Saturday, February 28, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 6 - Students Teaching Students

At the outset I intended the Everybody Teaches series to culminate in this post.  I did not, however, plan to offer up a mea culpa.  But now, rereading what I've produced so far, I feel I must because the set of preceding posts taken collectively has the feel of one long subterfuge on an issue I understood well at the outset of this series.  Here's the problem.

High touch instruction, which is the feature of the Everybody Teaches series, aims to provide students with sufficient self-teaching skills.  Armed with those skills, a student can learn a fair amount from a large lecture class by self-teaching on what goes on in the course, using the lecture as one of the primary inputs for that learning, just as the textbook and online materials also serve as inputs for learning.  Here, to make things plain, having learned something means being able to transfer the ideas into a novel context, one that is other than the context where the ideas were initially presented.  (See the volume, How People Learn, especially chapter 3.)  Many entering students don't yet have sufficient self-teaching skills.  The effort they put into their classes produces surface learning only.  (See Ken Bain's book, What the Best College Students Do, on the distinction between deep learning and surface learning.) 

How much high touch teaching is needed to get students to where they are competent at self-teaching?  Alas, nobody knows the answer to this question, though one is probably safe in saying that the answer depends on the student, particularly in how receptive the student is to try alternative approaches to learning and then in how diligent the student is in practicing the new approach that is embraced.  For many of the students who need improvement in their self-teaching skills, is it conceivable that the Everybody Teaches approach, as articulated in the previous posts, is simply inadequate to the deliver on this end?  Consider, for example, that even in its heyday the Discovery Program covered only about half of the entering students.

Would one high touch Discovery course do the trick?  Or would most students require quite a few high touch courses before they turned the corner?  Observe that one-on-many courses can seem to offer positive reinforcement for surface learning.  (Many students in these courses are under the impression that their only obligatory tasks are to get the lecture notes and then memorize those notes.  This approach will produce tolerably good results on exams, much of the time, apparently validating the approach.)  Observe further that during the first year students are taking mainly General Education courses, many of which are taught in one-on-many mode. 

It therefore appears that Everybody Teaches is solving the wrong problem.  (Alternatively, what has been written so far in this series of posts seems a veiled argument that for parents who can afford to so they should send their kids to private liberal arts colleges, in spite of the substantial tuition differential between the liberal arts college and big public U.)  In other words, while Everybody Teaches may maximize the number of high touch courses offered on campus, at the scope that is feasible it is likely insufficient to counter the cumulative effect from taking all those large lecture classes.  (There is also the issue of excessive testing in K-12 exacerbating the problem.  We need to acknowledge K-12 as another cause for why so many students don't have the self-teaching skills on arrival at college, though I don't want to elaborate further on it here.)  So I need to apologize for creating the impression otherwise. 

Indeed in the first year writing this blog, I wrote a series of posts that I labelled Inward Looking Service Learning (INSL), which was based on the realization that the only labor input that scaled with the students is the students themselves.  As I pretty much still believe in the substance of those posts, I won't repeat them here, but I will provide a brief summary so the reader can see how it fits with the current discussion.

The core idea was to use peer mentors/tutors/TAs who had taken the course previously to support instruction.   The peer mentors would be deployed in a way that is unlike how graduate student TAs are utilized now, with the peer mentors used in a more labor intensive fashion.  The key innovation was to organize instruction around the study group, say with 5 current students in it.  The study group would meet for several hours a week.  The study group would be led by the peer mentor.  The thought behind calling this inward looking service learning was: (a) the peer mentors would be doing service for the campus, (b) there is a substantial amount of learning that occurs when teaching others as in leading a study group, and (c) it might actually work well because students need to open up about their current understanding in order to learn in a deep way, yet many students are reluctant to do so in front of an authority figure; they are much more willing to open up with a peer.

In my sketch of INSL, it would be deployed extensively, in every class that students take.  The extensive deployment of INSL would then drive students to become deep learners.  Of course, this remains an open proposition that should be tested.  My current belief is that if done in a full-throated way, INSL would work and work well.  Given that, do we really need Everybody Teaches too?

I believe the answer to that question is, yes we do.  In other words, in order to solve the right problem, the answer to which is INSL, we must first solve the wrong problem, how to maximize the number of high touch classes taught by instructors.  We'll never get there if we try to go directly to solving the right problem.  Not enough people in authority will understand why we should put in such effort.  I have been trying to advance the cause of using undergraduates in a big way to support instruction since 1997, maybe even earlier than that.  Others have argued likewise. A few early adopters among the faculty have done this in a big way, but it certainly hasn't diffused to become ordinary practice.  My explanation for the lack of diffusion is that awareness of the issues is lacking - many instructors and administrators trust that the bulk of  undergraduates are learning a good deal, much more than they actually are, this in spite of various very public exposés that argue the contrary.  So awareness needs to be raised, in a big way.  You can then read the Everybody Teaches essays, parts 2-4, as necessary awareness raising steps, with the awareness raising concomitant to the other learning that those essays describe.

Part 5, on retirees and Discovery classes, is different.  It is a model in its own right to address the issues. It may not scale itself to address the issues, but if the ranks of volunteers can be expanded in a fruitful way, it has some chance of doing so in itself.  Further, it can serve as a model for a similar approach to be tried in K-12, which ultimately might prove to be the greatest benefit that comes from the effort.

* * * * *

Until now, I have studiously tried to avoid relating Everybody Teaches to current efforts on campus regarding innovation in teaching and learning.  Further, I have ignored the role that technology might play other than suggesting that the student writing I advocate for would happen in blogs.  It is time to juxtapose these things and ask whether they must be considered separately or if they possibly can be looked at in a unified way. 

Historically (going back to mid 1990s) learning technology was viewed as a way to provide access to instruction and perhaps also as a means to lower the cost of instruction.  When I ran the SCALE project our grant officer at the Sloan Foundation, Frank Mayadas, repeatedly told me that our quality was good enough and that he really wasn't interested in course development the sole purpose of which was to improve learning.  But at that time, with the economy booming and tuition still comparatively low, most people I knew on campus were not yet ready to consider the cost issue.

Soon thereafter, Carol Twigg started the Pew Program in Course Redesign, which had twin goals of using the technology to lower cost and raise the quality of instruction, though in my way of thinking there was much more emphasis on the former than the latter because the focus was on those 20 courses or so that had super large enrollments and accounted for about half the overall enrollments on campus.  For a very brief time I became the poster child for the Pew program, as a result of the work on the SCALE Efficiency Projects.  At the time I had the feeling of being out of the mainstream, with most faculty not involved in those very large courses, so much more interested in the quality issues and not really interested in improving the efficiency of instruction.

This division between quality and cost with regard to instruction showed up in other ways.  There were divides between instructors who cared about technology and those who were phobic of technology but who cared a lot about learning.  Likewise, there were divides between those who supported instructors use of technology and therefore focused on out-of-class learning done online and those who supported instructors by helping with their pedagogy, where the focus was moving away from straight lecture (promoting active learning).  Throughout my time as a campus administrator, I was never able to entirely bridge those divides, though a bit of a thaw developed between the people who worked in the respective units as the technology itself became less remarkable.

All of this played out again when I moved to the College of Business, like a remake of a movie I had seen before.  There was a push to move the larger courses to blended learning, for efficiency reasons.  Many students around campus wanted a Business Minor, but the College lacked the capacity to offer it except to a limited few.  Those large classes were taught by adjuncts.  It was 10 years later and these instructors were not innovators, so that part was different, and my staff put in a lot of effort to compensate for that difference.  But otherwise, it was remarkably similar.  For the rest of the faculty, who did face to face teaching exclusively at that time, faculty development was about improving quality of instruction and documenting teaching efforts for promotion and tenure review.  Some of these faculty were quite resistant to efforts to move instruction online, even as competitors had already done that. 

This summer it it will be five years since I've retired.  Now I'm the one advocating for a focus on quality improvement, with Everybody Teaches leading to an embrace of INSL, all of which emphasizes high touch interaction between learner and teacher.  I'm pushing this argument while the technology that everyone is going gangbusters about on campus is video, in MOOCs and elsewhere too.  High touch teaching emphasizes the instructor in response to students.   Video production, in contrast, emphasizes a lot of up front development, so that the video is recorded and edited well in advance of the class being offered.  These still look separate to me.  Might they become unified eventually?  And might that eventuality be not too far off in the future?

