It began with a vivid dream, in which REM sleep metamorphoses into the awakened conscience, providing a vision of what will or ought to be. In reality, I had a class to teach in five hours. However, at 4 a.m., the hallucinatory dream-realm seemed more real to me than irrational: Benjamin Franklin had visited me with a message for a student in media ethics.
Any teacher, let alone administrator, who would publicize such a visitation, is due for sabbatical or retirement. I get that. But this was an extraordinary time for me. A colleague had passed away suddenly, and I had volunteered to take her class. As a journalism director, I had no classroom responsibilities. The last time I taught media ethics was spring 2003 in my last quarter at Ohio University, where I worked before taking the Iowa State University position.
This is an account of what began as a dream and ended as an affirmation about the importance of higher education.
In the asynchronous landscape of the conscience, I did not meet the historic Ben Franklin with ponytail and coonskin cap. History is insignificant in the absence of time. Reputation is not.
Imagine learning without warning that a powerful or an influential person — Angela Merkel, say, or Nelson Mandela — was en route to your home. What would be the first thing on your mind?
I had to clean the house. Hence began the whirr of imagery dusting, washing dishes, vacuuming, as the doorbell rang like a school bell, or liberty bell maybe, now that I think of it.
In a blink, the house was clean and Franklin across from me. "I have an important message for one of your students. She is going to change the country."
"Mr. Franklin," I said — yes, I called him that — "I am grateful for your visit."
"You have nothing to do with it. I’m here because of a student. I have three words for her."
He shared them, and I awoke bedazzled and apprehensive.
I entered Room 169 in Hamilton Hall. The class was still grieving the loss of one of Iowa State’s most iconic professors, Barbara Mack, who died on Aug. 23 after teaching the first two sessions of media ethics. (See “24 Hours” about the shock of her passing.)
Not only was I replacing a beloved professor, in the eyes of my students I was the quintessential administrator with no classroom experience and with antiquated lectures of the pre-digital age. Worse, I had substituted the existing syllabus of Professor Mack with one of my own, containing more philosophy than newsroom practice. (I would adjust for that by requiring the class to do an online media portfolio with personal ethics statement.)
Instinctively I knew I had to gain students’ trust, and that’s when I decided to share with them my Franklin dream.
I still recall the puzzled looks of 65 students. I pressed on, sharing common knowledge about Franklin as journalist and highlighting his contribution to virtue ethics.
When he was 20, about the age of my students, he devised an ethical plan to shape his life, espousing the virtues of "resolution" (promise keeping), "tranquility" (serenity during incivility), "frugality," "industry," "sincerity," "justice," "moderation" and, above all, "humility."
All of those virtues are practiced still in Iowa, known for its work ethic.
I told them my dream and those three important words: "Read, read, read."
After lecture, I returned to my office and read several e-mails from women who felt that Franklin was speaking directly to them. They knew they were going to make a difference, and this was some sort of affirmation from the beyond.
That was the first inkling that times had changed. I thought students would be more skeptical.
Here is one such e-mail: "I meant to come in to talk to you today, and actually bumped into you in the Daily newsroom, but you seemed to be all over the place doing business, so I decided to e-mail you instead.… I would like to give you some background on your Benjamin Franklin dream in saying he was probably speaking about me!"
About a dozen students in media ethics also worked for our independent newspaper, the Daily. Barbara Mack was on the publication board. I was going to forward those e-mails to her when I remembered she was no longer with us. Or maybe like Franklin, she was, in spirit.
Instead, I shared the e-mails with our office manager, Kathy Box. She said something that rang true about our role as teachers. "We should approach every class believing there are students who will change the world for the better."
Over the course of the semester, those students changed me. Keep in mind it had been a decade since I had taught this class. There were no smartphones then. A small percentage of the typical campus had wireless in 2003. Now technology has exploded with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype and omnipresent media and blogs that are part of the modern classroom and our lives.
During the first few weeks, some students were wary about my teaching methods emphasizing reading. Whereas Barbara Mack, a lawyer (and you need to be if you dare do this) confiscated smartphones if students used them during lecture, I paid them no heed whatsoever. "Text away," I said, asking students to sit in rows nearest the exit if they wanted to network socially. These were "liberty seats," allowing students to come and go as they pleased. "It’s your tuition dollar."
At first, a dozen or so students embraced that policy, believing it was lenient, until the midterm. At Iowa State, professors must report to the registrar all those students earning a C- or lower. Out of the 65, I reported a third of the class — a fair distribution of grades, I thought. To students, this was alarming. Many needed media ethics for graduation. They couldn’t just drop the class without setting themselves back careerwise and financially.
Ah, the beauty of extra credit! I had forgotten about that, too, in addition to grade inflation. Students could earn points reading, writing and attending guest lectures, presentations and forums. Moreover, I told them, they could earn more credit if their online portfolios wowed me. This was an opportunity for seniors to work for themselves and create a project that would help them secure a job upon graduation.
To be honest, though, some stereotypes about today’s digital natives were true, initially at least. For instance, I posted all of my lectures, journal exercises, recordings, videos and presentations on "myethicsclass.com" — interesting, isn’t it, that I could buy that domain? I also posted reviews for exams whose answers were available 24/7 via Internet. (After the abysmal midterm exam, students realized the importance of “read, read, read.”)
While students consumed technology, many in the class did not know basic HTML or CSS. I had to create a slideshow tutorial to help them with final projects. I also scheduled one-on-one advising sessions to fix glitches in their online portfolios, using the computer as an excuse to interact with and get to know students interpersonally.
