of the instructor is to teach the learner rather than teach the subject.  While on the one hand, I have some sympathy with each of these, on the other hand I don't think either of them go far enough in describing what it is the teacher should do (and what it is students should do).  Below is a paragraph from a post I wrote a few months ago on The virtues in making it up as you go along.  It represents my current thinking on how to come at the question of the proper role of the instructor (and the aspirations the instructor has for the learner). 

Until a few days ago I knew this about me, but I didn't understand why.  Now I have a better idea.  That came from reading this paper by Bruffee (1984), Collaborative Learning and the "Conversation of Mankind."  Let me explain how that came about in a bit. First let me note that Bruffee was a teacher of writing and his piece was meant at the time for others who taught English.  The rest of us, who teach whatever it is that we teach, could learn a thing or two about how to teach our courses better if we first asked, how would a teacher of Writing go about the teaching task in my class?  Only after chewing on that one for a while and coming up with some spark on something new to try should you then ask, now what do I have to do to modify the approach to fit my subject matter?

The student needs to produce narrative.  Eventually that narrative production may only be in the student's head, but until the student is producing narrative regularly it probably needs to be spoken to somebody else who in listening can ask whether the narrative makes sense, and then in other instances where the narrative is written down so can be read by somebody else later and by the student too, with some distance from when the narrative was produced.  With the latter, in particular, the narrative should demonstrate some reflection of the matters at hand, rather than a simple blurting out of the first thought that occurs to the student.  When that first thought is not spot on, which will often be the case, the student must begin to see how the next thought arises as improvement on what came before.  In this way the student can learn from his mistakes.

With respect to homework problems, in particular, the narrative should have several pieces to it.  The first is to determine what the question is asking in the student's own words.   I dare say that many students don't currently do this.  They don't see a need to translate the question into their own words.  This first part should include: this is what I'm supposed to find, these are the data I will use to find the answer, and then a question.  What math that I've already been taught is relevant here for me to find an answer?

The next part of the narrative attempts to answer the question.  There are two bits to this part.  The first bit is trying out various tools, one at a time, to see if that tool works.  An NT type might be able to do this bit immediately.  An SF type might need to be more deliberate here.  Fine. Be deliberate.  But there is also the other bit which might help any type find the right tool quicker.  This is reframing the statement of what it is the student should find.  In other words, the student might step backwards and look at the problem statement again.  Did the student do a good job in restating the problem in his own words?  If not, can he do a better job now?

This possibility of iteration with a backwards step because we were stymied in going forward is a normal part of thinking, but may be perceived as unusual by the student or as indicating to the student that he's not very good at problem restatement.  One does get better at problem restatement with practice.  I don't know much practice a person needs to feel competent about this.  But I do believe that a good part of the instruction should entail giving students such practice.

Having a restated problem with a math tool that fits, the student has arrived at the "chug" part.  Then the narrative describes what chugging through to the solution is like.  This part is what I do in lecture when I work through the math model.  Students should do likewise.  It is the most straightforward part of the narrative, provided that no mistakes are made.  Mistakes are more likely either when the student is careless because he is too hasty or because the tool is new to the student and the student misapplies the tool.  So part of the narrative here has to be on checking the work to make sure there is no error.  If an error is spotted during the check, then another backwards step must be taken to make it right.

The last part of the narrative is first a statement of the conclusion from having solved the problem and second an attempt at tying to the conclusion to anything else the student knows or has learned recently.  Students rarely do this tying to other learning, in my experience, and they may feel it is unnecessary since they already have the solution at hand.  But that feeling is myopic on their part.  If the goal is to internalize the results so the student retains them for later, then this tying to other things is a crucial part.

To a certain extent current math teaching already recognizes the importance of students producing narrative, putting into their own words what the homework is asking the students to do.  This is why these problems are of two types.  One is "grinder questions," where the translation is straightforward, if sometimes arduous.  The other is "word problems" where the translation is more involved.  Alas, many students come to view the word problems as instruments of torture rather than as proper means for the student to elucidate his understanding of the math.  Somehow students think knowing means something other than being able to make a translation.  Anything that universities do to help in this matter must encourage students to believe that translation is how we show our understanding.

