teachinglearning

Pulse podcast features interview with Brad Koch of Blackboard Learn

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This month's edition of The Pulse podcast features an interview with Brad Koch, vice president for product development at Blackboard Learn.

Wisconsin Expands Competency-Based Offerings

Four more institutions will participate in the University of Wisconsin System's competency-based education program, which is dubbed the UW Flexible Option. System officials said the new offerings will be certificate programs aimed at adult and nontraditional students. They will include certificates in sales, geographic information systems and alcohol and drug abuse counseling, among others. Some will be non-credit programs, while others may soon be linked to "stackable" bachelor's degree tracks.

How One Instructor Got Students to Pay Attention to Class Rules

Nichole Wilson, a psychology professor at Yavapai College, is having one of the best semesters ever in terms of student attendance and interaction. More than two-thirds of students have perfect attendance and there were only 12 absences over all over 30 class meeting dates. She attributes the change to a new approach she took this semester to explaining class expectations -- an approach she adopted after seeing a video of a flight attendant using a nontraditional approach to giving the safety instructions. Here is a video of Wilson's class introduction this semester (and likely next semester too, given how well it worked).

 

 

Davidson Faculty Will Use MOOC to Help AP Students

Professors at Davidson College, working through the MOOC provider edX and the College Board, are going to start to prepare online tutorials in select topics in the Advanced Placement program, The New York Times reported. The goal is to create units covering specific topics within AP courses that may be tripping up students. The effort will start with AP courses in calculus, physics and macroeconomics.

 

U.S. Seeks Experiments on New Models of Higher Ed

The Obama administration is moving ahead with plans to waive certain federal student aid rules for a limited number of colleges that want to experiment with competency-based education and other innovative forms of higher education.

Officials are soliciting suggestions on what those experiments should look like, according to a notice set to be published in the Federal Register this week. The Education Department said it is “particularly interested in experiments that are designed to improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to degree, including by allowing students to advance through educational courses and programs at their own pace by demonstrating academic achievement, and reduce reliance on student loans.”

The department gave three examples of the types of innovations it may approve: competency-based education, dual enrollment of high school students in higher education, and prior learning assessment.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in remarks at a student aid conference Wednesday that the experiments will allow colleges to “pursue responsible innovations to increase college value and affordability.”

The Obama administration first announced in August that it wanted to use its “experimental sites” authority to pilot higher education innovations aimed at lowering costs while maintain quality.

President Obama said in a speech on the economy Wednesday that his administration was “pursuing an aggressive strategy to promote innovation that reins in tuition costs.”

The push for federal funding for higher education innovations has been aggressive elsewhere in Washington as well. Several education foundations and think tanks have embraced alternative models of higher education, and the issue is attracting attention from a growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.  

The Education Department said it wants to hear experiment proposals from colleges, businesses, philanthropies and state agencies. The suggestions are due by January 31 of next year.

New GED Website Goes Live

Next month the GED Testing Service will launch a revamped version of the GED, which will be fully computerized and more expensive and include the assessment of college readiness. This week the testing service, which is owned jointly by Pearson and the American Council on Education, rolled out the test's new website. It includes a registration portal, study guides and information about applying for college, as well as other resources.

Most Frequently Awarded Grade at Harvard: A

The most frequently awarded grade for undergraduates at Harvard University is an A, and the median grade is A-. University officials released those facts Tuesday at a meeting of arts and sciences faculty members, and a Harvard spokesman confirmed the information Tuesday night. The spokesman cautioned in an email against too much emphasis on the grade data. "We believe that learning is the most important thing that happens in our classrooms and throughout our system of residential education. The faculty are focused on creating positive and lasting learning outcomes for our undergraduates," he said. "We watch and review trends in grading across Harvard College, but we are most interested in helping our students learn and learn well."

Some Harvard faculty members are concerned, however, about grade inflation. Harvey Mansfield, who has repeatedly raised the issue, was the one who brought it up with questions at Tuesday's meeting. He told The Boston Globe that he thought grading patterns were "really indefensible."