I'm intrigued by the possibility of video made as response, rather than constructed up front, where if this is happening in a class where INSL has been implemented it is the peer mentors who make the videos in response, rather than the instructor/course coordinator.  These videos, measured by production quality, would be inferior to the ones that are made up front. But in terms of salience, the students taking the course may regard them more highly because such videos address issues these students have articulated about the content that was developed up front.  Such issues were not anticipated in the up front development and probably couldn't be.  The virtue of response is that it is situated in where the students actually are.  Up front development, in contrast, is based on some hypothesis about where the students should be.  That hypothesis may very well prove errant.  Over multiple iterations of the course offerings, then, it seems possible that these videos made on the fly could end up replacing some of the videos made up front and/or that the videos made on the fly that seem popular will then be reproduced to have higher production value, if that remains a concern, and then the original videos are dropped.

In other words, where response was just response in the low enrollment Everybody Teaches classes, response might be the gateway to redesign of the videos.  Further, student product (made by the peer mentors) might supplant instructor creation of the content.

While recognizing that the above is highly speculative, it does seem to be a possibility to consider, perhaps even to encourage.  If it happens that would unify matters to a great degree.  Response would be the key.  Course design for online learning could be much less substantial up front, with the course offered in a small class form the first couple of times, to let the redesign of content do its thing.  This would then seem very much like how an Everybody Teaches course should work.

Will we ever get there?  I hope so. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 5 - Retired and Very Senior Faculty in Discovery Courses

Intergenerational transfers of wealth have been a major social concern for the last decade or two.  The fear is that my generation, the Baby Boomers, are sucking the economy dry.  This fear is indirectly responsible for the parallel concern about mounting National Debt while not utilizing the debt to invest in the nation as we have previously done, at least since the Eisenhower years.  Bill Keller had a very good column a few years ago that describes the issues. 

Given this concern, one might think there would be a search for feasible income flows in the opposite direction, from Baby Boomers to Millenials for example; income flows that are real, substantial, and sustainable.  And given that research universities have as part of their raison d'être to innovate toward addressing societal issues, one might imagine that universities would be the focus of this search.

My experience over the last five years or so, since I started to plan my retirement when the university announced the VSIP plan and what has ensued since retiring, suggests this search is not on anyone's radar.  The university is fearful of exposure from highly publicized episodes of retired employees double dipping to excess (being rehired by the university while collecting their pension and being paid handsomely in both instances) so caps have been put into place to limit such behavior.  In contrast, there appears to be little or no strategic interest in utilizing voluntary contributions from retirees to advance the university mission.  Why not?

Collegiality by its very nature has an element of volunteerism to it.  That's what being a good citizen is all about.  Consequently, at the university there is a big gray area for faculty and academic professionals about what is just another task to take on, without any adjustment in compensation required to get acceptance of the responsibility, and overload work that demands an incremental payment.

Indeed, this collegial impulse exists outside of academe as well.  Peter Drucker argues that this should lead to people pursuing dual careers.  In a post entitled A New Progressivism? I described it this way:

Dual Careers and Second Careers - We should follow Peter Drucker in suggesting that all knowledge workers follow a dual career path.  The first career is the one that pays the rent and puts food on the table.  The second career is volunteer work done either via national service or through some not-for-profit organization aimed at doing good works.  The second career is there as a need to satisfy the individual's social conscience and to learn how to be effective in doing so.  At some point in middle life, if the individual has amassed sufficient wealth so the person can retire from the first career, the prior second career becomes the primary work.  The individual then can continue to make a contribution in this way and in the words of Albion Small lead a genuine life.

The, university by its very nature should enable the dual career path to happen and do so with the same employer.  Teaching, in particular, should fit with the notion of a dual career.  Supervising individual students who do independent study projects does fit, as does mentoring of students on an individual basis, when that is not done for course credit.  We seem to draw some line between this individual coaching and courses listed in the Timetable.  Why?

One possible answer to that question, an answer I'd like to take off the table, is to view the retiree instructor as scab labor, now that adjuncts have formed a union. If a course has been on the books for a long time and has been taught regularly in the recent past, the instructor of record for that course should get paid for teaching it.

Indeed in my own teaching, where I was personally sensitive to this issue of possibly displacing a junior faculty member or adjunct from my teaching, I opted to teach a course not on the books, The Economics of Organizations.  It was a fundamentally new offering when I first taught it.  (I've taught it 3 more times since.)  The department benefits from this offering as it increases the variety of elective courses that majors can select from.  And teaching this course, I do get paid, which I view as necessary in this instance to get me willingly to offer exams, which I would prefer not to do and which I don't believe are at all educative, and to deal with various student shenanigans - assignments turned in late, work done showing little to no effort, poor class attendance that shouldn't happen in a low enrollment course, etc. - without giving me tools to combat this lack of commitment.  If I have to manage this reality without being able to reform the situation in any way that makes sense to me, I need to get paid.  However, if I could teach a course based on creating this sort of reform, I'd happily do that for no pay.  What follows is a brief sketch of what this might look like. 

* * * * *

As should be obvious, the reform needs to begin as soon as students arrive on campus.  For typical students, this would be in the fall semester of their freshmen year.  (If the results of such reform showed promise, something similar but targeted at transfer students might also be initiated.  Here I will focus on first-year students.)  The Campus already has on it is books a small class program for freshman.  It is called the Discovery Program and the program is now 20 years old.  From my eyeballing of the course list link (this is from last fall) there are few offerings overall, especially compared to when I taught such a course, in spring 2002.  I suppose that faculty and staff reductions on campus coupled with a substantial increase in undergraduate enrollments have taken their toll on the Discovery Program.  Also, it appears that most of the courses listed are special topics courses.  Back in 2002 I taught a section of Introduction to Microeconomics, which most students take in a very large lecture offering.  I am agnostic on whether the reform should happen in a version of a  Gen Ed class or a special topics class, except insofar as it might impact who opts to enroll in the class.  The experiment is less useful if it ends up over sampling eager beavers and under sampling drones and sluggos.  (Those categories were introduced in the first post of the Everybody Teaches series.) 

The course will have two distinct goals.  The first is the usual goal on producing subject matter knowledge.  The second is on developing learning-to-learn skills in a way that is overt, so the students understand up front this a key objective, though at that time they may not really appreciate what learning-to-learn skills are about.

The course will provide 3 hours of course credit but be scheduled for four hours a week.  That fourth hour is a scheduled office hour that is held in the classroom.  Students will not have the excuse that they can't make this office hour.  Indeed scheduled office hours will be an ordinary part of the class.  Some of that will be in small groups.  The rest will be done individually.  Students will also have the option for further individual consultation outside of normally scheduled time.

The course will be offered for S/U grading only.  There will be no letter grades.  The idea is to see if the students can experience an intensive school environment yet where the extrinsic motivation from letter grades is absent.  The hope is that this is possible and that students can tap into this same motivation in subsequent courses, even when letter grades are present.  Part of the idea is to dispel the myth that the student's purpose at school is to get good grades.  We want to replace that notion with the alternative that the student's purpose is to learn and that grades are not fundamental to learning. A related idea is to get students to appreciate the emotional side that goes along with working hard on their learning and see if they can develop a sense of satisfaction from that.

If a student appears not to be putting forth much effort, this will require some one-on-one time and some coaching/coaxing to get students past the blockage.  If improvement in effort does not occur, as last resort the student will be informed that the student will not receive credit for the course and it will then be suggested that the student drop the class.  This is not a desirable outcome, but this possibility must be understood up front.  If, in contrast the student does appear to be working hard but the quality of work produced is below par, the student will be given all possible encouragement to continue to struggle and thereby to raise the quality of what is produced.  A substantial goal in this respect is for the student to be able to witness improvement in the student's own performance, even if that progress is slow in coming and somewhat meager in magnitude.

There will be two writing assignments each week, each about 600 words.  The first will be prospective in nature, with the student making sense of the readings and/or other outside of class materials (TED talks and other video content, for example) and tying that reading and viewing to course themes.  It has been my experience in the past that many students don't make good meaning out of pieces from sources such as the NY Times.  So part of this will be both an assessment of how well students do read such content and a strong encouragement for them to find and read additional related materials that are not assigned but that help them to get context for the piece that is assigned so they can better understand it.  The other part is for students to begin to understand that they need to ready themselves for learning in this way in their other courses, even when such formative writing assignments aren't present.

