Tuesday, January 31, 2006

They’re Changing Guard (with apologies to A. A. Milne)

I’m at the ELI conference in San Diego and have been learning both from my peers and from the various presentations about how the world has changed within the world of learning technology. There are three different areas that I’d like to comment about.

Speaking personally, this May will mark my 10th year anniversary as an ed tech administrator. That is a long time. Since for the prior 16 years I was more or less an ordinary faculty member in Economics, this no longer feels like the beginning of a journey for me, as it did in 1996. I come to conferences like ELI now not expecting to learn a vast amount of new things but rather to get colleague’s perspective on issues, perhaps to pick up an idea or two, and to visit with friends. Among my peers who are senior to me, there is a feeling that the changes we are seeing are not for the better. (Some elaboration below.) There is some nostalgia for the NLII which seemingly paid more attention to the to the large R1’s like mine and had more direct discussion about the return on investment to learning technology, something that is not really being discussed now.

But there are fewer attendees of my generation and more in the next generation of learning technology leaders. They need their own issues. And they need to make their own mistakes. God only knows, that we made our fair share of blunders. So let me move to the next issue.

The word “pedagogy” is deified by many of the participants, but frankly there is too little discussed about it: what it means, how to promote it, what learning we are after.

I stopped writing the above to get breakfast and am now in the plenary session where we are talking about “learning design” instead of “instructional design.” This is the demonstrating the issue. We have to get past this. We have to drill down much deeper into the practice and in that sense we need to abandon these categories and just describe what we’re doing and what the students are doing.

Two examples of this are in the measurement area. I heard a presentation from NC State about their campus evaluation effort and their current efforts with evaluating the effectiveness of technology in the live classroom. While during the presentation there was specific mention of the “dark side” – death by PowerPoint – there was no mention of good practice with the technology that might promote learning. There was nothing about Just In Time Teaching, about showcasing student work, about using the computer to record the data from in class experiments, about encouraging students to make presentations with the technology, about showcasing information outside stereotypes that students wouldn’t find with their Google searches, or about any other practice where we might a priori agree, “this is helping.”

Instead there was just a discussion about the coarse correlation between the technology and the learning, manifest primarily between student and faculty perceptions, as measured by survey evidence. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that as we linger on this coarse correlation, we’re inadvertently communicating with the rest of the world that we really don’t know why the technology should be helping so, consequently, we can’t possibly know whether it is helping.

Suppose, in fact, that the technology does make the instructors life easier but actually is worse for the student – not a bad hypothesis in my view. How do we distinguish this from the case where it is really helping the students? What evidence are we looking for? I heard nothing about that.

In a different conversation I had a similar discussion with a colleague about the course management system. Again, there was the coarse correlation, but this time on whether student use correlated with student performance. Is this the technology at all? Or is it simply a proxy of the more general observation that students who spend more time on task learn more and those who spend more time on task will, on average, spend more time in the course management system? I tried to ask about drill down, but then one loses power in the statistical test. We’re enamored by proving this with “hard evidence.” But what are we proving.

Let me turn to the third issue, which is how the student is being represented. This really disturbs me. There has been much presented, for example in the opening plenary session by Mark Prensky, about hours spent playing games, reading, etc. These are generational averages from which conclusions seem to be drawn about all students. I’ve polled my own campus honors students this semester. Only two out of twelve students read blogs regularly. Only four out of twelve had ipods. The vast majority are engineering students. What should be concluded?

One possible conclusion, I’ll admit it is premature and I don’t have enough data but I might hypothesize anyway, is that serious students are unlike the students characterized by Prensky. Let’s say for the moment this is true. (And, truthfully, my students this time around don’t see so different form the students I had two years ago who didn’t seem so different to me to the my peers when I was an undergrad.) So should I abandon my teaching approach to what is being advocated because of these generational differences. Or should I be trumpeting loudly that teaching to these (statistical) mean characteristics of students is the path to ruin, not success.

Actually much of what Prensky said was not too shocking to me or out of my own way of viewing things. But on one key point there seems to be a difference. This is on the issue of deferred gratification and how one can do that and maintain engagement. Presnky (and others at this conference) seemingly argue that there needs to be immediate response that progress is being made and that must come from external sources (moving from one level to a higher one in a video game). This I think is wrong and pernicious and will actually be quite limiting for the generation if it becomes the norm in behavior. Kids need to learn stick-to-it-ness and they to learn to take their own personal voyage into investigation where the feedback comes internally as they make progress. How else will they learn to write? How else will they learn to work through hard problems? How will they deal with the disappointment of frustration of getting stuck?

These things are seemingly outside the agenda of the current generation of ELI leadership or, at a minimum, it is not center stage. Engagement is the focus. Engagement is not bad in itself, but it is not an end, or at least it is not the sole end. I hope people wake up soon, but if I were betting I’d bet against. Perhaps this is evidence that the only true learning is from making the mistakes for oneself rather than from absorbing the lessons of the prior generation.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Optimism and Experimentation

Generalizing from my own approach to learning technology, I think it is natural to see possibilities that I might want to try, focus on the upside if the experiment works approximately according to plan so those possibilities are realized, and use that as the motivation for taking a different approach. I’ve argued before that there needs to be experimentation in teaching to keep it fresh and to energize the students and this focus on the possibilities is one way to make sure that things get tried.

However, we know that experiments fail and the frequency of failure is somewhat in proportion to the risk in the experiment. Consequently, it is possible to go through a “boom and bust” emotional cycle about the teaching and when the bust phase is upon us to get shy about further experimentation. That will not do, but it too seems natural.

So the question arises how to sustain the optimism or, alternatively, how to drive a little out of control so there is some excitement but not so out of control that there surely will be a wreck. I think there are two key skills/functions that the instructor must have to make this work.

First, the instructor must be able to trouble shoot on the experiments. So a good deal of time is spent in understanding why the experiment failed and then in trying to fix that. This is not time waste at all but rather critical time for the teaching approach. This will challenge the instructor’s time management skills, but the key point is to identify whether a minor error has caused the problem or if there is a fundamental issue that needs to be confronted.

In my own teaching this semester where I’m using the linked spreadsheet system I’ve come up with, it has worked so far quite well on my own computer for doing the Just In Time Teaching that I designed it for. But, at present, when I transfer the file that does the aggregation so the students can also see the results, the responses are cut off after 255 characters, as I reported in an earlier post. I’m not yet sure why so I don’t know how to fix the problem. I can envision a possible work around indeed I can envision several of them that might give a short term resolution for this semester. But each mean the general approach is not sufficiently robust that it might offer a preferred alternative to using a discussion board or a survey in an LMS. I’d like to see the linked spreadsheet approach work, so I’m going to spend some more time on looking for the root cause of the problem – march to victory rather than declare defeat. But in the meantime, I can post html pages of the student submissions that, because the class is small, is not too hard to generate.

