Teaching

Essay on evolving ideas about technology and education

Are you a faculty member or administrator who thinks that the latest technologies are finally going to enable us to teach our students well, or do you at least hope that’s the case? If so, you should reconsider, because the vaunted elements of the latest technologies have been around for some 100 years. It isn’t having the technology, but using the technology that is key to helping students learn well.

For at least the past decade there has been much talk about the advantages of highly sophisticated online courses and the use of online tools in traditional courses. One of the significant advantages of technology-enhanced courses, it is said, is that they can be tailored to individual students’ needs, and thus achieve desired learning outcomes for each student better and faster.

Consider for example, this quote from the website of the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix: "Based upon the belief that learning is not a one-size-fits-all experience, Apollo Technology developed the technology to deliver data-driven, personalized education tailored to the individual. Apollo Technology’s unique student data system collects and analyzes individual student data, and delivers automatic just-in-time guidance that can significantly improve student outcomes." In 2010, the University of Phoenix announced a new Learning Management System, the Learning Genome Project, that "gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their 'learning DNA.'" Similarly, a recent article in The New York Times stated: "Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material … MOOCs [massive open online courses] are likely to be a game changer."

These statements are evidence of the general belief that now, using technology, we can achieve all sorts of personalized instruction, which constitutes a revolution in how we can help students learn.

But using technology to individualize student learning is not at all a new idea — it does not originate with online courses or with the technology developments of the past decade, or two, or even three. Using technology to individualize student learning is an idea going back at least 100 years. One of the original learning theorists of the modern era, Edward Thorndike, stated in his 1912 book: "If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print."

A couple of World Wars later, one of Thorndike’s intellectual descendants, B.F. Skinner, recognized as the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, was developing and crystallizing the field of operant conditioning, the form of learning in which so-called voluntary behavior changes as a result of its consequences. In the third and final volume of his autobiography, Skinner relates that in 1953, in seeing how his daughters were being educated at the Shady Hill School, "I suddenly realized that something had to be done. Possibly through no fault of her own, the teacher was violating two fundamental principles: the students were not being told at once whether their work was right or wrong (a corrected paper seen 24 hours later could not act as a reinforcer), and they were all moving at the same pace regardless of preparation or ability. But how could a teacher reinforce the behavior of each of 20 or 30 students at the right time and on the material for which he or she was just then ready?.... A few days later I built a primitive teaching machine."

Skinner later developed more sophisticated versions of teaching machines, demonstrating one at the University of Pittsburgh in 1954. These machines presented math problems one at a time, with students having to solve each problem before being able to go on to the next.

In 1961 Skinner took a somewhat different approach to personalized instruction when he published, with Holland, the programmed textbook The Analysis of Behavior. This book focused on the principles of learning, more specifically, the principles of classical (Pavlovian) and operant conditioning, with an emphasis on the latter. The introductory pages of the book, echoing Thorndike in 1912, state that "the material was designed for use in a teaching machine…. Where machines are not available, a programmed textbook such as this may be used. The correct response to each item appears on the following page, along with the next item in the sequence."

Students wrote down their answers before turning the page, and repeated a section if more than 10 percent of the answers in that section were incorrect. I first encountered this book in the summer of 1968, as a 15-year-old student in a psychology course taught under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. Similar to other students in my group that summer, I finished this text within weeks and loved it. In 1964, in seventh grade, I had been the beneficiary of another programmed textbook, English 3200. This book was part of a very successful series that taught English grammar.

Another well-known figure in the origins of operant conditioning, Fred Keller, published his iconic article, "Good-bye Teacher…" in 1968. In this article he essentially advocates breaking down the entire teaching process to its elements, and conducting each of those elements more efficiently. The prime function of the teacher becomes, not to lecture, which is best left to automated means, but to engage in direct interaction with students in support of their individualized instruction. More specifically, Keller points out as important the following teaching elements:

1. Highly individualized instruction that allows students to progress at their own speed.

2. Clear specification of learning outcomes (the specific skills to be achieved).

3. Clear specification of the steps needed to achieve these learning outcomes.

4. A goal of perfection for each student and for each stage in the learning process.

5. Two types of teachers: Classroom teachers whose duties include "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and other teachers who deal with "course logistics, the interpretation of training manuals, the construction of lesson plans and guides, the evaluation of student progress, the selection of [classroom teachers], and the writing of reports for superiors."

6. Using lectures as little as possible — more as a way to motivate students, and using student participation as much as possible.