 

 

College Algebra and Career Readiness

Students who complete algebra II while they are in high school are more likely to succeed in college, according to a new study. But those benefits are less pronounced once students enter the job market. The new study, which was written by researchers at Pearson's Center for College and Career Success and from the University of Michigan, used two national datasets in its exploration of differences between college readiness and career readiness.

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Essay on the value of teaching outside your area of expertise

This summer, the faculty of Shimer College held a discussion of Jacques Rancière's book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In it, he discusses the educational theory and practice of Joseph Jacotot, who claimed that one could teach a subject one didn't even know in the first place. For Jacotot, teaching isn't a matter of expertise, but of determination. It isn't about transmitting knowledge to the student, but about holding students accountable to the material that they are working on.

Though the method Rancière described was more radical than anything we would actually try, the general approach resonates with what we try to do at Shimer, a small liberal arts college in the Great Books tradition. Our classes are all discussion-based, centered on important texts, artworks, and scientific experiments, and the professor serves not to instruct the students but to keep them on task and nudge them in the right direction. A handful of our faculty members have actually taught the whole curriculum, covering the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and all are required to teach in at least two areas.

All of this remained mostly theoretical for me until this semester, however, when I began teaching Humanities 1: Art and Music. I am knowledgeable about fine arts and am a passable classical pianist, but my Ph.D. is in theology and philosophy and the course is the first I've ever taught where the primary object of study was something other than texts. The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly.

The problem is most pronounced with music, where students often express a need for something called “music theory” that will permit them to talk about the experience of music in an intelligent and informed way. For the visual arts, there’s a more immediate intelligibility, given that the majority of the works we discuss in the course are representational (or at least suggestive of representation) — yet even there, students can feel that they don’t know what to say beyond assessing whether the painting represents what it’s supposed to in a way that is somehow “realistic.”

Our approach is to give students a handful of “hooks” that allow them to point out certain aspects of a given artwork. We begin with the format of the class, which is centered on Ovid's Metamorphoses, a work that has inspired artists for generations. As a result of this framing, the majority of works that we study are somehow representative or narrative in form, giving the students a basic orientation. The ready availability of different works on the same subject also gives us the
opportunity to highlight the differences between different media and the types of choices that artists make within the same medium.

On the level of form, we try to give students a ready familiarity with a few basic concepts. In music, the most important goals include being able to hear consonance vs. dissonance (which is fairly intuitive once it’s pointed out), knowing how to talk about melody and harmony, and being broadly familiar with the distinction of major vs. minor. With painting, we focus on the use of perspective, the interaction of colors, and the composition of the piece as a whole. These tools give them enough to begin thinking about how the expressive content of the artwork can reinforce, compliment, or complicate the emotional content of the narrative being portrayed.

By halfway through the semester, I had developed a certain level of confidence on art and music. Yet the syllabus threw me a curve ball when I was required to introduce a new art form by taking the students on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago. Here I felt my ignorance much more acutely, and instead of trying to create my own tour, I asked a senior faculty member to demonstrate the tour he had given the previous year, which I simply repeated.

We had only a short time for the tour, and so I could only point out a handful of extremely basic points. I showed them a few buildings that were built before the skyscraper technique was developed (basically, the outer walls had to be load-bearing before the skyscraper technique allowed for an internal distribution of the weight) as well as some early skyscrapers. I talked about the ways that the architect can get us to “read” a building — how the eye is drawn upward, how a building can be “capped” with a different design on the top floors, how the base of the building can provide indications of where the entrances are and how the facade can reinforce that. We saw some buildings that were highly ornamented and some that were very stark. We also looked at lobbies in a similar variety of styles. Finally, I tried to point out to them the way buildings interact with each other.

None of this was very advanced, and indeed, I was most often simply pointing out to the students what my colleague had pointed out to me on our tour. Yet the students reported that they had benefited from simply being told to step back and actually look at the buildings and from being given certain rough-and-ready indications of what to look for. Some reported they had never really thought about architecture at all, that it had always faded into the background. Even a more knowledgeable student said that being asked to look at buildings in the context of the cityscape rather than in isolation was a step beyond what he’d done before.