This first writing assignment will precede the class discussion on the topic.  They will come to class prepared.  This is meant to counter the practice in many other classes the students attend, whee the lecture in class serves as introduction to the topic.  The second writing assignment will be be retrospective in nature and follow the in class discussion.  The goal here will be to show to the student that learning happens in stages and that one gets a deeper understanding over time.  The further goal will be for the students to tie the course content together and to begin to see how each assignment is part of creating a larger picture that comes from understanding the course as a whole.

Students will receive written feedback on all the written work they submit.  This is a lot of reading of student writing and a lot of feedback to provide by the instructor.  For that reason, the class can't be too large.  My suggestion would be an enrollment cap of 15 students.  When I taught that Discovery class back in 2002 I believe the cap back then was 20 students, or maybe a little higher than that.  But back then, class size was the defining characteristic of a Discovery class.  Here we want to make sure it is high touch and taught in a manner quite distinct from a lecture format.  Back then I believe some Discovery classes were really lectures, but done in a small class setting.

There may be other homework as well.  For example, if this class is an Introduction to Microeconomics section, then students will learn the basic model of supply and demand.  They then need to do assignments that both help them to understand the implications of that model and test whether their understanding is getting deeper over time.  It is my belief that for microeconomics, in particular, students need to have an understanding of the models as things in themselves and they also need to be able to apply the models to a variety of real life situations.  The latter is what the essays would do, while the former is what the other homework would do.  (I design exercises in Excel for this other type of homework.)

There would not be any exams whatsoever.  So there would be no need to cram.  Instead, students would keep up a more or less uniform intensity throughout the semester.  Students will likely still tend to cram for their other courses, which in that sense places a time tax on this course at around the time that midterms are given.  A student who misses class because the student has been cramming for other classes will have a one-on-one session where this is discussed and the instructor strongly discourages the behavior in the future.  One question that I hope comes out of this is whether students can task themselves in their other courses in a way that is more uniform in its time commitment, so that cramming is less necessary.  If students can see the benefits from a more uniform approach, perhaps they will embrace it across the board.

In class, I favor Socratic dialog most of the time, as I believe it best conveys the sort of thinking students should be doing for themselves out of class.  In the past I've asked students to raise their hands and would call on those who do.  Some students would chime in regularly this way.  Other students never would.  It may be better, given that there are no grades, to try calling on students who'd otherwise be quiet.  On this point I'm not sure.  It would be something on which to experiment and see.   Do the students overcome their initial reticence?   One related issue is the fraction of the class who are non-native speakers of English.  Many of the students whose spoken English is not so great tend to be quiet in class.  They seem to prefer the writing part, where they can take their time in forming their thoughts. 

An alternative way to get at that, and something I'd likely embrace as it has worked well in other seminar classes I've taught in the past, is to have teams of students lead the class discussion on occasion.  I would start doing this around the midpoint of the semester and have about one out of the three hours per week led by the students, coaching them ahead of time in how they should go about this.  Among the things to learn from doing this is what additional preparation must be done when you are leading discussion.  How do you anticipate questions that might arise in this case?  How much should you go with the flow of the discussion and how much should you force the discussion back onto the points that were planned for ahead of time?  Planning such a session and then leading it is something all students should experience.  If they find they learn in a deeper way when they prepare for leading a discussion, it might then occur to them to ask why they don't learn in this deeper way all the time.  That would be progress.

With the above, I hope the reader has gotten some sense of what might be possible in a high touch version of a Discovery class, one that is allowed to break some of the university rules (no exams and no course grades).  If it seemed to work, the instructor would be motivated to do it again in the future, to see if the results could be replicated.  Indeed, if several replications happened then the instructor might find it no longer necessary to make significant tweaks to how the class is taught and instead come to view the course offering mainly as a gift to the students, so they become better learners.  This is precisely the sort of income transfer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay.  Then, as long as the instructor has the energy to offer such a close, making such a gift should serve as motive for continuing to do so.

How will one know whether this works or not?  Let me suggest two possibilities, one that the instructor can readily do, the other that will require campus commitment and study to perform.  At the end of my course last fall I invited members of the class to join me in a weekly discussion group in the spring.  I got a few takers, so we are doing this.  It is the first time I've had such a group, though I did try for one the year before, but then I didn't get sufficient response.  My motive for having such a group was that I thought too many of my students were not approaching their studies in a good way.  I wrote up a longish essay to explain my concerns.  There are selection issues with forming such a group - the eager beavers in the class are the ones who most likely will take up the offer.  But if a drone student or perhaps a few of them are willing to participate in the discussion group, that would be strong evidence that the class worked.  Further, from time to time during the weekly discussion one might make comparisons between the class taken in the fall and the current spring classes the students are taking.  This comparison would be in regard to their outside-the-classroom coursework.  Then the students could self-report on how they go about things.  That too would reveal quite a lot about whether the fall class was effective.

Put a different way, many first-year students need academic mentors.  Here I'm not talking about departmental advisers, whose focus is on whether the students are taking the right courses to fit the various departmental and university requirements.  The academic mentors would concentrate, instead, on whether students have a good attitude and approach to their learning, and if not how they might improve in these dimensions.  It is not possible for academic mentoring to be effective unless there is a trust relationship between mentor and mentee.  A high touch Discovery course is a way for such a trust relationship to form.  The discussion group then is a way for that mentoring to play out.  It is too early for me to tell just yet whether the discussion group approach is preferable to one-on-one mentoring.  My first thought on that is students would find a group approach more welcoming and thus would be more likely to participate.  Further, many of the issues are common to the students so for me it would be preferable to have a single joint conversation on those topics.  I'm still making up my mind on whether this is really true.

The approach that requires institutional commitment would be to track the students who took the fall course longitudinally over their full time at the university and do so as well with a control group who didn't take the course.  The tracking could be both about academic performance, as measured by future grades, credit hours taken, etc., and student attitudes about their learning, which would be garnered via surveys and/or from focus groups.  Presumably, the institution has some interest in understanding whether such an approach can be effective and that would justify the cost of doing the study. 

Indeed, over the long hall the institution needs to show it cares and that must become self-evident to the instructors.  I have been scratching my head on this one.  Here are some early thoughts about how the university might do this.

First, though I've talked about this sort of teaching as purely voluntary on the part of the instructor, there might be some modest compensation for the first timers, some of which would be in kind, a faculty development workshop aimed at instructors teaching these Discovery classes, and the rest might be a modest stipend, perhaps for purchase of some computer equipment or to cover travel to a conference.  Then there might be some ongoing funds to cover payment to students who took the class previously and serve as assistants to the instructors in subsequent offerings of the course.  It is now pretty common to offer course credit to such students, and to the extent that enough course credit translates into a tuition reduction, because the student can then enroll in fewer semesters overall, that is essentially the same as a cash payment (though the IRS wouldn't agree).  But the semester savings are lumpy while the hours an undergraduate student works as an assistant in such a class are not.  So funds for an hourly wage for student assistants might be a better demonstration.  Then there is the overall size of the Discovery program.  Who will teach these courses?  Will it remain at modest size with only a few high touch offerings?  Or will it grow and, if so, what will enable that growth?

The purpose for including very senior faculty in my title, without explaining precisely what very senior means, is that tenured faculty themselves know when their research careers are winding down and when they'd like some other sort of challenges to keep them occupied.  These faculty are candidates to teach a Discovery course, in addition to their other on load teaching, with the Discovery course in essence substituting for time that previously had been devoted to research, and in this way readying themselves for continuing to teach the Discovery class when they do retire.

How many Discovery classes might be offered this way?  I have no way of knowing.  If they do prove effective and if the total number of students who can enroll in these classes is far below the number of entering first-year students, there will be reason to expand these offerings.  The university might then want to recruit clinical faculty from the ranks of very senior academic professionals, and from the business world too.  We already do this for adjunct faculty, on occasion.  Not that long ago a study was done at Northwestern that argued adjuncts are better than tenure track faculty for teaching undergraduates, particularly freshmen.  To my knowledge there aren't other studies that try to replicate those results.  One might want to do exactly that, particularly for these sort of Discovery courses.

