Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Inverse Pyramid

There are two basic economic theories of how a college education improves an individual's wage. These coincided with the nurture versus nature views of human behavior. The human capital theory is education as nurture. Nurture raises an individual productivity. The other theory is education as a signal about the individual's ability. In this alternative model the individual incurs a cost by getting education. (This cost is typically modelled as the foregone wages and hence is viewed as an implicit time cost.) For the signaling to be effective, this implicit cost must negatively correlate with ability. Then it is rational for high ability individuals to attend college and low ability individuals not to attend and consequently for employers to interpret attending college as a signal of ability and paying a higher wage as a consequence.

There are many variants of each theory, but I don't want to elaborate on them here. Instead I want to ask which of these theories do we inside higher ed subscribe to? Clearly, those who focus on finding good pedagogic approaches to the use of instructional technology are thinking about education as nurture and hence whether they explicitly recognize it or not at least in that respect they are in the human capital camp.

However, if one pushes on the human capital theory a little bit and asks how best to allocate over time a given investment in human capital, one comes to the conclusion that early intervention is best. James Heckman, the nobel prize winner from the University of Chicago has argued this, among others. College education, particuarly at large public university such as mine, seems to cut against the early intervention idea in that freshmen classes are often large lectures while senior classes are where the seminars are. Furthermore, the freshmen classes are more likely to be taught by graduate students, who, however bright and smart about their discipline, are less experienced as instructors, or by adjunct faculty who typically are not purusing a research career. We have had a highly publicized Freshmen Discovery program that had small classes taught by regular faculty. But that program was seen as a luxury and Discovery program offerings were one of the things to go when the first round of budget cuts hit.

Recently at a presentation by Paul Kelter a professor of Chemistry and director of the general chemistry program on campus he argued and I think fairly convincingly that he'd rather have instructors with experience teaching young people and expert in the issues of making adjustments from high school chemistry to the college offering than to have research faculty doing this task.

Undoubtedly these adjunct instructors get paid less than the research faculty, so in considering the issue of early intervention simply looking at dollar outlay is not sufficient. One must look at the appropriateness of the investment. There may be inexpensive interventions that have high learning value. My belief in using students as mentor/teachers is meant to be considered in this light. In other words, we must get away from thinking about every possible intervention as mean lots of cash, because that is a very scarce resource. The challenge is to produce inexpensive but successful early interventions.

Otherwise we run the risk that the human capital approach will be swamped by signaling theory and that college will become a more Darwinian experience for the students.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Taking on Paul Krugman

I must not be too swift. Yesterday I take on the Oblingers, who have everyone's attention in the learning technology arena, and today it's Paul Krugman, one of brightest economists of his generation. As an economist I'm a schlub and I know it. But that won't stop me.

Krugman's op-ed piece today in the NY Times is about health care and the demagoguery of the Bush administration on the issue of health insurance. I agree with his position that health insurance should be universal and that there is way too much bureaucracy in that industry. But the rest of his piece is demagoguery of his own - his way to counter the Republicans but in the process inadvertently lose the respect of thinking people everywhere.

Here's what Krugman conveniently ignores in his piece. The issue isn't only about the uninsured. It's also about what the insured get in their coverage. The simple fact is that coverage costs and more coverage costs more. I don't know why Krugman doesn't talk about this, but it is an important issue. It is an issue on the prescription drug side, it is an issue with the intense high end technology used in medical diagnostics, it is an issue with how R&D in health care tend to drive up cost, and it is an issue with the aging of our society and that the elderly disproportionately consume on the health care front.

The fundamental question with coverage is whether it can be limited to keep costs down. When a Canadian of means gets really sick and their health care system can't do anything more for him, does he come down to U.S. to seek treatment he can't get in Canada? When a woman in her 30's is facing pending blindness, has already had four operations which have done little or nothing to prevent further deterioration of her vision, and now she is looking for a fifth operation which the doctors describe as having no better chance than 10% for success, who gets to make the call that this operation is social waste and should be canceled?

I really don't want to be melodramatic about it, but ignoring the coverage issue entirely means Krugman really is as bad as the Republicans. The issue matters for cost and any social contract that involves universal coverage will have to squarely take on the coverage issue. In almost any utilitarian argument that one can make, veil of ignorance or otherwise, coverage will be limited. The woman going blind will not get her operation. My dad, who was a brittle diabetic for the entire time I knew him (he passed away in 1999 at age 86) would not necessarily be able to get a surgery on his pancreatic cancer when at age 85. (OK, that is melodramatic.)

My own view on health care is communistic. By this I mean I favor a system where there is universal coverage and where there are explicitly set out limits to coverage that get defined by an actuarial analysis of health care consumption and where such limits are set to keep the system solvent. Moreover, there is the stipulation that the rich can't go to the marketplace and expand their coverage via their private purchases of health care. (I understand that there will be leakages either through an internal black market for the rich and ill or for an external market of this sort, say in the Bahamas. But if the leakages can be bounded then the core system will provide decent care.) This approach is egalitarian and recognizes there is no free lunch. Further, it allows us to make a social contract of the form - let's with intent reduce the amount we as a society spend on health care so we can spend more on education, particularly education early in the life cycle. I believe we are spending too much on senior citizens and that is only going to get worse as the society in general gets older. We should change that. (I'm 50 now and my kids are in 5th and 7th grade. I wonder if I'll still feel this way when they have graduated from college and I'm "ready to retire.")

Krugman, in contrast, offers the free lunch - go to universal coverage so as to expand health care to those who are not currently working and to the working poor, and the bureaucratic bloat that is eliminated will pay for it all and then some. None of the other health care issues matter, such as the hyperinflation in health care insurance costs. Give me a break. Krugman, you are a John Bates Clark Award winner and a potential Nobel Prize awardee. We deserve more from you.

Why am I so infuriated with Krugman? And why talk about health care in a blog that is supposed to focus on learning technology? Here is why. The crisis in health care cost is perhaps 30 years old. There has been substantial reform in the way health care is provided to address the cost. issue. Most of this falls under the umbrella "HMO" (some but not all of the reform has been for the good). We should have a mature view of the health care issues and hence there should be some lessons to learn from health care as we work through the crisis in higher education costs. So I'm looking for useful parallels because we haven't yet had the time to work through a mature view on the higher education issues.

And too, I'm being cast in the role of Darth Vader. The smart classrooms are a perfect example. Historically we've taken the large lecture halls and made them into fully featured smart classrooms. Most of our smaller classrooms don't have modern presentation technology (an analog to the no health insurance problem). We get pushed by the instructors to put more and better technology into the classrooms. (The same way doctors keep writing those expensive prescriptions.) But the activity itself has never been funded to include recurrent replacement or refreshment of the equipment. And now we're going to hit a wall because of the general budget situation. The communistic approach I embrace for the health insurance area follows in large part because that is the approach I see we must follow in the classrooms. And in the smart classrooms the analog to limits in insurance coverage will be harsh, because we are severely underfunded. So I've got to come up with some brutal cuts in service.

Being Darth Vader is no fun. I certainly didn't set out to play this role. In a very real sense I'm just the messenger. But I will be blamed when we implement the cuts and yet I will advocate for the cuts as the most sensible thing to do under the circumstances. What is the alternative? Krugman, you could do a lot of social good preaching in your column that there is no free lunch. But instead you give us pablum. I could scream.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The OTH Generation

Some years ago the New York Times (perhaps the Book Review section, I can't recall) did a Special called "Writers on Writing." When those pieces were coming out, I thought them really excellent and a potential model for our own faculty to produce something similar, some insight into how they write, or how they teach, or how they go about their research. I did such a piece myself but wasn't able to generate any coattails. So I lost interest in that particular project. But I still liked those articles and think they are really great. The are very readable in the sense of not being over my head and only a page or two of text. And they are fascinating. I thought the Times had taken them down (to be published for $$ someplace else) but lo and behold the archive is online. What a delightful discovery.

I came to search for that archive because I started to read a piece by Diana and James Oblinger from the book they have edited called Educating the Net Generation. (Readers of this blog may recall a prior post on learning styles to acknowledge that I'm disposed against making teaching and learning arguments based on generational assumptions. I chose the title of this post to make the point that I'm part of the OTH (over the hill) generation and since I am I can make some crotchety arguments, which is what I intend to do in the rest of this post.) That the Oblingers try to typify a generation of students brought to mind a particular piece by Saul Bellow in the On Writing series.

