Monday, January 25, 2010

Change and Stasis

Last week I was in Austin, Texas for the ELI Annual Conference and the CIC Learning Technology Group meeting that followed. As is my wont, below is a set of after thoughts from that trip. But first, here is a quick follow up on my health as reported in my Birthday Rhyme.

At a check up yesterday AM my blood pressure was entirely normal. Either the meds have been working (hurray for the miracles of modern medicine) or a week away from the office, especially when it is the first week of the spring semester, is the right tonic, or it's all measurement error. The automated machine couldn't give a reading so they had to take the blood pressure the old fashioned way. I'm guessing I'll have the measurement taken several time over the next few months. Let's see if back to normal is the consistent outcome.

* * * * *

I didn't attend ELI in 2009. Sloan-C had been at the same hotel (the Caribe Royale in Orlando) and we were just beginning to be in economy mode regarding work-related travel. But I did attend the prior three conferences, in San Diego in 2006, Atlanta in 2007, and San Antonio in 2008.

Having started to blog about a year before the San Diego conference, it is not surprising, I suppose, to have blogged about it. However, the underlying circumstances were more than a bit strange. At the time I was chair of the CIC LT Group and several of the members who were also in attendance at ELI thought the conference could have been done better, so I was tasked to communicate the issues (a bit too much whiz bang and not enough on research about effective use, Mark Prensky's plenary talk especially seemed in that category, the live blogging in the large room didn't work because of bandwidth problems with assorted similar prolems, and the conference as a whole seemed biased against the big schools such as those that populate the CIC) with Diana Oblinger, who was then running ELI. She and I had about an hour phone call soon after I contacted her and then we arranged for a conference call with the entire group. To Diana's credit, she was a very good listener, heard all the issues I brought up, and I believe that effort helped to make for a better outcome for the 2007 conference.

I attended that one in part to follow up on the interventions I had participated in the year before. Indeed there was improvement and I wrote about about that. But since I'm also a teacher who uses technology in the teaching and I like to stretch myself when I do teach, I noticed that the ideas that seem to interest me in my experimentation were hardly being reflected in the conference. So while the conference was an improvement over the prior year, viewing the conference as a signpost of where the profession was heading, I was not satisfied. At the end of the post I took some shots at the profession, then had some regrets about that afterward, so wrote another post trying to give a vision of what I'd like to see. It's hard for me to believe that was three years ago. It feels like yesterday. It did occur to me last week that ELI should have some sessions on visioning, one like mine as well as competing alternatives. How can we evaluate what we are doing in the absence of such a vision?

I suspect that many learning technologists would disagree with what I proposed (which I still embrace, though I will elaborate on it a bit more below). In a nutshell, I believe that technology well employed is invisible. It critically supports learning but is transparent in the way it does that. So technology itself can't be the driver of what we want to achieve. Our ambitions must stem from elsewhere. In that post from three years ago I made up an expression called Humanism Across The Curriculum (HAC), a way to teach in every single course we offer, that would deliver on the promise of Liberal Education. HAC (and learning to use data for real world decision making) is the elsewhere and in that earlier post I tried to give a broad strokes definition of the elements that would comprise Humanism Across The Curriculum, without trying much to explain how technology would promote it.

Many others in the profession would like to see technology play a more overt role. Gaming is one prominent example. I can't see how to use it in my own teaching and I'd say I don't get it. I can see how absorbed my teenage children are with games at home and still I don't get it. So maybe that is me. But I don't get it with other technology too. For example, I don't get it with Twitter and back channels. In conferences, maybe. In ongoing classes, really I don't get it. In particular, I've seen Peter Doolittle of Virginia Tech talk about the impossibility of multiprocessing when the tasks are difficult. Back channels seem to promote the ADHD behavior that the always on technology encourages. I can imagine students mistaking that for deep learning, but it isn't. So an argument for back channels via Twitter or some other technology would have to be along the lines that instructors otherwise don't give students sufficient voice via alternative means, such as in small group work, if back channels were to make sense to me. And here's the thing, this is potentially an empirical proposition to be tested. So a debate based on competing visions might be a very good thing. It might point to work we should be doing. It might also help to identify where we do agree.

I did see a few sessions at this conference that spoke to the HAC notion, if only to indicate just how far we have to go to get there. In the last session on Tuesday I attended a presentation from folks at the University of Oregon about students "making history" in order to understand the historical artifacts that they were studying. They took what I would term a dual channel approach to instruction, which I've come to conclude via my own teaching is a necessary aspect of HAC. The Oregon course was an introductory History class taught in lecture-discussion format. That first channel is the traditional one involving the typical presentation and assessment that we all know (but do not love).

The Oregon project entailed a specific section of students who were in a living and learning community that included an undergraduate TA who had taken the course previously. He served as a role model, performing similar online writing tasks as the other students in advance for them to review and he commented online about the work the other students produced. (This TA was one of the presenters at the session. I continue to be amazed by the poise and presence of such students who appear at ELI.) The TA, in turn, was mentored by a faculty member, though not the lecturer for the course. They got very good results in this class with student participation and engagement, pointing to a possible path for a scaled up approach in the future. I too have gotten good results with a similar approach, with me doing the same sort of work that the undergrad TA was doing. More about that below.

