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Teaching Thursday: More on Student Resistance

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I continue to think a bit about new models for understanding student engagement with the learning environment.  Over the last few weeks, I have been reading more on everyday forms of resistance, and this has added a different perspective to my notes on resistance and teaching as articulated here and here. These forms of resistance typically lack articulated political or social goals, often rely upon anonymity, deception or ambiguity, and tend to be deeply embedded in everyday life.  At the same time, they are the products of power differences and mark out clear efforts on the part of less powerful to establish a identity and agency in relation to the dominant group. Classic examples of this kind of behavior are slow work, gossip, poor communication, and other actions that tread the fine line between outright defiance and actions easily confused with laziness.

Anyone who has taught recognizes some resistance in students.  My previous musings on using historical and anthropological definitions of resistance to understand student behavior tended to see student behavior in a far more systematic way. Models of resistance that suggest behavior rooted in practice may have a better applicability for describing, predicting, and (gasp!) maybe even validating student behavior.

These models may also point to some root causes of resistance.  Many of the scholars who study resistance in everyday life tend to see resistance as a key component to class struggle. While it is difficult to understand the student-teacher relationship in terms of traditional definitions of class, it would be profoundly naive to deny the role that class plays in the structure of the American university.  With the post-war boom in enrollments the student body has become more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and, indeed, class. The traditional humanities had strong ties to traditions of elite education and values that have not entirely translated to a more diverse student body with more diverse goals and expectations.

Resistance in the classroom, particularly the subtle forms, may well represent the long conflict between democratized higher education and the core elite values that continues to guide many aspects of the humanities.

My post today is intentionally short to encourage you to head over to Teaching Thursday and celebrate with us our 100th post at that blog!

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Categories: Teaching

Teaching Thursday: Test Writing and Cheating

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I could try to put together some kind of blog for today (and rest assured, good reader, that a blog post is brewing), but Mick Beltz has already put together a far more interesting blog post than I could muster.  He responds to recent discussions of cheating at the University of Central Florida, and without getting into detail, sets out three basic lessons to keep in mind while preparing your end of the semester exams:

1. There is an optimal level of cheating on every assignment (and it isn’t zero).

2. Grades and assignments have only instrumental value, not inherent value.

3. Cheating is not (just) a student problem, it is also an instructor problem.

The post is really smart, thoughtful, and thought provoking.  In fact, it’s so good, I’m going to link to it again.

Categories: Teaching

Teaching Thursday: Propositions for the Study of History

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

A series of Parisian park-bench, NoDak hipster, propositions for the study of history.  These were prepared for an introduction to my Graduate Historiography class next semester.  They are meant to be points of departure for broader discussions into the links between historical epistemology, social responsibility, method, and practice.

Propositions for the Study of History

1. History is a form of social activism.

2. Reading, writing, presenting, and teaching history requires thought.

3. Historical thinking is both the product of the texts (of various kinds) and how we read texts (of various kinds).

4. Texts (sources) are socially constructed.

5. The historian uses various tools to interpret sources.

6. These tools are socially constructed.  Some would say that they have a kind of agency.  Most would say that tools exert an influence on the work that they do.

7. One of the historians’ tools is method (which we sometimes call theory).

8. Theory is not a single thing: it is a blanket term for method, methodology, epistemology, historiography, ideology, and even procedure that makes historical thinking possible.

9. Many theoretical positions require a historian to make clear how they approach a text or a historical problem.

10. By making obvious the relationship between texts and the act of “doing history” we make our work as historians visible and open to critique.

11. To many people, the more that history is critiqued (as a method), the more it appears to be either common sense or wrong headed.

12. Skepticism of the historical methods undermines the basic disciplinary structure of the field.

13. Most people in the world do not value the work of historians even though they should.  This is our fault.

14. Skepticism toward the historical method may lead to the end of history as a discipline.

15. People will continue to study the past.

For the real Teaching Thursday post, go here.