Bellow was taking on the argument that reading is dead; it was killed off by the movies and other technological marvels. Bellow started off by saying for him as kid, self described as bookish, he nonetheless went to the movies and liked them. For him they were a different activty from reading. They didn't compete with each other. (Incidentally, I think this is true for my older son, 12, who does plenty of TV and video games, but also reads.)

Bellow then argues that even if the masses don't read, some people do. And they are whom he writes for. He quotes Cheever on the importance of the readers for the writer and the relationship that adoring readers have with the writer. Certainly, that there are readers sustains the writer. That not everyone is a reader is of no concern to the writer as long as there are some who are. This is not a utilitarian argument. This is an argument about excellence via making genuine reflections and observations. The good writer can do that where the film maker, particularly of commercial films aimed to make a buck, can't.

Bellow's antagonist is a man named Teachout who apparently was following in the tradition of Spengler. Out with the old, in with the new. reading is out, video is in. Teachout argued about the masses and the inevitability of progress. That argument notwithstanding, Bellow and his cronies kept on writing for their small group who cared about writing. They pleased themselves, they survived, and of course they produced some very good stuff.

I fear the Oblingers are like Teachout. Especially on points regarding visual learning. Video games are popular. That doesn't mean they are the only path to conveing rich ideas. On some of their other points I, a defining member of the OTH Generation, am just like members of the Net Generation. We like to learn things by figuring them out on our own rather than being told. Please, that is not a generational defining characteristic. That is a characteristic of being a thinking human being.

There is another point that needs to be raised. Students differ in their abilities and some universities are harder than others in their intellectual demands placed on the students. We're seeing that issue raised big time in Texas now with the top 10% of the high school class issue. There is a thought that because education has to be good and relevant (I share that thought), the university targeted at students of more modest ability should produce educational outcomes comparable to those at more elite universities and that the way to do this is by making the pedagogic approach better situated for the the students (I do not share this thought). There is a real problem of dumbing down the content, especially if that is to solve the "visual learner" issue. Kids should still read in college. I've said it before. We should not cave in on that. There are certainly graphical ways to illustrate complex ideas, but those should complement rather than replace the written word to describe and analyze those ideas.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Instructor "visualization" of the dialog with students

Let me begin here with a set of questions that might engage a student in a microeconomics class?

"What type of goods when you purchase them do you look for the lowest possible price and what type of goods when you purchase them do you care about the seller (or the full supply chain) making money from the transaction?"

This question offers a bit of a puzzle, of course. The natural first reaction is to say that buyers always want the lowest price. But it suggests there are cases where that isn't the case.

"Kids who grow up in middle income families have an advantage over kids who grow up in lower income families. There are many components of this. Let's focus on the differences in parental educational attainment (there is strong correlation between that and income) . How would you place a dollar value on the advantage on a per annum basis?"

This questions seems like it is from outer space. It is asking for a back of the envelope calculation. But what type of calculation? That is the mystery.

"Some retail merchants deliberately locate their stores in high rental areas like Water Tower Place on Chicago's Miracle Mile. Others locate their stores in surburban shopping malls. And still others do both. What explains the location choice? And do the stores in both locations charge the same price or different prices to reflect the location cost differences?"

The first obvious answer is that stores locate to be close to their customers. But the question about charging the same price or not is mysterious. What would affect the answer to that?

Showing that an economic analysis can lend insight into answering these questions is the way for me as the instructor to convey to the students that studying economics has value to them. These type of puzzles are of intrinsic interest. Resolving them creates a sense of accomplishment and understanding.

These particular questions can be addressed online fairly nicely with the "content survey" approach that I've described elsewhere. That is fine in one way, but making this type of thing the focus of the course departs rather dramatically from the traditional way the intermediate micro course is taught, content-wise.

Two of the three questions about fall under the general mantle "economics of information." That is the the cool, fun stuff to talk about in an economics course. But normally when one teaches that stuff is an overlay on top of some more basic stuff. The more basic stuff is less cool, less fun. I would argue that it is intellectually important for someone who will study more economics and that is perhaps the primary reason for teaching the course that way. But most of the students who take the class won't study more economics. Frankly, they don't like this course and since for most it is a requirement, they don't understand why it is required.

For example, consider consumer theory, which is usually the lead off topic in such courses and which, if you really put the students through their paces, should constitute between one third and one half of the course. The fundamental lessons from consumer theory are first, substitution (and complementarity) between goods and services, the notion of budget constraint, the notion of elasticity of demand, an important idea about compensation which is fundamental to cost benefit analysis, and revealed preference. There is an awful lot of machinery developed to convey these ideas. For those who love mathematical models (the few engineering students who take the class) the machinery is appreciated for itself and so this is a rewarding experience. For the rest of the students, and most of these kids have very high math scores as measured by ACT or SAT, this is torture. It seems relevant to nothing for them and it actually obscures any lifelong lesson that they may take from the course.

So the issue as an instructor in my shoes is to say, "to hell with those students, I'm going to do a bang up job teaching the rigors of price theory," or alternatively to make various compromises on that so the coure can be more real for the majority of students who enrol. Which choice should I make? My current thinking on resolving this dilemma is to put consumer theory at the end of the course and see if I can introduce more of the information stuff early, but from the firm side, where I think it is easier and more transparent. We'll end up covering about the same stuff but in a different order and with a different emphasis. At this point in my teaching career, I don't know how to do a good course well without drawing the students in. That has to be highest priority in any design.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Designing a course based on what I know

The last time I taught it was an intro course for campus honors students with a total enrollment of 15. The course was a success and it was fun to teach. I tried to teach it again this semester but was told that course had already been allocated and was asked whether I wanted to teach an intermediate micro course. I've taught that course quite a bit in the past. The students are much less motivated and in general instructor evaluations for the course are low. Also, I wasn't prepared to do that (I didn't want to use my old materials and hadn't done anything new in this course since 2001 other than some Excelets I had designed to accompany a textbook) and consequently I didn't think I would learn about the teaching and learning issues. So I told the department no.

But in the back of my head, I've been thinking about what it would take to make this course a success. Would it be possible to really click, armed with the knowledge I've got now, say if I had 60 students and no TA. (If the department offered some grading assistance, I'm not sure how I would use it.) On the one hand, I've got all these technical tricks up my sleeve - digital ink movies from my tablet PC with high frame rate screen capture, then voice over and then the whole thing converted to Flash; embedding such a mini-lectures inside a WebCT Vista quiz question, so that the one can meld presentation and assessment; designing Excel exercises where students "construct" graphical solutions to economic problems and have those automatically graded; customizing those exercises so each team of students gets their own personalized version; providing content surveys that again blend content and assessment but in this case put in a story telling component to the course; and having students make such content surveys as a course project, an alternative to a term paper.

Methodologically, this is quite an arsenal. The issue is mapping that arsenal onto the subject matter of the course. There is a lot of math modelling in the course. And there is no way around that. In the freshman course I did that only very little and concentrated much more on the story telling aspect. That was a winning approach. I'd like to do the same here but want to cover the requisite material. Landsburg's text may offer part of the solution. I'll have to take a look at that. However, I really would like to at the least assess student work online and I don't particularly want to rely on a textbook when I do that, because whatever I develop will be tied to something a publisher knows.

In subsequent posts I'll elaborate on possible teaching experiements in this course.

Monday, April 25, 2005

What if Google Loses Profitability?

In today's NY Times there is an article about Google starting to sell ads that are not related to their search business. The discussion is that Google (and Yahoo too) provide a brokering service between publishers (like the NY Times) and advertisers of content, because they have a good online auction model for the pricing of the advertising. But now Google is going to let in ads that are from high bidding advertisers, even if the content is not otherwise relevant to the readers - and ad for car mufflers on a page with an article about interior decorating. And the thought is this non-context sensitive advertising may become more and more of Google's core business. So what does that do for us schlubs who think of Google as a search enginge. Will they either further intrude into that space or so degrade it as to kill the goose?

On a different front, yesterday I realized that the Times has stopped allowing online readers to email full text of their articles and instead now allows email of the link only. This is what the Chronicle does. Of course the Chronicle charges for its subscription and doesn't rely on advertising to support it. The Times is free online, supported by the ad revenue. Are they too going to continually degrade the service in the quest for revenue. I already think they've degraded the quality of the writing to claim more eyeballs.

Perhaps the trick in all of this is to stay light and agile and always play what is hot out there. The thing is, we who support IT talk about scalability and sensible business models. It sure would be nice if there were something that continued to make sense a few years out. I really liked putting the emails of the Times articles up in my course site for my students, perhaps several months after they appeared. Now I'll have to see if Lexis-Nexis has them or some othe database, and I'll lose the ability to promote to the students that they should read the paper themselves. Or I could make PDFs of the articles, and probably violate fair use. Aarghh.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Learning from Television

There is an article in this Sunday's NY Times Magazine called "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" and it really caused me to scratch my head. I'm still scratching. The article is by Steven Johnson, an author I had not heard of before. Apparently the article is from a book that is coming out next month. I might just buy that book.