They did have trouble thinking critically. I had not fully anticipated how much this skill had been undermined by technology, which tends to provide answers rather than processes. I went as far as giving "critical thinking" prizes every time a student correctly applied an ethics tenet. Throughout the semester, I gave only four such prizes — a personalized pad and pen.
Students made up for lack of critical thinking with a keen visual sense and entrepreneurial talent, as evidenced in their ethics portfolios.
What surprised me in my substitute semester was how efficient teaching had become because of technology, if one knows how to use it for educational purposes.
In a few weeks I managed an entire course revision, updating lectures and using search engines, online libraries and databanks to find everything that I needed at a mere click of a button — something my students had mastered but occasionally misused, not being able to tell critically the veracity or authenticity of a site.
Better still, I didn’t have to pay travel expenses for experts to speak to my classes, affirming my lectures and lessons. I could Skype them in to do just that. For instance I called on Jeffrey Howe, a former media ethics student at Ohio and now an assistant professor at Northeastern University, to critique students’ online ethics portfolio. (Howe also writes for Wired and is creator of the concept of "crowdsourcing," also discussed in my class.)
I could provide links to news shows and historic moments and then show them in class. Discussing the power of the conscience, we viewed a journalism video on YouTube about "Tank Man," who stopped a line of tanks during the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square.
A Chinese student in ethics class had never seen the Tank Man video before. “This is why I came to study in America,” she said.
Later in the semester I showed a powerful CNN video about the Kent State uprising. Several of my American students had never heard about this before, especially as told through the eyes of the student journalists who covered the fatal shootings in 1970.
Another of my Chinese students remarked about the similarities between Tiananmen and Kent State uprisings. (She got a critical thinking pad and pen, by the way.)
I could check stats on the class blog to see how many students were reading posts. I could communicate with them throughout the week, using social networks and Blackboard, commenting on current affairs and sending links to augment times in class when questions arose or tangents were taken.
Case in point: We were studying the concept of "freedom of conscience" when I mentioned the bravery of 22-year-old Sophie Scholl, part of a journalism resistance group, "The White Rose," that harangued Nazis in World War II with philosophy-based newsletters about social justice.
I provided links to her life and then purchased from Amazon several copies of the DVD, "Sophie Scholl — The Final Days." Several students checked out the video and others found it on Netflix.
A transfer student who watched clips from the movie confessed that Scholl made her feel insignificant because she wanted to be as brave as her and make a contribution to society, although she doubted she would ever do so.
"Remember the Franklin dream," I told her. "He could have been speaking about you."
She smiled in recognition.
That gave me an idea. In time for the next class I acquired a 1787 coin that Franklin purportedly designed, the "Fugio" cent, and passed it around the class. “You are holding history,” I said. Then we explicated mottos on the coin whose obverse inscription, “Fugio,” is Latin for "I flee," referring to the blink of linear time. The obverse has another motto — “Mind your business” — which symbolizes “industry” and also bespeaks the entrepreneurial genius of today’s students. The reverse has 13 interlocking links, representing the original colonies, with the inscription, “We are one.” This affirms unity.
At that moment, teacher and students were one, thanks again to Benjamin Franklin.
When the term ended, many students met their grading goals by attending extra-credit events. Fewer than 10 students earned C- to F, a typical distribution.
I will keep teaching media ethics. My substitute semester helped me understand the challenges and needs of faculty. I will do all I can to provide resources.
As for dreams, my Franklin visitation probably says more about me than about teaching. However, his message about reading is as essential as ever if we are to help students realize their own dreams and contribute more to society.
In my substitute semester I learned there is still no substitute for that.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both published by Oxford University Press and winners of the Clifford G. Christians Awards for Research in Media Ethics.
"Her mother was to read it when it was written; that was understood to be the agreement between them; but there would be no reason why she should not be alone when she wrote it. She could word it very differently, she thought, if she sat alone over it in her own bedroom, than she could do immediately under her mother's eye. She could not pause and think and perhaps weep over it, sitting at the parlour table, with her mother in her arm-chair, close by, watching her.” -- Anthony Trollope, Rachel Ray (Ch. 20)
“Why can’t I write it at home?” asks Shauna.
By reflex, I patiently explain, “You’re going to have to write the exams in class, so it’s good practice.” I see, however, that there are plenty of distractions in our room: the air-conditioning pumps outside the window that are churning; the coffee bar down the hall luring us with its aromas; allergy-plagued Victor with his snortings and snufflings; I with my paper-shuffling; Linda and her eye-sucking cell phone on her lap.
And I know my developmental English students are particularly vulnerable to distractions. They can, like human soufflés, sink into themselves and disappear into their sweatshirts, or, ever- anxious and nervous, can flit and start like deer in the forest, alarmed at the slightest noise.
On the other hand, I discovered long ago when I first started teaching that writing is not so intimidating an activity if everyone else in the room is doing it. And there’s that phenomenon of students of all abilities writing more grammatically and coherently when they’re under the pressure of writing against time, competitively with their classmates, their pens sprinting along -- not being so prone to pause and sink into the grammar-bogs of their native languages or idioms. Quick steps seem to keep us in rhythm even on the winding, bumpy track of writing.
And yet … we professors almost never write in these conditions. My developmental students, the least agile writers and readers, must dance in public through hoops because, before admittance to the college, they failed so miserably at reading and writing. On exam days, they radiate anxiety and I find myself, in my whispered instructions, "Relax! Relax!" that I’m really instead radiating hyper-concerned anxiety right back at them.