There were some parts of what this project did that I didn't get. The project involved the University Archivist and others from the Library, so it was very resource intensive, in a way that I didn't see that it could scale. Further, from the Archivist's point of view, her involvement would make sense if what the students were creating really was worthy of preservation or, from a different point of view, if all student work is worthy of preservation and this was just a demo project for her to understand what would be involved with a broader effort. However, at the session I got the impression that her involvement was being justified because this project was important - these students really were making history. I didn't understand how that could be known now. And if it can't and further if the approach can't scale, then it seemed like a factor that would make the current project successful because it conveyed to the participating students that the University was behind the effort and that would encourage the students to take their own contributions seriously, but it would mean the results would be harder to replicate in the future and thus less interesting to the rest of us.

The opening plenary session by William G. Thomas III also was about teaching history, in this case from the perspective of the lecturer in a large introductory course which relied on digital archives, something that the presenter has expertise in as a researcher - The Valley of the Shadow project is how I became aware of him, and a home grown wiki software developed at the University of Nebraska where the students made their contributions. The session was interesting but not very inspirational, certainly not as good as some of the sessions I had seen at the previous ELI I had attended in San Antonio, because it lacked theater (Michael Wesch, a featured presenter at the San Antonio conference is a dynamic speaker, one whose impact on the audience is hard to clone) and because while I nodded my head in agreement a few times at things Thomas said I didn't have much to take away to try in my own teaching. The session title was about how we teach writing now. On that I was as far along as the presenter. And those in the audience who haven't been involved teaching writing may have been even less engaged with the talk than I was.

The other thought going through my head listening to these sessions is that in some sense a HAC approach in a History course is too easy for a case study. Indeed my own course was also "softy" in that the subject matter, with no math modeling, neither working with numeric data nor experimental data, nor studying difficult to understand theory, readily lent itself to a narrative approach. If HAC is to succeed it needs to work in science and engineering courses and elsewhere in the curriculum where problem sets may have been an integral part of the traditional way of teaching the course while producing a narrative would have been seen as something alien. Such a course would provide a better test case for my HAC approach. But maybe when looking at current reform in those disciplines what is happening doesn't quite match my preconception of HAC.

Here at Illinois, for example, there is an effort in Engineering called iFoundry, which is an attempt to move away from the traditional approach to Engineering and make it more engaging to the students. They have a pilot program that they are expanding called iEFX, which appears to be recasting the Freshman Experience in the mold of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. Since my son is attending starting in the fall, as a parent I don't really want to look under the hood at what they are doing and simply wish him the best. But as an eLearning administrator I've got a whole bunch of questions starting with how much this approach is in line with my HAC conception, followed by how faculty who themselves were weaned in the more traditional approach can become proficient in the new paradigm, and then concluding with how Campus and Unit level eLearning folks can play more of a partnering role with initiatives of this sort.

It is also worth noting that much educational reform these days is being driven by survival instincts in the tough budget climate we find ourselves in, perhaps more so than by the needs to innovate for the betterment of learning of our students. On that score I found this piece an Inside Higher Ed report on a session at the MLA meetings last month extremely intriguing, particularly the presentation by Dawn Bratsch-Prince, on bringing language offerings into alignment with University priorities, in this case by wrapping language and culture skill attainment within the mantle of globalization. So at future ELI I could see having a session on visioning driven by folks from the disciplines, not from the likes of us, where they first discuss programmatic goals and need at the disciplinary level and then present a wish-list for IT to help satisfy the need.

I too have been thinking about how the budget climate and how it would impact my own prescriptions for Higher Ed. I learned first hand last fall that the dual channel approach to instruction is more intensive than the traditional approach. It is certainly more intensive for the students enrolled in the course. Absent the undergraduate TA as in the Oregon example, and maybe even with such a TA present, it is also more intensive from the point of view of the instructor. The tough budget environment will demand that instructors put in more time in teaching (and less in either research or service). With more of the overall funding coming out of tuition dollars, this seems a logical outcome. My view is that that extra time should be spent on more intensive teaching, not on teaching more students in the usual way.

Institutionally to signify support of this view, for example, a heretofore 3-credit course would be awarded another credit. If this sort of thing happened across the board, students would earn the necessary credits for graduation by taking fewer courses, with each course offering a more in depth experience. Some breadth would be sacrificed, obviously, but the overall experience would be richer. This sort of change requires the approval of faculty senates, accreditation bodies, and a change of culture within academe that this reallocation of faculty effort is fitting and appropriate. So it won't happen overnight, for sure. But if that is the picture to be painted, at least we can see where we hope we're heading, and we can understand why that future alternative would be less expensive and better positioned than what we are currently doing.

Unfortunately, it seems that the notion of doing something with less expense is a concept that economists understand implicitly, but others on campus do not. Among my conversations at ELI, only when I talked with my friend Byron Brown from Michigan State, a fellow economist, did I hear anything on this score that made sense to me. We have to talk about things we are no longer doing or plan to stop doing soon. That is where the savings are to be found. There was a session on the last day at ELI about Doing More With Less, a panel where one of the presenters was my friend and colleague from the CIC, Cole Camplese of Penn State. He has been an innovator and his campus provides an excellent model for how to do learning technology well at a very large institution level. Cole did say in that session that they aren't going to let the cuts stop them from innovating - fine. But then he proceeded to talk about a bunch of new initiatives, which sounded much more to me like business as usual than it appeared to be sober talk about managing cuts. The austerity issue isn't going away any time soon, certainly not on my campus nor, I believe, nationally. We need an upbeat but realistic approach. Truthfully I'd prefer desperate and realistic for a while so at a minimum we can affirm reality. That would be a better way to make headway. At present, we still seem to be in denial.