The claim, no doubt true, is that for all the gore, sex, etc. on TV, quality from the point of view the intelligence required to watch the stuff has gone up over the last twentyfive or thirty years. Shows are more realistic in the sense that there are multiple threads of plot going on at the same time. Story lines are no longer linear, as they were in the '70s. Moreover, there are far fewer overt clues given in the dialog to let the viewer know what is going on. Furthermore there is often ambiguity and occasionally criticial pieces of information are left out of the story on purpose, to make the viewer work to understand what's happening.

According to Johnson this has been going on for years. And there is an economic rationale. As recording of TV programs has gotten more sophisticated the producers of TV shows have come to realize they are creating assets that viewers will watch again and again - if there is a compelling interest. Shows that are too simple might have an initial interest, but their simple story line will make them boring in a hurry. The complexity and ambiguity in the shows makes them worth viewing again. There are things that make sense the second time through which didn't register the first time.

The crazy thing, according to Johnson, is that this is happening not just for the primo series like ER, West Wing, and the Sorpanos. It is happening for the grungy shows too - like reality TV shows. Hmm,......... It seems even the Archie Bunkers and Home Simpsons of the world are getting smart about complexity, ambiguity, and nuance.

If you take Johnson's hypothesis seriously it puts a new wrinkle to all the religiosity we're seeing, from sports stars to to right wing pols. The idea is that some people have an aversion to figuring out what is going on in the multi-currented world in which we live. Whether that is because they intellectually can't do it or if it is dealing with the fear that accompanies the thought that everything seems so contingent, so uncertain or if there are other causes for the religiosity, I don't know. But it seems to me this is an admission that their reason and ability to work things through are limited. And it is not the filth of what is on TV or elsewhere in the media that cements the view. It is the complexity and the far from sure path to follow the complexity implies, if faith is not the guide.

The society as a whole is a teenager. That is a scary thought. Do you remember when you were teenager? My teenage years were an emotional struggle. There we good moments but a lot of unhappiness overall. However, there is a positive thought as well. I grew up and learned to live in my own skin. Maybe that is possible for our society and perhaps higher ed can help by the way we rethink our education role. I know for me personally, it was coming to appreciate my weaknesses and to bring them out rather than hide them which helped me cope. I wonder if there is a broader lesson here.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Learning for the situation or using a model

I can't seem to help myself but seemingly without trying I make every situation into an abstraction suitable for analysis and then do some quick and dirty thinking to come up with a preliminary conclusion. Whether I'm hard wired this way or it's a product of my education and specifically the approach I was taught to do economics, I can't say. The thing is, of necessity I throw away a lot of detail. The modeling says that's ok; indeed it's a necessity. If I want that detail later, I can go back for it, at least that's my rationalization.

Now as my senses are noticeably diminishing in their sharpness, I'm having doubts. What if one takes the experience as a thing in itself, not as an example of a general principle. Then throwing things away is simply reducing the experience. Shouldn't we want the experience in its fullness?

This line of thought brings to mind Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. If one does a Google search on that title, one gets hits like "" and "" I guess I don't need to add that I read the book when I was an undergrad. My recollection, tarnished as that may be, is that Huxley argued that a child takes in experience in all its fullness, but that is overwhelming. A child can't survive on his own. As the child matures much of that is blocking out the environment, to focus on the task that is necessary for survival. An adult blocks out most things, not necessarily for abstract reasoning but rather for narrowing focus, though the two obviously share some similarities. Huxley argued that drugs returned the adult to the child like state. I'm not sure that is true and I'm not interested in drugs here. What I want to do know is this: Are there times when instructors interfere with student learning by forcing abstractions on them espccially too early into the situation? Might it be better to stay in the situation longer and not move to the abstractions so quickly?

I don't know the answer to those questions. What I do know is that my own universe about how to teach has turned upside down on this issue since I've embraced instructional technology. Consider the case study method. I know we frowned on it as faculty in the Economics department, including some of the very best instructors, because the case method masks the theory. Now, I would embrace the case method as a way of providing richness for the student that would engage them and deepen their learning. But when I see a case (at least in the business/management arena) I have the abstraction approach inside me. What of the students, however? Do they learn to abstract based on the cases? If not, do they get something out it? Do they perhaps get more than if they had a prior theoretical background?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Carrots and Sticks in Promoting Student Engagement

About 9 years ago I wrote some essays about thinking of eLearning (then we called it ALN) as an incentive device. I'm not going to claim those were very good, but they are reflective of my thinking at that time and perhaps also indicate how an economist might think about learning technology.

In one of those essays (you can still find it online here) I argued that the instructor affects the students time allocation outside the classroom via the way the instructor assesses student learning. Under the typical pattern with most of the course grade relying on midterms and the final exam, there will be cramming before each test and then comparatively little effort during the rest of the course. Similarly, those courses that require term papers encourage many students to pull all nighters so they can complete a respectable draft

I argued further that there are natural times during the semester to give such high stakes assessments. In a 15 week semester an instructor who gives two midterms and a final will give the midterms around the 5th week and the 10th week. Terms papers are ususally due the last week of class or during final exam week. Thus student time gets very scarce during certain parts of the semester as the various courses compete for the student time via the assessments that are made in these courses.

I therefore argued that there would be a benefit by giving more frequent and lower stakes assessments to students so that they would take a more uniform effort. And if the grading of those low stakes assessments was problematic (insufficient course staff or instructor unwillingness to do all the grading) there was the then relatively novel quiz engines - CyberProf and Mallard - that would do the evaluation automatically. Authoring the content initially might be a bear, but once that was done thereafter the costs of assessing the student work was minimal.

The logic in the argument is fine, but there are aspects that are missing in the argument that really need to considered. While in courses with a significant Math component, in particular, one can ask fairly sophisticated analytic questions that do test student comprehension of an idea, one can't get students to do more complex problem solving or framing of issues via the automated grading of student work. One needs a different mechanism for that, something that is more open ended. Further, if you make it the least bit hard, so the student has to show some real creativity in getting a satisfactory result, then the underlying issue has to be "big" in some sense to engage the student and keep the student on task. Otherwise the student is apt to give up, asking "why am I knocking my brains out? What's the point?"

So bigger projects have some benefit in keeping the student's interest and in teaching the student to "think out of the box." But while student work can be evaluated when the work is very early on and in a formative state, where the feedback from the instructor is aimed at improving the draft and helping the student get unstuck if he happens to feel stuck, it is nonetheless true that we're back in the old game where such projects might encourage procrastination and then all nighters.

I don't think there is any magical devices to break this dilemma but some ideas are: (a) Don't let the students choose the topic of the project initially, keep the project topic as an instructor perogative. The instructor can then focus on topics where the studetns are apt ot make progress and where there is intrinsic interest to keep the student going. (b) Have the work done in teams (not a novel suggestion) so the students can play of each other and use their comraderie as a motivation for continuing on with the work. (d) While some struggling by the students is probably good, the instructor needs to intercede if the students seem stuck for too long. (e) Perhaps having the students keep a journal about the work is also important, especially on very big projects. The journal entries, written daily or every other day, should help the student both in being reflective and in marking the progress that is being made.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Giving service with budget under duress,
Is an obvious source of stress,
For staff and management alike.
Perhaps we should go out on strike,
Lest our clients think that a success.

Teaching with technology,
Is good for math, anthro, and biology.
It even works well,
because of online check your spell,
In teaching writing and etymology.

How do students learn,
When their professors are so stern?
It really should be fun.
Rather than performance under the gun.
And going to class they should yearn.

There was a school orange and blue.
Talking basketball was all they could do.
But then they had to figure,
How to get back to the learning rigor.
For which the new chancellor gave the cue.

With apologies to Edward Lear,
These rhymes are rendered here.
When my brain goes dead,
I do this instead.
Now I'll go have a beer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Evaluation of learning technology

I've expressed a lot of opinion about how to teach with learning technology and also some opinion on how the technology itself should evolve. Where does that opinion come from? What is its basis in fact? To the extent that I speak for the larger profession one can ask: how do we know what we know? To the extent that I've gone down my own private path one can ask: is there any reason for someone else to follow?