Second, the instructor must be able to come up with plan B in the event the experiment is declared a failure. Plan B must be a good path for the students even if it was not the announced path at the beginning of the semester. The students must be able to endure the experiment just as the instructor endures. So they shouldn’t feel they are being jacked around in the process. This can only happen if the course has an open and flexible structure. The more scaffolding and prior setup that the instructor has put in place, the harder it is for there to be change in midstream. It may break things further down the road in the course.
So the experimentation approach to teaching is in conflict with the highly structured approach. And while I’ve cast the experiment in terms of the technology in my particular case, there can be experiments in what the students read, the type of assignments they are required to do, the nature of the in-class activity, etc. Then the question becomes whether the two can be reconciled and if not what to do about it.

As I watch others on campus in their teaching, it does seem as if there are two camps – the structuralists and the experimentalists. The former argue for clear objectives in every lesson so the student can readily assess whether those objectives have been met and so the student can have clear expectations of what to get out of that class. The latter argue for a sequence of questions where the resolution of one begats the posing of the next and where that pattern is largely unknowable ahead of time.

Call me a wishy-washy liberal on this one; I try to craft a middle ground. I have a path in mind for the course and try to articulate it to the students. But it is somewhat general with not too much detail. Experiments are either deviations from the path or variations on a theme. I try to apply a discipline that irrespective of how the experiment turns out, we’re back on the path when it is over. So there are lots of small experiments, rather than a few big ones. This makes sense to me and is a way for me to keep my sanity and engagement with the class.

Does it constitute a general approach? I don’t know.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Tidbits –

Let me start with some more nuts and bolts. I did the first aggregating of student submitted spreadsheets over the weekend. Some of them changed the file name when they submitted their work. So I had to change it back. Certainly annoying, but that seems like a correctable problem. When they did the Greetings survey, some of them were exuberant and wrote a lot – beyond the size of the cell, this is the sort of problem instructors want to have. But from a technical view, all the text didn’t show up, because it didn’t have a place to display. As I learned from the survey on their computer use, they all are PC users. (Incidentally, the results may be a little surprising to some, although with such a small class it is perhaps not significant statistically.) Too bad I didn’t know that in advance. I could have used Active Text Boxes for their content and then it would have been scrollable. But I made it so it was Mac compatible. Consequently, I then had to reformat my aggregator sheet to accommodate this larger volume of text.

The aggregation otherwise worked nicely except for one thing, a “feature” of Excel, which makes this approach a tad more problematic. It turns out that if the source file (the file the student submits) has the worksheet with the student content protected, which is how I had it set up, then although the cells where the student content resides are unlocked, the linked cell in the aggregator workbook only receives the first 255 characters and lops off the rest. Aarrgghh! I didn’t know that beforehand (and it took me a while to figure out what was going on). So I had to go back and unprotect each of the submissions. That will teach me. In the future, content surveys where the students write paragraphs need to be unprotected. Surveys where they only do short answers or analytic exercises where formulas should be hidden from students need to be protected.

One other issue I encountered is perhaps a little more disturbing because it will likely affect many others aside from myself. One of the reasons to use Xythos instead of the LMS is that I had hoped I could “podcast” course content via the course blog and then a Feedburner feed generated from that. So yesterday I downloaded Doppler on my home computer, in anticipation of giving my students a demo of how to set it up for the course podcast. But it didn’t work. There were no enclosures. After figuring out that the problem wasn’t Doppler (it grabbed enclosures from other feeds) I started to wonder if there was a problem with Feedburner. This morning I verified with my colleague, Burks Oakley, that Feedburner wasn’t the problem either and indeed the issue was with our Xythos server or with my folder on it in that it wasn’t putting out the right type of Mime type information for Feedburner to identify links as enclosures. It had worked ok when I tested this in October, but more recently I had to restore my account from backup because there were some problems with files being deleted inadvertently. Perhaps that restore caused the problem. Double Aarrgghh!!

Now that I’m at least partially understanding the problem, I’m hopeful that I can fix it, but I haven’t done that yet. In the meantime, I’m wondering about whether sending every instructor and student off to podcast this way is such a good idea.

Now I’m going to switch gears. Last night after the kids went to bed I watched the second half of the movie, “A Passage to India.” I had seen it before some time ago and read the book afterwards. I’ve not read other things by E.M. Foster, his other themes are not quite so gripping for me, but this one seems so perfect in its way of capturing the tension between the English imperialists and the native Indians where in the main there is mistrust and contempt but where for a few enlightened individuals who can respect others across culture and behave with an appropriate sensitivity there can be valued cross cultural relationships that provide deep meaning for those involved.

Both the book and movie are worth considering along several dimensions. The British, in the main, are depicted as pompous and boorish, with a complete lack of understanding of India, imposing their own norms yet in a sub-tropical climate thousands of miles away from England. I think there are lessons here for Americans today and Forster is so good at guiding us toward the possibility of following the uplifting path while making it quite clear the negative consequences from playing the role of insular imperialist.

Forster, in his understated way, also is very good at exploring the race issues and how even well meaning people can go astray when circumstances become harder to understand and when explanations according to racial stereotype provide a ready alternative. His characterization is excellent.

I bring this up because I believe there are some parallels to the world of edu-blogging. For example, consider the blog roll on Glenda Morgan’s Accidental Pedagogy site. I haven’t done a complete look through of that list, but if you did I think you’d find that nearly all the bloggers are “western,” meaning they are from Canada, the UK, the US, and, in my classification, Australia or New Zealand. There are few if any of these edu blogs from “eastern” countries – India, China, Korea, etc., where the absence of representatives from India is the most surprising given that the language issue is not as acute.

I will go even further and observe that on my own blog I do track via Sitemeter where visitors are coming from. There are some from the “east” with Hong Kong and Singapore (not so surprising to me) and Indonesia (quite surprising to me) being the source of the biggest number of hits. I wonder if this is the same experience that other edu-bloggers are having and indeed whether there not be more exchange of ideas with educators in India or China should be a cause for concern.

I could readily see blogs and particularly the informality in communication with people who hardly know each other otherwise could be difficult in some cultures, where circumspection is the first instinct and a more light hearted open approach needs to be earned over time. But I also note that most of these foreign visitors to my site get there originally via Google, using a keyword or short expression search. What are we to infer given that?

In any event, I’d like to see posts from others about whom they believe is their community of readers and if the international distribution of those is indeed biased against the east. A few more data points would be useful before drawing too rash a conclusion.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Nuts and Bolts

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not teaching with a learning management system this semester, at least for the time being, and am instead using the Xythos product to distribute content, to have students upload their work back to me, and then use email or the course blog, as the primary means of communicating outside of class. I’m liking our LMS, WebCT Vista, more as a consequence of this effort. It’s interesting what one learns by doing some drill down stuff of this sort.

