Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are students ready for Web 2.0 in their classes?

This afternoon, Norma introduced me to the presentation, Meet Charlotte. The gist of the presentation is that in our personal lives we have all this open and highly networked communication, which is very easy to learn to use. However, at work we have walled off technologies that appear clunky and difficult to use. So, the presentation asks, why not make the IT environment at work more like it is at home.

I've been teaching this way for the past two months or so. If the students are taking to it like ducks taking to water, they sure have an odd way of showing it. Now it is true that I'm having the students write longer posts, not tweets and maybe that explains it. But many of them have gone out of their way to talk about being self-conscious in writing out in the open. They haven't gone out of their way to say it is an out and out bad thing to do. But they also haven't said this is the intellectual equivalent of a return to nature. If given the option of what they are doing now or the alternative of writing in a walled off environment, I think many of them would choose the latter. It's not the ease of use I'm talking about. It's the safety. They seem to feel at risk on the open Internet.

In my own head I'm not sure whether to accommodate them or cajole them out of their comfort zone. I should note that most of these kids are studying science or engineering, with a few others mixed in, but no humanists in the crowd. What we are doing in my class is outside their experience of their other courses.

Ironically as I'm asking this, some have produced quite interesting writing. So judged by that, the approach seems to be working. But should students be in a more or less ongoing state of discomfort? I would answer yes if the matter was purely intellectual and what was at root was students challenging their own prior held beliefs. That's not what is happening here. Instead, the students seem to be afraid that their own performance is not up to snuff or that they inadvertently say something that will get them into trouble later.

This isn't the end of the story. They have been mostly writing for me. I'm trying to get them to write for each other. Maybe they will come around if that happens. But getting the writing for each other to happen well and getting them to come around is by no means a slam dunk.

I wonder if other instructors are seeing something like this and if they believe Web 2.0 is the right approach in spite of student shyness.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Teaching and Learning: The Extensive and Intensive Margins

While my university may be slower than many others in determining the magnitude of budget cut it will have to manage, there is much anticipation that cuts are pending. One set of obvious adjustments that will be made on the instructional side - average teaching loads will go up, there will be fewer non-tenure track instructors and among those who are tenured already there will be greater variation in teaching load, depending on what other contributions the faculty member is making. High-powered researchers will teach less. Those with a more modest research portfolio will teach more. This necessary adjustment will begin to codify what has been implicit until now. Teaching and research are substitutes from the faculty member's perspective, especially when viewed from the vantage of how to allocate faculty time. The promotional videos that campuses like mine have put out for years for viewing at the half-time of basketball and football games create the image of a strong connection between research and teaching. That there is some connection I would agree. If that connection were strong, however, we'd witness teaching loads increasing across the board as the way to manage the budget cuts, unlike what I ventured above. We'll see. In one way I look forward to this change. It will, I hope, make the conversation about teaching and learning more realistic. That would be welcome.

The sort of changes I mention above will be imposed from the top, because that is where the budget issues will be managed. Lower to the ground, I don't believe it has sunk in that substantive change on campus needs to occur. Rather it seems to be business as usual. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague who mentioned his department might be adding an additional course to the major. He didn't elaborate on the reasons, but it is easy enough to conjecture that in most fields, this particular one included, knowledge is expanding at a pretty rapid clip. So students need to be exposed to more of what the field has to offer in order to claim competency in "the major." There is a logic to this sort of argument. But the consequence in the aggregate is to see an ever expanding set of courses on the books. I believe we've witnessed exactly that. And my guess is that it is the same elsewhere. Majors have become more demanding. Students either take more credit hours overall before they graduate, or they take fewer electives. But the offerings of those electives persists.

A couple of years ago following the ELI conference I wrote a couple of posts, one that critiqued what I had heard at the conference, the other offering a vision of an alternative. Part of that I called "Humanism Across the Curriculum." I am becoming increasingly convinced that it is a correct direction for us, though it is far from what we are doing now. Indeed, we are trapped in what we are doing now so that we can't get there from here unless we undo a substantial part of our current activity. I'll circle back to that point in a bit.