7. Lots of testing, all with immediate feedback to students, which helps to ensure student learning.

This breakdown of the learning process makes large parts of that process, parts that are ordinarily done in classrooms involving direct human interaction, well suited for being done by technology. However, humans are clearly still needed for specifying the learning outcomes and the steps required to reach them, as well as other tasks involving analysis and creativity and complex interactions with students.

Just a few years later, in the fall of 1972, I took an undergraduate course on learning at Harvard University, taught by William Baum, that followed the "Keller plan." The work was divided into 26 units, each requiring some reading, some questions to which answers had to be found and learned (50 to 80 such questions per unit, some of which would require an essay to really answer properly), and a written and an oral quiz. Students were not allowed to progress to the next unit until they had passed the written and oral quizzes for the preceding unit, and individual instruction with Baum or his graduate teaching assistant was always available. However, due to the large number of units in this 14-week course, and the difficulty of the quizzes, which students often did not pass, very few students finished the entire sequence and so very few students received an A. Thus using the Keller method does not automatically result in students doing well. The application of such teaching techniques is critical.

Lest anyone think that visions of improving learning by the use of technology are limited to psychologists, 1995 saw the publication of an outstanding work of science fiction by Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. A central theme in this work is an interactive book, owned by a small girl, that greatly facilitates her learning, development, and upbringing. We cannot yet achieve the degree of device interactivity that Stephenson describes, but we can achieve elements of that interactivity, and Stephenson gives us a vision of the possibilities.

In 1998, Frank Mayadas, then a program director at the Sloan Foundation, gave the keynote address at the City University of New York’s Baruch College’s first annual Teaching and Technology Conference. In this address he pointed out that all forms of college learning have three elements in common: an expert, who oversees the process; information sources; and colleagues, with whom a student learns. All three are important in the learning process, and all three may be instantiated in different ways depending on the modality of instruction. Although current technology cannot by itself design a new course, it can serve well as an information source, and it can assume some of the functions of colleagues. As technology continues to develop, the functions that it can serve will increasingly closely resemble those that have traditionally been served by humans.

The more recent past, 2010, saw the publication of DIY U by Anya Kamenetz. Consistent with Keller in 1968 and Mayadas in 1998, Kamenetz also would separate the components of the learning process, instead of concentrating them all in a course’s single professor as has been largely the case until now. In her vision of the future, individualized instruction is assumed, with technology playing a significant role, including by taking over those parts of teaching that can be automated.

Kamenetz’s vision is not far away given what is already happening on today’s campuses.  As stated in a 2012 report from the Ithaka organization, "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education": "Literally for the first time in centuries, faculty and administrators are questioning their basic approach to educating students. The traditional model of lectures coupled with smaller recitation sections (sometimes characterized as 'the sage on the stage') is yielding to a dizzying array of technology-enabled pedagogical innovations." One primary use of technology is to deliver lecture material outside of class, while class time is used for discussion and other active interactions involving the instructor and the students. This is known as the flipped classroom, which turns "traditional education on its head." But recall Keller’s 1968 suggestions about how teachers should be used for "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and that lectures should be "used as little as possible … and student participation as much as possible." It seems that the new invention of the flipped classroom is not so new at all.

What encourages these recent statements about the benefits of technology for learning is a worldwide recognition that what is important in higher education is the achievement of specific, agreed-upon learning outcomes. Although this emphasis was present at least from 1912 in the work of learning theorists such as Thorndike, who emphasize the end result — the behavioral goal — in their approach to changing behavior, it has only been in the past few decades that such recognition has become prominent in higher education.

One example is contained within what is known as the Spellings Report (the 2006 report of the commission that was appointed by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings). A major point of this report was that "[a]ccreditation agencies should make performance outcomes, including completion rates and student learning, the core of their assessment as a priority over inputs or processes." It is this emphasis on learning outcomes that, in part, enables the use of technology in the learning process. Once the learning outcomes are specified, the process of helping students to achieve them can be programmed, using increasingly sophisticated technology.

Many of the elements of good teaching discussed here — for example, individualized instruction, frequent testing, focus on outcomes, immediate feedback — now have sound laboratory evidence to support their use (see a comprehensive survey here). We seem to have forgotten their behavioral psychology origins and history, yet it is their effectiveness that is important in the end. Perhaps there are additional lessons to be learned from behavioral scientists, however, in the use of technology to facilitate instruction. We have only to look at casino attendees, particularly the users of slot machines, to see evidence of what Skinner and Keller knew firsthand in the laboratory with rats, that animals (including humans) respond at a high, continuous, persistent rate on variable ratio schedules (situations in which each reward arrives after a variable number of responses). Using such knowledge, in addition to knowledge from cognitive psychology about how best to structure concepts, can result in online courses that not only make concepts easy to learn and remember but, similar to slot machines, are almost irresistibly attractive.