As an organization we gather data from surveys. Just yesterday I was talking with the staff who support the classrooms about their spring survey. And the entire organization has had a survey the past two years. We learn something from these things and especially reading instructor comments has value. Nevertheless, the learning from this mode of data collection is limited.

I've thought for some time that we might learn something from within the tools that we support by tracking usage. I commissioned a very simple study about how our tool "Netfiles," which is the campus branding of the Xythos software, is being used by students. I need to follow up on that more, and then maybe commission a more full flung study of the same sort. The WebCT Vista software that we support offers some tracking information of tool use. We have not publicized any of that. Perhaps we should do so.

Early on I had a nice discussion with Chip Bruce about evaluation and he left me with a thought that sticks. We need to do more in an antrhopological approach to learning technology - pure description, no model of behavior, no hypothesis testing. In that vein a while back we did interviews with groups of students and then replayed some of those before public audiences. One of the things that was interesting was where students did their work and how they communicated with their classmates. In that regard AIM is both a blessing and a curse. Students, at least the few we talked with, apparently can't extract themselves from their social lives at their place of residence and simply say, "I'm working." They need another place for that. It was an interesting lesson. Another lesson was how hard pressed they were to come up with examples of good use of learning technology. It's much easier for them to talk about courses that don't work well.

Of course, I've had lessons over time from my own teaching and my conversations with other faculty. I've been doing this for a sufficiently long time that most ideas I'm exposed to no longer seem new and whether I've been organized in doing this or not, these ideas have somehow found their way into my world view about instruction. While I'm a theorist in my formal economics training and in my published economics journal articles, I consider myself empirical in the approach to learning technology in the sense that I try to resist imposing models of behavior on what I observe and try to make a point of driving some of the things I do and my staff does by those observations that I think are especially important. Our professional organization, Educause, has a research arm, ECAR, and they do studies that rarely tell us something new but do gather a lot of data to confirm what we know intuitively. These are quite useful in communicating the knowledge to others. So, for example, ECAR has done work showing that while students spend a lot of time on computers prior to college, they still have substantial gaps in their knowledge for them to be considered IT literate. Moreover, the technology knowledge that the students pick up in college is mostly driven by their academic courses requiring some competency in the technology. The students don't typically learn new (to them) technology use outside of the course setting.

I close here with asking whether we can do better than this in evaluation during these relatively tough budget times. This is a question we need to raise repeatedly both to rationalize the funding we do have and to redirect it towards its best use.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Verticial Alignment

I've been talking with some of the people in CITES EdTech, the division that supports the course management system, that one of things we need to do a better job of is bringing the services we offer faculty primarily but students too more in accord with how management (me and my boss, but really mostly me) conceives of those services. There is always a gap between the ideal and what is possible and it is a fair criticism to say that management, which is shielded from the bulk of the day to day support, focuses more on the ideal while the staff who are doing the real consulting and support work are much more focused on getting the instructors to cope with the software. And I've had colleagues from peer institutions tell me they too are consumed with support of the Course Management System and it is overwhelming their operation. So this is none too easy.

Also, how you get things done in a large class with say 250 students and limited TA support is quite different form how you get things done with say 20 students. Further, so called "early adopter" faculty probably don't need instructional design help from EdTech, but they are the most likely faculty to talk about their won experiments with using technology in instruction. It is clearly harder to get "majority" faculty to talk about innovation in instructional mode while utilizing the technology, let alone to get them to actually do something in this vein.

That said, and talking in generalities to be sure, the big realignment issue is to spend less time directly as support providers of the software and more time encouraging use of the software to promote learning. That sounds like a platitude when I don't mean it to be so here is a bulleted list of developmental stages that I think we can and should promote.

1. Using the CMS to publish instructor-created course documents. (Crass characterization of where we are now.)

2. Using the CMS for student work to be turned in, evaluated, and returned to the students, possibly for further evaluation and re-submittal. (Next step.)

3. Reconsideration of what the student work in the course should be to most effectively promote learning. (This may never happen in some courses - having different problems to solve in a problem set format is sticking with the old (problem set) methodology. In those coures where it does happen, the nature of the student work changes. For example, introducing online case studies into a course that previously was problem set oriented is a change in methodology. Having students write longer papers in groups is a different methodology from having students write one pagers on their own each week.)

4. Tying the online and face to face aspects of the course. (My expectation is that if stage 3 is reached this stage will also be reached, but perhaps not quite at the same time.) The course has to work on a holistic basis. It has to make sense as a totality. Once an instructor starts to tinker with the form of the assignments, other tinkering will follow with the goal of making the parts work in unison. An interesting question here is where do students first get introduced to content, online or in class? The instructor might flip flop on that to see what seems to work best for the course.

5. Bringing the students in as co-teachers and co-content-creators. (To a certain extent this step needs to be early in the process because otherwise the instructor will kill himself or herself trying to make the innovations work. But really, without a vision of what makes sense in the class trying to bring students in makes for a supervisory problem and expectations that can't be fulfilled. So I've got this later in the developmental list.)

6. Instructors and students collaboratively driving the next generation of online tools. (Right now the tool development, I believe, is being driven by those who support instruction and their conception of where things need to be. We are not yet seeing the users themselves voice their needs strongly but if there were many at the stage 5 level, their collective needs should drive where the software goes.)

Returning to some thoughts from a previous post on innovation at the median, we really should spend more time on moving those at stage 1 to stage 2. It would signify major progress for the campus if the bulk of instructors were at stage 2.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Follow Through

You'd be hard pressed, looking at me now, to guess that I was once a reasonably good tennis player and even gave lessons on occasion (in tennis and racquetball). My teaching technique was extremely simple. There were two points to remember: (1) racquet back and (2) follow through. Then over and over again with repetition the key way to learn, since the issue is not intellectual; it is all implementation. Everyone can understand racquet back - get ready for the ball before it arrives so you can swing when the ball is near. It is astonishing, however, especially for those who haven't played sports their whole lives to watch how poorly the novice implements this rudimentary idea. The novice takes the racquet back when the right thing to be doing is swinging forward. So the novice is constantly late with the swing and off balance. Racquet back as a metaphor for good preparation is something everyone should appreciate.

Follow through is conceptually harder. Most people want to hit (at) the ball. It turns out that if that is your mindset, then you actually decelerate your racquet head at impact. So instead, they teach you to hit through the ball in a wide swing that ends far from the point of impact. The mindset should be to think where your hand and racquet head end up at the conclusion of the swing so you have good momentum at the time of impact.

I want to take this sports notion of follow through and apply it to the other notion of follow through that we use (getting the work done), in particular applying it to the work students do on course projects. My argument is that students do the analog of hitting at the ball when they do their course work. One of the main reasons, I believe, that we should encourage the re-use of student work, is that students change their thinking about what they are doing. If a project is for the instructor to grade and that's it, then the activitity has value to the student for the grade and for what the student learns while doing. The latter may be what the instructor really wants to achieve but the student may very well not perceive that at the time the work is being done. If the project is done only for the grade, that is very artificial as a source of motivation and it hard to imagine that good work will be produced as a consequence.

Now suppose instead that the assignments are done so that other students in the class will "consume them" in some fashion. (I've discussed how the content surveys created by some students can be administered to other students and then all can partake in class discussion on that basis.) This can be generalized to other types of work and potentially other audiences than classmates within the current cohort. But let's stick to that type of re-use for this discussion. Now the student work has value past the learning by the creator and matters to the others in the class. So the student creator is put into a situation where others are dependent on the creator's effort and that social need changes the focus and exerts some pressure on the creator to deliver something that is useful to the others. The point to emphasize here is that the re-use by others should have a salient effect on the quality of what the students create. To stretch the metaphor, the impact should be better because of the follow through.

As you know I'm an economist and we economists try to rip to shreds the type of argument in the previous paragraph on the following point. If the re-use doesn't have value in itself, if it is used purely as a motivational device for the creators, but really after the creation the instructor steps in with her own view of the right way to motivate the discussion and doesn't expect the other students to react seriously to the creators' content because, after all, the student creators are not experts and don't we have an obligation in instruction to expose the students to expert opinion, then doesn't the whole thing fall apart? Economists call this the issue of credible commitment. I certainly agree that incredible commitments don't work. Is re-use of student work something an instructor can credibly commit to and if so, how is that commitment obtained? It is a critical question to answer if we are to have follow through.