It is time to wrap up.  To me, a push on Discovery Courses taught as I've described seems both reasonable and fairly obvious.  Yet it clearly isn't happening and as I said doesn't appear to be on anyone's radar.  My only explanation for that comes from implicit assumptions that most people maintain but that I believe should be tested because I don't think they are correct.  The first is that high touch teaching, done in a significant way, would be very expensive.  The second is that retirees who volunteer their labor can't be relied on to make a significant contribution.  Real social innovation comes from testing such veiled assumptions and proving them to false.  That's what we should be doing here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Response Ability

I'm taking a break from my series Everybody Teaches to get at a crucial issue that underlies the idea of "high touch teaching," which is at the core of that proposal.  The issue concerns good response to ideas articulated by students.  What does good response mean?  How does an instructor learn to provide good response?  If the instructor is earnest but unable to provide good response, I'm afraid that the effort at high touch teaching will fail.  So the issue is whether any instructor can learn to provide good response and in a reasonable amount of time (say in a short course taken over the summer) or if it is a matter of expertise subject to the 10,000 hours rule (meaning it is a skill cultivated over a lifetime).

I took such a short course in spring 1996, in the WAC faculty workshop led by Gail Hawisher and Paul Prior.  (WAC stands for Writing Across the Curriculum.)   While I don't recall the specific pieces we read and discussed, response was at the heart of the matter, both what to say to a piece of student writing and how to manage the time commitment so it doesn't become unbearable to read the student work and provide the response. Thinking about teaching as response was enormously helpful to me at the time.  That workshop stands out in my memory as the best exposure to pedagogy I ever participated in. 

Yet, after a little reflection, it is plain that I didn't come to that workshop as a blank slate.  At a professional academic level, one gives response to a paper presented at a seminar by offering up comments and questions as a member of the audience.  (Also by discussing the paper with the author one-on-one in an office visit.)  I had a reputation in the department for being good at seminars.  One also gives response to papers by writing a referee report.  Over the years I learned to write a referee report that was helpful to both the author and the editor.  So I had plenty of practice ahead of time.  It's just that until that workshop I hadn't used that practice in undergraduate teaching.  And the truth is that then I was teaching a high enrollment class, where I relied on undergraduate TAs to respond to student queries.  It wasn't until many years later when I started to teach with blogs in a small seminar class that I really began to respond to student writing. 

Soon after starting to teach that class I wrote a post called Personal Learning Coaches for College Students.  The first paragraph from that piece is reproduced below.

One of the things that is jumping out at me as I teach a seminar class for Honors students is that students need their thinking critiqued and that if they feel the person providing the critique is earnest and sensitive to their needs, while also being critical where appropriate, then the student very much wants the coaching. I hadn't planned to serve in the role of learning coach before the course started. After a week or so into the semester, it seemed like a necessary thing for some of the students. In one case it appeared that the student was making intellectual errors of a certain sort. The student needs extensive practice with a different approach to remedy the problem. In a couple of other cases it was more a matter of confidence. The students were under performing and needed feedback and reassurance that they were ok, while at the same time getting a critique of their early work, which was not up to par. 

So at a broad strokes level the response must be earnest and sensitive to the student's needs.  How does one do that at a  drill down level?  And should it be done in a conversation or in writing?  Or does that matter?

I'm better at giving written response to students, so for me at least some of this should not be conversation.  Further, purely from a scheduling point of view, to have an in depth conversation with each student on a regular basis is a difficult matter.  It might be easier to do with groups of students, but responding to a group is not the same as coaching the individual.

One thing I try to do is bring out into the open tacit assumptions that underlie what the student is writing about.  The student may be unaware that those assumptions are present, so making them explicit raises student awareness.  Another thing I try for is to get at some of the implications that would seem to follow from what the student said but which the student does not bring up.  Sometimes I will introduce a related fact and then ask how the story the student told would have to be modified to accommodate that fact.  Then, on rare occasion, I'll tell a personal anecdote to commiserate with the student.  Finally, if the student says something that I don't fully understand I will say so and try to indicate why I'm confused.

This gives a variety of things the instructor might try in response.  When this is done with student blogs, the response appears as a comment to the post.  I require that the student then responds to my comment with a comment of her own.

I try not to correct grammar, though if there are quite a few typos I might urge the student to proofread her own writing before submitting it and to use a spell checker.  If there is misuse of the same word repeatedly throughout the document, then I might include a comment specifically about that word and its proper usage. 

Since I don't have any records of that WAC seminar from 1996, and my memory is not that good,  I'm not sure how much of the previous two paragraphs were suggestions I first heard there.  I'm pretty sure that most of what I do I got from somewhere else but there is still the matter of exactly how to respond to a specific piece of writing.  I do not go through a checklist, that is for sure.  Typically when I read something where the student appears earnest in the writing, some piece of what the student says strikes me as the thing to focus on in my response.  So, I believe, one has to ask first what is the gist of what the student says.  Good response requires being an effective enough reader to be able to make that sort of determination. 

If a person has those reading skills, the rest seems to me to be teachable, though there is no doubt that practice is required to be competent in giving good response. At issue, then, is whether an instructor who has spent most of his career lecturing to students wants to reorient himself, now that his career is winding down and he has more time on his hands to do so.   I wonder how many instructors in that situation would be willing to give it a try. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 4 - Team Teaching by a Tenured Faculty Member and a Graduate Student

This post will be a little different from the others in the Everybody Teaches series, because I'm less confident of whether the first issue it deals with is a systemic problem or not.  But it certainly was a big deal for me when I was a brand new assistant professor and I suspect it matters for more new junior faculty than we might care to admit. The second issue I do believe to be systemic and therefore justifies much of the approach discussed here.

At Northwestern when I was a grad student, you served as a TA during your second year in the program, after you had completed most of the core coursework during the first year.  (Econometrics and economic history were taken in the second year.)  For the first two quarters I TA'd in introduction to microeconomics.  I was quite a popular TA.  Theoretical micro was my area of interest and I had a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject.   I did two sections each quarter, which was the normal load at the time.  I don't recall getting any training on teaching whatsoever, but that didn't matter much or so it seemed to me at the time.  I got along well with the instructors to whom I was assigned.  And I was well received by the students.  In the fall quarter the class wasn't that large (maybe 60 overall) so I was the only TA for that instructor.  In the winter quarter there were a few other TAs.  If memory serves, we graded the exams jointly, each of us assigned one question to grade.  We also had some say in the final grades the students got.  I have a vague recollection of arguing to give an A to some student who had shown good intuition, but was a little shy on points from the exams.  Overall, it was quite a positive experience.

In the spring things were a little different.  I was a TA for statistics, which was not my focus.  The reason I was asked to do this, is that the grad student in my cohort who was excellent in econometrics was Vietnamese, with a French accent, and they were afraid to put him in front of a classroom.  So he ended up being the grader while I led the discussion section, which if I recall was one big section rather than two smaller ones.  It was useful to have the experience of teaching somewhat outside my area of expertise.  Stats is a course that some students really struggle with, so I got to see that in a few students.  I don't recall seeing that at all in the first two quarters. 

I did not teach again till I came to Illinois, though I did serve as a grader for Leon Moses in his intermediate microeconomics class during my third year.  My first semester at Illinois, fall 1980, I taught one course, intermediate microeconomics.  Going in I thought I was reasonably well prepared, given my prior experience as a graduate student.  But I bombed terribly and got horrible teacher evaluations.

I should add here that I never took as an undergrad any of the courses that I TA'd for as a grad student.  And I never took intermediate microeconomics either.  The only undergraduate course in economics I took was principles of macroeconomics. That lack of experience may have exacerbated the problem.  I'm not sure whether that is true or not, but it is worth considering.

The core problem was teaching a course that was over the heads of the students; it was way too difficult for them.  Let me get at a several reasons why this happened.  First, there is a tendency for recent graduate students to view undergraduate courses as preparation for grad school and then teach the courses accordingly.  Yet very few undergraduates in economics go on to do doctoral work in the field.  Further, intermediate microeconomics is a required course for every student in the College of Business.  So, in fact, most of the students weren't even economics majors.  (This part was unlike Northwestern, where there was no undergraduate business major.)   Second, I was very young when I first started at Illinois, only 25, and not that different in age from the students I'd be teaching.  So there is an issue of how to establish one's authority as an instructor and get past the question - are you the TA?   In that circumstance I've learned it is somewhat natural to amp up the difficulty level of the course so the instructor can show he knows what he's talking about.  Those first two factors are probably present with any new instructor, irrespective of discipline.  The third one is more specific.  I was a math guy and like to make arguments about the math models that are central to the economics.  The vast majority of the students were not comfortable with that sort of argument.  (This issue I still confront, all these years later.)  One last issue is that I had a sense of what Northwestern undergraduates were like in terms of their ability, but I was unsure whether the Illinois kids were essentially like the Northwestern kids that way or not.  Teaching a harder course tests the students more on the ability dimension.