Because I’m going to ding the Xythos product a little bit here, let me point out that my campus procured it for personal file space and Web publishing. It was not intended to be used as an instructional tool. However, a first pass at it gives the appearance that it might be used this way. Take a look at this screen shot, which gives the generic view for how one regulates access permissions to folders, subfolders, and files. In the menu bar you can see an icon for adding users or groups. You should also see the Read, Write, etc. check boxes that control which permissions the users have. It certainly gives the appearance that the check boxes are independent so, in particular, you might have the Write checkbox checked, with the Read checkbox unchecked. This would be the case if you were trying to use the folder as drop box.

As it turns out, if you do that the users with Write permission do not see the folder they have write permission to. I was told that is a feature, not a bug. I learned this the hard way by having it set up that way only to have my students tell me they couldn’t see their drop box. I couldn’t tell this myself. After they complained, I did verify by using my wife’s account (she is an employee of the University, so I could create a space for her as if she were a student) and based on that the students’ complaints were indeed justified. I then verified this functionality of Xythos with our service manager. But it isn’t in the online Help, so you wouldn’t know it that way. In contrast, the LMS has a student view for designer testing of the course site and that student view is built into the product. Further, I know the WebCT developers are actively working on the assignment drop box functionality to improve the work flow after the submissions have been downloaded (they’ve got the earlier part of the work flow done pretty well right now). So, really, one should use the LMS for this sort of thing.

I am doing something that is certainly out of the ordinary. Because I’m doing this linked spreadsheet system, which allows me to view the submissions of all the student work in one screen where I simply advance a button to see the submission of the next student, and also allows me to readily produce statistics based on the combined submissions, and indeed to distribute this stuff back to the students so they too can see the work of their classmates, there is a lot of setup. Each assignment has a file with a modified file name for each student; a student number is appended at the end of the file name. Then it is important that each student gets the file assigned to him and uploads it into the right place.

This is painful to set up. I have one folder per student for the files they will download and another folder per student so they have an individualized drop box. Each folder has to have permissions set for that one specific student and then I carefully have to move the right files to the folders where the students will download them. I’m doing this now because of the benefits in terms of Just In Time Teaching --- reviewing the student work and then sharing it. Ultimately, I think the LMS could do this better but it doesn’t have the functionality now and what it does have makes it harder for me to adopt my system to it.

Let me switch gears. I’m now getting a little more used to my Mac at the office and some observations about that. If you have a .Mac account and use it for publishing from the desktop, the integration is very tight. To a certain extent it reminds me of my old days in College of Business when they ran a Web server with the Microsoft Frontpage extensions. The big difference with the Mac is that it is smart about the media applications. One can go from iPhoto to Web publishing directly. That is slick.

However this intense integration from desktop to online is anathema to Web 2.0 folks who want everything open and everything to interoperate. For example, see this post by Brian Lamb on the iTunes University project at Stanford and this related post by Gardner Campbell on the entire approach by Apple to podcasting. I also note, in a somewhat related way, some irritation expressed in user comments on Apple’s iLife page about there being no upgrade discount from iLife ’05 to iLife ’06. My own views on this are (1) some disappointment with the iTunes client for not handling all file types that can be podcast (the course blog that I listed earlier has a Feedburner feed to which many zip files are linked and I don’t believe iTunes can handle zip files), but (2) companies are in this for a profit and the world is changing in how they generate revenue. Apple, though not the size of Microsoft, is no start up. It needs to generate revenues for the services it provides. And so far it doesn’t do that with the advertising model. So…………

Let me make one more comment about my new Mac, which is not a comment about Apple but about browsers and Web pages. I’ve got the screen resolution set pretty high but then the minimum font size in the browser set way up, to 16 or 18 point, so I can read it readily. (And similarly with a Word doc I will routinely view at 150% of normal.) I’m not sufficiently technical to understand why Office products have a zoom in the View menu, but browsers don’t. In any event, some Web pages readily accommodate the large point size of the font and are easy to read, but many pages (the ESPN Web site is an example) are designed in a way where the column widths are fixed so that if the font gets bigger it simply overflows into the next column and can obscure links or photos. I could do better, perhaps, by having a lower resolution on the screen, and maybe I will go back to that, but a lot of stuff gets on the screen now and then and its nice to have all the real estate to accommodate that.

One more point. I don’t know whether any of the sensibilities I’m expressing are felt by long time Mac users. My sense is that they are loyal and not critical about what they are being offered up. But I don’t know whether this is because ignorance is bliss or if they’ve just got a different take on the issues I’ve described.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Class Size and Lectures

Before I got into online technology but after I got married (1990 – 95), I spent a good deal of my teaching time with intermediate microeconomics. It was not very satisfying. Part of this was the student motivation. Business students, who were the bulk of the audience, had to take this as a requirement and so they and students who wanted to transfer into the College of Business (at the time many Econ majors from Liberal Arts and Sciences were in this category) took the course. Both groups viewed it as a hurdle to overcome and in the main they didn’t like it. This was evidenced by the course evaluation ratings across instructors teaching the course. Everyone scored in the low 3’s or lower (on a 5 point scale), a rating that was poor measured against comparable courses. (I’m not sure what comparable means in this case, but I’ll leave that and hope the reader gets the idea.) As I’ve written elsewhere, my experience was to have a few students who really liked what I was doing and thought it was great, a bunch more who hung in there, and then a number who “fell over the cliff,” measured by exam performance. In terms of what these kids got out of the course to affect their thinking afterwards, I’m not sure there was much of a distinction between those in the latter two categories.

This experience provided me with many reasons to reflect on teaching and all the various issues involved – the role of math in teaching economics, whether students should be forced into taking required courses that they themselves don’t endorse, the obligations that students take upon themselves as a consequence of enrolling in a course, and a host of others.

Here, however, I want to consider class size. Most of the time I taught in a classroom with amphitheater seating that had a capacity of about 65. I was the best of the worst, meaning while the students taking intermediate micro thought it was a pits, being required to take it they wanted into my section over other instructors, so I started off with full capacity. I might lose 5 or 6 of those by the time the semester ended. I don’t have good recall about class attendance, but I don’t think it was a major issue.

At the time, it never would have occurred to me that any of the teaching and learning issues I had were a consequence of having so many students – offering this course as a seminar didn’t seem like a possibility and certainly in the principles classes we were offering huge lectures with 10 times as many students. So I just took the class size as a fact of the environment.