In my own teaching, I've convinced myself this is credible for the following reasons: (1) students actually benefit from initially penetrating a subject based on the work of other students because the entry requirements are less and they will find the work more accessible, (2) students should be exposed to the works of other students as a way to benchmark their own work and hence they will be more comfortable and at ease, (3) the instructor's role can be seen as adding layers of expertise on top of the introductory layers that the students have created and thereby give the class the sense that learning is about getting additional perspective and nuance in view, and (4) during the time when the groups are making the re-usable work the instructor has a legitimate reasons to coach the groups into producing the best possible work so the mechanism is a way to implement learner centric approaches, which all good teachers are after. In other words, the credibility of the commitment depends critcally on the eye of the teacher on how the work fits in with the goals she is trying to achieve in class. It is not just the students who need to follow through.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Innovating at the median

People who experiment with technology for teaching want to show off something that is "cool." In part, I think that's because others really can't appreciate the innovation and so if it looks cool that is a way of getting credit for work done. But the other part is that this type of work is what engages the inventor. Why work on something boring when there is something exciting to work on instead?

I think you can see this effect in bio-medical research. Why is it that there isn't inventive activity in cost reduction and only invention in new drugs, new therapies, and new apparatus? It seems obvious that the social benefit of cost reduction is likely greater than the social benefit from new treatment (of course this depends on magnitudes, but bear with me here) because of the inequity with which health insurance is provided. Certainly the poor benefit more for access to health care than they do from improvements that they can't get.

There is something similar going on afoot with educational technologies. There are many cool things that people do. But very simple innovation is often ignored. Right now we need a full examination of how to do assignments online: from creation by the student, to online submission, to evaluation by the instructor including whatever record keeping the instructor does away from the assignment, to return to the students. What is the best way to do assignments online? Can it be done so it is easier than paper based assignments?

Who works on issues of this sort? Do instructional designers do it? I think there isn't enough of this sort of innovation and yet it is incredibly important.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Test me on what I know, not on what I don't know

When my kids learned to spell in grade school (the younger one is still going through this) the teacher would give a list for the week on Monday, the kids would try to memorize the list and each night during the week we'd practice the words and work them through the ones they didn't get right, and then most weeks on Friday they'd have a test in class. Later on, perhaps, one learns additional spelling from reading but at the outset this seems to be the tried and true way to learn to spell. It is as close as one can get to the pure form of learning as memorization.

For a lot of people, I fear, and in the back of my head I'm thinking about those who advocate for No Child Left Behind, this is the conception of how school teaches students. My colleagues Robert Baird and Al Weiss characterize this as the linear model of: (1) push content, (2) learn content, and (3) test content. A student who expects to learn this way is apt to echo the refrain in the title of this post after confronting an exam that departs from this pattern. (And I confess that when I was teaching the big intermediate mircoeconomics class I caved into those student expectations so I wouldn't get hammered too badly on the end of semester course evaluations.) But this is not what education should be like at the college level. We're supposedly about critical thinking, not about "Columbus sailed the ocean blue, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah."

Students think that college is about getting answers rather than about asking good questions. They think it is about learning truth rather than making good argument. When I hear a frustrated student say "I'm not sure what you're looking for," I too get frustrated. What I'm looking for is their point of view, their opinion that they can justify with a reason, a reason that itself is not patently false, and their skepticism that perhaps there will be evidence that points another way, that their view is conditional on what they know now, not some everlasting truth.

This is where the technology can be really helpful and the technology can assist the students in becoming better readers and thinkers. And the way to do that is to blend assessment and presentation, not assessment of the parroting type, but rather assessment that encourages the students to use the presented ideas in some specific context and to translate those ideas into something that is familiar to them. Good instructional materials do this. The virtue of the technology in this regard, especially for students who are not used to the approach, is that there are ways to avoid staying stuck. So the students can be encouraged to reframe their own thinking and get used to the act of reframing.

In my field of microeconomics, this is especially important as the subject itself is mostly theory and at the undergraduate level the vast majority of the students are not going to end up being economic theorists. If they can't analyze a situation with the tools the theory provides, they have gotten essentially zero out of the course. I'm afraid that is all too true for the students I teach, including a few who earn A's.

This is obvious to me and I think it is obvious to most of my colleagues. The question for me is why it is not obvious to the students. Why do they think they can get through college the way they learned to spell?

Friday, April 15, 2005

Learning Styles - Accommodate or Contest

Two summers ago I attended the Frye Leadership Institute held in June at Emory University. The event had lots of outstanding speakers. One of the best was Otto Kroeger who taught us about learning styles a la Myers-Briggs. Two years later, my take away from that experience is first that my type (there are 16 possible types) is INTP, which places me squarely in the absent minded professor category. Second, I was the only one at Frye who hadn't heard about this form of personality typing going in. (My excuse, which Otto accepted, is that until recently I was a faculty member and it had never come up in that context.) Third, we went through a live demo where we attendees were the guinea pigs. We were grouped by type though we were only told that afterwards. We were asked in the group to work through some particular task (what that was fails me now). The point was to show that the different types approached the task quite differently. Some like to make lists. Personally, I hate to make lists. It was an eye opener to see that was forecastable.

Fourth and most important, the experience was aimed at pointing out that we are different and understanding the source of the differences is a way of tolerating them and learning to work together. This is a really important lesson and I'm glad I got it at Frye. The best I had before was "trying to walking around in the other person's shoes." I think I did that fairly diligently, if in the background, but it was still always me in those shoes. I now understand that is not sufficient. There are others who really are different from me and they won't become me. They have their own legitimate way to approach things and manage issues. I need to respect that. That perspective has really helped working with colleagues and with staff.

Now I want to switch gears and talk about learning styles differently but before I do I want to note that those who attended Frye were mature adults who had functioned in the world of work for a while (in an Academic setting of course). None of them were under thirty, I believe, (though many were junior to me and much quicker on the trigger, but that is a different story). In switching gears I want to focus on learning styles as they are applied to the students who are entering our campuses in the residential courses. By and large these are kids on their way to adulthood. They are eighteen or nineteen and they are experimenting with the personal freedoms involved with living away from home while they go to school and engage in classroom learning. Together this forms some kind of stew that I believe most of us think is greater than the sum of the parts.

Many of these kids have spent much of their childhood and adolesence involved in video games, communication online, and watching TV. A subset of these kids don't read very much, in the sense of reading books or newspapers. No doubt that their experiences are substantially different from the experiences I had during the same period of my life. I'm quite ok with talking about generational characteristics based on those experiential differences. But I'm not ok, and indeed I think we're making a big mistake, in treating those generational characteristics as learning style differences. We're told to distinguish between visual learners and textual learners. Visual learners learn the same way they play video games, which is an immersive experience. So let's reframe their formal education that way. I don't buy that and I think we need to fight it. When I taught my Campus Honors course last year, I found the kids quite similar to how I remember bright kids from 30 years ago when I was a student. I believe their motivation was the same and I believe the course was a success in large part because I understood how to tap into that motivation.

College students may be largely illiterate and accommodating that is a mistake, in my opinion. The world of work that these kids are expecting to enter won't accomodate that. And, further, it would be a crime if our very best students are literate but the the rest are not, especially if we are encouraging the rest to be comfortable where they are rather than to work hard, and undoubtedly getting people to read and engage in serious reading as adults is very hard work, in becoming serious readers. I am all for showing brain scans in a neuroscience course and photgraphs of paintings in an art history course. But let these kids read too. Indeed make these kids read. Please, let's not abandon that.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

All this technology and all this paper

One of the big disincentives for students to carry around a laptop is it is something else to schlep and they're already schlepping around a lot of other stuff. What is that other stuff? I'm not sure but the last time I taught, which was spring '03, every student seemingly had a huge backpack that was quite full. I'm guess some of that was textbooks, perhaps some notebooks, perhaps printouts of things, I'm not sure what else. None of them brought a laptop and I queried them about PDAs, and none brought those either. They didn't need an electronic calendar for their schoolwork and these kids (honors students) were into their schoolwork. Apparently they needed a lot of paper stuff.

I really don't know how representative that is, but as it gets nice outside and you are walking around your own quad at the break between classes, see what students are carrying. See if they seem loaded down with a backpack.

I tend to believe that the lowest common denominator (or weakest link in the chain) rules. If one class out of 5 requires the students to bring the textbook or the course pack then the student has to make a commitment to a paper approach there and so that the approach for everything. Students will then print out all sorts of stuff that is online, because the student lives in the world of paper. In order for the student to rationally move to toting a laptop around (especially one of those 7 or 8 pound monsters) the student has to expect that everything he wants will be available online (or already on his computer). Typically this means an expectation of abundant network aces and that all the classes make use of online distribution.

This means there is a real coordination problem in moving to the world where students readily carry laptops. Because of that coordination problem, it is easier to go this route in a narrowly defined area than over a broad curriculum. Yet I'm proposing that we recommend laptops to our incoming students, before the coordination problem is solved.

