Saturday, September 15, 2007

Finding an Important Topic to Study

I'm working on workshop materials for our "Asking the Right Questions" (ARQ) program - locally facilitated, brief workshops to help academic staff at our subscribing institutions learn how to collect focused feedback from their students in order to improve teaching and learning with technology in their courses. When I say "brief," I mean that each module is only 5-20 minutes long: short enough to be an agenda item in a faculty meeting, a brownbag lunch activity, or a short online event. the workshop materials are designed so that local staff or peer mentors will have an easy time running them. We'll also offer our subscribers free online workshops to train their facilitators: staff in information technology units, faculty development units, teaching&learning centers, libraries and, of course, faculty members who would lead a peer group through a few of these workshops.

This blog entry is a draft for a workshop to help academic staff take a second step in focusing their inquiries. This workshop builds on the work participants would have done in ARQ Workshop #1.

The goal of this workshop is to learn more about identifying research questions that are most worth the effort to answer. (It takes just as much work to answer a trivial question as to answer an important one.)

In ARQ Workshop #1, participants identified a technology used persistently in their courses, a technology that seemed valuable yet in some way problematic. Then they identified an activity -- a pattern of action that was enabled or supported by that technology - that was also of obvious importance and yet somehow problematic.

What additional characteristics make an activity important to study? After we list a few criteria, we ask participants to identify an activity worth studying in their own courses. And, if they like, they can modify or add to this list of criteria. (If you have such improvements, please e-mail me! We'll improve these materials and acknowledge your contribution.)
  • Focus on an activity that 's pervasive, important, and capable of being significantly improved through adroit use of technology. For example, it's important for faculty to understand what students are thinking, in order to adjust teaching on the fly and improve learning. Personal response systems (a.k.a. 'clickers', 'classroom voting systems,' 'online surveys') are spreading, and can help instructors get a more precise sense of what all their students are thinking.
  • Focus on an activity that can be improved incrementally so that, as you learn more, you can keep improving the activity and its outcomes. That improvement usually comes from learning more and more about how to exploit the activity. For example, over time faculty might learn how to ask more powerful questions using a personal response systems, and how to use the PRS to facilitate Peer Instruction.
  • Focus on an activity that is defined enough that you can actually study and improve it without making that research into a career. "Studying how to moderate online discussions" is a broader and more challenging topic than "studying how to get students to pay attention to one another's comments before they post a new comment online."
  • Focus on an activity that is also important to other courses that these students take. Your study about how to improve that activity are more likely to be of interest to your colleagues: they could use your methods to improve their own teaching, for example. And, these kinds of incremental improvements in an activity become more accepted and effective when the change occurs 'across the curriculum.' Students learn to expect the changed activity and, as they engage in its repeatedly, they become more skilled. So faculty who teach them later on can try more ambitious improvements.
Your task: identify at least one such activity, one that's very important for you to illuminate by gathering student feedback.

HINT: List lots of such technology-supported activities - ten or more. Imagine asking your students questions that address your concerns as well as your hopes. Which potential study scares and excites you the most? Is there a potential inquiry that makes you think, "Now that I've thought about this, I can't not learn more about what's really going on here!" (For more on this hint, see this short essay in the Flashlight Evaluation Handbook.)

PS The outcomes of that activity, the activity itself, and the technology are what we call a "triad." 'Triads' are a simple grammar for conceptualizing some important things that go on in a course: technology, activities, and outcomes.

1 comment:

  1. this is not exactly related to technology, and in fact one of the primary ideas contained here actually encourages going Back to the Basics (BTB) , but since you look curious, read on:

    The project that I am eyeing is different from what I originally proposed,(I'll hope in the process of doing the project to be learning alot more about BHW/TLMs,(that's Brief Hybrid Workshops/Teaching & Learning Modules), taking surveys before, during and/or after the workshop to determine what we should do next, how many of the audience found the material helpful and/or informative, and suggesting ways that the audience either can get involved and/or follow-up. You'll notice right away that the issue which I'll be addressing is one that needs attention and should be looked at just as soon as possible!

    Many students complain that there just aren't enough hours in the day to complete the work that is assigned by we ask, why do you take such a huge courseload? The answer is that the students cannot get financial aid without a minimum credit load. Besides, most would be opposed to the later graduation which the lighter courseload mandates!

    We also hear that students have childcare problems. The expenses, quality issues and time involved in transporting children to and from the location are a very stressful situation for many of the students.

    So the project will be assessing the need to reduce student workload AND providing childcare/schooling for our students.

    We are planning to use an eClip or two to introduce this to the students...the first eClip I've been envisioning shows a young mother and 2 children waiting for the bus in the rain...or those same moving from a crowded train platform to a crowded train

    On a seemingly unrelated note, the k-12 system is having trouble in nearly every category, most especially with children and adolescents fighting with each other and teachers and not learning as we would want, and by using a very large back to basics approach (especially pens, pencils and paper- erasers, lots of erasers too!) with many TAs and tutoring assistants, the crop of children that will graduate from this school can be a model for future endeavors

    We'll be looking to evaluate several questions (and it may be best to use several eClips) such as...
    1) Does this back to basics approach really work? (Handwriting without tears )
    2) Does it help to reduce aggressive behavior? (Many times in the past, I've heard this, but I've yet to dig up any substantial research.)
    3) Did these children ever have penmanship lessons? Were they even encouraged to do it(A quick sample will tell much)

    Now I have come to the part where I need your help--I know everyone is busy working on their own, but let's do a group project, build a community and hope the community will grow in an indefinite fashion to envelope first the middle atlantic states and then the country and then the world...if that's too much for you all, I want to find out as quickly as possible and I need some definite solid research about how cursive scripting tends to alleviate stress and as such would be a great mechanism for promoting more hospitable classrooms/societies.

    thanks a lot...


    PS: both Steves (GILBERT/EHRMANN) point out the need to get moving on these things AND the fact that many major changes are likely to happen during production.


What do you think?