So during the semester I try to get everyone accustomed to writing under the gun; writing and reading when none of us want to; writing on and reading topics of no special interest!
"I don’t wanna lie and say I care about community gardens,” says Larry.
“Don’t lie," I say. "Just pretend you’re somebody who does care. Your aunt. The retired schoolteacher down the block."
"Pretending isn’t lying, professor?"
I smile. "No, we call it … fiction."
At the end of every in-class writing assignment, a student will ask, "Can I take it home? I promise I’ll write more than I could here."
"Just try. You have a few more minutes — you can’t take it home."
With exams that I give my second-year students, who have no system- or departmentwide grading to face, I tell them they can write wherever they want to write -- in the hallway, in the library, at the bus stop; they only have to be back by whatever time everyone else is going to finish. I don't really think it's important that they be under my eye. Someone's going to help them write about the very particular and personal points of our many readings? I doubt it. And as I have to admit, they’ve written so much for me already that I know the peculiarities of their writing better than I know the features of their handsome and pretty faces. Yes, I truly believe I can sniff out anything they might borrow from the Internet.
But I want the developmental students to stay put, because out of the classroom is an escape, and they need to get used to not escaping. They need to get used to settling down to work in a noisy environment. They need to learn to shut out their friend sitting next to them.
Yet I'm probably asking too much.
In Trollope’s great Rachel Ray, Rachel needs to write a letter of renunciation to her fiancé -- her mother and her minister have said she should, and so she will. But she needs to do it on her own terms. If they're to tell her what to write, and if her mother is going to have a look at it before she sends it, she needs some space of her own to weep over it. She loves Luke Rowan, and she believes in him, and only a few weeks earlier she had received her mother's and the minister's blessings to love him. She would not have loved him otherwise. Now, due to some plot twists, the authority figures of her life have changed their minds, but she has not changed her heart.
Now, we all know, particularly with developmental writers, that there are matters close to their hearts that are shocking to them as they spill out on the paper.
For instance, Yvonne, regal-looking, sits in the front row, off to the right, by the window, and, 10 minutes into an exam, sits and stares ahead into some middle space. And as I look at her, she seems so distant, so transformed, that I say, "Are you O.K., Yvonne?"
And she looks up, as if waking from a dream, and answers my confounding interference with, "As a matter of fact, I was thinking, professor!"
Most of them write as well as they can in spite of the distractions. Yvonne seems to block us out, to see only the situation she’s imagining. When I discreetly glance at her again, she is writing, brows knitted, her lips parted, almost gasping, her eyes watery.
Next time, I’ll give her some privacy.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
Toward the end of one summer — 1994, to be precise — I arrived at St. Lawrence University as an 18-year-old freshman, excited yet nervous to begin my college career. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer someday, though I didn’t really have an idea of what that would entail or how difficult it would be. I wasn’t particularly anxious about the classes I would be taking — though in hindsight, judging by my grades that first semester, I probably should have been.
No, my concerns were more social in nature. Would I like my roommate? Who would become my friends? Would the people who promised in my high school yearbook that we would be "friends forever" still matter to me, and I to them, by the time we saw each other again at Thanksgiving? Would I finally have sex? The answer to these questions were: Not particularly, a bunch of people, some, and no.
The last answer was the most devastating, to the freshman me, but all in all, that first year of college was a good experience. I read King Lear. I learned from my new female friends that feminists were not, as I had been led to believe, castrating man-haters. I saw my first Kurosawa film. I attended several meetings of the Black Student Union — for the first time, I experienced what it’s like to be the only white person in a room. I was in a play. I perfected my impressions of both R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the B-52’s Fred Schneider, in order to entertain my friends on Friday nights fueled by cheap beer and Boone’s Farm "wine products." I read memoirs and essays by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Piri Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston that created and nourished my interest in creative nonfiction forms.
As that first year came to a close, I was a little stressed by final exams and papers, and somewhat concerned that I’d never get a girlfriend. Mostly, though, I thought college was an exciting, intellectually challenging, and fun place to be, and I knew I didn’t ever want to leave. So, with the exception of a short break due to some health issues, I really didn’t — I went to grad school, eventually earned a Ph.D., and have been employed on college campuses ever since.
I’ve recently returned to my beloved alma mater — which I’ve written about for Inside Higher Edbefore — in order to teach creative writing and literature. This one-year visiting position came along at a time when, to be honest, I had been thinking about getting out of the academy altogether. Although I still loved teaching and writing and developing as a scholar and thinker, I had begun to feel, at the very least, like I did not belong — and could not stay — at the college where I had been working since 2008. There were many reasons for this feeling, but the important point is that I realized that I was unhappy where I was — that this was not the job I thought it would be. Worse still, I began to fear that the problem wasn’t that specific location, but rather that I’m not cut out for this line of work. So I returned to the scene of the crime, the place where I first learned to love literature, writing, and the academic life.
In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White talks of returning to the lake where his father used to take the family on vacations, this time as a grown man with a son of his own. The essay is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, but kind of funny for his insistence that this place is just as he remembered it, even though he gives a list of things that have changed. "I could tell," he notes after observing the fact that the road leading to the camp was now paved, "that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before....” Or when talking about the nearby store: "Inside, all was as it had been, except...." Or the waitresses who serve them their pie, who were "the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain — the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference — they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair."