But on that score there is a substantial problem which came out more at the CIC meeting than at ELI. The technologies that we have been supporting for the last decade or so, principally the LMS, as well as emerging technologies such as lecture capture, strongly affirm a very traditional approach to instruction. Further we are very locked into the LMS and thus protective of our users and our staff who support them. From this perspective budget cuts look like pain, not letting us do what we feel we need to do, and innovation beyond that feels almost frivolous, a diversion from the core mission. We compete with each other on emerging technologies like lecture capture playing a game of one upmanship without attention to a strategic goal formed internally without regard for what peers are doing. Such non-price competition, we know, is cost increasing. So the technology is quite capable of creating the opposite to what we want to achieve. And it is unclear to me whether we know how to separate the chaff from the wheat.

I attended two sessions on the general theme of Copyright and Fair Use, one by Patricia Aufderheide of American University, the other by John Palfrey of Harvard Law School. These were my favorite sessions because in the past I've been infuriated and felt penned in by Copyright, most recently in having my students make multimedia projects for my course last fall. These presentations seemed to offer a way out and argued for the importance of us asserting our Fair Use rights. That was refreshing.

I've felt similarly constrained in my teaching by FERPA and I've come to conclude that in the choice of software we support we are promoting values that are antithetical to the real goals of our institutions. In the class I taught in the fall we spent substantial time discussing intrinsic motivation and becoming acquainted with the research that asserts that extrinsic motivation can taint the intrinsic form. My students in the class, coming in, were high achievers all and extremely grade conscious. They didn't see a problem with that. But over time with their blogging as the feedback they got from me was commentary only (the grade would come at the end of the semester only after they had done a critique and a portfolio selection of their own writing) they started to become hooked on the alternative. Indeed my view is that the HAC approach is very much about promoting student motivation and having an ongoing dialog with them that is centered on the issues the students raise is a big part of doing that. That dialog really doesn't need grading to sustain it. If the institution demands it, grades can punctuate the dialog. But elevating the grades can actually be destructive of the learning.

In what I did, most of the commenting occurred on the student blogs. I did make discussion boards in the LMS, private spaces where when I needed to communicate about grade information I could do that along with critique of the work. It was clunky setting that up. There was one board per student and a board for each student group. Though I recognize this is a somewhat unusual practice on my campus, I'm arrogant enough to believe it is more satisfying and appropriate than the practice that is more typical.

So when I hear now that students value the technology mostly for the "convenience benefit" (a phrase I'm growing to detest) and that the most used area in the LMS is the MyGrades area, I have to scratch my head and wonder whether we know that we are encouraging pathology rather than promoting learning. Partly for that reason, after seeing the session by Jon Mott on the Genius of AND, I wrote my prior post on the need for the analog of fair use in FERPA, instructors need to be able to communicate about grades as a natural extension of the dialog they do have with students, not in some cordoned off way.

Alas I wear at least two hats and can't always maintain the idealism of the teacher. As an administrator there are practical issues to confront and here at Illinois electronic grade books have something of a rich tradition, dating back at least to Plato. And when I was the Campus person in charge of us moving to an enterprise LMS, at the time WebCT Vista, I also had the sheer (non) pleasure of presiding over the decommissioning of our Campus Gradebook service, itself an offshoot of Plato, and received many (un) appreciative inquiries from faculty who used Campus Gradebook, wondering why we were getting rid of a perfectly good offering to replace it with the inferior product that was part of the WebCT tool suite. So to amuse myself, though unfortunately not to really address the problem, I built some spreadsheets to show that much of the sophisticated function could be done with Excel, such as this one which builds a smart histogram of exam score results, letting the ranges in the bin be determined by the data, or this one on summing a bunch of homework scores while deleting the lowest n scores, where n is greater than 1, a grading schema that many instructors on my campus like to employ in their teaching. I also engaged in many discussions entailing submission of final course grades out of the LMS into our Banner student system, something Campus never delivered on because we never achieved tight data integration between the SIS and LMS and the batch way of moving the data was simply going to have more problems than it was worth, yet a separate system developed in our Physics department had that capability, which caused undo consternation by large class instructors in other departments.

When dealing with these sort of administrative issues intrinsic motivation becomes a luxury that fades into the background and FERPA wins the day. Wearing multiple hats contributes to having a more multifaceted view of the issues, though it is not necessarily so much fun.

Let me get back to ELI and then close. I don't know if the conference requires critique, but the profession certainly does. The essence of such a critique would be in repeatedly asking questions such as: What does learning look like? Does that particular implementation promote learning? Can the implementation be replicated? How do we know? I do think the pace of change we are seeing as evidenced by ELI is just too slow, though I have no real suggestions on how to speed things up. While bandwidth has obviously improved and there are some technologies that didn't exist then, we don't seem to know that much more about things than when I ran the SCALE project way back when. Based on where we were then, I'd have hoped most things would have been figured out by now. Yet it still feels like we're still just getting started.

Perhaps my peers in the CIC feel otherwise and are much more satisfied about where we are. I do think there is some gender linkage in determining how critical/satisfied we are about events like the annual conference. (In case it's not obvious, the being critical attribute is carried on the male gene. I need an emoticon here.) But I've taken a lesson from my teaching this past semester where I more openly expressed dissatisfaction with the class than I've ever done in the past. That can be a basis for improvement, if we're open about it and admit our own shortcomings. Mine are all too obvious, not the least of which is outstaying my welcome when writing. So I bid you adieu. I hope there has been some benefit in what I've produced above.A

Thursday, January 21, 2010

An analog to Fair Use for FERPA

I'm in Austin Texas. This is wind up day for the ELI conference. The best presentations I've seen have been about the good guys fighting back on copyright by asserting their Fair Use rights.