I have many colleagues who advocate for online teaching, and in that environment 20 is a large class and most don’t recommend going beyond 25. But because teaching is allocated by “load” where in my unit the standard load was 2 courses a semester, in our residential instruction world we’re more apt to see classes of size 65 (or somewhat larger) rather than a plethora of sections sized 22 or so. From the point of view of both instructor time commitment and also freshness in teaching the material, teaching the class with 65 for three hours a week is better than teaching the 3 sections of the class with 22 students per section for a total of nine hours a week. Indeed, as a consequence of the tight budgets on campus the last few years, the biggest area of growth for classroom use is for rooms in the size range 60 – 110. How does one teach a class of that size well?

On the flip side of that, however, the university needs to be the agent of the students as well as of the faculty. Suppose that students prefer the classes in the size range of 22 or so because those classes enable more give and take, even if those are taught by less high paid faculty (but if you get the drift those faculty must be paid on the order of 1/3 of what I’m paid to make this a break even proposition financially or teaching loads must rise dramatically among research faculty, implying less time allocated to the research). Wearing my economist hat, an efficient solution for high enrollment course rubrics would be to offer both alternatives and have and exchange rate for compensating instructors (e.g., 1 section of size 65 gives the same teaching credit as 1.5 sections of size 22, where that number 1.5 is the exchange rate) and a different rate for students (e.g., opting for the 65 seat section for this course increases the likelihood that you can get into a small section of some other course next semester, and graduating seniors get lowest priority on small sections unless they’ve already banked higher priority). One could then “let the market” determine the relative frequency of the two types of offerings. I’m not holding my breath that we’ll see this any time soon. But even if we did, it still begs the question about how do to a good job teaching the larger class.

I’d like to break that up into two parts. The first part is an instructor mindset issue. When most instructors lecture they think about teaching in terms of what they deliver in the classroom and they focus on the delivery. In so doing they don internalize fully, if at all, the student experience as the student goes about learning the subject matter of the course. Suppose we can change the instructor mindset. The second part is on whether lectures still make sense and if so what should the lecture be on and how should it be delivered.

Apart from the folks who teach Physics and advocate for Just In Time Teaching, I don’t know anyone who has really asked this in a serious way. I think there is quite a bit to JITT (and some related ideas about using “clickers” in the classroom) but either a somewhat different tact must be used for a large lecture course in American History or and Intro to Philosophy course, or one may be forced into arguing that in courses where there are “right answers” the approach can work but in courses where there are “points of view” the lecture becomes difficult. So I’d like to bring to the fore both sides of that.

It’s easy to describe he internalizing the student issue. Let the instructor envision herself as the student and let the instructor describe what it is that she would do if she were a student in the class and had to learn the course material. Many instructors have the (naïve) expectation that the students will do just that. One of the great things about learning technology is that it provides evidence of student learning (and non-learning) to dissuade instructors from this naïve view. Most students will do something other than how the instructor would go about the task simply because most students are not destined to become instructors and they don’t have that type of mindset.

It will be harder for the instructor to give an informed opinion of what the students actually do, but for the sake of argument here let’s say the instructor can learn this from dialog with the students outside the class setting. Confronted with a dissonance between the student behavior the instructor would like to see and what actually occurs, the instructor can then ask how can the student behavior be moved closer to the ideal, using in class activities, out of class assignments, individual work, group work, etc. – all instruments at the instructors disposal. When the instructor has thought long and hard about this, then the instructor is internalizing as I’ve described. It is then a matter of repeated experimentation with method and approach to get to a good point in the teaching. That won’t happen all at once when the instructor has the “AHA!” that she must internalize the student learning. But the instructor will be well on the way.

So now let’s assume the instructor has had the AHA moment. Can the instructor continue to embrace lecture? There are certainly things about lecture as it is now commonly practiced that I think should be abandoned. Lecture as the student’s initial foray into the subject, without the student doing prior reading or other preparation for the live class session seems particularly wasteful. That type of stuff can be put on line and then serve for some students as an alternative to reading the text.

But if not that, then what should the instructors lecture on? I believe some suggestions can be indirectly garnered from the research on how students learn and then the instructor can try to design the lecture based on the principles articulated there. But that may still be too abstract for some teachers. So, personally, I prefer to ask this particular question. There is a well understood distinction between novice and expert in that a novice has one view of an idea and struggles to maintain and apply that one view while an expert has multiple views of an idea and effortlessly moves between the various representations. So the teacher (presumably an expert in the subject) should ask, what is that one view that students have and what are the next steps toward broadening that perspective?

My friend Peggy Lant used to tell me that good instruction is modeling for the students. We instructors should model taking that next step along the novice-expert continuum. We should lecture about that. We should also lecture about taking a wrong step and then back tracking. We should do a lot more of that especially to convince students that we are not oracles and that we learn just as they do.

Can this be done effectively in lecture? I hope so and I believe so, but I don’t know so. I’m teaching now but I’ve opted to teach a small seminar not a large lecture class and I haven’t taught a large class in 5 years. So I don’t have first hand experience with which to resolve the question.

It has become almost shameful to advocate for the lecture – it is so teacher centric, students are too disengaged, it is not active learning. Unquestionably there is some truth to the critique, but it doesn’t fully resonate with me. I’ve had some excellent professors when I was an undergrad and I thoroughly enjoyed their lectures. If the form itself is lacking, how could this have been possible? I know that I went out of my way to attend lectures that I thought would be enlightening, without any course grade depending on it or the need to fill a prerequisite, just to learn. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience.

Shouldn’t it be possible to capture some of that even with students who are not destined for the professoriate, if the instructor is attuned to the issues?

Monday, January 16, 2006

On Acting and Learning and Effective Teaching

Last night after the Bear game concluded (odd that the both road teams won in this round of the playoffs) I watched Ralph (rhymes with waif) Fiennes on Inside the Actors Studio. He was interesting to watch because he has played such horrible characters (the Nazi in Schindler’s List, the serial killer in Red Dragon, and of course Valdemort in the latest Harry Potter movie) and yet seemed so genuinely humble and vulnerable. Indeed, his representation of good acting experiences featured these aspects: openness, a willingness to take risks, unanticipated outcomes from trying new approaches, and, particularly from his female co-stars, a sense of humor to acknowledge situations where each was particularly vulnerable. In Fiennes view, good directors are those who promote this sort of environment.

It is tempting to envision teaching a course from this point of view, with the teacher as director and the students as actors, in which case one of the prime teaching questions must be this. How do I, as the teacher, get the students to open up? What activities can I design to get the students to explore and take risks?

Let’s leave that for a moment and come back to it. Actors and Directors have their preferences in alignment to the extent that both want to see a good movie made. Focusing on the student work, there is a similar alignment. But teachers often focus on their own presentations in class and because teachers assign grades to students the power relationship between teacher and students is different from the relationship between director and actors. So an important related question is how to move that teacher-student relationship more toward the collaborative director-actor relationship and away from the exertion of arbitrary authority that might very well act as an inhibitor rather than a spur to student risk taking.