Different, but the same. Timeless, yet pushed forward in time. I didn’t really understand White’s disorientation until I returned to St. Lawrence. As White returns to the lake as a father, I’ve returned to St. Lawrence as a professor. He feels, at times, his own father next to him — or perhaps within him, as if he has become his father by bringing his son to this place. I teach in "The Shakespeare Room" in Richardson Hall, dedicated to Emeritus Professor of English Thomas L. Berger, my own Shakespeare professor from 15 years ago, whose blown-up photograph hangs on the wall to my left as I do my best to lead a discussion on Emily Dickinson.
Professor Berger isn’t really beside me, just as White’s father is not with him, yet his presence on that wall reminds me of what type of professor I want to be — erudite, funny, and maybe a little bit intimidating to students who haven’t done the reading.
On days when it’s not too cold — and here in New York’s North Country, those days can be few and far between this time of year — I like to walk around campus. I made a point of showing my wife the dorm I lived in freshman year, where I met the friend who would later ask me to be the godfather to her son. I walked through the building that now houses the theater and fine arts department, but that used to be the student union, where we would occasionally get pizza or burgers at the Northstar Pub, which stopped selling beer after my freshman year but was still called "The Pub" when I graduated. The new student union — located in a more centralized area of campus — houses the Northstar Café, but the students still call it "The Pub" for reasons that are probably a complete mystery to them.
As I was walking home from a poetry reading on campus one night last semester, a student smoking in front of his dorm called out "Dr. Bradley!" and walked toward me in order to talk about class. I haven’t had a cigarette in years, but I almost asked him for one. It seemed like the thing to do. Smoke a cigarette, talk about what you’d been reading. How many times did I do just that with my friends? Those actors and singers and painters and writers who were all so into this world they were just discovering. How many cigarettes did I smoke, talking about Uta Hagen, or Annie Dillard, or Quentin Tarantino? Of course, we smoked inside, back then. It was the '90s. A different era.
White notes that the souvenir counters at the store offer "postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked," which is sometimes how the past seems when we reflect. If I talk of loving college, I should also tell you that I frequently drove myself crazy, putting the finishing touches on a paper at 4:30 when it was due at 5:00, then running around campus with a disk in hand, trying to find an available printer (again, it was the '90s). There were those times, towards the end of the semester, when — out of money on my meal card — I had to eat sandwiches made of generic white bread and processed cheese slices for every meal. And there were the romantic relationships. They all started out fun, but frequently ended with someone crying.
Still, if the experience was sometimes painful, it was also always educational. I wouldn’t want to trade those experiences or forget those lessons — they’ve shaped the writer, teacher, friend, and husband I am today. And something about this experience of being back on this campus has reminded me — and I’m shocked that I needed to be reminded — that my students are having those very same experiences right now. They’re reading something that’s going to change their lives. They’re falling in love. They’re learning not to send e-mails drunk. They’re listening to the Velvet Underground for the very first time. They’re figuring out who they’re going to be as they begin their adult lives.
So much is different. Everything’s the same.
In my previous Inside Higher Ed column, I talked about remembering my own youthful mistakes when I find myself frustrated with my students. I’m glad to have such perspective — it sometimes saves my sanity — but I’m also glad to remember how awesome it was to be young, to be humbled by the realization that there was so much out there to learn. I had lost some of that enthusiasm in the years since my own undergrad days, but being here, seeing and identifying with these students, has caused me to remember. As a 21st-century academic, it’s awfully easy to get nervous and jaded — it seems like every day, someone from outside of the academy is throwing around words and phrases like "strategic dynamism," "innovative disruption" or "paradigm shift" that don’t really mean anything to me except that the speaker or author doesn’t think very highly of the work we do in the academy, or at least the way we do it. I frequently feel embattled or unappreciated, but this year at my old school has reminded me that I didn’t go to grad school to make politicians or business leaders like me. I went because I wanted to help young people have the same life-changing experience I had.
It’s cold here in Canton right now — one day this week, it didn’t even get above zero — but you wouldn’t know it from all the activity happening on campus. There are informational meetings for students interested in studying abroad in the Czech Republic and Thailand. There’s a screening of the film "Argo." The student organization dedicated to environmental activism is having a vegetarian dinner, open to all interested students. There are athletic events. And, of course, there are classes. I’m not saying that these are activities special to St. Lawrence — I’m sure if you work on a college campus, similar stuff is happening around you. But sometimes, I think, the stress of our jobs causes us to forget what an awesome place a vibrant campus can be.
At the end of White’s essay, he talks of feeling "the chill of death" as he watches his son prepare to swim in the rain, but my recent experience with students at my alma mater has reminded me of how powerful it can be, to be surrounded by the warmth of lives that are really just beginning. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months, but I’m glad for having learned this lesson this year.
William Bradley is visiting assistant professor of English at St. Lawrence University.
In October, during the final 2012 U.S. presidential debate, the topic of class size came up within the context of global competitiveness. Although the candidates were mainly arguing the benefits of small classes in K-12 education, the issue deserves attention within higher education. With the growth of online classes, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), and with the creep upward in class size of many institutions that have faced budget constraints in recent years, it is worth asking whether class size matters in college courses. Do the learning objectives, teaching methods, teacher standards, and workload expectations vary, depending upon class size? Do students’ learning, motivation, and work habits in large classes match those in smaller classes?
