# Category Archives: Life in academia

## Good enough teaching, and trust

I spent most of Wednesday at the 17th annual Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning, put on by my new employer, Grand Valley State University. It was a full day of good ideas and good people, and I really enjoyed engaging with both. One experience from today  has really stuck with me, and it happened during the opening session as Kathleen Bailey, professor in the Criminal Justice department, was speaking about the changing student demographic we are encountering (not just at GVSU but everywhere in higher ed).

Kathleen comes from a fairly unique position as not only a professor of CJ and assistant director of freshman orientation but also as a former parole officer for teenagers. In her talk, she drew some parallels between parenting, being a parole officer, and working with college students. I was pretty uncomfortable with that three-way comparison at first, but the more she spoke, the more I had to admit the similarities were pretty striking. She spoke about three conditions that troubled teens — and indeed all children — need to have if they are to thrive:

1. Kids need to have a good “holding environment” — that is, they need to be in a place where they have a feeling of safety and attachment, and to some extent basic respect as a human being.
2. Having found a good holding environment, kids then need to have provision of contrasting or contradicting experiences — what Kathleen called “differentiation” — to develop a defined sense of self. For example, a kid who has violent behavioral tendencies needs to be given experiences where he cares about others and acts in appropriate ways, to be shown that he can be kind and gentle and does not have to always follow his tendencies.
3. Finally, kids need to have an abiding presence of someone else — a person who “stays put” with them and gives them a safe place to integrate all the personal changes they experience through differentiation.

This process is all about building the substrate of a relationship with a kid upon which a mature, productive person can be built. The building process has to be carried out by the kid — the kid with violent tendencies has to choose to act differently, and nobody else can to that for him — but the change that takes place cannot happen in the absence of that “abiding presence” that creates the environment.

Probably by now the comparison with parenting and teaching should be clear. These, too, are about transforming the lives of young people through the presence and enabling work of another person. Kathleen referenced the notion of good-enough parenting (espoused by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) as a model for this kind of relationship. It’s not about being perfect or doing the right things all the time, but rather about “attuning” to the child who is in your care — that is, to attempt to respond to the needs of the child/kid/student, especially emotional needs. The ideal result is that the child/kid/student has a sense of being understood, cared for, and valued. (That’s paraphrased from the article linked just above.)

We faculty tend to focus on covering our content and drilling students to ensure they are mastering a skill set. These things aren’t unimportant. But for students, particularly new students entering into college or university, there is a strong emotional component that intermediates the learning process. They tend to be unsure of themselves; they are struggling to make social connections in a new place; they struggle with homesickness; they are inexperienced at managing freedom and end up making poor personal choices. On top of all this, if we faculty are doing our jobs, we’re asking them to stick their necks out and work harder than they ever have, and wrestle with ideas that are just beyond their grasp. So of course there is a lot of emotional stress at play. It behooves us to build this substrate of a relationship where students have those three things they need to thrive.

I am certainly not good at this sort of thing. I am an introvert and a geek, and emotional stuff like this is not my forte. But I take away two profound things from Kathleen’s talk. First, my personal preferences are irrelevant. If students are going to learn in my classes, they must have a sense that they have from me the basic respect afforded to all people, especially those embarking on a journey through a university education. Second, I can take comfort that all I have to be is “good enough”. From the article I linked earlier:

As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need “perfect” parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children.

That ought to be something all parents and teachers keep in mind every day. (Parole officers too, I suppose.

I suppose all this boils down to the concept of trust. Students need to know that they can trust me. I need to invest trust in my students (even though they, as imperfect people and works-in-progress, will break that trust). On a bigger level, my colleagues and I have to have a mutual sense of trust to work together. My Dean needs to trust me, and I him. In fact the whole fabric of higher education is predicated on trust. No one can learn or teach in a college where the network of trust is not iron-clad. If trust is missing from a college, what you have is a dying college.

On the other hand, where trust flourishes, learning and teaching flourish. That is the kind of environment I want for myself and my students, and so that’s where my work begins.