It occurred to me at some other sessions that student privacy, which I've always taken to be about records, particularly for prior course work, perhaps inadvertently has been casting a dark cloud over teaching and learning, particularly with respect to within course grades (on quizzes, papers, projects, exams, etc.) I think a not in appropriate metaphor is to consider teaching and learning as conversation and grading as occasional punctuation within that conversation. We've been building systems and continue to build systems that focus on the punctuation. We seem to ignore the indirect effect that in the process our institutions deliver the implicit message - learning is about the punctuation.

We need to a way to be more directly assertive about learning. Our institutions need to be for learning as conversation. That happens in the open in communities. When the learning comes into conflict student privacy, that needs to be managed with discretion, not by fiat. I suspect in our over legalistic and regulated society that we need Federal Law to proclaim that. I've got no clue how to get there, but it seems to me we should be talking about this because right now we are being cowed by the forces of gloom t operate the other way.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Chiming in on the Lecture Capture issue

I've been reading John Cassidy's How Markets Fail, a critique of modern academic economics, particularly the "Chicago School," in light of the Financial Crisis and the ensuing "Great Recession." I'm not quite halfway through it. I really like what I've read so far. It inspired this interactive spreadsheet to illustrate the basic concepts underlying his discussion of "General Equilibrium" and the video below. Cassidy writes an intellectual history of economics, describing many of the key players and their contributions, explaining why their ideas are important. In a certain sense it is a setup for a very long shaggy dog story. Too many economists fell in love with math and the models they made with the math. They lost their sense of reality in the process and that has come back to burn them.

Nevertheless, one can't completely ignore the old models and go to something superior. There is learning working through the underlying models and students need to understand their strengths before seeing a critique. So I started to envision that Cassidy's book might be used in lieu of a textbook in an intermediate micro course, to motivate students to think through these models.

Many people are now discussing lecture capture in the live classroom and lecture videos made at the instructor's desktop as an alternative. Recently I read this very interesting post by Gardner Campbell on the subject, where I became aware of the Khan Academy. (There is an awesome number of videos at that site.) There is testimony from some of the audience about why those videos are appealing. Lecture Capture is also an agenda item for the next meeting of the CIC Learning Technology Group. So let me make two points about this, one a very obvious one, the other perhaps also obvious though maybe it requires some penetration of the issues to reckon with it. I want to put those both together.

The first point is that captures, once created, have an essential public good aspect to them, at least when they are not password protected. Following Cassidy, I will assert that markets don't provide public goods very well. But communities can effectively provide public good. So the question is: why haven't we moved to a community approach for capture? And how might we go about doing that. The other point is that particularly for analytic content, but also for much other content that students find difficult at first, they don't have the wherewithal to familiarize themselves with the subject matter. The not so hypothetical quote of the student talking to the instructor to exemplify the problem is, "I understand it very well when you explain it. But I can't do it on my own." Students need help with the familiarizing process and coming up with activities for internalizing the content. This is why simulations are so important. They are much more important than lecture.

Simulations are time consuming to make and most faculty haven't ventured down the road. But if they did, they might lecture --- very briefly ---- about the simulation itself and let the students discover the rest on their own by playing with the simulation. That's the approach taken with the video below. I'd like to see us produce videos of that sort (with the captions too) as a collective effort. Can we get there from here?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Birthday Rhyme

The below was too long for Facebook, so I'm posting here.

* * * * *

Here is a little rhyme just to say,
How I feel on my 55th b-day.

So many well wishers makes me very happy,
Although it's a workday so no afternoon nappy.

Starting out pensive and rather quizzical,
The first thing on my calendar I had a physical.

The doctor's exam gave me a real charge.
Especially the report that my prostate is medium, not large.

On the other hand, my blood pressure is too high,
Whether from work, teenage kids, or a not laid back enough guy.

For this once a day I've been taking a pill.
Modest improvement, but the problem persists still.

So the doc is now upping the dose.
Aiming in the normal range to get me close.

If that doesn't succeed other remedies will be tried.
Perhaps eliminating my favorite foods, some of which are fried.

All is not a question of health.
There is also the matter of personal wealth.

This is more than financial, it means having a good idea,
Not given to me by mama but generated by mia.

Alas I must say here is the real thing,
It is the bad rhymes and puns that so cling,

To my mind that is filled with noise and clatter.
It's what keeps me from turning into a mad hatter.

Which gets me recalling now about Alice.
Wonderland after all was hardly a palace.

It was the invention of one Lewis Carroll,
A role model for me without any parallel.

For it's fantasy and silliness that are such a delight
Making some joy is more fun than writing essays that bite.

Though I'm prone to do some of that too.
Waking in the middle of the night puts you in a kind of stew.

Now I know it's normal aging and not some other fate,
Which is why on this day of days I really fell great.

Thanks everyone.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Teaching Quiet Students

I need to return to writing my book, a draft of which I'm committed to finishing in the next couple of months. So this will be the last longish blog post for a while. I will continue to write shorter things about technology or about news items that pique my interest. But otherwise, this space will be quiet.

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When I was teaching the large intermediate microeconomics course (about 180 students) in the late 1990s, I'd spend some time in class asking students questions, waiting for some brave soul to volunteer an answer. Sometimes nobody would. One semester I had a female student whom I remember because she ultimately became an online TA for me and her voice was very distinctive, very much like Amy Irving in The Competition, though for the life of me I can't remember her name. This student invariably would raise her hand after I'd pose such a question and she would give a thoughtful response. It got to the point that I wouldn't call on her immediately, hoping some other student might give it a go. She was so good she may have intimidated the others from trying. She was gutsy and had the smarts.