To the extent that class size matters in teaching, I think this is one big reason. In large classes it is harder for the instructor to move outside this authoritative role. In smaller classes it is easier for the instructor to act as collaborator with the students. And, not surprisingly, it is easier for there to be meaningful dialog in small classes. I note this because I want to focus on method and using learning technology to make the instructor more like the director, and abstract from the class size issue.

It seems to me that innovative teachers in the humanities might ask this question but those in engineering, the sciences, or the social sciences would be less prone to pose a good teaching question in this form. But perhaps now the learning technology can make the question seem sensible, even in these other disciplines.

Suppose that students do project work and that the deliverable is a podcast, a vidcast, a multimedia presentation with PowerPoint, or some other format in which the students of necessity provide a performance as part of the project deliverable. Suppose that deliverable is “viewed” by other students, in a manner similar to the way we view films (but perhaps we encourage students to play the role of the critic in their viewing of other student productions). Does it then make sense to cast the role of instructor as director?

If the instructor is to do this seriously, then the instructor must put attention into it and thus must take attention away from something else, notably the presentations the instructor makes. It would then seem that this approach makes sense only if the instructor comes to the conclusion that the students learn what they need to master by being performers about their projects rather than being exposed to instructor presentation.

Actors don’t just act. They do a lot of preparation for their roles. They do research. Fiennes talked about doing this for the role of Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy, who had trauma during childhood because of sexual abuse. That was the root cause for his horrendus behavior. The research as preparation for performance seems akin if not identical to the research students should do as they work through their project. So the wrinkle here, something that now doesn’t seem so out of the usual, is to add performance into the delivery of the project. The performance should encourage student engagement and should help the students understand there is an audience for their work.

I believe this can be done irrespective of discipline, but does require imagination on behalf of the instructor. It also requires devoting considerable time to getting the students to prepare for the roles and for the instructor to deliver directions to the students qua actors.

I wonder how many instructors might try something like this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Virtual University Conundrum

My campus is the Land Grant University for the state. We have a still new president, B. Joseph White, and one of the things he’d like to see is for the University (which currently is a 3-campus system) to be doing online learning big time via a fourth campus that is totally online. I’ve heard him speak about such efforts as being 21st century approaches to address the original ideal of the land grant university, providing educational services to all citizens of the state and indeed projecting our university and our state on a global stage. This is a noble vision.

But there is a difference between providing an education program for all citizens, such as with basic information about gardening, that traditionally has been the mission of the campus Extension service, and providing degree programs or certificate programs to students where tuition covers at least part of the cost and where these students are at least partly motivated by the degree or certificate improving their prospects in the labor market. My campus is highly selective. We don’t admit anyone out there for such a degree. Indeed, we turn away a lot of people. (And to the extent that admission has gotten even more competitive over time, this has rankled many who feel they or their offspring should be entitled to enter the university.) So issue number one with a virtual university is which one is it, a 21st century version of Extension or an online alternative of a prestigious degree granting institution? In other words, does it let everyone in or does it have selective admission?

Issue number two, which I believe applies to professional education in general but may be exacerbated in the virtual university case, as I elaborate below, is on the relative importance of having research faculty versus clinical faculty doing the instruction and indeed how much the curriculum is tied to research versus how much the curriculum is tied toward current practice in the field. This matters in several ways. It affects the cost of the instruction particularly with respect to whether tenure track faculty or adjuncts are doing the teaching, the market value of the degree or certificate, the extent to which the program can scale, how student centric the instruction will be, and how much competition there will be from other virtual universities.

A crass view, which I myself can slip into fairly easily, is that my university’s reputation is built on its research success (we take every possible opportunity to mention the Nobel Prize winners on the faculty when we promote the place) and for marketing purposes the research tie to instruction may be emphasized, but for practical reality and having programs that make business sense, courses that are part of a program will be designed by a team and then will be taught by adjuncts who get trained in the approach of the course. The adjuncts may very well have been researchers once and now have moved on to teaching or they can be folks who’ve already had a career in industry and have now moved on to online teaching. But they are not engaged in current research and they are not actively in communication with the faculty who are doing current research. In other words, there is a severance between the research and the instruction in deed but not in the marketing of the program.

There are two ways to be less crass. First, be up front that clinical faculty will be used and market the program accordingly. Don’t try to rely on a historic reputation that is based on assumptions not relevant to the virtual university situation. Second, really do engage active researchers in virtual university instruction. I’m agnostic about the second approach so I’ll discuss the first.

I believe one can get quite good instruction with clinical faculty doing the teaching and I know within the MBA world that some have argued for that type of instruction being more useful to the students than what they are taught by the research faculty. But I’m far less sure that such instruction should be done by not-for-profit universities and particularly public universities. The biggest argument for, that I can see and so far I’ve not heard many people make this argument, is that clinical faculty are a good thing not just for professional education but also for residential, undergraduate instruction. To date, the arguments I’m seeing are that having research faculty teach undergrads is the ideal, but for cost reasons we need to go the other way on occasion and then, maybe, in some make or break large intro courses people who teach those courses perhaps should know more about student issues in transitioning from high school to college rather than know about current research issues in the field. Otherwise, the clinical faculty idea hasn't really come up in the undergraduate context.

If clinical faculty are and remain mostly outside the culture of the R1 type of university, however, what mechanisms are there for these institutions to assure quality in instruction, both curriculum-wise and delivery-wise? Doesn’t one need a setting where the clinical faculty member is a main part of institutional culture to get the requisite quality? And if so, what type of institution can provide that culture? It looks like University of Phoenix can, but I'd bet we cannot.

Issue number three, particularly in my state which is seeing declines in state funding of higher education, is that any new virtual university will require substantial start up funds and if one looked from where those funds might arise, an obvious answer is that the money would come from funds already earmarked for higher education and in that sense would be a tax on existing programs. I believe many on my campus view the possibility of the fourth campus this way and hence feel angry about the initiative because it seems so insensitive to current residential campus needs.

The obvious solution to this, and I’ve heard President White talk directly on this point, is for the virtual university to be a for profit venture that can raise capital in other ways. I do believe that the fourth campus would be perceived in a much more welcome light on my campus if it went this route for the start up funds. But, as with the clinical faculty issue, I don’t then understand why then the affiliation with the University of Illinois is needed and why not, instead, be an entirely separate private venture.

Issue number four, which is the one I’ll close on, is defining the real goal of the university and asking whether it is something that we can expect to achieve, or if instead there is some wishful thinking acting as the driver and that is creating an unreality about what might be delivered. Consider these two distinct alternatives. First there is a high tuition, restrictive admission approach. Second there is a low tuition, open to all approach. My economics knowledge tells me the first is one that can produce high value in the labor market for the graduates while the second can produce a scalable solution that enrolls thousands and thousands of students. But, there is no free lunch. You can’t get both. Certainly, you can’t get both easily. However, the rhetoric behind the fourth campus seems to be saying that we want to produce both outcomes. I find that troubling.