None of this resulted from any special skill I brought to the table — even the mechanical execution of the tour was pretty inept, and I’m known to mumble. (My students strongly discouraged me from pursuing a career as a tour guide.) It was simply a matter of being told to look and being given a few specific things to look at. It made them want to look more closely in the future, as indeed preparing for the tour made me want to look more closely as well.

While it was most pronounced with architecture, I've been learning along with the students throughout the semester. During trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, I've found that my way of looking at paintings has changed. A recent visit to the symphony with my students revealed that I'm getting better at following and thinking about classical music — after the concert, I found that I really wanted to talk about it and even investigate it further, in a way that wouldn’t have been true before. I see similar progress in my students, as they become more and more comfortable with talking about the formal elements of the artworks and relate them in more sophisticated way to their representational or narrative content. In fact, one of my students who transferred from a local art school claims that she has had more and better discussion of art in our class than she did in art school.

At this point, my reader may be skeptical. Perhaps I am giving students an adequate introduction to the fine arts, making up for my ignorance with my enthusiasm — but wouldn't they be better off with a more knowledgeable professor? In some ways, I'm sure they would. Yet I would turn the tables and point out the disadvantages of having an accomplished expert teach an introductory course. Too often, such classes consist in the delivery of scholarly knowledge that only serves to exacerbate the distance that the students feel from the material itself. Instead of learning how to look at an artwork or listen to a piece of music, students learn how to categorize them: this is early Renaissance, this is Impressionist....

The two skills don't have to be mutually exclusive, but on a practical level, they most often are — and I would rather that my students begin by gaining the confidence to analyze and respond to a work and only then delve into the historical and scholarly background according to their interest. We live in a time where there's no shortage of access to facts, but college may be their one chance to develop a real understanding of how art and music work. From that perspective, my inability to supply “the right answer” or to indulge my students' curiosity about historical trivia that distracts our attention from the work before us counts as a positive advantage.

This isn't to say, of course, that I must never teach in my own area of expertise. Indeed, my experience as an “ignorant schoolmaster” has already changed the way I think about teaching things within my comfort zone as well. It has pushed me to think more about holding students accountable for the ways they reach their own answers than about how best to give them — or Socratically help them stumble upon — the “right answer.” Even in classes where I bring much more to the table, the focus is and must be the material we're working on together, not all the information I'm bringing from the outside. More than that, though, all that information must be put to the test of the material itself, so that I always have to be open to the possibility that the interpretation I brought to the table is wrong, or at least not the whole story.

The approach I'm describing here goes against many of the deeply engrained habits that academics develop in graduate school and carry over into their teaching. While Rancière and others would cast moral aspersions on the expertise-centered approach to education, I view it more as a failure of imagination. Robert Hutchins, the University of Chicago president whose approach forms the basis for Shimer's curriculum, once said that liberal arts colleges tend to imitate graduate programs because at least graduate programs have a clear idea of what they're doing — namely, producing experts. An undergraduate education, however, neither can nor should achieve that goal. The liberal arts approach in particular provides a unique opportunity to form broad-minded critical and creative thinkers who have the right combination of intellectual boldness and intellectual humility to enter a wide variety of professions and explore many bodies of knowledge. A crucial part of that formation is learning to have the courage to admit one's own ignorance, and I believe students would be better served if faculty members were more commonly called upon to display that same courage.

 

Adam Kotsko is assistant professor of humanities at Shimer College. He is the author, most recently, of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. He blogs at An und für sich.

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Art Institute of Chicago

Call for Expanding Apprenticeships

A dramatic expansion of apprenticeships would strengthen the nation's economy while boosting workers' lifetime earnings and benefits by an average of $300,000, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. The report suggests policies to encourage the use of apprenticeships, including tax incentives. Its authors focus on the example of South Carolina, which saw a 570 percent increase in employer participation in apprenticeships over six years.

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