Categories: Teaching

Teaching Tuesday: More Teaching with Twitter

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been experimenting with Twitter in the classroom both online and as live backchannel while I am lecturing live.  The Journal of Computer Assisted Learning has recently published one of the first academic articles on using Twitter in the classroom: R. Junco, G. Heiberger, and E. Loken “The effect of Twitter on college engagement and grades”.   The article argues basically, that Twitter improves student engagement (following the definition for engagement developed by the National Survey of Student Engagement) and, in turn, improves grades.  Their data comes from a large (125 student) group of students enrolled in seven sections of a introductory level seminar for a pre-health professional program.  The class met one day a week for an hour, focused in part on T. Kidder’s Mountains beyond Mountains, and centered, apparently, on discussion. They also established a control group who did not use Twitter but the customizable social network service Ning to communicate.  Twitter used in a number of ways including prompting students to consider discussion questions before class, organizing study groups, and engaging a panel of upperclassmen, public health majors. It appears that the faculty leaders prompted all uses of Twitter, although they do say that subsequent use of Twitter occurred without prompting.

They gird their argument with relatively careful controls and statistics. They also record qualitative data including several sample conversations between the faculty moderator of the Twitter feed and the students. These examples demonstrated how the faculty member prompted participation in Twitter discussion.  The article shows that students not only were significantly (from a statistical viewpoint) more engaged (and there were no pre-existing variations in engagement between the groups).  They also showed that the semester GPA for students who used Twitter was significantly higher (.5!!) than among those in the control group.  Even accounting for the relatively small size of the sample, these differences are remarkable.

While the experiments did attempt to control for basic variables and appear to have a sufficient degree of internal rigor, one variable did not appear in their discussion.  Nowhere do they discuss how the students access Twitter. In my (completely unscientific) experience, students require a significant level of technological engagement in their everyday life (smart phones, laptops, active engagement in existing social media and online communities) to grasp the potential benefits of a service like Twitter.  While the authors do cite a recent report that 94% of students use social networking site and, at one school, as many as 85% use Facebook, they offer little in the way of explanation for how students use these services.  My expectation would be that students do not see all social media in the same way (and this tends to be backed up by the work of social media researchers like danah boyd), and have markedly different patterns of engagement with a service like Twitter when compared to Facebook, email, or the informal networks produced through sms messages.

While I do not have quantitative (or even systematic qualitative) data to back my point, I can offer some informal observations derived from experiences.  I made an effort to use Twitter in a class that met one a week similar to the class studied in the survey.  My class was a lecture class with 140+ students rather than the more intimate discussion sections, but I actually think this would be a more fertile environment for a social media service like Twitter to produce functioning sub-communities within the larger and relatively impersonal lecture.  I reckoned that this class would require students to check their Twitter account and participate in various activities at least twice a week.  To do this, since Twitter is a stand alone site, it would require the student to log into Twitter as a separate place from Facebook, Blackboard, or other course management software.  This is something that many of us do as part of our daily routine at our desks, on our laptops, or on our smart phones, but for many of my students, the deep and regular engagement with technology is not really part of their world.  Moreover, there was a significant investment in becoming comfortable with the technical language of Twitter, which, while not difficult, is unfamiliar and intimidating to students who only follow well-trod paths on the internet (from Facebook to email to Blackboard and to content driven sites like ESPN, CNN, or (for most students) Wikipedia).  In other words, Twitter is unfamiliar in part because most of the web is unfamiliar to students whose use of the internet is largely passive or limited.  As a result, many students simply lurked on Twitter; those who participated regularly only engaged when explicitly prompted with points (and then only in a very superficial way).  In short, students struggled to understand the advantages to Twitter for keeping them in touch with their classmates and faculty when not in class.

The notion of students are digital natives and that Twitter provides a familiar way to extend the classroom into the space occupied by students in their everyday lives rests upon problematic assumptions.  Students’ engagement with the internet and with technology tends to occur in a much more limited or particular way than many of these studies imagine.  The assumption that “social media” represents a cohesive body of technology and applications for most students appears to me to be problematic.  Twitter for an undergraduate is foreign while Facebook is familiar.