I’ve not said one whit about learning technology in this post. I really don’t think that is the issue. From my perspective the technology used in online instruction and in on ground instruction is converging if not altogether identical at present. But on these non-technology issues, there seems to be a big gap. I hope those involved in the planning for the fourth campus can be more explicit about what is likely to emerge before the fourth campus becomes a done deal. I’m not wanting to block the effort. I’d just like to see these issues thought through and brought out into the open.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Teaching Practical Stuff

I’ve been working on my Econ 101 course and this morning finished up the content survey on Stock Markets. My sense is that this particular module goes over quite well because it has a lot of info that students want. For example, they want an academic who doesn’t have a stake with them as a financial adviser to tell them that they can’t outperform the market on a consistent basis. And they want to understand why stock market prices change, whether there really are “bubbles” or if that is some psychological rationalization of a statistical artifact, and then want some nuts and bolts on things like how to read a stock quote. There is no question in my mind that the kids want to learn these things.

There is, however, a big question in my mind about whether my colleagues would think teaching this stuff is appropriate for such a class or if, instead, the students should be expected either to know this already or to learn it on their own. I really haven’t had such a conversation with Econ colleagues, but I’ve been through quite a few discussions on the analogous issue with respect to student computer skills, for example, in terms of making Web pages. There is a bit of a disconnect between the Computer Science faculty, who think we should be teaching the students stuff they really should have learned in K-12 and faculty elsewhere on campus, who themselves might not be so computer literate and who are exposed to some fraction of their student audience who are lacking in technical literacy. There is a lot of rhetoric under the umbrella – offering a course that is worthy of a U of I degree – and a strong feeling among the faculty that if the course is not worthy the students should take it at Parkland (the local Community College).

I’ve crossed that divide in my course but want to note it because teaching practical stuff is something out of the ordinary here. So there isn’t a lot of expertise to appeal to nor is there obvious best practice, at least as far as I’m aware. I should also say I’m far from an expert on personal finance and hence I don’t want to claim that my content survey is anything special in that regard. But I do want to make explicit some things I tried to do, in an effort to move toward what might be best practice with this type of material. What follows is an annotated list of my approach.

Philosophy – My approach is to assume that the students could sit down and learn this stuff on their own if they chose to do that. So what I’m trying to do is give them a focus and a reason for completing this module. (They get course credit for doing so.) Quite frequently, students will do required course work without ever asking why they are being expected to do that work.

Use Content Provided by the Feds – It turns out that The Securities and Exchange Commission has some really nice Web pages explaining how various stock market institutions work. Part of their role as watchdog and regulator is to educate the public, because the smarter the public is, the harder it is for the insiders to commit fraud. The SEC docs are written in a common sense style that is quite readable. This really is a good way to self-teach, but I doubt the students would stumble on these pages on their own, even if they were otherwise interested in the stock market and so did read a book on investment (as I recommended that they should).

Use Freely Available Online Tools for Nuts and Bolt Experience - I’ve got a link to the Nasdaq so the students can do their own stock lookup and learn to read the information that is provided. Of course, anybody who has done trading of financial assets will know this already. And this may seem a trivial point. But if a student hasn’t done this before, there likely is learning value for its own sake and it is relevant to the next point.

Tie the practical knowledge to the underlying theoretical issues – In this case one of the theoretical issues is to reconcile equilibrium trading with price variation over time. To do that, one first needs to provide evidence that prices do vary over time. Such evidence comes from the stock lookup. So that directly fits in with the rest of the economics I’m trying to teach.

Bring in expertise from famous academics – Eugene Fama’s name is mentioned explicitly as the father of the Efficient Market Hypothesis, and there is some discussion as to what that means. Other finance experts from academia are mentioned in linked article about why the efficient market hypothesis has to be modified to accommodate facts that are known about the stock market.

Provide some institutional detail that is meant as a stand alone – In this case there is a discussion of stock indices that almost certainly the students will have heard of already, so the module helps to expand their understanding, but there is nothing else in the entire course that depends on knowing about stock indices.

Don’t drill down too far – because this is a self-help topic that some of the students should be inherently interested in, expect those students to learn more on their own outside of the class setting. That’s ok. This module is only an introduction into the subject.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On Elegance in Content Design and Learning Objects

Over the years, I’ve made a fair amount of content for my Econ courses and at one point I considered making an alternative to a textbook that would be composed entirely with different type of modules in Excel. (I might still do that in the not too distant future, depending in part on how much progress I make with the course I’m teaching this spring.) Based on that activity and previous content creation activities I’ve been involved with, I feel comfortable asserting:

(a) My graphical design skills are rudimentary at best. I might benefit from some formal instruction in graphical design. But, in truth, my interest does not lie in trying to make my content “look slick” so that as long as I feel the look is functional, I’m ok with that. I have learned something about having borders and white space on the page and not jamming in too much stuff into a small spatial area. I’m probably more textual and less image intensive than suits the medium. Given that, I can make something that is passable.

(b) I have a pretty well honed instinct on how to represent the economic ideas into elegant representations that really should help the students visualize what is going on. This is both difficult, because it really does require out of the box thinking, and fun and rewarding when something has been produced, because there is then visual evidence of how these representations improve on the understanding of the economics. This started back when I did Excelets and it has carried over into what I’ve done more recently. I’ve gotten better at it and more sophisticated in my design.

When I speak of elegance in design, I’m speaking about (b). That is representation of ideas that are good for the novice to understand what is going on. I believe that elegance in design facilitates deep learning of the ideas and I believe further that we should be talking more about this when we advise instructors on making their materials. Elegance and simplicity need to be considered as cousins if not as identical twins. But elegance is far from making things simple minded. Indeed, I believe it is only through an elegant design that depth and complexity can be brought in. Otherwise, complex ideas that are presented seem too hard and impenetrable and will be off putting to the students. Then there is no learning, just pretensions, and it is likely that the designer will develop contempt for the students, blaming the learners for the non-learning.

I want to ask here whether the notion of elegance in content design aligns with the concept of modularity that we associate with learning objects. Let me see if I can sketch the issue. Certain concepts are derivative. They depend on more primitive concepts. To understand the notion of a molecule, there must first be the notion of an atom. In the economics of supply and demand before understanding how a change in the price in one market affects the price in another market, there must first be the notion of equilibrium in a single market. Every subject has examples of this sort.

Now consider the case where those more primitive notions “may” be developed in earlier modules, and note that the use of the word “may” is deliberate. If the content is interconnected in this way at a conceptual level, is it still correct to think of it as modular? An appropriate metaphor to consider is chapters in a textbook which, for example, can each be stored as a its own PDF file. Does the ability to make those chapters into PDFs mean the content is modular? Or must they be read in a prescribed order where later chapters depend on earlier ones?