Could much of my bombing in this course been avoided and if so, how?  Further, would the patient willingly have taken the cure?  In my particular case, where I was the grader for Leon Moses in the winter quarter, suppose I became an apprentice teacher with him for intermediate microeconomics in the spring. At the time I had started to work on a research project with Leon about Inventory Investment and the Theory of the Firm.  So we had a good and collegial relationship at hand.  Leon was a very popular and effective teacher.  He was not a math guy at all and was much more anecdotal in his approach.  Suppose I came to his lectures, was asked to give a few lectures to substitute for Leon while he would watch from the sidelines, assist him in writing exam questions, and have some conversations about goals for the teaching and how to set the difficulty level of what was presented.  That never happened, but if it did much of that poor teaching performance when I started at Illinois might have been avoided.  (I should also note here that Leon was not my adviser.  John Ledyard was my adviser, but John taught exclusively in the graduate program.)  I'd have done this willingly with Leon where I likely wouldn't have done this with another undergraduate instructor with whom I had no prior relationship, unless it paid reasonably well.

Illinois relies on TAs much more than Northwestern does, which is what you'd expect given the tuition differential between the two places.  So Illinois devotes real resources to TA training, both in the late summer before the start of the fall semester and throughout the fall and spring.  This training is mainly given by staff who are pedagogy experts, with a smattering thrown in from instructors around campus, who serve as exemplars.  That training, I believe, does a good job of readying these graduate students to become effective TAs.  But I want to observe that such training would not have helped me much if at all in setting the course difficulty level when I first started at Illinois.  Difficulty is cast within the discipline and must be determined by disciplinary norms.  It is not uncommon at Illinois for more advanced graduate students to teach stand alone sections of courses as the instructor of record.  Are they prepared intellectually to do that?   If so, how does that come about?  Perhaps they have more common sense than I did and don't teach a course that is too hard.  Do they otherwise provide good and correct offerings?

So there is a case to be made for apprentice teaching in courses at the undergraduate level, as a way to train doctoral students to teach well in the discipline.  Such an apprenticeship should come after being a TA for a while.  The apprenticeship is not meant to substitute for the pedagogy training that new TAs receive.  Rather it is meant to instruct the graduate student on the executive decision making that instructors make while planning to teach an undergraduate course, as well as to learn how to take feedback from the students and make adjustments in the course during the semester.  Doing this in a high touch section is probably best.  The students will be more accepting of the apprentice teacher and it will be far easier to see how the choices made while planing the course impact student learning, when the teaching is done in a high touch section.

* * * * *

I want to begin to connect the dots between the posts in the Everybody Teaches series.  It may have already occurred to the reader that each of these posts is not just a variation on a theme but also part of a grander scheme. You can begin to see that scheme by noting that each of the component pieces has been done toward a dual purpose, where the primary purpose was articulated in the piece but the secondary purpose has not been brought forward until now.  You can think of the secondary purpose as a readying activity for what is to come next.

For staff supporting faculty development, the co-teaching with adjunct faculty is meant to ready them to ask the following question.  Can they persist in a productive way offering faculty development that is generic across the disciplines or must they bring in disciplinary expertise as part and parcel of the process?  And if they did bring in disciplinary expertise, how would the components to faculty development fit together?

For the adjunct faculty themselves, the co-teaching with support staff and the further teaching of a high touch section in conjunction with their large lecture classes is meant to ready them for other conversations they will have about topic coverage and difficulty level of the courses they are teaching, how the students seem to be handling it, and potential changes to their courses based on needs articulated by instructors in more advanced courses for which their courses serve as prerequisites.

For the high level administrators, though the direct experience they will garner from co-teaching a small high touch class will at best give them a blindfolded understanding of the elephant (undergraduate education on campus) by touching their little portion of the beast, it will have provided them an opportunity to lead by example and then to send the following message to the tenured faculty.  You have a responsibility for quality assurance with undergraduate education, particularly with the majors in your own departments.  Are the students engaged in their studies?  As they near graduation, do they have a deep understanding of the subject matter in your disciplines?  As a first step in discharging this responsibility, you must develop a sense of the answers to those questions, one that is obtained directly by knowing some of the students.  Review of syllabi and exam performance may also be necessary, but the latter is far from sufficient.  Direct knowledge of the students is needed to make an informed determination.

For the tenured faculty who are co-teaching a high touch class with a graduate student apprentice teacher, the experience should give the faculty member some sense of the undergraduate major, just as teaching any upper level course gives the instructor a sense of how effective the classes that came before have been.  The co-teaching experience with the graduate student will ready the faculty member for like conversations with adjuncts in the department about the topic coverage and difficulty level of their classes.  These tenured faculty members will, in effect, be learning to use such conversations as a method of teaching, where absent such preparation they might be more prone to scold the adjuncts if given the opportunity.  Scolding will not do here.  Promoting learning is what's needed.

All of this activity constitutes a lot of effort, in aggregate.  One might reasonably ask whether the effort is necessary, since it hasn't been necessary in the past.  Let me give my thinking for why it is necessary and then close. 

First is the business side of the argument.  Tuition from undergraduate education is now crucial for the university to operate, where in the past it was important but not as important as now.  Recently we've witnessed the decline in enrollments in certain professional programs, at a national and perhaps even international level.  The MBA offers one example.  Law school gives another.  Those trends have threatened the particular colleges where those professional programs are housed, but they have not really hurt the university overall.  Weakness in the demand for undergraduate education, should it materialize, would be an entirely different matter. The university as a whole would suffer as a consequence, especially given the anticipation that General Revenue Funds (tax dollars as a university revenue source) will be in short supply from here on out.

How likely is it that the demand for undergraduate education may start to show weakness?   Nobody knows this with any precision.  But many lesser well regarded colleges and universities have struggled since the burst of the housing bubble for this reason, as the softness in the labor market made students and their families reluctant to pay the high tuition cost.  Clearly a stronger labor market would help, but that is outside our control.  What we can influence, however, is the quality of the education our students receive.  That too should affect earnings for graduates.  And to the extent that serious effort is put into assuring quality of that education, it should enhance the university's reputation as a good place for students to attend. 

Second is the internal process side of the argument.  Historically, many research oriented faculty members were heavily engaged in doctoral education, but largely uninformed about undergraduate education.  The model had been to have faculty in the public eye teach principles courses, then have very senior faculty or those no longer doing research teach the undergraduate courses, with a small number of adjuncts and visitors utilized to round out the course offerings.  The newer model has a much greater reliance on adjunct instructors.  But there has been little or no change among the research faculty in their engagement with undergraduate education.  At a minimum, adjuncts are often cut off from the intellectual/cultural life of the department, where senior faculty would still be part of that, though perhaps at an intensity level that is less than when they were younger.  Doesn't this difference in itself justify some other form of connection between the adjuncts and the research faculty?

There is also the question whether the nature and the quality of the teaching has changed as a consequence of the move to adjuncts, where here I'm referring to something other than that research faculty can bring their research experiences into their teaching while adjuncts can't.  Rather one wonders whether there has been a large drift toward a teaching to the test approach, something the students implicitly seem to want given their focus on grades.  If that has been happening isn't it something the university as a whole should combat? 

Third is whether the students are different now.  Many people write about generational differences - the always on technology, that sort of thing.  Here I mean something different, something that has also affected my generation especially since the housing bubble burst, namely a pessimism about the future that wasn't there when we were students, though we lived through a variety of serious problems - Vietnam, Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, etc.  In the 1970s when I was a college student here was a shared belief that things would get better, though there may have also been substantial nihilism at the time, fed by students wondering whether things would get better any time soon.  Now, however, the problems appear of a greater magnitude and we frequently seem to be shooting ourselves in the foot rather than addressing those problems head on.  These include climate change and its consequences, income and wealth inequality, and the scourge of terrorism.  As young adults, undergraduates are in a formative frame of mind with regard to their own beliefs and personal commitments.  The nihilism, evidenced by excessive student drinking, may be greater now.  The mercenary tendencies also may greater.  This has been a generation that grew up under No Child Left Behind.  Testing and accountability has been part and parcel of school for them all the way through.  What impact has that had?  Shouldn't the university be putting forth substantial effort to counter these tendencies?

