Monday, January 30, 2006

What do we NEED to learn? And when should we get to learn what we WANT?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dante Meets Beatrice in Heaven, 1852 (an example of what I wasn't allowed to study) Here are some thoughts and questions that have come up in conversations with colleagues: ____________________ What happens if we course-cast and students stop going to class? Why is that necessarily a bad thing (especially if "class" is a lecture in a large lecture hall filled with students passively listenting)? Maybe it will force teachers to be better teachers -- teachers that make their students want to come to class. Perhaps this is yet another way that teachers will become more accountable to their students. ______________________ From: The iPod Took My Seat - Los Angeles Times: "teaching experts say Internet-era instructors have to change tactics to combat in-class boredom and absenteeism. [one instructor] said he is working to enliven his lectures with material and interaction that students can't get on the audio or video 'coursecasts'; he wants to move to a Socratic teaching method and foster more discussion, while using technology to relay more of the basic information." ___________________________ And here's George Siemens's comment on the article above -- fearless about the loss of student attendence: George Siemens: "Personally, I don't equate attendance with learning. By now, it should almost be a requirement that course content should be available online - I don't book with hotels or airlines that don't offer online self-service (not sure if there are too many out there that don't have this option). Why would I take a course where online content and discussions aren't available? And if resources are available online, what does the classroom offer that can't be found online? I could see labs and practical demonstrations, some case studies, group simulations requiring attendance. Beyond that, most of what happens in a university lecture is equal to watching a video recording. The only negative I see: sometimes classroom schedules can keep students motivated and on task (so they don't get too far behind)." _____________________________ I have to say I agree -- why would I take a course without online content, when others offer me that benefit? But is it true that a video of a lecture is equal to sitting in class? Surely this is only true for large lecture courses with a hundred students or so -- surely a classroom run by a teacher who makes her class interactive offers more. Right? And isn't course-casting just using a new medium (well, new in that it is cheap, easy to use and mobile)to do the same old thing? What can we do with pod-casting that would re-think how we teach? And again -- back to the theme of my last post -- what will learning look like in the future? If students have more control of their learning, they will choose what they want to study. [Boy, would I have liked that. I was definitely the square peg in a round hole as both a graduate and undergraduate student in the US (in London, my Masters degree was very specialized and I was oh so much happier). I always wanted to study topics that were not in the canon of art history, and I wanted to approach the material from an interdisciplinary perspective. This was simply unheard of, and I was finally "allowed" to do it only in the most limited way. Who knows what direction my studies would have taken if these inclinations were indulged. And I see it with my daughter too, in fifth grade. Here's someone who already has interests and inclinations, but there is nothing really in the curriculum to nourish those interests.] On the other hand, perhaps not all students can or should be allowed to choose all their own courses, or perhaps only at a certain age, and after a certain amount of education? Maybe we still need a "core curriculum" so we can turn out citizens who are critical thinkers. So, is the core curriculum absolutely necessary for everyone -- and must it be the same for virtually all students? If students are given their choice of what to study, will they only choose what they know, and not challenge themselves to think critically. _____________________ Below is a passage from David Warlick's blog that is close to what I have been envisaging. What if we required only a "shallow" core curriculum and then let students take more control of their own learning (with the guidance of an instructor of course). Warlick also emphasizes (quite rightly I think) the uniformity of what we do: From Two Cents Worth "This is why I believe that our standards should be made much more shallow. Schooling should be responsible for assure that every student knows only that knowledge and those skills that create a productive context for the lives of all students. As a society, we must have a common sense of where, when, what, how, and why we live; and how our environment affects us and how we affect our environment. Schooling should also assure that each student has the basic literacy skills appropriate to the contemporary information environment. Students should spend a predominant amount of their time making themselves experts in areas of knowledge and experience that are especially interesting to them, and then sharing their gained knowledge and experience with other students. We go from a curriculum model that looks like a hall way that students move down, being saturated by a robust set of knowledge array of disciplines, with little integration of subject a curriculum model that that looks more like a sphere with the student in the middle."

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The University of the Future

I am reading Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, by Leonard Mlodinow (2001). In a chapter entitled "The Legacy of the Rotten Romans," Mlodinow writes about Charlemagne attempting to revive the intellectual tradition of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and then moves on through the middle ages, discussing the first universities. What struck me was this description of a 14th century university: "The concept of a college campus did not yet exist. Typically, a university had no buildings at all. Students lived in cooperative housing. Professors lectured in rented rooms, rooming houses, churches, even brothels. The classrooms, like the dwellings, were poorly lit and heated. Some universities employed a system that sounds, well, medieval: professors were paid directly by the students. At Bologna, students hired and fired professors, fined them for unexcused absence or tardiness, or for not answering difficult questions. If the lecture was not interesting, going to slow, too fast, or simply not loud enough, they would jeer or throw things." Perhaps this is not so medieval after all -- perhaps it gives us a sense of the university to come? Will the campus exist? In what form? Will the results of websites like "" be that we will be as accountable to our students as the medieval professor? Will their relationship to us be more direct? Less mediated by an academic administration? As life-long learners, will students pick and choose more freely from an academic menu of sorts -- to attain the skills and knowledge they are looking for? One online course here, another there... Perhaps instructors should be fined by their students for being boring, late or not answering questions! This model implies that students will tell us what they need to learn, instead of vice-versa. Hmmm....