## Finding passion

I’m finally through one of the busiest three months I think I’ve ever spent in this business, so hopefully I can get around to more regular posting here. The last big thing that I did as part of this busy stretch also happened to be one of the coolest things I’ve done in a while: I got to do a clicker workshop for some of the senior staff of the Johnson County Humane Society.

It turns out that someone had donated a set of 50 TurningPoint RF cards and a receiver to the Humane Society for use in educational programming — but nobody at the Humane Society knew how to use them or had any idea what they could do with them. One of the leaders in the Humane Society saw an email announcing a workshop I was doing on campus and contacted me about training. We had a great workshop last Friday and came up with some very cool ideas for using clickers in the elementary schools to teach kids about proper care of animals, in training new volunteers at the animal shelter in identifying animal breeds and diseases, even in board meetings.

The thing that stuck with me the most, though, about the folks from the Humane Society was their authentic passion for what they do. They really care about their work with the Humane Society and want to think of new and creative ways to express and share it with others.

This got me thinking: How can you tell what a person or small group of people are passionate about? It seems to me that there’s a two-step process:

1. Give those people a break and let them do whatever they want. Remove all the programming you have planned for them, just for a little bit. And then:
2. See what it is they talk about when there is no structure.

Whatever gets talked about, is what those people are passionate about — at least at the time. If they don’t talk about anything, they aren’t passionate about anything.

For teachers: What does this observation, assuming it’s not totally off-base, say about how we conduct our teaching? It seems to me that we fill the spaces that our students have with all kinds of programming — more topics, more homework, more of everything — until there is no space left to fill, and then when there is time to discuss anything students want, they’d rather stay silent. The passion has been beaten out of them. Might students benefit from a little more space, a little more time to play, and a lot less time trying to get to the next topic or the next example or prepare for the next test?

Filed under Clickers, Education, Life in academia, Peer instruction, Teaching

## Five questions I haven’t been able to answer yet about the inverted classroom

Between the Salman Khan TED talk I posted yesterday and several talks I saw at the ICTCM a couple of weeks ago, it seems like the inverted classroom idea is picking up some steam. I’m eager myself to do more with it. But I have to admit there are at least five questions that I have about this method, the answers to which I haven’t figured out yet.

1. How do you get students on board with this idea who are convinced that if the teacher isn’t lecturing, the teacher isn’t teaching? For that matter, how do you get ANYBODY on board who are similarly convinced?

Because not all students are convinced the inverted classroom approach is a good idea or that it even makes sense. Like I said before, the single biggest point of resistance to the inverted classroom in my experience is that vocal group of students who think that no lecture = no teaching. You have to convince that group that what’s important is what (and whether) they are learning, as opposed to my choices for instructional modes, but how?

2. Which is better: To make your own videos for the course, or to use another person’s videos even if they are of a better technical or pedagogical quality? (Or can the two be effectively mixed?)

There’s actually a bigger question behind this, and it’s the one people always ask when I talk about the inverted classroom: How much time is this going to take me? On the one hand, I can use Khan Academy or iTunesU stuff just off the rack and save myself a ton of time. On the other hand, I run the risk of appearing lazy to my students (maybe that really would be being lazy) or not connecting with them, or using pre-made materials that don’t suit my audience. I spend 6-12 hours a week just on the MATLAB class’ screencasts and would love (LOVE) to have a suitable off-the-shelf resource to use instead. But how would students respond, both emotionally and pedagogically?

3. Can the inverted classroom be employed in a class on a targeted basis — that is, for one or a handful of topics — or does it really only work on an all-or-nothing basis where the entire course is inverted?

I’ve tried the former approach, to teach least-squares solution methods in linear algebra and to do precalculus review in calculus. In the linear algebra class it was successful; in calculus it was a massive flop. On some level I’m beginning to think that you have to go all in with the inverted classroom or students will not feel the accountability for getting the out-of-class work done. At the very least, it seems that the inverted portions of the class have to be very distinct from the others — with their own grading structure and so on. But I don’t know.

4. Does the inverted classroom model fit in situations where you have multiple sections of the same course running simultaneously?