A correct response is, “maybe” or, “it depends.” When there is no conceptual dependence then yes, I would agree the content is modular, but otherwise not. Actually, the issue is a bit more subtle than that. The question is not just dependency but rather whether there is dependency on ideas/jargon/framework that may be non-standard in such a course. So the real issue is whether a non-standard approach (meaning different from the way it has been done traditionally) can be developed that is also modular. Why does this matter?

Suppose others wanted to try out my content to see if it is useful, but they didn’t want to use it all, just some of it. In particular, what they want to do is to replace some part of the textbook they are using that they find less than satisfactory. Isn’t it more natural to experiment that way than to fully embrace an alternative right out of the box?

But now suppose my elegant module is dependent on some primitive ideas from earlier modules that these other instructors are unlikely to teach. For example, in this module on Supply and Demand that I developed some time ago, the penultimate worksheet entitled, Scale, does a nice graphical technique to visualize how an economy gets bigger by making replicas of existing buyers or sellers but who are some different in their valuations from the agents they were based upon. This is done in a precise way under the hood that in the exercise is explained to the students by the expression “filling in the gaps.” This is a nonstandard development of the idea but it is quite intuitive and gives the correct core notion of what is meant by a competitive market. I am proud of that particular worksheet because of this development.

Now, suppose I make a different module on Elasticity of Supply and Demand and, consistent with trying to maintain elegance in design, I want to base the development on the ideas that were introduced in that Scale worksheet. This seems good and correct to me for teaching my own students. But it means somebody else who might try to use my stuff and wants the elasticity module, but not the supply and demand module may be out of luck.

To complete the cycle in this thinking, suppose my own sense of development is driven by the possibility of external use. This could be driven by a desire to make money selling the modules I’ve created or it could be driven simply by a sense that the effort is of value if there is this type of social utility, but not otherwise. (In other words, the motives should be pretty much the same as why faculty author textbooks.) That means I the author might be concerned about the external use at the time of the writing, and therefore might want to accommodate it out of the box.

So what should I do? My inclination now is to please myself in the design and then encourage anyone else who wants to use it to try it all. But that is the typical ego-centric approach and I’m not sure it is self-sustaining.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Homo Genius

There’s an interesting piece in this week's Chronicle (under Popped Culture in the Online version) entitled A Very Long Disengagement and written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University. It depicts the University as two parallel worlds, the scholarly realm inhabited by the faculty and a social but intellectually dysfunctional world occupied by the students. Going through one metric after another, Baurlein observes the lack of interest students have in their courses, their poor performance in terms of knowledge in basic domains, and their “odd” form of interaction with peers via phone, instant messaging, or blog but not by face to face conversation, and when the last does happen it is disconnected with the classroom or other intellectual life on campus. This is a grim picture, but it is not fundamentally new. For example, it is essentially the picture depicted in Declining by Degrees.

Bauelein singles out the popular culture as a primary culprit for this decline. And in so doing, he indirectly is giving a warning to us who support IT in higher education. Be careful. Don’t embrace trends in student IT use merely because it’s popular to do so. Worry about the students becoming part of the campus community that is larger than themselves, that involves the faculty as well, and that at its base is intellectually driven because curiosity, dialog, and rigor are fundamental values that need to be supported. Don't feel on the the sidelines when making judgments about student cell phone and iPod usea and whether that is tied to the campus mission or orthogonal to it.

However, I don’t want to use this post as a soap box for that argument. I want to consider something else. The Declining by Degrees documentary made the point that things are different across Universities. (Amherst College in Massachusetts was depicted as an ideal place where there is strong faculty and student engagement.) In a similar fashion, I’d like to ask whether there is significant variation in student seriousness and engagement within an institution, such as where I work, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and if so what drives that variation.

Let me begin by pointing out some provocative observations made by Linda Hirshman in the American Prospect. (David Brooks wrote about this Hirshman piece in his column and said it was worthy of one of his Sidney Awards, but the actual winners were only males and espousers of a conservative view. Hmmm.) Hirshman did an informal poll of women she knows who had gone to the very best universities. The vast majority of them had for a while played important jobs soon after graduation, but they were now either part time workers or stay home moms, “opting out” of the more high stress and high paying jobs that they were presumably qualified for.

This gender/work issue may seem like I’m off on a tangent, so let me bring it back to home quickly. Hirshman says the women at these ritzy universities were studying humanities while the men were doing engineering or the natural sciences. Whether she is correct in her other conclusions, one wonders if seriousness in the student breaks down easily along these lines – the serious ones study engineering. Certainly Tom Friedman, in the World is Flat, makes the study of engineering and the achievement of engineering degrees as the measure of a country’s intellectual capital.

Are engineering students the way Baurlein depicts? And if not, why not?

One of my pleasures now is teaching a class in Economic Principles to Campus Honors Students. The class starts in a couple of weeks. The CHP program is a restricted club for our best and brightest students. When I taught the class the last time, the kids didn’t seem so much unlike me as an undergrad. They read what I assigned, were intellectually curious, and clearly did enjoy the in class discussion. I’m very interested to see how the 2006 cohort does. By the way, most of them the last time were engineering students.

Let’s say the correlation is true, that in the main engineering students are serious and liberal arts students are not and that this correlates with gender. What are we to do about the correlation?

At my campus the Engineering College has the highest average ACT scores for admission, followed by Business. Arts and Sciences is an easier college to get into and there students may very well be less challenged earlier in their academic career, taking large classes where they can get by and where they “learn” survival habits rather than intellectual engagement. While perhaps a bit stereotypical in description, this view says the differences were there before arrival on campus and the college experience reinforces them.

When I was at Cornell (I transferred there for the spring 1974 term and then stayed two years) I was a math major in arts and sciences and I believe it was the hardest college to get into, measured by the SAT scores that are used for such a metric. Humanities and social science were respectable areas to study and I don’t believe anyone felt those students were lesser in any way (other than that their lifetime incomes might be lower). And I’ve written before about how wonderful Cornell was for me because of the intellectual engagement outside the classroom and how that flowed seamlessly with my social existence.

Is that a diferrence between then and now or perhaps a difference between here and there? I really don't know. I suspect some of both.

Perhaps it is egotistical to envision that my undergraduate experience at an Ivy League school 30 years ago can be replayed at a public university now. But if not that, what else is there to do? Don’t allow students to major in the humanities or social sciences? Force more stringent performance requirements on the students so they can’t tune out? Require students to "apply for admission" prior to entry into their Junior year just as transfer students apply for admission?