Keller in 1968 summed up his position on teaching with the following:

Twenty-odd years ago, when white rats were first used as laboratory subjects in the introductory course, a student would sometimes complain about his animal’s behavior. The beast couldn’t learn, he was asleep, he wasn’t hungry, he was sick, and so forth. With a little time and a handful of pellets, we could usually show that this was wrong. All that one needed to do was follow the rules. “The rat,” we used to say, “is always right.”

My days of teaching are over.  But … I learned one very important thing: the student is always right. He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement.


Although we can all agree that college students are certainly not the same as casino attendees or lab rats, we can also all agree that technology, designed and used correctly, can facilitate instruction through personalization as well as through motivation. (The popular appeal of many online role-playing games is one example of that.)

The teaching techniques and tools discussed here have been promoted by behavioral psychologists for the past century.  What lessons can we learn from this?  One is that it is possible to facilitate learning using the techniques discussed here, such as personalized instruction, without ever having to use the latest (very expensive) technology.  There are times when a relatively cheap programmed textbook will help someone learn, perhaps not as well as the best online programs, but very well.

A related lesson is that it is not the existence of the latest technology or its potential uses that will help us to maximize student learning, but using what we know and have. Faculty must be both aware of the techniques and tools at their disposal, and want to use them. This requires proper training during graduate school, professional development later on, and appropriate college and university incentive structures (all of which have been too often missing if the repeated rediscovery of these techniques and tools during the past century is any indication).

The sorts of tools that we have needed to help students learn have been around for 100 years, albeit continuously improved. It is our job to — finally — use those tools.
 

Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.

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Essay calls for inclusion of non-academic skills in college readiness efforts

Improving college and career readiness among our high school students is one of the great imperatives facing our nation. To meet this challenge, educators, policymakers and business leaders are working to increase students’ academic skills through a host of national and state initiatives, including the Common Core State Standards.  

While it goes without question that students need strong academic skills to succeed in postsecondary education, our research indicates that “college readiness” must be more broadly conceived. In a recent study, we interviewed almost 200 community college faculty, staff and students. These interviews made abundantly clear that certain non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes are equally germane to college success. 

Non-academic college readiness is only peripherally discussed by practitioners and policymakers. It remains poorly articulated, leaving new college students unclear about the expectations they will face, and high school and college practitioners unable to help them truly prepare. As educators aim to make the academic skills needed for college readiness clear and measurable, they must do the same for non-academic skills.

In our recent research, we identified four specific areas -- academic habits, cultural know-how, the ability to balance school and other demands and engaging in help-seeking -- in which college faculty had clear expectations of their students. These expectations differed substantively from those in high school, and while meeting them was critical to college success, they remained largely unspoken.

Many college instructors think they already clearly articulate their expectations to students, but our research indicates that behavioral expectations must be made far more explicit and precise. As one student we spoke to -- who dropped out after her second semester -- told us: “they didn’t tell me what to expect, so I didn’t know what to do!”  Overall, the evidence points to the need for active, scaffolded guidance so that students can develop the behaviors and strategies exhibited by effective college students.

Take “studying,” for example. College instructors often tell students they must “study hard” for their class. But in high school, studying usually entails completing nightly homework, taking biweekly tests, and completing short-term assignments. College “studying,” in contrast, means completing work independently -- even if the teacher doesn’t collect or grade it. It means reviewing a syllabus at the beginning of a course, developing a plan to complete long-term projects and studying large amounts of material for infrequent exams.

Students who meet the college expectation of studying hard use strategies such as breaking their syllabus into small chunks of material to learn at regularly scheduled intervals, and taking notes in the margins of their textbooks while reading. Instructors should explain these successful behaviors to students on the first day of class, and regularly remind them of these and other important skills, such as recognizing when they need help, and asking for assistance rather than waiting for it to be offered.

To make their expectations sufficiently explicit and actionable, instructors will have to first spend time reflecting upon the non-academic behaviors and skills they expect of their students. Once they have identified their own expectations, instructors can make these clear to students and develop assignments that will help students learn to employ the necessary behaviors. For example, when an instructor asks students to “come to class prepared,” what does she mean? If she means coming to class having completed a reading and being prepared to participate in discussions about it, she can include this expectation in the syllabus, explain it to students from the first day of class, and assign students to write out three questions or observations about the reading to discuss each week.

