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Too Prepared?

One of the things that strikes GG as odd is the semester-long reading plan. Basically a week-by-week or even day-by-day list of pages to read, this has become so ingrained in academia that course management tools now actually can automatically build it into the syllabus. And with this is the temptation for the more driven student to try and read well ahead of the class.

Now to be clear in many cases there is little harm in this.  Maybe in a math class you might find a student wanting to short-circuit the more awkward and basic set of derivations or calculations in favor of the better stuff later in the class, but for the most part seeing the more complex stuff to come will have little impact on how the current material is being taught and learned.

But in other cases it seems like it can be a distraction. If the instructor is trying to lead the class through material through discussion, building on material just covered to lead the class to see the utility of the next section, knowing the inevitable outcome kind of forces conversation or exposition towards that next reading. Any sense of exploration of the material is damped if not extinguished by knowing precisely where you are going.  And the driven student? He or she might be lacking the context necessary to really know what the reading is about when reading it weeks before classroom discussion.  Too often students seem to approach a reading as a series of facts to digest instead of a logical argument to parse and evaluate and getting far in front of the class risks encouraging that sort of shallow comprehension.

And for the instructor? She or he is handcuffed–syllabi are gospel to students and you risk changing anything in them at your own risk.  So if you find that the class is lagging from your expectations or is progressing more rapidly, it is hard to adjust. Worse yet is if you realize there is a different facet of the material that you should explore.  You’ve put your class in a straitjacket.

So maybe reading lists should stay hidden through the term, or at least be clearly provisional.

Teaching Time

With Labor Day at hand here in the U.S., between assembling materials for his first-year seminar, GG was thinking a little about teaching labor. This is also prompted by a local initiative to increase wages for public school teachers that was attacked by a letter to the editor of the local paper. That letter basically argued that school teachers work all of 180 days out of the year in a low-hazard job and so why should they get more pay? This is an echo of a comment years ago from a legislator who was on a committee overseeing Colorado’s public higher education. I mean, we’ve all been taught by teachers, so we know what teachers do, right?

It seems safe to say that those saying teachers have it easy have no experience teaching. It seems there is a perception that if you know the material, all you need to do is parade to the front of the classroom and tell the students what they need to know. Easy! But then there is the first reminder that you usually ask students to do work that you, the teacher, need to grade. Well, OK, so there is grading time–surely that can’t be much. And maybe you have described some teachers–undoubtably the worst teachers.

There is a challenge that teachers face that most of the rest of us really don’t. If you tell somebody something–don’t touch that lever, write up that memo, go to this address–you aren’t usually too concerned about how successfully the listener really got the message.  There is a pretty clear outcome (things happened or didn’t) and presumably you respond accordingly (keeping somebody employed or firing them). Basically the burden for success sits on the person lower in the pecking order–either they figure this out or they are out the door.

But teaching isn’t like that. Read More…

D2L Canvas Smackdown

This is only of interest to those of us using these course management systems.  Everybody else can find some other grumpiness on the site….

Read More…

IT Merry-Go-Round

Long long ago, computers were big expensive machines lodged in climate-controlled rooms behind lock and key, access being held by the masters of the campus IT professionals. Users paid by the kilobyte, by the seconds of connect time, by the milliseconds of compute time. The gods of IT raked in money like casinos.

Then came the PC.  Within a few years, the IT department at MIT, for example, had collapsed from its previous lofty heights, discontinuing mainframes and reducing support staff to posting flyers around campus, offering services users were delighted to ignore. The totalitarian system was dead! Long live democracy!

Well, slowly but surely we’ve encouraged a new generation to take up the crown and beat us with the scepter of access until we bow down in homage to our noble masters. “The Cloud” is, in fact on most campuses, just the same mainframe.  Better OS, much better iron, but as campus IT has decided that mere users must be protected from the world beyond, they have leveraged the need for security from the broader internet into security for the denizens of the IT department. Despite, all to frequently, their staff being the source of the serious break-ins (in GG’s building, the two serious security lapses were both caused by mistakes made by IT professionals).

And yet it is even more insidious. Instructors are increasingly told to place their courses within course management systems, web-based monstrosities like Blackboard, Canvas, and Desire2Learn. These three (GG has had experience with all of them) are essentially interchangeable even as each is painful in its own way; their main advantage over just regular web pages is that intraclass materials are private and so protected information like grades and use of copyrighted materials can be freely placed online.  Yet, practically like clockwork, campus IT decides it is time to shift from one to the next.  Why? Usually some relatively trivial capability is trundled out to justify the move (Now on smartphones! Now with free-form answer quizzes! Now looks snazzier!)–despite the likelihood that the previous provider will match that new wrinkle within a year or two.  So faculty and teaching staff and students are forced to learn yet another way of doing the same damn thing, which means….time for our boys (and a few girls) in IT to collect paychecks running workshops on how to do things and building web pages on how things are different and, of course, spending months if not years first installing and then troubleshooting the new software and then migrating content over all while supporting the old system for a year or two longer than originally planned until it is now time to begin the process of investigating the latest iterations of such software, which inevitably leads to…moving to a new system!

