Sunday, July 27, 2008

Can "meaningful" higher education embrace technology AND personal interaction?

"In an age when higher education is threatened with a relentless technology that threatens to dispense with human beings altogether, Professor Van Doren exemplified a tradition of inquiry that celebrates personal interaction as the path to a meaningful education — one shaped by spontaneity, emotion and, yes, reverence." … "Mark Van Doren believed that young people were intuitively capable of grasping even the most complex literature."

Above from: "Notebook: Kerouac Got an A," by Adam Van Doren, NY Times, "Education Life," July 27, 2008, p. 38. "A grandson remembers the professor who inspired a generation of literary giants."

For more excerpts and links to full text, see the following and below.
"Seminar over, the students would follow their professor out of the classroom, conversing as he crossed the campus. Down into the subway they would go, even onto the train, not stopping until they reached the entrance to his townhouse in Greenwich Village. Finally, their professor, genially and perhaps reluctantly, would say, “Well, that’s it, boys, I’ve got to call it a day,” and then he would close the door, leaving those impressionable young men dazed on the sidewalk, wondering how they had landed so far from Morningside Heights." …

"My grandfather maintained bonds with students that lasted long after they graduated, and they in turn revered him." …

“Mark’s questions were very good and if you tried to answer them intelligently,” Merton wrote, “you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had ‘educed’ them from you by this question.” …

"The professor kept corresponding with these college youths years later, suggesting career paths, critiquing their manuscripts, promoting their work — even writing poems about them. “Death of a Monk (T. M.)” was written shortly after Merton’s death. He contacted publishers about promising students, encouraging Kerouac to publish “The Town and the City.” Kerouac quit the football team after getting an A in “Shakespeare.” (It should be noted that though the ledgers show my grandfather was a tough grader, those who would go on to make a literary impression on the world also did so in his classroom.)"


Permalink as of 20080727

Friday, July 18, 2008

Technique for breaking a workshop or class into small groups

Problem: you're running a large meeting or workshop, or teaching a large course. You break people into parallel groups, each working on the same task. Someone keeps notes for each group, on a pad or on an easel. How can you facilitate all those groups at once? After some minutes, it's time for 'reporting out.' How can you keep the reporting from taking too long?

Here's one way to do it. The University of Queensland in Australia (UQ) tried this approach for an ePortfolio workshop in mid-May. (We were helping them with planning and running the workshop.) They planned to divide 70 people into about 5 working groups, each sharing experiences on the same topics. (And, to complicate things slightly, I was assigned to pull the threads together but I was in the US.)

Know about Google Spreadsheets? It's a free web service that allows you to create spreadsheets just using a web browser. Better yet, more than one person can see, and write on, the spreadsheet at the same time.

So the UQ team created a Google spreadsheet with 5 identical worksheets, one for each group. Each group had a facilitator and an 'eScribe' with a laptop, who had already briefed. When the groups started their work, the eScribes already had open spreadsheets with the topics already written down the left hand column of their worksheet. (Each small group was assigned a differetn worksheet - a different tab - in the same spreadsheet; when the groups started, these served as templates for taking notes.)

I had been asked to facilitate all these groups. As it happened, I could not be in Brisbane that day. In fact, I was doing some work at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. At the time of the workshop in Brisbane, I was sitting alone in a classroom with laptop. I could flick from one worksheet to another almost instantly by clicking on the tabs at the bottom of the page, watching the eScribes' notes appear cell by cell.

Each time I saw a note that I wanted that group to "report out," I highlighted that cell in yellow. And they could instantly see my highlights appear! By highlighting only 2-3 cells per group (and making sure there were no duplicates across groups), we could assure brief reports that would probably interest the other groups. After each reporter concluded (just a minute or two per team), I got on speaker (via VoIP), summarizing to the whole workshpo what I'd learned from reading all the notes from all the groups.

Advantages over traditional techniques: because the comments were typed online rather than handwritten, I didn't have to decipher their writing. I didn't have to spend time walking from group to group , and disrupting them as I walked. Instead, I was clicking from one group to the next about every 15 seconds, watching their notes appear. If I had a question or noticed a problem, I could use Skype or a chat window to communicate with Brisbane. If necessary someone could walk over to that small group and relay my question.

I'll never do breakouts the same way again, even in person. Try it! And thanks to the folks at UQ for coming up with this technique!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Strategic thinking for programs

A conversation with Mace Mentch of Case Western Reserve shed some fresh light on my recent blog post on a multi-faceted strategy for supporting improvement of selected teaching/learning activities.