The IDEA Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to serve colleges and universities committed to improving learning, teaching, and leadership performance, retains an archived database of student ratings that provides the opportunity to explore the effects of class size on faculty and student perceptions of learning and instruction. Student ratings of instruction collected from 2002-11 include undergraduate and graduate classes from public and private colleges across all regions of the continental United States. Approximately 40 percent come from master’s level institutions, 20 percent each from bachelor’s and doctoral level, 5 percent from associate, and 5 percent other. The data include ratings collected online and on paper, in face-to-face and online classes.
In our ratings system, the instructor indicates the course enrollment. Instructors also rate the relevance of 12 learning objectives (minor or no importance, important, essential) for the course. In addition, they have the option of answering questions about their approach to instruction, course requirements, and various course circumstances. On the student ratings form, students rate their progress on the same 12 objectives, the frequency of 20 teaching methods, and various course, teacher, and student characteristics. They also provide an overall rating of the course, instructor, and their attitudes toward the field of study.
Historically, the IDEA Center has categorized class size as small (10-14), medium (15-34), large (35-49), and very large (50+) when preparing technical reports. This same grouping was applied to the current analyses, which resulted in the following distribution of classes: small (63,622), medium (349,313), large (48,916), and very large (27,503).
The first thing evident is that the objectives instructors choose to emphasize vary by size of class. Instructors in very large classes are more likely to emphasize learning factual knowledge and less likely to stress developing communication skills (both oral and written) than are those in small and medium classes. This is especially true in general education courses.
As one might expect, the primary approach to instruction varies as well. One of the reasons instructors in large and very large classes emphasize the learning of factual knowledge may be because they rely upon lecture as the primary approach to instruction. Instructors in very large classes (about 86 percent) are more likely to lecture than those in small (43 percent) and medium-size (54 percent) classes. Still, lecture remains the most frequent teaching method regardless of class size.
Teaching methods differ as well. According to students, instructors in small and medium classes are more likely to involve students in hands-on projects and real-life activities, assign projects that require original or creative thinking, form teams or discussion groups to facilitate learning, and ask students to help each other understand concepts or ideas. Perhaps most troubling is that students in large and very large classes report the instructor is less likely to inspire them to set and achieve goals that really challenge them.
The reason for such lack of inspiration and challenge may relate to differences in course characteristics. Students in very large classes report fewer non-reading assignments than do those in small and medium-size classes. They also rate instructors lower on their achievement standards and their expectations that students share in responsibility for learning. So, the case could be made that students perceive larger classes as less rigorous.
But don’t assume students are champing at the bit to enroll in courses they perceive as less rigorous. Students in small classes consistently report a stronger desire to take the course than those in very large classes. Moreover, they report stronger work habits. And it’s not just the students who perceive such class-size differences. Fifty-three percent of instructors in small classes believe the level of student enthusiasm had a positive impact on learning compared to only 38 percent of instructors in very large classes.
Such enthusiasm translates into higher student ratings of progress on relevant objectives. Student average progress on course objectives the instructor rates as either essential or important is more than one-half standard deviation higher in small compared to very large classes. The advantage for small classes is especially evident in developing creative capacities (writing, inventing, designing, performing in art, music, drama, etc.) and communication skills (oral and written), where student progress is about a full standard deviation higher compared to very large classes. For medium-size classes, the advantage is nearly the same. When you compare small and medium-size classes with classes enrolling 100 or more students (of which there are over 6,000 in the database), the differences are even more staggering.
The smallest gaps in student progress between small, medium, and very large classes are found in gaining factual knowledge and learning fundamental principles and theories. The gaps do not even increase markedly in classes exceeding 100.
A finding particularly relevant for general education, where students sometimes get their first impressions of a discipline, is the relationship between class size and student attitudes toward the field of study. Students in small and medium classes report more positive attitudes about the discipline as a result of taking the course than do those in very large classes.
These effects of class size are not terribly surprising. The IDEA Center has known for years that class size makes a difference, which is why course enrollment has long been one of the variables we use to adjust student ratings scores. Moreover, recommended actions presented to instructors in the individual IDEA class report are made based on comparisons between the class’s average rating for a teaching method and other classes of similar size. The effectiveness of a teaching method depends not only on which objective is being emphasized but also on how many students are enrolled in the course. However, as reported previously and confirmed in the current dataset, student work habits and motivation are more important predictors of achievement on relevant learning objectives than is class size. The key is for faculty to encourage such productive behaviors in students regardless of how many are enrolled in the class. But in large and very large classes this is apparently a more daunting task.
Even in higher education, then, class size makes a difference. In very large classes, instructors are more likely to emphasize factual knowledge and less likely to develop communication skills. In turn, in very large classes students are less likely to report progress on communication skills and creative capacities, such as writing, inventing, designing, and performing. The types of learning where students in very large classes approach the progress of those in small and medium classes is in developing basic background in the subject matter.
As policy makers and institutions of higher education continue to explore the possibility of offering fewer sections with larger enrollments (including MOOCs and many other forms of online education and in-person education with large enrollments), the effects of class size on teacher behaviors and student learning, motivation, and work habits should be part of the conversation. Admittedly, the increasing sophistication of learning analytics and data mining has the potential of making MOOCs and very large classes more personalized. The instructor could have the ability to detect when a student is struggling and to provide targeted feedback and additional assignments to foster improvement, something that was previously likely only in small-to-medium size classes. Whether such an approach will support the development of creative capacities and communication skills remains to be seen.