The reason is straightforward. Nationally laptop ownership among college students is over 50%, so it is not such a wild recommendation. But students can bring a laptop to campus and leave in their dorm room only to take home over the weekend. I want them to take the laptops out of this dorm room into spaces where they collaborate with their classmates and perhaps into class. I want the bulk of the students to have the capability and to recognize that is a good capability to have. The first couple of cohorts might not recognize that. But it will move instructors and others communicating with students to think of the issue of viewing the content on the laptop (and on the cell phone), not just distributing the content online to be printed latter. We can no longer wait till the those thoughts happen via natural evolution. We have to engineer the process a little for our own survival. This is a natural place to start, in my view.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Should We Get Out of the Computer Lab Business?

This is quickie tonight because I'm at a conference on EDT and I need to get some sleep for the meeting tomorrow.

So here is the issue. The central IT organization's dollars are getting increasingly scarce so we need to spend them wisely. One criterion that suggests whether to stay in or get out of a service is looking at the the user's alternatives to that service. Then one can argue whether the alternatives are good or not.

Student computer ownership is now somewhere around 95%. I don't know what the current fraction is on laptop ownership, but we could affect that by recommending they purchase a laptop with a wireless card, if they do purchase a computer. This would be short of a requirement but still a recommendation they and their parents would listen to. After a couple of years of this, most of the first and second year students would have laptops. Also, our wireless deployment will be fairly far along so many classes will have wireless. At that point, I believe the teacher will be able to say I want you to bring your laptops to class so we can use them as if we're in a computer lab.

Now there may be a lot of headaches getting that to work, but one we've borne those headaces we will have many more spaces that can act like computer labs --- we have a lot of classrooms that will be wireless. We can change the furniture in (some of) those rooms so they accomodate the laptops. And if this seems to work, the use might very well spread so students are more inclinded to carry their laptops around. Even if it doesn't turn out that way, if instructors expect the students to use the laptops for group work, they may adjust the out of class work accordingly.

I'm aware there may be rocks in the path, but do we have an alternative?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Why We Need a Course Management System - Part 4

This is the most speculative of the reasons because it relies on a technical vision that has not yet been broadly realized. My sense it that it will, but I could be wrong.

In a nutshell the idea is this. As we get more comfortalbe with the use of technology in teaching and learning we will want to use many different pieces of software, some of which might be highly disciplinary specific, some of which might fill a niche for reasons of expense or bandwidth use, and some of which may have broad use but which the course management systems don't have in them at present because the CMS development can't keep up with all the development in the field or because the CMS vendor doesn't think it can earn good return by including that tool in its package. The point here is that there will be a lot of tools. That is no different from the situation now.

The difference comes in the extent the tools talk with each other and in that way provide more value to the end user. For example, today we support the tool Respondus, which is good both for making assessments (quizzes and surveys) to be delivered by the course management system software and for getting reports out of the software about how the students performed. These tools interact. In essence the Respondus company has taken advantage of the APIs that the course management vendors have provided. (With Blackboard that is called Building Blocks, with WebCT that is called Powerlinks.) The point is that the functionality is much enhanced over what would happen if both environments are stand alone.

Now consider where we are a present, where the amount of this type of tool communication is minimal. As an example, there is some use of Moodle (an inexpensive to run open source course management system) on campus and some of that is fueld by tha the fact that Moolde has a Wiki. But suppose instead that there were Wiki tools that "plug into" the course management system. Then you could choose the Wiki tool of your choice as long as it communicates this way, likewise for synnchronous communication tools (Elluminate now has some following on campus), high level content authoring environments, and tools that are only used in advanced organic chemisty.

If the incremental cost is just for the tool and the rest of the functionality meaning gradebook, discusion area, etc. is provided by the CMS, then we have a much lower cost way to get diversity in functionality. Moreover, it is quite possible that to the extent these other tools are server based, that they may be supported by the department or college that wants to use them. The campus need not be the provider. We move to a partnership model where the campus provides the core functionality and the disciplines provide the more specific software.

The key to get this type of thing to work is have a CMS which accomodates the plug in capability and what the word accomodates means in this sentence --- how hard is it to achieve plug in capability in practice? There are two things going on here that are worth commenting on.

At the on campus level, and watching us support Illinois Compass over the last 18 months or so, there is definite learning by doing. We're much smarter about it today than we were a while back. The truth is we've hardly touched the Vista APIs becasuse we've been so busy implementing, but we now have another programmer to do this type of work and we have reached a level of maturity with our service that allows us to think more about these issues. As I wrote in the previous post, there are a variety of administrative integrations that need to be done to enhance the quality of life for students and faculty. My hope is that as a by-product of that work, we will become more experton APIs in the Vista Software and get a better sense on how/if we might realize this vision of lots of other tools pluggling into Vista.

At the national and perhaps global level is the Sakai project which is developing more or less with the plug and play idea and standards based inter-connectedness of various components. We hope that project succeeds, but unlike most other observers I don't believe the benefits would be much if at all on the cost side. Rather, I think that the contribution will be in enabling tool creation from a wide variety of sources and giving tool creators sufficient parameters that their tools will be able to interconnect. It is then an open question for me whether we'd be better of staying in the commercial CMS which has a revenue stream to continue development of its core components (assuming it satisfies the tool connectivity requirements) or to move to the Sakai environment even for the core function. That is too far off in the future to do anything but offer idle speculation. But now we can certainly define the vision.

And in that vision the CMS plays the role of the glue for all the other independent pieces. We can tap into the creativity of a huge number of potential creators of software without forgoing the benefits of the core functionality of the CMS, as long as we have the glue. That is the idea.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Why We Need a Course Management System - Part 3

A significant part of being an instructor is dealing with logistics. Assignments must be collected and returned. Students say they've added the course some time during the first 10 days of the semester. Have they? Grades must be assigned, not just to the instructor's internal gradebook but to the campus' official grade recording areas. And this is not just end of term. There are reports to fill out for Minority Students, Athletes, and mid semester grades for Freshmen. The logistics issues are an annoyance for most instructors. For those who teach large, multi-section classes, these issues subtract substantially from the joy of teaching.

It is worth commenting about the Banner Student System in this regard. The problem, to be blunt, is that the software ignores our long standing business practice in teaching. The particular issue is that there is no class object that corresponds in Banner to "the course." All the class objects in Banner are "sections." There will be a section for the lecture and different sections for the recitations. The instructor who wants to find out which recitation section a particular student is in and who doesn't have that information somewhere else, will have to go into each of the Banner recitation sections till the particular student is found. This is annoyingly inefficient, doubly so because of the price tag on Banner. The campus through the Division of Management Information now produces a shadow course roster system because of these deficiencies in Banner. For an instructor who has some facility with Excel this course roster system is a real boon. There are many instructors, however, including some who teach large classes, who lack facility with Excel. They really could use something that is easier to work with.

There are also convenience issues for the students. At present (where we have not yet implemented a campus portal) students may have to know many different urls (one per class) to find the class homepages. If all their courses had at least a minimal presence inside Illinois Compass, that would make this an easier task. Beyond this, there is the need for the students to learn the navigational structures and the peccadilloes of negotiating with the software in multiple systems. At some level, it is good for the students to have the resiliency to use multiple systems. But once having attained that resiliency dealing with yet one more system is mostly a pain. There is a convenience benefit being in the same environment for all classes.

In a different area, there is the issue of protecting student privacy online. We refer to these as FERPA issues. Here the problem is that the liability is born by the institution - the penalty for being in violation is loss of Federal grant money. Hence the campus is under mandate to encrypt any transmission involving grade information. Grades shouldn't be sent via email. Doing so violates the campus Information Security Policy. We in the Academic IT organization (CITES) are the custodians charged with providing a mechanism that is consistent with that policy. There are many instances of course management systems supported by departments that have passwords transmitted as clear text and hence they violate the policy. The irony here is that the users frequently like those systems better because they are faster. Using ssl slows things down a bit. But that is necessary. And the respect for student privacy is a value that needs to be promoted on campus. Because we are a big and bureaucratic organization (I'm referring ot the University as a whole, not just to CITES) there is a tendency for many to circumvent the regulations in an effort to produce something that is more user friendly. On the student privacy front, however, it would be best for all members of the campus community to adopt the approach that CITES has taken with Illinois Compass. That would be doing the right thing.

