Archive for the teaching category
May 18th, 2011
Yesterday, I attended Google’s Big Tent Event in Hertfordshire. As an academic, I’m used to attending conferences at universities or Hiltons, not countryside resorts with helicopter pads. The event was held in a grand tent that could easily hold 500 people. It was well-insulated from weather and noise, carpeted, with an extraordinary sound and projection system, consistent and fast wi-fi, comfortable chairs, and to be honest, even the bathrooms were amazing. As I sat in my chair, discovering electrical plugs conveniently located under each seat, I couldn’t help but compare this temporary structure for Google’s few days of publicity events to public classrooms in their home state of California. I’ve conducted teaching observations in many elementary classrooms where 28 students share two or three computers, often less, because one computer isn’t working and a request to fix it may take days or months because budget cuts have resulted in limited staffing. I’ve lectured in university classrooms that either do not have a projector or the projector is broken and again, the fix will take weeks, months to fix because budget cuts have limited technical support. School-wide wi-fi is an unrealized dream at most schools. Even at the university level, a majority of classrooms in California do not have it. California schools’ permanent structures frequently do not have the insulation from weather or noise that Google’s amazing temporary structure boasted.
Google’s Big Tent Event
I wonder what could be possible if teachers had classrooms that functioned as well as Google’s Big Tent? If teachers had the technical and administrative support that benefited yesterday’s speakers, how could students’ learning experiences be improved?
Do the quality of bathrooms reflect the health of an institution? MP Jeremy Hunt may say yes. In his address to the Big Tent group yesterday, Jeremy Hunt drew connections between the vision demonstrated when developing London’s sewage system to current efforts to improve broadband infrastructure in the UK. The secret is the size of the pipes, apparently, and larger ones will ensure preparation for future data demands. Mr. Hunt used South Korea, who is #1 in OECD’s educational rankings, as an example of the success possible with super-fast broadband. While discussing funding models for the project, including private support, Mr. Hunt did not address what would seem an obvious part of the equation: education funding. UK schools have been hard hit by recent budget cuts, including canceling the Building Schools for the Future Scheme and recent £155m additional cuts in the standards fund. If the education rankings of South Korea are serving as justification for investing in infrastructure for faster broadband, it would seem that simultaneously cutting funding for education serves cross-purposes.
While much public debate surrounds the quality of education, often solely blaming teachers, the quality of educational environments, including support at the technical, facilities, and administrative levels need more attention. Let’s use Google’s Big Tent, rather than makeshift shelters, as a model for classrooms and start directing funding to supporting students and their teachers, rather than forcing them to make due without.
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April 15th, 2010
To ban or not to ban laptops in classrooms? What about cell phones? And calculators? Before we hand students a list of technologies to leave at home, let’s consider the real problem: attention vs. distraction. If you’re going to ban everything distracting students, you should consider what you’re wearing, how you talk, the guy in the front row who hasn’t called the girl in the 7th row, etc.
After teaching for several years, training teachers, and studying learning, I’ve developed a few strategies for maintaining student engagement. Of course, nothing is full-proof and there will typically be someone who falls asleep, looks clueless, glares at you during lecture, leaves after 15 minutes, or stares off into space. Try not to take it personally. After all, intentionally or not, I’ve been that student, haven’t you?
I just posted the following list on Facebook in response to a question on Metafilter and am re-posting it here:
- Call upon people randomly. On the first day of classes, let students know that at any point in the lecture, you may call upon them. Cut up your roster and, when participation reaches a low point, randomly pull a name out of a hat. Ask them to concisely summarize something you just said, or discuss implications for a different scenario, etc. The point is to let them know that there’s rewards for paying attention…and consequences for not paying attention. I did this pre-laptops in the classroom and it improved discussion. It’s also a non-confrontational way of ensuring participation/attention.