The additional costs of smaller classes in a higher education system that is already viewed to be too expensive are clearly recognized. Nonetheless the self-reported learning benefits and positive attitudes toward smaller classes should not be ignored. Although our data are based on student self-report, many of the findings noted above merit testing using direct measures of student outcomes. At the very least, having a better understanding of the qualities of small and medium classes that support greater learning might improve the effectiveness of larger classes.
Steve Benton is senior research officer at the IDEA Center and emeritus professor of educational psychology at Kansas State University. Bill Pallett is the former president of the IDEA Center.
Submitted by Andrew Ng on January 24, 2013 - 3:05am
Educators create online courses for the same reasons that they became teachers to begin with: to educate students, broaden their awareness of the world and thereby improve the students’ lives. And with massive open online courses (MOOCs), educators can now reach many more students at a time. But MOOCs offer many other benefits to the education community, including providing valuable lessons to the instructors who teach them.
Online courses inherently allow students to create their own pathways through the material, which forces educators to think about the content in new ways. And MOOCs offer professors fresh opportunities to observe how their peers teach, learn from one another’s successes and failures and swap tactics to keep students engaged. This is, in turn, makes them better teachers.
MOOCs are still the wild west of higher education, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to building one. At Coursera, we’ve been working with educators as they experiment with designing courses for this new format, and for a student body of unprecedented proportions. (For example, Duke University’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta has more than 180,000 enrolled students.) We’re reimagining many aspects of what it means to teach a course, ranging from lecture delivery, to assignments, to strategies for engaging the online community of students.
While there are many resources for teachers to learn from when approaching online education, we’ve become aware that there is still a need for a central space for professors to share successful practices, ask each other questions, and showcase examples of what’s worked and what hasn’t in their online classes. Recently, we launched a course called Teaching a MOOC, open to all of the professors on the Coursera platform (we’ll be launching a free, public version soon). It functions like any of the courses we offer, including video lectures that offer guidelines for developing an online course for the first time, discussion forums and a gallery where professors can see examples from other classes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
An educator who’s been teaching in a traditional classroom format faces many challenges and unknowns when creating an online course. The lecture creation process is different. The peer-graded homework is different. The process for managing your “classroom” is different. Even the copyright law requirements are different. Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton University professor who teaches A History of the World Since 1300, explains, “When you lecture into a recording box, it’s different from lecturing to students in person. I have a teaching style that relies on energy from students, and I had to figure out strategies that would transcend [that style] for my class on Coursera.”
Adelman discovered that in putting his course online, he became more focused on what students are experiencing, even though he wasn’t in direct contact with them. “When I lectured, I had to ask myself at all times ‘What is it that I want my students to learn?’ In the old-fashioned lecture hall I was an entertainer, more self-focused rather than teaching-focused, but I was not conscious of this dynamic until I put a course online for the first time,” he says. “For me, the lectures alone were a source of continuous learning and adaptation.”
Throughout the entire MOOC creation process, educators must constantly be student-focused, figuring out what is the most useful content for their students to experience next. With no admissions office, online students are vastly more diverse than the students in a typical college classroom. They vary in educational background, learning ability, and culture. Students are also at different points in their life, and range from teenagers to working professionals to retirees, and may have different learning goals. Educators have to make classes accessible without underestimating student ability.
Stanford professor Scott Klemmer was pleasantly surprised by his experience teaching a Human-Computer Interaction course. His class was the first to use peer grading (in fact, he worked with Daphne Koller and me to design Coursera’s current peer assessment system). After using self-assessment for six years in his class at Stanford, he thought there was “no way” that he could expect students to handle self- and peer-assessment online.
“But it worked amazingly well,” Klemmer explains. “When we surveyed students at the end of class, one of the things they rated highest, in terms of what taught them the most, was the act of assessing peers -- they found it extremely valuable. I put a huge amount of time into designing course materials based on rubrics and assessment techniques that I taught in my Stanford class on campus; I had no idea what it would mean to translate that into the online world.”
There has always been a tendency in distance education to focus on the physical barriers -- the distance between the professors and the students, and between the students themselves. Many people, including those in academia, believe there to be a broadcast quality to online lectures, with one person delivering lectures to students behind screens, where they can’t engage directly with the professor. They wonder, “If the professors don’t see their students, how can it be teaching?”
But through today's technological advancements, online courses are very much alive. They are part of an ecosystem that, if nurtured through community discussion forums, meetups, e-mails, and social media (like Google+ hangouts), can flourish and grow. This allows each class’s community to take on a life of its own, with a distinct culture that’s defined at least as much by the students as the instructor, and which even skillful instructors can only guide, but not control. Nearly every instructor that I’ve spoken to has been surprised by the deep desire of students to connect with each other as well as with the teaching staff and professor.
University of Michigan professor Eric S. Rabkin found his experience teaching Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World incredibly enriching. “I had not anticipated the kindness and excitement I see in this large body of participants. Despite the potential for impersonality, I have received emails of thanks, of enthusiasm, of discovery. I have replied to some of those and some of my replies have been re-posted to the forums by the recipients. The community knows I care and, at first astonishingly to me, cares back. They care enough not only to spend time with each other but to share their experiences, some even through blogs of their own, with the wider world,” he says. “Amazingly, this feels somehow like a family. Not like a nuclear family, but like a suddenly discovered distant city brimming with eager cousins one had never known before.”
“I have been [teaching] the same way for years -- for decades and decades -- without being mindful of the changes in technology, the changes in our students. Online courses blow up the old conventions. But I think it will take us a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” says Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman.