To achieve these various ends the course management system must be integrated with other systems. These integrations requires sometimes complex programming that is best rationalized by doing the activity at scale. So CITES needs to be in the business of integrating its systems with others. The software that CITES supports must have interfaces (these are called APIs) to accommodate the integrations. The Vista software has the APIs yet Illinois Compass is an immature service, in part because many of the integrations that are currently in place need to be re-done or expanded upon. In particular, we have discussed internally building out the roster functionality that currently exists, so that much more data would be brought into the system (for example: section, student identification number, and Internet email address). This would be done through the grade book API in Vista. Furthermore student status (whehter they have dropped or not) can be brought in so that with a simple query (that functionality is already built into the software) the instructor could see only those students who are currently registered, without deleting the record of work done by those students who have dropped.

Another integration that would follow soon thereafter would be to enable instructors to submit grades directly from Illinois Compass into Banner. This too is being discussed. And something else in the offing, when the next version of the Vista Software has been released, is to get the student iCard photos linked from the gradebook area, so an instructor will be able to match a name with a face.

These services are critical to provide to instructors and students. Their quality of life is much enhanced by the provision of these services. The best way to provide these services is via the course management system.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Why We Need a Course Management System - Part 2

The last several years have been instructive on what is possible to support and what is difficult to support at the campus level regarding instructional technology. For example, last summer the Campus Gradebook service ended and that was after the service had been extended one semester beyond what was originally planned. The service had a loyal user base. And that was to a large degree because it served as an electronic roster service (it emailed notifications of adds and drops on a daily basis) at a time when there was no real alternative for instructors. Further, it had a sensible hierarchical structure both in terms of the columns (HW1, HW2, HW Total, etc.) and in terms of the rows (Section 1, Section 2, Pooled, etc.) and it managed TAs sensibly. One should ask: if it functioned reasonably for the instructors, why was it eliminated?

There are of course many reasons: the technology was old, making it compatible with the new Banner Student Information System probably wasn't worth the cost, and it appeared that the campus was moving forward with an enterprise course management system (what we now call Illinois Compass powered by WebCT Vista) and there would be a large duplication in service, so why have both? All good reasons to be sure but none is the primary reason. One can imagine a parallel universe where Campus Gradebook survived, where it was re-developed and made compatible with current standards to integrate with current course management environments rather than serve as a stand alone, and where it became part of a "best of breed" strategy that the campus pursued in support of instruction. Why is it that we don't live in that parallel universe but rather reside in the one we do occupy, where we've decided to emphasize Illinois Compass?

The answer, in a nutshell, is commitment. Campus Gradebook was supported by a partnership between then CCSO (the academic computing organization before the current incarnation called CITES) and then OIR (the teaching and learning unit that is now the Center for Teaching Excellence). The partnership worked reasonably well at the staff level, but at the administrative level the service was lumped in and competed for resources with the other services these units supported. To my knowledge there was no administrator who championed the Campus Gradebook service. It was metaphorically like a functioning body cut off from its head. And when the first hint of budget cuts came, that was a logical service to cut. This is not to pick on Campus Gradebook. It is not the only service in this category. But it was the biggest one that had an impact on instruction. (CITES also cut its Usenet News service, but at the time use for instruction was fairly narrow.)

How then does one produce a service for which there is substantial administrative commitment? This is an important question to be asking especially in these tough budget times. Let's start with broad usage. Then add that the people who control the funds have to champion the service. Then a host of deans and department heads have to have the service on their radar. These people must view it as supporting the instruction mission. Finally, there needs to be a staff of many (not just one or two) who are vigorously supporting the service. These requirements to generate commitment are stern. They strongly favor an integrated solution, such as a course management system, that does many functions in one bundle. The requirements argue strongly against a diversity of best of breed softwares that together produce a set of offerings. Under the best of breed approach, one or two of the offerings would get picked off during tough budget times. Then what's left is a less compelling set.

This is an argument that faculty won't like. Faculty want to think about educational technology as primarly being designed to fit the teaching need. Doing that requires a flexibility toward new developments in the field and how those map into what we are trying to achieve with the teaching. Indeed, there are many efforts on campus coming out of the departments and colleges that don't rely on the campus solution, precisely to fit those to the local needs. They do better than what the campus can offer in terms of flexibility. But in terms of commitment, they are worse. They often rely on a single individual, either a professor with and endowed chair who commits those resources to sustaining the effort or a staff person who puts in yeoman's effort to make the project a success. This people are heroes and their heroism should be applauded. But heroism in not a substitute for a good business model, especially in the long term.

In these tough times financially, the instructors need to know where they can hang their hats. The course management system satisfies that need.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Why We Need a Course Management System - Part 1

The core idea for me is that the technology has to really support what we want to accomplish with teaching and learning and in addition, since we're not there yet, the technology has to help us make the transition. We're past the point of believing the mere adoption of the technology will achieve the result. We know that behavior - both the insructors' and the students' - must change and ultimately that change will be the primary cause in what we want to accomplish. But the behavioral changes wouldn't happen without the technology, because it would be too difficult.

Let's review the key elements of this new world. Students mentoring and teaching other students will be one focus. This will be formally sanctioned and done at scale, rather than via the ad hoc efforts we have now. And faculty will mentor the student mentor/teachers as part of their own efforts to support instruction. The other focus will be students working on making re-usable instructional materails for the next cohort of students who take the course. These materials will be created and distributed in a manner akin to how open source software is created and used. Authorship will be acknowledged. Others will be able to freely use the work and make improvements in the work as long as they too allow their contributions to be freely used by others. In this manner the work that students do will be dynamic, engaging, and foster a sense of community.

The natural way to organize this type of work is by the course where the work will be utilized. And while there may be cross-course and cross-institution sharing of learning materials constructed in this process, the most obvious path for sharing is from one cohort to the next within a course that continues to be taught by the same instructor. It is the instructor's taste in teaching and how the materials might potentially be used that will dictate how they are constructed. The students through their mentoring/teaching and through the content creation learn a great deal about learning to learn, how to collaborate, and how to communicate well. But they don't have a long term stake in the materials themselves. After they graduate they will leave. Yet the work must endure and have use value. To ensure that the work needs to have the imprint of the instructor.

This means a critical aspect of the technology is to be organized around the course, to enable excellent possibilities for collaboration within the course, but to create some walls to the outside world that are necessary when the learning and content creation is formative and experimental.

At present, there are some who criticize course management systems because they are too "teacher centric." These crtics want to see software that is more "learner centric." And clearly the current main use of course management systems as a way of distributing lecture notes and other documents prepared by the instructor enforces that view. So we are a seeing the onset of one campus after another adopting ePortfolio tools to provide a "learner centric" environment and to assist the campus in it efforts to prepare for reaccreditation. The ePortfolio tools also enable "folio assessment" meaning evaluating the body of work rather than each piece individually. These are good features.

But there is a confusion between learner centric and individualistic approaches. The ePortfolio tools focus on the work of the individual. These tools therefore do nothing in themselves to promote collaboration and they actually mask the sense of the class as a community that is necessary to achieve the approach to teaching and learning that we want to advocate for. Current course management systems are better in this aspect and it is my view that their current deficiencies are more easily remedied than those of the ePortfolio software. At present the discussion board and chat areas represent the parts of the course management systems that are most open and most collaborative. What is needed, in addition, is to give students a "sandbox" where they have all the tools available to them that the instructors have when designing the course site. And because many students will have access to the same sandbox, versioning must be the default. One student doesn't overwrite the work of another but rather creates a new version. One can go back to the old version if need be. Then from the the sandbox the instructor must be able to pull the content into the other part of the course site to be used to teach other students. In other words, it is the instructor's choice to use the content created by the students. These functional changes are easy to describe and I don't believe that they are too hard for course management system makers to implement.

Let me suggest how this might work. While I certainly don't want to horn in on any other instructor's creativity in how to engage students as content creators, I believe the approach I've suggested with content surveys that blend presentation and assessment is something that is easy to produce and effective for teaching and learning. These are precisely the type of learning objects that students should produce as open courseware and that should be re-used for instruction. Perhaps, in addition, students should be encouraged to make content quizzes. (The different is that quiz questions are graded for correctness and therefore have "right answers.")

There is a second issue to address. During the first two years of college, in particular, the technology should assist the instructor with the assessment of student work. The content surveys and content quizzes do that in a way that is meaningful to the student. The ePortfolio tools in contrast, provide neither automated grading of student work nor aggregation of student work across class members for ensemble assessment. They therefore don't offer instructors any economy on their own time in evaluating students. These are the key areas that the technology must deliver on and it is consequently the primary reason why course management systems should be the focus.

