Friday, December 23, 2005

Evolving from our children

This is my last post till after the New Year. Most people I know are either winding down or have already gone on vacation. I’m going to do likewise and so I hope will most of the readers of this blog. Happy Holidays!


I meant this title to be taken in a serious vein although I understand fully that Darwin and Evolution are hot button topics and that the causality there runs from the genetic makeup of the parents to the character and behavior of the offspring and not vice versa. I am not trying to defeat that idea here. I have something else in mind.

To a certain extent we all pine to be school children who have elders that watch us, nurture us, and evaluate us. We might especially want this as we reach middle age and beyond, although we expect to have much more self-awareness and internal radar to guide our own judgments. The issue with spending a lot of time in introspection and self-analysis is perspective and if one misses essential aspects by being too close to the situation and not being able see things as others, especially highly informed others, might see things.

So the thought is that we might learn things about ourselves by how others see our children and then to rely on Darwin and Evolution in the more traditional sense, that those observations about our children speak loudly about ourselves. What evolves in this case is our self-understanding. We may become better parents as a result. And we may also become better attuned to our own environment.

Let me give a personal example. I have two boys, ages 11 and 13 and their difference in ages (20 months) pretty much mirrors the difference in ages between me and my younger brother, Peter. (I also have an older sister so I’m the middle child, and that may have had substantial impact, so the analogy is not perfect. But my sister is 5 years my senior and hence our experiences during the grade school years didn’t overlap much.) So I’ve likened myself to my older boy, Nathan, and likened Peter to my younger boy, Ben.

In certain ways, that has played out. Nathan was the tallest and youngest in his classes, just as I was. He seems to have the “math gene” and he’s a little reticent to open up around adults. Ben is much the younger brother. This has been my preconception for some time and it seemingly fit, so I didn't bother to challenge it.

But now I want to talk about my own self-learning by considering Ben and seeing some of him in me. Ben’s grades are not as good as Nathan’s and yet his teachers talk about Ben as exceedingly bright. The issue, so it appears from conversations between my wife and Ben’s teachers (and I got a little of this from the parent-teacher conference this fall), is that Ben races through his written work with the sole goal seemingly to get to the end point. So he is careless and sloppy (his hand writing is atrocious) and as consequence he makes mistakes along the way and he doesn’t go back to correct those.

This is not a perfect description of me, but it is sufficiently close to the mark to feel that I am seeing a reflection of myself. My wife and I talked about why Ben races through his work and she wanted to discipline that out of him. I was much less sure that is the right thing to do. I’ve written in a post a few weeks ago that I have some ability to do a quick and to the point analysis. The racing through things is essential for that because at root is to get to the heart of the matter and discarding a whole bunch of other stuff that is window dressing only is critical. But this is clearly something that I cultivated on my own rather than having it taught to me. Indeed, part of the issue is whether pleasing the teachers is more important than pleasing oneself.

I will say that somehow I figured out how to do both and Ben doesn’t quite have the right balance yet, but this idea of wanting the right answer (or at least a good way to frame the issue) by zipping through things seems to be an important part of me and I’m grateful that the evaluation of Ben has brought this point home.

I now want to turn this idea to teaching, particularly at the college level. The connections to our students are at the species and cultural level rather than at more direct heredity level. But might there be this same type of learning about ourselves from observations of the behavior of our students? The literature I’m aware of emphasizes the “otherness” between us and our students. We faculty are unlike our students in that they for the most part will not go on in academe and they have inclinations that are much more practical. They eschew theory for theory’s sake. They want to learn things where the usefulness is obvious to them and not otherwise.

There is another source of otherness that has been emphasized recently. They are digital natives. They can’t remember a world without computers. Their core behaviors have been shaped by the ubiquitous presence of information technology. Books may matter less to them as a source of knowledge. We are digital immigrants. We grew up in a world that was different. Television was the defining technology and in the main it was viewed as a source of recreation, not as a source of information. So we read newspapers and books. We tended to trust authoritative sources.

I don’t want to deny either view of otherness, at least not entirely, but I do think there is some benefit from also seriously considering sameness and looking for hints of ourselves in our students. This really can’t be done in a lecture style class. It can be done in seminars where the students speak up frequently, so their world view and approach to life are pushed front and center.

But beyond this, and I think this is extremely difficult to do at the undergraduate level at a big Public university but it is something we should think about as we try various things to reform instructions, the faculty might engage from time to time in discussions about the students. If we are seeing reflections of ourselves in the students, what are other instructors seeing? Knowing that would seem to be enormously important. To the extent that we perform Schon-like experiments in our teaching modifying our approach from one semester to the next, this would seem to be the driver. It is much harder to find the right way to teach when conceiving of the students as the other. It is much easier to conceptualize about ourselves.

The current approach, in essence, is that the instructor has a blank slate on each student when teaching the class and an opinion is formed only from the experience with the student during the course – based on the written work and occasionally on what the student says in class discussion. Why does it make sense to start a course with instructor ignorance of the students? And how might we make more overt the process from instructors seeing themselves in what the students do to them reconsidering their teaching in light of that reflection?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Intuition, Rigor, and Visualization

Way back when, during my first quarter of graduate school in fall 1976, I took what was then the traditional calculus based microeconomics course where we had two textbooks. One was a theory book by somebody named Kogiku (a text I’ve never seen anyone else teach with elsewhere. Indeed, many of the students in the class got a copy of Henderson and Quandt, which was the standard at the time.) The other was an “intuition book” by Gary Becker – his lectures for teaching this course. At least since I got started learning economics, there has always been this tension between rigor, represented by highly mathematical formulations of the economic models, and intuition, which is done in a more discursive style and typically makes anecdotal reference to real world situations.

It may seem strange that an economist would become a teaching with technology guy, there are many more faculty from the humanities, particularly English and there particularly Writing Studies, who have taken this path. But it seems to me not so surprising really, at least in my case, because of seeing so many ordinary students react negatively to the way economics is taught and in trying to work through this tension on intuition versus rigor.

I started out as a complete rigor guy and over the years have softened into an intuition guy. My simple justification for this is that to go the rigor route students have to be able to see through the math into the underlying ideas. If the students can do this, it is a remarkably good way to understand things, because then the students will get grounded in the theoretical justifications for why economists hold such and such to be true. Since I essentially missed undergraduate economics, this is how I learned in graduate school. So I certainly think there is value to the approach.

But, truthfully, many students can’t see through the mathematics (and many more don’t even want to try). So teaching this way at the undergraduate level leads to a schizophrenic type of outcome. The engineering students and the trickle of math majors who take the course are fine with the approach. The business students and those from political science, urban planning, or elsewhere usually are frustrated with it. Teaching the intermediate micro course that so many of us teach either leads to an approach that alienates the students or to the alternative that alienates ourselves in that it is unlike how we learned the subject. Let me get back to that point.

It is fairly standard that topics which were core in graduate school twenty or thirty years ago become part of the undergraduate curriculum today. Nowadays, there are many instructors who will teach the intermediate course at approximately the level of my first quarter graduate course. There is extensive use of LaGrange Multipliers and Bordered Hessians (those are matrices of partial derivatives, not German soldiers). A somewhat more modern version of this theory that emphasizes the duality between allocation and valuation derives many of the fundamental results without calculus (and the Implicit Function Theorem that is the basis for the standard Slutsky decomposition). The duality approach is a little less notation heavy and, I believe, more powerful in developing intuition. It is useful for those who want to do empirics based on the theory, because it emphasizes the testable hypotheses. But it still doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, to make it really teachable at the undergraduate level.

Understanding economics means seeing the implications of the theory and my argument is that sometimes the theoretical apparatus itself blocks that seeing. Perhaps in my first or second year of graduate school I read a paper by Roy Radner, a very well known theorist, which appeared in Econometrica, the top theory and econometrics journal. The paper was from 1965 or 1966 and was about general equilibrium (that means looking at all markets simultaneously) when different agents in the economy had different pieces of information. It talked about partitions and probability distributions over them and how in being consistent with this differential information, market prices are constrained to be functions only of the coarsest partition that is consistent with each individual’s information. This was the primary result of the paper as I recall. But if asked by a non-economist what was the implication for reality, I couldn’t have told them a thing.

A little while later I read George Akerlof’s famous paper, the Market for Lemons, which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1970. Most people, including many in the profession, probably don’t know that Radner and Akerlof were modeling essentially the same phenomenon. And Radner was clearly first with the result. But it was Akerlof who won the Nobel prize (to be fair both published extensively on other topics). And it was Akerlof who is associated with the idea called “adverse selection,” that bad risks in the market often drive out good risks. The Market for Lemons is mostly a very simple example that plainly illustrates the result in a partial equilibrium (supply and demand) framework. It is teachable at the undergraduate level. And it is an incredibly important insight for a lot of real world economics (like why the unemployed have to pay such high premiums for health care).

