Thursday, September 10, 2015

Don't Use Generic Names for Specific Instructional Practices

This is a response piece to a new essay in the 7 Things You Should Know series, this one about Personalized Learning.  While I'd like to support the concept in this piece, I had a strong negative reaction to the use of this particular expression as the label for that concept.  I also thought that there are a couple of important underlying issues that should be brought out in the open but are for the moment veiled.  So here I'd like to mention them and argue for their importance. It would be good for that argument to continue and then be carried by others.

The mantra - teach the student not the subject - is surely good and important.  It is something all instructors should aspire to, even if they end up doing it only some of the time.   Smart quiz/homework software is also surely good and I wish it were more important than it currently seems to be.  I got hooked on the idea back when I taught with Mallard and later when I became the executive sponsor of Mallard and saw how other instructors were putting it to very good and interesting use.

More recently I have been promoting the notion of High Touch teaching on campus.  (For example, see this post Everybody Teaches as well as the remaining posts in the Everybody Teaches series.)  By high touch teaching I mean - small classes taught in a seminar style where a significant part of what the instructor does is to respond to students, in speaking or in writing or both ways.

In case it isn't obvious, high touch teaching is personalized.  So are office hours in larger classes, Writing Across the Curriculum courses where the papers students produce are on varied topics and where the instructor provides response to that writing, one-on-one mentoring, and quite possibly many other educational settings.  But these are instances of personalization that don't fit the definition provided in the 7 Things You Should Know essay.  If in general personalization in instruction should be encouraged wherever possible, while being mindful of resource limitations that make it far less than ubiquitous, it does a disservice for the technology mediated kind of customization to the student to appropriate the label that really should attach to the broader of idea of teaching the student.

Now that I've got that one off my chest, let me turn to the issues.  The first is about how the student profile is formed and what information is available for construction of that profile.  When I teach a class at Illinois the student profile gets constructed mainly by the their blog posts, sometimes amplified by additional things the students tell me about themselves in email, or what I may garner from them in person if we have an office hours visit.  The way Illinois interprets FERPA,  I can't see transcript information for the student unless the student releases that to me voluntarily.  So I don't know their grades in other courses or what courses they've taken, how they've done on standardized tests, or any other instructor's opinion of the student.

In the 7 Things You Should Know Essay, the transcript information is available to the software up front so there is a pre-formed profile of the student even before the class has started.  Would an institution like Illinois be willing to take such an approach?  If so under what circumstances?  Does having this up front profile information matter a lot or only a little?  How do we know that?  If it turns out that it does matter a lot, would Illinois consider changing it's interpretation of FERPA to allow instructors access to student transcripts?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions.  I've got a feeling that for the time being the campus is so absorbed with other issues that it would not be fruitful to explore these questions here at present.  But Illinois is not the only public institution that has made a rather restrictive interpretation of FERPA as part of its policies.  So these questions can be posed readily elsewhere, at a place that might be more willing to explore them now.

Let me switch gears again and now consider the pedagogy of math instruction and what smart software is good at as well as where it is of limited use.  While I don't teach math per se, I do use a considerable amount of math in the economic models I do teach and I design interactive Excel worksheets that embody many of the principles smart software should have as a homework tool.  What I say next is based on my experience.

The software is excellent at being judgmental/non-judgmental.  It lets the student know if he or she is right or wrong, but doesn't make an opinion about the student in the process.  The students like this... a lot. So this sort of software engages the students and likely encourages time on task.  It then helps get the student familiar with the material and proficient in manipulations that must be done to produce answers.  All of this is good and necessary.

My experience, however, suggests that students can know the manipulations quite well but can't explain why a particular manipulation works, nor why that is the appropriate manipulation to do when confronting a particular problem, nor what the process is which generates the result.  Any one of these things requires producing some narrative to tell what is going on.  Students can become aces at manipulation but remain incompetent at producing explanations in the form of narrative.

It is my view that real understanding of the math requires competence in both dimensions, manipulation and producing narrative.  Software is good for developing proficiency in the former, but not the latter.

There is an obvious argument here that we should have both software mediation and human mediation in learning as well as where each has its comparative advantage.  This is not in the 7 Things You Should Know essay, but many take software mediation and human mediation to be substitutes when they really should be understood as complements.  (I am using these terms as they typically are employed in a course on intermediate microeconomics.)   The lure of the substitutes way of thinking is that it seems to offer a route toward effective instruction at very low incremental cost (the cost to an additional student once the software has been designed).  We really need to get past that sort of thinking and instead talk about building a full understanding of the subject matter in the student, irrespective of the cost.

Anything less than that doesn't cut it.  This is a case where half a loaf  may be better than none, but it is not much better.  We should want the full deal.  That would be much better.

How do you get there for here?  I really don't know.  But if others also started to unpack these sort of underlying assumptions, maybe some folks could begin the search to find an answer - one that works.

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