I'm teaching an Honors Seminar at present. Some of the students are taking it for Advanced Composition credit, which embraces the Writing Across the Curriculum approach that I critiqued in that earlier post. The critique was based on the resource demands of WAC, not the pedagogy. My class now has 17 students. (It was capped at 18; one student dropped.) Even the non-WAC students in my class are doing a fair amount of writing via weekly reflections that they blog. Midway into the semester the class is beginning to gel, as the students are commenting on the posts of their peers and in so doing they are showing support and awareness of the contributions of their classmates. In other words, we're producing the requisite sense of community and feeling of intensity that is conducive to deep learning.

I do want to note here that motivation is much less of an issue in this class than it might be elsewhere, because of who the students are. They want to find meaning from the class as much as I do. If all students were like these Honors students, then what I say next might be much easier to achieve.

I am wondering if the intensity and sense of community in the class could be maintained, if the enrollment had been capped at 30 or even 35, or if that increase in size would so put a damper on what we are doing that all would be lost. My belief is that it could be done. Let me elaborate.

I've put quite a bit of effort into this class, but much of that is because on both the subject matter and on the approach this is new to me. Some of this effort, however, I believe needs to be retained were there to be repeat offerings of the course. I've written a fair amount myself for the course, partly to model for the students, partly to provide commentary on how the class is going, and also to demonstrate my personal commitment. That, I believe, must be retained. The first several weeks I not only read all the student posts, but I also commented on them. These comments are individualistic, not some canned response. To generate them the post must be read and there must be some analysis of it in order to respond. This is time consuming, but I believe necessary. Thereafter I said I'd comment on about a third of the posts, but I've done more than that. There would have to more discipline on which posts to comment on, with a shorter duration at the beginning where all students would comment. And there would have to be greater urging for the students to comment and indeed to post about what other students have written. This part is do-able too.

The live class session, currently conducted mostly as an ensemble discussion, would probably require breaking the students up into small groups for a good part of the session, so they can voice their own views. That requires more orchestration ahead of time. That would be some work. We'd also need a mechanism for those groups to report out and discuss their conclusions. Developing that would also be work. But it seems possible.

We took an experimental approach to the course sessions and after the first week started to evaluate those via a survey in Google Docs. I posted about that in early September. I think the experimental approach is also critical, though the particular method of evaluation perhaps can be improved. In any event, students who see that their opinions matter in how the course is conducted are much more inclined to participate vigorously. The post processing of those surveys is not hard. (A summary of the multiple choice questions is produced. That is converted to PDF and posted. The responses from the paragraph questions have to be re-ordered to anonymity can be maintained. Then those can be posted too.) This needs to be done until the class function seems satisfactory for both students and instructor. Once that results appears close, students will stop participating in the surveys, because they won't see the value. Indeed, a fall off in participation is a good indicator that expectations have stabilized.

So I do think it possible to expand enrollments in the way outlined above, in which case one could teach this sort of course more frequently and get a much larger number of students involved. There is a different matter of whether instructors around Campus could find their way to teach their current undergraduate courses in a Humanism Across the Curriculum manner. That's an issue for a different post. Here let's just assume they can do this.

Now we can turn to the sort of back of the envelope calculations that are great to do on a slow Sunday morning. We have about 2000 tenured or tenure-track faculty members. If each taught one of these intensive, Humanism Across the Curriculum courses, and each of these courses had a cap of 35 students, which for the sake of argument was binding in every case, than that would produced 70,000 enrollments in such classes. But we have on order of 30,000 undergraduate students (actually more) and if they take 4 or 5 courses a semester then that demand requires somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000 enrollments.

While there might be a substantial enrollment taught in the HAC way, there is a sizable enrollment gap that somehow must be managed. Further, in the above calculation we've already allocated to the faculty their undergraduate teaching obligation. So if the gap is made up via supply, that must be done with adjuncts and/or graduate students teaching, some of which clearly will happen via large class instruction.

How much of the student experience should be via large class instruction?. Can we credibly affirm the benefit of large class instruction when we are making such a big deal about HAC? Why not reduce demand instead? This is the conclusion that seems irresistible to me. Students should be taking fewer courses over their experience in college. The courses that remain should be more intensive. Other courses need to be removed from the experience.

It is on this point where we we must undo. We are headed in the wrong direction on the number of courses front. We are moving toward expansion when we should be moving toward reduction. How can we get there?