I’ve written before about my colleague in the Math department, Jerry Uhl, and on his paper about getting away from lecturing and using Mathematica to teach calculus via giving students examples to play with. Almost all of us would rather learn from example than from theory. That goes for Economics, Calculus, and I believe Pedagogy as well. The example is easier to penetrate. The learner can draw conclusions from it. So the could teacher comes up with examples, to help the students visualize. The difficulty in doing so is that those examples may very well not come from how the instructor learned the subject. The instructor must be creative and generate those examples in a fresh way under the constraints that the students must find them accessible and that they indeed are exemplary of the core idea. This is hard to do, mostly because it requires an appropriate mindset. Some instructors make this leap to hyperspace. Many others don’t.

I wish I could say it ends there and it does for me in teaching a general education course that is outside the major, where the intuitions learned in the course either last a lifetime or are lost. But what of the course that is in the major, where the student is expected to get a deeper understanding of the subject, where rigor is a requirement for obtaining the degree. Does this intuitive approach spoil the student for the harder, more rigorous alternative? How does one reconcile promoting the student curiosity and demanding that arguments be presented in a rigorous fashion?

I don’t know the answer to that, but here is what I’d like to see. From a good example, one should draw an intuition. (If not, what was the point of the example?) The student needs to develop the habit of mind to ask, “Is that really right? Do I really believe that?” And then the student needs to spend some time, perhaps quite a bit of time, answering that question. How does the student do that? By constructing an analysis and reasoning through it. The student needs to be skeptical. The argument could be flawed in some way. And the intuition itself might be erroneous. So the student needs to be patient and skeptical, yet at the same time excited by coming to the possible realization that the example illuminated.

Is this what we teach in the major? If we peel off the disciplinary trappings, does it look at all like I’ve described? If not, is there something else there that allows the students to grow and thrive as the discipline changes? Or do they become used goods as the knowledge they acquire in school depreciates.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Going Crazy with Excel

Things are fairly low key on campus today. Finals ended last Saturday and today the lot where I park my car was much emptier than it has been in some time. I had two meetings on my calendar for this afternoon. Both were cancelled. So I started with something I was working on over the weekend, looking toward my spring course and seeing how much of that I can do with intelligently designed Excel worksheets.

Here is an example I built about a year ago. It is a calendar tool that is good for the next 10 years or so and allows all the data entry within one screen (rather than a separate screen per date as with most Web calendars I’m aware of). It takes advantage of Excel’s built in capabilities and is pretty easy to use. It is downloadable so you can have it on your own desktop, with my dates pre-installed. (The linked version has only a couple of dates in it to prove the concept.) This is how I wish the Calendar tool in a CMS or a Portal worked. The data entry in those seems so clunky to me. Oh well.

And I’m beginning to think of assignments done in Excel that would be linked back to the grade book. I spent some time on this idea a couple of years ago, the last time I taught, and got stuck. Now the solution seems so obvious to me. There needs to be a student identifier in the file title so the generic title would look something like: assignment_name_student_id.xls, and then the trick is to have short names and ids so the entire file title is not that long. It is a little laborious creating different versions of the assignment with the student id in the title. But really, that is not so bad. And once those are created, it is fairly simple to link those back to the grade book.

Slightly harder, I believe, is to take those individual files and put them in a space intended for only that specific student. WebDav makes this not too bad, both for the upload and the download. (And on my new Mac, I discovered that if I view a Folder as a list then I can open subfolders and drag the contents to a common folder in one straightforward step.) That makes it pretty easy to link with the grade book. Excel requires linked workbooks to all be within the same folder.

Indeed, I’ve figured out how to do individual grade reports for each student based on the master grade book for the class. All I need to do for the individual ones is to open them and save, then upload via WebDav to the student’s own folder. This is pretty straightforward. (But it seems to me that upload via WebDav is a slow process, even when files are pretty small. I’m not sure why the slowness. It is the only downer in what I’ve tested so far.)

You can take a look at the linked grade book stuff at my course blog. So now I’ve been able to do grade book, quiz and survey, and calendar all with Excel and distributed through Xythos. For a large class there is still probably too much overhead in this type of an approach, but for a smaller class (I would say up to 50 students) this sort of thing gives me more functionality than with the CMS since I can do a lot of creative things with Excel (for example in the quiz I can restrict display of the next question till the previous question is done correctly and I can make the solution of a question be a complex set of inequalities) and I believe it is still quite manageable.

Will this generate any coattails? If it does, my thought would be that the coattails might come from trying to do CMS type stuff on a pittance or trying to do something more sophisticated than a CMS can manage. Excel really is powerful software and it is ubiquitous. Those two factors should matter. On the other hand, my approach is somewhat unorthodox and I believe for that reason it is hard to communicate about the idea. In the meantime, I’m going to keep putting up my little examples and see whether anyone else gets on the bandwagon.

If I were betting, this is not the next revolution. But it will be in my class!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Gresham’s Law and Using Learning Technology in Large Undergrad Classes

It is an unfortunate but real part of teaching that many students will try to subvert the assessment mechanism they are exposed to rather than be measured as an under performer. I’m not sure entirely why this happens. I’d guess it is a combination of human nature, a lack of understanding of the ethical issues involved, and a disconnect with the subject matter so that the assessment is perceived as for the grade only and not for the benefit of the student’s own learning. As a consequence, we who support online learning technology and those instructor/designers who author materials for these online environments go to some length to deter this type of behavior and encourage more appropriate student engagement.

Examples include banks of quiz questions from which CMS software makes a random draw so that when a student tries again (or when another student tries the quiz) a different question will appear, timed quizzes in the CMS so that students can’t get real time help during the period when the quiz is administered, anti-plagiarism software to see if the student has produced original content and to alert both the student and the instructor to the need for appropriate citation when the content was taken from elsewhere, and software to disable the ability to connect to external networks on computers in computer labs when such labs are being used to administer tests. Some instructors deliberately eschew the technology, particularly because of the perceived pernicious effects on class attendance. So they don’t put up lecture notes for fear that some students will view that as an excuse to miss class. Indeed, one instructor I know has students record multiple choice homework on scantron sheets that the students must turn in by hand during the live class session, just to make the students come to class.

These are examples of Gresham’s Law in Learning Technology clothing. (The bad drives out the good.) In the examples above the good students lose the convenience or learning benefit from the technology because the bad students will take advantage of the situation. In my own teaching, I know that in the old days I would hire extra proctors to administer paper tests and some students would report the feeling that they were in prison, being watched by the guard. The security measures created an aura of distrust. On the other hand, when some students witness other students cheating, that also hurts class morale.

This means that for any possible technology innovation there needs to be incentives to encourage the desired behavior. Good design takes a leveraged approach where those incentives double dip or triple dip and do other things that are benefits to learning, aside from providing the requisite “stick” to ensure appropriate student behavior.

So let’s consider the suggestion I made in my last post this way. Imagine there are two types of students within a single group. First there are Emily Eager-Beavers. Then there are George Goof-Offs. George and his cronies will try to free ride on Emily and her cadre. George will either not attend the live sessions at all or will be there but won't pay attention. Perhaps George will give Emily a hard time during the live session. Emily, on her part, wishes George would just go away and wasn't part of the team at all. She feels George is dragging down team performance.

If in this setting the professor designs a mechanism where team members police each other, there is a good chance it will fail. The Emilys of the world will feel they are getting nothing out of the policing activity. They will perceive this role as a burden without a commensurate benefit. And the Georges will take advantage of the situation as much as possible, trying to get the benefit of the doubt where they can and otherwise antagonizing the Emilys to get more out of the arrangement than is deserved based on performance.

What is the instructor to do? The obvious answer is to have someone else, an agent of the instructor who is not a student in the class sit in on the group discussion. Perhaps the most straight forward way to do this would be to have all the groups in the same physical location, i.e., the classroom to where class meetings are held. Of course if this is done then there is no economy achieved with respect to scarce classroom space. More importantly, to the extent that the group gather in the regular classroom, wouldn't it make sense that the instructor do direct communication, i.e., lecture, rather than engage the class in a placeware session? To the extent the instructor as regular practice has the students do active learning exercises to promote thinking and problem solving, perhaps using placeware to amplify and interconnect the active learning within each group would make sense. Certainly this is a possibility as an instructional enhancement but viewed this was it is an add on to cost. Further, many of our classrooms in the requisite size range are not well suited to accommodate students with laptops. So this might work in some instances but not as an across the board approach.

The other is to use students who have taken the class before as peer mentor/teachers, to attend the group meetings both for the live class session and for out of class sessions, each of which now can be held at a location designed for that purpose. I have suggested this before and would really like to see this possibility unfold. But it is clear that such peer mentor/teachers won't put such effort simply for the good of the order and thus that should be considered as a cost of instruction, one that we might not be able to afford. (My own view on the affordability front is that greater reform is needed and that it is possible if that happens, but not otherwise.)

What is the bottom line? Can we get there with using placeware in large undergraduate classes as a way to promote interaction between students and instructor as well as from one student to another? I don't really know, but it is clear that hoping it will happen is not sufficient.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Can Online and On Ground Converge?

The title is a little grander than what I will ultimately discuss in this post, but it gets to the main issue so I’m going to allow the hyperbole for now. Let me explain why I’m asking the question. There is an ad hoc group of folks who care a lot about online instruction and they want it to be included in the campus strategic planning process. To date, we’ve had some very high caliber online programs on campus, but they have been one-offs with essentially very little coattails. There have been spillovers from these programs within the units that have offered them. But the spillovers have not been broader.

I have been asked to serve on this group and want to contribute if I can. From where I sit there are only two possible positions to embrace with little potential middle ground. Either online is destined to be a fringe activity on this campus as it has been for the last 10 years or so or online and face-to-face essentially become one thing and then, where it makes sense (because there is demand and we have the expertise on the instructional side), we expand the audience to those who are not physically on campus.

In this post I want to restrict attention to the “synchronous component” in instruction and I don’t want to get into whether asynchronous can substitute for synchronous, a topic many others have written about. (I think it can and some of my experiments with quickie videos are intended in that vein.) Instead, I want to look at instruction via placeware and variants of that sort of technology – chat, online whiteboards, voice over IP; some commercial products in this space are Breeze, Centra, and Elluminate. In so doing I want to bring two distinct strands/issues together.

First, we’re seeing a classroom space crunch in the range of 60 – 110 seat classrooms. More and more courses are being offered in this size range, where say 5 years ago those courses has 30 or 40 students. These class sessions are most likely lecture. One wonders whether one might engage the students more actively while simultaneously economize on this type of classroom space by moving from lecture to an interactive placeware session.

Second, some of our online programs want to offer their courses in multi-mode simultaneously, with on ground and online students in the same class. They can’t afford to do make two separate offerings. The question is how to do this. If there is a live class session that the online students “join” via video conference, then they invariably become second class citizens. The instructor can make eye contact with the on ground students and will be more connected to them. The online students are outsiders and don’t participate in the same way.

I propose an alternative that seems sensible to me, though I don’t know too many folks who have tried this. The idea is for the instructor to interact with all students via the placeware. The online students do what they normally would do in such a synchronous class session. The on ground students, however, do something different. They are in groups of 3, 4, or 5 students who meet in a location where the students have good internet connectivity, can see a common computer screen, and can talk amongst themselves in that location. So they can have face to face interaction with each other and online interaction with the rest of the class. In the placeware, these students are represented by a single group presence rather than by a separate individual presence for each student.

So, for example, in an on ground class of 60 students, one might have 15 groups of 4 students per group, rather than a lecture of the 60 ensemble. In this example, there is now a tolerable reason to believe that the placeware sessions would be better than the lecture alternative (and this surely is something that we could test via the appropriate experiments) because it would be much more interactive throughout. Further, the students might like these type of sessions more (this too should be testable) because they would be akin to the IM sessions that students engage in throughout the rest of the day in their social lives.

Similarly, in the blended setting where there are both on ground and online students, the on ground students would be represented in groups while the online students would be represented as individuals. It wouldn’t be totally symmetric, to be sure, but it would be symmetric vis-à-vis how those students interact with the instructor. Indeed, one might think that in this circumstance the pedagogy would not vary so much from the totally on ground situation to the totally online circumstance, but instead would vary only by the subject matter, the maturity of the students, and the disposition of the instructor.

To date, placeware has been kind of a fringe application. If this sort of teaching approach were proven to be successful, however, it could become the core application. Similarly, regarding physical learning spaces, at present group work areas for students that meet the necessary requirements for placeware sessions have not been a priority on my campus in thinking about instructional spaces. But some experiments in testing this teaching approach could make such spaces seem more important and bring our campus view of learning spaces more into accord with the current view by professionals in the field. (For example see this piece by Chris Johnson and Cyprien Lomas in a recent Educause Review.) This would allow such spaces to be used for such synchronous sessions and for group work done out of class meeting time.

So that is the rough overview of the idea. This is how it came up. The last time I taught (spring 2004) I had to go on the road a couple of times and yet I wanted to keep my commitment to my campus honors class, so I had them do text chat sessions inside WebCT Vista. I only had 15 students but I was concerned both about tech support issues (and sure enough during the chat some of them bounced in and out until that stabilized) as well as my ability to manage the threads with 15 individual contributors. So I had them meet in their project teams. (We had 5 teams with 3 students per team.) They met in one of the team member’s dorm rooms.

Those sessions ended up working very well from my vantage as the teacher. Each group participated vigorously and so I got more feedback from them during those sessions than I got while we had face to face class discussion, where invariably some of them talked more than others. And because they were sending their messages more or less simultaneously, we avoided the first to raise her hand preempting other students from raising their hands. And when there was diversity in their views, it was immediately apparent so we had a natural next step to reconcile those opinions.

Of course, this was not the normal mode of instruction. It was the exception use only when I was out of town and perhaps it worked so well because of Hawthorne effects. So maybe the approach has to be blended with a more traditional face to face approach (when there is a significant number of on ground students) and certainly if others experiment with the approach there needs to be sufficient use as to rule out Hawthorne effects as the explanation of the good results.

We do have on ground courses with much higher enrollments than 110, for which this approach would not work, and we have many classes that are sufficiently small where they could be taught in seminar mode if the instructor chose to adopt that approach. So I’m not proposing that every on ground class we offer be done this way. But there are many classes that would be ripe for this approach and, in my opinion, it would be a way of invigorating our instruction without raising costs dramatically. (We’d need the placeware and the infrastructure to support that as well as the group meeting facilities for the students, but the former is not that expensive and the latter probably is necessary anyway, simply to accommodate the out of class group work.)

It would be a direct way to change the culture here in thinking about online and about quality of instruction. To me, it sure seems something to explore.

But it may be too good to be true. So as is my wont, tomorrow I’ll make a post taking a somewhat more skeptical view about trying to implement this type of an approach with a bunch of typical undergrads, where poor attendance, plagiarism, and other such issues are likely to crop up.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Talking head video

here is a clip I made with my new iSight camera and a product that converts it into a video capture device. it seem easy and the video quality is better than what i did on my laptop. you need quicktime.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Old Dogs and New Tricks

My parents were very generous to me. After I earned my doctorate, they gave me $10K to buy a new car. (In graduate school I drove a car affectionately known as the Ruster Duster, which I also used my first year at Illinois.) So in early fall of 1981, I bought my first car - a new silver/gray Honda Accord. The thing is, it had a stick shift (which I got for the fuel economy). I didn’t know how to drive a stick at the time. Buying the car forced me to learn. For the next 15 years or so I probably road the clutch too much during turns, but I managed.

So with that thought in mind, let me talk about the first few days with my new iMac G5. I bought this for two reasons. First, and most importantly to me, I decided that in my office I didn’t want to look at the screen of my Tablet. I wanted a big screen, so I could make the font big and read it easily, particularly late in the day as it is now. I got the 20” version and that certainly is nicer to work with. And though I do dearly love my Tablet PC, one thing it doesn’t do well is produce audio. Now I’m sitting here listening to classical music radio while I write this post. That’s a nice touch.

The other thing I wanted to try was the various applications that the Writing with Video project, an innovative project on my campus, will be using with an eye toward learning whether the Mac is really better for Media production. (Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder I meant this to be my own personal beauty contest, not a scientific study.)

One of those applications is Pages - part of the iWorks suite along with Keynote. If Keynote is Apple’s version of PowerPoint on Steroids, then Pages is the analog for Word. So far I’ve only used it in blank format. There are quite a few templates that would be useful for doing text plus image documents and likewise text plus video documents.

The way I’m using it now is simply to write the blog posts and then copy and paste over into the textbox for my blog at I’ve used Word for the same function in the past, so a few observations just based on that simple use. Habits formed over a long period of time are hard to break and one habit I have is using the Control key for select all, copy, and paste. On the Mac, that’s the wrong key, one must use the Apple key instead. Now it is clear from a prior design point of view, using either key is equally arbitrary, so I certainly don’t blame Apple for this. But having done this for such a long time it is as if the memory is in my left pinky and otherwise I do this without thinking. So in just a couple days use of the Mac, I must have done at least two dozen times attempts at copying that didn’t work. Then when I go back to do it correctly I must do this with conscious effort and make myself aware of something I would normally take for granted. It is a good lesson for me about changing any technology even if the successor is better (and for me in this test the Jury won’t even start to meet for a month), there will be switching costs such as this that will irk the user.

I have a couple of other minor gripes. The pages software as I have it set up does single space within paragraph and then hitting the return key puts a line space between paragraphs. When I copy the document and paste into the Blogger text box, the line space between paragraphs is not there. So I have to put in two returns. That is not itself a big deal. But in Word, I was able to understand that return holding the Shift key down was a line break. That seems to be the case in Pages as well. But when I paste that into Blogger, it looks the same as if the Shift key were not used. Hmmm. Another issue is that hyperlinks I insert in Pages do not carry over to the Blogger text box. Maybe they would if I changed my settings. But at present I’m not sure how to do this. One last grumble. Word has the grammar checker in addition to the spell checker. I’ve come to like those squiggly green lines because I use passive voice way too much and sometimes make other awkward constructions. So I’m less happy that Pages has only the spell checker. It’s not the end of the world, just an observation.

I want to talk about another issue, which is doing my own trouble shooting and learning. On the PC I was pretty far along with self-support and would only rarely ask someone else for help, preferring to solve the issue myself (typical male thing). On the Mac, I’m at a loss to find the information so I got a little frustrated when I couldn’t solve my problem. For example, on Saturday I downloaded and installed NeoOffice, an Open Office alternative for the Mac and something I wanted to try to see if I could use it “seamlessly” in my business dealings. (We share a lot of Word docs and Excel spreadsheets.) But at the moment AppleWorks is the default for files with a .doc or .xls extension. So I’d like to change that. I’m sure it is a simple command. But which simple command? I didn’t find the answer in the Apple help nor in a couple of quick Google searches. This doesn’t mean the help isn’t there. It just means I didn’t find it. And I’m an impatient searcher, only occasionally a diligent one. (Also NeoOffice didn’t display bullets in a Word document in a nice way. That was disappointing.)

I have yet to use the built in microphone and iSight camera. Nor have I played with iMovie or iPhoto. So I’m a long way from saying - go back to the PC. But I am wary about how I will do with email and calendaring (I currently use Outlook on our Campus Exchange server.)

The funny thing is that I was a Mac guy for 10 years. But I switch in the late 90s, in large part because my friends in Econ were all PC folks. Now I’m at the point of buying my own Honda Accord. But I’m a lot older than I was 24 years ago.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Would you take a course from an Instructional Designer/Technologist?

Sometime in the late 90’s I participated in a conference hosted by VPI that was not held on the campus in Blacksburg but rather at some convention center that was easier to get to (maybe in Roanoke, I can’t recall). The conference went several days and had a variety of interesting moments, perhaps the most surreal of which was to see a Howard Strauss presentation where he kept up a frenetic pace for the entire time to give us his sense of what the future held for IT and learning technology in particular.

I typically get “conferenced out” after a couple of days at an event so start spending more time in casual conversation than in going to sessions. On the third or fourth day of this VPI conference I recall having some beers with more junior types, a chain smoking junior faculty member in English from NC State and if memory serves the son of one of the conference organizers, Len Hatfield. We talked for quite a while about how students learn and whether there is a good model for that which we could all embrace. Somewhere during that conversation, the guy from NC State said there was a really great book, The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon, and it had the type of theory we were looking for.

Reading Schon’s book was good for me. It confirmed a lot of my own thinking about how we learn and how we know things and how we are seemingly smart within the situation and can come up with things in context, but can’t recall and don’t reason well in the more abstract setting. Though I haven’t looked at the book for quite a while, I believe Schon uses terms like “knowing in action” and “learning in action” to indicate this highly nuanced and localized knowledge that professionals possess and that apprentices aspire to. Schon also has a notion of an experiment - not an experiment in the sense of the scientific method and hypothesis testing, but rather in the sense of an exploration into something unknown where the choice of what to try and what might be expected as the outcome is driven by the knowing in action. This is the type of experimentation that I think should be a regular part of our teaching.

There was a piece in Educause Quarterly a while back that embraced the Schon approach and tried to use it as the basis for a framework of experimentation with educational technology, though it uses the term “Plan” where I would much prefer the term “experiment” for reasons that I’ll explain as I go on.

In the current Educause Quarterly there is an an interview with attendees of the recent Instructional Technology Leadership Institute, held last summer at Penn State. There is a discussion of what Instructional Design means and in my way of thinking, it was cast in a very “instrumental” light. Consider these remarks from Larry Ragan, one of the instructors at the Institute.

The designer’s role is to craft a learning experience so that you achieve an
outcome, and the technologist’s job is to create the environment for that to
happen in. The technologist is more defined and delineated in approaching tasks,
addressing hardware, support systems, and the technologies needed to get
something done. The designer brings in the art. Think of an interior designer.
He isn’t the one doing the building; he tells you where he thinks the lighting
should go and how things should be arranged. He doesn’t build the furniture. The
technologist says, “You want a chair, I’ll build you a chair.” The designer is
the one who has to think about placing it.

I have some trepidation about this type of instrumental approach in support of instruction and for similar reasons I have concerns when it is applied elsewhere, as in the continuous improvement model that underlies the accreditation process and in the project management process that is how our respective IT organizations go about doing their work. In the rest of this piece I want to explore whether my fears are rational or paranoid and how I think one might reconcile a Schon view with this instrumental instructional design view.

So let me bring in my own theoretical background, which is of course economics, not teaching and learning. During my first year in graduate school, I learned continuous time decision models under certainty - Calculus of Variations and Optimal Control Theory. Some time later I learned the discrete time alternative, Dynamic Programming. And then I was exposed to but didn’t become expert in the stochastic alternatives. I did spend some time on what is called Markov Decision Processes. (How is that for a lot of jargon in one paragraph?)

Let me summarize what one learns from this type of study. A solution to such a program is a “policy” that says what to do at each time and, in the Markov case, as a function of the “state” of the system at that time. So the policy is a function that takes state and time and maps into actions. At a theoretical level, what an instructional designer should be doing is coming up with a policy, according to the articulated goals of the instructor.

However, this notion of a policy is a complex beast and it would be extremely hard to communicate, let alone derive. So a designer might solve a simpler problem by
(1) ignoring the uncertainty altogether and
(2) making the time intervals each sufficiently long so that are not too many of them in total.
This type of abstraction is natural to do for the designer. Indeed, part of Schon's point, though it is tacit in his book, is that abstract problems of this sort are not natural to pose so we don't solve them in their full complexity that way. In other words, the problem the designer solves is a simpler problem. But it means that when it is applied that one will almost surely go “off the plan” as time passes and then it will be be necessary either to re-calibrate the plan in mid stream or to stubbornly proceed with the original plan although it may seem doing so is not working.

An alternative is to encourage the instructor to be more robust in the instructor role, more robust in the sense of Schon, and try to know in action what is the appropriate thing to do but not to try to encode that ahead of time and instead let the appropriate action be determined by the instructor on the spot. I think good teachers do this all the time and to the students it makes the instructors seem responsive, a desirable in my view.

But if the instructor does this type of knowing in action while teaching, then a detailed plan probably gets in the way. Some higher level scaffolding may be fine, but putting a lot of flesh on this is counter-productive. So a significant part of my concern is how the instructor handles surprise as the course is taught. In lecture classes, there will be little surprise in what the instructor presents. But there is potentially a lot of surprise in how the students will react (and then maybe some surprise in how the instructor reacts to the student’s reaction, etc.) In courses that are seminar based, presumably there will be surprise throughout the discussion and then the instructor has to decide whether to bring the class "back on track" or to go with the flow of the conversation.

My sense is that the instrumental approach, in practice if not in theory, short changes consideration of surprise. Thus it is best at training of known skills (like learning the rules of the road for a driver’s license) and it is less good where the learning is more open ended, as with doing investigative research. The latter is what seems critical for learning to learn and higher order thinking. That is where my bias lies.

The other issue I have, specifically with instructional design and not, for example, with project management is the agency notion and how that should be managed. The instrumental approach implies that the expertise stays with the designer; the instructor can remain ignorant of the design process and as long as a plan is produced, proceed apace. The instructor doesn’t learn to teach in this approach (and in particular doesn’t get exposure on how to know in action about what to do when confronting a particular teaching issue in class).

This is why a mentoring approach between an experienced instructor and another instructor earlier in his career or a shared experience approach where instructors openly discuss their own teaching issues and comment on what other instructors have said may be preferable to the instructional design approach, because the agency issue is not there with mentoring or shared experience. The information sharing becomes a form of collective problem solving rather than knowledge transfer from expert to novice.

Does instructional design have to be this way? I don’t think so. I think it can be more collegial and less instrumental. But in too many cases I believe the designers cling to the instrumental approach for pretty much the same reasons that very junior faculty end up teaching “the best graduate course a freshman ever had,” to establish their credentials and justify their role in the consultation. Unfortunately, the consequence is for the designers to seem pedantic, inflexible, and quite possibly irrelevant.

Who will let them know?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Unconventional Wisdom

This is a quickie today. Yesterday I was in Indy for a CIC Learning Technology Group meeting. It's always good to see colleagues and learn about new developments. There was discussion on many topics including: (1) using publisher eContent for assemble your own coursepacks (including textbook chapters debundled) , (2) a discussion of blended learning and (classroom) space utilization issues, and (3) an update on the Sakai implementations at UMich and Indiana U - a lot of fun stuff. At the end of our morning session we had a few minutes to discuss disruptive technologies - blogs, wikis, podcasts, the current grab bag. Among the schools that fessed up, there was clearly interest in the topic, but nobody was yet doing anything significant in this space at the campus IT level. The happenings were all bottom up spur of the moment things. The impression I had was that most people were content with this approach.

I want to juxtapose that with this really excellent piece by Michael Lewis in the NY Times Magazine about the Texas Tech Football coach. This guy has talent, in the main, that have been recruited by U Texas, or A&M, or any of the other powerhouse schools in the southwest. But by going against the grain with a well considered approach that has proven some significant tests of time, he has revolutionized the offensive game.

One wonders if something analogous might happen with disruptive technologies. Why are we all taking it slow?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Virtual Learning Spaces

I came across an interesting piece by Clay Shirky on Situated Software in which he describes a software design approach via small group customization where the question – will it scale? – is not a consideration at all. Presumably user satisfaction is quite high with the situated software because it was designed to work in the context where the users are located. Whether situated software offers a robust solution, i.e. the costs are reasonable and the application is sufficiently durable, is an open question. (The argument for is that with clever design the software takes advantage of the local group characteristics to keep cost down and user expectations about the service are more readily brought into line because they can see the “back end” part of the service.) This is an interesting piece to read, certainly provocative if not a portent of the future.

I want to drill down and consider how Shirky used situated software in his teaching, in a course called Social Software. He divided the students into groups and each group had to design and build some software that the other members of the class would use. The use by the others could very well be taken into account in the design and implementation, indeed that is what motivated some of the clever designs that were produced in Shirky’s class, but more interesting regarding instruction, from my point of view, is that the use serves as an informed evaluation of the work of the original creators by their peers. One wonders whether it is possible to have such informed evaluation in other courses.

Unfortunately, from that perspective, it is not typical in other courses for student projects to create things of practical use by other students. It is more typical for course project deliverables to be written documents in some format. So the question arises whether other students can read those documents and provide feedback for the creators in a way that is meaningful to both. I believe the answer to that question is yes, it is possible.

In a piece I wrote for Campus Technology Magazine a couple of years ago, I talked about dialogic learning objects as a possible mechanism for achieving this end. After that article appeared I taught an Econ 101 course to honors students where I followed that approach. During the early parts of the course the students completed “content surveys” that I authored, written in a style to imitate an article in the New York Review of Books, but of course with Econ content and with questions interspersed that required the students to write some response. After the students responded I would collate their answers, distribute those, and then discuss in class. This particular group was an easy class to please, so it may be premature to make generalizations on the approach, but it remains that they liked these content surveys very much.

About one third of the way into the course, the students were required to produce content surveys of their own, just as Shirky’s students produced software. Some of the students were a bit doubtful that they could produce anything that others would find worth reading. (This is an example of the standard problem that novice students compare themselves to expert instructors in terms of their own performance and invariably they come up short in that comparison.) We got through that problem through my encouragement and coaching. The students did indeed produce content surveys though they were “flatter” than mine, but they were useful and interesting to read nonetheless. The novel aspect of their surveys was the metaphors the students came up with; in several cases those were more appropriate entry points into the topic than what I would have delivered.

A crucial aspect of making the approach work was the ensuing class discussion. I found that because we had already done the survey and I had read their comments that we could start a little further into the topic and bring out some deeper points. In one particular case, which was a discussion on the economics of population growth, I had coached the team that wrote the content survey on the possibility that Malthus is wrong, that there had been an economist right here at Illinois, Julian Simon, who had made this very famous bet with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, about how the price of scarce metals would vary over a 10 year period. Simon won, and the students were able to find some articles by other economists who made Simon’s points more formally. So the content survey ended up being critical of the Malthus view. In the class discussion, I got the students to reflect on human nutrition and stunted growth, by getting them to consider the size of the armor for knights we see at various museums such as the Chicago Art Institute. That both sides of the argument might have some validity and that which side a particular individual took in the debate might very well depend on the individual’s circumstance, was really good for the students to see and made that particular class very gratifying to teach.

Armed with this experience, I did start to generalize and still maintain that a very good way to teach is to have students make reusable learning objects as part of their course obligation, the content surveys being an exemplar from the class of possible learning objects, and therefore the Course Management System is the essential virtual environment for this type of instruction. I still subscribe to this argument.

However, I’m not sure whether the argument has legs with other instructors. In the meantime, there has been a lot of excitement about wikis for supporting collaboration, both in the classroom and with the research group. The argument for wikis is that every student is potentially both a reader and a user and thus the wiki is a great way to make the students fell part of a larger community. While the community building is a good thing, I have to say I’m not entirely comfortable with this view and find it easier to take the Shirky approach and separate out the creator from the user. Indeed, all of us may be both, when broadly considered, but when drilling down to a particular project it seems to me we are usually one or the other.

But I’m quite willing to believe that others think differently and that what is important to them is creating a completely horizontal environment where each person’s role is determined only by their own participation and not some pre-assigned role. Indeed, blogs may do likewise in terms of building a communitarian sense. So I think that some folks out there are asking whether blogs and wikis might end up replacing the CMS.

One such article on the subject is by Scott Leslie in his blog, on the false dichotomy between ELGG (an open source blog/file management/social networking application) and Moodle (an open source Course Management System, which incidentally features a wiki). Scott talks about peaceful coexistence of these two applications at Athabasca University and he links to an article by Terry Anderson describing how this will be done. It is encouraging to see others think that faculty will by their own volition operate in both environments, and choose one or the other depending on the need. But I’m not sure it will play out that way.

The wiki and blog software, while in some cases accommodating private communication among a limited set of users, is first and foremost meant to be used out in the open where postings are generally available on the Internet. For many people I know, this sense of openness is what the Web is about and hence these folks feel an affinity toward these environments. I do think that if the CMS don’t afford an open component in their environment, they will lose these folks who will move on to the newer coloration technologies. So I think it a safe prediction to say that at least some of our communication in the future will be happening out in the open and indeed that a greater share of what we do will be publicly available.

Beyond that, however, things seem quite uncertain. Will the same environments be used for formal instruction and research collaboration? Will we finally “solve” how to distribute content efficiently so that we can move past that and focus more on the student and the student’s interactions? Will we continue to see on large campuses such as mine that many individual units try to support their own thing, whether developed locally or not, so the service can be more situated? Or will they tire from that and hence we end up with fewer flavors of these type of environments overall? Should very large classes and more modestly sized course be using the same software? Will tool interoperability happen for real in the future so that we can mix and match apps according to our own inclinations?

It should be fun finding out.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Virtual Napkins

What will the student computing environment be like a few years hence? That is the subject of this post.

Let me begin with the following. My campus currently does not have a computer ownership requirement. There are a couple of professional programs, Law and MBA, which do have a requirement and the MBA requires in addition that the students have laptops that they bring to class. Several other smaller schools or programs are in the talking stage of such a requirement. I assume they will get there in thme next year or two, though there are obstacles (some of which I talk about below). Computer ownership within the Freshmen class that started in fall 2004 was almost 95%, with about 60% of those being laptops.

But most students don’t bring their laptops to class. In the first two years, where the students are apt to take a lot of lecture classes, they will be sitting in fixed seating with fold out tablet arms to support a (paper) notebook. There is really not enough surface space to support a computer. And most of these rooms don’t have power to the seat, so even when we put wireless in, we’re in the process of doing that now, if students have several classes in a row they will likely run out of power unless they tote extra batteries. Further, we are a big campus geographically and if one has to tote a laptop around campus, along with textbooks and other course materials, it is just too much.

So an interesting question is where do students do the online part of their course work? Do they go back to their residence and work on their own computer? Or do they go to a lab? Or do they go back to their residence and then take their laptop to someplace they can work (perhaps with wireless access)? I believe the answer is all of the above, but I don’t have a good sense of the relative importance of those alternatives. I will also note that the presence of cell phones and iPods among the students is huge, but for the time being the use is mostly unrelated to instruction.

What about preferred platform? We have a pilot project on campus called Writing with Video that many people are excited about. It has been approved for our general education, composition II requirement. The expectation is for this course to start ramping up in fall 2006. Students will be expected to have access to a modern Mac, as that is the best platform both for getting started with video editing and for embedding video and text in a common view to display both in conjunction. (Though I like my tablet PC, I’m buying myself a Mac desktop so I can test out for myself this assertion about applications and also just to have a new toy for the holidays.)

This leads to its own issue. I don’t know what the penetration of Macs is with the incoming students, but for the last several years Mac ownership has dipped well below 10%. So to get Macs to these students, those directly involved with the IT support for this course are going to start a leasing program, wherein during the semester the students take the writing with video course they will have a Mac laptop. It will be extremely interesting to see the student behavior after that course is over. Will they become hooked on the Mac and make it their platform for all their courses? Will they view the Mac as a curiosity only for Video production, which remains a sidebar activity for them? If the latter, will they expect that that campus (or the colleges) provide Mac computer labs so they work on their video project there? Nobody knows the answer to this. It is an interesting experiment.

For some of the units that are toying with a laptop requirement, the issue is the price of the specialized software licenses and whether they can come up with a bundle of applications that is sufficient for the core instruction in the program but is affordable for the students. This turns out to be a vexing problem and in some cases the software vendors won’t allow key served applications that might reduce the aggregate licensing cost. Again it seems possible that students under such a requirement will start demanding labs instead. To me that makes sense if the students also benefit in going to the lab either by working on projects with classmates or by being able to access expert advice that can’t be delivered well online. But absent that, a lab solution instead of any anyplace solution seems archaic.

In my own discipline, economics, and in math and quite a few other disciplines where students have to do a lot of equations and diagrams, a Tablet PC would be wunderbar. Economists, in particular, are known for going to restaurants and coffee shops and debating their favorite issue with diagrams drawn on napkins. (Remember the Laffer curve?) With a Tablet PC, students could do this online and then share their diagrams. (Ergo the title of this post.) So if all econ students or all math students had tablets, I’m quite sure they would be used intensively in instruction for the homework part, if not for the live class part. But, unfortunately, penetration of Tablet PCs among the students is quite low and in the absence of the tablets one has to teach the class quite differently.

In days of yore, I had the students use Draw, or Paint, or some other similar program to make Econ graphs and submit those as part of their homework. But the reality is that using the mouse, as distinct from a pen input, is quite clunky for making the diagrams. So students who are diligent will make the diagrams first on paper, practice there, and only then translate those to the computer. And students who are less diligent will not practice much at all and not get very proficient with the diagrams, which is a key skill in understanding the economics.

An instructor with a modest sized class who is serious about getting the students to learn the economics might very well opt for paper based homework, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, even if that instructor is otherwise disposed toward using technology.

I just checked the Gateway site and their new 14” tablet looks quite reasonably priced. But will students go for it? There is a huge coordination problem afoot here. If students have the Tablets we will teach one way. If they don’t we’ll teach a different way. If students expect us to teach one way, they might very well buy Tablet PCs. If they don’t have that expectation….

Predicting the future about the student computing environment is difficult because of the coordination problem. The only thing I feel safe in predicting is that there is too much diversity on a campus such as mine to imagine that we’ll converge on one computing environment for all. I’m jealous of those campuses that mandate a common platform for their students. But at the same time I recognize that depending on discipline we do quite different things with technology and we likely will not serve anyone well by aiming for a standard somewhere in the middle.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Where are we going with learning technology?

Over the next several days I plan to make a variety of posts on this general question. At the outset, I have to say I have no crystal ball. There are many folks out there on the bleeding edge who see what is coming next better than I see and who might be worth consulting. But I do have some thoughts in the matter and since my normal orientation is from the political economy perspective rather than from the technological side, perhaps some of what I say will be of use to others.

Let me begin by noting that when I got started thinking strategically about learning technology (this was at or around the time that our paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects got published) I did a lot of background reading from the then Educom site and there were all these papers by Bill Massy and Carol Twigg and others on how society embraces new technology (the examples, I believe, are the railroad, electric power, and the telephone but to keep my writing effort short, I’m doing this by memory and not re-researching the project) and the main message was that it takes quite some time, perhaps 20 years or so, for society to figure out how to reengineer the social system to take advantage of the innovation. Much of the social return, which can be stupendous, comes indirectly from the social reengineering. That effect swamps any direct effect of applying the technology to earlier structures.

This seems common sense to me and on the teaching and learning side, in particular, we used the mantra in the SCALE days – it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it – just to hammer home that point. However, now that I’ve been involved with campus support of learning technology for a number of years, and that includes the smart classrooms as well as the online piece, I have to say the focus is quite different. Most of it is on use, and how the faculty implement with (or opt out of) the technology. Rarely is there a discussion of transformation of practice and where we’d like to be going in that respect.

Further, my university is now going through a strategic planning process where the sequencing is something like: 1) First the University provides a framework, then 2) Each campus provides a plan (filled with place holders) to accommodate the college plans, then 3) Each college submits a plan (which is indirectly an ask for additional funds), and only then will we do 4) Create a campus strategic plan for information technology. In this way of doing things, technology is viewed as an instrument to facilitate already articulated transformation that is desired by the colleges or the campus.

I’m not entirely opposed to the technology as instrument view, but I believe that if earlier stages in the process are not well disciplined by what the technology is capable of, it is quite possible to set goals in a direction that don’t match what is possible, i.e., the colleges don’t see what the technology can enable so they make some ignorant choices about where to set their objectives. In this way everyone acts in good faith, but we get a bad outcome, nonetheless.

The other issue, as I see it, is that many of the big picture concerns on the teaching and learning front don’t get well articulated by this process. The big picture concerns are cost (in most of what I’ve read on the strategic planning this is being “addressed” by looking for additional revenue sources) and on engagement on the part the students, the faculty, and the institution. I’m not sanguine on the engagement issue coming front and center through the strategic planning process. The colleges are very likely to put their research needs first, since that’s the primary determinant of their reputation and there is a fear (I believe the fear is legitimate, not paranoid) that addressing engagement would take resources from the research mission. And there is the further issue that the engagement issue does not line up well with our rhetoric – the University of Illinois is about excellence. That is its essence.

If there is truly an engagement problem (and the documentary Declining by Degrees is but one prominent source suggesting this is a national issue) but if at the end of our strategic planning process it turns out that we want to protect strengths in the main and not invest heavily in our weaknesses, which is how I would bet this will turn out, then it seems a sensible prediction that we will not tackle this issue squarely. (And on the recent demographics of our admissions, where our yields have been continuing to go up, it seems that we can simply raise requirements for admission and not otherwise make major programmatic change at the undergraduate level.)

My sense, further, is that other public research universities such as the University of Illinois are in a similar position vis-à-vis the balance between research and undergraduate instruction and the (lack of) desire to make waves at the undergraduate level. The University Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts all talk publicly about these issues. But by the nature of the faculty governance process it is very unlikely that any of our sister campuses will make the case for radical transformation at the undergrad level.

So it is in this climate that I think we must consider where learning technology is going and we must anticipate substantial discord between early adopter faculty types, who much more readily will embrace a view that the university must transform to survive, from majority faculty types, who don’t see what the big deal is.

To this I want to add one more point. There may be an increasing number of disciplines where technology literally becomes part of the curriculum, e.g., in architecture the student absolutely has to know CAD, while in journalism the student has to know sophisticated page layout, and so there will have to be adaptation on how to bring the technology into the curriculum in a meaningful way where it is learned en passant and serves as a conduit for promoting critical thinking in the discipline. But not all disciplines have an intrinsic need to embrace technology; do econ students need to learn Excel? I’m not sure they do.

And so absent a push on using technology to solve the bigger picture issues, one might see only incrementalism with technology with the primary driver being the individual instructor’s wish to improve her own teaching or with students laying a guilt trip on their instructors either about not using the technology at all or about using the technology in a poor manner. In many cases, these have been the primary drivers to date.

My heart clearly is in tackling the big picture issues head on and considering the transformations that are necessary to do that. I’ve made many posts to this blog that can be cast in that light. But my head tells me that if you have a campus administrator role in learning technology, such as I do, that you have to recognize that advocating for transformation is unlikely to be successful for reasons I’ve sketched above. So I think it is useful to maintain a dual perspective and talk about where technology is headed from both of those vantages. That is what I will do in later posts on the topic.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why I like to write blog posts

When I was an assistant professor it was boom or bust when it came to work. There would be intervals where I worked intensively trying to figure out the essence of the model to gain sufficient insight to write the paper. And there would be other times where I lolled around, not doing much of anything, goofing off, waiting for the inspiration to come or to have the energy to will myself to work through the argument. When I first started, it took me from four to six months to write a paper.

This was before word processors. (I’m talking about typing a paper with a lot of math in it. There was word processing for straight text.) So I hand wrote out the paper, double spacing on yellow ruled pads, with a lot of cross outs and rewrites in the process. We don’t appreciate the productivity gain  from word processing; we take it for granted. But that was one big reason why it took so long to get the paper done.

However, another big obstacle I frequently encountered is that I would get stuck with analysis and then things would slow down to a crawl. I had to stew for quite a while as to whether the line of thought I expected to work could be modified in some way or if I needed to change the model in a fundamental way to drive it home. I don’t really recall this with any specific memories, but I’m guessing that the lolling around happened during the times when I got stuck. And, to use a cooking metaphor that might not be entirely appropriate, I didn’t turn off the range entirely; I left what was cooking to simmer, so that I could turn the heat up again sometime later.

I believe I became quite conscious of the value of the simmering; sometimes proclaiming to my friends the half truth that while I was watching TV I was really working on my paper. This is a dangerous way to work, since the leisure activity can become a thing in itself and an excuse to procrastinate. I’m sure I did procrastinate quite a bit, in part because the working through the model was such an insular activity.

I changed my research program after about three years, from micro foundations of macroeconomics, where I wrote interesting but ponderous papers that I had a hard time getting published, to theoretical industrial organization (and later to theoretical labor economics) in large part because I had some colleagues to talk to about the latter but nobody about the former. Also, to the extent that I thought about what I was exposed to at seminars on campus or conferences around the Midwest influenced my research area, it was natural for me to make the switch that I did.

During the same time, I developed somewhat of a reputation for being very good at seminars (as a member of the audience) in being quick to analyze the model the presenter was delivering and in offering some penetrating insight. I have several distinct memory fragments of being at workshops and offering up important ideas that the researchers themselves hadn’t considered. So I became a valued colleague, as much for this collegial role I played at workshops as for the research of my own that I contributed.

I don’t believe that I reflected on this discord at all during when I was an assistant professor, being quick at the trigger with other people’s work, and yet somewhat slow in the process of cranking out my own research. It just was the way things were. I was too caught up in getting tenure and department politics to make that connection for myself. But from the here and now, having these two antitheses as part of my persona seems critical in understanding my persona and in what the writing of the blog does for me.

I like to explore, to be exposed to new things, if I can digest them in short order and make some headway. Listening to others present their economic paper was a means of exploration for me. My unique skill is to come up with the quick study – a framing of what I’m reading or hearing that allows some insight into the idea. In spite of the occasional senior moment, I’m still pretty good at that, particularly in domains where I’ve had some prior exposure so am not a complete novice.

Now, watching the Charlie Rose show, (this past week he’s had on Maureen Dowd of the NY Times and Judge Richard Posner, interviews you wouldn’t find elsewhere) or reading the times Op-Ed page, or surfing the Web for content, I feel part of an exploration where I’m positioned to make a synthesis. I’m consciously trying to bring in diverse elements that are simultaneously relevant. When I do this well, it provides me no small source of satisfaction. To a certain extent, this is my personal raison d’etre.

But there is the other part of me, the part which lingers on ideas that perhaps should be discarded, the part that stews and gets stuck on hard issues, and the part where my personal demons dwell. This is where my reflections sometimes do me more harm than good.

As it turns out, regular writing is for me a way to emphasize the explorations and reduce the lingering, ponderous times. There is a “pre-writing” phase that is common to both. The pre-writing gets me to a certain point – a topic, a vague notion about the topic, and perhaps some lines of text that I want to make sure that I included. The actual writing is a sharpening of the ideas, perhaps some modifications if when I’ve produced some text it is not what I thought I intended or if the implication seems to lead in some other direction.

Then a wonderful thing happens, though I’m not sure why. Once the post has been published to the Web site, I can forget the idea and move onto something else. The writing is a wonderful way for me to let go. Publishing brings with it a sense of closure. To be sure I’ve had more than once a series of posts on the same topic – variations on a theme so to speak. But even with those I’m not lingering on the same thought, but moving from one idea to another.

For those reasons and because the writing itself is a means of self-expression, though I wouldn’t have agreed to this as an assistant professor, how it is said matters and when that is done well it too is a source of satisfaction, mostly I look forward to writing and feel alive when I’m doing it.

But there is more to the blog posting than that. If it was just what I described above, I could have kept a diary all these years; yet I’ve never done that. There is the additional aspect, about communicating with an audience and the feedback that comes from that. I have the puppy like need to be patted on the back for a job well done. Especially when I first was writing the blog I sent out emails to a few friends and colleagues alerting them about the blog and hoping to get some reaction of the patting-on-the-back sort.

Now, about a half year later, things have changed for me in this regard. The blog is emblematic for me of a style of writing I associate with the New York Review of Books (which, unfortunately, I stopped subscribing to some years back because I couldn’t keep up with it) and particularly of the writing of Stephen Jay Gould, intelligent writing from an expert intended for the layman. Both in tone and in length I try to emulate this style. Increasingly, it represents how my own thought processes work, perhaps partly in how I would come up with the idea initially, but certainly in how I would go about presenting the idea to others.

I believe there is a hunger for this type of writing, in general. Certainly within the sub-population who read edu-blogs, I think there are many who want writing like this on their favorite subject matter. Recently, I’ve gotten some very kind emails from readers who have said they enjoy my posts and will continue to read my blog. Receiving these is gratifying in itself but also serves as a form of validation for the approach to the writing.

I don’t know if it is possible to teach the quick penetration into the model way of thinking that I find natural and is my own forte. But I do think it is possible to teach this type of writing and make it an important goal of college instruction. That serves as a latent motivation for writing the blog.

Let me make one more point before I close. We need highly visible champions of this approach to writing. After seeing Arthur Sulzberger on the Charlie Rose show a couple of weeks ago, where at the end of the interview (most of which was devoted to the severance of Judy Miller and the Iraq-gate mess) he talked about the transitions the newspaper business was going through, the pressures from the other media including the blogosphere, the launching of their Times Select for fee online business, and the costs of running news bureaus like the Times Washington office, it occurred to me that the Times should become the champion for this type of writing. Their comparative advantage is in depth of coverage and analysis, not in speed of getting that content out to market.

As the readership is increasingly online, the Times will be less and less tied to column length as a delimiter of output and more and more will be valued for the quality of writing that is produced in those columns. There is an abundance of sources of quick hitter type of information. We are being deluged by that. Quality writing that is readily available to everyone is increasingly scarce. The Times would do well by making that its modus operandi.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The reading habit

My older son, who is 13, will with some regularity eschew video games and computer games in favor of going to his room and reading books. He doesn’t always opt for reading, but it is certainly now part of his regular free time activity. I can’t say I had much to do with achieving that, but I’m certainly happy to see it. I believe that having the reading habit is a necessary component for an individual to be able to control his own learning. I also suspect that fewer kids nowadays develop the reading habit, so it is more of an accomplishment for those that do. Now there is greater competition from games and television, and I think that since the Reagan Presidency young kids get a confused message from their parents about indulging in hedonic pleasure versus engaging in other activities that promote personal growth, give the kid a sense of accomplishment, and are engaging in their own right.

Obviously, my characterization above is a generalization. Overachieving kids nowadays will have a slew of extracurricular activities, from playing a musical instrument, to participating in organized sports, to doing a Science Olympiad project. These kids are extremely busy with very tight schedules outside the classroom. Nonetheless, I’m guessing that it is these kids who are most likely to read regularly for recreation.

Other kids, perhaps not pushed quite so hard by their parents or not quite as able in the classroom, may have a lot of social activity with peers outside school. So in that sense they are busy, but it is not obvious they have developed a self-expressed need for personal growth. Reading is anti-social. And to these kids it is not a reward in itself. So they don’t read more than they have to. An alternative view, one I don’t subscribe to but one I must recognize is there, is that these kids have quite active imaginations and do demand to have their imaginations satisfied, but those are fueled by visual information and these kids are more comfortable decoding multimedia content than text. Under this alternative view, the kids are not ignoring their own needs for growth, they just have a different way to ingest information.

I’d like to understand causality but I don’t. So I don’ know whether reading causes a demand for personal growth or if the flow is in the other direction. I only know I can’t imagine a good student not spending some recreation time reading. So let me push on and ask the next question. Does it matter what the kids are reading? And does it matter whether what they are reading is on paper? What about reading online? What about reading blogs? If you could suggest things to for a thirteen year old to read, what would you suggest?

I don’t have an answer here now. Twenty years ago, I almost certainly would have said that the kids should learn to read a newspaper, with the NY Times a good first choice. Now I’m much less certain about that. Maybe it would be better to encourage reading Brad Delong’s blog. He has sharp opinions and really is an excellent aggregator of political economy information. Maybe, instead, the kids should be read periodicals like Scientific American, Wired Magazine, or the Atlantic Monthly. The writing is more likely to penetrate deeper into the subject. Or perhaps the kids should read a few of these so they can be doing reading that spans different fields of interest.

When I was a kid, something spurred interest in a particular area and then I read all sorts of books in that same area, either until the supply of materials ran out or some other spur would direct my reading elsewhere. I’m guessing that the underlying psychology hasn’t changed much over the past thirty or forty years. So perhaps the right question to be asking is how to pique the kid’s interest and then be ready with a set of things to read that match it.

After a fashion, I think t the kid will want to turn to something that is considered high quality writing. Somewhere around 7th grade, I read The Grapes of Wrath. It’s my recollection of the first “real fiction” I read, and yet it is of interest in part because of the historical commentary in the novel. But I think I was driven to it because I had heard the name Steinbeck and we had a copy on our bookshelf.

What about kids who haven’t found the reading habit, say by their middle teens? Should we keep trying to get them there? A lot in what we are talking about in terms of pedagogic method and the use of technology really reduces to that question. My sense is that we should push, that we need to encourage these kids both to read and to then communicate about what they’ve read, talking about it and writing about it. It’s a simple way to frame the teaching approach we need. It’s not, however, a fun way for the instructor to view the goals of the pedagogy, in part because there will be a high degree of failure and in part because the students will demand a lot of attention to make any progress.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Learning to learn versus learning to get a good grade

A week or so ago while I was channel surfing for some TV programming to get me to relax, I spent a few minutes watching Tony Brown’s Journal, a show I have not watched at all in the last several years. He had on a high school senior with the highest GPA in his school district, along with the student’s father. The novel thing is that the student is a black male and before Brown brought the father and son on, Brown cited the grim statistics about percentage of black males who graduate from high school nationally with at least a B average and the percentage who don’t graduate at all. So Brown posed the question, what was it in this kid’s approach to school that let him outperform all of his peers, black or white. (It sure didn’t hurt that the kid’s father was a chaired Professor at Hampton University.)

The question is an interesting one. To the extent that it is behavioral strategies that determine these outcomes, not the student's genes, it really would be good to understand those strategies that very good students use and in a detailed way contrast them to the strategies that more ordinary students use. One would think that being a child of university faculty would be a good predictor of academic success, but that may confound the genetic and the disciplined behavior, and thus Tony Brown's star performer may not be the best person from whom to generalize. It turns out that many of our highest academic achievers are children of immigrants and so that offers some indicator of what type of behavioral strategy is needed. Indeed, others have mentioned the need to have multiple perspectives on what is possible regarding the learning environment, a natural for immigrants.

Having my curiosity piqued by this Tony Brown show, I went to my bookcase to see if I had anything on the subject; lo and behold, there was Howard Gardner’s book Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of our own Extraordinariness. I started to read this book over the weekend and because it is short am about half through it now. (I’ve finished the chapters on Mozart and on Freud that followed the chapters that introduced the issues and about normal human development.) This has helped me in putting many things into perspective.

Among Gardner’s points is that many people can accomplish a great deal in a particular domain if they put in the requisite time to achieve mastery. Proclivity for the subject may assist in getting that time on task, but we who have not put in the time are often confused between expertise that comes from extensive practice versus expertise that truly is exceptional. Furthermore, in certain highly rule-based domains – music, math, and chess are quintessential examples – rather young, bright but not necessarily really extraordinary children can make substantial progress with the appropriate coaching and intervention. The Suzuki method for violin is probably the most well-known example. Thus, in many children of overt academic accomplishment, one is likely to find a strong parental influence that acts as a driver for the child.

Another lesson from the Gardner book, and this is confirmed by the Ann Hulbert featured piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine, The Prodigy Puzzle, is about the rather low correlation between very high performance on IQ tests at an early age and lifetime achievement in advance of humanity as the exceptionally bright individuals come of age. Both works consider the Terman study from 80 years ago, which though it was not intended to prove this result showed that IQ tests are fairly good at predicting performance in a school environment or a school-like environment, but don’t do well at predicting performance outside of that environment. There is the further issue of mastery of an existing domain of knowledge versus creation of new knowledge and that being very adept at the former may not be an indicator at being skillful at the latter. Indeed, there may be reasons that I’ll get to in a bit where for the latter one might actually want to discourage the former and encourage a different type of behavior early on.

Let me linger on this point. Mastery for more typical students, particularly at a young age, often is associated with rote learning and drill. How does a kid learn the state capitols? Memorize them. How does a kid learn basic arithmetic facts? Again, memorize them. Some very high performers in grade school do so because they are prolific at memorization.

To the extent that the memorization comes from kindling some inner fire, that is certainly wonderful and something to be cultivated. I know that my mother, who grew up in Germany, could recite lots of poetry in German, because she thought it was beautiful and represented the essence of culture. My younger kid today learns much of his history from the computer game Age of Empires III and because there is so much repetition in the game playing, he has committed much of what he has learned to memory.

But it certainly is not true that all memorization in school lights a fire under the students, even among the high achievers. Indeed, I expect that for many of them, the memorization which was a challenge in the early grades starts to become tedious in the latter grades and if it is not replaced by something more satisfying as the student matures then it becomes a symbol of alienation, even for the best students. Memorization will still be a part of the learning but it should be happening en passant, as part of something else.

With that, let me turn back to Gardner’s book and focus on his description of Freud, who is the exemplar of an extraordinary person who has created a new domain of inquiry. There are many lessons to be learned from Freud about how to learn that are relevant for all bright individuals, in my opinion, even if none of them will be in a position to create a new knowledge domain. (This is unlike Mozart, who is Gardner’s exemplar of an utter master in his field. Mozart is likely the first person we think of when using the word prodigy and his genius is unquestionable, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way he lived that we can appropriate for our own learning.)

It is notable that Freud changed the domain of his work at the time he was 40. (Coincidentally, I moved from Economics to Learning Technology also around the time I was 40.) This capacity for change is something learned much earlier. Freud also spent considerable time in reflection on his work and then would engage in open discussion on those reflections. Somewhere fairly early in life Freud learned to direct his own inquiry. He was very broadly read and fluent in several languages. Information acquisition for him required both a large library and the free time to do the reading. Moreover, Freud was allowed to “test” his ideas on his own, and then to observe the consequences of his own conjectures. I note that the curriculum for both of my kids today in Middle School has much more of an “inquiry based approach” than I can recall from when I was growing up. But the questions are being driven from outside, by adults. Freud learned early on to ask his own questions and thus he became much more of an independent thinker.

This is somewhat at odds with how school works, where there is a degree of conformity necessary to keep the class “on track.” So, there is much to suggest for an individually driven curriculum, at least for obviously bright students, so they can pursue their interests and ask their questions and learn to answer them. But, of course, how to supervise this is certainly a nightmare and how to assure that the time is productive and not simply some grand goof off is another serious problem.

Consequently, one might look for extra curricular outlets for these kids. Science Olympiad is one such outlet that seems well conceived. The Hulbert piece actually goes on to say that “science prodigies” seem more well adjusted and overall good students than “humanities prodigies” who don’t have such extra curricular projects. We may have to content ourselves with encouraging the kids to develop the reading habit, certainly by the time they reach adolescence, and then by providing these kids with areas to explore and alternative means to express their own learning.

I’m guessing that the critical years for the kids are in the 10 – 14 range and depends on achieving some physical maturity. Earlier on students can’t associate their learning with their own identity. Later on their prior habits may be so imbued that they can’t move to a more mature approach to learn. During this critical period, we really should be focusing on these kids achieving learning to learn. But I’m not so sure how helpful school can be in this regard and especially if there are a number of other students not ready to “make the leap” whether school is the right place for this to happen.

Let me make one more point before I close. Gardner points out that Freud had many failures and he was able to recover from those and indeed use them to re-channel his efforts in a new, more productive direction. I’m sure all kids go through challenges when they are young. The issue is whether the learn to overcome challenges through persistence and their own ingenuity or if they instead learn to shy away from things that are difficult. Bright kids, especially, may learn the latter because the ego rewards from their own performance, which may initially be a spur, can easily turn into a burden that they don’t know how to jettison. So, there may be some good reasons for these kids to learn on the sly so they can explore, including things that are tough, without an adult watching their every move. The fear of failure may be a much greater inhibitor to learning than any lack of intelligence and having personal coping mechanisms to deal with failure may be the greatest lesson we can teach youngsters.