University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, who teaches Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, says that teaching online has given him his “most extraordinary pedagogical experience” in 30 years of teaching. “The course is rigorous and fast-paced, and the material is difficult, but the spirit of curiosity and investigation among the students produced very good results,” he says. “Several eminent poetry critics joined the course to rate the quality of the students' critical writing and came away very impressed -- and surprised. We discovered that a qualitative, interactive humanities course can indeed work in the MOOC format."
With MOOCs, there is so much more potential for educators to go into each other’s classrooms and share resources with their peers. We’re seeing this happen more and more, especially when it comes to professors adapting online course structures from other professors.
“Online education means that I have shared more stories with fellow professors about teaching than I had in the eight years I’ve spent teaching on campus,” says Stanford professor Scott Klemmer.
We might not have an answer to the question “What defines a high-impact MOOC?” just yet, but universities and professors who have taken the plunge are constantly learning and growing from their experiences. And what we’re seeing emerge from the trenches is an exciting new breed of education.
Andrew Ng is a co-founder of Coursera and a computer science faculty member at Stanford University. He is also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the main AI research organization at Stanford. In 2011, he led the development of Stanford University's main MOOC platform, and also taught an online machine learning class that was offered to over 100,000 students, leading to the founding of Coursera. Ng's goal is to give everyone in the world access to a high quality education, for free. His Twitter handle is @AndrewYNg.
Everything would have been perfectly ordinary that October morning in my freshman writing course at Stanford University. Bright autumn light reflected up from the Main Quad to our third floor. Unfed, sleepy-eyed freshmen offered ideas about the assigned reading, which I tracked on the board.
As I often do, I drew a doodle to describe a concept in the reading. This doodle — so I thought — demanded less artistry and complexity than my usual sketches of Thomas Hobbes’s "arrant Wolfe," for which I hash out two mangy-looking wolves squinting at each other, or Immanuel Kant’s famous "crooked timber," for which a bent log suffices to get the idea across. Here, I simply tossed up a rectangle with a triangle inside.
My students gasped.
"What’s wrong?" I asked.
“Um … everything." They wagered cautiously.
"Well," I tried. "This is just like the one Lockhart shows in his essay." I was referring to a drawing in Paul Lockhart’s famous 2002 "Lament" about the state of mathematics education. Here it is, precisely as it appears in the essay, not the version I drew in class.
"Sorry … no … not really, well … it’s not even close," they ventured, as if not to hurt my feelings.
My students, mostly young aspiring mathematicians, found themselves so ill at ease here, because their teacher with a humanities doctorate had not bothered to notice that the triangle inside the rectangle touches both corners of the same length and thus forms several other triangles. My doodle — whatever it looked like, I can’t remember — was simply an approximation, a lonely triangloid adrift in a rectangular sea of lopsidedness.
My students had expected greater precision. After all, the course title "Rigorous and Precise Thinking" had suggested as much. Secondly, this was a college writing course, which, as the rumor goes, is supposed to be a smackdown of style, argument and organization, where freshmen quickly learn they must jettison comfortable high school formats and every illusion of their personal literary genius. Expectations for rigor and many other new adventures ran high in this new course, an experimental hybrid college writing/mathematical thinking and proof writing class, one of five liberal arts courses in a new program called Education as Self-Fashioning.
Like the other four ESF classes, this one intended to "engage actively in the types of thinking promoted through these different conceptions of education for life, so as to try those lives on for ourselves ..." and offer students a “chance to shape [their] educational aspirations in dialogue with fellow students and an exciting group of faculty from across a wide range of disciplines — from the humanities and social sciences through the natural sciences and mathematics." I was the writing instructor paired with Professor Ravi Vakil, an American-Canadian mathematician working in algebraic geometry.
Vakil invented the course concept as a rejoinder to C.P. Snow’s "Two Cultures" hypothesis with the hope of showing undergrads, and even the world, that writing in the humanities and writing in math gained force and excellence through similar structures of precise reasoning. Vakil more than delivered on the rigor and precision. His lectures introduced students to proof writing, number theory, set theory, and many other advanced forms of math most academics expect to address only with advanced university students. For my part, I was simply to help students elaborate the readings from Plato, Descartes, Douglas Hofstadter, Bertrand Russell, Paul Lockhart and many others, while teaching writing.
Tellingly, my imprecise doodle proved to be not my first, second, nor even third example of lack of rigor. In fact, the moment seem to demonstrate the deep divide between Snow’s "two cultures," since I evidently betrayed a lack of familiarity with the basic truths of measurement, "mass, or acceleration, pretty much the scientific equivalent of a humanist asking skeptically, Can you read?" Without a doubt, much of that difference proved disciplinary — the very limit this course hoped to transgress.
Yet, we experienced no ordinary rift between the two cultures. The class had read Snow’s famous 1959 Rede Lecture and chuckled at his description of subverbal grunting mathematicians ruining a young humanist’s dinner party experience. My students saw themselves as beyond what old Stanford lingo designates as the split between "fuzzies" and "techies." Interested equally in learning all things humanist and STEM, e.g., Shakespeare and thermodynamics and beyond, these students insisted that math and math culture far surpassed the cartoonish figures of Snow’s dinner party. Nor (my students believed) were humanists so incorrigibly "fuzzy" as to not be able to reproduce a mathematical doodle — or were they?