On at least a couple of occasions she came to my office to talk one-on-one. Self-assured and on the ball in a setting most students would find unnerving, she was quite nervous in these one-on-one sessions, which I know because she was shaking visibly. Shakespeare surely had it right that All the world's a stage, but I suppose each of us gets to "choose" where it is that we have our stage fright. I believe at the time I felt, "What is she worrying about? I'm not very intimidating." Indeed, I'm not. But with hindsight I can see that it was more a matter of circumstance than anything else. Those one-on-one sessions were of consequence for her and perhaps a little more unpredictable in format than the in class sessions. The performance anxiety probably would have happened even if I was a total pussycat. In fact because she was good and talented with the economics she wanted to be judged seriously, or so I inferred. She wanted to sail over her own high bar. She was the source of her own performance anxiety.

Of course, she was not unique in that. When I started to write this blog I did so without anyone else knowing about it for a couple of weeks and cranked out quite a few posts. Eventually I let some people know and got positive reaction from them. Then some others whom I didn't know "found" my posts and a few said good things about them. All of a sudden, I had writer's block. I had to live up to a standard that I didn't even try to create. Nevertheless, it was paralyzing for a while. The good thing with writing is that you do it alone and so can put the readers out of mind, most of the time. With face-to-face encounters, obviously you can't pretend your audience isn't there.

Thinking about performance brings to mind Ethel Merman in There's No Business Like Show Business - "nowhere could you get that happy feeling, as when you're stealing that extra bow." For people where performance is reward, the stage fright beforehand plays the role of necessary evil that gets them keyed up and ready to deliver. They grin and bear it. Others put on an act as a form of self-protection. They adopt an outer persona that differs from their inner being. They aim to please the audience without putting their inner being at risk. When I was a college student I thought most other students were this way, as I've written about previously. As a teacher there is a question of whether part of the job is to get these students to shed their outer skin, at least for the purpose of the course. I'll say a bit more about this below.

These I used to think were the main varieties. Of course, there were also more extreme forms. Some folks don't experience stage fright in a context where most others do. It may be ho hum for them, been there-done that, and without the novelty it's just an ordinary interaction where none of us would feel it's a performance. Or they may have emboldened themselves by desensitizing to certain forms of criticism. My mom had a lot of that in her and I remember my wife referring to my mom as a tough old bird. Such folks can seem heroic, performing in instances where the rest of us can't or won't. But they may also lack sensitivity to certain situations where the rest of us will be more aware.

The other extreme is the person who really suffers through performance, perhaps because he is not prepared, perhaps because he is not skilled enough, but also even if skilled and prepared because performance itself is painful and unrewarding or perhaps because if skilled and prepared then performance might seem superfluous. As a student, particularly when at Cornell and especially in the political thought and philosophy classes I took where I was outside my own realm of proficiency, I was awed by the notion of the quiet genius, invariably a woman, who would write brilliantly but not say a word in class. There were a few students like that, though I only became aware of them when the professor would hand back our papers and make some off the cuff remark about the really excellent ones (not mine).

I believe most of us rotate through many if not all of these scenarios or at least we've tried out the various roles on occasion. But then one seems to prevail either out of conscious choice or, more likely, because we fall into it. In classes where I was proficient in the field I was not shy. In grad school I was one of the few students who raised his hand a lot, at least in microeconomics, which became my area of expertise. I was comfortable there so I asked questions congruent to my own thinking. I had no intent in doing that to intimidate my classmates, but I believe sometimes that was the consequence. If you have mental agility you show it, or so was my implicit belief.

* * * * *

When you are teaching your target often is yourself as a learner or, if you try hard to be broader than just yourself, your target is your conception of students. Actually, in most cases what you try to do is focus on the subject. You teach the subject first and foremost. Thinking about the audience is only a secondary consideration. Perhaps, when thinking about teaching from the conception of Bruner's Spiral Curriculum, the role of considering the audience is to place the particular instruction along the spiral. Specifically with microeconomics, we teach courses in Principles, Intermediate, and Graduate Theory, though there can be substantial differences in difficulty and coverage within any one of these categories, depending on the economist teaching the course.

It was teaching the Intermediate course that initially fueled my interest in learning technology. The typical section I taught in the early 1990s had about 60 students. The course worked spectacularly well for about 5 of them, who would tell me it was one of the best courses they had taken on campus. For the vast majority, maybe as many as 50 students, the course was a struggle for them and, based on the exams they wrote, it was also largely unenlightening. For the rest, these students got by with the minimum possible effort or they didn't get by at all. The kids in the first category were, with a few exceptions, either kids who wanted to go to grad school in economics or engineering students (meaning the math was no problem for them) who had an interest in social science. The course was (and still is) required of all students in Business. In that the aim is to provide a solid economics foundation for the various business disciplines, a sensible goal, at least in theory. But the students found the subject abstruse and didn't see the relevance. This made the teaching almost combative. These were the bulk of the students in the middle category.

I came to appreciate later that this was the situation in many required courses for students outside the major, with perhaps the quintessential example being organic chemistry for pre-med students. However, I learned that the problem was much broader than this. The first summer when I became an administrator in the SCALE project and interviewed SCALE-affiliated faculty, many of them reported their students were too passive in class and that it was difficult to get discussion going. They were trying teaching online because of the promise that students would open up more in that setting, which in turn would encourage better discussion face to face, or so they hoped.