For example, if a university has 10 sections of calculus running in the Fall, is it feasible — or smart — for one instructor to run her class inverted while the other nine don’t? Would it need to be, again, an all-or-nothing situation where either everybody inverts or nobody does, in order to really work? I could definitely see me teaching one or two sections of calculus in the inverted mode, with a colleague teaching two other sections in traditional mode, and students who fall under the heading described in question #1 would wonder how they managed to sign up for such a cockamamie way of “teaching” the subject, and demand a transfer or something. When there’s only one section, or one prof teaching all sections of a class, this doesn’t come up. But that’s a relatively small portion of the full-time equivalent student population in a math department.

5. At what point does an inverted classroom course become a hybrid course?

This matters for some instructors who teach in institutions where hybrid, fully online, and traditional courses have different fee structures, office hours expectations, and so on. This question raises ugly institutional assumptions about student learning in general. For example, I had a Twitter exchange recently with a community college prof whose institution mandates that a certain percentage of the content must be “delivered” in the classroom before it becomes a “hybrid” course. So, the purpose of the classroom is to deliver content? What happens if the students don’t “get” the content in class? Has the content been “delivered”? That’s a very 1950’s-era understanding of what education is supposedly about. But it’s also the reality of the workplaces of a lot of people interested in this idea, so you have to think about it.

Got any ideas on these questions?

Filed under Education, Inverted classroom, Life in academia, Teaching

## A binary notion of “understanding”

Another great insight from Seymour Papert, via The Daily Papert blog. I put it up on my Posterous blog this morning but I thought it could go here too:

Many children who have trouble understanding mathematics also have a hopelessly deficient model of what mathematical understanding is like. Particularly bad are models which expect understanding to come in a flash, all at once, ready made. This binary model is expressed by the fact that the child will admit the existence of only two states of knowledge often expressed by “I get it” and “I don’t get it.” They lack—and even resist—a model of understanding something through a process of additions, refinements, debugging and so on. These children’s way of thinking about learning is clearly disastrously antithetical to learning any concept that cannot be acquired in one bite.

(Papert, S. (1971) Teaching Children Thinking. In Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(3/4), 353-365.)

And on the higher education end of the spectrum, all of the things that really matter are those things that take patience, time, and persistence to acquire. But these are the very things excluded by this binary notion of understanding in which many children are immersed and to which most college freshmen are completely habituated.

This also makes a good argument for insisting that students — particularly those in the STEM disciplines, but I would argue anybody — should learn computer programming as part of their studies. You cannot learn to program without engaging in the non-binary notion of understanding Papert is describing. Papert knows a thing or two about that subject.

(By the way, I must give Gary Stager many thanks for running The Daily Papert. It is a great resource. The month of March is ridiculously busy for me but once it’s over I am going on a massive Papert reading spree.)

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the following statement about responsibilities in college:

In college, it’s the student’s responsibility to initiate requests for help on assignments, and it’s the instructor’s responsibility to respond to those requests in a helpful and timely way.

Do you think this statement is true or false? If false, could you modify it so that it’s true?

Filed under Education, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

## How I make screencasts: Chapter 0

Since I started to put serious amounts of time and effort into screencasting last summer, I’ve gotten a lot of requests to blog about how I go about making these things. Starting with this post, I’m going to do a multi-part series here about making screencasts — or at least how I make screencasts, which is a long way from perfect or canonical, but it’s what people asked for! I hope it’s useful for people who are interested in this kind of thing and need some pointers; and I hope too that those with more experience and better ideas than I have can share.

Q: What is a screencast?

A: A screencast is a video of stuff that is happening on your computer screen. There is often, but not always, some kind of voiceover happening in the background as well. So a screencast can be a lot of different things: A recorded Prezi or PowerPoint slide presentation; a demo of computer software; a “whiteboard” lecture with audio capture; a video of you playing Angry Birds; or any linear combination of these.

Q: What’s the point of a screencast?

A: I suppose you could do just about anything with a screencast, but mainly the point is to instruct. Some people make short screencasts to show a remote collaborator or student how to do some little task on their computer, like this one I made on the fly in Linear Algebra class last Thursday morning to show students how to get MATLAB to produce $\LaTeX$ code. Or you can record partial or entire lectures (like many of the ones I did for my department’s YouTube channel) for students to watch outside of class. Or you can record lengthy demos of software usage like I have done in my ongoing series of MATLAB screencasts. Or you can record every level of Angry Birds you play. Suit yourself.