* * * * *

Khan academy exists.  There is Khan Academy on trigonometry, differential calculus, and integral calculus.  To my knowledge our community college instructor did not make use of any Khan Academy materials.  She does use Wolfram Alpha, though in my interactions with my mentee that hardly came up. 

A big part of what Khan Academy does is to provide video lectures.  A big part of what our community college instructor does is to provide face to face lectures.  Maybe she should instead provide video lectures so she can flip her classroom.  If so, would the Khan Academy lectures work for that purpose?  And then what would happen in the live classroom?  Would the in class and out of class components of the course align this way?

Here is a video lecture I made recently as a means to demonstrate a more general idea.  It offers up a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.  But that proof is not given on a blackboard nor on a whiteboard.  Instead, it is done via a learning object constructed in Excel.  That object exists separately from the video and can be downloaded for free.

In making that object, it took me about three hours.  There is no recipe for doing this.  Though I've made many other such objects before, it is necessary to conceptualize how the graph will be constructed, then to plot the various line segments, then go back to them and convert those plots to conditionals that will appear only when the push of the button indicates they should.  All of that takes time, even if the basics are well understood ahead of time.  Thus, building such an object is much harder than drawing this sort of thing on a blackboard.

But I believe the object offers an improved experience for the student.  The look is very clean, with little textual content on the screen at any one time.  The geometry does most of the talking that way.  Further, the use of the button emphasizes the sequencing in the thinking.  This is a step by step approach.  There is some notation, certainly.  It is impossible to do math without it.  But the use of notation is spartan.

In contrast to making the object, the making of the video took me about 10 or 15 minutes - after doing the screen capture with my voice over, I wanted to snip the video at the end.  As I was doing this on a Mac, and I've only recently switched to Mac from PC, it took a few minutes how to do this snipping.  For an experienced user, it would be even faster.  With this observation I hope to make it clear that any instructor could make their own movie with their voice annotating working through the steps in this learning object.

We at the university level could build a library of such learning objects, make videos to show how the objects are to used, but encourage others to make their own videos thereafter.

But so far this is a pretty instructor centric change and does little in the way of getting students to work through a narrative of what is going on.  So how about this?   There would be another library created of objects that solve problems.  It would be the student's job to put in the voice over for these objects, either as assignments where all students would provide such voice over, or where one student would voice annotate a particular object, and the other students would view that and offer critique of whether it was well done.  This sort of thing is getting closer to what we're after in our ideal.

* * * * *

Anyone who has taught a college course with learning technology in a subject with a math component knows it isn't that easy.  Let me mention a couple of issues that come up regularly.

One is the leading the horse to water problem.  Will the students watch the video/read the instructor supplied content/do the necessary preparatory work?  Why?  Experience suggests that often they won't unless there is sufficient extrinsic motivation provided to get the students to do this.

The other is whether there will be cheating.  If some student posts the answers to an assessment, will other students come to rely on that rather than work through the problems for themselves?  Here experience suggests that even otherwise honest students are apt to cheat.  If everyone else is doing it, then why not?

The "solution" to these challenges is to pair each bit of content presentation with some assessment done for course credit and then to individualize the content in certain ways so they each student gets their own version of a more general approach, with the answers depending on the particular version the student is working with.

The sequence of content bit followed by assessment, then another content bit followed by another assessment, etc. looks like dialog.   It's now more than 10 years ago where at the request of my friend Steve Acker, who was then an editor at Campus Technology,  I wrote a piece called Dialogic Learning Objects that was an early consideration of these ideas.  In that piece I talked about content surveys, where students responded to questions with short paragraphs that would be collected, reviewed by the instructor, and then discussed in class.