I do think Baurlein is onto something talking about the student leisure time. If there is to be a move away from the disengagement he describes, we have to make inroads there. Does anyone have a plan?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Raking Muck

Perhaps in a fit of oddness, I spent a couple of days over the holiday reading a biography of Upton Sinclair by Jon A. Yoder. I must have purchased the book some years ago, because I found it on one of our bookshelves as I was browsing for something to read. I have an odd affinity with Sinclair, since my parents chose my first name at least in part in reference to Sinclair’s famous character, Lanny Budd. Having read Yoder’s book, I know a little more about that connection. Since Sinclair used his fiction in an overtly political way and his protagonists were meant as idealized forms of himself and since some of those political views coincide with my own, I feel a certain connection to Sinclair himself and in this post I’ll draw that out a bit.

Sinclair was an incredibly prolific writer, with 51 books to his credit and a substantial number of assorted other works – plays, screenplays, and the like. Apparently he is the most translated American writer and in his time was extremely popular abroad, though for a variety of reasons he was less admired at home. As an object of study from an academic viewpoint, I would think “historical fiction” would be a reasonable umbrella, his work fell between the cracks regarding which department(s) on college campuses would claim it for their own – English? History? Political Science? Sociology? This partly explains his comparatively poor reputation in the U.S.

I’m nowhere near as prolific as a writer, but I’ve surprised myself in just how much writing I’ve actually done since starting this blog. For better or worse, the Blogger.com “dashboard” keeps track of the number of posts. I’ve had 223, in about ten and a half months. Many of these are more than two pages when viewed in Word. So a fair amount of text has been generated. And in terms of recognition, the Sitemeter tracking data indicate a substantial number of hits from abroad. Hmmm, the planets are aligning.

Sinclair was a Socialist for much of his life because the evils of capitalism, particularly the exploitation of the many (notably new immigrants) for the benefit of the few contradicted his sense of American democracy. He wanted a system that produced greater equality of outcome, at least for the vast majority of workers who put in honest effort. Much of his work can be seen as variations on a theme, with the theme as I’ve just described. In that, according to Yoder, he was misunderstood in his time and he felt that he didn’t achieve what he was after in much of his writing.

For example, when I was a grade school student we were taught that The Jungle was Sinclair’s major contribution, a muckraking attack on the Meat Packing Industry. Indeed, the book caused quite a stir and did lead Teddy Roosevelt to institute reforms in that industry. But from Sinclair’s vantage, Meat Packing was just an example of an industry where immigrant workers were exploited and where the fantasy of the American dream, as symbolized by the words on the Statue of Liberty, was replaced by the reality of the immigrant’s nightmare, where their Darwinist attempts at survival start off from a noble base but end up with a morally bankrupt view of humanity. (Indeed, in this respect the story of Sinclair reminded me of the Paul Muni character in “I Was A Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”)

I too feel as if I’m somewhat misunderstood. Though the title of this blog employs the expression “Learning Technology” in it, I think a focus on the technology in itself is misplaced. The focus needs to be on a way of thinking about the teaching and learning. I hope the technology stimulates that way of thinking and that is why I’ve got the title as I do, but I think for too many, both inside my IT organization and even among some staff who work for me, the focus ends up being on the technology itself. Of course, part of my administrative job is to be the custodian for the technology itself, particularly the campus supported course management system and the technology we have in our smart classrooms. But that is not what makes me tick.

The essence with learning technology is seeing how the teaching and learning changes as a consequence. For example, very early on it became apparent that the technology was good at making the student work more overt – to the instructor and to the peer students. So we might ask questions like, are there ways with or without computer technology to make student work more overt? The elementary school where my kids went, and I think it was typical of a reasonably good elementary school, certainly made it commonplace to showcase the work of all the students. The technology they used was construction paper, thumbtacks, and a real (not electronic) bulletin board. The point is, once the question is raised, there are lots of ways of thinking about making the student work overt.

Then one might ask, now that we have the student work visible, what do we do with this knowledge? In the context that I think is most familiar in considering teaching reform, the instructor without seeing the student work has made some assumption about how much the student is learning. Invariably, that assumption is overly optimistic. So the question can be reframed as, now that the evidence from the student work indicates the students has less of an understanding than the instructor believed, how should the instructor change the teaching? What about the pacing of the presentation? What about activities for the students that might promote deeper understand? What about things that might be done to get the students to spend more time with the materials so they get a deeper understanding?

These are the right type of questions. Are they fundamentally about the technology? No, they aren’t. Does the technology immediately get the instructor into a position to ask these questions? No, it doesn’t. But if the instructor is asking these questions, it might very well help in answering them, particularly with what is possible to do.

Sinclair went through a sobering process in his adult life, from idealist to realist, from Socialist to Liberal, from feeling with his heart to thinking with his head. Much of this process happened because he was not fully successful in what he tried, but also because he recognized a tension between the idealism, driven by his sense of social justice, and the pragmatism of what could actually be accomplished, which he saw motivated so many others. Later in life he toned down some of the socialism and moved more to the pragmatic side. According to Yoder, much of Sinclair’s later fiction had the main characters play out this tension and recognize both of these views simultaneously. This is the distinct aspect of Sinclair that makes him the quintessential American Liberal of the middle 20th century. He was not a true believer. He was conflicted between these two distinct voices.

I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve discussed the issue with some of colleagues around the country. We too feel conflicted, much in the sense of Sinclair. The idealism, easy enough to articulate, is that the technology would transform the teaching and learning, in ways that would be clear to all and hence that would generate a big and across the board embrace of the technology on campus, with a big improvement on the learning. To a large extent this hope has not been realized. Certainly there have been some changes in instruction due to the technology. But for many those are simply a matter of convenience, not a matter of transforming the teaching approach.

Further, to the extent that we are witnessing reform in teaching on campus this is in the main motivated, as Bill Massy warned us, by changes in the subject matter being taught, not by changes in method. But it is changes in method that are needed. We are still teaching “stuff” instead of teaching “learning to learn” skills. And we are dealing with reform that comes from spot innovation, designed to address a situated learning issue, not a systematic transformation. All of this is frustrating.

Let me note one other tie with Sinclair. He wanted to reform the system from within. He ran for Governor of California in the 30’s and came in second. For us lesser mortals, it is extraordinarily tempting to argue for reform from without. Certainly the argument was made consistently in the late ‘90s that Higher Ed moves too slowly and that we need new approaches to bring about the changes needed to realize the promise of online learning, so we need to go to the outside, perhaps to the for profit sector. My blog can be easily read as an extended argument for reform. (A while ago I found this post from Yule Heibel, which includes a section on my blog that makes it seems as if I’m…… muckraking!!!)

Perhaps this is the consequence of being a dreamer. For me it certainly was interesting to read about Sinclair. I believe there are other parallels that I haven’t articulated here. (Fir example, he cared about being readable by a broad audience.) But there is obviously sufficient distance that I can see it’s not the technology that is primarily at issue. Reform is a tough business. And many times it does not play out in the way initially intended.