- Turn to someone next to you. One strategy I find highly effective in teaching is to identify a concept from the readings and say, “For the next 3-5 minutes, I’d like you to turn to someone next to you and discuss what you think the term participative media means. Think of a few examples from the readings/your own experience and be prepared to share them with the larger group.” I usually either walk around to hear people’s conversations, or meet with a student close by who hasn’t found a conversation partner. While everyone is meeting, I pick a particularly chatty group, or volunteer the person I’m speaking with, and ask them if they’d be willing to go first. As people share their ideas, I write them on the whiteboard, or insert their insights into my slide presentation and use our discussion as a springboard for the next part of the lecture.
Having people speak in smaller groups primes them with ideas for sharing in the larger group and so accomplishes two goals: engages them in the discussion and empowers them to participate.
- You can have “laptops down” moments, where you ask everyone to close their laptops to help them think and focus.
- I start the quarter off being honest and saying that it’s really tough to speak to a large crowd and tougher still when you have to compete for their attention (e.g., talking in class, or using tech to tune out), so to make it easier on me and more interesting for them, I’ll be asking questions throughout the lecture and if I see someone not paying attention, I will most likely call on them.
- Have students present some of the info, where appropriate. Each class period, I have a 5 minute block for student presentations — students definitely seem more interested in information from their peers. If the students get the info wrong, I use it as a teachable moment.
Audience from Napoleon Dynamite spoof posted on YouTube
- I also do fun things, like take pictures of the audience when they look the most bored and include it in the next class period’s powerpoint, just to let them know what my view is like. Then I use the image as a background for some of the slides. People love to see themselves.
- Or, the best scenario is to incorporate the laptops into instruction. Even in a lecture, you can have scavenger hunts or discovery moments. For every class period, I assign a couple bloggers to report on what they learned. You get a record of the class, students who missed have a useful resource, and students with restless finger syndrome have somewhere to focus their energy. Here’s a link to course blogs from past students: http://www.brenmesm.blogspot.com.
There’s a misconception that in lectures we should be the only ones talking. An ideal learning scenario is one in which we empower students to feel responsible for their learning experience and create an environment in which the technologies, no matter how seductively distracting, can be used as part of their learning.
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March 19th, 2010
When I was in high school in the late 80′s — early 90′s, it seemed that the U.S. education system was an abysmal failure — after all, weren’t the Soviets and the Chinese students scoring higher in math? Today, headlines still decry our education system as a failure. In a recent op-ed piece published in the New York Times, “One Classroom, From Sea to Shining Sea,” Susan Jacoby advocates for a national system with a standardized curriculum, standardized teacher training, and standardized funding. She states that our system has outgrown its antiquated independent heritage.
Funding. It’s difficult to discuss problems with our educational system without discussing funding. As a California resident, I’ve watched funding drastically diminish with, among other things, the passage of Proposition 13, the Enron scandal, and our latest recession. Education is not a funding priority. Regardless of curricular referendums, standardized testing, and increased accountability for teachers, without consistent and ample funding, our schools will continue to degrade. Without realistic budgets for classrooms, teachers, and materials, we are expecting the impossible from our schools. Even as a university teacher, I have often purchased supplies for my students and classroom. Under the best conditions, teachers labor with limited support. Imagine spending 6 hours in a classroom with thirty 12 year olds (those of you with pre-teens understand the challenge of an hour with just one), five days a week. While competing for their attention and attempting to manage the classroom chatter, now imagine that class days are longer due to budget cuts, or you’ve had a wasp’s nest near the outside classroom door for six months, despite several requests to have it with removed, so you need to keep the door and outside windows shut. Now imagine that most of the toilets don’t work because the district has had to cut a majority of its maintenance staff (I’m describing a colleague’s actual experience in a Southern California school district). These externalities are rarely part of discussions about our education system. Instead, let’s talk about standardized testing and holding teachers more accountable.
Education isn’t simply something to criticize. We all have a stake in its success. We choose. We choose to prioritize other issues, vote against bond measures, argue the intricacies of esoteric tax rules, and then blame our teachers, their training, or some other indefinable scapegoat for our failure to adequately educate our future. Let’s put our energy into figuring out an ample funding scheme for our schools, giving teachers and students the resources they need, create a climate of success and then re-visit questions of standardized tests, national curricula, and teacher accountability.