I was not very happy with the situation in my own class. I wanted the results to be excellence across the board, where what we had in fact was a broad base of mediocrity. The question I asked myself that served as my motivation was whether the outcome was driven by me - there as a better way to teach that middle group and I needed to change my approach to find that better way - or them - my teaching was fine but the students were approaching the course all wrong. I didn't know the answer then. And I still don't. By the time my thinking about teaching had evolved sufficiently to really be able to test the proposition, I was no longer teaching the intermediate course. However, within a year or two of embracing learning technology I had a pretty strong view of what I should be doing. This was based on an incentive approach (after all, I am an economist), where the goal was to move students who were not in that elite category up a notch or two. With this mindset, the student issue is either a lack of effort or the effort is misdirected or the student simply doesn't have the smarts to figure this stuff out. Incentives don't help for the lack of smarts, but they can help with the other two. However, I never really verified this on a student by student basis. The class was too large to do so. I only had aggregate data to support the conclusion. There would be a need to have an extended conversation with each student individually to really verify this.

Indeed, I did not see teaching as having such extended conversations with each student till this past semester, though I had taught small undergraduate courses previously (a Discovery class, freshmen only and no more than 20 students, and two Campus Honors Program classes with 15 students, all of these classes in Principles). I probably wouldn't have figured out to have such conversations this time around either except that the course wasn't covering a standard topic. (While we ended up not covering all of these, some sense of the course trajectory can be had from looking at the assigned readings.) Without feeling obligated to achieve specific coverage there was more freedom to stray and react to student writing where the student was rather than force their ideas through some gateway I specified. Here I'm talking about my reactions to what they wrote. I had freedom in responding. Doing so helped me to reconsider my preconceptions.

The class (17 students in total) had more quiet students than I had expected. There were also several very glib students, who could easily have had a back and forth conversation for an entire class session had I let them, which may have encouraged some students who might have been vocal in other settings to remain on the sidelines and simply follow the discussion.

Though they were quiet in ensemble settings they did participate in the online writing. And here is an interesting thing. As writers, some of them became risk takers. They strayed more from the path than the other students in the class and produced some very interesting pieces, probably the most enjoyable for me to read among all that was produced. In contrast some of the glib students struggled with the writing, more than I would have anticipated. Based on this, here are some tentative conclusions.

The decision to handle stage fright by putting on an act has some unsettling consequences, at least on some individuals. These students intuit this downside from an ethical or a behavioral perspective and conclude they want no part of it. They thus opt to be quiet rather than put on an act. When they are sufficiently comfortable, they will open up. That might take quite a while (months, not weeks). Trying to rush that can be counterproductive. Writing is very helpful for these students. They are apt to open up there much sooner than they open up face to face.

In contrast, students who are quite glib face to face may struggle with writing because they have to confront which persona to show, an issue that they don't deal with face to face. Indeed, when there is a persona switch that can be quite emotional, a powerful experience but also a difficult one.

There is the further observation that some people would rather be reflective and react only after they've chewed things over. They literally prefer to be listeners. In some of our readings - the stuff by Peter Drucker and Peter Senge especially - we learned to prize listening. I'm not especially good at it myself in face to face larger group settings and especially early in the semester I found it quite a strain to manage the flow of the discussion in the class and listen intently to what individual students said at the same time. So I would aim to get the gist of what they were saying and let some of the detail fall through my fingers. I was much better able "to listen" to the individual students when reading their blog posts and I believe my written comments in response indicated that. The upshot is that if listening is such a value we should encourage it.

So I would say the teaching goal from 1990s to get all students in class to participate in the class discussion needs to be modified. The students are their own best arbiters of the participation decision. Having a private channel for reflection in addition to a public channel for class discussion seems to me to be much superior to having only one channel. The next time I teach I will surely do that, even if the content of the course is more prescribed and I do have obligations to cover certain content.

Finally, I'd like to combine these observations with some things Atul Gawande has been preaching in the medical field but that I believe apply in a straightforward way to the situation I've described here. (Gawande was on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago, mostly talking about checklists in promoting his new book. But he did reiterate that where medicine is practiced well and at low cost doctors communicate with each other about their patient's care.) The two channel approach doesn't scale well at all.... if done on a course by course basis. It might scale reasonably well and engage many more students if they were in cohorts across courses and then it is done on a cohort basis. With all the reform that people seem to want with learning, that seems to me the most promising change, yet it is getting scant attention. We need to talk about it much more.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Forecasts and False Prophets

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.
Martin Luther King Jr.

US black civil rights leader & clergyman (1929 - 1968)
Tis the season for making predictions for the upcoming year(s). Mine is below, a personalized interpretation of King's quote. He must have had in mind Ghandi or Thoreau. I've made it my New Year's resolution to read Walden, which I started yesterday. Taking the bits from it I've already garnered, I will stake out a position that I've not really seen articulated by the "punditry" and I've been reading a fair amount by them over the holiday, the usual NY Times Op-Ed pieces, and the "assigned readings" from David Brooks' Sidney Award (see the first line here for the links). The essence of the prediction is simple enough to articulate. All the punditry talk about problems from without or problems that we as a society must face. They treat those problems like a problem from applied physics that is amenable to design, so one can speak of optimal solutions. Punditry is about generating such solutions for problems in the social context. I do a fair amount of that sort of thing myself. Mostly the populace as a whole sees outcomes that emerge fall short of the optimum, because the situations are invariably more complex than the analysis is willing to consider and what emerges then is apt to disappoint, witness this News Hour interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin and John Cassidy, a looking back at the financial crisis. The two-fold conclusion, certainly disheartening, is that behavior among Wall Street types seems to have returned to business as usual in spite of what appears obvious - substantial reform is needed - and perhaps more troubling is the finding that normal prudent and sensible behavior - stay out of high risk assets that have a substantial likelihood of default - was trumped by a need to produce higher yields, since the prudent behavior appears to under perform the market, at least till that world starts to implode.