That proved to be clunky and the lags between when the students produced their responses till when we discussed the issues in class were too great.  So I changed the approach to provide immediate auto feedback to the the student who would answer a short question that did have a right answer.  I will provide an example of this sort of thing in a bit.

But first I want to note that these sort of ideas don't emerge in a vacuum.  They follow from previous developments along similar lines.  For me I was first exposed to CyberProf and Mallard, which in turn were heavily influenced by Plato.  Another tool contemporary with CyberProf and Mallard was CAPA, which has since evolved into LON-CAPA and is currently in use at Illinois.  A decade or so later another tool, the Online Line Initiative, was developed at Carnegie-Mellon.  It was designed in the same spirit as these earlier environments, but it leveraged the enthusiasm generated by the Open Courseware Initiative from MIT and that many foundations seemingly wanted to fund similar developments.  This post is being written about another decade after OLI first appeared.

Yet as promising as each of these developments were at the time, the revolution in learning that they portended did not happen, though instructors who developed content in these environments came to rely on them and, in general, students who were in these classes benefited from the online approach.  There are several reasons why these developments were at best an interlude rather than a permanent radical change in the way students learn.  One is that the developers of these environments were few and far between.  After those developers had their fill of the project and then some, so they moved onto something else, the projects became static and ultimately reached end of life.  Another reason is that it was comparatively difficult to support these environments, so while they did emerge at other campuses than where they were originally developed, that diffusion was slow and not very widespread.  A third reason is that authoring content in these environments was not easy.  A learning curve had to be traversed to become proficient in the content authoring.

The current crop of learning management systems on the market are more robust in these dimensions.  Alas, the toolsets in these LMS are inadequate to produce really interactive content that has sufficiently rich assessment as part of the interactivity.  While there are other question types than multiple choice in the LMS quiz engines, they really aren't much more sophisticated than that.  You can get something of a dialogic effect by embedding video of micro lectures within an LMS quiz question that relates to the video, but you can't really put the students through their paces this way.  I believe the same thing can be said for the quiz engines for MOOCs, though I have no direct experience with those (and in truth am not current with contemporary LMS with the exception of Moodle).

My example is for the elements of supply and demand.  It was made in Excel.  I originally constructed it for a principles of economics class I taught in 2006.  If memory serves, it took about a month to make.  So on the authoring side of things, it certainly isn't easy to make these dialogic presentations.  I now have a bunch of different sorts of these things for the current course I teach and I've learned to speed up the construction of these things by lessening some of the design requirements and using some tricks I've acquired since.  But it is still arduous to make one of these and I don't want to represent that otherwise.

Further, my example is somewhat clunky.  To illustrate, if you are on the login worksheet on a Mac, the pulldown menus don't show all the items.  You have to enter an item incorrectly to access the rest of the pulldown menu which then shows the correct item.  Then, on the subsequent three worksheets, the window is divided into two panes by a horizontal divider.  The idea is for the student to put his cursor in the lower pane and leave the upper pane alone, except for some manipulations of the graph, until instructed to do otherwise (by clicking the link that changes the graph).  So the student does work in the lower pane and scrolls down there after answering a question correctly and then proceeds to the subsequent discussion and the next question that follows.  If the student mistakenly has the cursor in the upper pane, that will move instead, momentarily confusing the student.

The clunkiness notwithstanding, this is the sort of content we should want, in my opinion.  It engages the student.  The students don't produce the full narrative on their own, but in answering the questions they become part of the construction of that narrative.  Further, if the student gets a particular question wrong there is immediate feedback to that effect and some suggestion offered for why the answer is not right.  This way the student can begin to see what is really going on.  I will add that the presentation constructs all the sophisticated economic ideas from fundamental concepts and on the third worksheet entitled Trade it does something I wish more presentations of content would do.  Namely, it does it wrong first, works through why that is the wrong path, and only then presents a right path.  It does this by considering a matching process of buyers and sellers that is not stable and leads to trade at many different prices, even though what is being traded is a homogenous product.  Competitive markets should not sustain such price variation.  The exercise works through why and in so doing it shows that matching process is not stable.  This motivates a look at a different matching process that is stable and produces competitive equilibrium pricing.  While the underlying math is quite straightforward throughout the entire workbook and no student should find that challenging, conceptually the arguments being put forth about the economics are fairly sophisticated.  This is especially true on the last few worksheets.