Despite these difficulties, this study provides a good foundation for future study on how to leverage common technology to improve student engagement.

Categories: Teaching, The New Media

Teaching Thursday: The (Teaching) Revolution will not be Blogged

November 4, 2010 Leave a comment

X-posted to Teaching Thursday.

This blog post is an effort to understand the fairly lackadaisical interest in participating in the Teaching Thursday blog among my colleagues at the University of North Dakota.  It got me thinking about the nature of teaching conversations and whether they are suitable to a blog.

Anyone who follows the happenings on the internets is probably familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the October 4 New Yorker: “Small Changer: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted“.  In this article, he argued that the connections produced by such social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are “weak ties” which are unlikely to hold up to the kind of social pressures that real revolutionary action will both require and endure.  He begins his article with the students who participated in the revolutionary Greenboro sit-in of 1960 and noted that the four participants had deep social connections as roommates at North Carolina A & T or as friends from high-school. These social connections, characterized by regular physical proximity to one another and a significant body of shared experiences, enabled these four brave students to have the confidence to imagine radical ideas and to maintain their resolve in the face of adversity.

Other pundits, like Clay Shirky, have challenged the idea that such dedication is necessary to generate revolutionary change.  Shirky, particularly in his most recent book Cognitive Surplus, has argued that the internet and social media sites become conduits funneling myriad rivulets of surplus energies together making the great deluge of internet knowledge possible (manifest in sites like Wikipedia and The YouTubes).

These two positions intersect with the mission of this blog.  The idea for this blog was to capture the hundreds of short (and long!), thoughtful, creative, conversations about teaching that go on weekly across campus into a central place.  The hope was that the blog could become an alternative source for stimulation for busy colleagues who missed a great program offered by our Office of Instructional Development or were not in the hallway at the second two colleagues were unpacking a tricky issue or did not have a moment to read the newest book that presents a new solution to the latest problem. Over the last three months, I extended this effort to Twitter once again trying to funnel energy and ideas from across campus into a single conduit.

Follow us on Twitter at OIDatUND!

So far, the blog has had its moments, but they have been few and far between.  Over the last three months, I’ve been promised many, many blog posts, but always “in the spring semester” when, of course, the songbirds return, the snow melts, and other obligations drift away on the first warm, scented breeze.  I expect that some of these posts will come to enliven our blog, but even these contributions (which I know will be excellent), do not really represent even a fraction of the exciting conversations I have had about teaching.  Of course, we are all busy, all of the time, and finding time to write is a challenge.

Having read Gladwell’s article, I began to wonder whether the experiences of teaching actually resist blogging as a medium for communication. Perhaps this is because so much teaching on campus represents spontaneous responses to spontaneous issues.  Could it be that our day-to-day teaching activities – a troubled student, a particularly bad classroom experience, or a brilliantly successful assignment – all exist within such a complex matrix of variables that communicating how something succeeded or failed in writing would be either a monumental task unsuited to the limited medium of blogging or somehow impossible to articulate in a useful, generalized way?

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that understanding how to become a better teacher is impossible through public reflection — obviously the research conducted by various academic departments in teaching and learning have both real practical value and a robust disciplinary tradition — but to wonder whether many of us on campus do not think about teaching in a way that lends itself to even the modest structure of a blog post.  Teaching is an emotional experience full of frustration and excitement as we join the struggle to achieve goals that, in most case, are very difficult to articulate.  Of course, we can all enumerate formal learning objectives, classroom goals, content expectations, and the like, but I wonder whether these are the things that really motivate us as teachers.  For me, teaching is about realizing goals that extend far beyond the classroom.  These goals are resistant to clear quantitative or even qualitative evaluation and they often exist at the fringes of my ability of articulate them in a rational way at all.

In short, maybe this blogging experiment reveals the limitations of media dependent on the kinds of “weak ties” that Gladwell assigns to Facebook friends and Twitter colleagues.  Face-to-face meetings, intimate seminars, conversations over strong beverages, and hallway insights depend upon the strong ties of shared experience to have value.  Extracted from that context, everything seems mundane and hardly stuff that matters.  The teaching revolution will not be blogged.