My prediction is that the big changes we'll see in the coming year are about problems from within, individual issues that each of us must face on our own. That is where we'll see the bigger shift in opinion and behavior. It is a necessary first step before any solutions from without that have some bite can be implemented.

I'm certainly no ace prognosticator. Indeed my profession prides itself on its lack of ability to predict, the emblem being the Efficient Market Hypothesis - all the current information is incorporated already into stock prices. Future stock prices are then driven by further news, information that can't be known now. So the path of future stock prices can't readily be forecasted. To this there are two critiques I am aware of. One is by the Behavioralists, who say in fact that we're not quite the rational decision makers that economists like to model, so our "humanness" introduces some degree of predictability of the future. The other is The Black Swan - on the predictability front things are even worse than you think because there can be sudden regime change after which things look entirely different. Both of the critiques make sense to me yet for the purposes of prediction I tend to discount the behavioralists so in the main I adhere to the view that we can't predict. Smart as we think we are, we're really quite ignorant about many important things.

Nonetheless, I've had my moments, via what I'd call low-to-the-ground predictions. I can see the need based on my own experience and make a prediction that something will come along to fill it. My first recollection of doing this was in the early 1970s when I was in High School. At the time there were still greasy spoons around that were not part of national chains, but McDonalds was emerging as the premier brand. I was a fan. My prediction, no great shakes (pardon the pun, though it was intended) yet in this case on the mark, was that McDonalds needed a quarter pounder; the regular hamburger was rather wimpy. Lo and behold....

Fast forward two decades. The 1990s were a good decade for me in many respects, prediction-wise included. It started off with a bang. I got married in June 1990. My bachelor party, pretty tame by most standards, featured a poker game. I hadn't played poker since I was a college freshman at MIT. During the orientation week, where you choose your courses, meet your adviser, make a housing selection, plus a zillion other getting familiar with the place sort of things, my real education came during the evening playing seven card stud high-low poker with some other freshmen and upperclassmen. I recall winning a big hand when my four eights (I had a pair showing and two more in the hole) beat somebody else's boat. After that they threw me into the shower, a tradition I hadn't previously encountered, one that cooled me on playing poker thereafter. So I was somewhat reluctant to play during my bachelors party and had to be talked into it. As it turned out, I won pretty big that night and wondered if they fixed the cards to achieve the outcome. (They claimed they didn't.) For my part, I took it as a sign that boys night out once a month or so should be part of the deal - my wife was ok with that. We had a fairly regular poker game with fellow economists and graduate students. In the main, I won in those sessions. I understood the ground rules and the psychology.

There was some carry over with that later in the decade, investing the kids' college fund. Pretty early on after I switched my career to learning technology, I put about two thirds of the portfolio into tech stocks - Apple and Adobe. That was a no-brainer. The market was going crazy then. My insight, or luck, or whatever you want to call it, was to get out pretty close to the peak. I felt the chill and got cold feet. You've got to know when to fold them.

The decade that immediately followed, the one that just concluded, was a different matter. The group I used to play poker with broke up for a variety of reasons, people moved on to do other things. So eventually I found a different game - first with information technology professionals whom I knew on campus, then with their friends, and eventually with friends of friends. The rules were different and the stakes lower. I could never figure out where the other players were coming from mentally. And it seemed mostly that I got crummy cards. In the 1990s, my cards were better. When you win its skill; when you lose its the cards. Eventually, I lost interest entirely and stopped playing. The same thing was true for investing in the stock market. Once Bush became President I had no feel for what was happening - so I just put the kids' college money into mutual funds. Although there was another run up of the market, fueled by the housing market bubble, we hardly benefited from it; then we lost our shirts like everyone else when the market tumbled. There has been a modest recovery since. But I really don't track that stuff like I should. It's not that interesting to me any more.

This brings us back to Thoreau. He asks - what is really important for us? Do we spend our time doing that? Or do we get wrapped up in nonsense that ends up of little consequence and is not fulfilling in the process? If the latter, why are we trapped in a life so below our potential? And what can we do to remedy things, to become more one with ourselves? I'm not talking about living like a hermit out in the woods. I don't literally want to imitate Thoreau's experience. But I do want to embrace his fundamental questions, about bringing simplicity and importance into our lives.

I'm living both sides of this. I'm best suited at this point in my life to do informal but thoughtful analysis, a working through of a variety of ideas, investigating before the fact and then communicating what I've come up with more or less by the same methods - chatting over coffee or writing as in a blog post like this one. When I'm doing those sort of things, I'm being true to my nature and letting the best of me come forward. This is most easily done when the ideas themselves are of consequence to me, but the implementation of those ideas is not. As an administrator, however, that is no always the case. The implementation sometimes blows up in your face. Other times it is simply less exciting or less well done than was previously conceptualized. More than once I've been talked into making an idea mine that I didn't generate and found that I've had to bear responsibility for the outcome, not a good one you can be sure, without having the fire in the belly to push hard to see it through. I'm sure everyone who has been in IT administration has had that happen from time to time. So we look for alternatives, either for diversion or for comfort. Healthful activities themselves promote our own well being - exercise, reading a good book, getting the kids to develop their (off beat) sense of humor, having friends over for a meal, anything that creates joie de vivre. If only it were that simple.