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February 6th, 2010
A colleague of mine recently asked for reading recommendations in the area of Educational Technology, and I started thinking about the trail I followed (a la, Vannevar Bush) to arrive at my current notions of the field.
I taught college composition from 1998-2003. Some of my colleagues were teaching Dreamweaver or FrontPage in their composition classes. By teaching, I don’t mean that they were teaching how to communicate on the Web as much as how to use the programs, in other words, they were spending class time showing what each button of the respective programs did. In essence, their courses were software instruction classes instead of writing classes and, in my opinion, the students’ writing suffered.
I came to composition instruction fresh from industry, where technology was a tool to get a job done. I wondered how, as instructors, we could use technology to fit our needs, rather than the other way around. This, I found, was not a popular approach in my department. Once I entered grad school, I signed up for the main listserv in the field of computers and composition and made a disappointing discovery — they, too, were focusing on how to fit their lessons around the technology. In fact, in 2005, I attended one of their conferences at Stanford and spent three or four days completely frustrated by the focus on technology, rather than writing. Who cares about Drupal or Flash if the students can’t write?
At that point, Larry Cuban’s Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001), addressed my concerns. While Cuban is skeptical about educational technology, he also reports on successful use of ed tech, and that’s what interested me. In particular, he described Esperanza Rodrigues’ preschool classroom at Benjamin co-op, in the Bay area. In teaching students about shapes, Rodrigues blended strong practice using both offline and online techniques, seamlessly moving between using and not using technology to enhance the learning experience. By strong practice, she had a clear lesson plan and learning goal, she engages the students in the learning process, reinforces the lesson and pushes them beyond their comfort level to a new understanding. In my opinion, Rodrigues demonstrates best practice in using technology in education — she uses it as a tool to enhance a strong lesson plan, it is not the main feature and she has not formed her lesson to fit the technology.
A few months later, I read Richard Mayer’s (2001) Multimedia Learning for the first time. I was happy to discover he was at UCSB and started attending his classes. Multimedia Learning establishes clear, rigorous methods for measuring whether learning occurs in multimedia environments and whether the technology enhances or detracts from the learning environment. Mayer offers research-based recommendations for designing learner-centered multimedia environments. [Note: Rich Mayer is my advisor. My research, thinking, and teaching have very much benefited from his mentorship.]
Around that time, James Paul Gee (2003) published What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, which approaches the question of technology and learning differently from Mayer’s text, but nonetheless makes very strong contributions. I was most interested in Gee’s claims about why video games are so compelling. The main take-away messages for me in terms of effective ways to incorporate technology into learning environments were the concepts of active learning (see DH Jonassen for more info), pushing students beyond their zone of proximal development (see Vygotsky for more info), and allowing for risk taking by making the consequences for failure low.
I became increasingly interested in student classroom engagement and wanted to compare engagement in classes that taught the same lesson, but one used the learning concepts I was studying and one did not. My colleague Doug Bradley and I developed a learning simulation in which we incorporated Gee’s and Mayer’s ideas. Not surprisingly, in classes where computers were available, but not used, students had high levels of disengagement, using the computers for off-task activities such as ESPN, shopping, and entertainment (we conducted this study before Facebook was popular). In the classes where we used the simulation, off-task activities were minimal, indicating that students were highly engaged (abstract available on ERIC).
While I’ve read many interesting and useful books and articles on Educational Technology, Mayer and Gee are my main influences. Another text of interest is Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (2000), Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor, where he discusses why kids love Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. Michele Dickey’s (2005) Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design, published in Educational Technology Research and Development presents research-based findings about engaging students using techniques from video games. Of course, there’s many others.
In her recent interview on Frontline, Sherry Turkle said “The point is we’re really at the very beginning of learning how to use this technology in the ways that are the most nourishing and sustaining. We’re going to slowly find our balance, but I think it’s going to take time…” She said that technology is neither good nor bad, but it is powerful. When considering the history of reform in education, we’ve jumped from one promising method to another. I agree with Turkle that the key is balance. We should prioritize learning and engage teaching methods that will best enhance the learning experience.
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December 2nd, 2009
I’ve been teaching graduate communications courses for the past year. Evolved from a standard writing course, I teach students to think of communication beyond the page. The texts for the course are Duarte’s (2008) slide:ology and Zander & Zander’s (2000) The Art of Possibility. But, where’s the writing textbook, you may ask? It’s a controversial choice and initially a hard sell to both students and writing colleagues, but slide:ology is my choice for a graduate communications textbook. Like most Ph.Ds, I spent 4 years in undergrad and 6+ in graduate school writing many, many papers and no one ever told me to prioritize my message. As students, we get so caught up in demonstrating proficiency and competence and as teachers, we get so mired in correctness of method and form, that we often forget to consider audience need and our main communication purpose.
My students, of course, take it for granted because no matter what the lesson topic, my first questions for them are:
who is your audience?
what is your message?
A simple and obvious concept once it’s made explicit, but one that’s often forgotten in graduate and undergraduate writing. I know many students who desperately wish their advisors/committee members would comment on their ideas, rather than their grammar. Writing is such a challenging skill to cultivate and often the reviewers have their own hang-ups, which end up as feedback (or no feedback) on graduate papers. Duarte’s (2008) book inspired me to pay attention to the ideas in student work first and then focus on writing/presentation choices as a way to clearly convey these ideas.
During the first class, I talk about the importance of a main message, and then we discuss their target audience. I use an audience needs map from the Duarte Design slide:ology Workshop (which I highly recommend!) which prompts students to answer a series of questions about their audience. In graduate school, I had a vague sense of my audience–professors, people with more experience in the field–but I never really asked myself, why are they attending my presentation? or why are they reading my paper/article? As undergraduates, we often write for an audience of 1, the teacher, who we assume is familiar with the material and is reading because he or she has to. We’re not trying to interest them, we’re not trying to compel them to keep reading. Thus, our writing is often dead.
So, I started thinking about my audience. Why do they sacrifice their lunch hour to attend my brownbag talk? Why do they sacrifice weekends and vacation times to read my writing? What are they looking for? What are they hoping to find? Maybe the answer is still partially because they have to, but I think our readers are expecting more. At the graduate level, professors and other colleagues read our work because they are interested in the topic and maybe because they’re looking for something new…a twist on an old idea, a unique approach…whatever it is, they’re spending time on our writing in the midst of many demands on their time. They’re looking for our message, right? Oftentimes, student writing is lacking just that.
I tell my Environmental Science graduate students to write for a tired executive reading on a plane. The executive is deciding between reading the policy brief, completing more pressing work, sleeping, or watching an in-flight movie. Within a couple minutes, maybe even seconds, he or she is going to decide to skip the reading or turn to the next page. I don’t encourage my students to be sensational, but simply compelling.
Duarte’s book is an ideal resource for a graduate communications course because it guides audience analysis and offers strategies for engagement. I believe it’s possible, with practice, to learn to be compelling. My second text, Zander & Zander’s (2000) The Art of Possibility further complements the unusual focus of this course. I’m teaching my students to represent their data beyond graphs and charts, to communicate their message in beautifully connected paragraphs instead of following a formula, so I need a text that opens them up and makes them feel, well, possible.
My students affectionately call it “the little yellow book” and the day we talk about the assigned reading from it, I can usually tell who has read it, because they’re grinning. This past quarter, we discussed it mid-way through the course and I noticed a marked shift in our interaction: everyone was talking! Zander and Zander’s “lead from any chair” concept had certainly resonated with them. They seemed to finally get why I ask each of them to lead a discussion, post to our course blog, and share their writing materials…because they have a valuable and necessary contribution to make to our learning process. After this class, students become dependably more participative.
Of course, with any course, there’s missteps and material that doesn’t quite catch on, but for the most part, I find the course fulfilling to teach and receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from the students. University-level writing instruction needs to provide more than static writing assignments — we need to provide students with a strong understanding of their responsibilities as communicators and guide them in developing a toolkit that will allow them to be flexible in response to communication tasks in the workplace and life generally.
To view our course blog, visit:
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