The screencast is just a means of conveying some process or stream of information that can be represented on the screen and therefore captured using software and disseminated on the web. It’s a pretty much wide-open medium.

Q: So what kinds of software and hardware and other stuff do you use?

This is a good question, but at this point I have to stop the FAQ’s and explain why there are going to be multiple posts in this series. I have a toolbox of software and hardware items that I use, but the exact combination that I use depends on the kind of screencast that I am trying to make. Basically, there are three different kinds of screencasts that I make:

• Lecture capture screencasts, where I am going through a Prezi or slide deck and giving audio narration;
• Whiteboard screencasts, where I am using an input device to hand-write things on the screen so that it looks like a typical whiteboard presentation; and
• Demo screencasts, where I am doing a straight-up screen capture of something happening on my computer (as opposed to a presentation or “whiteboard” work) in real time.

Each of these kinds of screencasts requires a different set of software and hardware tools, as well as a different set of approaches for actually making them. So I’m going to spend at least one post on each. Actually, most of my screencasts are really combinations of these; for example a lot of the MATLAB screencasts start and end with a lecture capture and have MATLAB demos in the middle.

In the next post, I’ll start things off by focusing on lecture capture screencasts and how I work with those. They’re probably the simplest of the three kinds I make.

Do you have any specific question or topic you’d like me to address as part of this series?

Filed under Inverted classroom, Profhacks, Screencasts, Teaching, Technology

## Eliminating STEM majors in the name of efficiency?

Image via Wikipedia

Thanks for bearing with me during a little hiatus on this blog. I’ll be back into semiregular posting habits starting now.

Problem: There’s not enough qualified candidates with degrees in the STEM disciplines for the STEM jobs that are coming on the horizon, particularly those that require US citizenship such as government jobs. So you would think that the solution would be to try to drum up more students to go into, and stay in, those disciplines. But Missouri State University has chosen to take a different track: Start eliminating STEM majors because they are “low producing programs”. From the article:

Gov. Jay Nixon directed the agency to review academic programs that do not appear to meet the Coordinating Board for Higher Education’s productivity criteria.

“Low-producing programs” are defined by CBHE policy as those producing fewer than 10 graduates per year at the baccalaureate level, five majors per year at the master’s degree level, and three majors per year at the doctoral degree level, calculated over a three-year average.

As a result of the program review, which began in September 2010, colleges and universities will terminate a total of 119 programs, or 20 percent of all programs identified for review. Institutions will move 24 programs to inactive status, and 175 programs were flagged for follow-up review in three years.

The four-year institutions will end 73 degree programs, and two-year institutions will end 46 programs. The majors will be phased out over time so students currently enrolled in the degree programs can graduate.

Among the majors being eliminated at MSU are Emerging Technologies Management, Engineering Physics, Technology Education, and the master’s program in Engineering Management. This is all being done in the name of “efficiency”.

I think you could make an argument that while these degree programs are not “core” STEM subjects like Chemistry or Engineering, they are still valuable as second-level STEM subjects that can, if cultivated, produce trained professionals who either produce the STEM practitioners of the future (in the case of Technology Education) or create work environments in which STEM practitioners can do their best work (in the case of the management majors). Therefore these programs have value for the STEM community, and they could be especially good landing spots for university students who like science and technology but also like the business side of things and would rather not double-major. The elimination of the Technology Education major is particularly painful, because this is an area of extreme need in American high schools today.

So if you’ve got these majors that are of clear value to society, and that society suffers from not enough people going into these disciplines, exactly how are we helping ourselves by eliminating the programs? Unless there is some plan in place to grow these programs in a different and more efficient format (say, as an academic minor or certification program) then wouldn’t it make more sense to try to ramp up recruitment efforts first?