* * * * * 

Much of what universities could do is to produce libraries of reasonably high quality modular content that instructors at community colleges and in high schools could repurpose for their own use in their classes.  So the big issue is what it would take to generate rich libraries of this sort.  Some ideas on this follow, but first let me say a word or two about algebraic content, since heretofore my focus has been on graphical/geometric content.

I have found a reasonably functional way to produce algebraic content for presentation that gets at the issue of it not being too dense for students to slug through and is not all that hard to produce in PowerPoint.  It is illustrated in this presentation on the Shapiro-Stiglitz Model, for example by going to the 5 minute mark and looking at the slide on the Review of Exponential Distribution.  One line of the slide is highlighted and is in black font.  Previous lines are available so the student can see how the current line derives from what came earlier.  But those previous lines are in a pale gray so the eye is not drawn to them.  In making the presentation one makes multiple versions of the same slide.  For lines not yet shown, those are in white font, which merges with the background so appear invisible.  There are as many versions of the slide as there are lines of math on it.  Each line is produced using the equation editor, which I found tolerable for this purpose.

Providing auto-feedback on students doing algebra is a harder nut to crack.  What I do makes sense for me where the students use algebra to do the economics, but presumably they've already learned the algebra somewhere else.  I have students produce formulas in Excel where I tell them (quite often) to build those formulas based on cell references, where the specific cells have the parameter values on which the formulas are based.  I can give auto-feedback on whether their formula produces the correct value.  Indirectly this gives them feedback on whether their algebra is right. I suspect this approach is not good enough for learning the algebra the first time through.  Then hand writing out the algebra may be necessary, in which case what the students produces needs to be evaluated by a human (the teacher or a grader assigned to the teacher).  But perhaps even algebra teachers could make use of some auto-grading of the sort I've mentioned, to give the students more things to work on while keeping the grading chore manageable.

Let's move onto how libraries of reasonably good content might come into being.  As I've tried to argue, there is an issue of what container that content would be in and how one would assure the container is durable.  Yet I don't believe that is the key issue.  Ego is the main problem.

The sort of content we want is time consuming to author.  If there is to be a substantial volume, there must be many authors, with each author producing a comparatively small share of the total.  We need an approach where many authors each do their part but none contribute the lion's share.

Before writing this piece I had in mind to take the commercial approach to textbook production to task.  Publishers make their money from selling the textbooks and therefore want star authors for their texts.  They are paid by royalties.  But the folks who write the ancillary materials, and the content I've been talking about here would fit in that category, are paid a flat fee, given little to no attribution, and thus have no vested interest in authoring bang up stuff.  So it was my view that the underlying commercial model is incompatible with what I was after.

But in looking at the open alternatives that are out there, I started to realize there are issues with those too.  They brand either the author, or the institution, or a combination of the two.  That branding means the content is not really produced with an eye toward re-usability.  It is produced to be used as is.  That impedes re-use, for example by the community college instructor from whom my mentee is taking calculus.

We need unbranded content, lots of it, and of good quality.  Is there a model of this sort of content production for teaching and learning?  The closest that comes to mind is Wikipedia.  I did a Google search on why people contribute to Wikipedia and found this paper, by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman.  I've only skimmed through it, but I gather at heart is the question of community and what it means to be publicly spirited well functioning member of the community.  Such community members make contributions in an ego-less way.

That is what is needed here.  It is insufficient that the content produced be freely available to users.  That content must also contain no mark of authorship nor of the institution that employed the author.  I have seen a lot written about open educational content.  I haven't seen much at all about ego-less content.  I hope the issue gets much more attention in the near future.