Something similar goes on with email support, internet video conferencing, personnel management software and other computer-related interfaces. Non-IT administrators who in theory are riding herd on this are so divorced from both users and the technology that they lack the backbone to say “no, what we have will suffice.” It remains unclear if the disruption to instructors and students plays any role in the calculations made to justify these changes (it seems certain to be underestimated).

Of course campus IT is at increasing risk of being outsourced to companies like Microsoft and Google (indeed many functions already have).  It isn’t hard to predict that there will be a major scandal when a university’s “private” information somehow wanders off campus.  Watching all this can make a grumpy geophysicist who remembers the early days of the internet and the last gasps of the old IT mainframes dwell fondly on the memories of hope…

Assessing Assessors

Another facet of the “college isn’t really worth it” mindset has shown up in an op-ed by Molly Worthen in the New York Times. The op-ed itself complains that assessments of learning in colleges are, as implemented at present, a waste of time and effort. It is in the comments that you see a lot of people arguing quite strongly that some proof of learning is of value to those paying the bill. The irony is that these two sides are probably not disagreeing.

Years ago, the assessment was pretty obvious.  Got an “A” in a course–you demonstrated mastery of that subject.  Got an “F”? You didn’t. Note this didn’t necessarily measure learning in that class–if you waltzed in having already passed such a course elsewhere, you might have learned nothing, while the F student might have learned a lot relative to a poor base. While on occasion the instructor caught flack for doing a poor job, generally it was the student who discovered he or she was not up to the task. Read More…

The Impact of Student Teaching Evaluations

One of the frustrations students sometimes have is a feeling that their perception of the quality of instruction is ignored.  Some will complain that some faculty got a promotion or tenure or didn’t get fired despite getting a scathing review from students in some form of student review of a course (here at CU these are faculty course questionnaires, or FCQs, a term we’ll use as a stand-in for all the variants out there).

There is some truth to this.  Faculty at a tier 1 research university almost never are denied tenure because a course was poorly taught.  And unless it becomes a tradition, it will rarely affect a faculty member’s salary. Why is this?  After all, teaching is a significant part of the job. And so what impact, if any, do these surveys have?

The first problem is that things like FCQs are only one rather imperfect measure of quality of instruction. They are, for instance, easily manipulated by giving higher grades (the most sadistic trick is to give high grades on a midterm, then the FCQ is administered before the final, where the instructor lowers the boom). At CU these questionnaires are administered the last couple weeks of class, when students are most stressed about completing the course with a good grade, so how a course fits in with the general level of stress can color evaluations. Occasionally even the best instructor will get sideways with a class, perhaps for a joke that falls flat or because of some misbehavior from a student that leads to disharmony. Students’ self-perception of the fraction of material they have mastered fits into this. And for non-major courses, there is much less interest in mastering the material, so a poorly taught intro non-majors course might get high FCQs because it was easy (this is not as common for majors courses, where students tend to recognize that there is stuff they need to learn that didn’t get taught).

What FCQs don’t measure is how much students learned, and how capable they are of completing tasks taught in the course. It is possible to have an ambitious class get low FCQs despite students actually knowing more that those completing a less ambitious section of the same course. One approach to measure what students learned is a concept inventory: a set of questions, usually given at the start and end of a class, that reflects understanding of key concepts being taught in a class. If students don’t improve, poor teaching; if they do, better teaching.  These work really well in courses with very fixed academic goals, like intro math and physics, but creating such inventories is difficult and time consuming; courses like intro geology, which might have goals varying somewhat between instructors, can only give an incomplete picture of the success of instruction.

A more common attempt to gauge instruction quality is peer review–having other faculty come in and observe the class and, ideally, interview it. This is most common for pre-tenure professors where a lot of mentoring is possible. But your teaching might seem quite good to peers but lousy to students, and observing one or two classes will often only reveal the most flamboyant of transgressions.

Ideally you’d like to see what students retain 4 or 5 years after completing a course. This isn’t ever done.  GG’s one experience was encountering a student in a science museum who had taken his intro course.  Asking him if the course helped him at all working in a science museum, the answer was “No, not at all.” Evidently for that student, that course was a disaster.

So FCQs maybe aren’t a great measure of teaching, but then what good are they?

Read More…

College Changes

No, not changes to the college, changes by it. For years and years now, higher education has been viewed as the perverter of young minds even as it is lauded as the gateway to upward mobility. Although this is usually portrayed as fine upstanding youth becoming leftist socialists, some of us remember the preppie phase where leftist parents lamented the materialistic impulses of their college offspring.

Does this have any meaning? Is it that the teachers at colleges and universities are brainwashing students? Does this reflect a cocoon where disagreement with the party line is squashed?

Read More…