Categories: Teaching, The New Media

A Defense of Asynchronous Teaching

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

x-posted to Teaching Thursday.

Recently, I’ve been talking a good deal with one of my favorite interlocutors on teaching matters, Bret Weber.  He and I approach online teaching in different ways.  While I hesitate to speak for him, it seems to me that his online teaching emphasizes more cohort building, realtime interaction, and incremental assignments with set due dates.  This approach has suited his students, his teaching goals, and his program (Social Work) well.

My approach to online teaching is almost the complete opposite.  When I first developed my idea for online teaching I wanted it be as experientially different from the classroom as possible.  I was probably overly strident in my efforts to establish this difference and romanced by change for the sake of change. Whatever the cause, I developed a radically asynchronous model for teaching my History 101: Western Civilization class.

The class has 2 deadlines, and one of those deadlines is optional.  All work must be done by a date toward the end of the class so that I have some some time left to grade the inevitable onslaught of papers and assignments.  All the course material is available from the start of the class.  The only optional deadline is an optional midterm paper that, if the student decides to write it, is due at the mid point of the semester.  If a student opts out of this midterm paper, he or she must write a final exam paper that brings together all the content of the class.

The lessons in the class are organized into 15 folders numbered for each week.  So students are guided to engage a body of material and assignments each week.  Each weekly folder includes readings, a quiz, a discussion board post, and, in many cases, one or two potential paper topics.  Along with the cumulative paper, students must write two other 3-5 page papers analyzing historical documents from the class. All the work from the all the weeks is due at the end of the semester.  In general, I grade two or three weeks at a time as assignments come in.  Assignments that come much later than two or three weeks behind the weekly folder inevitably get less attention, but the students know that I grade on schedule and give greater attention to work submitted in a regular and consistent way.  I use a Twitter feed and announcements to remind the students to keep up with the course and to let them know where I am in terms of grading material.

This system has certain risks.  For example, I regularly write off the last two weeks of the semester to grade the papers from all the students who leave the work in the class to the last minute. These assignments tend to be, generally, of a lower quality, but the average grades for all assignments are not significantly lower than in my classroom classes where I tend to have more regimented deadlines.  It appears to be the case that this system probably leads some students to do more poorly on their papers which they leave to the last minute. On the other hand, it also appears that some some students do better than they would in a traditional synchronous course, and the students with better outcomes tend of offset the students who perform less consistently.

Aside from the assessed results of the class, his system does offers some additional benefits as well:

1. Flexibility for Students.  Teachers have always bemoaned the absence of face-to-face contact with students in an online environment.  My online classes have attracted students from around the world and across the country.  Face-to-face time would be impossible with these students even leveraging all the technology available to maximize realtime communication in an online environment.  Moreover, many of my online students have lives that make regular schedules difficult.  Online teaching gives a student who works on oil pipelines and needs to be far from civilization for weeks on end, a way to begin a university education. To me this is a good thing, and an asynchronous course, particularly at the introductory level cultivates diversity in our classes and expands the democratizing aspects so close to the heart of higher-education.

2. Flexible Engagement. One of the most challenging parts of creating a class schedule is attempting to address how different students will engage course material over the course of the semester.  For every assignment that some students master easily, other students, particularly in an introductory level course, will find challenging.  An asynchronous course allows students to engage material at their own pace and, moreover, allows different paces to exist in the class at the same time. It is interesting to see the natural divisions among students as small cohorts of students form and engage course materials at similar paces over the course of the semester. In a course of 70, about 10 students stay precisely on the weekly schedule, another 10 or so may fall the occasional week behind, and a third cohort of 10-15 students are never more than 2 weeks behind over the course of the semester.