The last decade has witnessed a general decline in trust in institutions.  Teaching our undergraduates is a core university mission.  We should be all about re-establishing the trust.  That, in a nutshell, is why this effort is necessary.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 3 - Team Teaching by High Level Administrators

Discord and dialectic may typify real social systems.  This is something I know at an intellectual level from my study of social science.  Yet that hobgoblin, consistency, bedevils me on occasion.  (The math modeling part of me wants the world to actually be very much like the model.  That would certainly make understanding what's going on a lot easier.)

In this case the discord is with regard to how we on campus talk about teaching and learning, where "we'" means faculty and support staff when having conversations about the issues, versus how the marketing arm of the university promotes teaching and learning to the general public for the purpose of recruiting students, and to alumni for the purpose of fund raising.  The message in those promotions is all about how wonderful things are and what a great experience for students the university offers.  After all, the general public's first connection with the university is likely to be via football or men's basketball, while watching a game on TV.  How else would you expect the university to promote itself during those commercials aired at halftime?  Marketing is marketing, isn't it?

Yet there is a concept called truth in advertising, which in my way of thinking should go beyond disclaimers, such as those at the end of commercials for highly marketed drugs.  Truth in advertising should educate the public about the product being sold.  One would think this would be especially important when the seller is a not-for-profit that professes to adhere to the free exchange of ideas.  And the issue is becoming more prominent for the university as of late, because of the increasing importance tuition plays on the revenue side of the university's budget and because the hyperinflation in tuition over the last 30+ years that has resulted in having current in-state tuition at Illinois (a public university) higher in real terms than what tuition was at major private universities (I'm thinking about Cornell, where I got my undergraduate degree, and Northwestern, where I got my doctorate) back when I went to college.  So many people are asking: is college still worth it?

The education of the public that I mentioned above should not answer that question in the affirmative simply as a matter of course (nor should it answer the question in the negative).  Instead, it should provide those factors one must consider to make a reasonable determination on the matter.  And in so doing, it should make the obvious point that tuition and fees and related costs to students and their families are fairly straightforward to calculate, the type of things you can plug into a spreadsheet.  In contrast, the benefits from the education, real though they may be, are far less tangible.  For example, Frank Bruni has been on a tear as of late linking the benefit of college to learning poetry.

One can be far more practical in approach than Bruni and still argue that the benefits from college education are not very tangible and are hard to monetize, particularly before the fact.  I teach my students that they care about GPA so much because it is virtually impossible to measure a person's human capital without working siding by side with that person for some extended period of time.  So the market looks for proxies to address this measurement issue, especially for starting positions.  But over one's career, actual human capital should matter for earnings.  The proxy can't sustain forever if it isn't highly correlated with the real thing.  Yet many of the students don't know what the real thing looks like and so put their efforts into making the best proxy they can make.  This myopia is a big part of the issue with college learning.

On Wednesday I went to a faculty development session on campus entitled, Just Tell Me the Answer:  Moving from Passive Students to Active Learners.  The session was well attended.  And my fellow attendees seemed of one mind on this.  Too many students are far too instrumental about their learning and not sufficiently invested in the activity.  I take that to be the view of most faculty on campus who would say they care about teaching.  (Among such faculty, many would say they have colleagues who care only about research.  While caring only about research might still be prevalent now, it becomes unsustainable in a world where tuition is the prime revenue driver of the university.  So let's ignore that view in the rest of the piece as accounting for it doesn't help in making the argument.)

Finding defect in the students is not very good marketing as a recruiting tool, to say the least, especially if it is articulated in a blunt way that makes it appear a permanent problem.  It possibly could be turned into a marketing strength, if the college experience could be shown to transform students from being very instrumental about their learning to being much more engaged and self-directed in their classes, and in their learning outside of class as well.  And if this sort of personal transformation was fairly common among the students, the faculty might then have more empathy for entering students and take more pride in the accomplishments of students as they near graduation.

At present this is a hope only, not a reality.  The faculty, most of whom are not at all involved in revenue generation in support of teaching, voice their opinions based on the current situation as they see it from the perch of teachers in the classes they do teach.  The folks who do marketing, in contrast, feel that only by showing the university in the best possible light can they be successful in the work they do.  There are very few people on campus who straddle both worlds.  The high level administrators I mentioned in my title (think about the Chancellor, the Provost, the Deans, and others too who have important administrative responsibility) constitute the group that does have this dual view. 

Most of this group were previously active and successful faculty members.  Their academic history is a big part of their bona fides, which is what gives them credibility when interacting with faculty as administrators.  But, because fund raising has become an increasingly important part of the job, they have a good chance of becoming captured by their advisory councils and other well-to-do donors they court. Further, as Daniel Kahneman teaches us about WYSIATI in Thinking Fast and Slow, this capture encourages these high powered administrators to embrace the fiction in the marketing view of the university.  The team teaching that is suggested in my title is there mainly so these administrators see for themselves the learning issues that the faculty who care about teaching are talking about.  It is insufficient to maintain that since these administrators were once regular faculty they understand the teaching issues implicitly.  Out of sight is out of mind.

However, simply having the administrators teach is not enough.  For example, when I had my campus level position I did teach on occasion, mainly to students in the Campus Honors Program.  While some concerns about student learning might be revealed from teaching such a course, in the main teaching only honors students shields the instructor from the larger issues that are of concern here.  So, while the course team taught by administrators should be a small, high touch offering, as should all the courses we will be discussing in the Everybody Teaches series, at a minimum it should be open to all.  Better still, there would be invitations issued ahead of time to students whose profiles predicted they were drones or sluggos, but not to students whose profiles suggested they were eager beavers.  (These categories are explained in my previous post.)  Only if the slots in the class couldn't be filled by those receiving invites would it be made open to the general student population. 

To illustrate what might be possible, let's imagine that the Chancellor and Provost co-teach a course on Leadership in Higher Education, intended for students taking the Leadership Minor.  (I will abstract entirely from whether they do this under an existing rubric and course number or if there is a specially designated rubric and number for each of the team taught courses by high level campus administrators.  I don't want to get hung up on administrivia. Obviously, that and many other details need to be resolved at the appropriate time.)  The course will be done in the high touch style - a seminar format in class and weekly writing out of class.  These administrators buy into the approach and the time commitment it involves.  (Below, we'll reconsider both the buy in and the time commitment.)

What do we expect the administrators to get from the experience?  The most substantial learning comes from being surprised, where expectations are confounded and as a consequence the learner is forced to reconsider what those expectations had been based on and what alternative theory might better explain what was observed.  I would hope that some of the surprise would be of the delightful kind, a sense of uplift from seeing students who are challenged struggle to overcome that challenge and then witness that they do make real progress.  As an example of this, I will offer up a post from one of my students last semester, who writes under a class-assigned alias.  This student attended class diligently but never said a word in class discussion.  The student also struggled with the writing early on.  The second paragraph of the essay is especially poignant.

But many of the surprises will be disappointments, such as when a bright student acts like a classroom lawyer via-à-vis the syllabus rather than behave in accord with the spirit of the class.  (See the comments that follow this post.)  And many of these disappointments will result from ordinary behavior of the students carried over from their other classes that trumps that in this class the instructors are VIPs.  Some students will skip class.  Others will provide evidence in the class discussion that they haven't done the assigned readings.  Still others will miss assignments or turn them in after the deadline.  In other words, the students won't seem to be bringing their "A game."  The takeaway will be - these students can do better for themselves and we, the university, should do better by the students to encourage them to up their own performance. 

What then?  I should note here first that the reason for the co-teaching is for the administrators to assure themselves that their impressions are accurate.  So envision that while walking to and from class the Chancellor and Provost have discussion throughout the semester, not just about the current class session but about the larger lessons they are getting from teaching the course.  It is possible they may differ in interpretation about the performance of a single student in a particular instance.  But in aggregate they must come to some agreement about what has been going on in class and come to some preliminary conclusion about why they've observed the class to perform in this way.

Then envision that other high level administrators who also team teach their own classes come to similar conclusions.  Collectively they discuss their impression at their regular committee meetings.  Over time they come to the conclusion that their is a serious problem that requires a systematic approach to address properly.  What that systematic approach is I won't speculate on here, though since I am writing this series of posts called Everybody Teaches, it should be evident that I'd like to see that articulation of ideas as a big part of the solution. 

