Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Content, context, and cost

Over at Iterating Toward Openness, David Wiley offers a brief discussion of the reusability paradox. Here's the paradox--that the more "re-usable" a piece of content is, the less likely it is that that content will lead to learning. The reason is relatively simple: people learn new things by connecting them to things they already know, believe, or have experienced--context. But for a piece of content to be used frequently and in many settings it cannot contain context. If it does, it will exclude potential users for whom that context does not apply.

This is a big issue for fans of open content who hope that by making lots of content freely available it will lead to lots of learning. Wiley is skeptical. Lots of access-yes, but learning is less certain.

The paradox also has significant implications for campuses. American higher ed has tended to respond to this problem by making faculty masters over content, and by imagining that the course is the context (we can call this the content breeds context model). In other words, we tend to ignore what students bring with them to class, and instead encourage students to make sense of content within the context of a particular class. While this leads to a certain sort of learning, it also leads to compartmentalization of knowledge, so that what a student learns in one class is difficult to transfer to another.

If campuses move to an open content model in order to reduce costs, the paradox will be even more challenging, because in such a setting faculty control over content is limited, and so it is more difficult to grow context out of content. One possible response is to encourage each student to bring her/his own context to the subject. In this model (the "my context isn't your context" model) faculty members become coaches, working individually with students. This may lead to good learning, but it doesn't make education cheaper.

So it strikes me that if a campus wants to use open content to lower cost, it has to figure out the context problem--both how to know what contexts students bring with them and to help create a common context.

I'd like to suggest that the best way to do this is through a more structured co-curriculum. In this model (let's call it "shared context") students would be expected to have the same type of experience at the same point in their academic careers. Orientation and service-learning in the first year, for example; study abroad in year two, undergraduate research in year three, etc.

There would be three valuable results to a common context: 1. by rationalizing the co-curriculum campuses could control costs in these areas, 2. faculty and students could assume a similar set of experiences as the basis of a common culture, and 3. the common context would make it possible to get around the reusability paradox. Open source content could be reusable because the context is common.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Can we be careful when talking about innovation?

Peter Ingle posted a spot-on comment to my last post about The School of One. Here is Peter, quoted at length:

Not to hijack your blog, but an interesting part of the article was where the teacher said something like "no one is doing anything like this". Why does everyone think they are the first to come up with something when it is just not true.

Elementary teachers at my school (see very old) used to move us through the spelling lists at different paces dependent on how we did on each test.

When I was teaching HS in the early 90's we used a software program for biology that placed students dependent on how they had performed previously.

Just because the newspaper comes out to interview you does not make one an educational innovator.

So much truth here, both on the specifics of the School of One and on the broader issue of innovation. There are plenty of instances of people applying old approaches in new contexts (peer-led instruction, for example, dates to at least the 1790s in India), lots of examples of people using new technology to do old things (an on-line discussion board is, well, a discussion), and lots of on-going practices that nonetheless get pitched as new (service-learning is a tradition dating to the late 19th century) but the "invention" of something in education is awfully rare.

So the key question is "Why do we have to sell something successful as something new in order to get attention?" Part of the answer is based in our view of progress--that something must be new to be good. This is part of a long American tradition, but one that ignores contingency, history, and humility. But a taste for progress is deep in higher ed, especially among progressives.

Another part of the answer is that higher ed is driven by the appearances of modern capitalism with its "new models," love of "growth," etc. Our innovations are a key part of the way we sell ourselves to the world.

But the biggest part, in my mind, is the hope that somewhere there is THE SOLUTION--the approach that works in all settings, for all students. That hope is bunk. There are no SOLUTIONS, only solutions--short-term, limited, but appropriate in a particular time and place.

So instead of trying to find the next new thing, can we instead search for the thing that works now, here, for our actual students? And can we carry on that search in every class, every year, for the long term?

Friday, September 25, 2009

The School of One

Check out this NYT article on The School of One. At a middle school in NYC, each day students get a "playlist" of worksheets they need to complete for the day. Each student has a laptop. Each assignment is computer graded. Students compete with each other to finish first, or to get the best scores.Teachers are there to answer questions, move students along, etc. The Chancellor of NYC schools thinks this will allow more students to learn and move more effectively through school.

My 13-year old daughter has an English class taught by a near-retirement teacher. Each day he hands out a worksheet. The students sit in silence and complete the worksheet. if they finish early, they read silently. No talking allowed, certain strange rules (like on homework--only hand-written work will be accepted). The teacher sits at his computer all day long. He scares the heck out of the kids.

Are these two examples similar? What is to be learned? Is it enough to allow students to move at their own pace? Is this better than nothing? Better than the current practice in K-12? HE?

Does educational interaction rely on interruption?

I attended another presentation today where the presenter said "I would like this presentation to be interactive, so feel free to interrupt me at any time to ask questions." The presenter went on to say that she would stop presenting from time to time so we could ask questions. Clearly, her view was that interaction would make it possible for us to learn more effectively.

What is behind the connection between "interaction" and "interruption?" I have tended to think it is laziness--the presenter doesn't take the time to plan actual interaction, so instead s/he invites the audience to do it instead. Or, there isn't enough time for presentation and interaction, so the presenter gives over the responsibility to the audience to decide whether interaction is worth it. Almost always, the audience declines the offer. It is one of those tacit agreements on which the machinery of education runs.

After thinking a bit more, though, I'm not sure I should be so cynical. "Interact" means "to act on each other;" "interrupt" to "cause or make a break in the continuity or uniformity of." So the question really ought to be which sorts of interaction are best facilitated by interruption?

I once gave a lecture in a huge American Institutions class in which I invited students to interrupt me whenever I said something they didn't agree with. At each interruption I invited the student to come to the front of the class to explain her/his objection. Those breaks had an interesting result--students listened closer to what I was saying so they could object.

Lots of people have argued that groupthink is a problem for learning, for decision-making, and for society. Yet just as often, when someone points out the groupthink, that person is shamed. (Joe Wilson anyone?) I'm not coming out in favor of public belligerence. But I do wonder if schools, communities, and homes wouldn't be better off if we strengthened the link between education and interruption.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Advisor, mentor, coach, what?

As much change as there has been in faculty roles in the classroom (exemplified (somewhat poorly, I think) by the shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side") there have been even greater changes in the roles faculty play outside of the classroom.

As an undergraduate I only went to office hours when I had a course content question. (I still remember the anxiety I felt sitting outside Neil York's office waiting to ask a question about the Compromise of 1850.) When I began teaching I had the same expectations--that students would come to talk about the course.

Over time my expectations, and those of my institutions, have changed. At BYU I became something of an advisor, helping students select courses for the next semester. Now, I and all other Westminster faculty teaching in learning communities are expected to mentor new freshmen. We talk a bit about classes, but our greater interest is in seeing how students are doing--Are they going to classes? Getting on OK with roommates?--and in helping to shape their approach to learning--How do they study? How much? Any difficulties? (BTW, this sort of practice is spreading in higher ed. both because it seems to help with retention and because the NSSE survey asks students how often they talk with faculty outside of the class about non-academic topics.)

Other faculty here are working on developing a coaching role with students in our project-based, competency driven business programs. There, students complete complex projects, with faculty coaching them on how to better do their work.

This week I've been wondering whether these roles are adequate. Here is why.

In my freshman seminar I asked students to write essays about their strengths and weaknesses, and how they expected to grow over the semester. To give shape to the essays, students wrote about the college's learning goals. (i.e. "I feel like I am quite strong at "critial thinking" but need to become better at "leadership, teamwork, and collaboration.") Their essays were good--well-written, complete, and serious about the learning goals and their own growth. Only one of the essays had any real vigor to it though, and in that one the student rejected the whole idea of the value of our particular learning goals.

The formality of these essays matches the formality of my first mentoring conversations with students. When they come by my office for a mentoring talk it is almost as if they are reporting on their behavior. Not a bad thing, to be sure. And something likely to lead over time to deeper relationships. But awkward nonetheless, for both parties.

(This year all of our entering freshmen have mentors. If they aren't in learning communities, then their mentors are administrators. The whole senior administrative team is participating. This is a great step forward--every student has someone looking out for them. But many of the administrative mentors find the relationship even more awkward because they don't even have their mentees in a class.)

The same day I graded the essays I got perhaps ten text messages from my daughter who is also a new freshman at a college in California. Those texts and our phone calls were much rawer. She feels isolated socially. And she doesn't feel like anyone--roommates, RAs, or faculty--see that isolation.

Certainly some of my role as a dad is to help her through that isolation. But it left me wondering if I would be able to see those feelings in the students who I mentor. Should I see them? Are they visible to someone who is a "mentor"? We know that a sense of isolation, over the long-term, is a predictor of a student not being retained at a college. And it is especially the case for students who have other risk factors--first-generation, lower income, etc.

What is the role for an employee of a college that makes it possible to see isolation? Can faculty ever do it consistently? Should they? Or are roles themselves the issue? Do they obscure what we might otherwise see if we thought of each other as friends? As part of the same community, regardless of roles? Can the roles fall away even while we maintain the educational purposes that make us a college instead of a club?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mission Statements/Mission Questions

Lionofzion makes another great point, this time in response to my post about schools being organized around questions. Here is the last paragraph of loz's response (all of which can be read here.)

Perhaps the first step towards this model of education could be to replace the classic 'mission statement' with a 'mission question' thus moving the school's central goal away from instilling some sort of knowledge or character (a central feature noted in most school mission statements) and towards serving as a challenge to students and teachers to more thoroughly examine their places in the world.
I took a look at Westminster's mission statement, and I think loz is onto something. Here is the first paragraph of our mission statement:

We are a community of learners with a long and honored tradition of caring deeply about students and their education. Students are challenged to experiment with ideas, raise questions, critically examine alternatives, and make informed decisions. We encourage students to accept responsibility for their own learning, to discover and pursue their passions, and to act with responsibility.

Imagine the first sentence as a series of questions:

As a community of learners we want to understand the following:
  • What role does our tradition of education play in supporting student learning today?
  • What obligation does a learning community have to care deeply about its members?
  • How does caring influence student learning?

So now, some questions of my own: How would a college use a mission question to recruit students? I'm giving a talk to potential students and their parents this Saturday. I'll let you know.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What if schools were organized around questions?

John Lloyd, a British TV producer, comedian, and all-around smart guy has a new talk on TED. Titled, "John Lloyd Inventories the Invisible" it spends 10 minutes detailing the things we cannot see or do not yet understand.

In addition to closing with a great quote (Auden: "We are here on earth to help others. What the others are here for, I have no idea.") that ought to make any civic engagement person think hard, Lloyd says there are two great questions: What are we here for? and What should we do about it?

He made me wonder what a school would look like if it were organized around questions--these or others. This is a big question itself, since so much of schooling is organized around answers as they have congealed into disciplines over the years. The result is a passing on of knowledge (not a bad thing in and of itself) but also a limit on the creativity of students and teachers.

Among the things a "question school" would have to take up is the question of how we would know if a student was ready to move on. Today, students "graduate" when they have fulfilled a set of requirements, related almost entirely to taking courses, attendance, and passing exams. But if a school was focused on questions, how would it end? Probably not with answers, since for the big questions there aren't always answers.

This makes me think of Zen practice, where the teacher asks students to work on koans--short, complex, unclear stories. Questions really. Student and teacher talk through the koan regularly. In between conversations students study, meditate, work. At some point the student has exhausted the koan or gained deep insight into it, and the student moves on.

Could a "question school" work the same way?

Who is responsible for student learning?

A great comment from Peter Ingle on my previous post about becoming a worse teacher. He wrote:

Perhaps your response to your class today is actually the norm in high education. It might be that even well intentioned courses that are thoughtfully designed with specific learning objectives and a focus on student learning are, at times,just so-so for the faculty. Perhaps this is actually about what the student is doing and not about your passion or how practiced you are? Try not to focus on you and focus more on the students.

Peter is always thoughtful about this stuff, and his final point--to concentrate more on students than on any satisfaction the teacher gets is, of course, wise.

The same day I read Peter's comment, suggesting the importance of a shift of responsibility to students, I sat in the board meeting for City Academy, the charter high school where I serve. We got the good news that our school met AYP this year (as we have every year so far).

As you know, if a school doesn't meet AYP for several years running it faces sanctions, because under the philosophy of NCLB, teachers and schools are responsible for student learning.

So here is the question in all this. In higher ed we talk increasingly of students being responsible for their own learning. (What this belief suggests for the role of faculty is unclear as my previous post and Peter's comment make obvious.) In K-12, though, accountability for learning is clearly shifting towards the teacher and administration.

I'm intrigued. Why is HE going one direction--students responsible for their own learning--and K-12 another? Surely there isn't some magical thing that happens between 12th grade and 13th that shifts responsibility, is there?

Given the growing pressure on HE to be accountable for graduation rates, and to justify the huge costs of college, I expect that the trend will be towards greater responsibility placed on faculty for the learning of their students. So what will this mean for what a teacher does in the classroom?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On becoming a worse teacher

I'm pretty sure I'm becoming a worse teacher. The thought hit me again after class on Monday. It was a congenial 50 minutes, 18 students, my learning community faculty partner, and me. The class was supposed to give students the experience of writing definitions of learning goals, and examining those we have in place at Westminster. (This is part of a pilot for an e-portfolio initiative the college is starting, more on which some other time.)

No grousing from the students, no tuning out, a willingness to participate, and to do the follow-up assignment. But when the class was over I felt a bit queasy, sort of the way I feel when I lie. I don't think I was able to give that class the attention it needed, and so the class period didn't bring students the opportunity to learn that they deserve. (Or maybe what I felt ws the absence of the charge I sometimes feel when a class goes really well...)

There are all sorts of explanations for this--it could have been a fluke, the topic might not have been meaty enough, the students weren't ready to get what I had planned, I was having a bad day. But I think there are two deeper issues that I need to get my head around as an administrator trying to lead classes that end up with student learning:

1. teaching is a practice, and like all practices it takes, well, practice. As an administrator teaching only one freshman seminar this semester (and that as part of a pilot focused on college-wide learning goals and e-portfolios) I don't get the practice that allows class to be like a sport, where my reactions come naturally, not as part of a labored plan for 50 minutes.

2. I haven't found a way to bring my passion to bear in this class. The class is technically good, based (as best I can) on learning outcomes rather than my teaching and research expertise. But without a way to show my passion, the class feels too technical and I feel isolated from it.

These are my challenges of course. And they may not really matter, since what actually matters is the ability of students to learn (which I trust they are doing over the course of the semester.)

But I wonder if they are broader challenges that colleges and universities face, as more classes are led by part-time faculty (be they administrators, staff, or adjuncts) and as the shift to a learning paradigm from a teaching paradigm re-orients the ways that faculty contribute to class. Thoughts? Are any of you getting worse in the classroom? Are your colleagues?

More on service and understanding

Thanks to lionofzion for a really good comment on my previous post about service as an act of commemoration. LOZ wrote:

I'd say that you probably have it right when you say that these commemorations rarely bring us closer to understanding-- and I've been disappointed for a while with the ways in which MLK, Jr. Day is usually celebrated-- but I'd contest your suggestion that service takes us further from understanding. I think you need to provide some evidence for that claim, if you're going to make it.

I appreciate having my over-generalization made clear. So let me try to respond to LOZ's request.

First, let me agree that many people will have deep learning experiences, and get better understanding of major issues through service, even if that service isn't well connected to the issues that provoke the service (like racism and civil rights, or terrorism).

That said, there are several ways in which service projects might "take us further from understanding" (especially if they do not include reflection and reciprocal relationships between servers and recipients of service):
  1. service as a response to crisis might encourage people to think that one-time, mass actions are effective ways to approach complex issues, and/or that service to an individual is a sufficient response to issues that need political, economic, and religious response.
  2. service without reflection might reinforce server presuppositions about the issue. Many faculty who teach service-learning courses report a hardening of student views after service. Or in other words, service doesn't lead to changed or broadened views. When service turns to unresolved issues like race and terror, hardened views might take the group further from understanding the issue.
  3. service as a response to big problems/crises might weaken understanding of service also, by suggesting that service is an all-purpose tool, suitable for any problem. My own view is that this is a major problem for civil society. Most of the issues that face society demand systematic responses--responses that include one-to-one service, activism, policy change, behavioral change, and temperance. Service is a single part of the system, and one that needs fuller attention and greater respect. Service won't get it though if we treat it as a cure-all.
As for evidence supporting these views, the best single work on the impact of service learning is Eyler and Giles, Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? The best source of current research on civic engagement among young people is CIRCLE. Putnam's classic Bowling Alone makes the point that civic action often builds bonding social capital (that is, affinity among like-minded people) rather than bridging social capital (affinity among people with different views). And while I'm bibliographizing, let me put in a plug for an online journal I edit: The Journal for Civic Commitment which runs articles from service-learning practitioners which often point to the gaps in understanding listed above.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What does it mean to commemorate disasters with service?

The United States now commemorates historical crises with days of service. For the past decade or so the default celebration of Martin Luther King Day has been to carry out service. And this year for the first time September 11th was officially dubbed a "National Day of Service." Why is this? What does it mean that when faced with historic events that refer to a major crisis and its response (racism and the civil rights movement in one case, terrorism and the heroism of first responders in the other) the official apparatus of the state calls for service?

These questions interest me for two reasons. First, this is a relatively new trend. Dating back to the 17th century one common response to crisis has been calling on God. The Puritans did it in response to war, storms, disease, and political crisis. Their religious/political leaders deemed disaster as a sign of God's anger. And so the proper response was a period of fasting, mourning, and re-dedication to God. The trend continues until at least the late 19th century. Lincoln, for example, declared a national day of prayer in response to the crises of the Civil War.

More recently commemorations of crises have sparked marches, vigils, etc. This was the first tendency after MLK's assassination. Each year starting in 1969 and lasting until at least the mid-1980s the anniversary of King's birth brought about marches in DC and Atlanta, and prayer vigils in churches throughout the south. It was only when King's birthday became a national holiday that it also became a day of service. This was a political decision taken by the commission that oversees the King holiday and puts out a list of "official" MLK Day activities. (For an academic study of King commemorations, check out my book, Making Villains, Making Heroes. I say "check it out" because the only place you can get it is a very large library filled with very dull first books by academics. Still, it is a pretty good history.)

Now, only 8 years after 9/11, it too is officially commemorated by service.

The second reason I'm interested is that schools have taken up these calls for service and they are coming to shape the way colleges and universities do their community service and service-learning activities.

I understand the pull of joining a national day of service. But it seems like the sorts of service done on a single day lead far from the sort of reflection and action that would accurately mark events like the civil rights movement and modern terrorism. How can the very useful acts of service--clean-ups, house painting, tutoring, food drives, etc. get us anywhere towards understanding race and/or terror?

I've argued elsewhere that acts of menial service like those that fit in days of service can have substantial meaning. (If you want to read my draft essay, "Finding Meaning in Menial Service" where I try to put such acts into a religious/civic context send me an email to and I'll email you a copy). But it seems like the way that we do it today gets us further, not closer, to understanding the crises of our time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kindle, E-Readers, and the future of books

Last week my wife gave me a Sony E-Reader for our anniversary. I picked it over the Kindle because Sony has access to all of the Google Books and its store has a way for me to check out library e-books. (I also picked it because I always try to pick against whatever seems to be the hot trend, and Kindle is definitely that.)

I'm in the middle of reading three books on the reader--a mystery, a non-fiction work on buddhism, and an 1823 publication on what we would call peer-led education today. (The latter is actually a fascinating book. Here is a link to the Google Books version.)

My verdict? That the reader is as good as the content that you load onto it. The mystery is outstanding, the buddhism book is a more touchy-feely than I think the subject merits, and the 19th century education philosophy book is a slog but worth it.

On one hand this is a pretty dull conclusion. But a lot of the discussion about technology and education ignores it, focusing instead on the medium. The question we ask is "how cool is the tool?" not "does the tool help students do what they need to do?" I understand the desire to "prove" that the Kindle is great, or that the I-Pod can be used for education, or that OpenCourseWare is the future of education. But too often the discussion gets no further, in spite of the fact that crummy content (think Liberace on the I-Pod) makes any tool useless.

Granted, I am already a multi-platform reader. No day goes by that I don't read a newspaper, magazine, book, and computer. So adding an e-book doesn't represent a barrier to me. And adding an e-book might present a barrier to certain people. (Though assumptions that technology will be an impediment to the poor and marginalized may not be true, if the examples of cell phones in the developing world are any indication.)

But if educators are going to make any meaningful use of e-readers, we will need to get past the debate over the technology. The medium is not the message. The message is.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Politics in school: pandering, fear, and the need for hospitality

My junior high school daughter brought home a letter from her principal last Friday. In it he laid out the school's response to the Obama education speech today. Some teachers would show the speech in their classes. Students whose parents didn't want them to see it could opt out. Students who wanted to see it but whose teachers didn't show the speech could watch it during flex time.

At the end of the letter he added a bit of boilerplate about the importance of schools in training citizens in a democracy. Pleasant Grove JHS takes its responsibility to teach about democracy seriously, he wrote. because it does so he encouraged parents to teach their students about the importance of civic engagement. Or, seen in light of the school's waffling on the speech, "teach your kids about citizenship because you've made us so afraid that we won't do it."

Politicians have a long history of using schools to spoon out pablum about the value of education. In the 80's Reagan Administration officials visited schools on Martin Luther King Day (once it passed against their wishes) as if that somehow marked his legacy meaningfully. The recent President Bush was in a classroom in Florida when airplanes hit the twin towers. First ladies have spent countless hours reading in elementary schools. Candidates hold stump speeches in high school auditoriums all the time.

What do all of these instances suggest about the power of politicians talking to students? That they have almost no influence because their message (always some variant of "work hard in school--you are our future") is so weak that everyone suspects it to be a front for some secret nefarious hidden goal--to gut public education through NCLB, or to undermine the radical power of the civil rights movement, or, today, to establish socialism.

In other words, I'm suggesting that the educational pandering of politicians and the fear of educational conspiracies are tied together in an endless feedback loop. More pandering leads to more fear which leads, of course, to more pandering (at least on those occasions when a political leader manages to end up in a school).

How do we break the cycle? Probably not through more teaching about democracy, which is only a step removed from hypocrisy at the outset. And not by avoiding the subject by keeping controversy at arm's length. (This is Utah's speciality, where we value "nice" above nearly any other virtue.) Instead, I would suggest renewed attention to educational hospitality.

By hospitality I mean "welcome of guests." But I mean it in a deeper sense than merely opening school doors. I mean that schools (K-12 and HE) need to develop a commitment to welcoming outsiders (be they politicians, immigrants, community members or other outsiders), listening to them, and breaking bread with them. This commitment must be part of a school's DNA--built into their recruitment of students, their sporting events, their educational programs, their learning goals.

For as start down this path I would recommend Elizabeth Newman's essay, "Hotel or Home? Hospitality in Higher Education," in Budde and Wright, eds. Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society. Newman's title suggests her argument--that schools are like hotels, keeping students, their parents, and matters of import at a pleasant arm's length. Instead they need the grittier engagement with other people who are at once strangers and fellow-citizens in the community of school.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Is it possible to "pay tuition"?

I was reading an op-ed last night about a new compulsory education law in India. The author wrote that students from middle-class families would do better in this system than would the poor because, "they get private tuition in the evening," whereas the poor do not.

This certainly isn't the way we use the word "tuition" in American higher ed, where it simply means "the money you pay to go to school." It turns out that the common usage of the word is historically new--dating only to the 19th century. Before that, tuition more commonly meant, "instruction or teaching" and at its origins in the 13th century it meant "guardianship." (For the etymology visit this site.)

You can trace the history of education through the history of the word "tuition." Today's usage suggests that at some point a word that described a key facet of learning--guardianship linked with instruction--came to mean simply the money we pay to get into school. And given the difficulty that many face in paying tuition, it also points out the risen centrality of money in the work of education.

I'm not a linguistic purist. But as a reminder to myself of the deeper meaning of tuition, I'll try from now on to speak of "paying for tuition," not just "paying tuition."

Friday, September 4, 2009

What does a major mean?

Westminster is considering a new proposal for "contract majors." The proposal would clarify and simply the process that a student uses to create a major that is not on the books. It would also establish guidelines for all contract majors (all students in a contract major would have to complete a capstone experience, for example.)

I don't know how to think about this proposal, because I don't know how to think about majors anymore. I assume there was a time where the number of majors on campuses was relatively stable. The major topics corresponded with the way that academe thought of disciplines. You have a discipline? We have a major for it.

As sub-disciplines have expanded since the 1970s, so have the number of majors, but still in alignment with sub-disciplines. So where once you had only an engineering major, now you might have majors in electrical and chemical engineering, the better to train students to complete the research required by the disciplines.

At a school like Westminster, though, we have increased the number of majors substantially even though we aren't driven by research specialties. Instead our new majors grow out of a sense that a market exists, either because we believe students are asking for a degree in a particular field, or because we want to keep up with competitor schools. At a place like Westminster, that means we have a lot of majors, many affiliated with programs that have only one or two faculty and a handful of students.

Our desire to keep up means that many students will take classes in several disciplines in order to complete a major because we don't have enough faculty to house all of the classes in a single department. This is probably a good thing, because it leads to interdisciplinarity. But it also leads to the new contract major proposal, which looks like a way to multiply majors indefinitely.

So I'm torn. On one hand I don't feel any loyalty to the old majors because they don't necessarily represent anything except tradition (which isn't a trifling thing, I know). On the other, contract majors leave me cold because they suggest that students ought to be able to shape their entire educational experience and/or that they don't get sufficient leeway in an existing major in order to learn their way into their passions and their careers. And they undermine the community among students that is at the core of any good disciplinary experience.

What ought to be the basis of a major? Why would a school create a new one? Who should drive that creation--students? faculty? employers? Why have them at all?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

More on more in a classroom

Two great comments on the last post about what goes into a classroom. The first was from Peter Ingle:
One of things we learned about from k-12 is that the classroom setup does make some difference (how much is obviously up for grabs). But this has largely to do with how a teacher organizes the room. One of the things that we did in the SOE was to have dedicated rooms specifically for education classes. These classrooms have places to store materials, post things on the wall, and a sense of ownership for what is in there. Perhaps we are missing the boat a little when we wonder about the technology in the classroom and not about permanence. Where can I put up posters, art, excellent work, student projects, etc??? These are all good ways to help students know they are excelling and to provide a more 'inviting' classroom. I know.... that is for elementary school. I don't think so.

The second is from Bryce Bunting:
I don't have a story yet, but I am in a design course this semester where I think the classroom will make a difference. But, I think it has less to do with what is in the classroom (technology, etc.) and more with Peter's idea of permanence. The course is intended to be a studio where we create, share, and critique instructional materials that we each produce. The instructor found a room in the basement of the McKay Bldg at BYU that isn't being used by any other group or course this semester. That means that we can post things on the walls, store materials, and have our own permanent space. My sense so far (I've only been to class once) is that being able to leave and post things without worrying about them being taken down will make a difference in our learning. For example, we'll be creating a wall of shame/fame illustrating good and bad designs (our own and others that we have collected). On the wall will be instructional artifacts as well as our comments relating to why they are good or bad. My hope is that it will create an ongoing conversation of sorts across the semester about design. My guess is that if someone were to come in at the end of the semester they might also see a decent record of our group learning.So, the jury is still out, but I think that this particular classroom and the way it is used will make a difference. To answer your last question (what would classrooms be like if our campuses were about learning), I think that one difference we would see is that individual instructors would work much more closely with campus schedulers to find rooms that facilitate the type of learning they want to go on. In most cases I think those classroom assignments have more to do with capacity than anything. Additionally, on a true learning campus those that design physical space would spend a lot more time talking with the important stakeholders (faculty & students). I would be surprised if that happens very often at most institutions.

There is some really interesting overlap in these two responses. Both Peter and Bryce are technologically savvy guys. And both are leaders in helping their campuses and colleagues think about learning. But most interestingly, they both point to "ownership" of the classroom as a key force for learning.

This may seems strange to higher ed folks, but outside of education, the connection between "ownership" (or at least deep personal responsibility for a place) and that place's meaning is unquestioned. For example, a gravesite is a sacred place for people with a deep connection to the deceased. "Home field advantage" is unquestioned in sports. People return again and again to "sacred spaces" for solace and learning.

In education, though, the further you go through the system the less personal connection a student has to a space for learning. Why is this? Did someone once think it was a good idea for learning? Or is it at best a way to maximize the efficiency of space on campus?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Do you want more in a classroom?

Westminster is in the middle of a campus master planning process. A design team has been asking administrators and faculty what they think they will need in our classrooms over the next 10-20 years.

I find this question nearly impossible to answer. I've taught in all sorts of classrooms. Some seat 900 movie theatre style. Others hold 10 chairs arrayed around a conference table. The room I'm teaching in this semester is cutting-edge. It includes a computer, projector, cameras, a monitor, movable tables and chairs. Our campus also includes classrooms with chalkboards, transparency projectors, and lecterns. (Those same rooms also include a computer and projector.)

These last rooms are the ones that have gotten me thinking. They are museums, if you will, of trends in educational technology. (They are also the source of a lot of good natured eye-rolling. A lectern? Come on!) But I'm not sure they've made learning better or worse.

This is of course contrary to nearly everyone's belief in the power of the classroom to shape learning. It is part of our pitch to donors (please give so we can have cutting edge classrooms). It is the source of a lot of spending (got to get those classrooms up to date). And "bad" classrooms are the source of lots of complaints.

So I'm asking--can you tell a story where a particular classroom made a difference, for good or ill--in student learning? Can you think of an instance when the classroom was so good or so bad that it had a lasting impact on the class? Or is concern about what goes in a classroom really evidence that the instruction paradigm continues to reign? If a campus was all about learning, how would we think about classrooms?