2. Flexible Assessment. One of the best things from a faculty standpoint of asynchronous teaching is that it restricts the bulk grading experience to one occasion at the end of the semester.  During the semester there is a constant trickle of two or three assignments a day.  I tend to assess assignments on a weekly basis and contribute to the online discussion board slightly more often. I find that grading the slow trickle of assignments over the course of the semester gives me far more time to make substantial comments on student work.  Moreover, it gives an advantage to students who can make reasonably consistent progress through the course.  I’ve found that even students with the most complex schedules rarely fall more than a couple weeks behind if they attend to the course in a serious way.  The half of the class that maintains a good schedule of engagement over the course of the semester tends to get the kind of substantial comments that allow their work to improve over the course of the semester.  Students who turn in all their work at the end of the semester do not get the same benefits as students who approach the course in a regular way.  They not only tend to get less sustained comments on their work, but also have less time to develop skills and improve on the skills introduced over the course of class.

Asynchronous teaching is not a perfect system for all classes.  I might suggest that that it works best in larger, introductory level courses. It does little to accommodate  unmotivated or undisciplined student who can easily leave their work to the end of the semester or to set deadlines. My experiences has been, however, that these students tend to struggle in any learning environment and  the asynchronous system only exacerbates these issues.

Categories: Teaching

What is the Future of the Textbook?

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Crossposted to Teaching Thursday.

A recent short notice in the Chronicle of Higher Education asked the question: “As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?“.  The short article goes on the discuss the various a la carte options offered by traditional textbook publishes that allow a faculty member to create unique combinations of material in an online textbook.  Such a modular approach to textbook content is not new, of course.  In fact, I wrote a module on the “Historical Jesus” for a modular textbook and source reader called Exploring the European Past coordinated by Ohio State and published by Thompson almost 10 years ago.

The more interesting idea from the short Chronicle note is the idea that textbook publishers could become distributors of a wide range of content for increasingly customizable course packets.  In short, textbook publishers could become more like iTunes which produces almost no content, but provides an easy interface to access content produced by others.

With the growing amount of content available on the web, a central hub for certain kinds of content would certainly make the creating of custom textbooks easier, but, many of us, I expect, have already taken the plunge into both aggregating content from across the web for our textbook, as well as creating on own content.  In other words, the model has probably begun to shift aware from the usefulness of the textbook as a single, authoritative entity and toward a far more fragmented, user-generated, and maybe less profit driven “marketplace” for course content.

For example, instead of a formal textbook, my rather low-tech History 101: Western Civilization I class combines podcast lectures with a short, inexpensive monograph, and a gaggle of historical documents available in the public domain. For maps, I created a bunch of “places” that students can view in Google Earth.  For basic reference material, I provide comprehensive indexes with links to useful website or to Wikipedia.  In the end, I have created a custom textbook for free.

Other contributors here to Teaching Thursday have taken some of these basic techniques even further by integrating custom made interviews, student generated content, and other techniques to produce sophisticated and dynamic bodies of content.  With more and more content becoming available online, it is not difficult at all to imagine a custom textbook that draws exclusively from free material without sacrificing content, scope, or authority.  Perhaps this is more the case in a discipline like history where a blurry line has always existed between high-quality, professional, specialized content and content generated for a popular audience, but I could imagine it being the case for other disciplines as well.

What makes this scenario so compelling is that textbooks are becoming increasingly expensive.  Moreover, most textbooks are pretty mediocre in terms of content coverage, readability, and even accuracy.  One of my longstanding justifications for using Wikipedia entries in place of a traditional textbook is that they are no less accurate than collectively produced textbooks where little errors tend to creep in between editors and authors and unlike Wikipedia they can’t be easily fixed, on the fly, by a critical reader.  At the same time, the pervasive (if somewhat shallow) criticism of Wikipedia creates an environment where students are prone to read entries critically and recognize the contested nature of even basic “facts”.  And the increasingly robust online teaching tools make it easy to incorporate into the classroom a dynamic and growing body of good quality online video, audio, and massive quantity of public domain documents, works of literature, and data.

All this being said, there is a convenience factor with textbooks that may for the short-term outweigh its flaws.  But what do you think? Are the days of textbooks numbered?

Categories: Teaching, The New Media