I want to now go several steps beyond this in considering Campus governance and Campus decision making.  There is a lack of trust in both among many of the faculty.  The argument is that we're too top down.  Further there is a cold war going on between the STEM disciplines, on the one hand, and the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, on the other.  There is a need to end this cold war and re-establish the trust.  A push on undergraduate education that would address the issues raised above might very well be the right vehicle to achieve these ends.  It would require substantial effort from across Campus to change the normal patterns and modify the culture in ways conducive to foster deeper student learning.  The Campus needs an all hands on deck approach, which in turn requires a substantial and real problem to solve.  In my view, this one is it.

As I write this, it is clear that most people have their attention turned elsewhere.  For administrators and many worried faculty and staff, their minds are on the pending budget cuts.  That likely will necessitate retrenchment, which in turn encourages a hunker down mentality.   Further, specifically regarding teaching innovation, the current push on Campus is in the MOOCs arena.  From some dedicated faculty I've talked to recently, I know that is where they are focusing their efforts.  It is something new for them to try.  They enjoy the challenge of experimenting with next generation learning.  You can't stop progress. 

So we won't get there today, nor tomorrow, nor next week, nor even next month.  I don't know when we will get there but I hope it is soon because as we flail in the search for new revenues to replace state funds that will no longer be forthcoming, it should begin to occur to some that ongoing revenue from tuition is not guaranteed at all and that we need to be proactive to protect that revenue source.  This will become increasingly more difficult to do if the labor market for new graduates remains soft.  Protecting the revenue source provides the self-interested motive for the university to make this push on undergraduate education.

Yet there are other significant impediments in the way apart from lack of focus.  These include: denial that there is a problem, admitting that there is a problem but believing it is limited to certain disciplines only (e.g., it is a big issue in the social sciences but not an issue at all in STEM disciplines), agreeing that there is a problem but thinking it is too hard to solve especially given the limited resources that can be brought to bear to address the problem, and finally that nobody has any time to do something about it because everybody is on a rapidly spinning treadmill.  This last one has been present at least since the last round of budget cuts five years ago. 

My hope is that some prescient and brave souls at the Associate Provost level see their way past these impediments and are the first to try the team teaching approach.  They then use that initial experience as a way to encourage others at their level and above to likewise try it for themselves.  Then the idea snowballs.

If one thinks back a few years to when MOOCs first started, those ideas originated outside our campus.  Faculty may have become aware of those ideas by what they read in the Chronicle or in Inside Higher Ed.  Administrators may have been given a harder sell.  (On our campus that would have come from those starting up Coursera.)  The type of innovation discussed in this essay requires no commercial entity to promulgate it.  But it should be realized that if it makes sense on our campus, it will also make sense on other like campuses.  The underlying issues about undergraduate education are not unique to Illinois.  Those issues are present at all public R1s nationally. 

One advantage for me in coming up with this Everybody Teaches plan is that as a retiree I'm no longer caught up in the job of sustaining what is currently going on around campus, so it makes it easier to consider how we would redesign what we are doing if were to start from scratch.   Since I still teach, I garner the learning issues mainly from that, though also from listening to other instructors.  Yet, since I'm an economist, I'm mindful of the resource constraints that must be respected in doing any possible alternative.

I'm ready to admit there may be some wishful thinking in the above, especially about high level administrators somehow finding the time for this team teaching activity, without giving them advice on what they currently are doing that they should drop.  That problem also needs to be solved, but I'm not the one to offer a solution.  Those prescient Associate Provosts I mentioned must see there way to some solution of this problem.  Otherwise, the whole thing goes nowhere.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they can find a realistic answer. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everybody Teaches Part 2 - Support Staff and Adjunct Faculty Development

It's helpful for me to think back to the second half of the 1990s and all the mistakes I made conceptually in formulating what we should do with learning technology on campus, especially once I got named as the Director of the Center for Educational Technologies, after having taken over running the SCALE project from Burks.  The core error is best illustrated with this diffusion curve based on the work of Everett Rogers.

SCALE funded course development projects with quite generous grants.  Many of the grantees did cutting edge work.  As I was providing financial support for that work via the grants, and got to know many of the grantees pretty well, I felt quite smart about it.  I knew how to pick winners, or so it seemed to me at the time.  And the model was remarkably simple, once you identified the grant recipients.  Give them the resources and let them create.  They did some wonderful things.  In several cases, the Spanish Project one prime example, derivatives of what were implemented then are still in use in current instruction.  (The Spanish Project got funding from other Campus sources in addition to SCALE, such as for a complete redo of the Language Learning Lab.)  Interestingly to me, among those pioneering faculty who were then younger or mid-career instructors, several went on to become high level administrators on campus.

In case it is not obvious here, all of these grantees would be classified as Innovators in the above diffusion curve.  Innovators drive innovation.  In this case the innovation was how to teach in an imaginative way utilizing technology, with the particular utilization spurred by the creator's matching of what the technology could do to the learning issue at hand.  In this framing of the innovation, the technology itself was an enabler, much as paint and canvas are an enabler for an artist.  The technology wasn't the driver for the cutting edge approaches that were developed then.  The people were the drivers.  The mistake I mentioned was confounding one for the other.

The mistake mattered for what came next.  It didn't happen all at once and indeed CET started in its mission earnestly, with high energy, and evidently doing some good.  That mission was to bring educational technology to majority faculty, at least those in the majority who showed some interest in having this happen, with the hope that some of the benefits found in the courses taught by the innovators would likewise happen with this much larger group of instructors.

Further, in considering how CET should go about its work, I was informed by something we did the year before in the SCALE project.  Varkki George, then a faculty member in Urban Planning on Campus and one of those real innovators with the technology, had been a "faculty fellow" in SCALE.  His mission was to assist other instructors who were WAC faculty (WAC stands for Writing Across the Curriculum) into using technology to assist them in their teaching.  If you teach a WAC course, you are a dedicated teacher.  Teaching a course with extensive student writing is much more labor intensive than delivering a straight lecture course.  What Varkki found was that even these very dedicated teachers were somewhat wooden about implementing the technology.  They simply didn't see how it would help them and open up interesting possibilities that they hadn't tried before.  Varkki's contribution was getting these other instructors to see the possibilities.

So I envisioned the mission as one where my CAIS staff (CAIS was an old designation from the Plato days and stood for Computer Assisted Instruction Specialist) would coach faculty in much the manner that Varkki did, getting them to see how the technology would open up interesting possibilities in their teaching.  And at the outset there was a fair amount of time that the staff put into this function.

But over time there was a drift toward the help desk function, a necessary complement of the core mission, but one that seemingly ended up overtaking the core mission.  There were many reasons for this drift, some of which had to do with CET becoming CITES EdTech after merging with the large Campus IT organization.  But I'd like to focus on just one factor here that is something else, a factor to reckon with whenever there are staff who support faculty but who are not faculty themselves.  The support relationship best happens as a horizontal one.  The instructor and the support professional then are peers.  Each must bring something to the relationship.  The support professional implicitly understands this and, especially if the person hasn't ever taught before, or its been quite a while since last teaching, it is easy enough for the person to substitute expertise in the technology itself for expertise in how the technology might improve the teaching.

Once this happens, then it becomes the faculty member's job to find the interesting use.  But if the finding that Varkki had first shown remained true, most faculty members would not find the interesting use.  The technology would be used only in a matter of fact way, providing some convenience but doing nothing to transform how learning happens. 

Fast forward to six years later, after I had started this blog and at about the same time we had rolled out our enterprise learning management system on Campus, Illinois Compass.  Several months later I wrote a post called Where are we going with learning technology?  The paragraph below, from that piece, marks this change.  It clearly bothered me.  A year later I was no longer doing the Campus job, because I didn't like what we had become.  I had hoped we could be truer to the original mission.

This seems common sense to me and on the teaching and learning side, in particular, we used the mantra in the SCALE days – it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it – just to hammer home that point. However, now that I’ve been involved with campus support of learning technology for a number of years, and that includes the smart classrooms as well as the online piece, I have to say the focus is quite different. Most of it is on use, and how the faculty implement with (or opt out of) the technology. Rarely is there a discussion of transformation of practice and where we’d like to be going in that respect.