## Better testing through “data forensics”?

Image via Wikipedia

With standardized testing occupying a more and more prominent place in American academic life, it’s only natural that cottage industries of all sorts should spring up around it. For example, there’s Caveon Test Security, which is the subject of this NY Times article. Snippets:

As tests are increasingly important in education — used to determine graduation, graduate school admission and, the latest, merit pay and tenure for teachers — business has been good for Caveon, a company that uses “data forensics” to catch cheats, billing itself as the only independent test security outfit in the country.

[…] Caveon says its analysis of answer sheets is the most sophisticated to date. In addition to looking for copying, its computers, which occupy an office in American Fork, Utah, and can crunch up to one million records, hunt for illogical patterns, like test-takers who did better on harder questions than easy ones. That can be a sign of advance knowledge of part of a test.

The computers also look for unusually large score gains from a previous test by a student or class. They also count the number of erasures on answer sheets, which in some cases can be evidence that teachers or administrators tampered with a test.

If you’re going to have this kind of testing at the kind of significance level we give it, then you have to have some security measures in place to make sure the credentialing that comes from the test is actually meaningful. With that in mind, it’s a little surprising we haven’t heard of more of these private data forensics firms popping up. Who’s been taking care of test security on the big-name tests up to this point? Locally appointed proctors? (Here in Indiana that hasn’t worked so well: this, this, this.) The testing companies themselves? Or nobody? (Related question: Who did the University of South Florida’s data forensics, if indeed the threat of data forensics wasn’t just a bluff?)

Possibly more interesting than the existence of data forensics firms like Caveon are the thoughts of John Fremer, Caveon’s founder, about standardized testing. In the NYT article he states:

Fundamentally…testing is a way of ascertaining what you know and don’t know and developing ranks, and the critics go right to the ranks. Well, it does rank, but on the basis of knowledge of the subject, and if you think that’s not important, there’s something improper about the way you think.

I’m going to assume that Dr. Fremer realizes that “knowledge” is only the bottom-most layer of human cognition, and what he’s saying is that knowing whether this layer is sound or not is important, and that testing is a way (not the way) of determining that soundness — and that he’s not saying that standardized tests are the best way to assess subject mastery. But surely there are those who believe this, and the rise of multimillion-dollar industries to ensure the soundness of a very narrow kind of assessment says something about our collective approach to education as well as the level of trust one can place in these kinds of assessments in the first place. When’s the last time we heard of  private firms being contracted to make sure our assessment of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation tasks are working well?

Filed under Education, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

## Misunderstanding mathematics

Image via Wikipedia

Robert Lewis, a professor at Fordham University, has published this essay entitled “Mathematics: The Most Misunderstood Subject”. The source of the general public’s misunderstandings of math, he writes, is:

…the notion that mathematics is about formulas and cranking out computations. It is the unconsciously held delusion that mathematics is a set of rules and formulas that have been worked out by God knows who for God knows why, and the student’s duty is to memorize all this stuff. Such students seem to feel that sometime in the future their boss will walk into the office and demand “Quick, what’s the quadratic formula?” Or, “Hurry, I need to know the derivative of 3x^2 – 6x +1.” There are no such employers.

Prof. Lewis goes on to describe some ways in which this central misconception is worked out in our schools and in everyday thinking. The analogy between mathematics instruction and building construction, in which he compares current high school mathematics instruction to a building project where the scaffolding is constructed and then abandoned because we think the job is done, is pretty compelling. The whole essay is well worth reading.

I do think that it’s a bit too easy to lay the blame for the current state of mathematics instruction at the feet of American high schools, as Lewis does multiple times. Even if high schools do have flawed models of math instruction, certainly they are not alone in this. How many universities, even elite institutions like Fordham, have math classes or even entire curricula predicated on teaching math as rote mechanics? And what about the elementary math curricula? Pointing the finger at high schools is the natural thing to do for college professors, because we are getting students fresh from that venue and can see the flaws in their understanding, but let us not develop tunnel vision and think that fixing the high schools fixes everything. Laying blame on the right party is not what solves the problem.