Let me make one more point, which is about quality assurance.  There are now many forms of community rating online.  Amazon does it.  IMDB does it.  YouTube and Facebook have simpler schemes with their Like buttons.  The point is that user feedback helps in quality assurance in a way that is compatible with ego-less authoring.  Author reputation as a way to signify quality is not necessary, where it previously might have been essential. 

* * * * *

In this last section I want to take up the question of whether universities might contribute personnel in addition to the materiel that I've already suggested they should contribute.   Here is a brief anecdote to initiate the discussion.

In doing a little background reading on whether MOOCs were already playing the role I've envisioned for open content here, I did a Google search on Udacity's partnership with the Cal State System.  There was quite a to do about that a couple of years ago.  I was aware of it at the time but then I lost track of it.  This piece from the Los Angeles Times reflects the sentiments of the faculty at San Jose State then. As I was reading through it I found an ad for Cardinal Scholars and that quickly captured my attention, after which I forgot about MOOCs.  It turns out that this is a commercial online tutoring and test prep service, with the tutors current students at Stanford.

I wondered if this company has a viable business model and what the demand for this service is.  Will low income college students pay for tutoring when they need to pass a course they find difficult?  Or in this market is it only those students from families that are reasonably comfortable who opt for tutoring, because only they can afford it?

I also wondered whether the one-on-one aspect of the tutoring is critical.  A few years back I started a site called Ask The Prof, where students could pose questions via a Google Form, and then I'd respond at the site.  This was asynchronous response with some lag between when they'd post and I would respond.  The flow of questions to that site never was very great and now it is essentially nil.  Would I have gotten a greater response if students were allowed to schedule a synchronous one-on-one session with me?

And then there is how Cardinal Scholars is marketed.  The only way students can become aware of Ask The Prof is by viewing one of my profarvan videos in YouTube and reading the description there, which provides a link to Ask The Prof.  This clearly limits the potential audience for the site.  Would a more aggressive and strategic marketing approach matter by generating a much larger audience for the service?

Without knowing the answers to any of these questions, let me assume here that Cardinal Scholars is a viable enterprise from a business perspective.  Should we want a free to the student alternative tutoring service, provided by other (perhaps only public) universities, where the tutors do this as a service learning activity for course credit?   The justification for such a service, presumably, would be to make it accessible to all students and hold down the cost of attending college.  Would this be a good thing?

I can see both pros and cons here.  On the plus side, it may be that given the power relationship between the instructor who grades the student, that the student is more comfortable getting help from someone other than the instructor, with that someone known to be competent in the subject but otherwise not involved in the grading part of the course.  On the minus side, it may be that the instructor in the course is the best person to provide help to the student (say during office hours) but can't afford the flexibility of meeting the student's schedule, because the instructor is too busy teaching other students.  In this case tutoring can be seen as a way to dilute the instructor quality and what really should happen instead is that the instructor should teach fewer classes or have fewer students in each class she does teach, so she can give each student the individual attention the student needs.

Given this uncertainty, it would seem to me that some experimentation might be done to learn whether a free tutoring service would be a good thing.  In the meantime, my fear here is that various commercial endeavors will test these waters more quickly.  If any of them get a toehold, that may then subsequently block a free alternative offering, to the detriment of many learners and to the dismay of those who want to make college accessible to all, irrespective of the student's family income.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  This essay is way too long for a single blog post.  I probably should have written it as a series of posts instead.  But I felt all the various sections of the piece needed to be considered in one place.  Universities should take some leadership and shoulder some responsibility in how education occurs elsewhere.  How they best can do this is open to debate.  The reader who has slugged all the way through to the end, may not agree with much that I've said.  I do not expect such agreement.  I hope, however, that this reader understands my perspective on these matters and that the piece was sufficiently provocative for the reader to think through these issues further for himself or herself.  

No comments: