Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Son of Depression Era Parents

I weigh at least twice as much as my dad did at the time he passed away and he was a severe diabetic and I'm not diabetic at all. So in those ways we are quite different. Nonetheless, I feel as if I'm turning into him. I'm sure that feeling is common among adult children. It is more pronounced now for me, having recently turned fifty.

One of the ways my dad showed his roots was through his cheapness in certain areas. Although he and my mom were quite comfortable financially, when he shopped he'd always buy the knock off or on sale item - we'd get the single ply paper napkins in the store brand, the kind that melts in your hands when you try to use it. His instinct was to save rather than to spend on himself. He was generous with his kids and grandkids.

As I said, I'm getting more like him. While I understand that it is total cost of ownership that should be minimizied, not purchase price, I'm also aware that you can define up needs or define needs down. Caring more about purchase price and trying to keep that minimal is a way of defining needs down.

We in IT who have gone through years and years of having expectations by our community exceed the services we could deliver and hence are used to defining needs up. But in the current situation where budgets are so tight, we have to become more like my dad. We need to be providing the single ply napkin version of our services. This will take some getting used to. My dad's generation survived the Great Depression. We can survive now, but our values need changing. We need to be more miserly and leave it to the next generation to spend more than we did.

We also need to think of ourselves as architects. The great architect is not the one who designs the beautiful building out of the best white marble. Conceptually, that is an easy task. The great architect is the one who in the desert builds a highly functional building out of sand. The economy of the effort is clear, to realze the result conceptually is much harder.

My belief about focusing on students as mentor/teachers and content creators is certainly in part motivated by the observation that the students are the abundant input, the human equivalent of sand in the desert. We have to learn to use what we have rather than spend all our time pining for what we do not have.

Another respect in which I'm more and more like my dad --- he didn't believe in doing most jobs perfectly (raking the leaves in the yard being the most obvious example). The job would have to be done over and over again, no matter what, so the next time around do what didn't get done the previous time. My analog here is that I'm quite willing to throw out ideas about using students to support insturction. I know I've not done a perfect job and a lot of needed detail for a full plan is missing. But I think throwing out the idea has value and repeating the idea so I or others can put more flesh on it also has value. I'm aware enough to know I'm not the great architect. But I think I'm onto something that could influence someone else who might be.

My dad had problems with his eyes - cataracts and Macula degeneration. I've got early stages of the latter and I've got floaters. Nonetheless we both seem to like sitting in front of the computer composing messages - even if there are a lot of typos and proofreading is a chore.

The philosophy behind the approach to this blog is my dad's. In that way it is a tribute to him.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Synchronous versus Asynchronous

When I was eight or nine years old, I got to see the James Bond car with the ejector seat at the New York Worlds Fair, which in Flushing Meadows was only about a half hour from my house in Bayside Hills. Here was literally the embodiment of high tech and its amazing capabilities. Goldfinger was definitely my favorite movie at the time and James Bond my biggest hero. Yet even then and even for that particular movie I remember some older folks saying ---- the book was better.

More recently, in the last five or ten years, I've read some page turning novels and also seen the films, John Grisham's The Firm and Carl Sagan's Contact. While both were entertaining, I have no doubt in my mind that the book was better. I'm sure more people saw the movies and clearly the movies were "more efficient" in that I got to view them in a couple of hours, while the book probably took the better part of a weekend. But the books certainly were more captivating, allowed my imagination to be at play more, and for reasons I don't quite understand had better plots especially near the end. The movies, for whatever reasons, didn't stay true to the books and had different endings.

It is worth noting that when reducing both types of media to bits and bytes, the movies are much higher bandwidth. It is also worth nothing that the movies represent a much bigger production effort, with a large number of people getting credits. The books, on the other hand, have the author and an editor or two as the creative input. That's it.

All of this is preface for the following observation. Over the last couple of years on campus we've witnessed a change in bandwith to the residence. Broadband is now the norm. Dialup has not gone away completely, but broadband is the expectation. When I travel now, I expect the hotel room to have a network connection (perhaps wireless). A few years ago, I always was prepared with the local Earthlink number and doing dialup. I'm sure dialup will persist for some time to come. But broadband will become the norm even in remote areas.

When I talk about this internally in my organization, the issue is about whether broadband is good enough or do we need something even better to ensure (invariably this is the use that is mentioned) that video conferencing has good performance. The motion in the video looks natural, there is essentially no latency. Certainly with current CPUs, the rendering of video that is on the local computer is quite impressive. We are at or near TV quality and increasingly large pictures can be shown. So why not deliver this same quality over the network?

The issue I'm trying to get at is this. Now that we can be pretty assured that the bandwidth will be there should we expect a revolution in teaching, learning, and online collaboration. Will the ability to communicate rich content deliver what we want? I brought up the book versus movie analogy at the beginning for a reason. I think it is relevant here and I think the argument is that we should be very wary of claims about the benefits of rich content.

Here are some examples. Our help desk has had screen sharing software so that users could show their particular issues to the help desk personnel to aid in the diagnosis and the solution of the problem. Has the screen sharing software been utilizied? No, it has not. I'm not sure why, but the triage and diagnostics happen with more basic tools. Ask any of my CIC colleagues about H.323 video conferencing and how much they use it. After that being the craze three or four years ago, now we use telephone and email. Here, that is nothing more than the reliability issue. Now consider something else. We have a variety of courses in Chemistry, Computer Science, other Engineering classes, and elsewhere that video record the lecture. If you look at those after the fact the production quality, to put it bluntly, is lousy. Those videos are certainly not compelling to watch. Perhaps they have value as a study aid for a student who attended the lecture, but they are clearly not a good substitute for coming to class initially.

And here is one other thought. Most of our instructors know how to write reasonably well. They've been well trained that way and their profession places a premium on "good writing." Once you go into multimedia production --- most instructors have no expertise in that. Sometime ago the rage was to recommend teams where instructional designers, web programmers and the instructors collaborated on producing really good course materials. In principle that sounds fine. In practice, there are two issues. First, who plays the analog of the "director" for making a movie? If there were such a person what knowledge would he or she have to bring to the table? Second, because nobody has the full expertise does anyone know what a good product is in this area? In the absence of a style to imitate, there is a lot of invention required and that requirement, in turn, blocks the creative process. Lower bandwith asynchronous approaches are much simpler. The simplicitly is a strength in releasing creative potential.

That is the tension. The problem as I see it is that within an IT organization where the network is clearly the primo service, the one where the focus and cash resources are concentrated, can there be effective advocacy for lower bandwidth ways? I hope so, but I've been around long enough to have my doubts.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

How Mighty is the Pen?

I have a new Tablet PC and the quality of the pen input is really quite amazing. It is extremely easy to write this way and to get comfortable with using the pen. The only two issues I've got is with the heat generated by the unit - so it really is much better to have the thing on a desk rather than on my lap - and with glare, where the less reflection of overhead light, the better. With those caveats, the Pen is really great. The Tablet is much better at meetings than a laptop, because I look like everyone else who has paper writing pad. And I've also had fun making little screen movies of economics diagrams. I can see how with some care and by inserting voice over one can record something on the Tablet that would be as effective as a lecture given in a large classroom, where there really is very little give and take with the students.

Here I want to talk about "online office hours" or online group work and how digital ink fits in with that. For those who have designed collaborative working spaces for students, I believe it is well know that even with the penchant for computer technology, the students really like to have regular whiteboards, where they can share their ideas visually. I think this is especially true for courses where diagrams are part of the way information is represented and also course which are notation heavy, whether in Math or in Music.

It seems we are "almost there" achieving the same type of effect online. There are seemingly many possible alternatives for smart whiteboard software that allows interaction over the network and now we have the pen input side handled....almost. When I did my large intermediate micro class we relied almost exclusively on text chat (and asynchronous discussion areas) and that worked pretty well given the expectations of the students. Now we are seemingly on the verge of making the entire process much richer.

Here is the issue. Tablet PCs are pricey. Not too many people have them. I did some searching this morning for an alternative and found this lcd screen from Optoma, which allows the pen input with a regular computer. This is still not cheap, but I could see having one or two of these in a bullpen room for TAs so they can use the pen. And I can see the faculty member buying one to interact with the students. Of course, I've not tried them for how functional they are. I know the Wacom equivalent is twice the price. I also know, however, that if you want to go even cheaper, you can get a tablet where you don't "write on the screen." I bought one of those. It does exactly what it is supposed to do but it is cognitively difficult to use, because you write one place and the image show use in a different place. So based on my own experience with that, I don't think you can go that route.

What about the students? Will they have pen input? Probably not in most cases. So let's consider the case where the students are at a regular comptuer and that TAs have a Tablet PC or equivalent. How will online office hours work in that environment and will it sustain with rich visual interaction or degenerate to text only? I don't know but that is the experiment we should be having right now. It would be good to figure out how to do that and if it is worth getting the pens for the TAs.

I do think it at least conceptually possible that the TAs stay with their pen and do diagrams, while the students rely on text chat. And perhaps it is possible for the students to copy pre-created pictures and then ask text based questions about those. What I would like to see is how that works in actual implementation. It would give me a much better sense of what we want/need in terms fo the smart whiteboard software. I'd also like to know whether voice communication is helpful here or if the text chat is better. Obviously, for archival purposes it is better.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Library Content Instead of a Textbook

Is there a difference in how students read if they are assigned articles from journals rather than textbook chapters? Do those students who tend to read the textbook (recognizing that many don't open it even when it is required) try to memorize what they read? Do the "serious students" who do memorize ever abandon that crutch in the search of a more fulfilling way to learn?

The last time I taught, the honors course in economic principles, I didn't use a textbook. I wish I could claim now that was to address the questions above. The reality, however, is that my motives were less noble. By and large the content of that course I can teach in my sleep. I know it inside out and have a definite view on how to teach it. I want to do it my way and not be constrained by the approach in the book. I did that in the past but had a textbook that was required so the students could have an alternative approach if they didn't like mine. That, however, didn't go over well. The students wanted me to follow the book. No way, Jose. Abandoning the requirement altogether was a more honest approach (and I did make sure the students were aware of possible textbooks if any of them wanted to consult one).

I did have a noble reason as well and this is the one I'd like to emphasize here. I think that to learn economics students should read the writing of many different economists, preferably those who are well regarded for their research or their writing for the general public. It is much better to get this diversity of voice to see where economists think in common and where they differ than to get on steady voice, no matter how good the writing. Mankiw is an excellent economist and his textbook is deservedly the market leader, but the students would be far better off if they read from a variety of sources, whether this is Krugman writing his Op-ed piece for the New York Times, Becker writing in his blog with Posner, or papers from the AEA proceedings that have been pre-chosen for their importance and because they are accessible at an intellectual level by intelligent undergraduates who don't have a prior economics background.

Moreover, and this is another thing my experimenting with teaching approach has shown me, it is far more instructive to have changes in pace in the reading and the way that is discussed afterwards in class. The textbook encourages a cookie cutter approach. At one level, that is its appeal. But at another it is a curse. It dulls the senses and discourages inquiry. If, however, one bounces from scholary articles to pieces meant for broad public consumption and from one economist who as a specific world view to another who has quite a different approach, the diversity helps to maintain a freshness in the course and keep the students engaged.

I'll admit that for certain courses, I'm thinking of some Math analysis courses I took, one at the undergrad level and another at the grad level, the textbook approach might have been appropriate. But my recollection is also that those texts were extremely spartan when it came to story telling. And its that which is my focus. In courses for which the story is an important component of what students should be reading (and I believe most courses are in this category) it is hard for me to see how the students benefit from the textbook approach. Sure it provides them with comfort, because most of their other courses had a textbook. But does it open their eyes? I don't think so.

Since textbooks still are predominant in many courses, just go into the Union bookstore at the start of the semester to get a look see, one must ask why?

Coming up with a suitable reading list and keeping that current is a lot harder than choosing a textbook. And without a textbook the instructors has to come up with alternative methods of assessment. This is yet more work for the instructor. My conclusion is that the textbook has traditionally solved the issue of wasteful duplication of effort. The textbook author(s) and those who write the ancillary materials do the work so the instructors don't have to.

Can we get the best of both possible worlds? And if so, should we view the textbook publishers as our friend or our enemy in trying to get there?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Joined at the Hip

As I've mentioned, I'm part of the campus academic computing organization. Our seemingly natural partners are the Library. They are the primary "information resource provider" while we are the primary information technology provider. Both of us are under assault because of the budget morass - members of the community are asking more aggressively whether they are getting their money's worth from the services we provide. My sense is that the campus wants to see us cooperate. And both of us are large hierarchical, yet distributed organizations. These provide some commonality of purpose and hence something of a common point of view. Here, however, I want to focus on the image of the siamese twins who are attached in body, but who retain two separate spirits.

In particular I want to consider information literacy and its importance in the curriculum. As a teacher, I have to say that "old fashioned" literacy is more important to me. I'm of the mind that many of my students don't get the meaning from a New York Times story. I've tested that proposition on occasion with articles I've picked and assigned to the class, either from the Business section or the Magazine. I don't talk about this issue much if at all (except with a particular colleague who teaches Natural Resource Economics who agrees with me fully on this proposition). And I haven't seen it discussed, but it seems to me to be at the heart of the matter.

Students need a well trained "voice in their head" which argues propositions, including what they read. They need to disagree with things when they don't add up, but they need to be able to "get it" without undo difficulty when the meaning is straightforward. It is a reasonable expectation (in the normative sense) that students have these abilities when they enter college. But, I fear, all too many of the students falter here. Because these kids are bright, I'm going to say the culprit is they don't read enough and so this habit of arguing with the voice in their head is not well cultivated. This is a real problem. I don't have a great solution for it, other than that the kids need to develop the habit of reading and to think of reading as internal argument.

Now let's turn to the other type of literacy, the information kind, the kind that the Librarians care so much about and the kind that makes them the enemy of Google. The argument, baldy put, is that students are too trusting of content that is on the Web. The students don't care enough about the truth of that content and the expertise behind the production of that content. This makes librarians something of a latter day P.T. Barnum, except the Librarians aren't after the students' money. Instead they are after the students' attention. They want the students to use them as consultants - experts at finding the right information.

But this is too artificial and a direct approach to achieve this end is almost certainly doomed for failure. As long as students view the assignments they must complete as hurdles only, not as avenues for their own self-expression, they have little reason to care about the credibility of the sources they cite. Indeed, they have little reason to actually read the sources they cite. And, of course, we know the concern about student plagiarism is great, which is indicative that this is just the way students do view their assignments.

Now ask the question a different way. If an instructor were redesigning a course with the aim of producing intense student engagement (and hence greater learning) would the instructor want to partner with a Librarian? I found myself in that position about a year ago when I taught the freshman honors course. And what I found was that since I was doing a number of "experiments" with the approach I wanted to do them the way I conceived them without having to negotiate the approach with somebody else. There were places where I might have benefited from the counsel of a Librarian and the students might have done so as well. But really, finding credible information wasn't too hard. I was able to show my students JSTOR and some particular publications which would work for the students. Part of the issue with Economics journals is that most of them are over the head of layman, in the sense that the language is unabashedly technical. So the trick is finding pieces that are both authoritative but also readible.
I have to believe I'm more disposed than most of my colleagues to talk with Librarians about my teaching, because of my administrative position. If I'm reluctant to do so, how will the rest of them feel? So what might Librarians do to counteract that natural tendency? I don't ask this as an idle question. My sense is that there are some faculty, of course, who make extensive use of Librarians and for whom Librarians will produce extensive "course guides" or subject guides. But the issue is whether that carries over to the more reluctant instructors and further whether it is a good approach to address the information literacy issues. The blunt answer is: I don't know.

But this I can say. It would be easier for me, and I assume most faculty, to have an ongoing relationship with a Librarian so these issues can be discussed over time and a relationship can be developed around the teaching approach and the role of the Library in supporting that. I don't believe, however, that when faculty consider redesigning their instruction that it is customary to consult a Librarian. So this will take some acculturation.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Vacation/On Adversity

This is my last post for a week. I'm taking a trip with the family to Arizona. I'm deliberately not bringing my laptop. So the next post should be on the 26th.

If you've read the book "A Beautiful Mind," I'm not talking about seeing the movie, you get a sense about the close relation between very deep, serious thinking and mental illness - in John Nash's case that was schizophrenia. There are other characters in the book, also extremely accomplished mathematicians, who had bouts of mental illness. I have a conjecture, this is not based on a lot of research into the area just some observations, that if someone with intellectual talent spends a lot of time alone "in reflection mode" then while this may produce periods of very high creativity and some really excellent work it leaves the person more vulnerable when dealing with pressure and stress and it is more likely the person will go off the deep end.

Perhaps the second or third year I was in graduate school at Northwestern, in the late '70s, there was a movie made called "College Can Be Killing" which contrasted student life at NU to that at Wisco. Northwestern was more pressured. Wisconsin was more relaxed and playful. I don't remember too much detail about the movie but a key point I do recall is that Northwestern offered "singles" in the dorms, even for first year students. That was a perq, but for a kid who might be sliding downhill, it would turn into a big negative.

We know that kids who go to Big Ten schools have done quite well in high school. Many of them "take pride" in getting good grades. A big issue is how much of their sense of self is tied up in this and in competing academically with their peers. As an instructor, I've seen the grade grubbing side, and of course I don't like that. But in that role I don't get to see students who are depressed because they are not coping well with school. Instructors are not the confidants of the students.

There is an indirect indicator, the lack of engagement in classes, that suggests the issue is lurking out there for every student. One can decry lack of relevance in the courses, but I believe at least part of the issue is that students as young adults, who for the first time have primary responsibility for their own actions and well being, don't want to put themselves on the line.

You must fail to learn. Failure is a necessary part. Make mistakes in the course of doing, but don't repeat them. Move forward. That is learning.

So the argument is that the kids insulate themselves. That is a type of coping. It is not the type we want to encourage, but it is there. The party-ing is the lure; it is not really the goal. The goal is not to confront the failures.

We need to cultivate in students a sense of self which in many ways is not tied to their own performance. And we need to encourage students to be sufficiently part of a community that they have a social network to help them through dealing with their own demons, which at some points in their lives they almost certainly will have to do.

Some may argue that is too much of a burden to put onto the purely academic part of student life. The argument is that it should be handled elsewhere, either in the living situation or in church. That might work for some students but I think the argument is wrong in general and we need to be thinking about this differently.

School has been a rewarding place for these kids and it is far from being all about grades. It is a place where these kids do things and in the process express themselves. Later in life when these kids work, they will feel similarly about their jobs - they are places for fulfillment, not just a source of income and a path for career advancement.

The lesson is that the engagement is its own reward and that if engaged and if there is some social aspect the work, that is the way to cope when things get hard.

I want to now go back to the previous post and talk about open service learning. My sense is that if students did that seriously, this lesson about engagement would be learned en passant. I don't believe we need to make this lesson an explicit goal, especially early on when we're trying to work through the right approach to open service learning, but we need to be aware of it and it is something we should go back to repeatedly. Part of being a teacher is seeing the failure in others and getting them to confront it and encourage them to move forward. And part of being a student is learning to take real risks of failure in order to make progress and to deal with it when the progress doesn't seem to be coming.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Student Participation

I recently read Steven Weber's book about Open Source and have been encouraging some colleagues to read it. One of the interesting ideas about open source is that many of the programmers involved willingly devote their time to the effort. Weber identifies several "selfish" motives for a programmer to do this - learning how to program in new ways, establishing a reputation as a programmer who writes good code, and interacting in a socially valuable project that affirms the sensibilities of community that the programmer shares are among the main motivations.

In reading the book I had in the back of my head the following question: What lessons might transfer to the setting that has been my preoccupation - instruction at the college level? In particular, where there are students serving the role of mentor/teacher for other students or the role of creator of learning objects, might it be possible to get these students to donate their time, not out of philanthropy, but rather out of motivations that are akin to what moves the programmers in open source.

While this is an interesting question to be asking about students who are enrolled in a specific course, I want to focus on the situation where the students have already taken the course and in that sense are more experienced than those currently enrolled. Assuming we want to see this type of time allocation from students, the question is must we require it as coursework of a sort, must we pay these students for their labor, or is there a third way. Let me call this hypothetical third way "open service learning." The "service learning" part is straightforward enough. The students who are acting as mentor/teachers or as content creators are providing a service that has social value and they are learning in the process of providing that service. The "open" part needs more comment. In part it is to show respect for the open source software movement and that this approach would like to mimic the open source software approach in some respects. And in part, it suggests that the learning objects generated under this approach be licensed in a way similar to the licensing of open source software. The two are related, I believe. Let's see if I can explain why.

First, let me describe some issues with the other forms of eliciting labor from the students. If I had the a good and motivated student who wanted to work for me as a mentor/teacher in an economics class I'm going to teach, I could offer the student independent study credit for her troubles. Since I'm an economics professor presumably my expertise is in the teaching and learning of economics. To the extent that being a mentor/teacher makes the student learn economics beyond what the student learned in taking the course from me earlier it is fitting an proper for the student to receive economics credit. But suppose that while there is some of that, more of the learning is in the form of improved communication skills, learning how to frame economics ideas so the other students will understand them better, not learning more about the economics itself.

Learning how to teach others is an important social skill, but it is not economics. So should the student receive economics credit for it? If not, should the student receive any credit whatsoever?

Alternatively, I could offer the student wages for the work contributed. Normally instructional personnel get paid by the department offering the course. But academic departments are not set up to pay undergraduates to serve as mentor teachers. The model is of the faculty member as the master instructor and the graduate student TAs as the faculty in training. Are the undergraduate students meant as substitutes for these other labor inputs? If so, that will lose. This is the old cost argument. If at this time we are looking at the approach primarily to save money, the other input providers will balk and university will be chastised for lowering the quality of instruction. If, however, the undergrads are viewed as an add on to cost. that will also lose, because we won't be able to afford it.
(In the long run, I believe that both the substitute and the add on to cost approaches will have some merit. But I think it is wrong for the near term.)

So that leaves labor input that is donated by students but then is added on to what we're already doing in instruction (from the perspective of volume of human resources not from the perspective of how to better teach the courses; the pedagogy should change to accommodate the use of the undergrads). This may seem like wishful thinking and perhaps it is. But I remain hopeful.

In the near term the focus will be on large gen ed courses and "blended learning,," meaning more online pieces to the course and reduced seat time. It is natural to use undergrads in this setting, for example as nighttime online TAs. Let's say that happens and let's so those undergraduate helpers get engaged in the activities. Then we have the seed for these students to work beyond their compensation, for other rewards. This is the toe in the door toward open service learning.

The campuses that are encouraging these things to happen from above need to embrace an open courseware licensing agreement for the exchange of learning objects. As Weber points out, the software licensing can serve as a form of governance to coordinate the community actions. in this case the idea is that if everyone else is donating their learning objects then the engaged student and faculty creators will want to donate their own learning objects and they will want to put in the time to understand how they might use the creations of others. The licensing can set the pre-conditions for this to happen and further it shows institutional commitment and foresight into how open service learning is likely to evolve. Moreover, my belief is that if students are donating their time to create reusable learning objects, other students will donate their time to mentor their fellow students, so long as their are tangible rewards from it, the key one being engagement with a faculty member who is trying earnestly to improve instruction.

We who are administrator in higher ed with a charge of promoting undergraduate instruction need to work on setting these pre-conditions and then to get out of the way so we don't block creative efforts from the students and faculty themselves.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Why I Like Excel for Teaching

I've used Excel as a graphing tool for "numerical animations" and "situational graphics" both of which give a way where online is better than paper. The ability for the student to change the environment to "see what is going on" makes the information in the graph much more understandable by the students. Below there are some links to this content so you can see what I'm talking about.

The numerical animations are called Excelets. At this site there are examples, some descriptions, and a tutorial for learning how to make them. I've made some others that are designed for a specific textbook by Besanko and Braeutigam. Some examples of situational graphics can be found in this assignment on supply and demand (after completing the login tab go to the Trade tab or the Scale tab).

When I've taught intermediate microeconomics in the past, it was clear that many students weren't comfortable with reading graphs. Perhaps this is why some economists other than myself have become involved with educational technology. These economics course pose some vexing teaching issues. The course is about economics. Math is the language of economics, especially the language spoken by academic economists. It is not a language that many students are comfortable with, including business students, the vast majority of whom got high scores on the math part of the SAT or ACT. Teaching economics the way an economist would like to teach the course exposes a weakness in the educational background of these students. (Conversely, engineering students like to take economics to fill their social science gen ed requirement because of the reliance on math.)

Many of my colleagues who teach intermediate micro have overtly opted for making it an applied calculus course (relying on Lagrange multipliers for the consrained optimization and the implicit function theorem for the comparative statics, which is the heart of the course). Since embracing the Web, I've taken an analytic geometry approach. The self-selection among the students means that all those who needed to take intermediate micro but were weak in math wanted into my section, which made things even harder for me.

Let me return to Excel. Through clever use, and at some point in the near future I probably should write an article about the tips and tricks behind the clever use, I believe that one can offset these difficulties and perhaps even get to the point where the students enjoy the course and feel they have gotten something out of it. There is the added benefit that the technology allows the instructor as content designer to think about how to represent the material anew - some of what I do with Excel you won't find in any textbook.

In terms of the representations, one of the key ideas is that instead of comparatives statics, which would be done with calculus, use animations which make clear what is changing in the environment and the consequence of those changes on the equilbirum. Since the student can see the change as a movie, the ideas come through much more clearly. Moreover, the students who want to see what is going on to generate the graphs can look at the cells themselves and figure it out that way. Since the students are much more comfortable with numbers than with algebraic representations, this particular type of representation is more in their ballpark.

An entirely different use of Excel, one that would work in a host of different courses, is to do "nested quizzing." Let me say first that most of the course management system out there, and although it is some of the functionality I'm talking about I'm including Mallard in this list, basically views each question of a quiz as independent of previous question, other than that they are wrappered within the quiz and delivered in a particular order. One can do much more tight integration of the quesitons, where the follow up questions depends on the response to the previoius question, by the use of IF statements. Excel has IF statements (and a lot of other built in functionality which is useful) so you can deliver something that is quite flexible. And apart from learning the syntax of Excel, there really is no need to program. All of this can be delivered without writing scripts. That is power.

So my belief is that one can develop much higher quality content with Excel and students get the responses to what they do instantaneously. Where it is weaker is on the record keeping of the student work. But there are some tricks that way as well.

The last point here is that the approach can be moved down to K-12, without the need for expensive software on top of it. There is the potential for a huge social gain here if the colleges were to develop Excel content appropriate for high school course.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Reusable Student Created Online Work

I've been arguing that our students should become mentor/teachers for other students. One other thing that our students might be doing, related not orthogonal to this direct teaching function, is to have students make "learning objects." Within a class as part of the course work, some of the assignments should be to make learning objects. Why? Because the idea is that these things can be re-used. The reuse by peers does two things. It provides a means of evaluation for the original work. And it provides a motivation for the student to do the best work possible. Most student work has no use value beyond the creation and in many cases the students don't take the work seriously. Some of the folks who boost ePortfolios argue that there is some subsequent use as a credential on a resume. Perhaps. If the work happens to be in the same line of work as where the students is searching for a job that is true, otherwise not. The credential motivation is often weak. That the work has reuse value can be a stronger motivation. And it emphasizes a sense of social value that should appeal to student ideals and that I believe we should encourage in our students. The first reasons that student articulate for going to college are almost invariably about getting a good job and providing a secure future. There may be many other unarticulated reasons – an 18 or 19 year old is still grappling with meaning of life issues and where he should place his personal commitments - we should be tying into that with our instruction and doing work that is simultaneously educational for them and has social value is a good way to do this.

The issue for the doubter here, and I’m sure there will be lots of doubt, is how can the instructor maintain quality in the course and yet use content that is generated by students. Shouldn’t the content, instead, be generated by the experts in the profession – the journal articles, textbooks, and Web sites created by the top faculty? Of course, it must be true that some of the course content is from experts. Part of any course is exposing students to the expert thinking. But beyond that, the answer to the question largely depends on the primary metaphor the instructor maintains in considering how the course should be designed.

If the metaphor is about pouring content into students’ heads, then what is poured must be expert content. With this metaphor, I believe the correct question is to ask whether the student heads are sponges or sieves. If sponges, great, keep doing the approach. If sieves, maybe we need a different metaphor. My preferred metaphor is instruction as dialog. Students learn through their responses and how the path of subsequent question and answering unfolds. If you like this metaphor, then the key question is how does the instructor make the students open up, make them receptive to response? I know that when I got started with ALN 10 years ago that was the primary question. I think it is still the main issue.

Especially at the beginning of the semester, the instructor’s job is to a significant degree getting the student comfortable being open in spite of the student’s novice status. Too often, I believe, instructor attempts at dialog turn into monolog because the students aren’t going for it. Why take the risk of looking stupid in class? My belief is that many instructors turn to the pouring content into the student’s heads approach, because they’ve been unsuccessful in getting good dialog.

The benefit of using work created by other students is that the class will find the material accessible. For that reason it is a good starting point into the material. The student work is not meant as a substitute for expert content. It is meant to initiate the discussion. It can have good reuse value for doing that. And because students will be more comfortable benchmarking themselves against other students, it will encourage the openness that we want in the classroom.

Instructors must think of the technology more as a place to showcase the work of students and less as an electronic file drawer for the content they produce or the pdfs of articles that their colleagues in the field produce. In turn the Blackboards, WebCTs, and other CMS companies must design the next generation of their systems to enable students to produce this type of reusable work. This means the students should have access to all the tools that are available to the instructors. Technically, I don't think this is hard. Conceptually, there are still blocks. Right now, I feel like a voice in the wilderness making this argument. Everyone buys the jargon that effective instruction must be "student centric." But those in the field who find the CMS coming up short in this dimension are arguing for different software, perhaps ePortfolios to do the trick.

I think that is wrong. First we can't afford it. We can't afford to support one system after the next when we find the earlier one deficient. Second, and I believe more to the point, the ePortfolio approach doesn't do anything for student work as social value, and thus does not give a way to integrate students in as content producers. For that, re-use is critical. And so I believe we in ed tech really need to be advocating for it. If the voice is loud enough, the CMS vendors will get the message. Ironically, I don't think the Sakai folks are ahead of the game here, even if they come from within our community. The reuse of student work is not the focus of their current efforts.

What does an instructor do now to adopt the approach when the tools aren't really there to make it obvious that is what the instructor should do? How can we in ed tech promote the metaphor of dialog and reuse of student work? And how do we get instructors sufficiently engaged that with respect to our current CMS systems, they "love the one their with?"

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Good Teaching in Smart Classrooms

Yesterday I must have spent over two hours doing Google searches to find good content about effective use of presentation technology in instruction. There is a ton of information about the hardware and set up of smart classrooms --- lots of photos of the equipment itself. And one can find advice about being prepared for equipment failure and testing things before the actual time of instruction. This is good advice, to be sure, but it doesn't really say anything about how to engage the students. It is much harder to find interesting content on that subject.

For example, one thing I was looking for but didn't find was a discussion of "having a driver" both the pros and cons. In this case a driver means somebody other than the presenter runs the computer so the presenter is free to focus on the presentation and to interact with the audience, rather than be concerned with the equipment. I didn't find such a discussion. Nor did I find a discussion of good uses of PowerPoint. (We know there are plenty of bad uses. It would be good to see something where the author advocated for PowerPoint and gave examples of how it can be effective.) We've hosted presentations, for example by Peggy Lant at our faculty summer institute, that have focused on the lecture and the good and bad of it. Peggy's material is thoughtful. My expectation beforehand was that I would be able to find much more thoughtful material. I found very little. The Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning appears to be a useful resource. There are a lot of tips there for for Teaching Assistants. And there is a lecture series of award winning faculty speaking about their teaching that might be of interest (in some cases there is streaming video of those lectures). But there really is very little of tying in with the presentation technology - how that might be helpful and what pitfalls to avoid.

The other type of information apart from teaching approach that I would have liked to see is about viewing - what can be seen and from where. My sense is that many instructors cram too much information on the screen and since they can see it on the computer they are looking at they seem oblivious that students who are distributed around the classroom may not be able to see what is on the screen. What I was looking for was not the technical information about viewing, but rather some active learning exercise that would sensitize instructors to the viewing issues. I didn't find it.

My biggest question is this: since we know that many students feel their instructors don't use technology well in the live classroom, would these instructors modify their behavior if we offered them different approaches that had a better chance of succeeding? My derivative question is this: would instructors change their approach if it meant "presenting less" and lingering more on what they do present? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, why aren't we in educational technology producing more to get that answer?

Monday, March 14, 2005

PDFs and Multiple Columns

This is a quickie lament. In this electronic age why do so many journals cling to multi-column formats? A pdf file with multiple columns is extremely difficult to read on screen. Is a single column format so hard to read on paper that there must be a multi-column version for that reason? I note that Educause, presumably an exemplar for the field, puts up its documents in both pdf (multi-column and presumably identical to the print version) and html (single column and much easier to read on the screen). Is this really the best approach? The pdf versions are fully justified while the html versions are left justified.

I note that this particular post is fully justified (the Blogger HTML editor has that formatting built in) while all the previous posts are left justified. Can't somebody decide which is the most readable and then we have one? My vote would be for single column pdf that is fully justified.

Discordant Views

Because of my interest in getting students involved as mentors/instructors, I did a little searching on "Learning by Teaching" and found a book of articles by Donald M. Murray that date back to the 60's and 70's. They really are more on writing than on teaching - that is fine with me. I've now read a couple of these and there are two themes evident: (1) writing is discovery, the writer doesn't know what she will be writing as she begins to compose but learns through the construction of the sentences what is in her mind, and (2) writing is a solitary activity, the writer is fundamentally alone at the time of composition. The notion of writing as discovery is almost magical. Where do those ideas come from? Murray says its from inward search and that is a hard, perhaps awkward and uncomfortable process. Nevertheless, it has to be solitary, even if the core ideas have already been written about by a host of others. Those ideas are still novel for the writer and it is that invention that gives freshness to the writing.

Because I'm eclectic in what I read and do bounce from one area to the next, it is perhaps not surprising to find opposing viewpoints to Murray, but I confess that I'm troubled because each view resonates with me somewhat, yet I can't find a way to reconcile the differences.

In the current issue of Educause Quarterly, there is a brief article by Diane Oblinger on planning for learning spaces. In that piece she states a "Learning Principle" - learning is social, the consequence of which is that learning spaces be designed to accomodate group work. Of course I agree with the conclusion. I'm just not sure about the principle. I would rather it said "some learning is social" specifically the type of learning we campuses are trying to engender in the spaces we design for learning. This would accomodate the Murray view - some (other) learning is individualistic; we recognize that but don't design space for it because individuals will do such work in their own private spaces. Oblinger could have stated it this way, but didn't. I'm not sure why, but I've got this feeling that 5 years from now we in ed tech will be asking why we stopped advocating for intropection and deep individual thinking. We need that and group learning, in my opinion. But we don't seem able to articulate that. Instead we seem to take sides.

Here is another example. I am just beginning to get my feet wet learning about accreditation in the disciplines. Last week I met with a faculty member in engineering who was preparing for ABET accreditation and who wanted to know if he could use Illinois Compass for that purpose. (I held up my end of the conversation, because I have use knowledge of the Compass environment.) He had a pile of materials from ABET and I asked whether I could borrow some of them. When I started to look through the biggest manual, it because apparent that this faculty member had gone through ABET training as an accreditor, because this was a manual for such training. In it they described particular training sessions and the descriptions made it clear that at the outset trainees were given the objectives of the session and what they would learn as a consequence of having attended the session.

Perhpas there is a leap in assuming that the way ABET conducts its training dictates what it views as good pedgagogy for engineering courses, but it seemed natural to me to assume that ABET would like to see engineering classes which had clear goals and an articulation of learning outcomes. (And to the extent that the reality of the classes didn't match that, the discrepancy would be the basis of modficiations either in goals or the approach - the continuous improvement model flourishes in this environment.) I am more than sympathetic with the idea that instructors and departments should make overt to students what is expected to happen within specific courses. But if all the learning outcomes are pre-specified, where is the discovery, the learning by exploration? The ABET approach might be compatible with Murray (the writer can discover what others have already learned beforehand) but knowing the results in advance sure would seem to hamper the discovery process. Here I think you can have one or the other but not both. So which do we choose, and why? I know in my own teaching, especially in teaching a small class, I'd choose to emphasize the discovery part and deliberately be vague about what students are supposed to learn beforehand, because I wouldn't want to predjudice the discovery. But I'm far from convinced that should be the approach across the board and I'm well aware of courses that students take where afterwards they report they got nothing out of it. That is horrible and we shouldn't allow it. The ABET approach clearly would be an improvement over that.

One of the obvious things about the discovery approach is that it admits failure. The writer might have block, permanently, and become a writer no more. The ABET approach purports to universal learning - the specified outcomes are for everyone in the class. I believe this is where the real tension lies and after all this time thinking about teaching and learning I'm still not sure which side I come down on.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

If You Can't Be With The One You Love.....

A colleague here who is monitoring the Sakai discussion groups sent me something about their development of a discussion tool. It is based on the Rotisserie tool from the H2O Project. The teaching idea is to have timed release of posts to a discussion board. In the more traditional setup, students who post first on a general topic have a tendency of blocking out more thoughtful posts of students who might post later, because all the good ideas are "used up." So the Rotisserie tool accepts the student's submission but does not publish it to the discussion area till a pre-specified time, so that each student is in a symmetric position with regard to the rest of the class when composing the post.

Of course there is more than one way to skin a cat. One can use the paragraph question type in a survey, have all the students respond to that, collate the student responses and publish those to the discussion area. Then the follow up conversation can be based on those collated posts.

The two approaches produce similar but not identical results. For example, discussion boards are usually set up in a way where the identify of the poster is given. With surveys, the responses to the questions are typically anonymous. (Most of the survey tools I'm aware of in CMS systems track who completed the survey, but that tracking happens in a different area than where the survey responses are recorded.) One can envision that the ensuing discussion will vary depending on whether the original posts have the identity of their authors or not.

The issue I want to get at here, and I've argued for something similar with respect to the students' computer literacy, is that it is crazy to design discussion tools (or any other tool for that matter) to take account of such a nuance unless we know not just that it matters but rather that the difference is perceived as critical and by a lot of instructors. Otherwise our efforts at "cool pedagogy" will miss the forest for the trees. I think we need to develop in our instructors the ability to see what the technology does and then pull from that how best to utilize it in their teaching. That pulling might very well be highly idiosyncratic - there is a lot of variety in what we teach and how we go about teaching, but those indiosyncracies are handled by the instructors ability to adapt, not by the software itself. Programmer/designer types may have the fantasy of the other approach, where it is the software that accomodates (the one the instructors love approach) . But if I'm right about the variation in possible use, then designing for a niche is not a scalable approach. Getting the instructors to adapt successfully to the environment they are presented with (the love the one your with approach) does scale. But beyond that it puts emphasis on the instructor seeing the possibilities, which is where it should be. No matter how well the software is designed, if the instructors are wooden about using it there results will be underwhelming.

We have the following set of issues with discussion boards, in general. Students don't know who they are writing for - the instructor, their classmates, or themselves. Where in some cases the writing may seem a natural component of the course, in other cases it seems forced and not integrated in. We've had focus groups and survey results where students have commented that discussions should be made available as an option, but discussions should not be a requirement. In smaller seminar classes where there is substantial face to face discussion and good class participation, there may be a role for the discussion boards to extend that in class discussion, but if students have other substantive written work to be completed for the course then perhaps the discussion board is perceived as superfluous. In larger lecture classes where the students don't speak up too much in class, there is the issue of whether an ensemble online discussion area can build a sufficient sense of community that students feel the need to make good responses to their classmates. The volume of posts may intimidate and if the quality of those posts is low, because the students are reacting to the participation requirement in a passive manner, then the students won't feel engaged.

The resolution of these issues is probably best not left to "making the technology" better. Let me suggest some alternatives. These all fall within the adaptation approach. They are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive.

For the first couple of weeks of the course, the instructor should make "diary like" posts akin to the posts in this blog and the students should be asked to react to those. Part of this is to engage the class in the issues the instructors feels are important and for the students to see that the instructor has personalized those issues to some degree. This is to draw the students in and encourage them to give serious reactions. But this is also to give students experiential knowledge for the next part. Over the next few weeks have individual or small group areas where the students make their own diary like posts. Make it clear to them that you the instructor can browse those posts. Perhaps there is some in class discussion based on some of those postings or some other way for those to become part of the class work. Then, still a few weeks later, have the students select from their set of posts and have the selection posted in a common area. Then have other students react to those. Make the reaction part of the obligation of the course, but note that students were "trained" to do this by the first part of the course where they responded to the instructor's diary posts. There are many possible variations on this theme. They key points are that the use evolves during the course and that the subsequent use depends in a deliberate way on the prior use.

An entirely different approach is to stick with the more traditional way of having online discussions with perhaps a two post requirement each week, perhaps where the students have different roles that they play - initiators, reactors, reactors to the reactors - and those rotate so over the course of the semester the students play each role several times, but then change what the instructor does. Instead of having the instructor participating in the discussion directly, which can create an imbalance, the instructor should lurk. The instructor's role is to coach the students in their postings. This would be done by selecting a few students each week and writing those students selected email about their contributions to the discussion - where they've done well and what they might do to do better. Perhaps over the course of the term the instructor might go through the whole class a couple of times. One of the things that the instructor should be making clear at the outset is that the instructor is after an increase in the maturity of the writing as the semester progresses. The students should get the sense that the instructor is on their side, helping them to learn. This should help to change the perspective of the students and get them to think of the discussion areas as places for expression rather than to create the self-conscious feeling of being onstage.

Still another approach is to treat the discussion area as a newsgroup, the way engineering classes do. It is a help area for collective problem solving to whatever the other work gets done in the class. Since instant messaging has become such a cultural phenomenon, the newsgroup approach needs some kicker to make it effective. One of the more obvious ones is that in a large class the individual student's circle may be small and by posting to the discussion area the student can tap into the population of the entire class. The person who comes up with the helpful suggestion might now be within the student's circle. Or, TAs and instructors might regularly participate in the group. The newsgroup then becomes a way to access their expertise. It is a substitute for office hours with the addition that the lurkers can benefit. Lurking can be good - it is a way to learn from the disucssion of others - so long as the students feel welcome to participate when they have their own issues that need resolution.

Do we need three different technologies for these different uses? I hope not. Moreover, since I'm quite sure this list isn't even close to being exhaustive, I'd rather not see modifications in the software along these lines. I'd much prefer to see the instructors think about their teaching this way and choose to implement accordingly (based on their own prior experience). Some instructors do think about their teaching in this reflective manner and come to use the software in an innovative way. My issue is what else do I and the folks who work for me need to do to make that type of reflection more commonplace.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Rock and the Hard Place

One of the hardest parts of the job is "managing expecations." With computer technology, we expect things to either get better or stay the same --- the current browsers are better than the ones we used in the '90s in terms of how fast they render pages, how easily they support plugins, that sort of thing. We're seeing new functionality, new tools, all the time. And there really is a remarkable range of choice out there in terms of what applications to use and what type of things people want to put their time into.

When I first got started in the admin side of educational technology, this was in the days of SCALE, we took a "best of breed" approach. The heart of ALN (asynchronous learning networks, a Sloan term that I still feel comfortable with but which others might replace with the broader term eLearning) was conferencing and we supported FirstClass and then WebBoard. As a separate application, we supported Mallard, which did fairly sophisticated quizzing and tracking. Mallard had a grade book, but the Campus had a different grade book system, the latter linked to to the home grown course registration system, so that rosters in the class were kept current. There was yet another system for Web Publishing, called the VCI (Virtual Classroom Interface). We had a lot of disparate systems.

We stayed that route even when we moved to course management systems, supporting both Blackboard (then CourseInfo) and WebCT (then their Standard Edition software). We operated under the belief that there was diversity in use and to accomodate that diversity we had a range of applications. The approach conditioned the expectations of our instructors. Unfortunately it didn't scale well.

In the last year we've closed down the Campus Gradebook service and ended the Blackboard and WebCT CE service. The future lies with our commitment to Illinois Compass, which is based on the WebCT enterprise software called Vista. It is scalable, and its scale justifies us doing integrations with other services that in the past simply wouldn't have made sense. For example, we ultimately will get the iCard photos into Compass so when an instructor sees a student listed in the class grade book, with a single click the instructor can get the photo and profile information. So the plusses are that we can scale and we can integrate with other services. (Though, it must be admitted that those abilities are somewhat theoretical and the proof is in the implementation.)

The issue is whether we can remain flexible in this environment and accomodate people's expectations. Let's talk this through a little. Suppose an instructor wants to use Illinois Compass, but not rely on it altogether. The instructors wants to use some other applicaitons as well. Perhas the instructor wants to us a blog (to have a public face to the class discourse. Illinois compass is pure intranet.) If the other software needs to know who the students are, but doesn't involve grading the student work, then a plust for the Compass environment is its groups tool and its ability to export lists of students that fit some criteria (for which there is a column in the grade book). In that seense Compass accomodates nicely. If, however, the other software supports activities that are gradeable, then the integration needs to be tighter - the results should get reported back to Compass grade book. In theory this can be done through the grade book API. I'm very interested to see how this will play out when we first pilot such a use.

The other thing that Illinois Compass must do is hold up its end of the bargain in terms of the functionalities it provides - whehter the the discussion area, the calendar (which I like because it can link documents and things like quizzes), or other tools. The instructors must come to find those useful.

Last semester there was a lot of focus on the poor performance - Compass was slow in large part because our configuration was not right. Now performance is tolerable but because the product is so heavily dependent on client side Java applets, whenever a new functionality is used there is a lag so that the applet can download. There is a logic to this in terms of distributing the computing power. But folks are impatient with the slow downloads. I wonder whether those applets might be cached locally to avoid that. But perhaps more of the issue is that in many places the immaturity of the Vista software shows, what people were using before almost without exception represented more mature environments, and in some places in particular the Compass environment is less usable than the best of breed approach that it replaced - Campus Gradebook users look at the Compass Gradebook, Blackboard users look at the ease of use, and WebCT users consider their favorite function from the previous environment. At least that is what I hear from them. I don't hear many comments about the environment in total and that if you look at the complete set of its offerings, how they are collectively.

On top of this add the budget issues I discussed in the previous post. This is really a CITES as a whole issue - we look sluggish in part because we are doing too many things for the staff we have - but I look at it in the area where I have responsibility.

The dilemma is this. We could have gone for a system that is less fully functional and easier to manage. It would have improved use in how flexible we appear. But we would have disenfrachised instructors whose expectations have been formed by the history of campus ed tech services. There are more requirements than we can reasonably satisfy. Something has to give, but what?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Money, Money, It Ain't Funny

I want to go back to extolling the use of Google supplied software. But as I do that this morning, I must note that Blogger is having some problems. Here is the known issues page. And I'm having a problem with the comments link. It seems that with IE it works fine, but with Firefox it gives a page not found error. Aaarrrrgghh!!! I suppose this is a reminder to all of us that this is the nature of the technical beast. There will be problems. I hope they resolve this one.... soon.

Ok, now that is out of my system, I want to go back and talk about it as useful. Why? Because it is and because I'm quite sure there are limits to what the campus can do and over the next couple of years those limits will become more and more obvious. So even if I'm wrong about using these "free to the end user" services, that we might outsource rather than internally supply and get smart about what we do with each path is necessary. We will not be able to internally supply on all dimensions and users will get frustrated by that. They need realistic alternatives that satisfy.

Suppose we talk about student Web publishing. There is a lot of discussion about ePortfolios as of late and in my view some confusion about where Web publishing starts and ePortfolios ends. But it is clear, if you try to actually run a blog with Blogger, that the blog can readily be used as an annotation device and the content, which would reside in Netfiles, something the campus continues to support, can be linked from the blog. There is no trouble doing this. And if you use the Blog profile area to say ... look at February for a description of the main contents.... you can get a lot of the ePortfolio function. You can't bring in instructor comments this way. So be it. There are issues with that. So this is a poor man's approach to ePortfolios using software that the campus doesn't support to complement what it does. We are going to need more of this type of thinking.

If I were teaching a class of 30 or less, I could use the Groups tool, email (which the campus supplied) and my own clever use of Excel and we'd have a pretty good online component of the class. What would be sacrified? Not pedagogy. I'd violate the campus information security policy. Can you send the grade on a homework via email? We're definitely not supposed to do that. But if the campus doesn't have the resources is that really the most important priority to preserve?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Odd Casting

The title is a bad pun on "pod casting" which seems to have caught the eye of a few of my staff and some other faculty on campus too. As is my ususal bent, I turn the idea inside out and then with the strange looking result make a case for it.

In this particular case, there are two thoughts. If the course management system is really being used as a virtual file drawer --- well you don't need that. All you need is a place to publish Web content. In my unit that is our service Netfiles, which relies on the software from Xythos. And you (the instructor) need a teensy weensy amount of knowledge about making an rss feed that has "enclosures." Then the students need some podcast software to subscribe to your feed and download the enclosures when new ones are available. Since the podcast software is currently free, the cost of this type of approach is really quite low.

Now I've deplored the CMS use as a file drawer and really hope that on our campus the typical class will move beyond that use to something that has more overt benefit to learning. But if we never get there, then it is modestly comforting to know we are not locked into the CMS to achieve that lower level functionality.

This, however, is not what has me hooked on podcasting. Rather the issue is distribution of high bandwith content. Envision that every instructor with a digital camcorder starts to tape the lecture so students have something to review afterwards. As an alternative to the live class this is probably a loser, but as an additional aid for the students, it might very well have value, even if the production quality of the video is not high. And I've already discussed the idea of making screen movies from writing on a Tablet PC. I think those might be more compelling (if more labor intensive to produce). The point is that they are high bandwidth too.

But once that content exists, how does the instructor get it to the students? Podcasting is the answer. Because the software downloads at prespecified intervals, when the student goes to her computer to view the video there is no lag --- because the movie is already on her computer. It downloaded earlier. And if the server which hosts the video is housed in a location with good networking - the downloading should not created any network congestion even if there are peak demands in when the video is viewed, again because the downloading is not contemporaneous with the viewing.

So that is really cool. Now if I can only convince the Netfiles people to allow instructors to have gigs and gigs of content, we're all set. But really, once the class has downloaded the content there is little reason to leave it on the server.

I suppose my only issue out there is how many students off campus still rely on dialup and what limitations that places. Alternatively, could the students do their podcast downloads from campus computer labs? I'll have to think that through.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

ed tech vs IT

It's a marriage of convenience to have ed tech units, both the online stuff and the smart classrooms, in the same academic computing organization as the rest of IT, with the network, email, and the rest as they are at Illinois. That they are cousins, there is no doubt. But that they are more closely related is something to ponder. I can understand that from the Provost's perch looking down on the campus there are a lot of things that can't receive direct attention and if they are not aggregated in properly, they won't get the attention they need. Nevertheless, there are some issues with this sort of aggregation.

From where I sit, the fundamental difference is that with the rest of IT the principal concern is efficient provision of service, a life cycle costing model, and high utilization. But what the service is used for is of little concern, with caveats about illegal file sharing, sending viruses through email, etc. The management in this area fights the notion that IT is a utility, but it is a utility in the sense of use. Where the fight comes in is on the side of rapid technical change. The service offering overtly varies with time. Just think of email - there is the issue of accomodating larger attachments, perhaps different file formats in messages, and accomodating different form factors - handheld devices in particular. This requires an agility and a dynamic approach to providing an effective service, unlike electricity or (when AT&T was king) the old phone service.
Ed Tech is different. The use matters --- a lot. We ask whether the technology makes things easier for instructors and students. And we ask whether it improves learning. If the technology has little impact in these dimensions then one has to wonder about ROI, even if the use is intensive. Conversely, if the use is intensive and we are perceiving little impact, one has to wonder if we are measuring the right things.

I have my job, in large part, because I'm supposedly knowledgeable about use - adaptation of the technology to promote instruction. Certainly, it is not because I'm smart about Oracle or big production systems. Let me talk about this for a bit. And to begin, let me move from the word "use" to the word "behavior." This is will help clarify on the impact issue. For example, course management systems, Illinois Compass powered by WebCT Vista to focus on the one we support, have been used mostly to distribute electronic documents - syllabi and lecture notes. There is a convenience factor in having these in electronic form so they are accessible any time and any place. But in terms of behavior this is essentially no change from the paper document world we lived in before. Instructors distributed paper documents (perhaps though a copy shop as intermediary) and students accumulated those documents. Behaviorally, there is little change.

I tend to think in terms of the behavior and abstract out the technology issues. I'm looking for changes in the teaching approach and in the work that students do as indicators that the technology is having impact. For example we are seeing the technology being used more frequently for getting ready activities before the live class session. This impact is real. Yet it is being driven by individual instructors. It's not happening due to some "institutional will" creating the change. One of the reasons I'm so focused on putting students in the role of mentor/teacher is that it would represent change at the institutional level and for the time being it seems to me the most important change that the institution could advocate for. The instruction needs more human to human interaction and there just aren't enought faculty to be at the hub of all class discussions.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Tablet PCs and Art School

I've been playing with my new Tablet PC for the last few days. Lots of fun - if only I could write (and better yet, if I could draw). Conceptually everything works wonderfully, but my handwriting is for the birds so demo-ing this folks have to use their imaginations. But it does make it "real" in the sense of being like home movies rather than professionally produced. That does convey that anyone can do this, which I believe is true, if they have a Tablet PC and some other software that I'll talk about in a bit.

One of the things that have really benefited from the increase in CPU power is the making of screen movies. Three or four years ago, that process would disrupt what was being done on the creator's computer, which would itself disrupt the presentation, and apart from that the output would be kind of choppy and therefore not engaging for the viewer. All of that has changed now.

If one thinks about screen movies via capture, most people would probably think of Camtasia, at least in part because way back when many people had the Snag-It image capture utility on their desktops and the two different softwares are made by the same company, TechSmith. I haven't used Camtasia recently. I stumbled across a different application called BB Flashback made by a UK company called Blueberry Consultants. It seems to work well in terms of the capture and adding audio, and it allows export to many file formats. In my play, I've been exporting to .swf (Flash) format. I need to learn more about that as far as whether it can work ok at scale without a streaming server. In my little bit of testing, it comes in fine at home with my cable modem. Burks said it was slow over dial up. Since I'm thinking about preparing this sort of thing, well in advance of the use, I don't think that is a big deal. If necessary, these movies can be put onto a CD and sent through the (snail) mail.

Why make movies out of pen strokes? Just to make sure everyone can fit in this conversation, recall back to those old TV ads that invited you to join Art School if you can produce a reasonable replica of a certain still life with a line drawing, then you too can enroll in the school. Even if that commercial conjures up some of P.T. Barnum's most famous lines, particularly about a fool and his money, it also emphasize hand written activities and copying. I know a lot of instructors don't like PowerPoint and would prefer to write out their lectures. These and other instructors feel that having students copy what the instructors have written, particularly in notation intensive courses, is really important. The writing out the content is the way students get familiar with the material.

I've also seen students, notably engineering students, who have vociferously demanded that their instructors use chalk. I've interepreted this as a demand for pacing in the presentation to match the pacing in the way the students process the information. But there may also be a benefit to see how things are written out, particularly equations and diagrams. Instructors have a way of tranferring their ideas into the written representations in a way that helps students and it is the construction of the representations that is critical to watch and to imitate.

The screen movies can do in essence the same thing. Accompanied by the voice annotation it simulates the lectures explanation of technical material with animated strokes and deft commentary. It has the added benefits of being replayable, in case the student didn't "get it" the first time, and the still further benefit that the instructors body doesn't block the chalkboard. The student viewer can see it all.

These screen movies are technically easy to produce. Once a facility with using the pen on the Tablet PC has been achived, all one has to do is set the recording are on the screen, push the record button and start writing or drawing brilliant and creative things. Then when that is done, press the stop recording button. My sense is that erasing in this context is not a good thing to do so that the student will have a finished diagram at the end of the clip. Of course mistakes happen, so in that sense anything goes. But erasing well constructed content is a no no.

I would do the voice narration after recording the screen moving, not at the same time. Part of this is because there is some concentration required to make the digitial pen write as on the blackboard. The other part is to see if "ums" and "ahs" can be prevented and by focusing on the talking while viewing the screen capture movie, the audioe flow should be smoother. It is a snap to place the audio file as another track in the screen capture movie and then export to a nice format for viewing. The latter is processor intensive however and takes a while to create a finished product. This is not like saving a Word document.

So technically, this is an easy way to make mini presentations. Perhaps a handful of these on the same general topic would play the the role as an online alternative to a lecture. It fits in perfectly with the theme that presentation can be doen in advance of the live class session so that in class time can be spent on discussion.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Getting Students Involved

Since in my own teaching I've done something along the lines of what I'm proposing with the student mentor/teachers, I'm quite convinced it can work. But I must confess that when I did it I hand selected the students. (Actually I invited them from the pool of students who got A's in my course and then the group I ended up with was a subset of those who wanted the job.) If the kids getting A's represent 20-25% of the student population, and we exclude first year students altogether, this would be about 5000 students. Maybe this is the right number because then on a per faculty member basis the ratio would be between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1. At that level it might be reasonable to expect that faculty would seriously mentor these kids.

But suppose that we wanted to have even a bigger group, say the top 40% of the students (but still excluding the first years), on the theory that this is a great experience for them. Now we'd be taking students who who have performed less well. Some of them may be less knowledgeable in the subject area where they are supposed to teach. Some of them may also be less confident of their communicaiton skills. Might this attempt to be utilitarian in the approach backfire for these reaosons.

The honest answer is that I don't know. I don't believe anyone does because we haven't tried it. But there are a few things that seem clear now.

First, the perception must be that being a mentor/teacher is an honor and something to strive for. The most obvious reason for a student to do so is that it will lead to a real mentoring relationship with a faculty member and at our campus at the undergraduate level, that is something rare. Whether there needs to be other, less obvious reasons is not clear. One might consider things that go on the transcript and one might consider things akin to wages and/or tuition reductions. Depending on the intensity of the work, these other things might also be valuable and one or the other likely will necessary.

Second, there must be a perception that the potential mentor/teacher is not losing out by taking more credit hours instead. In other words, some current requirements for graduation probably have to be dropped to encourage this behavior. This will be controversial. Those in the major will argue that its Gen Ed courses to be dropped. And those who advocated for general education will take the opposite approach. This is where the rubber will hit the road.

Third, the entire approach must be to build on previous success, but also to be open to snags and stumbling blocks. If a certain faculty members doesn't mentor her group of students, she shouldn't get a next generation group to repeat the problem.

Fourth, if the approach does catch on the institution likely would use it as a way to recruit students. It stands to reason that if the approach became an important aspect of the culture than in recruiting we'd aim for students who would thrive in that environment. This should mitigate some of the issues.

Fifth, this experiment should not be viewed as a substitute for having graduate student TAs. No doubt the decline in graduate student TAs due to budget cuts may make the approach seem more attractive, and I for one turned to this idea a long time ago in part for that reason, but with hindsight the key is to focus on the learning benefit and the motivation of the students, both the mentor/teachers and the students they interact with. It has to work on that level and that should be the concern rather than the cost concern. I know the graduate TA thing often does not work at that level because: (a) it is common that the graduate students TA in a course they have not experienced themselves as students, (b) the grad students resent the low level of compensation for the work, and (c) in many cases the grad students have more teaching responsibility than their experience would suggest is prudent. Because undergraduates are undergraduates and still comparatively immature, there is less of a risk on (c). Both (a) and (b) are likely not applicable for the undergrads.

So scaling doesn't seem to me to be impossible. The key will be for the vision to be shared and get others to advocate for the approach so there can be sufficient experimentation. It might be easier to do in science classes than in humanities classes; I'm not sure. Or it might be that the rolese the mentor/teachers play would vary according to discipline. Those are things that have to be worked through.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

the role of the faculty

Lecturing is an important function. Doing it well takes time and effort, particularly when the subject matter is new. It is only occasionally correct for the faculty member to present her own research tracing back the way she came to have those ideas. More often, another way to view the work is needed, because the audience will not have thought as deeply about the issues. The good lecture helps the students penetrate the ideas and gives the students a sense of what is important, where the focus should be.

Mentoring is also an important function. The mentoring relationship is much more personal and driven by the learning needs of the student. The good mentor encourages an open intellectual relationship with the mentee and allows the mentee to grow and gain confidence in his ability to generate ideas, produce good work, and communicate about the work.

While lecturing and mentoring happen at both the graudate and undergraduate levels, the stereotype is that graduate education is mentoring while undergraduate education is lecturing. In the U.S, graduate education is perceived as very high quality, while the perception of undergraduate education is that it is less good. One is naturally drawn to ask whether one might improve undergraduate education by making it less lecture centric and increasing the emphasis on mentoring.

Especially for subject matter that has been around, even if there are new perspectives, one must recognize that there are alternatives to the lecture. The Principles of Economics that I have taught recently is content-wise not so different from the same course taught twenty years ago. There are textbooks, streaming video with and without PowerPoint of lectures on the subject matter, online lecture notes, and simulations (such as my Excelets). To the extent that students use lectures as their introduction to the information, this is a very poor use of the faculy member, especially when there are some many other alternatives that might introduce the student to the material. Bill Massy makes this point strongly. Faculty should be used for higher order things. Massy argues that faculty should teach upper level courses only, with a different mode of instruction and different personnel involved in teaching the introductory courses. I (along with a host of others) have argued for a more modest change - that there be online alternatives to introduce students to the material and that those entail some degree of assessment both to promote the learning but also to ensure students are held accountable. Then the live class session would change to be more reflective and allow deeper penetration into the subject.

However, I don't beleive this reform goes far enough. I think faculty need to spend some significant amount of time mentoring undergraduates and I think that undergraduates themselves must be involved in significant mentoring relationships, possibly several simultaneously. Hubert Dreyfus, in a critique of online learning, argues that the master-apprentice relationship represents the deepest form of teaching and learning possible. I've seen some take issue with Dreyfus on his critique, but the refutation is that face to face instruction is often large, impersonal lecture not intimate mentoring between master and apprentice. Nobody disagrees about the value of the mentoring itself.

The problem of course is one of scale. The student/faculty ratios we have don't allow every undergraduate to have a signficant one-on-one relationship with a faculty member. Absent a scalable solution, this is just so much tilting at windmills.

My solution, which if you have been reading the previous posts should be obvious, is for much the mentoring to be student to student. More experienced students mentor other students who are earlier in their college careers. This should happen within the context of courses. Faculty mentor the student teacher/mentors. This might seem like additional burden and if it plays out that way then the faculty won't go for it an the approach will fail. The key is that the faculty mentoring will be part of ensuring quality instruction in their course. As long as the faculty view the student teacher/mentors as productive and as long as the faculty are themselves engaged in teaching, this can work.

As this approach unfolds those faculty who begin down this path will hand select their student teacher/mentors from the best that they had as students in previous incarnations of the course. However, for the approach to scale, ultimately it must be that all students who are sufficiently far along mentor other students. In the next post, we'll discuss how that might work.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

a sense of taste and tutoring

One of the things that I have learned since getting involved in ed tech is how much somebody "who knows" understands implicitly. The pattern of thought and mode of problem solving requires doing many things that if they were made explicit would paralyze the process. The unknowing or novice person, of course, has to grapple with these and that is why moving from novice to master is an awkward and often ego deflating process.

If a knowing person focuses mostly or exclusively on their own knowing and learning, she will take for granted the implicit steps and see through those to the core issues of the particular situation. She may readily forget about her initial learning of the subject and any awkwardness she had to go through at the time. Reflection is insufficient in itself to conjure upt the mindset of the novice.

By interacting with others who are novices, however, the knowing person can "see" in the attitudes, questions, and disposition how the novice is learning, where the weakness is, and make suggestions for improvement. If this is done in a way that further deflates the ego of the novice, the suggestions can be hurtful and pernicious. If, however, the tone is sympathetic and the suggestions are well aimed then the novice can make progress and will develop respect for the knowing person, who has shown knowledge of the subject matter and more importantly demonstrated perception on how the novice can penetrate the material.

Even well intended knowing people can err in this role as tutor by giving suggestions that are perceived as opaque or by unintentionally making the novice uncomfortable about his state of mind. The situation is fragile, especially early on before a bond is built and trust established.

Master teachers understand these issues implicitly. Knowing people who are novice teachers likely will not have this implicit knowledge about being a good tutor. One reason why our students don't like to work in groups, especially early on in their studies, is because they don't possess this knowledge. Experiential learning in this case is painful, but it is necessary.

Learning to teach just as with learning to write gives insight into the way others think and come to understand. In the process, it also gives an appreciation of how we ourselves learn and may be the best way to "learn to learn." Thus, allowing our students to teach is one of the best things we can do for them to promote their own "lifelong learning."

The unmistakenable conclusion is that students should teach other students and that we as an institution should promote that. Of course it happens already, from the study group to the greek system where upperclassmen assist the first year students with their studies. But does it happen enough? Is there more that can be done? And what is the role of the faculty in this? Are the faculty integral to the process or does this happen without their involvement?

My view is that the faculty are key. That will be the subject of the next post.