Had I inadvertently proven Snow’s point, right before the eyes of my epistemologically optimistic students? In fact, both the students and I discovered that many of the clichés about our respective fields proved instructive. I really do need to be more careful in my doodling — and thinking about my doodling — if I am drawing triangles (with mathematical aspirations) and not wolves (no matter how humanistically inclined).
The awkward doodle moment proved not the existence of two never-the-twain-shall-meet cultures, but rather a need for me to look more closely at the other side. Once I recovered from the initial jolt of difference, I began to realize the opportunity for me to reconsider my pedagogy. Not having seen a university math professor teach proof writing before, I witnessed several fascinating interactions while attending Vakil’s sections of our course. Most striking, when Vakil wrote a problem on the board, the room jumped to life with students calling out and frantically waving their arms. He would ask: "How can you prove the square root of 2 is irrational?" and it was as though Vakil were standing at the board waving a bloody steak at a group of famished tigers. Everyone wanted to offer some solution.
Seldom have I been bombarded with solutions or suggestions when I ask students to show me "textual proof" that Sigmund Freud has a Hobbesian view of nature … hint hint … homo homini … wolf sketch, ... Civilization and Its Discontents, try page number and reference…Freud 1930a [I929], SE 21:111. That special classroom enthusiasm surely arose from Vakil’s charisma and love of his subject, but the response was new to me because humanities courses that I know at least demand a very different kind of invention. Vakil asked a question and students racked their brains trying to imagine which set of mathematical tools or ideas they might use to solve the problem. Confident that they all share these tools, or at least know of such tools, the students seemed to feel much more at ease trying out different approaches.
In humanities courses, previous knowledge certainly helps, especially with literary references, but at the end of the day, a humanist’s tools remain much more contested and may not be applicable in different contexts. For example, students asked me why I requested they not use the third-person plural perspective "we." I told them writing in the humanities differs from math, where one can simply write in a proof “we assume that x=2.” Humanists can neither be sure who that “we” is, nor what to "assume" nor how one can know x. All such terms are permanently available for debate.
In contrast, the mathematicians’ particular disciplinary certainty also revealed a fierce loyalty and love of the subject, which produced a very different discourse than I traditionally hear from humanities students who feel a strong affinity with their work. These math students spoke a Russellian language of awe toward the "cold and austere" "supreme beauty" and "elegance" of math. Perhaps other humanists have encountered students who express an emphatic humility before their subjects, but that this for me was as new as the students’ shock at my imprecise drawing. For I learned that day, that my students had not yet adopted a humanistic skepticism toward mathematical precision. For them precision is very real, especially in a world of increasing complexity and Gödelian incompleteness.
For humanists, precision lies elsewhere, side by side with ambiguity, and we pursue it with nuance rather than with proofs. My task therefore became one of translation. I understood little of the doodles and equations that Vakil and the students so hotly debated in his sections, but I knew that I had helped my students articulate arguments within the very different confines of humanistic inquiry. Where they were convinced of certain mathematical truths in the landscape of defined terms, they nevertheless arrived in my class with the classic freshman enormity of themes.
Asked to find “precise” topics in math to write about for their research papers, nearly all 29 students first chose grandiose topics like "the definition of intuition," "the connections between art and math" or "math and humanistic knowledge." With such great ambitions in mind, they also fervently believed in math as a liberal art capable of teaching the exact same virtues of critical (self) reflection as any of the great classical texts I teach from Greek virtue ethics to Rawls.
Most provocatively, they claimed that by practicing mathematical reasoning they were indeed preparing themselves in the fashion of liberal arts education for ethical citizenship. They claimed with confidence their rigorous and precise thinking could lead them to ethical reasoning as equally well as a discussion of the Plato’s “Apology.” For my part, I could not see how debating a triangle or even practicing some form of applied math as statistics would help me lead the "examined life" in a qualitative fashion.
In class, Vakil often reflected on the limits of mathematical reasoning in a mode reminiscent of Greek virtue ethics; that is, perfecting one’s art whether mathematical or literary skill, is surely a virtue, but not one that can replace ethical action. When asked whether excellence in math could prevent one from doing evil, no one doubted the inadequacy of that proposition. History has no shortage of evil uses of math, and the students could quite easily number these. Yet, many of the students persisted in their strong claims for math.
One student asserted a mathematical imperative in times of emergency: "Just imagine it’s war or a crisis: you have a moral obligation to shut up and do the math." By which she meant one is ethically compelled to run a statistical analysis to develop a more concrete understanding of actual dangers. Another student expressed less certainty about quantitative methods. "Statistics aren’t bulletproof, you know; what matters ultimately is thinking clearly, and math trains the mind for such emergencies."
Vakil softened these strong claims for both applied and pure math:
I'm less certain that this [mathematical reasoning] in any way replaces the approach to the virtues of critical self-reflection through great philosophical texts. I hope that our students will better appreciate the importance of such texts, because of an appreciation of the problems that earlier thinkers were grappling with (and that we should grapple with today). Similarly, I doubt that this is sufficient to lead them to ethical reasoning, although I would make a milder claim that thinking clearly in this way can assist in carrying out ethical reasoning.
Vakil also elaborated ways in which math could serve ethics, both by providing empirical data and asking Socratic questions about knowledge and decision-making. In the end, we hoped the students finished the course knowing a bit more about practices of rigorous thinking in our respective disciplines, and that they would see these as equally essential and complementary. Could this sprawling, seven-unit course provide a model for future courses? We’re not sure, but are happy to share our data and materials.
Ruth Starkman writes on higher education and teaches college writing, biomedical ethics and social media at Stanford University.