Institutions can formalize this process by asking entire departments or disciplines to similarly identify and explicate the unspoken expectations to which students are held. Conversations about behavioral expectations could be conducted as part of program review, professional development or the creation of learning outcomes. Importantly, institutions must then make these newly identified non-academic expectations clear to current and future students -- by embedding them into course syllabi and structuring orientation, outreach activities and success courses around them.

Colleges should also work with high schools and state education policymakers to ensure that these non-academic readiness standards are incorporated into ongoing local and state college readiness initiatives. Senior-year transition courses, college-high school partnership programs and Common Core implementation are all avenues through which non-academic collegiate expectations can be clearly communicated to students, and successful skills and behaviors can be taught.

The bottom line is that educators must stop blaming students for breaking rules that they do not know exist. Until students are told the concrete ways college and high school are different, and provided strategies for how they might meet new expectations, there is a danger that all the focus on academic readiness will not lead to real change in students’ postsecondary achievement.

Author/s: 
Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork
Author's email: 
ccrc@columbia.edu

Melinda Mechur Karp is senior research associate and Rachel Hare Bork is a research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Pulse podcast examines Blackboard Analytics for Learn

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This month's edition of The Pulse podcast features a conversation with Mark Max, vice president of Blackboard Analytics for Learn.

How colleges can train faculty to better teach nontraditional students (essay)

In the second installment of his essay on the role of teaching in student success, Mike Rose explores how colleges can train faculty to better teach nontraditional students.

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Essay on the nature of an instructor's work

Given the work before us, I will go into my first class today and try to meet my students as simply and directly as possible. Some of this work comes from the past, some from the state, and some from what we in my department have agreed to do.  Some of this work will come from what we carry with us, some from what we find blocking the way between us, and some from what we see up ahead.  We variously work ourselves into the work of the other.

Education is labor-intensive and expensive because it falls upon the tangled mess of human relationships struggling to find the work that works best. We just can’t know the work before we work it.  We hate the work we can’t make work, and we love the work we can. It takes time, and it takes money. And for some, more than others. Work, like love, is what we find when we find ourselves in what others have done.  

The best teacher I ever had loved me for my work and I loved her for hers. With a blue pen, I put words on college-ruled pages in a three-ringed notebook. Those words helped me find what I loved about the world. About books. About school. About small towns. About rivers. About music. About words on pages. She met me simply in the classroom and surprised me by what she loved. I knew I could talk to her and she would help me find myself in what others had done.  

I know you had a different teacher, but it’s still true.

Let me put it another way. We are always reaching back into what has already been made. We do this with all of our body. It is very hard and very easy. We do it when we want to. And we do it when we aren’t aware we’re doing it. We are always standing together splashing each other in joy and sorrow with what we have made.

But there are also some of us who are pressing our noses against the window of what’s to come. I’d like to see more of us breathing into that glass. I’d like college to be more like that kind of pressing and breathing and working. Let us make work at college a place where we are both in and at and outside that window. What’s out there? Who?

I know money is power and circulates in ways most of us don’t see. You probably have more than I do. Or I have more than you. We certainly have more than they do way over there. Still, we don’t have more than those who have decided what gets taught. Soon they tell us – as they always tell us — that we’ll need to do more with less because they’ll be putting more of their money elsewhere while putting more of their power upon us. After all, it’s their money. And it’s their power. How do they do this? I try not to cry about it.

And by not crying about it, I mean, I try not to cry about the tangled mess of education and power and money and work and how each of us finds our way in the world. It may be that we need better direction or better technology or better learning outcomes or better threats. It’s hard to know really.

But each day, we still show up at the knowledge factory. We know what our work is.

Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of the department of English and modern languages at Angelo State University, in Texas, where he teaches courses in composition, literature, creative writing, and English education.

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Florida State instructor sparks controversy with Klout score grades

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A Florida State marketing instructor is drawing heat for grading students based on their Klout scores, a metric meant to measure online influence.

Essay on the importance of teaching failure

What can we conclude when undergraduates bemoan, "How did anyone ever come up with this stuff?" Although the students might feel confused or bedazzled, there’s one thing for certain: the instructor jumped over the requisite missteps that originally led to the discovery at hand. This type of intellectual revisionism often depicts weighty concepts and conclusions as slick and sanitized, and, as a result, foreign and intangible.

In reality, every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.

Individuals need to embrace the realization that taking risks and failing are often the essential moves necessary to bring clarity, understanding, and innovation. By making a mistake, we are led to the pivotal question: "Why was that wrong?" By answering this question, we are intentionally placing ourselves in a position to develop a new insight and to eventually succeed. But how do we foster such a critical habit of mind in our students — students who are hardwired to avoid failure at all costs? Answer: Just assess it.