If the number of credit hours necessary for graduation remains unaltered, then a bunch of current courses that have x credit hours need to be converted to have x + 1 or x + 2 credit hours, so the students can acquire the same number of credit hours with fewer courses, or students need to be able to earn course credit from practicum and other experiences that they do in lieu of courses they are now taking. We probably need some of both of this type of approach.

I don't see this sort of reform on anyone's radar right now. I wonder what it will take to get other faculty and administrators to think this way. My sense is that instead, we'll do less on the intensive margin, because that sort of activity will be viewed as too expensive. That will be a mistake, but it sure seems likely based on where we are currently headed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Expensive Speech

I take the report of the increased lobbying on health care reform to be true. The analysis of why the lobbying, however, seems flawed to me. Rather than focus on the Republicans, who are not large enough by themselves to block anything, the piece should focus on divisions among Democrats. If the press could accurately analyze and report on the lobbying activity that potentially could mitigate its impact. As it is, however, it seems like we're witnessing bribery right in front of our noses, and to ill effect socially.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Situated Logic and Standardized Pests

Here's the canonical problem. You need to explain a general principle to someone else, someone who isn't all that great at abstract reasoning or who generally prefers to hear a story rather than a syllogism. So you explain the principle via a realistic example that is worked through. That let's you tell the story and illustrate the principle at the same time. Your task then is to figure out what details of the example to include in your presentation. Some of those details are there to illustrate the principle. Others are there to embellish the story. The question then is what to include in the example and why. Have you told a good story? Is the principle clearly articulated within the story? Those are the two main questions to use to test the solution.

If this canonical problem is taken as the basis for a certain type of writing, then the next question is whether the writer has enough of a sense of taste to give reasonable answers to those test questions. Likewise, the canonical problem can be taken as the basis for a certain type of live presentation to an audience. Again, the follow up question is whether the presenter has enough of a sense of taste to give reasonable answers to the test questions.

The canonical problem, as it is constructed here, is the obverse of the type of reading comprehension problems one sees on the SAT. The College Board calls these Passage Based Reading. Understanding how to do these sort of questions conveys a type of reasoning ability. As I've written elsewhere, mostly recently in this chapter of my book, I've had suspicion for quite a long while that many students don't have good skills in doing this based on my experience with getting them to discuss articles about economics from the New York Times. (I'm not referring to recent experience but rather from courses I've taught over the past 13 or 14 years.)

Do note that I was careful with the choice of the word "obverse." The canonical problem is not the inverse of the reading comprehension problem. There is some art involved in choosing what detail to include or not from the example. Being an engaging story teller requires more than understanding of logic. Nevertheless, there is also a type of reasoning involved. Getting the gist of the general principle into the story requires identification of what that gist is. This creates an imperative for the writer or the presenter.

One might speculate that being good at the reading comprehension questions would dispose one to be good at solving the canonical problem. That had been my prior expectation. But now I'm beginning to wonder.

In the class I'm currently teaching, which has students from our Campus Honors Program who typically have very high standardized test scores, the students are struggling with solving the canonical problem. At first, I was quite surprised by this. Now, as I'm trying to make sense of what I'm observing, there seem to be two possible conclusions to draw.

One may be that the students have reading comprehension of a teach-to-the-test variety. In the testing situation the students are clued to read the passage and ask - what is the test maker looking for? Armed with that clue the students can make good meaning of the passage. But for other reading, more expansive and free ranging, they don't read in the same way or don't know how to distill the essence of what they are reading. The ability to understand a narrowly focused passage is surely necessary, but it is in no way sufficient.

Unfortunately, this ability to make sense of a larger body of reading material defies the standardized tests, because measuring it would take too long in the administration of the exam. So, I'm afraid, we really know quite little about how students read for meaning when confronting a longer work. We should fess up to that fact.

The other possible conclusion is that even with good reading comprehension the student will still struggle on the canonical problem, because they are separate skills. In this case the obvious conclusion is that students need training on how to work the canonical problem. My sense of it, based on my class. is that students are not getting this training much if at all.

Neither possible conclusion makes me happy. But talking it out this way, I feel more that the students are the victims than the perpetrators. I've got to keep that in mind as I teach. Yet I also have to wonder how we can so neglect their intellectual development, including the best and the brightest of them.