Lewis brings up the point that we should be aiming for “genuine understanding of authentic mathematics” to students and not something superficial, and on that I think most people can agree. But what is this “authentic mathematics”, and how are we supposed to know if somebody “genuinely understands” it? What does it look like? Can it be systematized into a curriculum? Or does genuine understanding of mathematics — of anything — resist classification and institutionalization? Without a further discussion on the basic terms, I’m afraid arguments like Lewis’, no matter how important and well-constructed, are stuck in neutral.

Again coming back to higher education’s role in all this, we profs have work to do as well. If you asked most college professors questions like What is authentic mathematics?, the responses would probably come out as a laundry list of courses that students should pass. Authentic mathematics consists of three semesters of calculus, linear algebra, geometry, etc. And the proposed solution for getting students to genuinely understand mathematics would be to prescribe a series of courses to pass. There is a fundamentally mechanical way of conceiving of university-level mathematics education in which a lot of us in higher ed are stuck. Until we open ourselves up to serious thinking about how students learn (not just how we should teach) and ideas for creative change in curricula and instruction that conform to how students learn, the prospects for students don’t look much different than they looked 15 years ago.

## Coming up in January

Fall Semester 2010 is in the books, and I’m heading into an extended holiday break with the family. Rather than not blog at all for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting (possibly auto-posting) some short items that take a look back at the semester just ended — it was a very eventful one from a teaching standpoint — and a look ahead and what’s coming up in 2011.

I’ll start with the look head to January 2011. We have a January term at my school, and thanks to my membership on the Promotion and Tenure Committee — which does all its review work during January — I’ve been exempt from teaching during Winter Term since 2006 when I was elected to the committee. This year I am on a subcommittee with only three files to review, so I have a relatively luxurious amount of time before Spring semester gets cranked up in February. A time, that is, which is immediately gobbled up by the following:

• I’ll be at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans from January 6–9. This will be my first trip to the Joint Meetings since 2002, and I’m pretty excited about it. I will be giving two talks, one in the MAA Session on Undergraduate Cryptology (PDF) about my five-day micro-unit on cryptology for freshmen and the other in the MAA Session on Innovative and Effective Ways to Teach Linear Algebra (PDF) on experimenting with the inverted classroom model in linear algebra. Both of those sessions are loaded with interesting-sounding talks, so I hope to attend the entire session. I also hope to catch up with friends I haven’t seen since, well, 2002 — and maybe connect with some new ones. If you’re attending, let me know!
• The second iteration of the MATLAB course is coming up in the spring as well, and I will be doing some significant redesign work on it based on experiences and data from the first iteration. I’m constantly humbled and gratified by the interest and positive responses that the course has generated in the MATLAB community and elsewhere — and by how much interest and attention the course has received. I’ve had a chance to observe and talk to the alumni from the first run of the course during their Calculus III course that used MATLAB significantly, and their usage habits and feedback have given me some ideas for what should be positive changes in the course. I’ll elaborate on that later.
• I am teaching Linear Algebra again in the spring, as I have done for the last 4-5 years, and this year I am targeting that course for a more robust implementation of inverted classroom techniques. A lot of the students in that course will be MATLAB course alumni, so they will be used to all that inversion. But I’ve had enough experience with peer instruction and classroom response system (“clicker”) use on the one hand from this past semester (which I never blogged about, and I’ll try to remedy that) and inverted classroom approaches in MATLAB on the other that Linear Algebra seems well-positioned to benefit from a combination of these approaches. I’ll be sketching out and planning the course in January.
• Like I said, I used a lot of peer instruction and clickers in calculus this semester with great success (I think; at least the students say so). I’m teaching two more sections of calculus in the spring and will be refining my teaching using these tools. But calculus in the spring has a different flavor than calculus in the fall, so we will see how it goes.
• What I’m reading this January: Teaching with Classroom Response Systems by Derek Bruff; Learning to Solve Problems by David Jonassen; The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb, and Williams; and catching up on a mountain of articles that accumulated during the semester.
• I’m also reading Geometry and Symmetry by Kinsey, Moore, and Prassidis leading up to an MAA review of the book. The “Prassidis” in the author list is Stratos Prassidis, who was my Ph.D. dissertation advisor.

Throw a couple of consulting projects on top of all that, and you’ve got yourself a busy January!