The reader will note the above argument rests on an either/or but not both approach to instructional technology. In part 2 I will argue why that makes sense as we move forward.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Business as Usual or to Hell in a Handbasket

Though I've been doing IT stuff for a while, I still am on the Econ department listserv and once in a while read the messages posted to it. The discussions don't seem different from ten years ago. Most of the players are the same. While the specific issues have changed, the nature of those issues has not. The world internal to the Econ department seems largely unaffected by the changes in the larger universe, including the move of the department from the College of Business to the College of Arts and Sciences.

In contrast, at the last CIO Cabinet meeting we are discussing how to cope with the current budget crisis and the forecast that revenues over the next several years will be flat or declining. We're talking about making serious cuts in service and, from my perspective going back on a trust, in the sense that we'll tell people on campus they must abadon a service they've grown accustomed to and unlike in the past not offer something else that is even remotely similar.

This puts me in a weird position of feeling that I should scream on top of my lungs --- "let's take some serious steps to adjust to the new realities"--- while acknowledging that even if I do, it's likely that nobody outside the IT organization is going to listen. Instead, the probable course is that we will make the cuts, duly consulting our advisory committees, and have a lot of angry users who blame us, the messengers.

The position is a little more awkward than this because the networking area is well funded as is the security area, but everything else is not. So the rational response to that is to try to have as many services as we can provided through the network and then pass the cost onto our users for the rest. The most obvious place to do this is with computer labs. We should get out of the business entirely. Students should provide the laptops (or Tablet PCs or other handheld devices). We should provide the the connection to the network and the software delivered over the network. Of course, the pattern now is that most students don't carry around laptops. And in many of our classrooms the students really don't have enough flat surface to manage a laptop well. Further, the culture is still hugely dependent on paper, and if that can't be gotten in digital form, then why carry a laptop? If we're heading in this direction, we have a long way to go.

Likewise in the smart classrooms, the campus should provide the projection, especially in larger rooms, because the projectors should be ceiling mounted and the wires should be unobtrusive. But the other equipment, e.g. laptop or dvd player, will have to be brought in. The instructors who have gotten used to having all the equipment in the classroom will be livid about this change. But it is the only sensible alternative, in the sense that anything else (other than no AV technology whatsoever) is not affordable.

I feel queasy thinking about this. But it is what we have to do. The other part of that makes me feel even queasier is that I'm defending supporting the course mangement system as a higher priority than supporting the labs or the smart classrooms. I will articulate my reasons for this over the next several weeks in this blog. But that doesn't mean the rest of the community will buy those reasons. Some fun.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Excel as a Simulation Tool

Blogger had problems last night and I lost my post. So I'm writing it a day later but dating it for yesterday.

At the UofI Online conference I attended earlier in the week, an Engineering faculty member from UIC complained that most of the attention was on collaboration tools and pedagogy, but what he really wanted was some high end simulation tools - so he could simulate a nuclear reactor online.

I don't know diddly about nuclear reactors but that put a bug in my head and I started to futz around with Excel based on what I had already done with Excelets. After a fashion I learned how to do simple do loops in Macros and with that was able to make a timer that in a particular cell (I chose A1) it would count off...0,1,2,... etc. That turned out to be the key. Once I could do that, Voila!

The first simulation I made was really extremely simple. It's of a ball that follows a parabolic arc as if under the influence of gravity after being tossed into the air, with no wind resistance or other force operating on it. The next one, however, is much more complex. But utilizing the built in random number generators in Excel [the formula is '=RAND()'], which gives a random number between 0 and 1, and then letting all values above 0.5 mean step up, while all smaller values mean step down, I was able to generate a random walk that looks pretty impressive.

In the second case I plotted the entire path of motion as in the way people chart the price of a stock over the course of a day. There are 1,001 time periods in the simulation and 1,000 steps, either up or down. The graph is drawn dynamically as you watch. The screen looks very frenetic because there is a lot going on and tracking the entire time path requires inserting some cells at each step. You can see both of these at this Time Counter spreadsheet. I think they are cool.

But really for teaching and learning simulations of this sort need to allow the student to experiment. So I made another one called Predator and Prey where the viewer can vary some parameters before running the simulation. The results are much different if the predator is slower than the prey as compared to the case where the predator is faster than the prey.

I haven't done this yet but I believe I can make examples where the student can run controls during the simulation. (Think about the old game of pong and controlling the paddle, not a current video game.) So on the one hand this looks amateurish compared to dynamics that these kids are used to. But on the other hand, the mathematics behind the dynamics is much more explicit and therefore teachable. That is the value. Furthermore, once you know how to generate the difference equation for the dynamic process it is very easy to set up the simulation, with or without randomness. So the students themselves could make these simulations as part of their course work. That would be awesome.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Versioning in the Xythos software used in Netfiles

I have the Xythos client software on my laptop. It makes it extremely easy to edit documents that have been uploaded to Netfiles. If, in addition, one has versioning turned on that one has an entire record of the changes made to the document. And if one has logging turned on, then you can see who made the changes.

This is exceptionally nice for group collaboration and, moreover, it would seem to be that if we could get the Xythos clients to the students, then this could be used as a very simple way for students to publish Web pages for class instruction. The instructor makes a "template page" that the student uses and edits. Even without the Xythos client, it is not too hard for the students to open the Web page, then use the Edit Web page button (available in IE and Mozilla, for example) and then make modifications to the page. So the "template" page could have a "skin" on it already and the student could simply put in some content." For images, this can be done with copying and pasting and while Word is not considered a good HTML editor, it does allow resizing images by simply clicking and dragging from the corner of the image. So a student could delete the dummy image in the template and then paste in their own image and resize accordingly. This is very straightforward.

Have we seen this type of use of Xythos for student Web pages done as part of course? I don't know. But I hope we can encourage it, in part to find out how far we can go without formal ePortfolio software and in part because such use will open up possibilities for pedagogic practice. Now on making Web pages with nice skins, I did a Google search on free Web page templates. Most came up with templates that did cost something (but there were free trials). There are some out there that are genuinely free to use. I haven't tested how easy they are , but that they are available is noteworthy.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Grading and Course Management Systems

Students seemingly have a Pavlovian response to receiving course credit (or not) for the work they do. For that reason many instructors have gone to a point system of some sort, where the student receives so and so points for having completed such and such work. Often this is participation credit the type of credit that earns the student a check for having done the work and an x for not doing it, with no grade in between. Sometimes the grading scheme is finer, indicating some recognition that the quality of the student work differs. It is almost a truism now that instructors can elicit effort from students by having some point scheme of this sort. Today I attended a retreat for UofI Online where during a nice presentation by the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UI Springfield he said that he absolutely relies on points schemes of this sort, in essence because the students compel him to do that.

The course management systems are excellent for managing teaching when there is such a point system in place. The record keeping is made much easier for the instructor and the students can readily check on how they've been doing. All of that is for the good.

There are some stickier issues with grading for quality where the point scheme conveys relative performance to peers within that particular class and perhaps some comparisons with previous cohorts of students, as in the expression, "this is A work, that is B work." The idea being conveyed is similar to how actuaries do risk assessment based on individual history and demographic factors. The biggest issues, by far, is that this type of grading perhaps with the assistance of some rubric, implies that the student work can be anticipated and then put into "bins" for the sake of assigning grades. The system denies the possibility of originality of the student contribution either in content or presentation or it reduces such originality back to preassigned rubric categories. In some cases this is entirely appropriate grading and, in general, an instructor would more likely use this type of grading scheme the more closed ended the work of the students. It becomes increasingly untenable to use this type of scheme the more open ended the student work and the more subjective the evaluation of the instructor.

To me there seems to be a tension (and not a healthy one) for those online programs, such as the one at UI Springfield, that overtly embrace a "constructivist approach" to the teaching and learning but adopt a rubric based competency approach to the grading. The latter implies the whole equals the some of its parts , encourages an analytic and piecemeal view of the student work, and encourages the notion of replicating the A work of others (I don't mean plagiarism here I mean producing work as the rubric seems to indicate) rather than building out from primitives that are already known, perhaps via a collaborative set of interactions among groups of students. So I'm troubled by this and to the extent the course management systems themselves encourage the approach, I think we need to be wary of the course management systems. But really I think it is us rather than the technology.

Does that mean we should stick only with participation grading? I don't believe so. Rather I think the instructors has to be able to reserve the right to evaluate student work holistically. and I favor a more eclectic approach to teaching and to the grading - do what makes sense in the given context, whether constructivist or not. Further, over the course of the semester give students different type of assignments that require different types of grading schemes, both for the change of pace benefit and for the instructor learning about how the students react to the the different schemes.