Alas, I have the genetic disposition to overindulge, with food and drink. As a kid my mother would call me and my sister fressers, from the Yiddish or German verb fressen. It takes one to know one. If eating is good, then eating more is better. We know where that logic leads. I had trouble with my weight as a teen. My mother said it was also because my dad was a diabetic and children of diabetics are prone to be large. I have no clue whether that is science or an old wives tale. In any event, I developed several bad eating habits, some of which are still with me. I went through a regime change between college and graduate school - the one time in my life where I can say via the force of my own will I persisted at something that was very hard for me, dropping about 60 pounds over the summer through a one-meal-a-day regime. For the next 20 years or so I mostly was in check. Jogging was my salvation. But then my knees got shot and I didn't figure out a good alternative form of low impact exercise soon enough. So I exercised less, indulged more, and the weight drifted upward. It was kind of a like a thread unraveling on one of your socks. At first you just tear off the lose end and keep wearing the pair. It's no big deal. But the thread keeps unraveling and eventually there's not enough sock left to wear. When its your body rather than your sock, the unraveling can create desperation.

I thought I had that in check and figured out a way to keep my weight in stasis, albeit at a level way too high to be healthy, via doing the stationary bike every morning for about 45 minutes, lifting some very light weights at the same time. Then, about six weeks ago, I started to feel excruciating pain in my right leg. It started in the hip area and then migrated to the thigh. I thought it was sciatica. I've since learned that the probable cause is arthritis - in both hips and the lower back too. Pain killers help. Ironically, sometimes pain helps too. I learned a rather important lesson during the first couple of weeks of this episode. I could think and focus on my work, but it was harder and the joy from doing it didn't last as long. I am no hero. I can't be the good part of me if I'm in chronic pain. Perhaps episodically I can overcome the pain. Realistically, however, if the pain persists I'll cave and then look to numb myself with mindless distractions. The sensible solution is to minimize the pain. Any Web site on the subject of arthritis of the hip will mention weight loss as one of the more conservative treatments. It is evident to me that I must make a personal regime change that aims not at weight stasis but at weight loss, either less indulgence or more exercise or a mixture of both. Before my vices were a release from the stress of ordinary life. Now they seem an imprisonment to keep me from doing what I'm meant to do, ergo the unraveling metaphor I chose. This is why reading Thoreau seems so crucial. Breaking bad habits will be hard. Doing so demands an examination of what's really important.

It's now time to invoke the Charles Barkley line; I am not a role model. But I was right in my prediction about the McDonalds quarter pounder and feel confident that when something "makes sense" to me I've identified a real need. For that reason I believe in the low to the ground sort of predictions. And in this case I believe my situation is far from unique, especially once the unraveling metaphor has been extended beyond obesity, obviously a substantial problem in America today but more a symptom than the underlying cause. Virtually everyone I know appears to me under so much stress, work related or otherwise, with the feeling that there is no end to the tunnel in sight and that there is a huge weight on the shoulders producing a need for incessant labor while yielding litle to no satisfaction from the efforts.

The economy is driving much of this, but it is not simply a larger than usual recession that is the root cause. It is the bubble like nature of the institutions we work in. The Health Care industry is a bubble sector, witness all the concern about containing costs, and likewise for Higher Education. The bubble seems to be bursting here but nobody knows what to do about it really. The higher ups in the administration will react to bring spending in line with available funding, but there is no vision of what that will look like.

Fearful that they might lose their jobs the natural reaction is to avoid the problem and continue on as best they can. Yet ongoing undue stress can lessen personal well being. How far down the path does somebody have to go before they wake up to the fact that the life they are living is causing themselves harm? I don't know. I do know that when they do wake up, they'll find Thoreau offers a compelling vision.

He cautions that consumption beyond the basic necessities of life is a more than a distraction; it's the road to perdition. So recognizing the need for simplicity in our lives and being true to ourselves, we abandon this unnecessary consumption. Imagine telling your employer - "Look, I'm wearing out in the work. There is too much of it. A big part of it is a drudge. And I have essentially no say in what the work is about. I need a change. So I propose the following. I'll take a voluntary pay cut beyond the furloughs you are already planning. In exchange for that I get to shape a good part of the work on my own and say no to folks who want my services when I deem their requests to be out of bounds. I can't continue as I'm going now. My way I'll endure and because I am a talented employee you'll be better off that way too."

All the pundits - left, right, or center - talk about the need for economic growth. It is the magic elixir to one and all. Or is it? We as individuals need simplicity and to be true to our own natures. In creating an environment that produces that we grow as individuals. But measured by normal economic means, the result will be shrinkage. Better a work environment that is rational and real than a bubble environment that promises growth.

I wonder if we can get past our fear of falling behind the rising Asian countries and come to this realization. Judging by my reading over the holiday there will have to be a lot of change in the thinking of the punditry to get to this point. This is why change from within needs to be the driver.

A little reality check

A debate over credit hours and out of class work versus in class work is welcome, but looking at the driver for this particular debate, the issue appears to be chutzpah more than anything else. A typical full time student here takes 15 - 18 credit hours (and I think the mean is closer to 15). The semester is 15 weeks long with another week for finals. Here they want to offer a 5 week course and give 9 credit hours for it. That really is pushing it.