Mace and I talked about how it's becoming somewhat more common to talk about the goals of academic programs in terms of learning outcomes. Because these learning outcomes are often defined as skills (e.g., design skills), a logical next step is to ask how often students are practicing, and receiving coaching, in skills. In effect, attention shifts from the outome-as-noun to the outcome-as-verb.

It's a shift people have talked about for decades:
  • From teaching as explaining, with IT providing an explaining tool for faculty, toward a second, and perhaps greater emphasis on
  • Learning as practicing, with coaching from experts, peers and clients, with IT providing tools for practicing, coaching and other forms of communication.
Big switch, and one that's not possible unless students have, and can use, appropriate technology for that discipline.

I'm not saying anything new when I point out that this sometimes enables faculty to exploit parallels between their own (technology-enabled) research and the learning of students, using comparable tools to learn by working on comparable problems. We studied several examples of that in our study of the iCampus program at MIT.

So here it is in a nutshell:
1. Identify one or more skills of graduates that some faculty want to improve (poor to good; great to world class) (e.g., writing, design, research, composition, academic argument, performance, ...)
2. To develop those skills over 3-4 years, what activities do students need to practice more, have coached better etc.? What tools and resources do they need in order to practice?
3. Develop accessible, modular resources and services that faculty can use to learn additional ways to:
  • develop assignments and teaching skills to help students develop the target skills.
  • assess how well those assignments are doing, in order to improve them;
  • develop wisdom for dealing with the problems they're likely to encounter when their courses spend more time on helping students practice and improve these skills.
That set of bullets was the topic of the last post.

Many institutions, like Case, are making progress on item #2 in the list above: faculty are developing or getting access to digital libraries, easy-to-use software tools and other technologies needed in order for students to practice and develop sophisticated academic skills.

It's time to attend to #3: the many small steps that faculty will need to take in order to successfully build their courses more around the practice, coaching, and assessment of such skills. That's an especially exciting challenge with large courses!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Watch the doughnut, not the hole

The TLT Group's work has several hallmarks: taking low threshold steps forward; collaboration; and making a pluralistic, constructive approach to assessment. But arguably the most important, most counter-intuitive, and most pervasive theme of our work over the last decade has been our focus on 'activities.'

In contrast to our approach, the typical technology initiative focuses on -- surprise! -- technology. Buy new, fast, and inexpensive technology. Help faculty learn how to like and use that technology. Evaluate that technology (occasionally). And, all too soon, regret that the technology is now so old, slow, and expensive, and replace it with the technology that is newer, faster, and less expensive.

In contrast, The TLT Group usually focuses on what faculty, students and staff are likely to do with technology: how technology can potentially enable them to alter specific patterns of teaching/learning activity, e.g.,
  • discussion,
  • faculty-student contact,
  • peer instruction,
  • thinking through complex problems,
  • calling up visual images and pointing to elements of those images while talking about them,
  • integrative thinking,
  • active learning,
  • teaching in ways that take instructional advantage of diversity, ...
Our approaches to faculty support and course improvement, to cost modeling and time-saving, and to formative evaluation all focus on helping educators and institutions improve teaching/learning activities over time: small steps and, ultimately, larger changes.

Focusing on activities has several advantages:
  • Activities drive outcomes, including learning, retention and costs. so the most direct way to change an outcome is usually to alter activities.
  • Technology is never the only ingredient for improving outcomes; by focusing on the activity, we tend to notice the non-technological changes that also need to be made (e.g., reward systems, policies, partnerships, ...)
  • Activities change slowly, in part because they are influenced by more than just the technology. It often takes several generational changes in technology before an activity and its outcome can be altered significantly. So plans to change outcomes need to be on a longer time scale; we help programs budget time and money in ways more likely to pay off in real improvement in learning.
Many of our materials and services focus on activities:
Here's the point. In the past, our development of materials for professional and faculty development, evaluation, learning spaces, etc. has been opportunistic. While developing materials about the seven principles in one arena we might be focusing on diversity or visualization in another.

In the next stage of development of materials and services we are consider picking one or more activities and then developing a suite of faculty development workshops, evaluation templates, learning space examples, etc. needed to improve that activity. And, in true TLT Group fashion, we'd look at this 'warts and all,' studying the dangerous discussions and dilemmas that can arise in the process of making such changes.

Does that make sense? If so, which activities would be most important for The TLT Group to support at your own program or institution? if we wanted grant support for a consortial approach to such development, which activities might draw funder support?
  • Teaching diverse classes and workshops?
  • Using evidence to improve practice, in courses and services? ("culture of evidence")
  • Digital writing Across the Curriculum?
  • Learning communities?
  • The 'seven principles?'
  • something else?
Where should we work first in 2008-2009?