Faculty development that has a chance to transform the recipient's teaching is of necessity labor intensive. One should therefore ask which instructors get this opportunity.  Most of the opportunities I am aware of are by instructor opt in, either through a formal competitive grant process or via a registration process based on first come first served, where the event might get sold out.  Instructor opt in makes good sense for the providers offering the faculty development opportunity.  They can then proceed under the assumption that every instructor who is there wants to be there.  But the economics of opt in activities, in general, produces the following consequence.  The usual suspects opt in.  This is just as true with undergraduate research and other high touch opportunities for students to interact with faculty, where it is the elite student who consumes most of these activities, as it is for faculty development and other opportunities for instructors to improve and share their experiences about teaching.  The implication is that there will be some instructors who are untouched by significant faculty development opportunities, even if, when viewed from the Campus level, it would be a good thing for these instructors to receive faculty development and modify their teaching as a consequence.

An alternative approach would be to have faculty development as a normal condition of employment, just as having a computer is part and parcel of the job.  Indeed, in the old SCALE days Virginia Tech linked replacement of the faculty computer to the faculty development activity.  The two were bundled together.  At the time I was jealous of the Virginia Tech approach and wished we could do something similar here.  I doubt our campus could do that now, but perhaps it would be possible with adjunct faculty, as teaching is their job and the campus should assure they are proficient and current in their approach to teaching.

Much faculty development happens in workshop form - often a week (or something close to that) in the early summer when the instructor can devote full attention and not be distracted by the ordinary obligations of the fall and spring.  The atmosphere is typically collegial and quite engaging.  Staff when preparing for such an event usually are in high spirits.  This is what they'd like to be doing much of their time.  The enthusiasm for the endeavor notwithstanding, there are limitations to the approach, especially if the attendees are late majority or even laggards as depicted in the graph above.

One should consider the workshop as the start of a process of innovation cycles, with the cycle approach to innovation in teaching suggested by Nancy Chism, among others.  This means the workshop helps the instructor with the initial framing of the teaching issues and with the first set of ideas to implement.  The instructor is more on his own after that.  The reaction of students to whatever is new with the teaching, adjustments in mid semester based on early feedback, the instructor's reflection on the course and what to try the next time around, these are equally important.   Yet the instructor will often not seek help for that part of the process, unless the help is built in at the outset.  Further, it is well known that for technology innovations in particular, course evaluations are apt to go down after that first time with the innovation - the instructor is not yet comfortable with doing the new thing and the instructor's discomfort is evident to the students.   Something in the instructor's head must say, "stay the course."  Otherwise, the instructor will be tempted to revert to what he was doing before.  That is a safer play.

These thoughts inform the recommendation given below for a different type of approach to faculty development, one that is specifically aimed at adjunct faculty.

* * * * *

Let's begin with a brief sketch of our hypothetical adjunct faculty member.  He teaches one 200-level course a semester, about 600 students in total, in two different lecture sections, each of which meets for three hours a week. This course is straight lecture, no discussion section.  He has one Teaching Assistant, who helps with the online communication within the learning management system and does some of the course administration, of which there is a large amount given the class size.  He also teaches a totally online section in the summer, with the grad assistant then teaching the face to face summer offering as a stand alone course.

He's been doing this now for upwards of 6 years and it is pretty much teaching by the numbers at this point.  He does have to be careful when writing exams, so they are similar to but not identical to the parallel exams given in prior semesters, this to deter cheating and make the testing fair to those who do prepare for exams the right way.  Otherwise, the course is time invariant.  He is a nice guy and students sense this.  So he gets decent course evaluations, though the students find the subject a bit on the dry side. 

Is the approach working?  How would he know?   How would anyone else know?  The exam scores are decent, though not great.  But the exams are of necessity all multiple choice.  He'd like to ask essay questions to better test student understanding, but who would grade those essays with just him and the one TA?  And even with essay questions, there are only two midterms and a final.  The course is jammed full of content.  The exams test on a sampling of the content only.  What about understanding on the stuff that wasn't tested?

The innovations proposed here are meant to address those questions.  They are not meant to offer up changes in teaching the large course, at least not directly.  Such changes might come later.  First, the instructor needs to get a much better picture of what is actually going on in his class.  But with 600 students, and substantial diversity within this group, how does one get a realistic picture of what is going on?

So let's consider answering a simpler question.  Consider a three-part classification of students in the class - the elite students, those who are putting in honest effort but producing only adequate performance, and those who don't appear to be trying much at all.  When I first started with SCALE I wrote a series of essays.  The first one had such a classification scheme and offered a more colorful labeling - eager beavers, drones, and sluggos.  Let us focus only on the drones.  How much are they getting out of the course?  That is the question we'll concentrate on.

To answer that question there will be a small, high touch section of the course taught by the instructor, as an addition to the large lecture.  This section will have between 15 and 20 students and be by invitation only.  Some students whose profile fits the drone category will be invited to register.  This section will offer one credit hour in addition to the 3 credit hours earned from the lecture class.  The invitees will be told that the course offers them a way to have closer contact with the instructor, to have their own formative thinking critiqued by the instructor, and to get a better sense of the subject "under the hood."  These students will also be told that there will be weekly informal writing assignments, as a way for the students to get their ideas out, but no quizzes or exams.  Individual assignments will be read and commented on but not graded.  The students will receive two formal assessments about their writing and perhaps also about their in-class performance - one at mid semester, the other at end of term.  This will be the basis on which the grade is determined in this high touch section. 

The hope with this design is that invited students will welcome the experience, the extra work notwithstanding, because it gives them a chance to be noticed by the instructor rather than to fade into crowd, as they do in the large lecture.  They want the attention, but office hours as they are currently construed don't deliver that well, because going to office hours signifies they have a problem.  Being a student in the high touch section does not in itself carry this additional baggage.  And because the touch is bi-directional, as mentioned in the previous post, the instructor will come to understand how these students are doing in his class in a way he has not been able to understand previously.

The high touch section is meant to be ongoing, taught in the fall and the spring, in conjunction with the lecture class.  It is a way for the instructor to continue to stay close to some students, to begin to see how much the impression of them he has developed depends on a particular cohort and how much holds true longitudinally, and to help the instructor get a sense of the impact of any modifications he makes in the large lecture.  Of course, it is also meant as a benefit for the students who get into the section.

However, one might reasonably anticipate some tough sledding with this approach at the outset.  The instructor doesn't have prior experience in teaching a small class and may get thrown by the distance between him and the students shrinking.  The high touch section is meant very much in the spirit of Argyris and Schon Model II.  But that approach likely will be new for instructor.  He may become startled by what he learns about the students and become disheartened if it seems they understand much less than he had assumed.  The cognitive dissonance so created may inadvertently encourage him to revert to Model I. 

For these reasons, the high touch section will be co-taught with a support professional the first two times it is offered.  The co-teaching is where much of the faculty development will happen.  To give the support person something substantive to teach the students and make the relationship between her and the instructor a peer relationship based on mutual comparative advantage, the high touch section will also be tasked with an inquiry about the students' learning.  What can the students do to be more effective learners?  This question will be posed both in the context of the instructor's course and more generally for other courses the students take.  During these early versions of the high touch section, the support professional will be getting real and substantial feedback on the issue of how passive students can become more active learners.  Getting such feedback will serve as a big source of motivation for the support professional to participate in the co-teaching.

With this co-teaching approach, there are then multiple intellectual challenges in how to integrate the agendas of the instructor and the support professional into a coherent offering.  These challenges provide a basis for an inquiry cycle model of teaching.  At first the inquiry will concern the high touch section only and how to make that work well.  Eventually, the inquiry will turn to the large lecture as well.  What modifications can be made there that might improve matters for the rest of the students?

If this approach is not done as a one-off but rather there is a cohort of adjunct instructors, each of whom receive faculty development via co-teaching a high touch section with a support peer, then it is natural to make that cohort into a community via weekly (monthly?) meetings, done over lunch or coffee.  Sharing experiences, both successes that might be emulated and failures that might be avoided, and observations that are neither success nor failure but are important yet weren't anticipated at the outset, will help to foster the inquiry and make the adjunct instructor feel less alone in the endeavor.  Further, members of an experienced cohort might then be called up once in a while to assist subsequent cohorts in their process and make it seem more do-able.

In closing, the above is only indirectly about making improvements in the large lecture and some may be impatient and want to make direct changes there.  But on what basis would such changes be made?  The approach described here is first and foremost about the instructor better understanding the students as learners.  Isn't that the right place to start?