For the last decade or so, I’ve put my students’ grades where my mouth is. Instead of just touting the importance of failing, I now tell students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their final grade is based on their "quality of failure." Would such a scheme provoke a change in attitude? Absolutely — with this grading practice in place, students gleefully take more risks and energetically engage in discussions.

And when a student (say, Aaron) makes a mistake in class, he exclaims, "Oh well, my quality of failure grade today is really high." The class laughs and then quickly moves to the serious next step — answering: Why was that wrong? It’s not enough to console an incorrect response with a nurturing, "Oh, Aaron, that’s not quite right, but we still think you’re the best! Now, does anyone else have another guess?" Instead, a mistake solicits either the enthusiastic yet honest response, "Congratulations, Aaron — that’s wrong! Now what lesson or insight is Aaron offering us?" or the class question, "What do you think? Is Aaron correct?" Either way, the students have to actively listen and then react, while Aaron sees his comment as an important element that allows the discussion to move forward.

I often refer back again and again to someone’s previous mistake to celebrate just how significant it was. If we foster an environment in our classrooms in which failing is a natural and necessary component in making progress, then we allow our students to release their own genius and share their authentic ideas — even if (or especially when) those ideas aren’t quite polished or perfectly formed.

After returning a graded assignment and reviewing the more challenging questions, I ask students to share their errors — and the class immediately comes to life: everyone wants to show off their mistakes as they now know they are offering valuable learning moments. What’s more, in this receptive atmosphere, it’s actually fun to reveal those promising gems of an idea that turned out to be counterfeit.

More recently, I’ve asked my students to intentionally fail — in the spirit of an industrial stress test. I now require my students to write a first draft of an essay very quickly and poorly — long before its due date — and then have the students use that lousy draft as a starting point for the (hopefully lengthy) iterative process of revising and editing. When the work is due, they must submit not only their final version, but also append their penultimate draft all marked up with their own red ink. This strategy assures that they will produce at least one intermediate draft before the final version. Not surprisingly, the quality of their work improved dramatically.

When I consult with or lead workshops for faculty and administrators, they are drawn to this principle of intentionally promoting failure, which inevitably leads to the question: How do you assess it? The first time I tried my 5 percent "quality of failure," I had no idea how to grade it. But I practiced what I preached — taking a risk and being willing to fail in the noble cause of teaching students to think more effectively. I passionately believe that assessment concerns should never squelch any creative pedagogical experiment. Try it today, and figure out how to measure it tomorrow.

In the case of assessing "quality of failure," at the end of the semester I ask my students to write a one-page reflective essay describing their productive failure in the course and how they have grown from those episodes (which might have occurred outside of class — including false starts and fruitful iterations). They conclude their essay by providing their own grade on how they have evolved through failure and mistakes (from 0 – meaning "I never failed" or "I learned nothing from failing" to 10 – meaning "I created and understood in profound, new ways from my failed attempts"). I read their narratives, reflect on their class participation and willingness to take risks, and then usually award them the surprisingly honest and restrained grades they gave themselves. To date, I’ve never had a student complain about their "quality of failure" grade.

To my skeptical colleagues who wonder if this grading scheme can be exploited as a loophole to reward unprepared students, I remind them that we should not create policies in the academy that police students, instead we should create policies that add pedagogical value and create educational opportunity. And with respect to my grading failure practice, I found no such abuse at the three institutions in which I have employed it (Williams College, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Baylor University). On the contrary, if implemented correctly, you will see your students more engaged, more prepared, and more thoughtful in class discussions and in life.

Beyond the subject matter contained in the 32 to 48 courses that typical undergraduates fleetingly encounter, our students’ education centers about the most important creative feat of their lives — the creation of themselves: Creating a mind enlivened by curiosity and the intellectual audacity to take risks and create new ideas, a mind that sees a world of unlimited possibilities. So we as educators and scholars should constantly be asking ourselves: Have I taught my students how to successfully fail? And if not, then: What am I waiting for?

Edward Burger is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, and is an educational and business consultant. Other practical ways to fail and inspire students to make productive mistakes can be found in his latest book (co-authored with Michael Starbird), The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Princeton University Press).

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Pulse podcast discusses highlights of Blackboard annual meeting

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In this month's edition of the Pulse podcast, Rod Murray shares highlights from the 2012 Blackboard World users' group meeting.

New book looks at college students motivated by creativity, not grades

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A university administrator's new book looks at students who were motivated by creativity, not grades, to think deeply and impact others.

Using Facebook to build community in large college classes (essay)

Jonathan Golding describes how he overcame his initial reluctance and used the social media network to connect the hundreds of students in his psychology course.

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